The carpet is a lush deep kind of green – not too deep a green though. We didn’t order it but I’m not complaining – I like it. Much better than that yellow one we had for a while a few months back.
Next to it is another kind of carpet – very different. The same green background but covered in big blobs of yellow, brown, orange and mixtures of all three. Even some reds. The blobs are large and small, some shaped like the spades suit in a deck of cards, others like a cat’s iris, some with many points, like a star … Didn’t order that carpet either but I like it too. It might not sound that great but you’d have to see it.
There was the wallpaper too, great stretches already unrolled, ready to look at. A blue-white background with puffs of white and, in the foreground, thin black shapes, some of them decorated with those blobs of colours, like those on that carpet. Great contrast with the thin black shapes.
The carpets and wallpaper were just delivered – no order was placed by phone or email. And no request for payment by cash or credit card. Not even an invoice. Totally free! Hard to believe, I know.
Then there was the perfume. No, not in bottles, in the air. I swear! (Yes, I know that rhymes but I didn’t plan it). It was heady but not in the way that rose is, or honeysuckle, or privet flower. Those aromas make you kind of want to sit down and drowse …. or even lie down and go to sleep. Then you remember the story of the artist who died inhaling in his sleep the aroma of flowers he had in a vase to paint – and you don’t linger too long. Did that really happen? Not sure – best not take the chance. Didn’t take a chance on the dandelion flowers when you were a kid either. Waking up in a wet bed is not a pleasant experience at any age but definitely gets worse, even if rarer, as one grows older.
No, this perfume does not make you want to sit or lie down; it makes you want to jump, run (or at least stride purposefully). It is invigorating. That too was delivered free.
All of this – well, most of it – was donated by the trees. Not the green, surely? Not directly, no … but indirectly, yes. The grass grows in the earth which is fed by dead leaves and other material, broken down by insects and fungi and especially recycled through the digestive tracts of worms. May those gardeners who poison worms on their lawns be forever damned!
Before Ireland was denuded of her mixed forests, what a site she must have been!
All this visual, olfactory and mood-enhancing stuff was delivered free to us but there is, you are right to suspect it, a hidden cost. The weather is getting colder and sitting nearly naked on a beach is definitely out, to say nothing of plunging into the freezing water (well, with some lunatic exceptions). Outdoor cafe-sitting is becoming more of an endurance test than a pleasure. There are days coming when lots of good arguments (convincing at the time anyway) will be found against getting up to go about once’s business.
But then there will be glittering jeweled grass, constellation of stars in the pavement, artwork fronds on glass, white star patterns in things floating from the sky, white blankets over everything or at least over the hilltops in the distance, the special joy of a hot soup, a warm fire and blankets (if you have them) ….
And not too long away, sprouting buds pushing through bark and soil, misty green branches, a different perfume, quickening the blood in a different way.
I looked at her. Would you? I thought. Would you really?
And then my mind took off. Not perhaps where she had meant it to go.
Would I try anything, even just once?
Jump out of an airplane hundreds of metres above ground, even with a thrice-safety-checked parachute? No. Not even with TWO parachutes. Not unless the plane was on fire or going to crash – in which case, in a civil aircraft, there wouldn’t be any parachutes anyway.
Jump of a bridge on bungee cords? No. Not even off a high diving board! Yes, I know the water’s soft, serious bodily damage, even much pain extremely unlikely. But no.
Climb big windy, icy mountains? No. Scale cliffs? No.
OK, you’re seeing a connection with height here, right? But it doesn’t end there.
Go deep-sea diving? No. Not after that time on my third ever dive, when – despite a half-hour of air showing on my gauge, I suddenly ran out of it. Luckily I was not far down. Even getting me to dive at that shallow depth again would take some doing.
What else? OK, go against someone who is holding a knife? No. Yes, once in a drinker’s hostel I did take a knife off a guy but he wasn’t brandishing it at me. It certainly was not recommended procedure.
Demonstrate unarmed against soldiers who have proven, like the Israeli Occupation Force, that they don’t mind, even like shooting unarmed protesters? No. Almost certainly. But if I were a Palestinian, being ground down daily? Maybe, just maybe.
Be a cop? No. Be a cop’s tout? No. Take a job evicting people from their homes? Definitely not. Turn off water or electricity on families? No. Repossess cars? Only if I could choose according to circumstances, so that’s a No too.
Rob banks? Probably not. Yes, I know they’re robbing us – it has nothing to do with principle. In that career you end up having to use guns and then people tend to get shot. And they are hardly ever the bank-owners.
Be a surgeon? A bit late for that but probably no too.
Even in sexual categories, where perhaps (I could be flattering myself) I was intended to go …. No, in that tin of Quality Street sexual flavours, in the jar of Liquorice Allsorts, though there’s a lot to like, there are some things I wouldn’t try.
Looking at her, I wondered whether she really would ….
I wondered whether I’d been quiet too long. I’d probably missed my chance to suggest something.
The text on my mobile gave me a little jolt. Treating a gentle query from a friend as a summons, I headed off to the Song Central session in Chaplin’s bar, just across from the Pearse Street Garda station (outside which on some on some occasions I’ve protested until they released some person or persons they had arrested on a demonstration on which I have been – and on one memorable occasion, even on a walking history tour I was conducting as part of an anti-G8 Dublin program).
So, get ready, jump on the bike — it’ll be maybe a quarter of an hour? Intention to stay in for the night blown away, I head for the shower and shave, then reheat and consume most of the Dublin coddle.
Wheeling the bike out into the hall, I hear a squelching kind of sound. Oh no! But yes – flat tire (and of course, the rear one, with the gears on the wheel)! Fair enough, it’s bus or walk.
So where’s the snow from this “Code Orange” weather warning? And how could you trust anything from the colour orange anyway? Walking across from Liberty Hall to Butt Bridge, I do actually see some snow, slabs of it apparently having fallen off the roof of a car from some snowy region out of town. Young people pounce on it delightedly and, normally, I’d be in there myself, snowball fighting given half a chance. But the session ….
It’s a long time since I’ve attended the monthly Song Central, as I was reminded by people I had not seen in quite a while. This session was started by Alan Stout around seven years ago, in a kind of split from the Bray monthly session a number of years ago (but a friendly split and the Bray parent is still going strong). As in the Bray session, you may play an instrument but only as accompaniment to a song. And it’s still popular – sometimes it’s a job to get a seat.
