Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Sum of All Fears

“ … the only thing we have to fear is fear itself …”
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address (1933)
 "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."
H. L. Menken, The Divine Afflatus (1917)

Let me begin here with an admission: When I look at our world today, at the end of 2015, I am afraid.

I am not afraid of terrorists, Islamic or otherwise. They want me to be afraid – that’s what terrorists do, attempt to incite terror. I know that there is an infinitesimal chance that I, or someone close to me, may become their victim; we may be in the busy centre of a large European city, or on an aeroplane – just a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could also be driving along the motorway/highway/autobahn when some confused or crazy fool comes shooting onto it through the exit ramp. Or I could just be struck by lightning. But I repeat, I am not afraid of terrorists; I refuse to grant them this power over me. They are attacking the values of the open society in which I live. The vulnerability we have towards their attacks – despite all the reasonable security measures in place – is the inevitable price we pay for the values of openness and tolerance which are at the foundation of any society which truly claims to be civilized.

I am not afraid of migrants, be they refugees fleeing from war or persecution, or so-called “economic” migrants, those prepared to uproot themselves, abandon their homes, families and friends, give up everything they know in order to seek a better future for themselves and their children. I realise that their arrival will challenge the country, culture and society in which I live. But I believe that this challenge can be fruitful, creative and positive if we face up to it with courage, honesty, openness, and generosity. I accept that the arrival of larger groups of migrants will change the culture in which I live; that there will be an inevitable interaction and mingling between my (Western European) culture and the different life-experiences and traditions that these migrants bring with them. But cultures are and have always been dynamic and fluid realities, constantly shifting, and frothing, and mixing, and growing. My grandfather wouldn’t have known what to do with a pizza, or a vanilla latté, my grandmother would have been scandalised by Madonna and Lady Gaga, or the use of the word “fuck” on prime-time TV.

I am not afraid of Islam. I don’t much like it, but then a general attitude of scepticism and suspicion regarding all religions has been growing continuously in me in the past decades. There are aspects of Islam, particularly the ambivalence regarding violence towards non-believers in many places in the Quran, which I find disturbing. (On the other hand, there are passages of the Old Testament which aren’t particularly edifying in this sense either.) I find the cultural misogyny of most Islamic determined traditions deeply distasteful. But I am also aware that the Christian and other religious traditions have anything but a pristine history when it comes to their treatment of women – and that not all of these historic attitudes have been left behind. I believe that secularism and the freedom to believe and practice religion (in so far as this practice does not restrict the freedom of others) are some more of those basic values I mentioned earlier, those foundational values of civilized society. As long as its practitioners accept these basic values, any religion, no matter how idiotic it may seem, can be practiced in a free society. Ultimately, I believe, the basic values of the secular, open, and free society will prevail over backward-looking, exclusivist, chauvinist and fundamentalist versions of every religion, though it may take generations. And that includes Islam.

 As long, of course, as we hold fast to those values, born in the Enlightenment and matured – with much struggle and suffering – primarily in Europe and North America – in the 19th and 20th Centuries; openness, tolerance, secularism, participation, democracy, civil rights, the rule of law and an independent judiciary, freedom of thought and expression, a critical press, the social securing of the basics necessary for life.

But as I look around the world at the end of 2015, these are the values which I see increasingly under threat. And not only that, they are being challenged and scraped away bit by bit in their original heartlands; Europe and North America.

It is this of which I am afraid. I take Roosevelt’s observation seriously. For what I perceive increasingly in the past year is a growth of uncertainty and fear in our society. I am becoming more afraid of fear itself; more specifically of the exploitation of that fear and the consequences of that exploitation.

Living in the centre of Europe I don’t have to look far to see it. There’s Putin in Russia and Erdogan in Turkey. Closer to home, to the east there are Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński and his PiS party in Poland. Looking west, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France and UKIP in Great Britain. And all the other populist right-wing demagogues in many other European countries. In this context – despite the perennial tendency of US Americans to perceive their culture as exceptional – Donald Trump is also just another confirmation of a widespread trend in the developed democracies. Here in Germany, where Angela Merkel has taken a courageous stand on the question of migrants (and if you’d told me a year ago that I would find myself praising the German chancellor I’d have replied with an expletive!) and where the country has provided a safe haven for a million people this year, Pegida and the Alternative für Deutschland have been gaining in popularity.

Despite all their particularist agendas, all of these various obnoxious figures are pretty much carbon copies of each other. All feed off and exploit the same fear that is widely present in our societies. This fear has many sources, but basically it is rooted in the apprehension many (particularly those who are less educated) feel when faced with a world in which change is all prevailing, in which the shape of the future appears to be less certain and more threatening. The demagogues all put forward the same kind of analyses and strategies; retrenchment, stigmatization and persecution of those who are obviously other, building walls and fences, narrow nationalist pride, appeals to cultural (and often religious) chauvinism.

They are all offering (to paraphrase Menken) simple and easy solutions for complex problems. These solutions are not only wrong, they are dangerous. For, playing to and exploiting the inchoate fears widely present in our societies, they deny the enlightenment values which are the fundament of our societies, appealing instead to emotional irrationalities. To anyone with any sense of the sorry history of the 20th Century it should be obvious where this leads. Make no mistake, my friends, even if these people are democratically elected, even if they keep the forms of democracy in the countries they control, regularly having themselves re-elected, they are proponents of an evil the world has already seen too much of. Putin, Trump, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczyński, Farage, Erdogan and all the others are proponents of what might best be described as fascism lite. And they are quite prepared to use many of the techniques perfected by their predecessors. To give but one example, all of them are prepared to publicly trumpet untruths and continue to do so, even when these statements have been repeatedly rationally proved to be untrue. Both Hitler and Goebbels described this strategy as “the big lie.”

So, faced with this resurgence of irrational, dangerous, fascist demagoguery, what can we do? How should we, in our ordinary little lives, react to this exploitation of fear which will, if it continues to grow, destroy the fundamental values of the societies in which we live?
 "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," is a quotation usually attributed to Edmund Burke, though in this form it goes back to Tolstoy. No matter, it gives us a strategy for responding to these attempts (far more dangerous than anything ISIS can do) to destroy the character of our societies. We must respond immediately to the facile, dangerous lies put about by these fear mongers wherever we encounter them; from friends, family members, work colleagues, acquaintances; at home, at work, in the bus, in the pub, on Facebook. Many of us are just too polite, or too apprehensive of conflict, or just too lazy (I know that all these reasons frequently apply to me) to engage here, to get involved. But, I am becoming increasingly convinced, the failure to contradict the nasty simplistic views, grown in fear and cultivated in ignorance by neo-fascist ideologues, only leads to their growth and spread. If they are not countered, they will lead us into a new Dark Age.

Images retrieved from: 


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Sad, Mad World we Live in

Do you know the feeling, that feeling of anger and disgust at the amount of fucked-up stupidity, evil and hopelessness in the world?

Today a couple of (almost certainly) Islamicist fanatic terrorists attacked the offices of the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people. There is video coverage online of two gunmen shooting a policeman down in the street and then finishing the execution with a headshot, even as the man on the ground raises a hand, possibly in a last plea for mercy. It’s horrific in its brutality so I’m not going to post a link to the video itself here. The photo shows enough.

