Micks with sticks

When I was about ten years old, at a hurling match in Croke Park with my parents, a spectator nearby with an English accent offered an instruction to a defender who was chasing down a forward making a break: `Hit him you fucking coward!’ It appears that that spectator’s spirit is restless, and animating part of the viewing public.

Hurling is now available on Sky, despite the objections raised by leading members of the GAA:

“The whole point of the GAA,” he says, “is that we stand against capitalism, that money is a necessary evil. Our objective is the creation of cohesive communities, that is our target.”

It appears that hurling has become popular amongst sports fans in Great Britain, who have never seen it before, and are impressed. Great, and if this means Bath gets a hurling team, I’ll be delighted. The trouble is what people find impressive. One Irish-based sports website has collated some of the twitter responses, admittedly going for the more egregious, for the first game shown on Sky and now the second weekend. Some people are impressed by the speed and skill, some people are bemused, and some respond by describing it as `a pub fight on grass’, `a scrap doon the scheme’, `confirms my belief that the Irish are mental’, `superb combination and [sic] skill and violence’, and elsewhere `You can literally twat each [other] with a 2 x 4 piece of wood, smash a cricket ball at opposite players, rugby tackle each other.’

God knows the Irish are used to affording some English people an opportunity for a mix of condescension and amused tolerance of those strange foreigners (Brendan O’Carroll’s success is the principal evidence), but there’s no call for this nonsense. It should be possible to do better than this, and certainly not resort to admiration of the `violence’ of a highly skilled, and generally sportingly played, game.

For the avoidance of doubt, the only tackle allowed in hurling is shoulder-to-shoulder, not a rugby tackle and certainly not `literally’ hitting someone with a 2×4. Serious injury is very rare in hurling, because usually the stick takes the punishment.

Hurling is one of the oldest recorded sports in the world—it appears in Irish mythology dating back three thousand years—and is certainly the fastest field game. It requires skill, grace, courage, and is played by amateurs organized by an association which owns the third largest stadium in Europe. The Gaelic Athletic Association is probably the only major body in Ireland which is not an embarrassment, owing to its roots in every community, in Ireland and outside it. Hurling is unambiguously a genuinely special, uniquely Irish, event, and it is being turned into an extravaganza of Micks with Sticks, the professional wrestling of field sports, delighting some people who have decided to see it as an opportunity for delighting in Irish madness and taste for violence.

It takes a few minutes to find out something about the game. You might even sound expert given a little effort. With a bit more work, you can probably find a local club and see a game live. Or would that be too much like genuine interest?

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Modena City Ramblers for beginners

If a man were looking for a musical niche in which to contend for hegemony, starting an Italian communist Pogues tribute band might seem like a smart way to limit the competition, especially in Emilia Romagna. The Modena City Ramblers, however, have lasted twenty years on the strength of their music, long ago transcending their starting point, and turned out a string of fine albums featuring top-notch collaborators, including Bob Geldof and Billy Bragg. They also put on the kind of show where people jump up and down with their fists in the air. That kind of fist.

The band started in Modena, one of those quietly prosperous Italian cities where skilled workers produce the engineering that makes Italy famous to petrolheads everywhere, factory farmers find a use for every bit of a pig, and everybody, but everybody, voted communist. A friend of mine from the area was an electoral scrutineer in 1992, after the Communist Party had split. One breakaway group was running in an electoral alliance whose logo featured a tiny hammer and sickle. I am told that of the four hundred or so people who voted at that polling station, all voted left, and almost all put their X precisely on the hammer and sickle.

Around the same time, the Ramblers were learning to play Irish music and picking up a taste for the more raucous side of it, though not at the expense of musicianship. They began writing leftie lyrics to Irish tunes, so that anyone acquainted with rebel songs or ballads will be able to sing along, and adding elements from Italian left-wing singer-songwriters such as Francesco Guccini. The result is dynamite.

Their first album, Riportando Tutto a Casa (Bringing It All Back Home, check out the cover) was released in 1994 and included a Pogues-inspired epic about a bunch of Modenese Communists going to Rome for the funeral of Enrico Berlinguer, a rewrite of The Great Song of Indifference, a cranked-up raucous Bicchiere dell’Addio (Parting Glass) featuring Geldof, and their now-definitive version of Bella Ciao. The tone was set, and Combat Folk, as they soon began to call it, was launched.

The next album, La Grande Famiglia (The Big Family), was more of the same, Italian left-wing rebel songs set to Irish tunes, mixed with work dealing with more local politics. The band made a nod to the local singer-songwriter Francesco Guccini, covering La Locomotiva (The Locomotive), an epic about an anarchist railwayman who loses the head and tries to ram the first class special to Bologna. Sicily, a recurring theme in the band’s work, makes an appearance in La Banda del Sogno Interotto (The Band of Broken Dreams) about a group of Palermitans who try to maintain some dignity in a culture that conspires against it.

