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How Was Your Flight?

April 15, 2009 by  

Only recently found the manuscript of this short story which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in July 2000. It was inspired by a story I read in my youth, ‘A Tale of Terror’ by the British writer Thomas Hood, first published in ‘The London Magazine’, 1821


Richard found his seat, opened his briefcase and took out a book. He reached up and placed his briefcase neatly to the right in the overhead locker, followed  by his overcoat set carefully to the left and shut the locker. Most passengers had already boarded but there were still a number of vacant seats. At check-in he had tried to get a seat beside the window but had been told they were all taken. He glanced at the passenger occupying that seat, a middle-aged, silver-haired man wearing what appeared to be a lumber-jack shirt. It seems he had been waiting to catch Richard’s eye.  [Read on…]

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The IRA In Film

April 14, 2009 by  


The London ‘Times’ journalist, Kevin Maher, interviewed me for a feature on how the Troubles have been depicted on film. His feature was published on April 11th and can be read here in full.


Do films on the Troubles illuminate or just inflame?

By Kevin Maher

The Northern Ireland Troubles are back. Not on the streets, but on celluloid, where the dramas and the bloodshed of the past 40 years are suddenly springing to life in brash and variegated forms. We’ve already had the award-winning Hunger, which told the story of Bobby Sands through an unsparing art-house prism, all Bressonian close-ups and relentless physical punishment. On Sunday BBC Two aired Five Minutes of Heaven, an apparent true-ish story about a traumatised Catholic, played by James Nesbitt, who witnesses the murder of his brother at the hands of a Loyalist killer, played by Liam Neeson. Next up is Fifty Dead Men Walking, a preposterous action thriller inspired by the real-life story of the IRA informer Martin McGartland (who has since publicly disowned the film), and a movie that really wants to be Scorsese’s The Departed when it grows up.

There are bound to be more. For despite the recent murders of two British soldiers and a police officer (murders which all sides believe were spiteful and aberrant, rather than an ominous return to conflict), the relative peace of the new Northern Ireland has given artists and film-makers the creative leeway to examine the country’s painful past with impunity.

“There is definitely a greater openness that comes with the passing of time,” explains the writer and activist Danny Morrison, a former director of publicity for Sinn Féin, a former IRA member, and a spokesman for Bobby Sands at the time of the 1981 hunger strikes. “People are being encouraged to tell their side of the story. The only negative possibility is that we may become tired of it all. Although that doesn’t appear to be the case.”

Morrison adds, however, that the defining feature of movies about the Troubles, which can subsequently become a problem for those behind them, is that they are almost exclusively drawn from tales about the IRA. “Overwhelmingly, film-makers are attracted to stories about the Republican cause,” he says, citing a long list of movies, including everything from The Crying Game to James Cagney’s Shake Hands with the Devil, to John Ford’s The Informer. “It’s David and Goliath. You’re fighting the state. You’re the underdog, and people generally prefer the story of the underdog. I know it wouldn’t resonate well with victims of the IRA, but I believe an audience is much more receptive to that type of story. Which, for a film-maker, can mean being accused of making propaganda.”

Remarkably, Fred Cobain, the Chief Whip of the Ulster Unionist Party, is in complete agreement with Morrison. “Republicans represent the struggle of the small man fighting the big man,” he says. “Unionism, on the other hand, represents the Government. The Republicans are romanticised as being involved in some sort of human struggle against despotism, looking for democracy and freedom.” Cobain then adds the chilling rejoinder: “As someone who had a Republican gunman in his house one night, I can tell you there’s nothing romantic about it.”

Certainly, the IRA, as portrayed in Fifty Dead Men Walking, are straight out of the movie cliché rulebook. They are slick killers, denim-clad hipsters, tough-talking mobster leaders and they even count among their number a flame-haired Mata Hari type, played by the Hollywood starlet Rose McGowan; she casually seduces the hero McGartland (Jim Sturgess) before a bullet-ridden climax. These characters are direct descendants of the fiery Republican heavies played by Miranda Richardson and Adrian Dunbar in The Crying Game, or Natascha McElhone’s sassy super-operative Deirdre in Ronin, or a whole slew of compelling killers who have filled the cast list of populist movies such as The Devil’s Own, A Further Gesture and Patriot Games.

The Bobby Sands of Hunger, however, is the other kind of IRA protagonist. He is the introspective thinking man. He is the quiet, sensitive Stephen Rea in The Crying Game, the doe-eyed John Lynch in Cal, or even the tortured self-doubting Victor McLaglen in The Informer. These are men committed to their cause, but also deeply aware of their own humanity. Remember Rea’s Fergus in The Crying Game? He was utterly driven by feelings of guilt over a murder that he didn’t even commit.