Charlie Hebdo is not a particularly pleasant newspaper; but that’s not what its makers want it to be. It is relentlessly satirical, regards nothing as sacred, and is prepared to lampoon anyone and anything in the news, be they pope, prophet or president, moron, mullah, or messiah. That’s their job as they see it. And it’s their right in a free, pluralistic, secular society. If you don’t like what they publish you don’t have to buy it or read it. If you feel personally damaged by something they publish you can sue them. That’s the way a civilized society works, particularly a civil society which sees freedom of expression and the press as a basic value.

One result of this barbaric event will certainly be calls from the populist (partly proto-fascist) right in France (led, no doubt, by Marine Le Pen and the Front National) and worldwide for clampdowns on Islam, and Islamic foreigners, and foreigners generally; migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. The usual cacophony of ignorance, fear- and hate-mongering. Indeed, this may have been one of the perverted, calculated aims of the mad, evil bastards who planned and carried out the attack.

Here in Germany in the past number of weeks we’ve been treated to the dubious spectacle of thousands of ignoramuses marching every Monday night in the streets of Dresden under the banner of a strange organisation calling itself PEGIDA [Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West]. According to the Saxon Interior Ministry in 2010 0.1% (around 4,000) of the population of Saxony (of which Dresden is the capital) describe themselves as Muslims [Source: Spiegel Online]. Biiiiig threat. Last Monday night, as a sign of some hope for sanity in my adopted home-country, thousands of people marched in Cologne, just a few miles down the road from me, in favour of tolerance and an open society. Cologne has 120,000 Muslims out of a population of around a million. For those who can’t do the math, that’s 12%. Around a hundred times higher than in Saxony.  

Personally, I’m not a great fan of Islam. But then, I’m not a great fan of evangelical Protestantism, traditionalist Catholicism, neo-liberal free-market capitalism, or Justin Biber either. This nevertheless doesn’t mean that I would ever contemplate or tolerate any calls for or moves to forbid people their right to believe whatever they want to and to freely profess and express those beliefs, however idiotic I may consider them to be. This freedom is one of the constituting principles of a humane civil society. It goes further; even people who profess beliefs abhorrent to these constituting principles – like, I am forced to conclude, quite a number of those marching in Dresden – have a guaranteed right to do so, as long as they don’t resort to violence, or incitement to violence, against others. That’s what a humane civil society has to be able to tolerate and, I have no doubt, any healthy civil society is well able to withstand the irritation caused by such misguided fools.

Of course, that does imply that those of us (the vast majority, I like to think) who value these basic principles of humane civility sometimes have to speak out for them and defend them.

A journalist friend just told me the story of an initial interview she did this afternoon. It was with a young man who’s been in Germany for four years now. He was born in one of those war-torn countries we frequently hear of in the news but his family fled terror and conflict when he was a child, finishing up in Iran. He spent seventeen years there and managed to obtain a degree in computer-programming before realising that, as a stateless person with no official identity-papers, he had no future in the mullah-dominated Islamic Republic. His mother sold the last of her jewels to provide the necessary money and he (alone of his family) made a long, dangerous, illegal journey, culminating in a frightening boat-trip across the Aegean from Turkey to Greece before finally ending up here in Germany four years ago.

In Germany he has the status of a tolerated (but not recognised) asylum seeker. He still has no legal papers, so that his “official” status, such as it is, can be described as stateless. Inquiries at the embassy of his native country have resulted in no practical prospects of ever getting a passport. He is given enough to live on – barely – in Germany. He is not allowed to work, although he has good training in a field where his skills are demanded everywhere. His freedom of movement here in the country is extremely uncertain, since he has no official papers. Without them he cannot open a bank account or make a contract for telephone and internet access with a telecommunications provider. He spends his life in fear of police controls, of suddenly being thrown out of the country. He has little hope for the future and has been suffering – increasingly – from depression.

No wonder.

This is one of those people the fools in Dresden seem to be protesting about. This is one of those people who will be regarded with increased suspicion and even hatred as a result of the brutality of the terrorists in Paris today.

This is someone who only wants to live an ordinary life, someone with the skills and potential to offer a positive contribution to any society which would welcome him.

The way our world is so screwed up, it doesn’t look like he’ll be welcomed anywhere.

That humane civil society I was defending earlier in this essay still has a long way to go.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Ukraine: Conflicting Narratives

“Narrative” has become one of those buzz-words or buzz-concepts which one cannot avoid nowadays. At its most basic, it simply means “story”; in the more precise cultural context in which it is generally used, it is a story told or shared within a group as an instrument to define a common reality, or at least perception of reality (whether in fact there is any difference between these two is a more complex philosophical question I have no intention of going into here). The following is an attempt to analyse the current situation in and around the Ukraine with the help of this concept.

The Conventional Wisdom Narrative

This is the one that that is prevalent in the West – in the US and (maybe somewhat less stridently) Europe. The Ukraine is a democratic post-Soviet country where the majority of the population wants more distance from an aggressive, powerful neighbour, which used to be its imperial master, and therefore wants to orientate itself more towards the West. In this, the Ukrainians are simply following the course already taken by other former parts of the Soviet Empire in the past twenty five years. All the former Warsaw pact countries, as well as the three Baltic republics, are now members of both the EU and NATO. They have been able to take advantage of the freedom they (re)gained following the collapse of the USSR at the beginning of the nineties to reposition themselves as part of the “free” world, developing and deepening their democratic, economic, political and social structures to integrate themselves into the new European model which has brought such prosperity, stability, and democratic standards to those countries which have embraced it since WWII.

All the majority of Ukrainians want is to follow the same course. But Russia won’t let them. It has been consistently trying to destabilise (with varying degrees of success and failure) every attempt the Ukraine has made in the past twenty years to position itself in the western camp. Putin sees the Ukraine as an essential part of the Russian sphere of influence and is not prepared to accept, under any circumstances, a reorientation of the Ukraine towards the Western block.

During the chaos following the fall of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government at the beginning of this year, Putin judged the situation favourable for more direct action and, basically, annexed the Crimea. Though the West condemned this, there seems to have been a fair deal of international understanding for this move. The majority in the Crimea is pro-Russian, Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian. The Crimea is of major strategic importance for Russia – particularly with regard to naval emplacement in the Black Sea – and there had been special status agreements regarding Russian military interests there ever since Ukrainian independence.

Encouraged by the Crimean experience (which, he judges, he had basically got away with), Putin has now decided to repeat this process for the whole of the Eastern Ukraine, where there is much stronger (possibly even majority) support among the population for a pro-Russian course. As a result, he has been covertly – and increasingly overtly – supporting separatists in this area, who have declared the independence of the region from the Ukraine. This support has included weapons and weapons-systems, (almost certainly) military advisors, and (probably) troops. This is the kind of stuff that’s difficult to control tightly. On July 17 a group of separatists almost certainly used a military-grade anti-aircraft system to shoot down a Malaysia Airline jet, killing 298 innocent people, probably because they thought it was a Ukrainian Air Force fighter. Put bluntly, they fucked up, probably because they weren’t sufficiently trained, weren’t patched into the intelligence air-traffic control systems which would have told them that the plane they were aiming at was a civilian one, and/or were possibly even drunk.

