This year, I am returning to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Festival (NIHRF) with VOCALISM. In December 2015, we hosted an event showcasing the cultural diversity of Belfast in an attempt to appreciate the cultural identities at play in Northern Ireland.
In an event titled, "Songs of the People", traditional and folk songs of this island were performed alongside less traditional musical forms. These included hip-hop and rap delivered by an 18 year-old artist of Afro-Caribbean heritage. We also had a performance of Chinese opera and a fusion of Bangladeshi guitar, Indian table drumming and a Derry fiddler. Over the evening, Donegal sean nós singer Doimnic Mac Giolla Bhríde performed songs from his latest album Sona do Cheird.
On Friday 18 November, I sang at the launch of the 2016 NIHRF, which took place in Belfast's Black Box in the Cathedral Quarter. I talked about the "Songs of the People" workshop series and the showcase event that takes place on Human Rights Day - 10 December 2016. It is the final official event of the Festival, and should be a great way to close a week of human rights discussions.
Building on last year's "Songs of the People" theme, the workshop series will facilitate music-making in the community and will focus particularly on songwriting. The goal is to use music as a tool for self-expression and to actively engage and participate in cultural life. The law on 'cultural rights' specifically mentions engagement in cultural activities as important to democratic citizenship. Art and other cultural practices express so much about us and it is imperative that we appreciate it, facilitate it, and celebrate it together.
This year, the workshops are a collaboration between my own VOCALISM and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). Zara Porter will represent the NIHRC as we travel to community organisations in Belfast on 4 December 2016. You can find out more on the NIHRF website by clicking here.
While our culture prides itself on ancient stories and songs, much of the communal oral tradition has been neglected today in favour of an online network that we are continuously co-creating together with a ‘global community’ of internet users.
There is something anachronistic about listening, undistracted and quiet, to a song being performed live in a room. Indeed, a formal concert is becoming quite an old-fashioned way of enjoying music. It is a ritual, protected by tradition and by imagined boundaries and customs. These rules protect the music and preserve the performance space. Performers and venues must adapt to the habits of the audience, but then again, venues and performers can choose to some degree who the attract – using publicity shots and branding to weed out the people who might just spoil the show by talking or filming throughout.
In Ireland, the traditional seisiún amhráin is a pretty out-dated scenario. Maybe it always was. However, to enjoy music and literature with nothing but the human voice is as ancient as communication itself.
It is rare for young people anywhere in Ireland to gather in a technology-free zone, absent of sound systems, televisions, or mobile phones. Therefore, there is one series of non-verbal symbols that connects all of us online: binary code. As we hack a complex combination of 0s and 1s on a daily basis, we might be excused for claiming we have mastered another, new language; one that our ancestors could fathom only as science fiction. For all the complicated mathematical systems humans have conjured, binary code has broadened the horizons of modern technology.
Against this background, anyone who participates in a traditional song session is deciding to participate in something old, absent of binary code. It could perhaps be described as primitive. It is a conscious, or subconscious, act of preservation of an ancient form of art. Maybe it could even be seen as a political act.
While driving to Malahide (where I work at Fingal Academy of Music) today, I came across Heed Fm. I didn’t understand what it was at first. I heard a candid conversation between two people, the apparent interviewee sounded like a young man in his early 20s. It was very raw, unedited, long silences, swear words. This was daytime radio.
I looked it up online: “Heed FM is a twenty-eight-day anonymous sound portrait created through one-to-one and group conversations in Dublin with people aged 18–25 and from all backgrounds.” The project is committed to creating an authentic representational portrait of a generation residing in the Greater Dublin Area. Heed FM worked with over 100 subjects, which it calls “contributors”, from all backgrounds – some are users of social services and organisations in the fields of homelessness, mental health, and addiction.
The project said: “it is important to have an accurate portrayal of how this demographic normally communicates, beyond the limited way it is currently represented through mainstream media”. Minimal editing was employed to record “the most genuine possible representation of the conversations”.
One of the questions that was raised to this young man was about his Irishness. He had moved to work in New Zealand, and he was asked how he felt about being away from Dublin and about his identity as an emigrant. It was interesting that he felt that there was nothing unique about the idea of Irishness. With the majority of media consumed by young people (arguably by anyone under the age of 50) coming from the United States of America, it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that we are more influenced by American culture than by Irish culture. The vast majority of Irish citizens are presented with USA politics much more often than they may read an article about domestic policy drawn up in the Dáil.
