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Borders, Identity and Language

September 29, 2009 by  

My address to the Planet K conference in Venice: Some years ago IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands wrote a great poem called ‘The Rhythm of Time’. In it he paid tribute to the uprising of the Roman slaves under Spartacus, to the Aztecs and Incas who were butchered by the Conquistadors, to the native Indians in North America and to Irish republicans who had fought British rule. In this canvas which covered the history of the world he points out that oppressed people will fight for freedom because they know that their cause is right.

In another poem, called ‘I Would Like’, the Russian Yevgeny Yevtushenko also pays homage to internationalism. In his poem he says that he would like to be born in every country and have a passport for them all and he would like to speak every language.

“I would like to be

reincarnated as a man

in any image:

a victim of prison tortures,

a homeless child in the slums of Hong Kong,

a living skeleton in Bangladesh,

a holy beggar in Tibet,

a black in Cape Town,

but never

         in the image of Rambo…[!]

“And I would like happiness,

but not at the expense of the unhappy,

and I would like freedom,

but not at the expense of the unfree.”

Revealingly, in the last lines of this long poem he confesses that when he dies, despite his internationalist sentiments, there is only one place he wants to be laid to rest and that is in his “Russian, Siberian earth, on a still-green hill, where I first felt I was everyone.”

Yevtushenko is acknowledging his love of his homeland and the magnetic pull of the homeland, and that we are precisely who we are because of parents and brothers and sisters, and that the strongest influences on us are what we learn at the hearth and in the home and how we locate ourselves in the land, the town, the country of our birth and the history with which we identify.

Eva Hoffman left Poland for the USA when she was fourteen and later wrote a book called, ‘Lost In Translation’. She wrote:

“The country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love… All it has given me is the world, but that is enough. It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colours and the furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured: no geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations.”

Historically, displacement, dispossession, bullying by superior powers is part of the sad and tragic history of humankind.

But we need to distinguish between two main types of human migration.

There are those who march into other people’s territories heavily armed, who seize control, who try to make the conquered territory in their own image by colonisation and who then write history to justify the ‘inevitability’ of their actions, almost as if they were carrying out the will of God [and they usually claim that God is on their side!].

We know they are actually carrying out the will of man – greedy, avaricious man. Traditions will be outlawed and the native tongue banned and criminalised in order to produce a uniform society, a society which is obedient but actually culturally impoverished because the more languages, books and literature there are in the world the richer it actually is.

Those natives who resist being evicted from their homes or driven off their land or being subjugated as slaves in their own land are demonised as being savages or criminals or, if they rebel, ‘terrorists’.

Although the ‘wretched of the earth’ as Franz Fanon described them, have often been either driven into the squalor of ghettoes, reservations and (allegedly, temporary) refugee camps, and felt some safety in their numbers, the real inventors of borders and those who decide to partition nations are outsiders, are imperialists, the ruling classes, those with power and fire-power. And to seize and control land and resources they will use all means from genocide to cultural imperialism. For them those with lesser powers are “lesser people, with lesser rights, morals and claims.”

It is this oppression that provokes resistance and armed struggle: the need for people to morally assert themselves even if means suffering, imprisonment and death.

The second type of migration is that of people fleeing poverty, pogrom or oppression – or even in pre-history just seeking new pastures because the productivity of the land has been exhausted and could no longer sustain the population. At first people went on foot; later, the introduction of efficient means of transport allowed people to travel vaster distances, to other continents.

When people migrate in large enough numbers they actually change the demographics of the new land. And although they have known what it means to suffer and hunger they often ignore the rights of those who were there before them.

They ignore what Yevtushenko said:

“I would like happiness,

                        but not at the expense of the unhappy,

and I would like freedom,

                        but not at the expense of the unfree.”

These immigrants can be as brutal towards the indigenous people as the imperialists with whom they often act in conjunction when their interests coincide. It happened to the native people of the Americas: it happens today before our eyes in Palestine. In many cases, the colonists, ironically, often become “natives” of the land they occupy and within a few generations often break away from the ‘mother’ country, so to speak.

My grandparents were born in an Ireland that was united, where there was no border. Of course, the people who dominated politics, the land, the economy and the military were the minority who originally came from our neighbouring island, Britain, dispossessed the natives and settled in Ireland. They were Protestants, the native Irish were Catholics, and these Protestants believed that their interests lay in union with Britain. Initially, the British, or English, banned and tried to stamp out the Catholic religion because it was linked to Irish nationalism. Later, it was Irish Republicanism, the IRA and Sinn Fein, which Britain tried to suppress.

As the British parliamentary system began to be reformed and the right to vote was increasingly extended to Irish Catholics the Unionists/Protestant minority realised that democracy threatened their privileged position.