It’s a kind of Republic of Song with a wide allegiance: religious-type Christmas songs partnered Christmas social comment in which Jesus is a revolutionary; comic songs balance the serious, Irish trad and folk meet pop and Blues, new and self-composed songs intersperse those made familiar by well-known singers and bands. Most singing is unaccompanied and in English but a couple were sung i nGaeilge.
Remembering Christmas I abandoned my plan to sing The Glencoe Massacre (“Cruel is the snow that blows round Glencoe” — a nod to the much-heralded no-show snow) and opted instead for Arthur McBride, which is actually set in Christmas Day. Later I sang They’re Stealing Our Water, which I had debuted in that session maybe two years earlier and for which one of the participants had given me a better line than I had originally composed. The song goes to the air of The Sea Around Us by Dominic Behan and the chorus is the same, except for the last lines: “But we’ve still got our Gombeens and a bank guarantee and they’re trying to steal our own water!”
It’s always a risk to slip a different line into a well-known chorus because the crowd are likely to sing the one they know and not the one you’ve composed. Which did happen a bit but eventually they got it.
I heard some really good singing and some fair singing, as well as a couple of songs I’d not heard before. The session was due to finish earlier than usual in consideration of adverse weather warning (those Orangeys again!) but there were still some people there as I left. It is always a joy to attend so why don’t I do it more often? The answer is that I don’t know but in a month’s time, although I don’t plan to, it may be that once again I will give it a miss.
So on my way to the bus stop of course I pass Bowes’ pub in Fleet Street (Sráid na Toinne!) and I drop in there for a half or a pint and to listen to some trad from the Sunday night session. But what’s this? No musicians! Apparently they play 7-10pm now (but later on bank holidays) and are off playing for some more hours of the night at “the Apollo Sessions”, the barman tells me. But where would that be? Hardly in Apollo House, no longer occupied to highlight homelessness and guarded by a security firm.
Elucidation unforthcoming, it’s onward to the bus stop in Westmoreland Street where I am fortunate to get a bus almost straight away. On the top deck, a chat in Castillian (Spanish) with a Filipino woman, her Spanish partner and a lively and chatty child. And so, home … to reheat and finish the remains of that coddle.
We knew about gays but we didn’t call them that. That was in our primary school days. Our mammies or das or others had warned us boys about them. We were never to accept sweets from strangers. They were men, older, probably shabby, hanging around in public toilets (when we had public toilets in streets). They would try to see your mickey, try to touch it (they were only interested in boys, which went to show how totally deviant they were). They’d give you sweets or even money. Just for that? It was enough! We thought no further but when we had to use those public urinals, kept as far away as we could from any men (a habit we continued into adulthood) and tried to cover our mickies with our hands and sometimes got some of the urine on them as a result.
We didn’t call them “gays” then but there were other names in our vernacular dictionaries: brownies, dirty men, homos ….. They were always predators and always male. Girls didn’t have to worry, apparently – those dirty men would not be tempted at all. It was the normal men girls had to worry about.
Was there such a thing as female homos? But if they wanted to play with your mickies that would be normal wouldn’t it? And nice even if sinful. Ah, chance would be a fine thing! But girls or women doing it with one another? How? And sure, what for?
Did we know any homos? Well, we were kind of getting to hear about poor Oscar Wilde. He would have been our fifth national Nobel prizewinner for literature and the fourth from our capital city. If not for …. well …. Poor man, he was misguided. And duped. But a lovely writer.
Our elders, well a great many of them, knew that many famous men had been homosexual – but they didn’t tell us. We knew quite a bit about the military exploits of Alexander, the Macedonian but nobody told us he was homosexual. If we’d known, we’d have asked ourselves whether he went to conquer the world in order to hang around public toilets in foreign lands, waiting to touch boy’s mickies. William of Orange was a homo too but then we had enough reason to hate him already. Wait – William …. Willy …. willies ….. nah, coincidence!
There was another William they might have known about,King William Rufus (1087 – 1110), son of William the Conqueror, openly homosexual. And probably assassinated by order of his brother, King Henry II, not for being gay but to get the kingdom. Well, what would you expect of the English! OK, Norman-English. Whatever.
They surely knew, educated adults and anyone around the theatre, that Mícheál Mac Liamóir was “a practicing homosexual”. An Englishman who became Irish, including a fluent speaker and writer in the Irish language, he lived with his lover Hilton Edwards in Harcourt Terrace. Edwards was another Englishman converted to Ireland. But sure they were English, so our elders only sniffed and turned a blind eye, grateful for the culture of the Abbey and Gate theatres, the formation of An Taidhbhearc and fame on English language stage and screen.
We knew Roger Casement could not be homosexual (even though he was a Protestant) because he was an Irish patriot. The English would do anything to tarnish his reputation and they had forged “the black diaries” to say disgusting things about him1, before they hanged him, not for homosexuality but for “treason” to the Crown. That’s the English Crown, of course. The one on top of the Arms of the Union, with the Lion and the Unicorn below, and below them the shield bearing the Thistle of Scotland, the Rose of England and the Harp of Ireland. You can see the design on the front page of the London Times, or on the roofs of the Bank of Ireland and Customs House buildings in Dublin.
But did we know any homosexuals personally? Perhaps some did. There was a lad at school who liked to knit and listen to opera and whose manner was quite feminine. Probably he was/ is, we thought years later but at the time he was just a boy who was like a girl. There was another one, son of a famous actor, a bit of a bully with a gang around him. He turned out to be gay but I at least never suspected. Then there was a certain barber who seemed quite effeminate but would do his best to cut your hair to any fashionable style which you required.
As we came into our teens, our vision broadened a little and we came upon more sinister knowledge. There were now rumours of homosexual Christian Brothers and priests. Seeing as these two groups, along with the Jesuits, directly controlled most of secondary education in the Irish state, nearly all of us Catholics were going to pass into their hands at some point. Hopefully their educational hands only. They didn’t have to hang around public toilets. They’d have us for six or seven hours a day, five days a week. Not to speak of the residential schools (too many people didn’t).
