20 December 2001 Edition
Plenty of choice for festive book worms
For republicans and socialists looking for a good read this Christmas there's no shortage of choice.
For me the two most welcome developments in the last year have been the continued development of republican periodicals and the more widespread availability of old republican pamphlets. As regards periodicals, The Republic, Left Republican Review‚ Spark‚ An Phoblacht and Tiocfaidh ár Lá are all leading the way in providing news and views that are vital to the political activist. All are well produced and contain lively and well-written articles.
No other movement in Ireland has produced any publication that can claim to challenge these in the role they have set for themselves. Any or all would make enthralling Christmas reading.
In terms of old publications, I have recently re-read Connolly's Labour in Irish History. This book is a must for anyone with an interest in republican politics. It demonstrates clearly and concisely the nature of Irish society over the last three hundred years. Connolly's words ring through as clearly today as they did just over ninety years ago. While modern histories of the republican fight for freedom, the T.P Coogans or J.Bowyer Bells, struggle with works that amount to collections of facts, with only personalities and tradition to explain the development and dynamic of struggle, Connolly's older history stands out. His writing fluidly explains how, and more importantly, why events happened.
Other quality phamphlets avaialble include Our Own Red Blood: The story of the 1916 rising‚ by Sean Cronin, The Sovereign People‚ by Patrick Pearse, The Gates flew Open‚ by Peader O'Donnell and Thomas J. Clarke's Glimpses of an Irish Felon's Prison Life.
If you are a political activist looking for something different, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the 1972 Election Trail is an enthralling read. Speed freaks humping the legs of American presidential candidates, directors of elections punching journalists and copious amounts of alcohol and drugs being consumed by the all-knowing media make this book a resounding success. Thompson analyses politics like others analyse football, and his compelling, magnetic style of writing must make him one of the best writers of the second half of the cetury.
Other authors worth considering would be Jack London, John Steinbeck or Alexander Troochi.
By Damian Lawlor
Victor Jara of Chile
'Victor - An Unfinished Song', by Joan Jara.
Published by Bloomsbury.
By far the best book I read in 2001 was this biography of legendary Chilean folk singer and revolutionary Victor Jara by his wife Joan. Victor's name is now better known in Ireland thanks to the song about him on Christy Moore's latest album. It is a tragic but inspiring story.
Born in poverty in rural Chile, Victor Jara became an accomplished actor and musician in the capital Santiago. He was a central figure in the revival of Chilean traditional music. Like Ewan McColl in Britain he used traditional forms to present radical new songs about contemporary issues. Like Christy Moore, he was a highly talented performer who enjoyed huge popular acclaim. But the price for the musician siding with the oppressed was much higher in Chile than in our corner of the globe.
Victor played a key role in the election of Socialist President Salvador Allende. Joan describes the joy of that victory, but it was followed quickly by the right-wing reaction, organised by the US multinationals who controlled the Chilean economy. The bosses who ran the copper industry said Allende had to go and the CIA obliged, engineering a military coup in September 1973 in which Allende was assassinated.
Thousands of Chileans, including Victor Jara, were rounded up and corralled in a stadium in Santiago, where they were tortured and murdered. Victor sang for his fellow prisoners and so the fingers in his hands were broken by the fascists before they shot him dead. The dictator who carried out the Santiago massacre, Augusto Pinochet, has never been held to account. He was recently allowed to leave Britain by that great 'anti-terrorist' Tony Blair.
Victor's songs live on and his life will continue to be a beacon of hope thanks to this book.
The Act of Union - brown envelopes and powdered wigs
By Mícheál MacDonncha.
'Acts of Union'.
Edited by Daire Keogh and Kevin Whelan.
Published by the Four Courts Press.
If you think political corruption in Ireland started with dodgy land deals in North County Dublin in the 1970s, you should read this book and think again. The tribunals have nothing to compare with what must rank as one the greatest single acts of corruption in European history - the buying of the Members of the Irish Parliament to vote for the Act of Union of 1800.