Cobain says that he finds the lionisation of Sands especially hard to stomach. “Bobby Sands belonged to an organisation that incinerated innocent men, women and children,” he says. “And he is now held up as some sort of icon, and a martyr? If you’re a family who has lost a husband, wife or girlfriend to these people, how do you address that? How do you watch a film that says Bobby Sands was a martyr?”

Morrison, naturally, has a different appraisal of Hunger, and sees it as an example of the insights that movies might one day allow Northern Ireland to gain into the previous decades of dense political history. In particular, he says, the movie’s depiction of the violent and inhuman beatings suffered by inmates of the Maze prison in the 1970s has already had a profound impact. “At the time of the beatings, I was issuing four press statements a week describing prisoners with teeth knocked out, punctured ear drums, broken fingers and bleeding back-passages as a result of brutal internal searches,” he says. “But the authorities, the Government and 99 per cent of the media would not even accept that prisoners were being assaulted. Yet now, as a result of this one film, it is taken as read that this happened. ”

Impressive, yes. But with a tacit acknowledgement from both communities that the movies effectively belong to the IRA, the subsequent insights and revelations that they offer look likely to address only one side of the Troubles. The Protestant playwright Gary Mitchell (A Little World of Our Own) famously confirmed this when he announced: “I believe that there is a deep-rooted ignorance of the arts within loyalist communities. This is the reality I have always come across. That they do not trust drama. They will tell you coldly that drama belongs to the Catholics. Drama belongs to the nationalists.” (He was subsequently forced into hiding.)

Cobain sees no end to the dilemma. Though the temptation would be to hire some top-notch Hollywood scriptwriters to construct a modern movie mythology based around tormented yet slightly hip loyalist killers, he says that the answer is much simpler, and more decisive than that. “We need to draw a line under this and move on,” he says, warning that the backward-looking impulse of these movies, no matter how seriously profound, or how gloriously shallow, can bring nothing but misery to both sides of the divide.

“We can keep regurgitating these stories, but this community needs to go forward,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who has lived through this and isn’t sectarian, in a sense. But that’s a legacy that we’re hoping not to pass down to future generations. These movies are not part of the solution.”

The movie future he imagines is uncertain, and is perhaps filled with romantic comedies starring James Nesbitt, or musicals with Liam Neeson. But it is also unlikely. For despite the political gains made in the recent history of Northern Ireland, the gun-slinging underdog remains an irresistible iconic draw. Let’s just hope he remains on the screen and off the streets.


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Bradbury’s Place

April 10, 2009 by  

9th April.  Finished my children’s story, ‘Bradbury’s Place’, which is about a fat cat that has to go on a diet. It is probably far too ‘fat’ at 4,500 words.

8th April. Finished reading ‘Franz Schubert – A Biography’ by Elizabeth Norman McKay.

6th April. Did interview with Radio Foyle re the recent release of British documents.

Issued statement to the ‘Irish News’ in response to its coverage. I said: I welcome the release of documents by the British government under the Freedom of Information Act, though I believe that

their withholding of one or two particular documents is deliberate and mischievous.

What is of interest is that a close reading of the documents supports not the sensationalist construction that the ‘Sunday Times’ and others has put on them but what republicans have contended all along, that the British government did not want a settlement on terms acceptable to the prisoners and that they played along with the delegation from the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.

It has been known for decades that the Republican Movement and the British were in contact in July 1981 during the hunger strike. As a result of that contact I went into the prison hospital on Sunday, July 5th, and told Joe McDonnell, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine, and told Brendan McFarlane, the leader of the prisoners, separately, that we were in contact and the details of what the British appeared to be offering in terms of the prisoners’ five demands.

Because the prisoners at the end of the first hunger strike had experience of the British reneging on promised offers, and this reneging had led to the second hunger strike, the hunger strikers told me that they wanted a representative of the British government to come in and stand over what was on offer. Now, what the British were offering fell short of the five demands but whether it would have been enough to end the hunger strike was never put to the test because the British refused to meet the hunger strikers and stand over their offer. So there was never a deal.

Those people who criticise the leadership for faithfully representing and echoing the five demands of the prisoners and trying to maximise their gains, especially after four hunger strikers had laid down their lives, would in all likelihood be criticising the leadership if it had tried to force on the hunger strikers acceptance of just one concession or two concessions from the British.