We knew in general and we knew of specific instances, by rumour or by experience. We resolved not to be victims ourselves and the strong succeeded. The weak? Well ….. Sauve qu’il peut, as they say (or I think they do) in France.
And we didn’t talk of it to our elders. Why? Well ….. hard to say. Would they have believed us? Did we have proof? Would it only have showed how dirty our minds were?
In my teens, a youth selling newspapers in Dún Laoghaire told me of a brawny sailor who one evening wanted to entice him into an alley away from company in order “not to embarrass the girls”. So, homosexuality was not confined to the creepy men hanging around toilets, or to the effeminate and arty, or to the clergy and Catholic brotherhoods. Burly sailors? Dear God!
And now a disturbing but exciting knowledge also came to us. We learned that there were indeed homosexual women – they were called ‘Lesbians’. And almost unbelievably, if you managed to get hold of a copy of the Kinsey Reports (or reviews of them), lesbianism appeared to be even more common than male homosexuality! Disturbing in a number of ways …. women preferring to have sex with women than with men? For some of us, it was difficult enough already to get physically intimate with a girl without some of them preferring other women! Then, a second thought, disturbing in a different way: imagine seeing them together … doing it! Double female nakedness!
As we grew older, we came to know gay men personally. Of course we did. Some of us, the better ones, acknowledged them our equals, did not avoid the subject nor deny them our company. Some of us, while accepting their company, avoided any mention of their preferences; we treated them as heterosexuals, knowing they were not. And some of us avoided them or worse, inflicted violence on them. We found out that some indeed did hang out around toilets but not to feel the mickies of little boys but to make assignations with adult males. Where else could they meet? It was illegal and religiously prohibited too.
Then came gay liberation agitation in the 1970s. Decriminalisation in 1993. And finally, equal rights to wed in 2015. Incredibly almost, that same Ireland of our childhood voted by majority in every county but one in the Irish State of the Twenty-Six Counties, that gays should have the right to marry people of their own gender. In May 2015, Ireland became the first state to legalise on a national level same-sex marriage by popular vote. The New York Times hailed the victory as putting Ireland at “the vanguard of social change”.
We have come a long way, in that respect at least. But oh, the victims of intolerance strewn along each side of the route of our progress!
Generations in Ireland will grow now, hopefully, without the spectre of the Brownie.
1 Roger Casement (1864-1916) was an Irish patriot and Protestant, also a poet and an enthusiast for Irish culture. In 1916, in preparation for the Easter Rising in Ireland, he came in a German submarine to assist in the unloading of German armament, including 20,000 rifles. The German boat, disguised as a Norwegian, was discovered and its captain scuttled it outside of Cork. The IRA Volunteers who went to meet the boat and Casement at its rearranged landing place, of which they had just learned, drowned as their car went off the road into the sea.
Casement was apprehended after landing. He was tried for treason in wartime and a substantial campaign arose to save his life. He had earned fame and a knighthood (CMG) a decade earlier through exposing ill-treatment of indigenous people in the African Congo under Belgian Royal control and in Putamayo in Perú by rubber-exploitation commercial interests.
Extracts from the “Black Diaries” were circulated by the British espionage service to undermine popular support for clemency for Casement. Those Diaries (as opposed to his other diaries of his travels abroad)gave details of his allegedlysexual interludes with men abroad and the extracts circulated substantially undermined the campaign for clemency. Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on 3rd August 1916, the last of the 1916 executions, the only one not by firing squad or to take place in Ireland.
The authenticity of the “Black Diaries” continues to be the subject of controversy. Although Wikipedia notes that a handwriting expert concluded by comparison with his other diaries that the entries were genuinely Casement’s, he is the only handwriting expert to have been permitted to examine the original, nor have samples been subjected to modern forensic testing. And the British espionage service did have a reputation for forging documents.
This Autumn I made myself available to give talks in the southern Basque Country (i.e. in the Spanish state) on the situation of Irish political prisoners and a series was arranged for mid-October for nearly two weeks.
As well as having private conversations, I gave a total of five public talks to audiences ranging in size from ten to over forty. The composition of the audiences varied from youths to older middle-aged; in some places the latter predominated and in some, the former.
All the meetings I spoke at were arranged by an organisation called Amnistia Ta Askatasuna which calls for total amnesty for Basque political prisoners. This was also a demand of the whole movement and of the leadership of the Abertzale Left until fairly recently and the Gestoras pro-Amnistia organisation had been created under the Abertzale Left umbrella but then banned by the Spanish State. But the Abertzale Left’s leadership have now dropped this demand from public discourse, saying the conditions are not ripe for it and concentrating instead on the end of the dispersal. (More about this and the Basque prisoner situation later).
I had not intended to confine my talks to those organised by ATA but it was they who organised the talks on dates that were offered, with the exception of one from an independent source that unfortunately clashed with one I had already accepted elsewhere.
The types of venues for the talks were community cultural centres (two), occupied buildings (two) and one local (a space for which the users’ association paid rent and used for their activities). Geographically, the talks were held in Gernika and two in Bilbao (Bizkaia province), Etxarri (Nafarroa) and Ibarra (Guipuzkoa province). There were none in Alava province (although earlier this year I gave interviews to Hala Bedi pirate radio there, in Gastheiz/ Vitoria). On this occasion also I gave a video interview to a rapper who also makes videos for Hala Bedi, though he is located in Bizkaia.
From conversations and discussion it became clear that all the older people in the audiences were veterans of the Basque struggle over decades and a number were ex-prisoners. Some had relatives in jail. The youths had come to political activity or thinking in recent years.
For the content of the talks I briefly reviewed the more distant history of political prisoners in Ireland, moving on then to the Good Friday Agreement and the release of
most Irish Republican prisoners in the Six Counties under its terms. The re-arrest and jailing without charge of a number of these ex-prisoners was part of the talk, in which the specific examples given were of Marian Price, Martin Corey and Tony Taylor. I also dealt with the procedure of arrest on ridiculous charges and refusal of bail, or granting it under undemocratic and restrictive conditions, for which I used Stephen Murney as an example. These were all members of different organisations or none. Conviction on charges which the evidence does not support is also a category I mentioned, giving the Craigavon Two as an example there. Arrest on possession of arms charges is also a feature on both sides of the Border.