This put Putin in the position of the sorcerer’s apprentice; he never wanted this. Damage control swung into place, the Buk anti-aircraft battery used to shoot down the plane was swiftly disappeared back into Russia, jubilant posts on the web were quickly deleted (though not quickly enough), and a whole plethora of smoke-screening diplomatic, media, and PR-spin measures have been put into place.

Following the conventional wisdom narrative, my take on Putin’s tactics is this: The Crimea is essential to Russian interests, he wanted it, he got it, and he’s going to keep it. I also feel that the West (and even the Ukraine) has generally been prepared to accept this. As far as the Eastern Ukraine is concerned, my suspicion is that, while he might like to have it, he’s not set on it. Keeping some low-level conflict going there, stirring the pot, keeping the general chaos level up, is probably sufficient for him. It keeps the whole Ukraine unstable, blocks any real movement to cement the country into the Western alliance and means the levels of tension with the West won’t rise above a controllable volume. The US and EU will scream and complain and will do some little PR-spin economic sanctions (which will hurt Russia a bit, but they’re worth it from his point of view). The situation remains fluid, so he still has some freedom to act and react, depending on the way the situation develops. The downing of Flight MH17 disturbs this strategy, it ups the ante for him to a level which is uncomfortable. So I would expect the Russian position in the wake of this murderous disaster in the next weeks and months to be a mixture of obfuscation, half-assed cooperation, talking things up, playing things down, introducing red herrings and pink elephants; generally muddying the waters and judiciously stirring the shit until things simmer down.

Of course, all of this is set within the Conventional Wisdom Narrative. It’s even all true. But it’s only one narrative.

The Russian Counter-Narrative

There was a Cold War and Russia (in its Soviet iteration) lost. The whole of the Eastern European buffer-zone (aka Warsaw pact) and the Baltic Republics, which the Soviet Union occupied to protect the Rodina [the “Motherland”, a Russian expression of identity, almost mystical in its cultural and nationalist meaning], are now all firmly part of the Western sphere of influence. Russia has historically suffered on an almost unimaginable scale as a result of aggressive invasion from the West. Tens of millions of Russians have been killed and huge destruction has been wrought on them, from Napoleon to Hitler. The basic Western attitude to Russia historically has been to regard them as sub-human, Asiatic barbarians, who don’t really belong in what Gorbachev (in his boundless naïveté) called the “Common European House”.

The West simply cannot be trusted. Its leaders speak in fulsome tones about values such as freedom, democracy, and self-determination and then aggressively proceed, under cover of these phrases, to follow their deeper instinct to keep Russia weak, perhaps even destroy it completely.

In the negotiations about German reunification, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West made solemn promises to the Soviets.  "The Americans promised that Nato wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted." (Michael Gorbachev, 2008).

But the losses following the end of the Cold War go far deeper. Not only were the strategically necessary Soviet conquests in Eastern Europe gone, the losses were even greater. From Peter the Great onwards, Russia had followed a consistent path to push Christian civilization and values eastwards, in the Caucasus, Central Asia and further. Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Siberia were all conquered, settled and civilized by the Tsarist Empire. What the United States had seen and realised as Manifest Destiny to the west, Russia had done eastwards. Only (unlike the US), this had never been accepted by the rest of the residents of the Common European House. Russia was not seen as expanding European values eastwards, rather as building up a dangerous barbarian Asian-infested imperium to threaten the real Europe from the East. All these 18th and 19th Century Russian conquests, with the exception of Siberia, are now lost. The scale of the secession of all these former Soviet Republics from Russian hegemony has only one modern historical parallel; the attempted secession of the Confederate States of America from the Union in 1861 (and we all know what that led to).

And that’s not all. The original heartland of Russia is not just Moscow-based Russia, but rather, from the very beginning, a kind of federation of three closely-related proto-nations; Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine. The origin of later Muscovy and subsequent Russia, is, historically, Kievan Rus’ (9th Century). In an exercise of (from the Russian point of view) desperate damage limitation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus could ultimately be stabilised under the firmly pro-Russian dictatorship of Lukashenko (1994). Despite continuous Russian attempts, a similar stabilisation of the Ukraine within the Russian orbit has not been possible.

From a Russian point of view, the role of the West in all this has been deeply suspect. At best, the West has been cheering on all the centrifugal tendencies within the former Soviet/Russian Unity from the side-lines. There is a widespread – indeed almost general – perception among Russians that the West has actually been actively encouraging and fomenting every possible movement towards fragmentation, when and wherever they occur. This is not simply paranoia; the involvement of a plethora of Western groups (with clear pro-Western agendas) within the former Soviet hegemony, and particularly the Ukraine, is generally accepted and well documented. To this has to be added the enthusiastic involvement of all sorts of Western business (and state-supported) interests in the massive garage-sale/robbery of practically all the national resources of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the chaos of the Yeltsin years, which led to a transformation from a state-owned to an oligarchy-owned economy in less than a decade, the consequences of which Russia is still attempting to deal with – or just live with.

This is the background to the Putin era and is essential to any understanding of where Russians are today. It explains a lot about how Putin understands himself and the goals he sets for the country he rules. It explains why Russians tend to perceive anything coming from the West (apart from consumer goods which you can buy and own) with the deepest suspicion and cynicism. It also explains Putin’s enduring popularity with the great majority of Russians. Faced with a collective psyche deeply traumatised by what his people experience as defeat, humiliation, and betrayal by the West, he’s giving them back their dignity; a sense of strength. And worth. Balm for a badly wounded soul.

Is it then any surprise that ordinary Russians are willing to believe the spin/propaganda put out by the overwhelmingly state-controlled media in their country since the current Ukrainian crisis gathered momentum? That they accept the official line that the present regime in Kiev is fascist? That dark, abstruse conspiracy theories about sinister US-agency involvement in the downing of flight MH17 are given widespread credence?

Such narratives of cultural identification are immensely powerful. For those who identify with them they supply a coherent world-view, they provide a conceptual framework which allows both  individuals and groups to define themselves and relate to the chaotic, complex wider world in which they find themselves. We all have our narratives, for the simplest and most fundamental of all is the individual personal biography, merging into family narratives, the stories which express the experiences of particular communities, moving into all sorts of larger-scale instruments of group identity such as religions and nations. They bind stories of the past, value systems and questions of the present, shared vocabularies, dialects and languages, common ways of seeing the world and interpreting individual and shared experiences to provide those contextual structures of meaning which we all need at a basic level to define our very identity.

 Narratives are also wonderfully and necessarily flexible. They are not monolithic. We all identify with and buy into multiple narratives, which – and this is centrally important – need not be consistent with each other. So, to give just one example, there are many people who manage to combine a particular fundamentalist Christian world-view with a scientific one, so that they can simultaneously work, say, as molecular biologists while denying evolution.
This particular example also offers a good illustration of how important and powerful narratives can seem to be completely resistant to what others, who do not subscribe to them, regard as self-evident “facts”. No matter how much “evidence” you bring, you will not be able to bring a creationist, whose world-view is based on a particular religious narrative which is a central element in that person’s self-identification, to abandon his position in favour of an understanding of the world based on evolutionary processes going back for billions of years. And such considerations also help to explain just how difficult it would be to persuade the majority of Russians that their perception of the “realities” of the current Ukrainian conflict, and particularly the destruction of MH17, is “wrong”.

