Monday, July 28, 2014

Some belated and incomplete thoughts on Gaza

Someone I once worked with and if you're reading this you know who you are, used to accuse me of displacement activity, devoting my time to congenial tasks as an excuse for putting off difficult ones. This I vigorously denied but though it may have been damnably false then it perhaps fits better now: as for most of this month, whenever I've put pen to paper, it's been about anything except what's important, namely Gaza. I've been fiddling about with Jane Austen, Columbus, lopsided arches in churches, and some more pictures of Portuguese chimneys.  I haven't posted any of this stuff, because ever since 6th July when Operation Protective Edge began, it seemed frivolous.  As to Gaza I'm still trying to shape my thoughts into some sort of order.  And so I've been silent, but the trouble with silence is that no-one else can tell whether you’re thinking hard or you just can't be arsed. 

A couple of letters in today’s Irish Independent are part of the story. One refers to the Jews as a race of people who were systematically tortured and killed in the biggest ethnic cleansing horror of our history.   Barry Mulligan of Co Sligo says they have not learnt the lessons of the past, and are inflicting a similar torture on the Palestinians, a people who have the right to live life with some kind of dignity. “Weak, poor, living in awful conditions in such a small compressed area. Does this ring a bell? Reminiscent of the Jewish ghettos of World War II.” I could take issue with some of this, especially referring to the Jews a race, and also equating the state of Israel with Jewishness. But there's an important germ of truth here. It calls to mind the finding that child abusers are themselves often the victims of child abuse.

Another correspondent says that both the Israelis and Palestinians are condemned to fight for control of a small area of the Middle East because European powers in two world wars ordained it so.  A Leavy of Dublin 13 says Europeans should reflect on this and display a bit more introspection in the debate.  This prompts the thought that Zionism was born at the end of the 19th century when colonialism was fashionable, but only came to fruition in 1948 when colonialism was deeply unfashionable, so why did the world connive at it?  Holocaust guilt will be the answer there. I'm not suggesting that’s the reason the state of Israel was established, which had a lot do to with American imperialism, but perhaps it's the reason this colonial enterp
rise was connived at.  So skipping over a few steps, we now have Palestinians confined in what is habitually referred to as the world’s largest open air prison in Gaza for the crime of having been expelled from their land.  Much more needs to be said – my thoughts on the Guardian cartoon (21st July), Hamas and the Talibanisation of Gaza, how can I justify being so exercised about Israel as opposed to for example Sri Lanka, why the state of Israel should be dissolved, what's the point of holding such an unrealistic opinion, and how it differs from Hamas.

As a final instance of displacement activity, I'll just praise Barry Mulligan of Co Sligo for using the verb form “learnt” as distinct from “learned” in his letter. This is now regrettably rare, in both spoken and written English, but for how long it's been rare I'm not sure. I intend to find out, and when I do I'll let you know. But Barry earns a brickbat as well as a bouquet. "World War II" is a dreadful expression which should be banned. The name of the war, in English, is the Second World War. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Of mosques and chimneys in the Algarve

We spent last week in Albufeira on the Algarve.  Not the place to go, according to the Rough Guide, if you're looking for unspoilt Portugal, but it has an archaeological museum of which more below. The image on the left is an ornament in the garden of our apartment block. It's a typical Algarve chimney, and if you look closely at the image on the right, the view from our balcony, you'll see several more, all inspired by Moorish design. Probably not in use, as none of them are sooted. 

But used or not, a remark by our tour guide Carlos led me enquire into the history of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule in Portugal. Pointing out these distinctive Algarve chimneys, Carlos told us they are descended from minarets which Muslims erected on their houses after the Christian reconquest when all the mosques were abolished. And their Christian neighbours were so impressed with these domestic minarets that they copied them, and over the course of time the minarets became chimneys. This tale sounded highly doubtful to me and I checked it out with the archaeologist at the local museum, a helpful lad called Luís, who flatly contradicted it. It's a story favoured by anthropologists he told me, for which there is no archaeological evidence.  These Moorish chimneys first appear in the 18th century.

Nonetheless, all this set me wondering about the lives of Muslims immediately following the reconquest. Reconquest by the way is a highly loaded term but it's the cornerstone of Iberian historiography and usually capitalised as “Reconquista”.