With regard to the 26 Counties, i.e the Irish state, I discussed the Special Court, Membership-of-an-illegal-organisation charges and charges of obtaining arms or having assisted terrorism. I mentioned the planned second Special Court in particular in the context of the State’s failure to convict most of the Jobstown protesters on charges that included “false imprisonment” (i.e kidnapping).
While noting that splits had occurred before in the Republican movement – the Provisionals themselves having emerged from such a split in 1970 – I noted that since the GFA, splits had multiplied and listed a number of the resulting organisations, including those that had existed already at that time.
Listing the number of Irish political prisoners (at the latest count then 79) and reminding the audience that the Irish had extended solidarity to Basque political prisoners, I asked the Basques for solidarity towards our political prisoners too. And I did so not only as a moral issue of internationalist solidarity but also in recognition that internationalist solidarity is one of the first casualties (i.e aspects to drop or weaken) by those who are seeking to surrender the struggle or even to become collaborators.
I timed the talks to give sufficient space for – and encouraged — questions and comments, even critical ones.
It was interesting that the same questions tended to come up again and again:
Did the different Republican organisations cooperate with one another inside and outside the jails?
What were the conditions in the prisons like for the prisoners?
How are political prisoners in ill-health being treated?
Is there a dispersal issue with regard to political prisoners?
Did the population support the prisoners?
What were the conditions for their release under the Good Friday Agreement?
Did INLA prisoners sign the GFA release agreement?
Are there armed actions continuing in Ireland?
Are the youth involved in solidarity actions and campaigns?
What was the attitude of Sinn Féin towards the political prisoners?
Are prisoners “on the run” still in danger of arrest and imprisonment?
In one meeting, one of the smaller audiences and containing only youth, I was asked about the role of women in the national liberation struggle in Ireland today.
Some of the questions asked reflect the situation of the Basque political prisoners and also of the censored and inaccurate information about Ireland that reaches them, including through the Abertzale Left‘s (the “official” umbrella organisation) daily newspaper, GARA. At a number of times in the past spokespersons of the Abertzale Left’s organisations had claimed that there were no longer Irish political prisoners, a claim repeated in GARA. More recently, the tendency is to ignore their existence or to represent them as very few, without a program other than return to armed struggle and without a support base (i.e Sinn Féin’s line).
The new direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership, which included a “permanent truce” and disarmament of their armed organisation ETA (formally declared in January 2011) was said at the time to have been agreed by the Basque political prisoners in their organisation EPPK. There have been persistent claims by friends and relatives of some prisoners and by some prisoners released in the last couple of years that they had not even been consulted.
A number of people to whom I spoke claimed that the prisoners’ collective no longer really exists, with prisoners left to act individually; some others said this was true to an extent but not completely. Certainly one feels a general air of disillusionment and uncertainty – and also of anger. And it is true that a small number of prisoners have formally denounced the leadership and left the collective.
From figures collected in 2003, up to 30,000 Basque activists out of a total population of less than three million) had been arrested, 8,170 were accused of being members of ETA and roughly half of those convicted and imprisoned. The prisoners’ relatives and friends’ organisation Etxerat (also under the Abertzale Left’s umbrella) in its July-September report of this year (2017) recognises 315 Basque political prisoners, of which 310 are dispersed through 61 prisons, with only two in 2 prisons in the Basque Country.
In 39 prisons in the Spanish state, 239 Basque political prisoners are being kept and 68 in twenty prisons of the French state. There are 212 (68.85%) Basque political prisoners in prisons at distances of between 600 and 1,100 km of the Basque Country; from a distance of 400 to 590 km from their country there are 67 (21.75 %) and between 100 and 390 km of home another 29 (9.40 %).
The strain on relatives and friends is considerable, road accidents are frequenton their journeys to visit prisonersand a number have been killed.
Twenty-one prisoners (21) are diagnosed as being seriously or terminally ill and according to the states’ own penal codes should have been released on parole to home or hospital but instead of reducing the number of sick prisoners the total is climbing (almost doubled in recent years). I accompanied ATA comrades to the port town of Ondarroa to participate in a demonstration organised by a broad platform calling for the release of terminally-ill Basque political prisoner Ibon Iparragirre.
The Spanish state has rejected all the “peace process” (sic) overtures of the Abertzale Left leadership and says that ETA should just disappear and prisoners wishing to be pardoned and released must repent their previous actions, apologise to their “victims” and give information on their previous activities and comrades. It also says that all still at liberty and wanted for past illegal activities will continue to be pursued.
COMMENTS AND CONTRIBUTIONS
These too tended to be of a kind to come up again and again throughout the tour:
The situation in Ireland with regard to the liberation movement and prisoners is like that in the Basque Country or that which the latter will face as time goes on
The prisoners’ cause is being deserted by the Abertzale Left leadership
Their media and leadership had lied to the movement about the situation in Ireland
The leadership is only interested in penetrating the institutions and is neglecting the politics of the street
Otaegi and Adams are alike and McGuinness was a traitor when he asked people to inform on paramilitaries
The Abertzale Left did not of course comment on the talks – why would they? However, in Ibarra, I saw posters for the meeting torn down in areas where other political ones remained and according to my hosts, this was the work of the “oficialistas” (i.e followers of the leadership’s line) in the town. It was notable too that with a few exceptions, a number of people within the Abertzale Left but whom I know to be very critical of the change of direction, did not attend the talks held in their areas. Since some had previously attended a meeting at which I spoke a year ago and engaged in discussion critical of the Abertzale leadership, I took it that these either disapproved of the ATA organisers or did not wish, for whatever reason, to be seen attending a meeting held by the organisation.
At all the talks I was received with friendliness and courtesy and after some I had a meal in company in a txoko (Basque building — or part of one — owned or rented by a gastronomic association) or the home of my hosts for the evening. Although I invited criticisms with genuine interest in hearing them, none were voiced publicly, whether of the content of my talk or of the Irish people generally — although there were some questions as to why the people “in the south” had not supported more widely the “struggle in the north”. I explained that what they call “the north” is one-fifth or the country and also divided in its population; in addition the Republican movement had left the social and economic concerns of the people in the other four-fifths largely unaddressed and in fact had opposed some social reforms in earlier times. People in the 26 Counties had given a lot of support but without mobilising them on their own concerns and specific conditions this was likely to be a minority activity and to decline over time.