The Realpolitik Narrative

This is the starting point and context for those who regard themselves as illusionless realists. They are adherents of a narrative encapsulated by such expressions as, “Politics is the art of the possible” (Bismarck), “France has no friends, only interests” (de Gaulle, paraphrasing Lord Palmerston on England), or “Those who have visions should go to the doctor” (Helmut Schmidt). It tells the story of a world where the ultimate reality is a social-Darwinist one, going all the way back to Thucydides’ famous description of the Athenian position in the History of the Peloponnesian War, “the strong do as they can and the weak suffer as they must”.

Certainly this narrative is one of those which inspires Vladimir Putin. Following its premises, the most likely future scenario looks much better for the Russian position than the Ukrainian one. For all the platitudes being spouted in the EU about the primacy of international law, its members will do nothing serious to change the current status quo, one in which Russia has grabbed the Crimea and may even possibly go on to occupy additional territory in the Eastern Ukraine, or at least control it by proxy through a Russian-supported separatist regime.

There are already some indications of this. Despite economic sanctions being talked-up at the moment, France is still going ahead with the delivery of Mistral amphibious assault ships to the Russian navy. But the real test of principles against interests will develop in the coming months, particularly if Russia maintains its current aggressive position. At the moment, the EU imports around a third of its natural gas and oil from Russia. Germany’s dependence is even greater (36% of natural gas and 39% of oil). Expanding sanctions to cover this area – something that would genuinely hurt Russia – would mean the EU would have to put its money where its mouth is. Higher prices at filling stations would certainly be one result. Literally hundreds of millions of EU citizens heat their homes and power their workplaces with natural gas, a significant amount of which is imported directly by pipelines from Russia. (Just to make the situation even more complicated, the most important pipeline runs through the Ukraine.) Would anyone like to bet what would happen to Angela Merkel’s currently high popularity ratings in Germany if home heating prices rise sharply this winter or (worst-case scenario) the situation so deteriorates that no gas flows from Russia, the winter is particularly long and cold, the gas reserves are used up, and rationing has to be introduced? And this doesn’t even address the question of what consequences real economic sanctions on Russia (and Russia’s reactions to these) would have on a world economy still in a state of precarious, fragile recovery from the disaster of the Crash of 2008.

Are the leaders of the western democracies, compelled as they are to win elections at regular intervals, prepared to gamble their popularity and positions for the sake of principles? How important are the international rights of a former Soviet republic to the citizens of the West, compared with their economic well-being and comforts? How long will the shock and indignation at the killing of a few hundred plane passengers last before our short attention spans are diverted to the next crisis or scandal, driven as we are by a continuous, ubiquitous media frenzy for the next new big story?

The Realpolitik narrative teaches that interests always trump principles, that bread and circuses are always more important to the masses, and that public opinion is always infinitely malleable. The reality of the world is that it spins, and the only thing you really have to do is to make sure that your spin works.

And, anyway, nearly all the real power in the world belongs to a tiny elite of the super-rich who use their wealth to consolidate, maintain and increase their position and privileges. This is also part of the defining reality of human existence; it has always, basically, been this way and there are no good reasons to assume that it will ever substantially be different. Revolutions and upheavals may sporadically occur, but such wobbles in the basic spin of the world correct themselves relatively quickly and everything reverts to business-as-usual.

Awareness of multiple narratives

The narratives I have outlined here are not the only ones relevant to the current crisis in and about the Ukraine; I have not, for example, delineated the Ukrainian Narrative, a central one for any complete understanding of the situation there. There is also a Polish Narrative which has some significance.  I have especially avoided the Moral Narrative (which is related to but not identical with the International Law Narrative) since the complexity of that particular story would at least double the length of an essay which already threatens to be too long.

The important point is that in every complex human situation, particularly where differences and conflicts are involved, there are multiple narratives and that these narratives can be (and usually are) simultaneously contradictory and true. A realisation of this is essential for any attempt at conflict resolution. It also moves the work of conflict resolution beyond the search for simple compromise on the level of a lowest common denominator towards a search for some kind of metanarrative which can encompass the most important elements of all the narratives involved.

Writing this as I do in the summer of 2014, my thoughts inevitably turn back a hundred years, to the summer of 1914. Anyone reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a magnificent account of the beginning of World War I, cannot fail to be struck by the parallels between the aftermath of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, and the aftermath of the downing of Flight MH17. Very few people, particularly those who were responsible for making the crucial decisions, really wanted war in 1914. They all thought that they could manage a situation of brinkmanship. That the world stumbled into a cataclysmic conflict was in no small part due to the inability of the major responsible actors to realise the strength of all the other narratives which were not their own.

It is a lesson we would do well to remember.

Images retrieved from:!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_620/image.jpg


Monday, 27 January 2014

Complexity Meditation

I was in an aeroplane, more than seven miles up, when I started thinking about the complexity of things.

For people who do meditation, one of the major goals is to achieve simplicity, that sensation when all is one, when the constant ephemera of daily experience disappear into ragged wisps of illusion, where there is only the reality of breathing in and breathing out, holding on and letting go until you transcend the duality, moving beyond thought and feeling into monad unity … Ommmm.

I have never been very good at this.

There’s a hamster in my head; a driven, energetic little bastard who gallops away on his exercise wheel all the time. I’ve spent much of my life (futilely) trying to stop him, or at least slow him down. Most of the times I try meditation – and it doesn’t make much difference what technique I use – I generally manage to get through the initial phases quite easily, into that area of inner stillness and relaxation and then, in the growing silence, I start to hear that bloody hamster more clearly.

Most of those who teach meditation counsel not to worry about this. “Don’t fight it,” they say. “Let the thoughts come … and go. They will arise and then fade away, leaving growing peace, emptiness and goalless fulfilment in their path.” Om mani padme hum.

They don’t know my fucking hamster.

He’s a persistent little bugger, and he enjoys the space provided by the initial phases of the meditation process. One his nastiest little tricks is to take the role of the observer of my progress, analysing it, commenting on it, making the process of voluntary not-thinking into an interesting, obsessive, conscious subject of thought – and thus neatly derailing the whole process.

He’s given me quite a bit of grief in my life. For many years I found I could slow him down, or even put him to sleep altogether, by using (ever increasing) amounts of alcohol.

Not a good idea. Dealing with the consequences of that took a lot of time and effort. Generally, I believe that using psychoactive substances to try to modify aspects of your personality isn’t good for you in the long term, because you’re only putting temporary “No Entry” signs on major areas of yourself, which only function as long as you’re actively taking the substance. (Disclaimer: This observation should be no way seen as applicable for prescribed and monitored medication for mental health issues such as serious mood disorders or potentially psychotic personality problems.) And, as my experience with alcohol painfully taught me, such strategies often have serious – and lasting – downsides.
So, I have learned to accept, I have to live with my hamster and develop other strategies for dealing with him.