Regarding the ridiculous Presidential race taking place in the USA this year, it is a curious time to be an English-speaker. Along with Australians, New Zealanders, Britons and Canadians, Irish people are expected to engage with the democratic process of a foreign country as if it were its own. Is that not strange? Do USA politicians exercise more power of Irish citizens than their own TDs? It is clear that power is a clear and apparent indicator of capital – whether it be political, economic, cultural or social.
Tonight, I attended a workshop in sean nós singing. We sang a song called Éamonn an Chnoic. According to the sources most readily available through Google, the song describes a man called Éamonn Ó Riain (c.1670-c.1724). He was apparently considered to be the ‘Robin Hood’ of east Limerick and west Tipperary. He was sent to France to study in pursuit of the priesthood, but instead he returned and fought for the Williamite forces. Following the confiscation of Irish catholic land in the Act of Settlement 1652 after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, many dispossessed catholic landowners took to the forests and hills of rural Ireland to wage war against the British Crown forces. They were known as “raparees”.
Storytelling – whether through song or otherwise – is a reflection of a community’s shared myths and heritage. Is there anything separating the stories, the myths, the cultures of young Americans compared to young Irish people? Of course there is.
However, the storytelling tradition in Ireland is obscured to a frightening degree by the contemporary media. The cultural appreciation of Irish literature and art is weak compared to American cultural self-appreciation. The USA is a source of wealth. Within a capitalist system, producers/creators of services or products are drawn towards wealth. So it is more economically viable to indulge in American cultural practices. Ireland has hardly any indigenous cultural capital; very little that can translate into money anyway. Ireland’s successful industries today are largely imported. The industries that remain intact and successful to some extent are inevitably exported – especially cultural products. And to where are they exported? Largely to Irish America.
If it is possible to remove the modern concept of capital from our judgment – replacing a 21st century value system with another, more traditional one – maybe it is possible to appreciate the Irish culture at a higher level. Listening to Irish voices through a project such as Heed FM might be a way for us to access ourselves, rather than tuning into foreign accents, speaking about familiar but foreign concerns. It is no surprise that the accents of young Irish people are homogenising. It is no wonder at all.
Tonight, Eithne Ní Chatháin sang Éamonn an Chnoic to a small room of listeners. Yes, there was a transaction (we paid for the class). But was there something else happening? Another transaction? Maybe Eithne’s form of storytelling – an sean nós (the old way) – arguably one of the only ‘indigenous’ art forms still active on this island – just maybe it is preserving something invaluable.
If we could view our own cultural practices in this way, as something timeless, something priceless, then we could develop an appreciation of our heritage that straddles the old and the new. Without this, money talks. And only the valuable remains in a capitalist world. And it looks like that’s where we’re headed.
Written by Michael George Crawford from Warrenpoint. First published by V. G. Havern [Warrenpoint] and printed by Outlook Press [Rathfriland] in “Legendary Stories of The Carlingford Lough District (1913)”
Adapted by Dónal Kearney (2016)
North of the Clonallon Road in Warrenpoint rises the Hill of Jenny Black. It is named after an infamous old witch who dwelt there in the days when the dark arts held sway, when certain women were suspected of being in league with the demon. They were thought to have the evil eye and conjured spells to the injury of humankind. Every accident that happened was the suspected actions of a witch.
To the credit of the people of Ireland, it must be said that they took no part in the cruel torturing and murdering of persons suspected of witchcraft, which disgraces nearly every country in Ireland to this day. There was a statute passed by the British in Ireland against witchcraft. It wasn’t until the Witchcraft Laws were repealed by King George II that the ancient dames breathed freely once more after the long reign of terror and persecution against them. One might ask: where are they all now?
Jenny Black resided at the top of Clonallon Hill and she was held in the greatest terror by those believers in the dark arts.
She was generally seen sitting in her cabin at the wheel, spinning and weaving diabolical spells and charms in the usual manner of witches. Her black cat would blink at the fire in the grate, in the usual manner of black cats. It is said that her cat would talk to Jenny Black in front of visitors, until they fainted or fled with fright.
At this time, the hills of Clonallon were covered with dense woods, believed to be inhabited by evil spirits, devils, hobgoblins. The local folk would give these woods a wide berth after dark. Jenny Black was long noted for playing tricks upon nocturnal wanderers; she appeared in frightful shapes and would swoop down on them to tear or jostle them about the road.