Around this time I saw them for the first time, at a centro sociale (big politically-conscious squat) in Rome, where they played a benefit for, as I discovered after getting in, The Committee for the Self-Determination of the People of Ireland. They had not long released their third album Terra e Libertà (Land and Freedom) and the final element of their sound, the non-European and especially South American, was in place. The tracks included Cent’anni di Solitudine (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Transamerika (Che Guevara’s road trip), a couple of Balkan inspired songs, Marcia Balcania (Balkan March) and Danza Infernale (Infernal Dance), and Radio Tindouf showcasing an increasing interest in North Africa.

After a live album, Raccolti (Collection), the band released three studio albums similar to Terra e Libertà: a developing `world music’ sound based on global, and Italian, political concerns. The songs are never worthy but usually jump-up-and-downable with a punk attitude integrated with a serious interest in the music and cultures. The next major turn was Appunti Partigiani (Partisan Notes), a collection of songs rooted in the partisan and anti-fascist traditions, including Billy Bragg on Woody Guthrie’s All You Fascists.

The next album, Dopo il Lungo Inverno (After the Long Winter), recorded after changes in the line-up, is one of their weaker efforts, and the next, Bella Ciao Combat Folk for the Masses, was an attempt to reach an international market, with a number of songs in English. Unfortunately, like many bands who have tried to reach an English-speaking audience, they are simply not at home in the language, the songs sound wrong, and the album cannot be counted a success.

Recent recordings have seen a return to form and the latest double CD Niente di Nuovo Sul Fronte Occidentale (All Quiet on the Western Front) is a triumph. The basic elements that made them a great band are all present and correct: bouncy rockers (Occupy Wall Street), immigration (Fiori D’arancio e Baci di Caffè; Orange Flowers and Coffee Kisses), the South (Tarantella di Tarantò) the dirtier episodes of Italy’s past, in Il Giorno Che il Cielo Cadde su Bologna (The Day the Sky Fell on Bologna, about the 1980 Fascist bombing of the train station) and the legends of the left, Due Magliette Rosse (Two Shirts of Red, the Italian tennis team’s act of defiance playing in Chile in 1976).

The live act is as solid as ever. Check their website and make a trip to see them if you’re in Italy. Best, if you can manage it, is to see them at a Festa, organized by one of the political parties. You pay less to get in, and the audience isn’t shy about hopping around with a fist up.

Most of the band’s work is worth hearing, but these are some personal favorites.

From their first album, Un Giorno Di Pioggia (A Rainy Day), a love song to Ireland, and its might in deeds of precipitation:

È in un giorno di pioggia che ti ho conosciuta,
il vento dell’ovest rideva gentile
e in un giorno di pioggia ho imparato ad amarti
mi hai preso per mano portandomi via.

It was one rainy day that I first came to know you
The wind from the West softly smiled
On a soft rainy day I learned to love you
You took my hand and you led me away.

Also from their first album, the story of a group of Modenese communists taking the train to Rome for the funeral of Compagno Berlinguer, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, killed by a stroke while he gave a speech during the 1984 European election campaign. A million people attended his funeral, and in the elections the PCI, for the only time in its history, took the largest share of the vote. (Somebody had been listening to The Death Bed of Cu Chulainn.)

From the second album, La Locomotiva tells the story of a railwayman who, inspired by the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century, decides to ram the train full of bosses on the way to Bologna.

The band have always had an interest in southern Italy, and especially in Sicily. I Cento Passi (The Hundred Steps) is based on the story of Peppino Impastato, the son of a mafioso, who became a radical left anti-Mafia campaigner in his home town, until he was murdered by them. The `hundred steps’ of the title refers to the distance from the family home to the house of a man murdered by the mob. The start of the video is a scene from the film of the same name where Peppino walks his brother down the street.

“Sei andato a scuola, sai contare?”
“si so contare”
“E sai camminare?”
“so camminare”
“E contare e camminare insieme lo sai fare?”
“credo di sì”
“Allora forza, conta e cammina.. 1,2,3,4..”

“You’ve been to school, can you count?”
“I can count.”
“And can you walk?”
“I can walk.”
“Can you walk and count at the same time?”
“I reckon so.”
“Right so, count and walk … 1,2,3,4”

Another great crowd pleaser, Transamerika, from the album Terra e Libertà. The song is about Che Guevara setting off with his mate for a boys’ road trip on a dubious motorcycle.

Sei partito alla grande con Alberto e con la moto
siam venuti tutti quanti a salutarvi
con un augurio, un abbraccio, una risata e una bottiglia
e le ragazze una lacrima ed un bacio

You left us all in style with Alberto and the bike
We came one and all to wave you off
With a `good luck’, and a hug, with a bottle and a smile,
And all the girls with a tear and a kiss.