In the war of independence the IRA fought the British and there were negotiations in 1921. But Britain then decided to partition Ireland and an artificial state was created – Northern Ireland. It was a sectarian state handed over to Protestants. Catholics, who made up one third of the population, suffered discrimination and violence. They were second-class citizens in their own country. Their votes did not count. Many of them had to emigrate to find work.

The border – as borders notoriously do – cut through people’s homes and farms. At the home of a friend of mine in south Armagh, the border ran through his bedroom which meant that when he goes to bed his head is in the Republic of Ireland and his feet are in the North of Ireland!

When I was young, and growing up in the North of Ireland, it was an offence to fly the Irish national flag, the Tricolour. We were not allowed to celebrate our culture. We were not allowed to march in Belfast city centre. Even our marches in our own areas to commemorate our patriotic dead were banned and attacked by the police. Irish sporting events were not broadcast on local BBC radio or television. The unionist government was hostile to all things Irish, including the Irish language.

The Irish language had been in decline for a long time, due to restrictions under British rule and, of course, the language suffered a devastating blow in the wake of the Irish famine in the mid-nineteenth century when a million people died and two million other people emigrated to escape disease and poverty.

But there were those in the Irish language movement who kept the native language alive, even in the North.

The greatest boost to the Irish language in the past 25 years actually came from the prisons. There, Bobby Sands and his comrades who died on hunger strike, and other IRA prisoners learnt and spoke Irish so that their jailors would not understand what they were saying. When prisoners were released they taught their children Irish. Irish schools were opened and have now flourished so that there is an important revival and even in West Belfast, where I live, there is a quarter in the Falls Road dedicated to promoting the daily use of Irish in coffee shops, in business and transactions.

As a result of the peace process and the Belfast Agreement which established a power-sharing government, there is financial support for the Irish language. In fact, the Education Minister is Caitriona Ruane, a fluent speaker and a member of Sinn Fein.

When I consider other struggles for freedom and nationhood that are still continuing I realise how lucky we in the IRA were. Although the complete independence of our country has yet to be achieved we were able, firstly, through a peaceful civil rights movement, then through armed struggle when peaceful protest had gone to its limits, to force our enemy to the negotiating table.

It was a long, hard struggle and involved many sacrifices. The dead were many. The injuries many. If you add up the total time spent in prison by our men and women since 1970 it comes to over 100,000 years.

All that suffering and death was completely unnecessary: the deaths of civilians, British soldiers, police officers and IRA Volunteers. It was unnecessary because had Britain and the unionists given at the beginning which they were forced to give at the end then there would have been no conflict – or at least no conflict of the magnitude which took place.

What Britain refused to do was to talk to us, was to engage with us. It claimed that to enter into talks was to give legitimacy to its enemies, without realising that what interests and is important to those engaged in struggle is justice for their people and not for the enemy to recognise them as freedom fighters in some sort of perverse ‘beauty competition’.

There is nothing to lose by talking. But by refusing to talk, governments and states protract conflicts and usually calculate that to delay the inevitable is to their advantage – that their opponents will be weaker and will accept less than what they have been fighting for or what they are due.

Our peace process in Ireland is still going on even though we have a power-sharing government which includes former IRA guerrillas. We are still linked to Britain but we are also linked to the rest of Ireland, even though there are two separate economies and political cultures which are each eighty years old and which it is going to take time to change.

But we have changed things to the extent that the state I now live in is not the state I grew up in. Opportunity is open to all our people. We got rid of the unionist police force, the RUC, and have a new policing service. The British army is no longer in occupation on our streets There remains a lot of work to be done – in community relations and in reconciliation, in social and economic harmonisation – and although there are some Irish republicans who oppose the new deal they are in a minority and do not have sufficient support to affect the overall situation.

Recently, a friend of mine from Canada was visiting us and we were driving from Belfast to County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. My wife and I decided to play a game with her. It was very simple. She was to guess when we crossed the border. Two hours later we arrived on the west coast of Ireland, looking out over the Atlantic, and she asked, “I thought you said we had to cross the border?”

We laughed. She hadn’t noticed. Nor could she.

There is no marking. No customs posts. No British army barbed wire checkpoints. Of course, the border and partition still preoccupies and obsesses the minds of many unionists, but the border, as a frontier of divide, as a bulwark against the Irishness of this island no longer exists.

For those still in struggle, still fighting for independence and freedom and an end to outside interference we Irish republicans offer our well wishes, offer our solidarity and can share with you the lessons we have learnt in the struggle for peace and justice.