One dark night, two farmers were returning from the town with their horses and carts. When they met the hill, Jenny was just alighting off her broomstick. The horses were not acquainted with Jenny’s particular form of travel – they bolted and galloped wildly back down the steep hill. At the bottom of the hill, the horses collided and sent their owners flying off the carts, headfirst to the ground. The horses, wild with fear, then trampled the men and killed them where they lay.
On another occasion, the witches fair and devils gay were enjoying an evening’s entertainment in the wicked woods of Clonallon when they were disturbed by a farmer of the name O’Hare. Slightly under the influence of the uisce bheatha, and spirited by his indulgences, O’Hare boldly faced Jenny’s assembled guests. He was not in the least bit cowed by their numbers and horrible appearance. Stepping unsteadily forward, he challenged the whole condemned lot to fight him. Looking around and smiling at each other, the beasts fell upon him with teeth and nails, tore at this flesh and beat him over the head with their limbs.
Jenny Black, cleverly manoeuvring the broomstick, swept down from the air like a hawk, lifted him out of the woods and sailed through the skies towards the lough. Halfway to Carlingford, Jenny dropped the unfortunately O’Hare far into the dark waters below, where he sank and remained below the surface. The farmer O’Hare’s sad fate kept local folk from meddling in the devil’s business any more. They spoke of Jenny Black in a more respectful manner after that.
One night, a couple of teenagers went out hunting started a hare on the witch’s hill. Their dogs gave chase to the hare, which ran round the hill, doubling and twisting back on its own tracks. The youths noticed that the dogs were not too anxious to get in close on the seeming hare, and they became suspicious of the animal. They called the dogs off – at that moment, the hare turned into the withered and naked old witch known as Jenny Black.
The dogs yelped with fright and the boys were petrified. The witch then cast a spell on them, led them into a chamber in the hill, which was filled with people older than the witch herself. They lured the young fellows round a cauldron that was swirling wildly. The others were throwing strange herbs into the seething pot, and the boys knew instantly that they were in the presence of witches and wizards.
Jenny Black then forced the boys into a dance, their partners being two of the ugliest witches of the company (which was saying a lot!). For hours they were trapped in that mad whirl. The sweat rolled off them, their heads were light and dizzy with the crazing dancing. They minds swam and their bodies ached, but still they were compelled to jig. They realised that the hags were dancing them to death, revelling in the energy of their souls, dripping them dry through the medium of dance.
When they were near their last gasp, one of the lads remembered he had a small witch-hazel stick in his pocket. Witch-hazel was said to possess the power to resist the spells of witches, if properly used. So he dipped into his pocket as subtly as he could – he made it part of his manic dance – and he touched his partner’s hand with the witch-hazel. With an awful shriek, she disappeared. He quickly danced around the room before the crowd could fathom what was happening and touched the rest of them with. Right enough, they all vanished and the boys escaped. However, their dogs had sadly become the party’s feast.
She often wandered the fields of Warrenpoint as a hare. She milked the poor farmers’ cows before the people were up in the morning – a common deviance of witches. On Hallows Eve, the witch and her evil companions concocted their strongest spells for the year ahead. To thwart her designs, the planters carried lighted candles through Clonallon’s woods, from eleven to midnight (the principal time of their operation). If the lights burned steady and clear, the people would triumph over the witches in the year ahead. However, if the light blew out while they were in the woods, the locals would be subjected to the witch’s power for the ensuing year.
Eventually, the local folk burned Jenny Black at the stake. Since then, the woods of Clonallon were consumed by a purifying fire. Her old home was destroyed and the forested site of her evil deeds were levelled.
To this day, there are some who believe that Jenny Black still haunts her hill in the form of a white hare.
As gentle mists roll out the bay,
Like velvet lies Clonallon grey,
Jenny sang a haunting tune and
set her sights by the spotlight of the moon.
The women of the town,
they owe old Jenny more than they can know.
They men are leading timid lives
For on their antics she does not look light.
Upon the lough, a silhouette
Upon the lough, so cold and wet
And so they talk – “We’ll get her yet!”
And so they talk upon the lough.
Hunted like a witch from Hell
- before she died, she weaved a spell;
Clapped her palms and screamed until
the curse was cast on Jenny Black’s Hill.
To this day, she roams the fields;
An old, white hare – Away she steals!
That name still lingers on our ears
despite the passing of the years.