Among the documents still being withheld by the British are the one whose contents were delivered verbally through an intermediary on July 5th and which I delivered verbally to the hunger strikers and Brendan McFarlane; and the one which the British rewrote hours before Joe McDonnell died on July 8th but which neither we nor the hunger strikers were given. They rewrote it, according to the newly released material, to alter its tone in response to a request, they say, by the Republican Movement. Crucially, if we accept this document then it indicates a Republican Movement anxious to settle, not prolong the hunger strike.

The only reason the British could have for continuing to withhold this statement is simply to create and sustain confusion. These documents should be read alongside the timeline the Bobby Sands Trust has detailed. These documents also tally with a background interview from 1986 with a senior prison official, Sir John Blelloch, which he did not anticipate being published, but which the Trust released a few weeks ago. In that interview Blelloch states: ‘There was absolutely no change in the government’s position.’

The documents in the ‘Sunday Times’ say: ‘The statement [the one still withheld – DM] contains, except on clothing, nothing of substance which has not been said publicly… It has been made clear (as the draft itself states) that it is not a basis for negotiation.’

This was the real position of the British government and it is being lost among sensational claims which, unfortunately, are bound to cause pain to the families of the hunger strikers.

5th April. BBC Radio Foyle rang in relation to internal British documents from the July 1981 hunger strike period which had been published in the ‘Sunday Times’ and asked would I do an interview. Thought about it and agreed to do it as secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust.

4th April. Read a review of a new crime novel by Declan Hughes called ‘All The Dead Voices’. It is a great title and reminded me that in 2002 I had to pay the Samuel Beckett estate a couple of hundred pounds to use that title for my memoir!

3rd April. Chaired the official opening of Beech Grove Café on the Falls Road and introduced Mayor Tom Hartley.

1st April. Interviewed on phone by Kevin Maher, The Times, who is writing a feature on ‘The Troubles and Movies’, or something like that!

31st March. Spoke along with writer Declan Hassett at Cork’s 6th Lifelong Learning Festival at the Triskel Arts Centre. Read from Rudi. Great response. Visited the Mercy Hospital [where several scenes from my new novel are set] and was given a tour by the deputy head. Later, in a second hand bookshop bought ‘The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse’.

25th March. At AGM of Féile an Phobail I was re-elected to the management committee.

23rd March. Visited wake of Marie Moore. Wrote letter to ‘Irish News’ responding to criticism of Martin McGuinness by ex-PoW Paidric MacCoitir. I said: I can understand my friend Padraic Mac Coitir [letters, 21st March] being angry at the use of the term ‘traitors’ by Martin McGuinness but I do not accept his analogy between criticism/condemnation of today’s dissidents and criticism of those of us who formerly supported/engaged in armed struggle.

Context is everything, especially the conditions in which we fought, including the level of military oppression. Whereas the armed struggle maximised the negotiating position of the nationalist community and broke the Orange state, I have yet to read a manifesto from dissident groups, or even an interview with a spokesperson, which explains how they hope to improve upon the gains that have been made, achieve their objectives and win general support. If they actually did get to the negotiating table on whose behalf would they be negotiating? And what would the situation be if 10% of the organisation [assuming they can become a monolith] was dissatisfied with the outcome and decided to ‘bomb on’? Would the tail be perpetually wagging the dog?

I think the mainstream Republican Movement has been remarkably measured given the abuse it has had to take from a minority of republicans over the past decade.

Nine years ago, the Irish Republican Writers Group produced a magazine, Fourthwrite, which in its first issue spoke of Gerry Adams as “a modern day de Valera” and accused Sinn Fein of doing the job for the British of keeping the people “fat, dumb and happy.” Another author spoke about a British counter-insurgency strategy to “mould leaderships whom they could deal with”, which in the insult stakes comes not far behind calling someone a collaborator. Other harangues spoke of the “republican leadership being in the pay of the British government.”

A prominent member of the IRWG was the main moderator for the website, the Alternative Republican Bulletin Board (ARBB). Among its postings was speculation about who might be MI5’s agent Stakeknife. Among the suspects it named myself, Jim Gibney, Tom Hartley, Martin Meehan and Alex Maskey. Here is a flavour of some of the things it published: Stakeknife “must be Gerry Adams. His book was a flop… If it [his money] didn’t come from MI5 then he must have stolen it from the Republican Movement.” Or this: “It’s not Paddy Doherty. He works for the Special Branch.” Or this: “Can I have £10 on Martin McGuinness…”

In another section called ‘The Angry Rebel’, the following post speaks volumes for a perverted mentality: “We shall never forget you Paddy Sands. Your death on hunger strike in 1985 was the catalyst for the struggle which has achieved all the goals we ever wanted.”