Choose your battles, they say. Don’t get into a fight unless you’re pretty sure you can win it. Sometimes, instead of trying to wrestle my manic hamster into silence, or to ignore the constant rattling of him whirling away on his wheel in the corner of my mind’s living room, I take a different tack. I consciously open the door of his cage, inviting him to come into the room and really stretch himself. Reach for the ceiling, I tell him. Be welcome. Show me what you can do. (And, very quietly, whispering to myself so that he can’t hear the furtively hoped intention; Knock yourself out.)

And so, in a kind of anti-meditation, instead of relaxing and emptying my mind, I relax and consciously allow it to fill up.

Which brings me back to the aeroplane.

I’m in an Aer Lingus Airbus A320-200, more than seven miles up in the air, travelling at about 500 mph. Along with around 150 other people, I’m securely enclosed in a warm and comfortable environment, which is just as well; a few feet away, outside the aircraft, the lack of oxygen in the thin air would be competing with the very low pressure and a temperature of -60° C to kill me within a matter of minutes, long before I’d hit the ground at the end of my fall.

I start to think about the number of people involved in the process which has me here. There were the thousands of people involved in building this plane, which was manufactured either in Hamburg or Toulouse (or even quite possibly both – since Airbus has a very complex assembly process, the result of intricate political horse-trading). The CFM engines were almost certainly built in France, though many of the components were made by GE in the USA; thousands more people involved in building, selling and transporting the hundreds of thousands of individual components incorporated in the actual aircraft in which I am now flying.

But, my expanding thoughts about complex human connectivity realise, this is only part of the picture. What about all the people involved in making the ancillary fittings; the companies which did the final fitting for the airline, for example? It’s quite possible that some of the stitching on the faux-leather/plastic seat cover on which I am sitting was done by some Chinese woman, working a sewing-machine on a twelve hour shift in a sweatshop factory for three euros a day. The list of those involved in making my journey possible expands again to include all these people, and all those who were part of the myriad operations of packing, transporting, unpacking and installing stuff from many corners of the globe.

And then there’s the crew, and all the people working in the two airports getting this plane into the air and back down again safely. The ground-staff and the baggage handlers, those who did the security checks and signed off on the passenger, cargo and fuel manifests. The air-traffic controllers who are guiding our flight safely through the night. The people working on pumping the crude oil out of the deposits where it has lain under the ground or the sea for millions of years before those complex hydrocarbon molecules began their final journey to be refined into kerosene now being burned to provide energy for the jet engines pushing us through the skies above Germany, Holland, the North Sea, Britain, and the Irish Sea, all the way from Düsseldorf to Dublin. Was the man who oversaw the pumping of that original crude a well-paid shift worker on a North Sea oil-rig, or a much more poorly-paid Filipino migrant worker, sending remittances home to his family from Saudi or Kuwait? All the people involved in refining that kerosene and finally transporting it to be pumped into the plane’s fuel tanks.

Still more human connectivity; As I order a chicken and lettuce wrap to eat, my thoughts turn to all of those involved in producing this, from those working in a food-processing plant somewhere to put it all together to the farmers who raised the chicken (probably somewhere in a battery) to the ones who grew the lettuce and the other ones who grew the wheat baked into the wrap. And who were the people who mined the salt which was used to season it, and where did they live and work? And how many people were involved in buying and selling and transporting and assembling all the ingredients of the snack I’m eating?

Ephemeral, momentary, fragmentary connections with literally hundreds of thousands of people who have all been involved in some way in making this journey I am on possible, but connections which are none the less real for all that. Our modern lives are perfused with incredibly complex interconnectivity; in thousands of everyday situations, which overlap and fuse into each other, we live lives of wonderfully complicated interdependence.

Without noticing, my racing thoughts become weaker, quieter, fall away. I find myself becoming quieter, more peaceful, more relaxed.

The hamster has lain down in the corner and fallen asleep.

Om mani padme hum.

Fee fi fo fum.

Dum di dum.

Ho hum.


Om …

Images retrieved from:

Friday, 17 January 2014

Walking Slowly

I have started to practice walking slowly.

As a little boy, around fifty years ago now, I decided that there was something virtuous about walking quickly. I suspect that this is a common phenomenon among little boys who go walking with their fathers; fathers have longer legs and just cover the distance faster. And therefore, because little boys look up to their fathers and want to be just like them, they decide that it must be good to walk quickly.

At any rate that’s the way it happened with me. Walking was primarily a way from getting from A to B, and it was obviously advantageous to do so as quickly as possible.

As an adult, many years later, I discovered another use for walking; exercise. In a society in which we have become increasingly conscious of things like cardiovascular performance, body-fat ratio, the potential health dangers of obesity, overeating, and a too sedentary life-style, keeping physically fit has taken on many of the characteristics of a religious proscription. To admit, as I do, that I find every kind of sport (personally practiced – being a spectator is something quite different) supremely boring is comparable in many circles to someone confessing in medieval Spain that they were a Jewish atheist with an interest in witchcraft.

Walking then was something I saw as a possibility to combine the necessary with the useful. If I did have to walk somewhere, then the thing was to do it as quickly as possible; get the old circulation working, push the heart-rate up, get the muscles flexing and bunching, burn up some of those endless extra calories which would otherwise (in a lipid form) congeal around the waist-line or (more dangerously) within the artery walls.

Necessary. Useful. But never really pleasurable. The idea of “going for a walk,” something millions of people unselfconsciously accept as a normal form of recreation has never really appealed to me. I have always tended to see the time needed to get from A to B as a period to be practically and rationally managed in order to reduce it to the minimum possible. Which meant that if I was going to walk anywhere I planned the time necessary on the basis of a brisk – a very brisk – walk.

Last April I moved house. It was a project which was quite significant for me, in all sorts of ways, most of which I won’t go into here – not now anyway. But one aspect of my move was that my new flat was much more central than my old one. And as the summer bloomed and I finally started to feel settled in, I made a resolution; with butcher, baker, supermarket and pharmacy all just a few hundred yards away, and my place of work only a fifteen minute walk distant, I would consciously strive to walk when I could – thus ensuring a minimum of exercise and even massaging my liberal light-green conscience about the size of my carbon footprint.

Life was good, and the future was bright, bright. Only by the end of August I was forced to the realisation that I had slowly, unknowingly been slipping ever deeper into a condition which I knew all too well. Knew intimately and still not recognised in its insidious approach, even as it dug its talons deep into my soul.

I have written about depression on this blog before, a number of times, and I don’t want to go into too many details about it; it happened, it was bad, I’m slowly coming out of it again. The frightening thing about this episode was that there was no real reason for it – everything was okay, I had the feeling that I was in control of my life in a way which I hadn’t been for years. In retrospect I was able to identify certain factors which had possibly (probably?) triggered it, but I have had to face up to the unpleasant likelihood that this is a condition to which I am simply prone. I have to accept that it may happen again, and that there is little I can do to prepare for it, except practise a certain kind of relaxed watchfulness so that I am not quite as blindsided as I was this time.

Indeed, in writing this it strikes me that the roots of this last episode may be even farther in the past than I have realised up to now. It is well over a year since one of my creative wellsprings started to dry up – by this I mean my inclination to write. My essays here became more seldom, and harder to write. If I had had to explain it last April or May, I would have simply said that it was due to the increased busy-ness and heightened stress involved in moving house, a few months later, when I finally accepted that I was at the bottom of a very deep pit, the idea of writing was simply unthinkable. If this is really the case, then the fact that you are reading this is a sign that I am well on my way back to the light (though I’ll make no promises about how long it will take for me to post the next essay!).