This piece was written as the final assignment of the Music & Social Action course with coursera.org and Yale University (USA) on 5 April 2016.
On the island of Ireland – both Dublin and Belfast specifically – political conflicts remain regarding the acceptance and tolerance of certain groups (eg. migrants). I see xenophobia and social exclusion as problem both socially and politically in my community.
Artists, as citizens, can make a positive contribution to society by organising and creating spaces where more cultures are shared. There are many people who are not touched or included by mainstream activities. I see a potential role for artists in working with migrants, refugees, Travellers, and/or other groups to facilitate the expression of that community’s identity. If artists choose to work with under-represented groups, they can begin a process of community-making.
The Artist's role
As Dewey and Barnes expressed in their letters, art can be “soul-thrilling” and makes us pay attention for moments of beauty. It draws us into a different space, out of our daily lives. It takes us to a different way of feeling something. Often that feeling happens for no longer than a moment – but people hang onto those moments. This usually comes from an aesthetic experience; as Maxine Greene says in “Releasing the Imaginations”:
Aesthetic experiences require conscious participation in a work, a going out of energy, an ability to notice what is there to be noticed in the play, the poem, the quartet. Knowing ‘about,’ even in the most formal academic manner, is entirely different from constituting a fictive world imaginatively and entering it perceptually, affectively, and cognitively.
Art changes the way we participate in communities around us by expanding our understanding of what forms of participation are possible. It gives us a sense of control over our communities, so that we may imagine what it could be and then organise and mobilise people to make that happen.
So what can the artist achieve by working in the community? Greene writes that experiences with the arts can open us to new ways of seeing things. Our assumptions about the way life can be can fundamentally change. This “imaginative opening” comes as a result of “aware engagements”. Greene believed that “art allows people to write and rewrite their own lived words”.
“Community cannot be produced simply by rational formulation, nor by edict. Like freedom, it has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognise together and appreciate in common. It ought to be a space infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to imagine alternative possibilities for their own becoming and the group’s becoming.”
As a performer, you are given a room, an audience. You are granted value in that context. People will listen to you, however momentarily, and then maybe take an interest in your performance, your ideas or your story. They may at least consider things they might not otherwise have contemplated.
The performer should not be a DISTRACTION to the music. If the performer is a persona – or a commodity – then the person in the audience may be discouraged from really listening – because of what the persona represents. Likewise, art is separated from the mass of people when physically located in a preserve of some kind.
One of the biggest challenges is actually getting people’s attention. So the artist must always be careful when relating to a pre-established community. As Austin Stewart has said, there is a distinction between performing ‘at’ the public instead ‘for’ the public. In the words of Oron Catts, the artist works as a ‘cultural producer’, producing sources of cultural life. Once it’s released into the wild, the artwork has its own life.
Art and Politics
As for this social or political role of the artist, Herbert Marcuse said that: “Art is committed to an emancipation of sensibility, imagination and reason”. Furtwangler famously said that art and politics have nothing to do anything to do with each other. However, Marcuse also said that, the more immediately political the artwork, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical transcendent goals of change. Transformation doesn’t mean a rejection of the world, but instead might demonstrates to a person that the world is plastic, is malleable, is open to change and is open to their presence.
Oron Catts argues that art is more powerful when it is ambiguous. This way, you force the audience to be challenged by the issues rather than by your opinions as the performer. When you become too literal, so that they know what you think, then the audience addresses you as a person, your opinions, and they don’t address the issues.
A suitable model of artistic action might be resistance and critique. Resistance means, rather than reforming or improving (because this is often impossible to gauge without hindsight), we can only resist with good intentions. Resisting something we disagree with, in an active yet peaceful manner, is the very basis of democratic citizenship. You can also be “critical”. Rather than social activist/advocate, a critic is a very important role. Music/art can be a way to “depart” from the things you oppose. Bring people together with you in peaceful opposition.
“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." - James A. Baldwin (Notes on a Native Son, 1955)
Art can provide a space and the freedom to say unpopular things or the freedom to say beautiful things, that perhaps have ‘no point’. Indeed, artists don’t have to sign a dotted line that claims that what they do is real or true. They can claim to be doing one thing and actually accomplish another thing.
