Archive for the ‘History’ Category

GAH Humbug – How You’re Helping the GAA Ruin Your LIfe

September 22, 2013

If you’re of my persuasion (and you’re probably not, unless you’re the sort of reckless maverick who uses parentheses in an opening sentence), Croke Park strikes the eye as a kind of optical illusion. At once monstrously conspicuous – a brusque interruption of a familiar landscape – and curiously invisible, by virtue of one’s utter indifference to everything it represents.

For international readers – Croke Park is the 80,000-seater Dublin headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the body which governs Gaelic Games.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gaelic football, it is essentially an archaic kicking-and-catching code, akin to those played in elite English schools 150 years ago (from which modern football quickly evolved). Its sister sport, hurling, resembles a hybrid of lacrosse and field hockey in which the ball is plucked and volleyed freely.

The common format of the Gaelic Games (amateur players, multiple scoring methods, 70-minute matches) is unrecognisable from those practised at the elite level of sport, and they are better understood as elaborate athletic folk-rituals (along with other regionally popular spectacles such as bullfighting and Morris-dancing). – Dublin Dilettante

It is beyond dispute that football (and there will be no qualification of that term) is the game, indeed the primary cultural outlet, of the global working class. It conquered the world in parallel with the very processes which formed that class, rippling outwards from the British Isles along the earliest currents of globalised capitalism.

Enthusiasm for the game was immediate and uniform, throughout Latin America and Central Europe (except, initially, in Germany, where football was condemned as a malign foreign influence amid a vicious swelling of Teutonic nationalism, but survived and thrived nonetheless).

Curiously, however, those countries which proved most resistant to the game were precisely those which appeared best-placed to assimilate it, by virtue of their cultural ties with Britain.

Even today, football remains institutionally marginalised (though wildly popular amongst much of the general public) in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. South Africa is an atypical case, where majority rule has seen football displace rugby union, the sport jealously favoured under Apartheid as an exemplar of disciplined white supremacy.

Football had the misfortune to take the playing field at a time when all these societies were attempting to disentangle themselves from British influence, with varying degrees of urgency. But in order for the native elites of these countries to  preserve their own political and economic power, they needed a forge national identities which did not conflict with existing systems of ownership.

Cultural and ethnic differentiations were a means of short-circuiting the more radical currents of thought which emerged from anti-colonial struggles in the English-speaking world. Sport was a central battlefield in this cultural war, even in those places where the trenches had to be carved from virgin land.

The supposedly ancient Gaelic Games (and how weird is it that a sport should carry a racialising prefix?) were not actually codified until the 1880s; like so many feats of  “national awakening”, this was hailed as an heroic revival rather than an outright contrivance.

From the very outset of Ireland’s independent existence, the Gaelic Athletic Association constituted the sporting wing of the corporatist Irish state, a state which sought to bring all cultural, religious and social institutions under its control while allowing private capital to operate freely.  Gaelic Games were, in effect, the racial purity and brutal simplicity of De Valera’s Gaelic Ireland neatly encased in pigskin.

Professional football is a primarily urban sport in which the club-based structure tends to highlight local class tensions and divisions. Dublin’s clubs have their roots in unambiguously working-class communities such as Inchicore, Phibsboro and Ringsend.

Gaelic Games, by cunning contrast, are contested at the inter-county level (Ireland’s counties being more-or-less arbitrary parcels of land with no distinct socio-economic identity). It’s hardly surprising that this meaningless and unthreatening “county pride” is relentlessly promoted by the Irish media, political class and the massive multinationals which back the GAA to the hilt.

If you’re still not convinced that the GAA’s supposed centrality to Irish life is a political and marketing exercise, attempt the following:

Take a walk through any estate, park, or viable patch of grass in any major urban centre in Ireland. You will see gaggles of children breathlessly kicking, heading and dribbling footballs, just as – if not God, then some happy combination of human biology and human genius surely intended. (Indeed, it’s significant that football involves the head and feet – the organs of thought and dance – whereas catching codes express the acquisitive desire to grasp and manhandle, to fumble with the greasy ball).

By contrast, the only evidence of Gaelic Games you will encounter will be taking place within caged-off reservations festooned with civic and corporate sponsorship, or under strict and peremptory adult supervision.

The Gaelic, Catholic model of nationalism upon which the state was founded has largely fallen into disrepute in recent years. It has been replaced by Ireland Inc., a perverse concept which presents the “favourable business climate” as the bedrock of 21st-century patriotism.