But even at the worst of the depression in September I still walked. On the occasions when I had to leave the flat, something I found hard to do, I marched forth, desperately striding to an appointment or to the supermarket to buy groceries.

And then one day, returning from a session with my therapist (seven and a half minutes brisk walk away), I realised something. There was no reason to hurry. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. It didn’t matter a fucking toss whether my walk home took a few minutes longer. It was a beautiful autumn afternoon and the more my pace slowed, the more I found myself appreciating it. In a seeming inversion of the logic to which I had chained myself, the more leisurely I walked, the more time seemed available to me. And the more time there was available, the more my racing thoughts slowed, my mind moving into a freer, more relaxed space, a space which it had so desperately longed for and needed.

It was not a miraculous, spontaneous healing, that would be a drastic exaggeration. It was, rather, an intuition, an inkling, a brief glimpse of a reality different to the negative, worried, obsessively and futilely circling inner world in which I was captured and held.

Like most such inklings, this one was quickly gone. I completed my short journey home (walking slowly) and then forgot the experience. But the next time I was returning from a therapy appointment I remembered it once more, and once more I slowed down. I remember consciously deciding to generally walk more slowly when I was returning home from therapy.

Initially, my thinking was still typically purpose driven. I found myself formulating the explanation that I was giving myself this extra time afforded by walking more slowly to reflect on what had happened during the hour of psychoanalysis, what insights I had achieved, how the whole process was progressing. An opportunity to increase the value of the session, to retrospectively continue to mine the depths just plumbed. For I am, indeed, a typical child of my time and culture, formed by and embedded in a world obsessed with development, with efficiency, with optimizing, doing things better, and faster, and more comprehensively, and (usually presented as the most important of all) more economically.

"Sometimes I sits and thinks; and then again I just sits."
Only, I found myself gradually realising, it wasn’t true. The therapy session may have been very productive, I may have found myself suddenly exploring a whole new area of my psyche, or achieving a wonderful new insight about the way I tick, but I wasn’t using the more “relaxed” state of consciousness I was achieving by slowing down on the way home to reflect on and deepen the therapeutic experience I had just gone through. Instead, I was using it to do … nothing. Oh, I might start thinking about something, but, I realised, my thoughts usually petered out, spreading out and thinning before vanishing into emptiness like the fractal silhouettes of the leafless winter trees I found my wandering gaze idly and momentarily focussing on before moving on.

I have started to expand the experiment. I no longer just walk slowly when I’m coming home from therapy; I now try to do it whenever I’m walking somewhere without a definite time that I have to be at my destination. Which means, for example, that I continue to walk briskly to work but when I walk home from work I do it slowly.

I usually work the night shift, which means that my journey home takes place around 7.30 in the morning. It’s an interesting time to be on the move if you have the leisure to do it slowly in a relaxed way. There’s a grammar school on my street, and a primary school at the end of it (and German schools generally begin their day at around 8.00 a.m.) so there are lots of kids underway, the small ones lugging bags on their backs nearly as heavy as themselves, most of the older ones in groups practising and living the all-important and ever-demanding teenage attitude of cool. A splash of headlights, brake-lights and rushed activity in front of the schools as hordes of parents fulfil that basic, most essential parental duty, being a taxi-driver for their offspring, the cars backing up behind halting school-buses. Adults on their way to work, moving determinedly, their faces generally closed and concentrated. At this time of year it’s dark when I begin my way; by the time I get home the sky has lightened and the day has come. And I’ve found myself noticing and rejoicing in the fact that, as the planet precesses on its cosmic path deeper into 2014, the dawn begins a few minutes earlier from day to day.

It still doesn’t come naturally to me; this strange exercise of walking slowly. The habits and attitudes of a lifetime are deep, and I often catch myself unnecessarily striding forward and have to remind myself to slow down. But maybe, for me, walking slowly is something like playing the piano or learning to drive a car; something I have to practice quite a bit before it starts to come easily or naturally.

It’s a mild January afternoon as I finish writing this – the sun breaks out frequently from behind a scattered cloud cover.

I think I’ll go for a walk.

There were lots of musical options for this topic; Dionne Warwick, "Walk on by," Fats Domino, "I'm walking," Katrina and the Waves, "Walking on sunshine," etc. In the end, it had to be Lou ...

Images sourced from: This quotation is most often - incorrectly - attributed to the baseball player Satchel Paige. Some say its author was the great philosopher, Winnie the Pooh (sadly it isn't, though it suits Pooh). In fact, the first use of it seems to have been in this Punch cartoon, over a hundred years ago.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Back Home to Sligo

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
(L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

I had occasion recently to visit a part of my past, a period immensely important and formative for me, a place which was, for seven years, both focus and circumference of my whole world, the centrality of which was so self-evident to me that I could not then imagine that it would ever be otherwise in my life.

I was seventeen years old when I left Sligo. The leaving was a wrench, soul-tearing, ambiguous; on the one hand I was taking a self-chosen step into a different world, a new life, for I had decided to join the Dominican Order, on the other hand I was leaving nearly everything and everyone I knew behind me. The parting was all the more radical, for at the same time, my father was transferred and our whole family moved to the other end of the country. Although I was to return there frequently in the years that followed, the basic bond was broken; the continuous connection formed by the unity of family and place was gone. It meant that the inevitable decay of most youthful friendships was greatly accelerated in my case, for home had been sundered and the most basic part of it had moved elsewhere.

It hurt, that sundering. I remember feeling very aggrieved, with the unthinking, naïve selfishness of youth, that my parents had moved away from Sligo while at the same time being perfectly self-righteous about my own move into a new life, which also took me to other places. But I recovered. After all, in the following years, I still went back there, even if not as frequently or for as long as I might have wished, and I still retained my basic feeling of identity with and love for the place. Given my peripatetic history, the simple question “Where are you from?” has always been a little problematic for me, but Sligo still remains one of the default answers.

After I was ordained a Catholic priest, therefore, in 1985, it was completely clear to me that Sligo would be one of the places where I would celebrate a formal “First Mass.” And if someone had told me that day that it would be twenty eight years before I would return, I would have laughed in disbelief.

But that is what happened. In the following year, primed by the potent fuse of love, my life exploded into scintillating chunks and shards of new directions, possibilities, preoccupations and priorities. I found myself in a different country, living a very different life, with a wife and baby daughter, and practical decisions concerning job and career to be made and carried through. While I continued to visit Ireland throughout the following nearly three decades, limitations of time and practical considerations somehow never made the journey to the north-west of the country possible.

Another in my family had made a very different choice; my sister, Máire, had found her way back to Sligo and has lived in the coastal village of Strandhill, six miles from the main town, for many years now. So when she invited the whole family to join her in celebrating her fiftieth birthday this month I finally found myself on my way back to the town of my youth, on a journey into the world of my own memories and the contrast between their local background and the reality of the present.