Greene discusses how Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech made visible an abstraction (rather than a reality), but also made visible the faces of particular people in the minds of the listener. Artists can provide the imagination to move beyond the actuality/reality, taking us to a point where we feel better equipped to act. An artist’s vision can provide us with evidence, or language, or belief that had not yet existed. With this new resource, we are better positioned to do something. In MLK’s example, Americans in the 1963 could listen to the conviction behind MLK’s words, his utter faith, and believe that this new reality might indeed be possible.
Many believe that, if you’re motivated by social activism, it’s not just your practice – it’s what you do everyday and it’s how you feel about everything. Just like art. Dublin artist Emily Robyn Archer has said: “Philosophically, art should birth an idea of a new world… Individual artworks are tiny increments of that happening… I hope for someone to think about something they’ve never thought about before even though that might not seem like an ambitious target”.
Art gives people a voice
When people feel like they don’t have the knowledge or the speciality to comment on something, to have their opinion heard, it’s important to help them do so – to reach out to venues outside the gallery space, to connect with communities.
“The arts are not for the privileged few, but for the many. Their place is not at the periphery of daily life, but at its centre. They should function not merely as another form of entertainment, but, rather, should contribute significantly to our well-being and happiness – John. D. Rockafeller III.
Jane Jacobs advocated for the enlivening that arts organisations can bring to an area. Cities were successful when they stimulate informal street-level interactions, creating a “feeling for the public identity of people”, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in times of great community need.
We want to encourage citizens to become curious about other people in their city, rather than fearful. We want people to feel more connected. You don’t have to climb out of your community to make it awesome! You don’t have to go somewhere that doesn’t belong to you. You are the creators of your own place. Art isn’t defined by some other community – you can be the drivers of that. Arts exist in every neighbourhood! It’s happening – they just need space and materials. It’s happening in people’s bedrooms, in basements, in alleyways. Initially, Pablo Casals thought that the music scene in Barcelona was not representative of how much talent and creativity was in the city! So he took action!
Ai Weiwei, the infamous Chinese dissident artist, has said: “I think my stance and my way of life is my most important art… I want to prove that the system is not working. You can’t simply say that the system is not working. You have to work through it… As an artist, you see different forms and different ways; to find a new way of communication and reach out.”
A lot of artists have totally isolated themselves emotionally and physically from society. This is where their art comes from and it is interesting and important because it is a reaction to something within that society – it’s perhaps a statement that this particular artist feels like her society is unworthy of respect/tolerance. It gives the audience a new perspective; an outsider's perspective. That is a political and social action in itself, albeit an individualistic one.
"Humanity is the goal"
Art and community are inextricably linked. The art we make is informed by the place where we are, the community we’re in. And vice versa: there is an imprint on public life because of the activity and the process of being an artist in a community. Artistic projects are often a response to some cultural behaviour or trope. In turn, art influences culture because it’s what we see in the streets, it’s what we listen to in our bedrooms, it’s what we read on the bus. Indeed, Bronislaw Huberman said: “The true artist does not create art as an end in itself. He creates it for human beings. Humanity is the goal”.
For Daniel Barenboim of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra said: “Within the communion of the orchestra, people can open themselves to each other.” Instead of making an overt political statement with the music, Barenboim said that the music-making process creates a setting in which people can engage directly and peacefully with the issues: the orchestra “is, of course, unable to bring about peace. It can, however, create the conditions for understanding, without which it’s impossible even to speak of peace. It has the potential to awaken the curiosity of each individual to listen to the narrative of the other and to inspire the courage necessary to hear what one would prefer to block out.”
Of the orchestra, Edward Said commented: “strange though it may seem, it is culture generally, and music in particular, that provide an alternative model to identity conflict… Ignorance is not a strategy for sustainable survival… The art of playing music is the art of simultaneously playing and listening, one enhancing the other... This dialogical quality inherent in music was our main reason for founding the orchestra… Separation between people is not a solution for any of the problems that divide us, and ignorance of the other certainly provides no help whatsoever.”
Jazz pianist and composer, Vijay Iyer talks about performance as an opportunity to be present with others: “Everyone becomes an equal participant in that respect. It therefore opens a possibility for community.” When we gather, we have an opportunity to think about who’s there, who isn’t, and why. And what dynamics are in the room that link us. And also what separates us.
It is this sentiment (reiterated by so many of the specialists in this course) that I think is important for me as an artist – as a performer and as a community music education professional. To paraphrase Iyer, performance is a service. It’s about community and collaboration, about connecting with each other in a human sense and sharing a common experience. The artist cannot impact on people’s behaviour – the artist can only influence the minds of those people who engage with the artwork.