The bribes dispensed by the British government included titles, land, jobs and hard cash. The contention that the Union was bought in this extraordinary manner was, for a period, dismissed by revisionist historians on the basis that such patronage and corruption was the done thing in the 18th century. But as late as 1996 they had to revise their opinions when Secret Service papers disclosed in the Public Record Office in Kew, England, showed clearly that a huge fund was set aside with the full knowledge of King George III and his Ministers. The dosh was made available to line the pockets of the Irish Lords and MPs and ensure the passage of the Act of Union. A total slush fund of £63,650 - an enormous sum in 1800 - is documented as having been used to buy their votes. Probably much more undocumented cash was handed out to men in powdered wigs, in the 18th century equivalent of brown envelopes.
In the 19th Century the Parliament in College Green became a symbol of Ireland's lost liberty. But the assembly that occupied the building was corrupt by its very nature, long before the Act of Union. It was the exclusive club of the privileged landlord class. All Catholics and Presbyterians were barred and the 'elections' to the Parliament, where such took place, were carnivals of bribery and intimidation. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen started out with the belief that the House in College Green could be reformed, but they eventually concluded that it was an irreformable and intergral part of the Conquest. The demand of separatists after 1800 would not be just for the repeal of the Union but the repeal of the Conquest.
Many of those who opposed the Act of Union - including the Orange Order - did so in the belief that it threatened Protestant privilege. Others saw it as necessary for the maintenance of that privilege, understanding as they did that the sectarian status quo was dependent upon the connection with Britain and failure to adopt the Union could see the two countries drift apart - especially if Catholics eventually won the vote and the right to sit in the Irish Parliament.
Catholics generally did not mourn the passing of the Parliament, from which they were barred. It was totally irrelevant to the mass of them that lived in virtual serfdom. The passivity of the Catholic middle class was secured by the false promise that civil rights for Catholics would follow the Act of Union. But they had to wait until 1829 for so-called 'Catholic Emancipation'.
The British government's political, economic and strategic interests made the Union necessary. Divide and conquer was their method. Kevin Whelan points out that in 1813 British Prime Minister Robert Peel wrote that the government "could scarcely wish to see the lower classes in northern Ireland united...The great art is to keep them [disunited] and yet at peace rather than at war with each other". Peel also wrote of the need to keep the loyalists as allies but it was "a most difficult task when anti-Catholicism and loyalty were so much united". His successors in the Six Counties have had similar problems.
The post-Union period saw the growth of anti-Irish racism in England, as the English sought intellectual justification for their direct rule in Ireland. It could only be because the natives were "not fit to govern themselves".
All these themes and more are discussed in this collection of 14 essays, including an intriguing piece on political cartoons of the period, with accompanying illustrations. This excellent book is required reading for any serious student of Irish history.
By Mícheál MacDonncha.
Dublin's hidden heritage
'Dublin Burial Grounds and Graveyards' by Vivien Igoe.
Published by Wolfhound Press. Price £20.
Commemorations are an important part of republican political culture and many of them take place in graveyards. For some these are sad, tragic or morbid places. But they can also be fascinating and give real insights into political and social history.
This is brought out very well in Vivien Igoe's fine book. It contains a fund of stories and a wealth of illustrations of graveyards, churchyards and other burial places all around Dublin. Many of them are hidden away, tucked behind old churches in city and county, seldom visited, but yielding a glimpse into our past to anyone who cares to take the trouble to have a look.
Here we have the familiar resting places of famous republicans such as Glasnevin and Arbour Hill, but also much lesser known sites such as the tiny Jewish burial ground in Ballybough. We are reminded that immigration is nothing new to Dublin - people of many religions and ethnic origins are recorded on gravestones throughout our capital. Wealthy merchants share burial grounds with paupers, British soldiers and Irish volunteers, Civil War enemies, lie side by side. As the song says "everyone in the graveyard votes the same".
The book also highlights how much of Dublin's heritage has been lost over the decades, much of it through unbridled development and mindless destruction. Thankfully what's left has a better chance of survival as public awareness grows and this book is certainly a major contribution.
By Mícheál MacDonncha.