Ireland has changed enormously since the mid-1980s. The country I left was still, for the most part, traditional and conservative. It was poor, in recession, unable to provide attractive prospects for many of my generation, who were leaving to find decent, interesting jobs and adventure in a world of much wider horizons. But then the Celtic Tiger came, nurtured in its infancy by a massive transfer of structural funds from Europe. It grew up, roared mightily for around ten years before becoming so bloated on a diet of hubris, fantasy and speculative funny games with international capital that it crawled into a corner and died – of a strange combination of economic gluttony and malnutrition.

The traces of all this were clear to be seen on my journey, from the new motorway leading out of Dublin to the empty property developments in towns like Carrick-on-Shannon along the way. Even the approach to Sligo was completely different to that of my memories; the towns of Collooney and Ballysadare bypassed, a new road to the town itself, leading to a new bridge across the Garavogue river.

The following morning, Saturday, I spent a couple of hours walking around town. It was very strange. The basic geographical skeleton remained as I remembered it but much of the flesh on the bones had changed; new buildings, new shops and businesses in old buildings. Deeper, stranger changes too; children of African and Asian backgrounds speaking with the distinctive Sligo accent, a Polish butcher’s shop – signs of the internationalisation of Ireland through immigrants, drawn by the boom of the Tiger years, something unimaginable in the mono-cultural world of my youth in the seventies when Ireland was a country which exported rather than imported people. In the past five years the export has begun once more.

I knew, of course, that things would not be as I remembered them; I had no expectations that the place would spontaneously open its arms to me, recognising and welcoming the long lost son. It was curiosity which led my steps, a desire to see just what had changed. But as my feet led me along the streets I had walked so often as a teenager, I found myself becoming more detached. The time elapsed was just too great, the changes – perhaps, most of all, the changes in myself – too profound. Though I had already intellectually known that there is no such thing as time travel, that the past is irrevocably gone, it was something more to really practically experience it in this fashion. “Something’s lost and something’s gained,” Joni Mitchell sings, “in living every day.” Over ten thousand days had past since I last set foot in Sligo, so much lost and so much gained in all that time that it had, I thought, become impossible to regain any sort of deep contemporary contact.

And so my urge to walk further waned. There was a Sligo which was real for me, that town which had been the stage for my life during those oh so intense years of the ending of childhood and the unbearably exciting and frightening growth into increasing adulthood, but it had little to do with the town in which I now found myself. Looking at my watch, I realised that I still had an hour before the next bus would leave for Strandhill where I was saying. Finding myself at the junction of Wine Street and Quay Street, I noticed that Lyons’ Café was still there and decided to spend the time I had to wait with a cappuccino.

Climbing the stairs to the hundred and fifty year old café, I discovered that here at least much remained as I remembered it. Oh, the menu is more extensive, sophisticated and cosmopolitan but someone has been careful to preserve the basic character of the place and the small tables and wooden chairs are still the same as they were in the seventies when this was one of the favourite haunts of the teenagers of the town. There weren’t all that many places where the boys from Summerhill College and the girls from the two nuns’ schools could meet on common ground and do all those things which are so important for teenagers; preening, flirting, talking, teasing, laughing, showing off, making dates and plans … just hanging out and wasting time. Lyons’ was one of the few establishments back then which tolerated us, though we were all experts in making a Coke or a coffee last for a whole afternoon, far more interested in each other than in giving custom to the café. Today the coffee was good and the place, I was glad to see, was doing a brisk business.

As I drank a second cappuccino, I tried to understand what I was doing; what I had expected of my perambulation and what exactly I had experienced. Perhaps some part of me had been hoping for the kind of epiphany described by Proust in his famous madeleine episode in À la recherche du temps perdu, where a particular taste throws his protagonist completely into a memory of the past. If so, it didn’t happen for me; sitting there in the café, many recollections of my youthful years did come to mind, but still far away and detached from me, the teenagers of the mid-seventies populating the room around me like barely perceived, transparent ghosts. Reality, I thought, was more like L.P. Hartley described it, the past is a foreign country.

And then, that evening at my sister’s party, I had an encounter which changed everything. One of the guests was someone I had known back in the time, the memories of which I had been attempting to recall with my walkabout through town. She was another member of that clique to which I had belonged as a teenager – to be honest, I’d had quite a crush on her when I was sixteen, but had been too uncertain and insecure to ever mention it to her then, or to attempt to move it beyond the confused desires of my youthful wishes into the realm of practical action. Now we were meeting again after more than thirty five years of life and all that it had done with us during that time. I had gone away and never returned; she had left for a number of years but had come back, and married another of my friends from that time. Our children are now older than we were back then.

And as we talked, I suddenly I realised that I had somehow come to the place I had been looking for that morning. Having exchanged the broad outlines of our stories of the long interim, we started reminiscing together about that faraway world of our youth. I discovered myself (and so, in a real sense, rediscovered my earlier self) asking about people I hadn’t thought of for decades and she (who had remained in – or, rather, returned to – Sligo) knew a lot of the answers. We found ourselves sharing memories of things that we had done together, of events commonly experienced. The past, which had seemed so irretrievably far away to me just a few hours earlier, was suddenly just around the last corner we had turned, the years between not negated but somehow bridged. It occurred to me later that I’d had this kind of experience on a number of occasions over the past decade or so, a period where I have had the great good fortune to reconnect with quite a few friends with whom I had lost contact. It’s what happens when you meet old friends and discover that you can, amazingly, just pick up where you left off.

And I realised a truth – at least something that is true for me. While place is important (and one would suffer from some kind of serious deficiency not to cherish the beauty of Sligo, magnificently set as it is on an Atlantic bay to the west, framed by the mountains of Benbulben to the north and Knocknarea to the south), in the end it is people and not place which are more central to a feeling of belonging, of home. And though in memory we organise things by assigning them a location, this is only background, the setting of the stage of life on which we perform the stories of our lives in interaction with others. In my case, I would wager (and I suspect that my mistake is not uncommon) that I had tended to confuse the importance of people in my life, and the stories we created together, with the place in which these stories took place. Setting is of course important – context is everything, as Derrida once remarked – but people, not place, are the most significant component of context.

It is a realisation with which I, for one, am quite content.

"Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

Pictures retrieved from:!0/2ocqn930ubywvi8z0wl9dhefnm6z926$eb12sbh0qz22rny8m0x0tay0mjelewi

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Family Histories 1: The Cowboy

It was a fine Sunday morning in early summer 1865. James Hunt opened the door of his new home and looked south over the road and the downward sloping land towards the lake. He gave a sigh of contentment and muttered a brief prayer of thanks in Irish to the mother of God.

It had been a long, hard journey to this point of his life, but he could now allow himself a feeling of achievement that he had finally managed to be standing here this morning, on his own land in the townland of Smutternagh, on the shores of Lough Key, in the county Roscommon. Though the term “his own land” was a relative one; the land belonged to the King-Harmon family as did all the land in Smutternagh and thousands of acres more all around Boyle. Indeed, as far as his own family memories extended back, through the hard years scratching a living from a barely usable Curlew mountain allotment, back to the fabled days of comfort on good land in the townland of Eastersnow on the Plains of Boyle up to their catastrophic eviction in the 1830s, the landlords had always been the King family – whose place in the Anglo-Irish stratosphere had been achieved with the noble title of Lorton.