The revolutionary values of creativity
Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire said that a “humanist, revolutionary educator… must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power”. In Freire’s problem-posing teaching format, the teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and reconsiders her earlier considerations as the students express their own… [P]eople develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.”
Therefore, the teacher is not presenting something finished; there is always something to discover by the learners, together.
So, by entering a classroom, not expecting students to acquiesce, the teacher has to respect what the student might bring to the teacher, and realise that the students’ thoughts/reactions may be much more valuable to them in their everyday life than what the teacher is trying to impart. The knowledge of the teacher is not more important than the student’s experience. Where a teacher demonstrates excitement and passion, energy and enthusiasm, this might be the most valuable lesson in music education.
As well as these values, a starting point for any artist hoping to combat social exclusion through community arts practice might be the idea of TOLERANCE. Freire said that “being tolerant is not being naïve. There is an ethical, political duty to be tolerant. But it does not demand me to lose my personality.” Tolerating difference in society, in democratic governance is highly important to art.
Art provides for creative spaces in which we can experience something different/new in a safe space. Music has a temporal, performative quality. To experience it, people have to be captive at the same time. This is where a lot of the power lies.
A bit of context...
Historian Fearghal McGarry has written that many of the rebels in 1916 fought not for a republic, but for the cause of Irish freedom. When talking about 1916, I therefore find it integral to first identify the meaning of Irish freedom. I think it's a useful exercise to look at how the art of the revolution influenced this definition, for better or for worse. Looking at some of the famous poems and songs associated with the 1916 Easter Rising, I'll present some of the interpretations of Irish republicanism. But it's up to the reader to draw her/his own conclusions. Moreover, the text of the 1916 Proclamation is revolutionary in itself and merits discussion - and more importantly, analysis - in Ireland today.
Presumably, the dream of Irish freedom relied on a version of self-governance whereby the Irish were governed of the Irish, by the Irish, for the Irish (to paraphrase US President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of 19 November 1863). But who exactly were “the Irish”? Which citizens would this new definition of “the Irish” comprise? Whose interests would be served?
At the Sinn Féin conference of 1917, Éamon de Valera apparently justified the adoption of a commitment to the Republic as “a monument to the brave dead”, according to McGarry. So was de Valera’s Republic the very same republic that the brave dead died for? This is unlikely. These deaths – the martyrs – were appropriated by de Valera and by a new political elite upon the foundation of the brand-new Irish state in 1922. Patrick Pearse’s “blood sacrifice” was a strong rallying call in the years leading to the War of Independence. Subsequently, of course, this same sentiment was invoked by thousands of Irish citizens as justification for decades of conflict in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998.
As is well-known, support for militant Irish republicanism in 1916 was not widespread.
Interestingly, republicanism had been regarded as out-of-fashion: “every sizeable town possessed a tiny sprinkling of diehard separatists… they were respected as idealists, living in a world and an age to which they did not belong” [Bureau of Military History witness statement 1770 (Kevin O’Shiel)]. Further, “a republic did not appeal to the masses, as they considered its attainment impossible… Outside the IRB, there were few republicans… we were mere propagandists and we realised it.” [Bureau of Military History witness statement 99 (Patrick McCartan)].
Indeed, McGarry posits that “cultural nationalism, Catholicism and militarism were more influential than republican ideology”. In 2016, we should ask whether any of these elements is a strong enough banner under which to unite as a democratic state. Cultural nationalism, as defined by a 19th century Gaelic Revivalist will be very different to the conception of Irishness of a pro-EU student living in the technological, internet hub that is Dublin today. Many young Irish citizens might very well identify with US culture more than with traditional modes of Irish life. This is not a facetious point and shouldn’t be dismissed in any discussion of Irish folk culture.
According to Michael Wheatley, the prevailing discourse of the Irish nationalism during the second decade of the 20th century was one of “Catholicity, sense of victimhood, glorification of struggle, identification of enemies, and antipathy to England.” McGarry argues that “the patriarchal, clericalist and conservative state that emerged from Ireland’s revolution was perhaps less a betrayal of the Proclamation than a consequence of the fact that its ideals were never deeply rooted within the nationalist movement that won independence.” Its legacy, however, is indistinguishable from independent Irish statehood. This can be seen in the momentous heritage of the MacBridge/Gonn family.