My reason for disbelieving the story about minarets and chimneys was the implausibility of Muslims wishing to advertise their presence when their religion was banned and inquisitors were prowling around. But since coming home I've done a bit of digging and discovered that my reasoning was quite mistaken.

Iberia in 1147 (Wikipedia). No-one in 1147 would have predicted that by the 16th century Muslim rule would be finished and all the Christian kingdoms except for Portugal would be merged and called Espania. In this map The Algarve is still part of Almohad territory. It was conquered by the king of Portugal in 1250.
Because for at least 250 years there were no inquisitors. Religious pluralism was the rule. After the reconquest, Jewish and Muslim minorities of various sizes cohabited more or less peacefully alongside a dominant Christian population. Jews and Muslims were permitted to practise their faiths and live in autonomous communities under royal protection, provided that they paid discriminatory taxes and did not challenge the Catholic religion. All this I got from Google Books: The persecution of the Jews and Muslims of Portugal: King Manuel I and the end of religious tolerance (1496-7) by François Soyer, 2007.

This history of religious toleration under Christian rule was quite new to me and it set me wondering, during this time, where did the Muslims pray? Because the way I've heard it, as soon as the Christians conquered a city they converted all the mosques to churches.  

I've had a long email from François dealing with that question, but as I've probably gone on long enough, I'm going to put all that in a separate file so you can follow it up if you're interested. Other questions I've looked at are: how did they view mosque to church conversions, what distinctions were made during the period of religious pluralism between Jews and Muslims, and how did the regime compare to Christians and Jews under the previous Muslim rulers?

A final note about those chimneys. I've heard that identical chimneys, though perhaps less elaborate, exist in North Africa and Spain. And by the way if despite the Rough Guide you decide on Albufeira I can highly recommend the apartment - we'll probably go back next year. Look up Apartamentos Rainha D. Leonor.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A statue of a king with horse's ears, perhaps

On a trip to Armagh with Cork Astronomy Club I missed the tour of Armagh Observatory but in the crypt of Armagh protestant cathedral I was delighted to find this statue. The photo, I fear, is unprepossessing, but it's the best I could do. It's either of Lowry Lynch or Queen Macha.  I hope it's Lowry Lynch, because I like his story, which I'll outline in a minute.

The protestant (Church of Ireland) cathedral is built on Ard Macha – the Hill of Macha, which gives Armagh its name.  It is this hilltop enclosure which St Patrick is said to have acquired and within which he built his first ‘Great Stone Church’.  If that story is true, there's been a church on this site since the 5th century.

Armagh Church of Ireland Cathedral
As to Macha, she was an ancient goddess, or a warrior queen, a key figure in the Ulster Cycle, a series of pre-Christian tales that have deep historical significance for Armagh. These tales are the spiritual account of the early Celtic people of Ulster and tell of legendary warrior heroes and heroines who fought great battles against Queen Maeve and the warriors of Connaught. 

Horse’s ears

The statue is medieval and eroded and stands between two and three feet high.  It was found somewhere on the site, but I couldn’t find out much more about it; perhaps not much more is known. The cathedral guide, a very helpful fellow who took me on a personal conducted tour of the crypt, told me the statue is either a bare-breasted Queen Macha holding her bow aloft, or else King Lowry Lynch holding out his horse’s ears.  Lowry Lynch was ashamed of his horse’s ears and each time he had his hair cut he put the barber to death so he couldn’t tell. But at length his shameful secret was told by a singing harp, and Lowry Lynch repented of all the barbers he had put to death and admitted his shameful secret.

And maybe, the cathedral guide told me, this statue is him doing just that, in an it's-a-fair-cop gesture.

For the full Lowry Lynch tale and the Greek myth of King Midas on which it is based, you can read a children’s story I've written.

