Have you forgotten yet? …

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Watching the commemorations at Thiepval for the Battle of the Somme which began 100 years ago today I was filled with nostalgia for a lost age: 22nd June 2016 – the day before my country voted to leave the European Union.

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I am familiar with this, and other, First World War cemeteries from several school trips to the battlefields.  My students read extracts from poems, plays and novels at the exact locations in France and Belgium where the terrifying violent events took place. This extract from The War Graves by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley is an example of what we read at Thiepval.

The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion.

Today, however, it was the great and the good who read extracts.  Shivering, rain-showered school children from France, Britain and Ireland, merely laid wreaths on each individual grave in the serried ranks of simple, fanned out stones.

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As the bugler played the Last Post tears issued from my eyes in concert with drops of rain squeezed from the lowering grey skies overhead.  The skies seemed to weep for the foolishness of those who promote nationalism above friendship and communal endeavour.  Those in power in both 1916 and 2016 are careless of those who are vulnerable.

Today our outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron, sat and stood shoulder to shoulder with the presidents of France and Ireland; a position which must have seemed ironic to others as well as me.

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Huw Edward’s, dignified and grave commentary did not, however, deal with this irony.  But it seemed obvious from Cameron’s shamed face and stance that he was grieving, not only for the millions of dead soldiers but for his own cowardly and destructive decision to call a referendum – mainly it seems to defeat Nigel Farage, who is not even a member of parliament, and whose disgusting party UKIP has only one representative in the House of Commons.

Simultaneously, back in London, having stabbed his erstwhile colleague, Boris Johnson, in the back, Michael Gove, a former education secretary (who was so hated by teachers that Cameron had remove him from his post) images.jpegattempted to bribe Conservative voters, with promises of money for the NHS, in his efforts to become an unelected prime minister.  I am ashamed of my country and its farcical leaders and, it is almost with glee that I watch them, across all political parties, self-destruct.  I am proud to be living in Ireland where the flag of the European Union still flies beside the trídhathach na hÉireann.  Not to say that the Irish have never been guilty of what Tisdall (see below) describes as ‘aggressively chauvinistic nationalism’.

I am filled with gloom and dread when I think of the future of my country and what may happen to the younger generation for whom, amongst other generations, the soldiers of the First World War fought.  In the Guardian Simon Tisdall paints a sorry picture of ‘England’s inexorable decline‘.

I am terrified by the current wave of racist attacks and slurs and by what may happen when those who voted to leave the EU find out that there is still a shortage of ‘proper’ jobs and reasonable housing.  I am terrified of what will happen when the cash-starved NHS cannot bring ex-pat nurses and doctors to heal the sick.  And I am terrified that when I am truly old there will be no kind Eastern European, South East Asian and African carers to watch over my failing body and mind.

As is so often the case I turn to W.B. Yeats for the necessary words:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Still, I’d like to be optimistic like Jeanette Winterson who wrote in the Guardian about a new story for England and a new party for the left.  I’m with her.  Three cheers for the Equality Party.

Works cited

Longley, M. The War Graves

Sassoon, S. Aftermath

Yeats, W. B. The Second Coming

 

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‘The Plough and the Stars’ Sean O’Casey

Imagine, if you will, my dismay at handing over €70 for two theatre tickets at the Cork Opera House!  I had just paid €36 for two tickets to Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (Frank McGuiness) at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and €18 for two cinema tickets at the Gate Multiplex, Cork.  How could this be value for money?

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The Plough and the Stars. Abbey Theatre. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh 2012

But… The Plough and the Stars…?  I love the play having seen it twice before, once in 2012 on the Abbey stage, directed by Wayne Jordan and starring the award-winning, Denise Gough (see above)

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Poster for The Plough and the Stars. Directed by Bill Bryden. 1977

and before that in 1977, when the late  Susan Fleetwood was nominated for an Olivier at the National Theatre in London (see left).  It is always a must-see.

So clearly, as it was on my door-step, this visit was a no-brainer.  And I have rarely been disappointed by Abbey Theatre shows, all previously seen at the Abbey itself.

I am not such a fan of the Cork Opera House as the stage is too large for many visiting sets and the auditorium is too large for most actors’ projection.  It works better as a backdrop for concerts and opera, as one might expect knowing its origin as a venue for local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Perhaps I shall have to pop over for the National’s 2016 production, directed by Howard Davies, especially as I note that the Travelex tickets are only £15.

