Shifting Sands

For resentful white folks in search of a struggle with which to express solidarity, there is a rich seam of oppression to be mined in Ireland. Violence in Ireland has long been assimilated to the violence of national liberation struggles in the developing, or post-colonial, world. At a distance, some of the ambiguities can be fudged: in 1998, I attended a gig which turned out to be in aid of the Committee for the Self-Determination of the People of Ireland, at a centro sociale in Rome. The headline act was the Modena City Ramblers, who sound something like the Pogues would have done if they had been a bunch of communists from Emilia-Romagna (but I repeat myself). Their songs have included misty-eyed laments about Irish rain, Bobby Sands’ friends, and Che Guevara’s motorcycle trip. Their last release but one was a concept album about a joint Allied-partisan operation in 1945; on the cover was an SAS dagger and `Who Dares Wins’.

The affection of the Italian left for Ireland, or at least for an image of Ireland, is no surprise: the discourse of `struggle’, armed or otherwise, is a good fit for `solidarity’ with `oppressed peoples’. The mythologization of Ireland on the right is another thing entirely.

Should you ever find yourself near a demonstration in Italy, or watching a football match involving an Italian club, you will inevitably see flags featuring a stylized Celtic cross. The cross is an icon, in the literal sense of venerated symbol, because of its use by French Waffen SS troops, wiped out in the defence of Berlin against the Bolshevik hordes in 1945, but also for its connection to Ireland and Irish mythology. Like Hitler, the neo-fascist movement in Italy has long drawn inspiration from Norse mythology: one legendary street-fighter had a taste for charging left-wing demonstrations swinging a hammer over his head, Odin-like, rather than using the standard issue 36mm spanner. Clearly, a warrior myth is useful for people who use `hierarchical’ and `anti-democratic’ as compliments, and see Tolkien’s books as models of a well-ordered society, so much so that the 1970s neophyte Nazi spent his summers at `Camp Hobbit’.

Norse gods, however, are not really up to the mark when Scandinavia is being turned into the stereotype of a tolerant social democracy. Our men wanted warrior legends and some real violence: Armalites, not hammers. They found what they wanted in Ireland. In May last year, a group called Azione Punto Zero (Zero Point Action: the phrase is from a line by Ernst Jünger), organized a film season under the title Il Mio Amico é Bobby Sands (My Friend is Bobby Sands), including a showing of The Wind that Shakes the Barley:

The fundamental message of the opening words emphasizes that the struggle for Irish independence, 1919–1923 … was a war in which we recognize ourselves as defenders of traditional culture, made of blood and soil, values and belonging, religion and Fatherland, as ideas at whose root we find Faith and unshakable values, which no enemy or invader will ever be able to cancel or destroy.

To some degree, any myth is a story intended for interpretation, and Ireland cannot complain if other people have fallen for what we claim to believe ourselves, but squeezing Ken Loach into a fascist conceptual framework is going a bit far.

The previous film in the season was Hunger, Steve McQueen’s account of Bobby Sands’ death. Sands occupies a central role in the Italian right’s mythology of Ireland. In 2003, the youth section of Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance, at the time the party of Alessandra Mussolini) engaged in a project to find a hero who could be counterposed to Che, an all-too recognizable and admired image for the left. Ezra Pound, after whom the right names its social centres, was ruled out on grounds of feebleness and lack of Spartan vigour, but Sands was one of those “youths who have sacrificed themselves for the fatherland, concrete examples of profound faith in an ideal”, in the words of the AN youth coordinator. One Italian commentator notes:

when, in 1981, Bobby Sands and after him 15 [sic] IRA [sic] prisoners died on hunger strike in the Maze super-prison, the walls of many Italian cities were covered with posters and graffiti (all rigorously signed with a Celtic cross) in solidarity with and support for the cause of Irish republicans.

Whatever about the intellectual origins of Irish nationalism, and its appropriation by radicals elsewhere, the emotional appeal is clear. A film such as Michael Collins, a military strong man in the hills, can be viewed with pleasure by admirers of Mussolini who have grown up on Tolkien and fantasy fiction, and otherwise have a taste for Braveheart, The Gladiator and Last of the Mohicans. Fascism, besotted by a mixture of warrior myth, fantasy fiction, and a martial cult of martyrdom, found a source of texts in Ireland, as long as it did not look too closely at the politics. Pearse’s idea of bloodshed as “a cleansing and sanctifying thing” could have been taken straight from the 1909 Futurist Manifesto: “war—only hygiene of the world”. The humus of pre-war Europe nourished many concepts of the kind, but the First World War brought most countries to their senses. Violence as a principle, rather than a method, survived in Ireland, because we did not suffer all-out war on our soil in the twentieth century, and in Italy, perhaps because it was governed by Fascism for a generation, from the March on Rome to the capitulation in 1943.

The appropriation of paganism, especially runic symbols, was always used to lend an air of antiquity to Nazism, setting it apart from the Catholic right in the Phalangist movements, too prone to fall victim to Church social teaching, and making it part of a counter-culture: a hippie did not need to change much about his sun worship bar incorporating Odin into his solstice. Fascism was able to tap into the same current as the other death cults which emerged when a generation reacting against sixties individualism looked for a collective solace outside organized political action. Jim Jones is not that different from the sun-worshippers who swung hammers at trade unionists, or blew up Bologna station. Beating up gays and immigrants becomes defence of the nation against the alien, affirmed by an appropriated tradition of the warrior ethic. Roman legions can be used as a myth of solidarity; for single combat, you need Cú Chulainn.

Ireland, close enough in time, space, and culture to be imitated, but far enough away to be mythologized, fit the bill perfectly as inspiration for violence. The question is why nationalism was taken up, rather than loyalism. Italian fascists like to see themselves as upholders of the virtues of imperial Rome, and heirs to the militaristic traditions of Mussolini’s attempt to re-establish an Italian empire in the Mediterranean. Since they see themselves as representatives of an imperial power, a link with militant loyalism might seem a more obvious choice. There is no obvious reason why Irish nationalism should hold an appeal for Fascists.

The appropriation of tradition is not an exercise in history, with all its ambiguities and mixed motives, but the cherry-picking of stories which fit an existing myth. Ireland, for fascists, is the warrior tradition of a Celtic nation untainted by alien stock, whose attachment to its native heath has remained unbroken by centuries of foreign oppression. For a right which feels itself oppressed by modernity, and slighted by the existence of foreigners in its own country, militant Irish republicanism is an example of resistance to both, whatever might be the real allegiances and politics of any particular group. Not looking too closely turns out to be an advantage to the propagandist.

On this view, Bobby Sands, defending his honour and that of his nation through his own willed death, is not Che Guevara, but Yukio Mishima, and an example of self-sacrifice for the patria by the lone combatant. The Wind that Shakes the Barley is not a story of political differences leading to the division of a country against itself, but of a minority hard core defending the `real’ nation against a stab in the back.

Other works consulted

  • La Fiamma e la Celtica, Nicola Rao, Sperling & Kupfer, 2006.
  • Fascisteria, Ugo Maria Tassinari, Sperling & Kupfer, 2008.



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