John MacBride (married to the infamous Maud Gonne) was executed by British soldiers in Kilmainham jail on 5 May 1916 for his part in the Easter Rising as second-in-command at the Jacob’s biscuit factory. His son, Seán MacBride, became an international advocate for human rights throughout the 20th century in a remarkable and fascinating career. He acted as Chief of Staff of the IRA (1936), but was called to the Irish Bar a year later and soon resigned from the IRA. He went on to chair the Amnesty International Executive from 1961-75 and chaired the Special Committee of International NGOs on Human Rights (Geneva) from 1968-74. In 1974, MacBride won the Nobel Peace Prize, won the Lenin Peace Prize in 1976 and was awarded the UNESCO Silver Medal for Service in 1980. I recommend Elizabeth Keane's fantastic biography of Seán MacBridge if you're even slightly interested in this towering figure of foundational Irish statehood.
This single life brings many of the contradictions of the modern Irish nation to bear. As Halbwachs has said: “Commemoration, after all, is shaped by how those in the present choose to remember their history rather than the atavistic passions of the past.”
Speaking Truth to Power
Back to 2016 and we could legitimately argue that the idealism in the Proclamation remains unfulfilled. This leads us back to our definition of Irish freedom. US agitator Saul Alinsky believed that freedom is synonymous with participation in power. He believed that democracy must attempt to facilitate the actions of as many citizens as possible within the realm of governance. Here's an interesting point on the consequences of marginalisation:
...the powerless will remain powerless, and therefore exploited, discriminated against, marginalized, and otherwise taken advantage of, as long as they remain isolated and divided. They don’t get involved because their past experience proves the adage: "You can’t fight city hall.” And their socialization in a mass, consumer, media-driven society tells them that they need some hero, advocate, charismatic leader to speak for them. [Miller, 2010].
This participation in power comes from community organisation. Alinsky himself argued that so-called "middle-class hygiene" had made terms like ‘conflict’ and ‘controversy’ dirty words. However, in a healthy democracy, it is broadly supported that conflict, dialogue and debate are tolerable and should be promoted to sustain political and cultural exchange between communities.
The democratic promise of equity, inclusion, and accountability requires an organized citizenry with the power to articulate and assert its interests effectively. [Marshall, 2014]
Song & Poetry of the Rising
The influence of art on society can be seen if we use the 1916 Rising as an example, given largely to the fact that the volunteers were perceived to be ‘poets and idealists’. This seems to have been an extra weapon in the fight against British imperialism - certainly in hindsight! It's valuable to witness the greater Irish public’s appropriation of literature and music in the century since the Rising. It has become a form of participation in Irish society; so-called Irish rebel songs became an uncompromising show of national identity on both sides of the border. The poetry and songs surrounding Easter 1916 have influenced Irish republicanism over the past 100 years.
The tragic world is a world of action and action is the translation of thought into reality. We see men and women confidently attempting it. They strike into the existing order of things in pursuance of their ideas. But what they achieve is not what they intended; it is terribly unlike it. [Bradley, 1904]
A.C. Bradley's quotation refers to Shakespeare but it could be applied to any process of tragic martyrdom. As Fearghal McGarry says, “the Rising became burdened by the weight of its own myth.” By analysing some of the lore connected to the Rising, we can see how the fighter’s sacrifice was considered in retrospect to be something almost inevitable, almost divine. The use of poetry to explain and define what happened during the Rising lifts it above mere reportage and manages to create something aesthetically beautiful. To this dead, the importance of poetry and song to Irish republicanism cannot be understated.
“‘mid the leaden rain, seven tongues of flame did shine o’er the lines of steel [guns]…
Their names we’d keep where the Fenians sleep, ‘neath the shroud of the Foggy Dew”
“In prison ground they’ve laid him, far from his native land /
Now the wild waves sing his Requiem on lonely Banna Strand”
" The night was dark, and the fight was ended,
The moon shone down O’Connell Street,
I stood alone, where brave men perished
Those men have gone, their God to meet.”
The imagery of these songs conjures pictures deliberately timeless. References to the natural world alongside catholic sentiment tailors it particularly to a 20th century Irish establishment audience, so accustomed to natural references in ancient and traditional (particularly Irish language) texts.
‘Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming
on strong manly forms and on eyes with hope gleaming,
I see them again, sure, through all my day deaming,
Glory o’, glory o’, to the bold Fenian men!