So, after nine years of such ‘comradely’ criticisms, sniping from the wings, insulting wall graffiti calling him ‘a traitor’ and a litany of abuse often anonymously expressed, Martin McGuinness lost his temper.

I believe that those republicans opposed to the political process which emerged from the peace process are thoroughly outnumbered by the diametrically-opposed views of other ex-lifers, ex-blanket men, former women prisoners and ex-hunger strikers in support of Sinn Fein policy (which appears to be the case given the level of involvement of ex-prisoners in Sinn Fein and its support in the republican heartlands).

This minority is actually saying to the men and women who served imprisonment for their beliefs: you have no right to make up your own minds about strategy or the way forward for the people, for your children.

As I see it, it is that insult which is the real insult and is something to be really angry about.

21st March. Learnt of the death of Marie Moore –an bean uasal to the prisoners on protest in the H-Blocks.

18th March. Spoke in Jury’s Hotel to group of US law, history and politics students, organised by Professor Garry Jennings.

17th March. Came across document given to me several years ago, an interview with Sir John Blelloch [a senior official at the time of the hunger strikes] by Padraig O’Malley when he was researching for his book, ‘Biting At The Grave’. Had read the document at the time and then forgotten it but now realised its significance because Blelloch had given the briefing as background material on the understanding that it was not being used and so perhaps was speaking less guardedly. In it he states that in relation to the offers being made around July 1981 that there was no change in the British government’s position. Will post it on Bobby Sands Trust site.

16th March.  My review of ‘The Truth Commissioner by David Park has just been published in the online scholarly journal of AEDEI, the Spanish Association for Irish Studies –

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Wenige wissen…

April 10, 2009 by  

“Few know the secret of love” was a poem by the mystical poet Novalis which Schubert set to music. Although it is a setting of religious music I think the implicit sadness of the lyrics apply to Schubert who died a bachelor and whose illness precluded any meaningful romantic attachment.

I love Schubert’s music. Some years ago I read John Reed’s book on Schubert so now this Elizabeth Norman McKay book is the second biography I have read and is as arid as the former, through no fault of either writer given the dearth of primary sources. Nevertheless, you will always learn something from a book, even an unworthy one though clearly this does not fall into that category.

By all accounts, Schubert, who died of syphilis and who drank too much, was an unassuming and unprepossessing character. He believed that it was through suffering that powers of inspiration and imagination could be heightened. He was born in Vienna in 1797 and died aged just thirty-one on November 19th, 1828. His and Beethoven’s remains were re-interred in 1888 and are now in the Musician’s Grove of Honour in Vienna’s Simmering cemetery, which I hope to visit in May.

So, some extracts from the book. It says that throughout his life “he seems to have been remarkably uninterested in attending performances of his music even in Vienna, and singularly unconcerned about their reception, placing little value on the reactions of audiences in general”, yet this is later contradicted by evidence that he despaired that his music would not be properly recognised and cherished.

He was prone to depression, particularly in his last years. There is a quote from one of his letters from 1824: “In a word, I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world… ‘My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall fine it never and nevermore.’ I may well sing every day now, for each night, I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday’s grief.”

From an early age he was “deeply opposed to belief in ‘one catholic and apostolic church’, as his righteous indignation in the summer of 1825 at memorials to the Lueg pass massacres exemplifies.”

That is a reference to a massacre by Tyrolese soldiers of Bavarian troops and the Catholic celebration of that massacre.

McKay states that Schubert was not depressed or sombre during the composition of the first twelve ‘Winterreise’ [Winter journey] songs – the music inspired by the poems of Wilhelm Müller. In ‘Winterreise’ the “traveller, the poet, the rejected lover, the singer of the songs, walks away from the girl he has lost (to a socially more acceptable suitor) and the district where she lives and he has courted her. He is a victim of despair, overcome by self-pity, misery, loneliness, and pain in an empty, hostile, and frozen landscape.”

By the time he composes the last twelve songs his declining health shows in the darkness of the music, “a cycle of grisly songs” as he described them in a letter to a friend.

The story of ‘Winterreise’ fascinates me and I am sure it influenced Hesse given the plot and theme of ‘Knulp’, which has inspired the novel I am currently working on.

Franz Schubert by Elizabeth Norman McKay, Oxford University Press