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The Plough and the Stars Publicity image for 2016 production at the National Theatre, London

But what of the show I saw on Friday?  I was not impressed by my seat in the Upper Circle and I was unable to follow the dialogue during the first half as I could not hear properly even though the actors were forced to shout to reach audience members at the back.  It was better after I popped into the front row of the stalls during the interval.

What’s to like?  What should make you rush to Wexford, Limerick or Galway to catch this production?  The poster is probably enough to put you off your full Irish breakfast.

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Poster for the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 production of The Plough and the Stars.

Even the waiter in the House Café warned me, ‘Oh it’s very contemporary but worth a try”.  And my friend Roy said he did not like the look of the trainers.  But I said to him ‘Go.  Get a ticket for the last night in Cork’.  Did he?  I don’t know, but I hope so.

It’s a production of amazing clarity.  I absolutely love the work of its director Sean Holmes.   I first saw his work when he was with Filter.  I saw their Twelfth Night at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007.  I saw the production again, twice, at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn.  I saw Filter’s  Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National in London.  I saw Holmes’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Three Sisters and  Blasted at the Lyric, Hammersmith, where he is artistic director.  For the latter I had to spend some of the time kneeling on the floor and peeping over the seat in front like a small child watching Dr. Who.  I would probably cross an ocean to see one of his productions.

In an excellent interview with Peter Crawley of the Irish Times (see also his review), Holmes states that the Irish ‘might get very, very cross that some English bloke has come over and desecrated a classic’.  It is easy to see that some audience members might consider the production a desecration.  And it is shocking to see the naturalism taken out of the play.  But I shouldn’t have been shocked.  After all Holmes treatment of  Three Sisters was his rebellion against the ‘many British productions [which] seem to treat Chekhov as if he was a Victorian gentleman’.

For The Plough and the Stars Holmes has chosen to take the Brechtian, alienating, approach of acknowledging ‘the audience a lot. And talk[ing] to them. Because I think that the play lends itself to that. It’s an odd mixture, a sort of presentation of reality as opposed to a facsimile. You’re really aware, all of the time, that you’re watching a play’.  So the style is declarative.  The actors are choreographed, for much of the time, to face the audience rather than each other, and they directly address the audience.

The non-naturalistic set, designed by Jon Bausor, and which I think is excellent, is minimalistic and centred around a three-storey lighting tower, representing the tenement block.  Excitingly, and in front of the audience, the scaffold is dropped onto its side in Act Four to represent, I think, the breaking of the dream.  Characters huddle inside it like wounded ants in their nest.  British soldiers bestride the top of the horizontal structure and British gunshots are notably far more powerful than earlier ones from the rebel snipers.

Slightly embarrassed by his status as an Englishman, Holmes explains that he sees the play as ‘an argument with Ireland . . . This play is as much about 1926 as it was about 1916. It was an argument with the new state and the betrayal of the promise, as O’Casey saw it, of what the [Plough and the Stars] flag represented for an alternative type of state’.

At the same time Holmes is confident of the play’s contemporaneity: ‘O’Casey was reacting against an oversimplification and a mythicisation of a very complicated, messy and contradictory event. So what you put on stage is all of those things: ideas of nationalism, the complexity of the continued relationship with Britain, the relationship with gender. All those things remain contemporary’.  Holmes achieves the contemporary feel with costumes and props, as well as songs: there is a mic. stand available to the actors for use whenever they need to give voice.  But all these technical elements span the century which has just elapsed, with a 1940s frock for Nora, a 1980s sofa bed and songs from the nineteenth century to rave music.  So the play is seen to be about all eras and all places – generalising from the specific as Brecht would have done.

 

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Eileen Walsh as Bessie in The Plough and the Stars. Abbey Theatre. Directed by Sean Holmes. 2016.

Performances are strong, although I thought Ciarán O’Brien, as the young covey, played for laughs in a heavy handed manner.  Eileen Walsh, first seen in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, as Bessie Burgess, moved me the most.  Holmes makes the final section between three women: Bessie, Mrs Grogan (Janet Moran) and Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) the feminist centre of the play. It feels like Masha’s final speech in Three Sisters‘They’re leaving us… one of them’s gone for good… for ever!  We’re left alone … to start our lives all over again.  We must go on living … we must go on living…’.