But this novel definition of Ireland as a patchwork of taxation rates and share prices excludes the populace entirely, and makes for a vague and tenuous claim on their allegiance. And so the GAA must continue to be fostered, the atrophied black heart at the centre of the Irish state, the eternal reminder that your ancestors were every bit as unworthy and servile as you are.

The Day éirígí Saved Dublin

May 18, 2011

It won’t have escaped your attention that certain historic events are afoot in Dublin this week. How do we know they’re historic? Partly because every news bulletin hammers home the historic nature of the Queen’s historic footsteps through historic Dublin’s historic streets, in the historic course of an historic visit which will echo, historically, in the historic history books of historical history.

Yesterday, however, certain flies infiltrated the historic ointment. Like all the worst flies, they were, if the outraged histrionics of Middle Ireland were to be believed, dirty, disease-ridden and disgustingly common. Let me clarify a few things before I proceed. There are few sights which distress me more than Celtic jerseys and ranks of tricolours, especially when they’re combined. I will own to being fairly fanatically non- and anti-nationalist (in the broadest, rather than specifically Irish, sense.)

I don’t like eirígi. I think republican socialism is an oxymoron, an ideological ouroboros wherein the head devours the tail; that Connollyite national chauvinism of the éirígí/IRSP/CPI variety is a dead-end and intrinsically anti-socialist. I think attempting to shoe-horn the present political status of Northern Ireland into a classical imperialist paradigm is bargain-basement “national liberation” mumbo-jumbo of the most incoherent kind. I see no compelling argument for the inherent justice of this island’s territorial unification which doesn’t ultimately redound unto the purity or impurity of blood.

On that basis, I wasn’t particularly exercised by the impending state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland. I knew the obsequious, hand-chafing servility of our political establishment (now entirely composed of self-seekers and opportunists; a Fianna Fáil government might, strange as it sounds, have handled the occasion with marginally more dignity) would be fairly nauseating to behold, but also fairly easy to ignore. I knew the Queen was unlikely to deliver a thundering denunciation of our dole-paying, service-providing deviancy and demand that we cut further and faster, which placed her several rungs above most of our distinguished international visitors.

Demonstrating against her visit seemed, therefore, a needless and potentially misguiding diversion for the left to engage in. Yes, it’s possible to raise questions about the inherent absurdity of monarchy, and the Queen’s role as titular commander-in-chief of the British armed forces’ murderous operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and, not so long ago, Northern Ireland. But to be honest, it’s a wee bit of a stretch (particularly with the actual executive power behind those ongoing outrages shortly to arrive in person), and Bríd Smith didn’t make a great fist of it on Vincent Browne’s show last night.

There is something to be said for the notion that the Queen’s visit represents a full stop at the end of a traumatic chapter of enmity between the peoples of Britain and Ireland; having never been aware of any such generalised enmity, I don’t see it, personally, but nor do I demean it. Equally, it’s easy to see how the gilded spectacle of a royal visit fits into the timely and convenient infantilization of Irish culture, almost as a more stately postscript to last week’s Jedwardmania.

Two things changed my mind, not on the substantive issues, but on the significance of the event. One was the ring of steel off-handedly thrown around Dublin for the duration of both state visits, and the extraordinarily casual breaches of what liberals call (when they don’t belong to other people) civil liberties, far exceeding the disruption occasioned by any industrial action in recent years, albeit with a markedly different response.

The other was the gathering realisation that the Queen’s visit was being used by our establishment to, as Hugh Green so deftly put it, “draw a line under Ireland’s revolutionary history.” Now that Ireland has graciously extended the fair hand of reconciliation to Her Majesty, we could finally see that tumultuous process of dangerous, ideologically-tinged extrication from the vampiric clutches of empire for the jejune, but above all outmoded, preoccupation it is; and certainly as nothing which holds any relevance today.

Equally, if not more, notable was the shock and awe campaign which constituted the unprecedented Garda presence on the streets of the capital. A stage-managed, bouquet-strewn popular euphoria might have better served the narrative, but there was a more important principle at stake. This was power communing with power, to the very definite and very conspicuous exclusion of the people. If you thought these were your streets, upon which to exult or excoriate as you saw fit, then, to coin a phrase, you could jolly well grow up and move on. It was an opportunity (denied the government by the low-key nature of the IMF’s presence) to reassert the violent and exclusionary power of the state, and the impotence of the people, in a way which hadn’t presented itself since the student protests last winter.

The most visible challenge to this enforced consensus came from éirígí. Well, that’s not strictly true. In fact, most of the violence (such as it was) seemed to emanate from unaligned or differently-aligned republican groups, but éirígí, being tainted with socialism, was a better fit for the low-life, simian, working-class refusnik caricature for which Middle Ireland lusted so.

