Have you forgotten yet? …


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.


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.


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.


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



This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

English readers of This Orient Isle would think of Shakespeare’s lines ‘this sceptred isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea’ from Richard II, but the Irish would probably remember Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium.

Unknown.jpegLike the final stanza of that poem, the pages of the book are filled with references to oriental gold. Ironically, for lovers of Yeats’s poem, Brotton tells of a gift, from Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III, not the other way around, of a clockwork organ which was played, in 1599, to entertain ‘the lords and ladies of Byzantium’ in the same palace that Yeats chose for his golden mechanical bird. The Sultan was not ‘drowsy’ but delighted, and offered the organ-maker, Thomas Dallam, his choice of the palace concubines. It seems that Dallam merely accepted a bag of gold.

This Orient Isle explains Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman and Persian Empires as well as the Moroccan Sultanate, relationships which frequently distracted her from her ‘disastrous military campaign to try to crush Catholic rebellion in Ireland’.

The Rainbow Portrait depicts Elizabeth in oriental fabrics

Although Brotton does not dwell on it, the narrative suggests many parallels to Europe’s current relations with the Islamic world. As Edward Said points out in his theory of Orientalism, Judo-Christian Europeans often see Muslims as the ‘Other’, as something alien and dangerous. Said argues that because of misunderstanding or ignorance, we cast all Muslims as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’.

Brotton sets out to detail and analyse, the process by which Protestant England, with her queen who was to be excommunicated in 1570, was seeking an alliance with this ‘Other’. England was struggling against against Catholic Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire who had a stranglehold on trade. In 1566, the Bishop of Winchester wrote ‘the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery’.

The English merchants and explorers, like many current Europeans, did not have much of an understanding of Islam; one of them, Anthony Jenkinson explained, in 1558, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a in terms of their facial hair: ‘the Persians will not cut the hair of their upper lips, as the Bukharians and all other Tartars do’. The task of these emissaries, after all, was not theological but mercantile. In pursuit of trade Jenkinson tackled the frozen wastes of the North West Passage and arrived in Persia after a long and hazardous trek via Moscow. He found that the heavy cloth that he offered for sale was of more interest in the cold climes of Russia than in the warmth of Persia where he saw ‘golden and silken garments’.

Another traveller was Henry Roberts, the first English Ambassador to Morocco (1585).  Roberts, who had been a soldier, was settled in Ireland after a period of quashing insurrection. Not only was he reluctant to ‘yield his place’ in Ireland, but he had no experience of trade or diplomacy. Brotton writes that to ‘a soldier like Roberts, used to the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism, the multi-confessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock’. In the three years that he was there, however, Roberts seems to have spent more time engaged in military and political matters than commerce. He traded munitions and agitated for the Moroccan emperor, al-Mansur, to join an anti-Spanish league.

Roberts was working under the auspices of the Earl of Leicester, as was a later adventurer, Anthony Sherley. After Leicester’s death Sherley’s patron was the ‘equally intemperate’ Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who would, the following year, be attempting to subdue O’Neill in Ireland.

Sherley is described as ‘a born intriguer, a complete opportunist’ and ‘ a completely sinister person’. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival in Persia in 1598, Sherley’s relationship with Shah Abbas was, states Brotton closer than ‘that of any other Elizabethan Englishman and Muslim ruler’. Extraordinarily, by 1599, Sherley was able to claim ‘the right to represent the shah’s interests in Europe and to act like a Persian Mizra (prince) with the authority to mingle with kings and emperors’. Now he ‘was proposing to broker a grand anti-Ottoman alliance between Persia and Europe’s Catholic rulers’. It is not surprising that he was never able to return to England.

It is surprising that in 1888 a pamphlet written by the Reverend Scott Surtees suggested that Sherley was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Surtees argued that Sherley knew the ‘habits and the ways, the customs, dresses, manners, laws of almost every known nation’ and obsessed that the name Antonio, used in so many plays, came from Sherley’s own forename, Anthony.  Whether or not Sherley was ‘he who wrote these plays’, Brotton, himself, is extremely interested in Shakespeare’s works and has searched through them, like a monkey looking for fleas.

Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri

In his first paragraph, Brotton, writes of Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri as ‘a tall, dark, bearded man’ who in ‘is instantly distinguished from the crowd by his long black robe (thawb), bright white linen turban and the huge richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha, which hangs from his waist’.  The implication, made clear later in the introduction, is that this man was the inspiration for Othello.  Brotton, states that ‘it is possible to discern some of the local raw material on which Shakespeare might have drawn for his portrayal of the noble Moor.’ The Morrocan envoy was in London in 1600-1601, the latter being the year that Shakespeare started writing Othello. But Brotton’s rather pedestrian recounting of the story of Othello in the chapter ‘More than a Moor’, along with his foregrounding of every possible reference to the Orient (such as the word ‘surely’ in Twelfth Night being an obvious pun on the name Sherley) are much less convincing and exciting than his account of Elizabethan deeds of derring-do.

Brotton, J.  This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and  the Islamic World.  2015. London: Allen Lane.

This review was first published in the Irish Examiner on 28th May 2016.




I know that I am not Jarvis Cocker but I am English and I am happy to have just arranged to have an ex-pat postal vote in the forthcoming ‘stay in or go out of Europe’ referendum.  So I am looking forward to plenty of hugs as I walk around the city or the campus.  Do you think I should wear a Union flag in the streets of Cork?  Would that attract more hugs from Europeans?



Here is what one of my favourite columnists, Tim Dowling, wrote in the Guardian:

Citizens of EU countries who live in the UK – more than 2 million people – are bystanders in the EU referendum debate. They can’t vote, and so have no way of influencing what will be for them a crucial decision. Until now.

A collection of pro-remain Europeans has just formed a group called #PleaseDon’tGoUK, and this month they’re launching a campaign called #hugabrit. Their intention, according to founding member Tessa Szyszkowitz, a UK correspondent for an Austrian news magazine, is to “send a love bomb to the British people, because we think the EU is a project worth fighting for”.

It’s hard to imagine Nigel Fa12479534_738009329663366_437979137_n.jpgrage, for example, responding positively to an unsolicited hug from anyone. You might get better results from promising to leave him alone, or hugging him and then offering to stop.

Along with the hashtag, they have a website (pleasedontgouk.com), and a Facebook page. They don’t actually have a budget of any kind, but the campaign is a simple one. If you want to join, all you have to do is take a picture of yourself hugging a Brit, and send it in. It might help if you hug a British celebrity (someone on the website bagged Jarvis Cocker), but it’s not a requirement.

The big unknown, of course, is the extent to which British suspicion of the EU has a symptomatic correlation with the traditional British horror of being touched by strangers.

“We have encountered some difficulties in our attempts to overcome the traditional British reluctance towards physical contact,” says Szyszkowitz, “but we are happy to take up this challenge for a higher cause. In truth, I think the Brits like to get hugged as long as you ask politely.”

There can be no doubting the group means business: Szyszkowitz immediately offered to send someone round to hug me. I had to declare that, as an American citizen, I had no vote to change.

There is much talk among my friends and family about the pros and cons of staying in or leaving Europe and I find myself to be one of the least patriotic and nationalistic members of my set.  My father fought in the Second World War, during which he learnt French and Flemish, and once we were born he took us on annual camping holidays to Holland, Germany, France and Italy to view the art and walk in the mountains (not in Holland, of course, as their mountains are scarce).  We never went to Spain as he had an abiding horror of Franco.

The Telegraph

So I will be voting to stay in the EU as I believe it is the best way to challenge far-right and fascist groups and replace poisonous xenophobia with friendship and commonality.  Don’t forget to give me a hug when you see me.

“abortive, monstrous or unkindly mixed”?

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.


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.


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.