Writing in the Guardian, Helen Meany sums up the production succinctly, ‘Scraping off the accretions of performance history, this production succeeds in being very moving, while asking insistent questions about social justice that often get lost in the fray’.

Works cited

Chekhov, A. Three Sisters. Moscow: Adolf Marks. 1901

O’Casey, S. The Plough and the Stars. London: Faber Plays. 2001.

Guests Of The Nation by Frank O’Connor

I have read the story for the first time – having only just heard of it!  The tale is a familiar one: the execution of Englishmen by Irishmen, in reprisal for English executions of Irish.  But there is something different about the way in which this story is written.  This blog is about what I noticed in the story but, as I have not read any criticism, I may just be repeating what everyone else has said.

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Storyboard for short film Guests of a Nation directed by Daniel Speers. Swift Speers Productions.  2012.

The setting of Guests Of The Nation is clearly of central importance and there is a visual element about it which has led amateur and professional filmmakers, as well as theatre groups, to adapt it.  And its place in the genre of Irish Literature is assured by its stereotypical location – a cottage by a bog. But I am writing only of O’Connor’s use of language.

Note first that the title of the story, unlike that of the short film, incorporates the definite article, ‘The’ rather than the indefinite article ‘A’.  So Ireland is not a nation; she is the nation.  And this, it seems to me, illustrates a struggle that Ireland and Irish writers have engaged in, not only since 1916, and not only since 1926, but for many centuries.  Edward Spenser in A View of the State of Ireland (1596) presented an analysis of Ireland and Irishness, but this was a patronising, patrician, and, of course, English view.

How then is it possible for Ireland to establish herself as herself, rather than, what Edward Said terms ‘The Other’?   Even now, in 2016, the island of Ireland is still divided, preventing her from becoming,  as Donne said, ‘an island entire of itself’.  In using the definite article ‘The’ O’Connor is, as many Irish writers do, and have done, exploring the essence of his country and, perhaps, trying to contribute to the creation of Irishness.

In his ‘Nation’ O’Connor places some ‘Guests’ who are part of a occupying force.  The word ‘Guests’ might, at first be seen as ironic as the English have over the centuries not been invited guests so much as resented imperialists.  So what has O’Connor to say about this ‘Nation’ and these ‘Guests’? It is necessary, therefore, to see how he formulates the characters and motivations of the ‘Guests’.

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Frank O’Connor     (1903-1996)

This title, Guests Of The Nation, as titles often are, is key to understanding the text.  But I think the dialogue is even more important in explaining O’Connor’s point.  Something strange is afoot.  Register.  Cadence.  Syntax.  Accent.  The formal register, is usually deployed by English or Anglo-Irish characters in Irish Literature, but in this story, on the whole, it resides in the mouths of the Irish characters. One such, Donovan, who is described as having an ‘uncommon broad accent’ speaks thus: ‘And what difference does it make? The enemy have our prisoners as long or longer, haven’t they?’  There is no attempt to mimic an accent and the syntax is formal.  Donovan’s language is not recorded as regional.  Nor does it identify him as ‘slow’ although the narrator, the oddly named, Bonaparte, defines him as such.

On the other hand, one English character,  Hawkins, is almost more Irish than the Irish.  He knows ‘the countryside as well as we did and something more’.  Hawkins has also learnt to dance Irish dances, such as ‘The Walls of Limerick’ and ‘The Siege of Ennis” although he could not teach English dances to the Irish as ‘our lads at that time did not dance foreign dances on principle’.  O’Connor gives Hawkins a kind of Cockney ‘brogue’: ‘Mary Brigid Ho’Connell was asking abaout you and said ‘ow you’d a pair of socks belonging to ‘er young brother’.  The alternative spelling of ‘about’ seems to be O’Connor’s attempt to locate Hawkins’s language in a particular location and a particular class.  Additionally Hawkins loses the ‘H’ in his name, becoming, when addressed or described, ‘Awkins, but in his speech he adds unnecessary ‘H’s whilst aspirating those which should be pronounced.   ‘And you believe that God created Hadam and Hadam created Shem and Shem created Jehoshophat?  You believe all the silly hold fairy-tale about Heve and Heden and the happle?’

Clearly O’Connor is deploying humour here, as he does when he names the other Englishman Belcher, in spite of the fact that this character is generally silent.  When he does speak, Belcher invariably uses the word “chum”.  This word is slang, emanating from the upperclass English students of the University of Oxford, and means a friend.