From the most recent album, Due Magliette Rosse, is the story of Adriano Panatta and Paolo Bertolucci who played for Italy in the 1976 Davis Cup final against Chile. The final was held in Santiago, and the Italian left asked that the team boycott the Pinochet regime. Enrico Berlinguer made contact with the players and told them to go, and deny the Fascists their victory. In their doubles match, Panatta and Bertolucci played in red shirts.

Due magliette rosse nello stadio della morte,
Due magliette rosse come sangue nelle fosse,
Per le donne di Santiago, e la loro libertà,
Sfidavano il potere con grande dignità.

Two shirts of red in the stadium of death,
Two shirts of red for when the ditches bled.
For the women of Santiago, and for their liberty,
They stood up to power with pride and dignity.

Bella Ciao is the great song of the Italian left, and the Modena City Ramblers have made it their own. They end each gig with it, to a sea of bouncing fists.


It’s not that simple

[Edit 14/7/2014: This article is now superseded by a longer piece in The Honest Ulsterman]

Today’s Guardian carries an article from Elaine Byrne on the Irish who fought for Britain in the First World War. Without taking a view on the actions of those men, Byrne’s account of Irish memory of the conflict is very seriously flawed. Here:

It was not until 1988 that the Irish National War Memorial Gardens, 5km from parliament on the outskirts of Dublin, were formally dedicated and opened to the public. The Queen’s visit to the Islandbridge memorial in 2011 was the first time that I became aware it existed.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens, constructed to a design by Lutyens, were indeed only formally dedicated in 1988. They were constructed, however, in the 1930s, with funding from the Irish government of Eamon De Valera, who would have been considered `anti-British’. Planning for the gardens, intended to commemorate all Irish people killed in the conflict, had begun under the government of W. T. Cosgrave in the 1920s. Both Cosgrave and De Valera had fought against Britain for Irish independence, and yet were keen to commemorate Irishmen who had fought for the former colonial power.

As for the gardens being 5km from `parliament’, that is about the distance from the Palace of Westminster to the far side of Hyde Park, hardly a trek requiring the use of pack animals and supply depots. Incidentally, the gardens are a kilometer, or fifteen minutes walk, from Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the 1916 Rebellion were executed. If nothing else, the symbolism is pleasing.

Dr Byrne claims that she was not aware until 2011 that the gardens existed: there was a long public discussion about reopening them during the 1980s, largely driven by Kevin Myers in the Irish Times. The gardens were restored by the Irish Office of Public Works, i.e. the Irish state, and dedicated while Charles Haughey was Taoiseach. There was also a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme there in 2006, with the President and the Taoiseach, among others, in attendance, as well as the Irish Army band.

Dr Byrne continues:

The first world war was not taught in Irish schools. Most Irish people would be surprised to learn that an estimated 200,000 Irishmen served in the British army.

I left school in 1988 and most certainly learned, at school, about the first world war, and that Irishmen had fought in it. My parents had learned the same. Part of the nationalist narrative was that Irishmen under Redmond had been, in effect, tricked into fighting for Britain, which claimed to be defending the rights of small nations such as Belgium, and which had granted Home Rule to Ireland, though it clearly had no intention of imposing it. Whatever the validity of that narrative, it certainly did not ignore Irish involvement in the war. Indeed the `great Irish novel’, Strumpet City ends with a blacklisted striker from the 1913 Lockout enlisting in the British Army and leaving Dublin on a troop ship.

The history of the First World War, and of its memory, is quite complex enough; we are ill served by authors whose memory has clearly lost the struggle against forgetting.

Update 7 April 2014: In her original article Dr Byrne says this:

His attestation papers are a reminder of an Ireland that no longer exists. A handwritten “Yes” is placed beside the question, “Are you a British subject?” Sylvester did not know it then, but Ireland was on the cusp of the 1916 Easter Rising, which would come to define the nationalist narrative of post-independent Ireland. “I, Silvester James Cummins, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs, and Successors … So help me God,” reads the oath.

But he did not sign it. Sylvester spelt his name with a Y, not an I. A glance at other attestation papers of Irish recruits reveals blanks in the oath, or a signature different to that elsewhere. It is a small thing, but I noticed it, and 100 years later that dormant nationalism still matters somehow.

In a second article, Remembering my great-grandfather and the Irish heroes lost to history, Dr Byrne has an image of her great-grandfather’s attestation papers and the signature is clearly spelt `Sylvester’. The entries in different handwriting, spelt `Silvester’, were inserted by the recruiting officer. It appears very unlikely that Sylvester Cummins did not sign the attestation papers, or that the misspelling of his name was the result of some `dormant nationalism’.


The great streets thrown upon the little: Strumpet City

Strumpet City is a novel of Dublin in the early twentieth century: between the royal visit of 1907 and the hero’s departure for Flanders in 1914, a servant girl marries her sweetheart; the slum of her employer collapses; three priests contend for hegemony over the allegiance of Dublin’s poor; an ageing rake finds a cause; a labourer falls in love with a prostitute; a raggedy-arsed chorus of beggars are Godoted into comment by the shambles they see about them.
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