Monday, May 26, 2014

In which I keep bad company and rant

I know otherwise sensible people who share in Farage's celebration of what the Guardian agrees is a political earthquake - 28% on the national poll in European elections last week
This is scarily reminiscent of the 1930’s. We have rampant capitalism imposing austerity on the population, huge numbers of whom – in Britain, France, Greece and elsewhere - reach entirely the wrong conclusion and vote for far right parties. And we have a right-wing European dictator pretending to be a left-wing dictator gobbling up pieces of other countries claiming that "his people" are being maltreated, to cement nationalistic sentiment at home and distract attention from him cosseting billionaires. Not for the first time Prince Charles is right though I seem to be in bad company because when I google this proposition all I get is Fox News and other undesirables.  I read a comment piece in The Guardian trying to convince me that I'm wrong about the Putin/Hitler analogy. I forget where and when I read it but it didn't succeed in its purpose because I remain unconvinced.

I regret the foregoing is a bit of a rant and falls short of the standards I normally aspire to but it will have to do for now.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reflecting on arrest of Gerry Adams

I'm bringing you the thoughts of two columnists in today’s Irish newspapers.  Writing in The Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole says there are two ways of dealing with the legacy of the atrocities: all or nothing. And the McConville case signals a pressing need for an independent commission of inquiry.

He is reflecting on the 1972 abduction, murder and disappearing of Jean McConville, about which Sinn Fein [1] leader Gerry Adams has been interviewed by the Northern Ireland police, and though released on Sunday, may still be charged. It's an atrocity that cries out for accountability, says O’Toole (and if you want to be persuaded of this, listen to a BBC interview with her son, age 11 at the time – he says he knows but daren’t say).

But O'Toole goes on to list numerous other killings – “murder after bloody murder” – about which the same can be said.

No special victims and no special perpetrators

His conclusion: if Gerry Adams had anything to do with the killing of Jean McConville, he should answer for his actions. But it would be far better if he gave those answers to an open, independent commission with a remit to investigate all unsolved killings by state forces or by paramilitary organisations. If, by design or accident, Adams seems to be singled out, while other crimes are ignored, the cycle of selective memory and selective amnesia will go on. There are no special victims and there must be no special perpetrators.

I simply don’t believe him

Also worth reading is a piece by another of my favourite columnists, Fergus Finlay in today’s Irish Examiner, under the headline Adams’ arrest a grim reminder of how fragile the peace process truly is.

“Like thousands of others” says Finlay “I simply don’t believe him when he says he was never in a leadership position in the IRA. But I also believe that without him, the process of ending the violence in Northern Ireland would not have succeeded …  he did succeed in bringing a largely united movement from violence to democratic participation, and that was a historic achievement.”  Finlay also suggests, probably wrongly I think, that Adams could have done this much faster had he wished. 

Left: Thousands believe only the words on that new mural about Adams — leader, peacemaker, visionary. Though the Irish Examiner’s Fergus Finlay is not numbered amongst them. Right: Michael McConville knows but dare not say.
But I want to return to Fintan O’Toole, and to quote him at length (green, with my interpolations in black). Amongst atrocities on a par with the one Gerry Adams is now accused of, O’Toole cites Ballymurphy.  Long after the British army’s parachute regiment left the west Belfast estate of Ballymurphy in September 1971, he writes, one of its members, Harry McCallion, recalled with pride that “we had over 15 confirmed kills but had claimed many more ... It was merely convenient for the IRA that most of them had not been sworn in as members.” 

These “kills” had not been sworn in because they were not members of the IRA at all; they were innocent civilians. Eleven of those killed by the Paras between August 9th and August 11th, 1971, were unarmed. Among them were a Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan – who was clearly carrying an improvised white flag made from a babygro – and a mother of eight children, Joan Connolly, who was shot multiple times as she went to help a wounded boy. These events happened in the chaos of the introduction of internment, when the IRA launched concerted attacks on the British base in Ballymurphy. But the evidence strongly suggests that the victims were not caught in crossfire – they were killed by enraged soldiers in what were, at best, acts of appalling recklessness and, at worst, deliberate murders.

Last week, shortly before Gerry Adams was arrested, Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers announced there would be no independent inquiry into the Ballymurphy killings. Sinn Féin rightly pointed to the outrageous double standard implied here. But Villiers also announced that there would be no inquiry into the hideous La Mon hotel fire-bombing in 1978, when the IRA incinerated 12 members of, of all things, the Irish Collie Club. The families of the La Mon victims believe, rightly or wrongly, that transcripts of police interviews with IRA suspects relating to this disgusting crime were deliberately removed from the files in order to protect senior figures of importance for the peace process. Did Sinn Féin complain about the continuing failure to give the La Mon families the comfort of truth? Of course not – it has double standards about double standards.

