There is a long-running lie that the Irish were slaves and got over it, so African Americans should do too. The lie and its spread have been most thoroughly dissected by the historian Liam Hogan, but this is Frederick Douglass on the subject in the 1840s, via the Project Gutenberg edition of My Bondage and My Freedom. He does not refer to exactly the same lie, that of Irish slaves in the Americas, but clearly there was a similar lie flying around in the 1840s, and he had an answer to it.
It is often said, by the opponents of the anti-slavery cause, that the condition of the people of Ireland is more deplorable than that of the American slaves. Far be it from me to underrate the sufferings of the Irish people. They have been long oppressed; and the same heart that prompts me to plead the cause of the American bondman, makes it impossible for me not to sympathize with the oppressed of all lands. Yet I must say that there is no analogy between the two cases. The Irishman is poor, but he is not a slave. He may be in rags, but he is not a slave. He is still the master of his own body, and can say with the poet, “The hand of Douglass is his own.” “The world is all before him, where to choose;” and poor as may be my opinion of the British parliament, I cannot believe that it will ever sink to such a depth of infamy as to pass a law for the recapture of fugitive Irishmen! The shame and scandal of kidnapping will long remain wholly monopolized by the American congress. The Irishman has not only the liberty to emigrate from his country, but he has liberty at home. He can write, and speak, and cooperate for the attainment of his rights and the redress of his wrongs.
The multitude can assemble upon all the green hills and fertile plains of the Emerald Isle; they can pour out their grievances, and proclaim their wants without molestation; and the press, that “swift-winged messenger,” can bear the tidings of their doings to the extreme bounds of the civilized world. They have their “Conciliation Hall,” on the banks of the Liffey, their reform clubs, and their newspapers; they pass resolutions, send forth addresses, and enjoy the right of petition. But how is it with the American slave? Where may he assemble? Where is his Conciliation Hall? Where are his newspapers? Where is his right of petition? Where is his freedom of speech? his liberty of the press? and his right of locomotion? He is said to be happy; happy men can speak. But ask the slave what is his condition—what his state of mind—what he thinks of enslavement? and you had as well address your inquiries to the silent dead. There comes no voice from the enslaved. We are left to gather his feelings by imagining what ours would be, were our souls in his soul’s stead.
Incidentally, he also compares the singing of slaves in the United States to what he heard in Ireland during the Famine:
In the most boisterous outbursts of rapturous sentiment, there was ever a tinge of deep melancholy. I have never heard any songs like those anywhere since I left slavery, except when in Ireland. There I heard the same wailing notes, and was much affected by them. It was during the famine of 1845-6.
James Plunkett was one of Ireland’s greatest writers, author of the great Irish novel, Strumpet City. This extract is from The Gems She Wore (1972), his account of some Irish places and his travels to and in them, while he was making a programme for the BBC and RTE.
We set out from Castletownbere by helicopter, filmed here and there for some hours and were, from my amateur grasp of navigational matters, firmly in the middle of nowhere when the pilot asked me if there was any place near in which we could get morning coffee. I looked down. There was a great lump of uninhabited mountain below, forbidding cliffs ahead and the rolling sea beyond. The most I knew about our whereabouts was that we were certainly not over the Phoenix Park, but being the only Irishman at hand I had to pretend to be knowledgeable. Seawards, the nearest coffee shop would be in New York, so we turned inland. Stony fields, narrow tracks and an occasional cottage with hens and domestic animals scattering in all directions at the noise of our approach were the only signs of organised society, until we passed over an isolated building which from the air looked very much like the others, except that it was larger and there were three cars parked fairly near it. I pointed down and said: `There’. We circled, saw a possible landing place about half a mile away and descended near a beach, where a party of men were packing up some land-sea rescue equipment with which they had been practising. They were speaking Irish, but answered the pilot’s inquiry about coffee in English. The pilot, Peter Peckowski, speaks with a slight Polish accent. By all means they said, but doubtfully. Coffee is not very usual in remote Ireland. They led us over ditches and by tracks to the roadway and there, in front of us, was the building I had spotted from the air. It was a public house.
`Tell me’, said one of the men, `did youse ever drink tea?’
I assured him we had.
Inside the women of the house went off to make coffee without fuss, while Peter asked where we were.
`In Ballydavid’, said the owner, `if you go by the map, but the right name is Baile na nGall’.
I was sitting at one of the tables and said: `The town of the Strangers’.
He hadn’t expected that and came over to scrutinise me.
`You’re not foreign’, he said.
`I am not’, I said.
He looked more closely.
`You have the look of a Dublin man?’
`Now you have it’.
`A writer maybe?’
It was embarassing. It was also, quite unexpectedly, deeply moving to be recognised in my own country so far away from my own small world.
`Pleased to meet you’, I said.
If he had presented me with the Freedom of Dingle I wouldn’t have been so genuinely honoured and I felt, not for the first time, that before I die I will speak my native language adequately enough to talk with those of my countrymen who have it from birth, so that they won’t shame me by having to change to English on my account.
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’.
Dublin, perhaps uniquely, has suffered mythologization by genius and by sentimentality. Caught between Leopold Bloom and the Leprachaun Museum (yes, there is), the city of Dublin, the living breathing people and the physical structures they live in and on, has fallen out of sight. Joyce and Flann O’Brien caught its speech, but the one did it so perfectly people are afraid to read him, and the other was so accurate they think the humour is a laughing matter; James Plunkett wrote Dublin on a human scale and gave it flesh and blood characters, but is little known outside Ireland. We have ended up with Bloomsday and Paddy’s Day, the first now more kitsch than the second.
Karl Whitney has now written a book that gives us back Dublin as a city, not the set of a novel, or the battlefield of dreams of some misty eyed tourist in search of their heroic and downtrodden ancestors.
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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?
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?”
“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.