CATALUNYA: SOUTHERN BASQUE ATTITUDE TO THE STRUGGLE THERE
Inevitably, the struggle in Catalunya came into the discourse at some point – after all, I had arrived in Euskal Herria just under two weeks after the Referendum.
The Catalan national flags, the esteladas (both versions) were in evidence across the Basque Country as were some solidarity banners and posters. The two solidarity demonstrations I witnessed (and in which I participated but for a while – each having been called for the same evening as my talk locally) in Nafarroa and in Bizkaia appeared to have been called by the “official” movement and were fairly small and quiet. The largest, of over fifty people, did not even have a flag, placard or banner, which was puzzling.
It was reported to me that some time back, the Abertzale Left had been close to the militant CUP (Catalan left-wing and independist popular movement) but now were moving closer to the Eskerra Republicana, often perceived as being less militant and closer to the Catalan bourgeoisie. Among the critics of the Abertzale Left leadership and others there seemed to be a doubt that the Catalan leadership was serious; however, both the “officials” and the “dissidents” had sent people to help the Catalans in their referendum.
After the Spanish police violence on October 1st there was a feeling that the Catalans were enduring what the Basques had endured for decades so why the great shock now? When two leaders of the Catalan movement were arrested and jailed without bail and called “political prisoners”, of course the Basques pointed to their own hundreds of political prisoners (and also to two Catalans who were ETA prisoners). The failure to declare a Republic on the promised day seemed to bear out those with a more cynical view but actions since then and the application of the repressive Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution are bound to raise feelings of respect and solidarity across the Basque national liberation movement, whether “official” or “dissident”.
It is clear that there is interest in the Irish situation and of that of the prisoners in at least some sections of the broad Basque national liberation movement. It is also clear that there is a substantial discomfort with the direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership since 2011 (and for some since even earlier). Frustration is also evident as is a great concern for the political prisoners and a worry that they are being left without leadership, to come to their own arrangements with the Spanish state or to endure many more years in jail or die there (as Kepa De Hoyo did in August and as Ibon Iparragirre faces now).
This level of concern, disquiet and even distrust is not currently reflected in great numbers attending pickets or demonstrations organised by ATA, as numbers attending the talks showed in some areas but as the talks also showed, there is a network of support for ATA across the southern Basque Country. It was clear that a greater lead-up would have resulted in talks being hosted in further areas, including the province of Alava which was not included on this occasion. The general composition of the movement represented by ATA is healthy in its spread across generations, comprised of veterans (including ex-prisoners) and youth new to the struggle.
From a personal point of view it was an interesting if somewhat hectic and stressful period but also one that increased my understanding of the reality.
From a political perspective I hope it helped build some links for solidarity between the struggles in each of the two nations and an awareness that pacification processes are not an alternative but only another face of repression. For the struggles in which so many have sacrificed so much to succeed, we need to raise our awareness of these processes. In these processes political prisoners, often seen by their populations as heroes and people to be cherished, are used by the repressive power as hostages and often too as bargaining counters, the temptation always there for some of those in struggle to use them in kind.
I got a phone call today – my drum has been found. I was astonished.
Three or four years ago, my drum went into hiding. No, I don’t mean “I went into hiding in my drum” – I’m not talking Cockney rhyming slang or Romany. I mean a real drum, a music-rhythm drum. It’s a dholak — looks like a smallish bongo in shape but both ends are played and it is South Asian in origin. It was bought for me many years ago from a London charity shop.
Why did my dholak go into hiding? I am not sure. Drums are sensitive; sensitive to vibrations. Yes of course, they are about vibration, that’s how they are made to produce sound. But more than that – they also pick up vibration. The skin or membrane, stretched tight, can pick up vibrations of machines, wind or even speech, which resonate inside the hollow instrument. Perhaps I was giving off bad vibrations. Or more likely not supplying enough vibrations at all.
It is true that I had stopped playing her and taking her to music session. I knew I wasn’t a great player but I thought I was OK – most of the time. Percussion gave me something to do at a session, to be part of it when I wasn’t singing. Then something happened that shattered the veneer of confidence. And there was a session I used to go to where I played it but I stopped going there; I can’t even remember why now.
The percussion illness began years ago in London. It was an infection that spread from my tapping feet to my tapping fingers and to rapping on wooden tables; there were nights I got carried away and came home with sore and skinned knuckles.
The infection spread and I took to playing the violin cases of tolerant musicians at London sessions. Or occasionally an accordion case. And then the dholak arrived. I played her indoors for months before I dared bring her to a session.
Musicians’ eyes widened when they saw me bring out a drum more than two feet high from a sports bag. They were apprehensive, for sure. Musicians playing Irish music (not all of them are Irish) have learned – or been taught – to be wary of percussionists. Percussion usually descends on an Irish session in the shape of a bodhrán (from the Irish, literally “a deafener”) and though the instrument can be played very well and sensitively, too often it is not. When played badly it is out of time with the music or a monotonous boom-boom-boom trying to kill the music … and nearly always too loudly.
There is a joke about the banjo which can be even more easily applied to the bodhrán: “You can tell from a fair distance when a man with banjo is approaching – but there is f.a. you can do about it.”
Even the bodhrán has a dubious history in traditional Irish music and it was really a classically-trained Irish musician, the great Seán Ó Riada, who gained the instrument popularity by working it into his suites — his compositions and arrangements. Norman observers in the 12th Century, describing Irish music, mentioned only a kind of drum, some kind of whistle (flute) and the harp (of which there were two, the small and the large). Not even the uileann pipes were mentioned! Over the years, the wooden whistle came in or was developed domestically (replaced for a while by the metal one, mass-produced in Manchester!), also the concert flute from Europe, the violin from Austria-Hungary perhaps, the accordion from Germany and Italy, the banjo from African slaves and their descendants in the USA, the mandolin from Italy, the bouzouki introduced from Greece in the 1960s, the guitar originally from Iberia but probably through English and US folk music, also in the 1960s.
The uileann pipes, despite the Norman observers, have been around for a while too but difficult to say when exactly it came in, some sources say not till the 1700s – certainly later than the marching war pipe depicted in Elizabethan-period drawings and woodcuts.