Whether Belcher intended it or not his Irish guards choose to adopt both the word and the sentiment.  They become ‘chums’ of their English ‘Guests’.   At the point when the imminent execution is revealed Hawkins protests ‘Me and Bonaparte are chums’ receiving the reply from Bonaparte, who will take part in the killing, ‘I mean it, chum’.  There follows a heated discussion between the ‘chums’ opposing two ideas, that of ‘duty’ to a brigade or a country to that of being ‘chums’ and sticking together.  Bonaparte seems to agree with his ‘chums’ that the fellowship between men is more central to the human condition than any idea of ‘duty’.  Nevertheless he is complicit and active in the shooting of his ‘Guests’.  He is sticking to the principle that prevents the Irish from dancing English dances.  And also to the principle of saving his own life in the face of ‘men on the Brigade you daren’t let nor hinder without a gun in you hand’.

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poster: http://www.swiftspears.com 2012

But it is O’Connor’s use of the oh-so-English word ‘chum’ that strikes me as central to an understanding of the story.  Despite the backstory of this execution being in retaliation, O’Connor positions the Irish characters as oppressors; in cold blood they kill their ‘chums’ and sink them ‘in the windy bog’.  The Englishness of the word ‘chum’, a word which Bonaparte states ‘lingers painfully in my memory’, permeates the text throughout and suggests the power of the English nation, and her insistence that, even when it is a bog, ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’.  It’s as if O’Connor is portraying Ireland as still ‘The Other’, as still unable to eschew that which is English.  The most senior Irish officer, Donovan, says, ‘Why the hell should your people take out four prisoners and shoot them in cold blood upon a barrack square?’  His idiom is English.  Through dialogue O’Connor subtly and covertly acknowledges that the power of England, English and Englishness is still overwhelming any attempt to create Ireland as entire to herself.

Works cited

Brooke, R. The Soldier Gloucester: New Numbers Magazine January 1915. Print.

Donne, J. Donne’s Devotions (1624) Cambridge University Press. 1923. Print.

O’Connor, F. Guests Of The Nation. London: Macmillan. 1931. Print.

Said, E. Orientalism. London: Penguin. 1977. Print.

Speers, D. Guests Of A Nation. Dir. Daniel Speers. SpearsSwift Productions. 2012. Film.

 

“abortive, monstrous or unkindly mixed”?

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picture: the Guardian 

 

Looking at this face it is tempting to see dignity and compassion.

That is until you know that it is Radovan Karadžić, found guilty last week at the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague; found guilty of ten out of eleven counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other atrocities during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s.  The story has run and run, as indeed did Karadžić for years, disguising himself as a mystic faith-healer, so as to escape justice.

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Veteran Guardian writer, Ed Vulliamy (62), has been involved in this story as an investigative reporter since the 1990s and has also written a book about it and about his relationship with Karadžić. In 2012, The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: the Reckoning was reviewed by John Simpson for the Observer.  Vulliamy met Karadžić, several times: he took an ITN crew to film the concentration camps in Bosnia and, many years later, he visited him, at Karadžić’s request, in prison, before finally giving evidence at the trial.

Vulliamy is also a friend of Irish writer, Edna O’Brien (85), author of The Little Red Chairs  (2015). When she was researching the novel Vulliamy arranged for her to visit Karadžić’s trial. “I have an interest in and a great abiding fear of tyranny, and especially male tyranny”  explains O’Brien.

51r1ToSAS1L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_In the novel O’Brien imagines that a character, Vlad Dragan, similar to Karadžić, ends up in a small town in Ireland.  The inhabitants seeing a face like the one at the top of this page, analyse it, as one might, as dignified and compassionate.  The novel deals with many things, but the images that stick in one’s head are the ones involving Fidelma, the heroine, and Vlad. Fidelma, childless and unhappily married, falls in love with, and becomes pregnant by, the newcomer.  Then, in a brutal scene, the baby miscarries as she is beaten by former associates of her lover.  Fidelma travels to Holland to attend the trial and requests a visit with Vlad.  There is also a dream sequence in which she meets him in the “conjugal room”.  O’Brien is fascinated by the seductive power of evil and stated in an interview with the Telegraph that she wanted to show “something of the suffering and the violations and the monstrousness of what is happening in the world”.  Fidelma suffers violation and some “monstrousness” but she is resilient and struggles to retrieve her sense of herself.  Many other women in the novel also show strength and fortitude in the face of “male tyranny”.