Illustration is by Kurdish artist Ilter Rezan, ‘Untitled 2009’


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Ezra Pound

September 29, 2009 by  

29th September. At unveiling in City Hall of official portrait of Tom Hartley as Mayor of Belfast, 2008-2009.

24th – 27th September. At the Venice Biennial for a conference, Planet K, dealing with the Kurdish situation from a political/cultural perspective on the subject of ‘Borders, Identity and Language’. Was looking forward to meeting the Turkish-Kurdish writer Yaşar Kemal who has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature but who was unfortunately unable to participate because of a fall and hip injury.

Visited the graves in San Michele in Isola of Ezra Pound, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Baron Corvo/Frederick Rolfe. Remember reading Rolfe’s ‘The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole’ in February 1971 when a friend and I, in freezing cold weather, stayed in my grandparents’ abandoned cottage in Islanderry, outside Dromore. English-born Rolfe died of a stroke in Venice in 1913.

US-born Pound was often called the “poet’s poet” because of his influence on 20th century writing in English. In 1908 he published his first book of poems. During the Second World War he broadcast anti-American propaganda on Radio Rome and supported the Italian dictator Mussolini. He was seized by partisans in 1945 and handed over to the American authorities. He was jailed in harsh conditions in Pisa where he wrote ‘The Pisan Cantos’, which is an autobiographical account of his time in detention, “a man on whom the sun has gone down.” He faced trial in the US for treason but was pronounced “insane and mentally unfit for trial” and spent twelve years in a hospital for the criminally insane. After his release in 1958 he returned to Italy where he lived with his long-term mistress, Olga Rudge. He died in 1972, she in 1996, and is buried alongside him. YouTube features an interesting eight-minute long documentary on Pound, here

23rd September. Read ‘Murder in Time’ a quaint, little crime novel by Elizabeth Ferrars, part of Penguin’s Crime Club Choice, published in 1953. Part One of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Peace in Our Time – And What Followed’, for which I was interviewed, was broadcast tonight. Part Two, next Wednesday, 30th September will be available for one week here

20th September. At Croke Park for Kerry victory over Cork in the all-Ireland final.

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All The Dead Voices

September 15, 2009 by  

My memoir, ‘All The Dead Voices’, was published in 2002 but has now gone out of print. It was launched in Culturlann by the Mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, and there was a large crowd in attendance. However, just before the launch, when the representatives of Mercier Press opened the boxes of books sent up from the Dublin warehouse they discovered that the printer had sent the wrong book! We managed to get some copies from a variety of bookshops in Belfast but still there was not enough to go around.

Anyway, it is now available for downloading for free as a PDF document, here.


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Making An Elephant

September 12, 2009 by  

How other writers work and compose interests me; which is why I often read many books which provide an insight into the writing life. There were several positive reviews of Graham Swift’s ‘Making An Elephant’ some months back and so I ordered it from my local library. The interesting aspects outweigh its flaws – for example, it is a bit too self-indulgent (the forty pages of poems; the gushing references to tales of bonding with fellow writers despite Swift’s declared penchant for solitariness), and it appears to be an exercise in preserving for posterity earlier material of which the author is clearly proud.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and read it in a few days, about 70 or 80 pages at a time, even though I suffer from eye strain. My sight has deteriorated over the years and I have recurring, running tears from my left eye (which gives the impression particularly in the cinema that I am crying!).

I love Swift’s honesty. He says that “writers are basically just people who are trying to organize their confusion”. He records that he turned up at various readings or launches when there was no audience. He appears to be in thrall to no one.

About his writing life he says: “My fountain pens are very precious to me and I would never take them out of the house. I’ve written three novels with my current pen and all the others were written with another fountain pen, which died, but I still have it. I’m very much a hand-writer.”

Interestingly, given what creative writing students are normally told he says:

“My instinct goes against the advice that writers are often given: ‘show, don’t tell’. In many cases you should show rather than tell, if that effectively means show rather than explain. But the word ‘tell’ is a great word. It means more than just the simple ‘I am telling you this thing.’ We use it in so many ways. ‘I can tell,’ means something quite different from the business of relating something; it suggests knowing and understanding, a seeing into the situation. There are times when what you have to do is not show, which would be almost the easy, even the evasive thing, but find a way of telling.”

As a result of reading this book I shall now go and read Montaigne’s essays, ferret out the work of Russian writer Isaac Babel and the Czech author Jiri Wolf.

Babel was a short-story writer noted for his war stories and Odessa tales. As a soldier in the war with Poland came the stories ‘Red Cavalry’ [1926]. The ‘Odessa Tales’ were published in 1931. The cycle of realistic and humorous sketches [and here I am paraphrasing from Merriam Webster] of the Moldavanka – the ghetto suburb of Odessa – vividly portrays the life-style and jargon of a group of Jewish bandits and gangsters, led by their ‘king’, the legendary Benya Krik. After the mid-1930s Babel lived in silence and obscurity. In May 1939 he was arrested and died in a prison camp in Siberia on 17th March 1941. And just for writing words.