In Irish music, it is normally the guitarist who plays rhythm and many musicians think that with a guitarist, you don’t need a percussionist. If indeed you ever do – Séamus Ennis, once asked what was the best way to play the bodhrán, famously (or infamously) replied: “With a penknife”.
Whatever else could be said about my playing of the dholak, good or bad, at least I never played it too loudly.
Traditional Irish music sessions in London, at least in those years, tended to be more tolerant and inclusive than I experienced in Ireland on visits home or since. So they let me get on with it and we got on ok – me, the dholak and the musicians. And the ‘audience’ seemed ok with us all too.
When I came home to Dublin, to work and to live, after decades in London, she came with me. There was a session in Rathmines I attended regularly and I took the drum there, played it some to accompany the trad music instruments and sang a few songs. At that particular session one heard a variety of types of song and could sometimes see dancing: set-dancing, freestyle sean-nós and there was an elderly couple who did what I took to be a schottische. There was a bodhrán player or two there most times and when they were, I mostly laid off the dholak until they took a break, went to the toilet or out for a smoke.
Usually, the session would start around 9.30pm and go on till 1.00am or even later. Many a time on my way home from that session, a song or a tune would be running through my head, non-stop. Sometimes I even composed a tune, or thought I did — but had forgotten it by next day.
Walking the 4.5 km.s after a session to catch the night bus from D’Olier Street (and a half-hour wait if I missed one) grew tiresome, which might have been the reason I stopped going. Maybe my bike wasn’t working at that time. The truth is, I don’t know why but I did stop going. There was a Sunday session I was going to for a while but I dropped out of that too, for other reasons. The result was that I stopped playing the dholak, even at home.
Maybe she missed the tapping of my fingers on her skin. Perhaps she missed the vibrations of Irish traditional music. And grew to resent the silence. Maybe she planned to leave me.
If so, the occasion came when a large group of Basque musicians were visiting Dublin and I had organised a musical pub-crawl for them (kantu-poteo), as well as a concert for them to perform. I brought the dholak in case there should be an informal session at the end of the evening but there wasn’t and, in amongst all the leave-taking and so on, I forgot about her.
A few days later I looked for the dholak at home and realised I must have left it behind. To the management of the hall I went rushing — but it could not be found. So, someone had stolen her. Or she had gone off with someone she thought would appreciate her more than I had.
I was upset – of course I was – but there was nothing to be done about it. Of course, if I ever should see someone with her, while on my travels ….!
The years went by and I reconciled myself to my loss. I had already mostly stopped going to traditional sessions and was concentrating on singing. For a while I was singing at a different gathering as often as twice a week. Then that too tailed off. Some sessions were a distance away around Dublin bay and finished after public transport did. One was on a Sunday and I was often tired. But the truth is, although I always enjoyed a singing session, I was losing some of the drive, the urge that had me attending regularly.
And then, this morning, from the manager of the hall where I had lost the dholak about four years ago, I got a phone call. She had been found!
Overjoyed as I am, I can’t help wondering what it means, that she turns up now. Of course, it could mean nothing. Just a lucky happenstance that it turned up, was found among stuff stored away, probably by someone searching for something else or having a clear-out.
The cops and private detectives with starring roles in the novels I sometimes read don’t believe in coincidence and happenstance. Much as I hate to take part of my world view from cops, nor do I.
I wasn’t allowed out at night so, after my parents thought I’d gone to finish my homework and to bed, I went out the window. A younger brother asked to come too and I had to bring him along.
Ah! The pleasure, the joy, the freedom to be out on the streets at night – especially when it had been forbidden. I was wearing my new blue trainer shoes. They felt good. They looked good. I felt good.
We wandered on towards a street of brightly-lit shops, most of them still open. Around the corner we went – and walked into the tail-end of a robbery! It was a sports shoe shop and the robbers, young lads, were spilling out of the shop, bumped into me … and people were shouting. And then one of the bystanders or shop assistants pointed at me and shouted that I was one of the robbers!
Well, even if I could convince people I was not, when the cops questioned me, they’d at least take me home to confirm my address and check my parents. And I was not supposed to be out.
Getting out of there quick seemed like the only rational option.
As I ran, I cursed my new trainers as I heard my accuser shout: “Look, he’s even wearing a pair of the stolen trainers! The blue ones.”
I had to get out of the area and, if possible, change my shoes. How to do that? Nearby was a late-night school gym and that’s where I headed. Asking the brother to wait for me outside in the shrubbery, I ducked in.
I passed by some youth around my age in a corridor and got by them casually with not too many words. It surprised me that they were all black. I soon found a changing room with shoes and clothes scattered about – and no-one in there — great! There was even a pair of white trainers my size — my luck was in! But as I was changing into them, the door opened and a black kid walked in.
“Who’re you?” was his immediate question, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Marlon,” I replied, giving the first reply that came to my head. I was just thinking that was an unlikely name for a white boy and he might even think I was taking the piss out of current Afro-Caribbean youth names when he asked “Marlon who?”
And like some conditioned response, I replied “Brando”. My heart sank but I kept my face unconcerned. With any luck he only watched kung-fu and chain-saw massacre films.
His eyes narrowed. “That’s an actor’s name”. Damn! For a second I considered blagging it but knew it wouldn’t work.
“Yeah, sorry,” I replied, shrugging. “Just a joke.” And I gave him another name.
Just then, the door opened and a younger black kid looked in. I’d met him earlier, on the way in.
“Hi, Ian,” he said when he saw me. I’d probably told him my name was Ian Fleming. That wasn’t the problem, though; the real problem was that was not the name I’d just given tough guy, whose eves widened.
Young black kid had hardly closed the door and gone before tough black kid grabbed my arm, opened a door to another room and shoved me in there.
It was a toilet and looked like there was shit everywhere. And it was not in turds but in semi-liquid form, like an explosion – or more likely, several explosions – of severe diarrhoea. To say it was disgusting would so far below reality as to be a lie.
“It’s covered in shit,” I complained.
“So clean it up,” he replied, shut and locked the door.
The memory of what followed is all too clear to me but I’ll spare any of you the description. Suffice it to say that I cleaned it up, or most of it, dumping it in the pan and pumping the toilet flusher a number of times.