Apparently, the old woman in Kearney's song is a representation of Ireland who longs for renewed efforts in the search for Irish self-governance. It is basically a call to arms. The melody of Down by the Glenside is particularly strong, and I have to admit it is probably my favourite of the melodies associated with 1916. Peadar Kearney was well aware that a strong message coupled with a strong melody could stand the test of time, even where some in the audience might oppose the its message.
Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too
On this May morn as I walk out, my thoughts will be of you.
And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.
The poignancy of this story, relating to the execution of Joseph Plunkett on 4 May 1916, is more powerful than any historical statistic fact about the revolution. The emotional narrative – a universal bond of love and the tragedy of an ill-fated marriage – is so cleverly devised in its lyrical form that it's sure to last for years.
“out of the depths of misery,
we march with hearts aflame,
with wrath against the ruler’s false,
who wreck our manhood’s name”
This masculine, military language seems typical of its time. Ideas of flawless manhood and courage might pall with some of us a century on. Connolly’s own daughter recalled on national television in 1966 how he had told his wife not to cry at his hospital bed for fear that she would “unman” him before his imminent execution. This sentiment can be seen also in Pearse’s poem, “The Mother”, which excuses what his family went through by usurping his own mother’s voice: “I do not grudge them, Lord... My sons were faithful, and they fought.”
This culture of stoicism surrounding the 1916 Rising is perhaps one of the things that may jar with today’s citizens. 20th century film and photography has surely dispelled the romantic mythology of war and conflict, where bravery is rewarded neatly with martyrdom. To forbid family members from grieving publicly at the imminent loss of a loved one might seem, for families in 2016, more of a restraint on their freedom than something worth celebrating. Sean O'Casey devastatingly portrayed this facet of the female experience of the Rising in "The Plough and the Stars", when Nora Clitheroe is treated with disdain for her public reaction to her husband's part in the conflict.
In the military psyche, this may well be a usual tactic in order to reduce the appearance of weakness. Of course, this stoicism can’t but resonate in our recollections of the 1981 IRA hunger strike, when some pleading mothers were coerced into silence in the cause of Irish freedom.
We must also consult the Proclamation itself to understand with more clarity the mythology of the Rising:
The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.
This last line is a reference to Wolfe Tone’s third submission in 1791 prior to the foundation of the Society of United Irishmen, seeking to attain political rights for catholics and “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen”. Of course, this followed hot on the heels of Thomas Paine’s revolutionary publication The Rights of Man (1791). In it, Paine defended the motto of the French revolution: Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Indeed, we see too in the 1916 Poblacht na hÉireann echoes of the US Declaration of Independence of 1776: “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.
Any commemoration/remembering of the poetry, songs and ideas of 1916 cannot be limited to reverence. These words ought to be challenged according to our present values. The words are there to be contested, to be debated, so that the ideas behind them may be strengthened through practice and experience; not just to criticise or to ridicule. These words can also guide us back on course towards the ideals of a democratic republic. Otherwise, these words remain static, mere relics of a moment in time.
As citizens today, we can (and should) write our own words, imagine our own world. This way, we can help the rights-based liberal philosophy of the 18th century to evolve so that a contemporary citizenry may exist in an equal and peaceful society. It seems appropriate here to quote the current Head of State, President Michael D Higgins, who made these remarks the day before this blog was published:
"All of us are invited, then, in this year of 2016, to reach for the ideals and hopes that animated so many of the men and women of 1916 in their struggle for freedom, equality and social justice.
Fearghal McGarry, “1916 and Irish Republicanism: between Myth and History" in John Horne and Edward Madigan (eds) Towards Commmemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution, 1912-23 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2013)
Michael Wheatley, Nationalism and the Irish Party: provincial Ireland 1910-1916 (Oxford, 2005), p. 266
Maurice Halbwachs, “On collective memory” (Chicago, 1992)
Miller, Mike (2010), "Alinsky for the Left: The Politics of Community Organizing. Dissent. Winter, 57, 1, Research Library, p. 45. Read the full article.
Ganz, Marshall (2004). "Organizing." In George R. Goethals, Georgia J. Sorenson, and James MacGregor Burns, eds. Encyclopedia of Leadership. Vol. 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
A.C. Bradley, Shakespearian tragedy  (New York, 1968, p. 28-29
Keane, Elizabeth (2006). An Irish Statesman and Revolutionary: The Nationalist and Internationalist Politics of Seán MacBride. Tauris