Before I go on, let me add a few more disclaimers. I’m not so desperate for a foretaste of revolution that it quickens my blood to see the cops get a decent chasing, and I don’t think there’s anything heroic or particularly smart about small groups of young people without popular support throwing things at the police (in fact, a revolution could be quite neatly defined as the point at which it becomes unnecessary to throw things at the police.)

There is no justification, moral or tactical, in present-day Ireland for acts of aggressive violence against the state security forces. Yesterday’s violence, however, while unnecessary and unfortunate, was, much like the police presence itself, largely symbolic. The only people endangered by it were the alleged perpetrators.

That said, it’s questionable whether any country in which the state’s repressive apparatus can mobilise officers in their tens of thousands, shut down the capital’s main thoroughfare, harass citizens going about their daily business, and NOT have things thrown at them has any right to call itself a healthy democracy. If you think the oh-so-delicate blossom of liberty is more threatened by a handful of working class youths lobbing missiles than by swarms of riot police excluding the citizenry from its own streets on prior presumption of guilt, then you weren’t paying much attention for most of the 20th century.

The purpose of this massive police operation is to reinforce the ideological lock-down which has existed in Ireland for (conservatively) the past three years. It is about the pre-emption of politics and the stifling of dissenting voices. Now is not the time for questioning, legitimately or otherwise, the role of the British monarch or the statements such visits make about the relationship of our ruling class to their international counterparts. Now is not the time for protesting about student fees, Corrib gas or public sector pay-cuts. We are in a state of emergency.

Those small bands of protesters, by their mere presence in the face of unprecedented intimidation in service of hegemony, refused to relinquish their own democratic rights and prevented the diminution of everyone else’s from going unchallenged. For that reason, I would quite happily bestow upon them an appellation which means nothing to me but may have some significance to them; patriots.

The Many Fathers of Success

January 4, 2011

Apologies for selfishly vacating my natural position in the revolutionary vanguard these past weeks. I’m afraid my inner counsel of despair led me to the conclusion that The Great Crash of 2008 represents, far from the impending demise of neoliberalism, its ultimate and final triumph. The crisis was a vast stress test, a worst-case catastrophe which confirmed, in extremis, the impunity of capital and the impotence of organised labour, and saw the latter exit stage right for the last time in its present form. Documenting the course of the malaise suddenly began to seem less appealing.

So, with the firm assurance that we are all going to hell and Circumlimina is of the company, let us ooze back into the slough of despond with some thoughts on the fiction of statesmanship.

This, of course, is prompted by the heroically deluded valediction of Patrick Bartholomew “Bertie” Ahern (even his name is a half-truth concealed within a lie.) Bertie, it seems, will be remembered (not least by himself) as the man who brought peace to Northern Ireland.

Historians, we are told, will judge Ahern more favourably than his myopic contemporaries, as the passage of time breaks down the encrusted filth of Bertie’s venality, low tricks and incompetence, leaving only the dazzling pearl of peace as his legacy. This may well be true; historians will, as ever, shape their judgements to suit the requirements of power. Thus it may well be that future generations grow up with Bertie the peacebroker, as their forefathers grew up with Dev the visionary.

It seems to me that the Good Friday Agreement presents us with two competing and incompatible theses – that of peace in Northern Ireland as an idea whose time had come, the product of two war-weary communities exerting slow but irresistible pressure upon those who purported to represent them by fair means and foul; or, alternatively, a thumping endorsement of the Great Man Theory of history, which posits that seismic societal changes are wrought when individuals with sufficient iron in their souls forcibly mould world events in accordance with their vision.

The problem for proponents of the latter theory, in this particular instance, is the motley and underwhelming nature of the dramatis personae. Bertie Ahern’s failings require no elucidation. David Trimble resembles nothing so much as a Northern Irish Alan Dukes, a kind of malignant didgeridoo. Gerry Adams may have seen the winds change earlier than most, but his subsequent flailings have revealed him to be entirely unremarkable (except as possibly the only man in the world with a bilingual beard.) It’s easy to see why John Hume was voted Ireland’s Greatest in a recent RTÉ poll. He’s a D4 radical’s dream, the acceptable face of liberal dissent, who bestrode the political stage like Karloff’s Frankenstein (with brain, but not charisma, intact.)

That still leaves Tony Blair, a man whose stalwart belief in his own destiny was a self-fulfilling prophecy which undeniably infected the course of the early 21st century. I saw Blair interviewed on TV recently, and felt that familiar chill which contemplation of the malevolently alien always engenders. The man is unquestionably a sociopath, inhuman not merely in his actions, but in his very nature. He’s certainly no evil genius; in some ways, he’s more stupid than Bush. Alternative viewpoints are literally incomprehensible to him.