I had nearly finished when the door was unlocked and another black kid, this one in plastic apron, rubber boots and gloves, looked in on me.
“Done?” he enquired.
“Yeah,” I replied, washing my hands in the sink. “And it was truly disgusting.”
“You had it easy,” he replied. “You’d want to see the mountain of dog shit I’ve had to clear.”
He was wrong about that – I definitely did not want to see it. Right then I wished never to see shit again as long as I lived but it was just another of many wishes already in my short life that I knew would not be granted.
“Come along,” he said and beckoned.
He seemed friendly and anyway, what choice did I have? There was no other way out of that room.
He opened another door and I followed him into a compound of dog pens.
“Mamelukes” he said, showing me around.
“You mean Malemutes,” I began to say but trailed off when I saw them. There’s a lot of things I don’t know but I do know these were not malemutes – not even close. And Mamelukes were an Egyptian slave soldier caste. I don’t know what kind of breed these dogs were but they reminded me of that latest of accessory dog breeds, the shar pei. They had very short hair and wrinkled skin. But the pups were kind of grey-coloured and huge.
Despite my guide’s reassurance as he brought me into one pen, the pup was growling fiercely at me. Its mother (I presume) in the next pen, barked at the pup as if to say “Shut up, silly! Can’t you see this guy is a friend? He’s with our feeder and pen cleaner!”
Her head came up to the height of my chest. Even though she looked like she was friendly towards me, I was glad she was in the next pen, with a wire fence between us. Otherwise I would never have dared do what I did next.
Grabbing the pup around the muzzle so it couldn’t bite me, I flipped it on to its back and started scratching its stomach. The pup wriggled madly, at first in anger or fear, but then out of pleasure. When I let it up, dominance and pleasure-giving role established, it was all over me. Wagging its tail like mad, squirming, its wrinkles running up and down its loose skin. It was ugly, really but kind of appealing too.
My guide took me out of the pen and locked it but then, looking off to the side, exclaimed: “Oh no! One’s got out. It likes being chased and it’ll take me ages to catch it. Help me, please.”
I set off after him and we passed beyond the pens into a piece of undulating open ground where cabbages and other vegetables had been grown – some were still there, unharvested. In the distance, something was moving fast. Strangely, it looked like a head of cabbage.
I ran after the guy and caught up with him just in time to see the pup’s hind legs disappearing into a burrow.
“Quick, head it off at the other side,” he said.
The other side of the burrow was only a few steps away and emerging on to a ridge, where I took up station to block the pup. I heard and felt more than saw it coming and what flew out of the burrow at me was no pup or cabbage head but some kind of large flying insect. By reflex I reached out and grabbed it and some of its feet scratched my fingers. And then it was a bird.
It had been some time since I had taken any drugs and never the psychotropic kind but that was definitely a bird in my hand now. A pretty one too.
Next I remember I found the brother and we made our way home, me still with the bird quite placidly in my hand. And we walked into the house through the back garden and it was daylight and no-one was telling us off for being out all night.
We had some visitors I could see through the open door to the kitchen and it looked like my Ma and my younger sister had been having an argument. The visitors seemed quite shocked when the Sis said loudly: “I don’t give a shit!”.
My older brother walked past them munching something and gave me a sardonic lift of the eyebrow in passing. That was really weird – not so much the eyebrow but the fact that I don’t have an older brother – but it didn’t seem to bother me much at the time.
“Look at the bird I have!” I called to my sister.
A smile of malicious delight spread over her face. “Shove it up!” she shouted.
I once knew a cat but, what is more to the point, the cat knew me.
I knew the cat not well, but as a kind of nearby resident I had helped a little once and made friendly overtures to. He or she (I suspect she and will refer to it so from now on) first came into contact with me when a racket of magpies not far from my home attracted my attention. I found magpies harassing a marmalade (orange tabby) cat in a tree and the cat seemed trapped there.
Since there was no nest in the tree for the magpies to be protecting, I chased them off some distance with the aid of shouts and stones, then tried to persuade the cat to come down but she just looked at me – afraid of me too, I thought. Some days later, I came across a marmalade cat outside some nearby houses and called to her and, when she came, stroked her and then went on my way. She made as if to follow me but then gave up.
A few weeks later, I was coming up the road when I saw a marmalade cat about 50 yards away and wondered if it was her. She however looked up, saw me and hurried over, then began rubbing her body against my leg.
So how did she recognise me? Cats have very good hearing but I very much doubt she could identify my footsteps on a concrete footpath amidst all the traffic noise from so far away. Cats also have a good sense of smell but I don’t think it’s good over distance. They are not good at recognising human faces, according to tests. So, she probably recognised my shape and gait (like those recognition software programmes the secret services have developed and with which they monitor a lot of CCTV coverage — reassuring, huh? Not so much!).
It is true I have a somewhat identifiable gait, so I am told – a swagger learned as protective colouring in my teens but about which I am nearly always unconscious and when I am, try to control. Once doing that in New Cross in SE London, a black youth I knew from my work in a local youth club shouted from across the street: “Walk like a white man!” Apparently my attempt to control the Dublin swagger was resulting in the kind of walk adopted by many Afro-Caribbean youth.
But, back to the cat. Anyway, it was an amazing feat of recognition of an individual of a different species and of minimal acquaintance and I think she would have recognised me no matter how subdued my usual type of walk. I wonder how many individuals considered friendly or otherwise a cat can identify by sight at a distance – just how big is their database?
Another time I came upon this cat, she was stretched out on a warm sunny pavement but being persecuted by a pair of magpies (probably the same ones as before). The cat saw me and so did the magpies but I stopped at a distance to observe what was happening.
One magpie distracted her attention by strutting up and down in front of her head, but out of reach of swipe or sudden rush, while the other waited its chance and pecked at the cat’s tail. She lay there suffering this persecution, only twitching her tail from time to time in a futile attempt to keep it away from the bird or perhaps out of tension.
“But why don’t you move, Cat?” I asked her, half in amusement and half in sympathy.
She looked at me and seemed to say:
“Why should I? This is MY pavement and I am harming no-one! I am not going to let two BIRDS chase me off!”