For this blog I have placed the image of Karadžić under my quotation from Milton as these words seem to encapsulate him: a man of great charisma who channeled his psychological talents into abominable cruelty, repressing his honour and compassion until they were, along with his victims, annihilated.

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Reuters

Works cited

O’Brien, E. The Little Red Chairs 2015 London: Faber & Faber. 2015. Print.

Vulliamy, E. The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: the reckoning.  London: Vintage. 2013 Print.

 

“It would be spoiled entirely.”

This quotation from Not Oleanders by Danielle McLaughlin seems to sum up her collection of short stories Dinosaurs on Other Planets.  But maybe the word “would” is too positive.

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The Ireland that McLaughlin depicts is, indeed, since the recession, another planet for her characters.  And they find themselves dinosaurs on it.  Their modus vivendi does not suit the reality of their diminished world.  Some characters, such as the unnamed female protagonist in In the Act of Falling, make huge efforts to maintain or improve their trammelled lives, whilst others, sink, almost motionless, into a quicksand of debt and hopelessness.  McLaughlin presents an Ireland which is hostile and punitive.

Open the book on almost any page and you will find that the things which could be good are getting spoiled.  Look on page four, in the story The Art of Foot-Binding and read the following description of a daughter, “She turned fourteen the previous July, and is suddenly grown…”.  The sentence continues ominously, “taller and broader”.  And then, “Her face, already too round to be pretty, has become rounder, and she has taken to wearing her long, brown hair, her best feature, in a tight bun”. This is uncomfortable reading.  It nods to the body-facism that feminists, such as myself, fight against.  Whose voice is this?  The mother, Janice, or McLaughlin herself?  Janice is certainly the focaliser but does the writer agree with the sentiments?  Becky, the unfortunate daughter is considered too fat by her mother, her father, her teacher and her peers.  Set a homework task to research foot-binding, she takes it literally and starts trying to reduce her feet by binding them.  McLaughlin may be suggesting that the media creates a similarly alien and  cruel environment for young women as the Chinese did when they broke the bones of girls’ feet and extracted their toe nails.

The stories contain frequent references to both female beauty and female slovenliness.  The extraordinary A Different Country, is set in a Donegal which is “almost too beautiful … the colours too pure, the light too fantastical” (113). On the other hand a young inhabitant, Pauline, is “good-looking in a raw, violent sort of way (114)” and is described in the shower as “naked: the distended belly, the hair, black and wet and sleek, writhing in worms around her shoulders” (119).  At the end, when fishermen have shot seals which interfered with their nets, the reader realises that, like Synge in The Aran Islands and like Lawless in Grania, McLoughlin is conflating the locals with their landscape.  Men, merciless, battle the sea for survival and their women are reduced to nothing more than seals, which have been wounded, but remain alive, “bleeding out” (124).  In this story, as in the others, what might have been beautiful is transformed, by McLaughlin’s pen, into something “remorseless”, “slime green and rotting” (124).

In an interview for The New Yorker McLaughlin states that her “characters tend to negotiate the world with a mixture of fear and wonder; for them, it is a place at once both beautiful and alien”.  Although she seems happy in her own life, living with her three children in the countryside, McLaughlin does not allow her characters much of the “beautiful” or the “wonder”.  In the story Not Oleanders, McLaughlin ends as follows: “The horses broke into a trot, then a canter.  Then they were barrelling downhill, their unkempt manes flying, their tails streaming out behind them.  The slope brought its own momentum, and they were galloping now, neighing and snorting and whinnying.  They thundered past, trampling on daises, forget-me-nots, buttercups.  And as they went by, she stepped back into the trees, to shelter from the clouds of yellow dust flung up by the chaos of their hooves” (91).  This is evocative sensual writing, but note words such as “trampling” and “chaos”.  The protagonist, Lily, feels that life and joy are galloping past her, leaving her to seek solitary shelter from the chaos left by those who can survive in an alien world of fear.

Works cited

Lawless, E. Grania: The Story of an Island. 1892. ed. Michael O’Flynn. Rev.ed. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2013. Print.

McLaughlin. D. Dinosaurs on Other Planets Dublin: The Stinging Fly Press. 2015. Print.

Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands. Introd. and ed. Tim Robinson. London: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. 1992. Print.