To make sure the unionist UVF get a mention, he also cites the McGurk’s Bar bombing of December 1971, in which 15 people died. 

People with guns killing people without guns

While the gunmen on all sides preened themselves with talk of “kills” and “war”, the truth is that the conflict was largely about people with guns killing people without guns. So-called republican and loyalist paramilitaries lost between them 563 members. Well over three times as many defenceless civilians were murdered (1,879) – mostly by paramilitaries but in some cases by so-called security forces in or out of uniform. The slaughter of the innocents was not a byproduct of the Troubles – it was the main event.

Competitive necromancy

It was not enough, though, for these poor people to die once, to be the human fuel for a conflict that careened obscenely onwards long after it had lost any semblance of logic. Like souls in Dante’s hell, they have been given an excruciating punishment; they are recruited to fight, again and again, in the strange meta-conflict that replaced the real one – the fight over which of the perpetrators can claim the coveted status of victimhood. There is, rightly, lingering outrage about the IRA’s “disappearing” of victims like Jean McConville, the denial of a decent burial. But in a sense, most victims are still denied a decent burial. Their bodies are figuratively dug up and paraded through the streets or dumped back again into the abyss of amnesia, depending on who needs them for what political purpose. Tribal disputes are still conducted in part as a form of competitive necromancy.

There are just two decent ways of dealing with the legacy of these atrocities: all or nothing. The nothing option has a certain integrity – it at least prevents the political exploitation of the dead. But it denies to bereaved families the right to know what happened to their loved ones. The only way to counter the exploitation of the dead is to start with the most obvious thing about them – that they died horrible, untimely deaths. Death brings a terrible equality: it does not discriminate between Protestant or Catholic, uniformed policeman or masked gunman, or even between innocent and guilty. Every violent death was a rending in the fabric of the lives of spouses, children and families. Each deserves acknowledgement – not for any political purpose but for its own sake and as a condition of a civilised society.

[1] Sinn Fein is an unusual political party in that it embraces two states, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams is leader of the whole party in both.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hear Melanie Verwoerd describe the 1994 South African election

I still recall the frisson that tingled me when I bought my first bottle of South African wine, and I can tell you the wine shop in York where I bought it. That was twenty years ago today, as I was reminded this morning by RTÉ's Marian Finucane in discussion on the radio with Melanie Verwoerd, former South African Ambassador to Ireland, marking the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections.

It's the second item on this page.

Hear Melanie describing her emotions when she saw the silent queue to vote at 5 am, telling of a grandfather pushed in a wheelbarrow to vote coming out of the polling booth clutching his fist in the air and falling down dead, and relating how Archbishop Tutu couldn’t describe what it felt like to be voting for the first time. (He said it would be like trying to describe the colour red to someone born blind.) Much could be said and much is being said in the run-up to the current South African elections about disappointed hopes, and this was touched on in the discussion, but in the main it was a celebration of the day and there's no harm in that.

I'm not sure who the studio guest is who comments on the voting queues, I think it might be Theo Dorgan, an Irish poet (born 1953).

The South African constitution was mentioned. I like the preamble, so here it is:

South African Constitution, 1996


We, the people of South Africa,

- Recognise the injustices of our past;
- Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
- Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
- Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to ­

- Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
- Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

May God protect our people.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Will Shakespeare’s 450th

Here's my contribution to Will Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
       For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Had I chosen one speech to read, it would be Macbeth: full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. But there's a perfection in a sonnet that you don't find, can't find, in a play.   When I studied Shakespeare at Cambridge we didn't pay much attention to the sonnets, at least I didn't. For example it was only yesterday in Wikipedia that I discovered the word volta (turn). It seems this usually occurs in the ninth line. In this sonnet the volta is “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising”. It's where the poem turns from anxiety to resolution. It's not an easy line to get right and I don't think I've achieved it. In fact I've discovered that reading a Shakespeare sonnet aloud is a good deal harder than I thought.

If you want to hear how it ought to be done, listen to the sublime Judi Dench reciting (impromptu apparently) "Let me not to the marriage of true minds". But on the Bard’s birthday we must each bring our own tribute, flatfooted though it may be.