“Well, you could spring at them …”
“What’s the point? They keep just out of range and I’d miss, giving them a reason to mock me.”
The Magpies, in turn, might have been saying:
“This has nothing to do with you, Mister. This is a Cat, ancestral predator on birds and fair game for us at any time. Keep out of it!”
“Yeah, we remember you butting in before!”
And magpies probably can identify human faces – at least tests with their close relatives, crows and jackdaws, show that they can. And magpies are the only bird so far shown able to identify themselves in a mirror.
I did keep out of it. I had things to do and left them to it – the cat after all had the option to leave and even were I to chase them off, the birds would only fly a little distance and then come back. I’ve seen magpies do this “torment-the-cat” thing before. And cats will kill a magpie, if they can.
The cat’s refusal to move or to make a lunge she knew the birds would easily evade, the provocative tormenting by the magpies and the way they worked in unison, all seemed to me so very human, even allowing for anthropomorphism.
But thinking about it later, I came to a different conclusion: it is not the animal behaviour that is human-like – it is OUR behaviour that is animal-like! After all, are we not descended from a common ancestor, albeit nearly 300 million years ago?
In total, I saw that Marmalade Miss maybe four or five times and then no more. Perhaps her owner(s) moved – I hope so and that she was not killed by traffic.
I had nothing I could gain from the cat, other than a kind of feeling of kinship perhaps. Other than a stroke now and again, she had nothing to gain from me. It was an uncomplicated friendship and not, like with some dogs, a dependency by either of us. I know she is gone but years later, as I pass near that street, sometimes still look out for her.
It was nearly ten o’clock at night when she approached me on a badly-lit street near Dublin’s North Circular Road. I had paused my bicycle to send a text on my mobile and I saw her coming towards me. I had the impression that, just before she made for me, she had been looking around as though to determine where she was – perhaps I had seen her doing that in my peripheral vision.
She had a handbag and was dragging one of those suitcases with an extending handle and trundling on little wheels. As she reached me, I asked her could I help her with directions, which actually interrupted her asking me for help. But that was ok, it worked against her being totally dependent, the asker – after all, I had asked too. She had a USA accent.
Yes, of course I would help if I could.
Did I know the whereabouts of a certain hotel? Well, the area in the hotel’s name I do know but I didn’t recall the hotel itself. And sometimes they give themselvess the name of somewhere known or popular even though their hotel is not near the place at all.
Did she have the street name? No.
The phone number? Somewhere in her bag (she meant her case).
I explained that I don’t have Internet on my mobile phone but she could look it up on Google map? She doesn’t have Internet access on her phone either.
Can she afford a taxi? Yes, of course.
Well, why not hail one? She has done that but they tell her the hotel is just down the road.
Well, why not ask them to take her there? She has, but they tell her it’s just down the road.
Hmmmm – a sliver of doubt entered my brain. Taxi drivers refusing a short drive fare on a weekday night? To an address with which they are familiar? And leaving a woman, clearly a tourist, on her own in that area on foot ….. Something is wrong with this story.
Still … what to do?
OK, so I’ll ride around on the bike and find the place (even if I have to stop a taxi and ask the driver, I was thinking). Then I’ll come back and tell her (and accompany her there too, I think to myself).
She is very grateful but I think it is not safe for her to wait for me here. Perhaps the courtyard of a pub a little further back? A well-lit one.
I walk the bike, she trundles the case. Talks about her plans for her two-week stay, which appear to be to arrive in Dublin and then figure out where to go from there. Relates having been booked into a Dublin hostel which another passenger on a bus told her was in a bad district so she didn’t go there. Something seems wrong about this story too.
We reach the pub – it is still in business hours and the courtyard, though deserted, is brightly lit. There are tables and chairs and and I ask her to wait there for me and I’ll be back in a few minutes. She agrees.
Three minutes later I have found the hotel and in four, five at the most, I am back at the pub.
But the courtyard is empty.
Oh, no! She just got up and went?!
Wait. Maybe she asked someone where it was and set off there on her own. But then I would have passed her on the way back – I couldn’t have missed her.
Maybe …. oh God! Maybe whoever she asked volunteered to take her there. And she went with them. Got into a car ….
Ah, Jayzus! What now? Call the cops?
But now I see her ….. coming out of the pub, pulling the case, carrying her bag, all of it awkward as she manages the door….. Maybe she didn’t feel safe out there on her own and went inside …. but no, she has a pint of lager in her hand.
I remind her that I asked her to wait and that I’d be back in a few minutes. I have found the place and was ready to accompany her there but now she has bought a pint. (I am hoping she will leave the pint but no chance).
She is so grateful and would like to buy me a drink.
It’s an offer I might well have accepted when I had got her to her hotel and she had checked in. Now, though? I show her where her hotel is, a straight walk down the road I point out to her, wish her well and ride off.
Asking for it – bloody asking for it! It’s a phrase that doesn’t usually mean someone wants something bad to happen, rather that their conduct makes that a likely outcome. Unfortunately it is used too often with regard to the victims of rape, when wanting it to happen is occasionally precisely what is insinuated – smearing the victim and exonerating the attacker. But usually, conduct with predictable bad results is what is indicated; for example, leaving your bag or laptop inside your car, visible to passers-by, is asking to have your car broken into. Leaving your bike unlocked in the open out of your sight is asking to have it stolen.
Surely it is not a healthy situation for a person to be walking around in a badly-lit part of a strange city at ten at night? And looking like a tourist, whom a predator might therefore assume to have some money and perhaps a camera, Ipad, etc? And a woman alone, considered a defenceless potential victim?
Surely one would want to get into one’s hotel as soon as possible? OK, I understand the appeal of the pint, particularly if one has been stressed out by travel and then wandering around looking for one’s hotel. But hotels have bars, where the worst that will happen to one (or the best, depending on one’s point of view) is that it will lead to sharing one of the hotel beds with a stranger. OK, if you want local colour with your pint, find a “typical” local pub after you’ve checked in. And be sure you know your way back.
But there she had been, wandering around a badly-lit street at night looking for a hotel (and walking further away from it when I met her). And someone goes to find her hotel and asks her to wait and in less than five minutes she’s bought a pint, which means she won’t be able to go to the hotel when the guy returns. And she blithely offers to buy him a drink.