As his gaze moved across the green wooded islands on the lake, over to Rockingham House, the residence of the King-Harmons, he reflected that beyond lay the Plains of Boyle – and Eastersnow. He had been born there, but was only a little boy when Lord Lorton had decided that the holdings there were too small for modern progressive farming. He had evicted the smallholders, including James’ father and his family, to restructure his lands there into bigger tenancies, suitable for large-scale cattle farming. The growing cities of industrial England had an insatiable appetite for beef, and prosperous cattle-tending tenants could pay better and more certain rents.

His father, Thomas, had never really got over it. On his deathbed, he urged his sons to do everything possible to regain the family holding there. It was their birthright, he always claimed, taken from them by the heartlessness of English landlords. The tribulations of the Hunt family mirrored the tribulations of all the Gael, dispossessed and persecuted in their own country by a foreign invader.

Lord Lorton doubtlessly would have seen it differently. Had he not accepted responsibility for the evicted tenants and given them an alternative, land reclaimed from the mountain in the townland of Cornameelta? Thomas Hunt could only laugh bitterly – an exchange of land valued at 18 shillings an acre for land valued at 3 shillings an acre! Land where you could barely grow a few potatoes, good for nothing else except a few scrawny sheep and cattle, who could hardly find enough grazing there to put meat on their bones.

A blessing in disguise perhaps; scratching a living from the side of the mountain in Cornameelta, relying on scrawny sheep and cattle, may have helped the Hunts avoid the fate of millions of Irish who had been living on tiny tenancies and relying completely on potatoes for their sustenance. When the blight came, three years running in the 1840s, the whole family survived where a million others died.

James looked over the fields which were now his and considered the strange connection his family had with them. For, though his tenancy was new, he had memories of this farm from his childhood; after they had been evicted from their holding in Eastersnow, the family had spent a brief period here, sharing the land with a family called Brady. But the Bradys had sucked up to the land agent and had been awarded tenure while the Hunts had to move on.

You couldn’t trust the Bradys, his father had always said. During the Famine years, a Brady had led a group of desperate hungry thieves from Smutternagh to steal a bullock from the Hunts, drive it back here and slaughter it for food. It couldn’t be proved, of course, but the Bradys knew that the Hunts had a way with cattle and that it would be relatively easy to rob a Hunt animal from the sprawling common mountainside at Cornameelta.

Well, the Bradys were gone now, along with the Monaghans who had lived in the other half of the house at the door of which he was standing. One of the Monaghans, who had given up their tenancy earlier in favour of shopkeeping in Sligo, had told him that Brady had lost his taste for farming and wanted to emigrate. James had visited him, here in this house, and had agreed to pay the passage for the Brady family from Sligo to Scotland thus vacating the farm.

Just one expense among many involved in securing this new future for himself and the family he would found. Between the passage for the Bradys, the backhander paid to Lord Lorton’s land agent, the first year’s rent, the cost of the stock which would be the basic business of the farm, and even furniture (for the Bradys had left nothing in the house but one fire-iron), he reckoned the whole venture would finish up costing him ₤100, everything he had managed to scratch together over the previous fifteen years.

For, as a young man, in the years immediately after the Great Hunger, James had decided to try to earn his living by putting the one skill he had to practical use, his knowledge of cattle. Not that he had much choice. His brother Thomas would take over the paltry tenancy on the Cornameelta mountain; James was left with the option of either emigrating or trying to survive somehow in the collective trauma which was post-famine Ireland. He’d started to trade in cattle, travelling all over the north Connacht counties, Roscommon and Sligo, Leitrim and Mayo, buying store cattle from individual farmers or at small fairs and driving them to the port of Sligo, or Derry, or even occasionally all the way to Dublin, to sell them at a profit for export to the industrial cities of Britain.

Drovers they were called in Ireland, those men who earned a living buying and selling cattle. They were the original cowboys, though the Irish version didn’t ride horses. They walked, painstakingly gathering their herds and driving them along the narrow winding roads towards the larger fairs, sleeping in barns, or under hedges, walking behind the cattle, whacking them occasionally on the withers with sally rods to keep them under control and moving in the right direction.

In following this profession, James was living and acting in a way which went back thousands of years in Irish history. At the end of the 12th Century, Giraldus Cambrensis distainfully described the native Gaels’ reliance on cattle in his Topographica Hibernica, and the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the great Irish epic, comparable with the Ramayana or the Illiad, is, in essence, the story of a cattle raid. The story of the attack by the men of Connacht on Ulster to steal Cooley’s bull, the single-handed defence of Ulster by the young hero, Cuchullain, and all the other tales and destinies decribed in the saga, begins with Queen Maeve’s jealousy of the fine bull owned by her husband and her determination to obtain a finer one for herself. The Táin is traditionally dated as taking place in the first century A.D. Maeve’s capital was at Cruachan (today’s Rathcroghan) and is less than 20 km as the crow flies from Eastersnow. If there is an historical core event at the basis of the Táin, then it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a distant ancestor of James Hunt was a member of the raiding party which set out at the behest of their warrior queen to salvage her pride and honour by stealing a bull owned by a prosperous farmer in Ulster. Eighteen hundred years later, my great-grandfather spent around fifteen years of his life doing much the same thing, though unlike his ancestor (and the Bradys), he paid for the cattle which came into his possession.

His father’s dream had been a return to Eastersnow. Given the fact that the small tenancies there had been consolidated into much larger farms, James realised that he could not achieve this; but Smutternagh was an acceptable compromise and he was content.

As he stood there, surveying his new domain, a man came up the road and greeted him. In the way of the customary easy hospitality then common, James invited him into his new home to share his breakfast of boiled potatoes and a salted herring. The stranger accepted and the two ate together. When the meal was over the visitor remarked, “I must be a very humble man to sit down to breakfast with a new tenant and I married to Lord Lorton’s daughter.”

While most tenants had little or no contact with the Anglo-Irish ascendancy living in the big houses, there was of course one major exception; those who took positions in service. Lord Lorton had something of a reputation for an appetite for pretty young servant girls, so the visitor’s comment may well have been more than just an empty boast. If I had not decided to limit this account, as far as possible, to facts which were diligently researched by James’ grandson, my late Uncle Séamus, I might be moved to speculate as to the identity of the visitor, since he was certainly one of the neighbours. I might begin to wonder about the fact that the son of Odie McLoughlin (whose farm was a couple of hundred yards up the road from the Hunt place), Pat, who was born around 1860, was shown special favour by the landlord and was assisted by him to build the first two-story house in the townland. But as Pat McLoughlin was my other paternal great-grandfather, I am not going to continue my thoughts in this direction, which is, after all, nothing more than pure speculation …

Returning to verifiable facts, James Hunt ultimately had ten children, of whom six were girls. The five oldest girls all emigrated to the USA while in their late teens. None of them ever took a position in service to the King-Harmon family at Rockingham House on the other side of the lake.

Nearly a hundred and fifty years later, James’ small tenancy of twenty one statute acres now forms the nucleus of a much larger unit, farmed by my cousin, who has built himself a fine new house beside the one James Hunt moved into. That small Irish cottage still stands, though it is no longer inhabited. And while the population of Smutternagh has been decreasing for nearly a hundred years now, there are still descendants of James Hunt there. And will be, hopefully, for a long time to come.

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