In many respects, Blair is unique among the rogue’s gallery of British prime ministers. Plenty of them have been arrogant, heedless, aloof warmongers, but all except Blair grew up in circumstances which deadened them to the concerns and experiences of lesser lifeforms.

With Blair, it’s something different, some kind of inexplicable psychical lacuna which altered the course of history. There’s something in those wild eyes, those blokily dropped t’s, the unconvincing attempts at firmness and fierceness. Blair is a fundamentally disconcerting amalgam of General Franco and Cliff Richard, and undoubtedly the strangest man to attain fame in the modern era without recourse to incest, cannibalism or Big Brother.

So which do we have to thank for peace in our time? Popular pressure, or one man’s mania? I know what I’d rather attribute it to.

As for Bertie, well, what of him? Ruminating on his legacy is like dissecting the subtextual strata of the Transformers movies, it cedes him too much credit. Bertie Ahern did as the prevailing ethos of the Irish oligarchy and the European Commission required, until his personal appetites and lack of judgement dislodged the baton from his hands. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been some other fucking chancer. Case closed.

British Communism (BBC World Service programme, 1989)

May 10, 2010

Came across this recently. It’s a BBC World Service report about the future of British communism from mid-December 1989, smack bang in the middle of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Spacehoppers, Flares and Trade Union Militancy

February 25, 2010

With UK opinion polls inclining towards the possibility of a hung parliament at the forthcoming general election (although Lenin is sceptical), BBC Parliament deemed it opportune to re-broadcast the corporation’s election night coverage from February 1974, the last election which produced no overall majority at Westminster.

I waded through all six hours at leisure, as much in a spirit of televisual archaeology as historical research. 1974 was before my time, but the Life On Mars thesis of an irreconcilably alien world was borne out to some extent. In fact, everyone was so fucking ugly and ludicrously dressed that I’m surprised the birth-rate didn’t stall altogether.

Beyond the terrifying vista of a world made entirely of beige and hair, however, lay a televisual culture both strikingly familiar and oddly dissonant. The format of the programme was pretty much the standard fare which has survived into the present day: A chief anchor, a couple of eccentric psephologists, a tech kid, a panel of interviewees, some vox pops with inarticulate punters, a few weak humorous interludes, and a band of hardy foot-soldiers doing OB from the count centres.

Nowadays, of course, the emphasis has changed somewhat. The professional psephologists have been marginalised and replaced by graphical shock ‘n’ awe, the main presenter is flanked by a row of permanent and semi-permanent panellists, and the supreme imperative of speed results in an array of reporters standing under basketball hoops and trying to find varying ways of saying that they don’t have a fucking clue what’s happening yet.

What struck me most about the ’74 coverage was the performance of Alistair Burnet under a monstrous workload. Sure, he’s a slimy, oleaginous creep, but he played a blinder. With no laptop, no in-studio interviewees (all the strangely truncated interviews were conducted by Robin Day, tucked away in a poky corner of the studio) and presumably without a torrential surge of information flooding his earpiece in the modern fashion, he kept on top of events, exhibited instant familiarity with all candidates and constituencies, dealt with a breaking news story from Belfast, and didn’t flag once in the course of a six-hour marathon.

The election itself resulted in a minority Labour government which ruled for eight months until Harold Wilson sought a working majority. It also demonstrated the inadequacy of the British first-past-the-post electoral system, as the Liberals were left with just fourteen seats to show for their six million votes (a horse Robert McKenzie flogged endlessly and in vain.)

I’ve uploaded a few highlights which give a flavour of the politics, the campaign and the coverage.

First up, some marvellously old-school striking miners in Denaby reject claims of political striking by a hostile interviewer.

Burnet sombrely interrupts coverage of the election to report multiple bombings and a fatality in Belfast (including a later update.)

David Dimbleby’s round-up of the pre-election campaign, featuring Enoch Powell acting demented, Jeremy Thorpe (whom I was surprised to discover is still alive) sounding typically sinister, and a cast of assorted clueless toffs.

A plummy punter in Trafalgar Square who appears to have been animated by more than the spirit of liberalism (incidentally, “liberalism” is evidently a word to avoid when you’re pissed.)

Desmond Wilcox interviews the original Tory Boy.

Communist Party candidate Jimmy Reid gracefully accepts defeat in Dunbartonshire Central after polling almost 6,000 votes. He was one of only two unsuccessful candidates whose speeches were broadcast that night, for some reason. He’s now a member of the SNP.