I learnt that it was Babel who penned that often quoted sentence that “no iron can pierce the heart with such force as a full stop in the right place.” When I read that I was thrown, because in my prison notebooks (around 1994) I have attributed that quote to Maupassant. Somebody must know who is right?! Here are some quotes form Babel’s writings that I found on the internet.

A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.

Beyond the window, night stands like a black column . . . A shadowy radiance lies on the earth, and hanging from the bushes are necklaces of gleaming fruit.

Both of us looked on the world as a meadow in May – a meadow traversed by women and houses.

No steel can pierce the human heart so chillingly as a period at the right moment. [No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.]

Now a man talks frankly only with his wife, at night, with the blanket over his head.

On Sabbath eves I am oppressed . . . O the rotted Talmuds of my childhood! O the dense melancholy of memories!

The bee of sorrow had stung his heart.

They didn’t let me finish. [To his wife, on the day of his arrest.]

You’re trying to live without enemies. That’s all you think about, not having enemies.


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Graham Swift

September 11, 2009 by  

11th September. Read ‘Making An Elephant, Writing From Within’ by Graham Swift, author of ‘Waterland’ and ‘Last Orders’. I saw the book reviewed only recently, ordered it from the Falls Public Library and – hey presto! – in it came a week later, brand new in hardback, and I am the first reader.

Did interview with Ciaran Bradley, a student of an MA in Politics and Irish Studies from the University of Liverpool, re his dissertation: Governmental censorship, paramilitary pressure or public indifference: A study into the impediments to investigative journalism during the Troubles’.

7th September. Finished ‘Unlikely Soldiers’ by historian Jonathan F. Vance. Although a tragic story about two young Canadians, Ken Macalister (30) and Frank Pickersgill (31), who joined the SOE, were caught in France within days of their parachute drop (before they could actually carry out any operations), were tortured and died in Buchenwald concentration camp, the book is written in a pedestrian fashion and failed to engage.

2nd September. Interview with Tara Mills and Rachel Hooper for BBC Radio 4’s programme, ‘The Westminster Hour’, on whether politics and the media in the North have moved towards a more ‘normal’ news agenda in the last ten years.

28th August.  Interview on Thatcher was broadcast on local BBC’s ‘Newsline’, summary here –

25th August.  Interviewed by Dr Graham Spencer (Reader in Politics, Conflict and the Media School of Creative Arts, Film and Media, Portsmouth) for a feature he is writing on ‘Catholicism and Republicanism’.

24th August. Interviewed by BBC journalist David Maxwell re the legacy of Thatcher on Ireland.  Meeting with John Killen, Linenhall Library, to plan a lecture in November on the centenary of James Joyce’s visit to Belfast in 1909, to be given by Dr Jörg Rademacher, Germany.

15th August. Was a guest speaker, along with former prisoners Sile Darragh and Mary Doyle, and Francie Molloy, at meeting in Dungannon, chaired by Michelle Gildernew MP, to commemorate the 1981 hunger strikers.

14th August. Wrote a short piece for a book that is being published in time for Christmas by my friend Jo O’Donoghue at Currach Press. The book is called ‘My Mother Always Used to Say’ and is being edited by Valerie Bowe who had been gathering maternal words of wisdom from well-known people for years and also envisages the book as a monument to her own mother. All the proceeds are going to educational initiatives for single mothers in Dublin’s inner city (where Valerie is a community worker) as part of the Lourdes project.


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Available for Downloading

September 7, 2009 by  

‘On The Back of the Swallow’ is now available for downloading for free in PDF format. It was my second novel and I wrote it whilst imprisoned in the H-Blocks. It took about thirteen months to write. In August 1994 I was on my first parole and officially launched the book in the Green Cross art shop on the Falls Road. Reviews were mixed and the novel was reviewed ad hominem. The worst and most hostile was by Aisling Foster in the ‘Irish Times’ who repeatedly dragged in the conflict and my imprisonment in her sneering review, titled ‘Rewriting society as fiction’.

“Intrigued, impressed, charmed and irritated” wrote Sharon Barnes in the magazine, ‘In Dublin’.

“Just misses the mark” said the ‘Cork Examiner’.

“A courageous book” said Vincent Banville in the ‘Sunday Press’. “The author, because of his republican associations, will get an amount of publicity, but let us hope that the book, which is a more than worthy realisation, does not get overlooked in the general hoo-hah.”

Writing in the ‘Irish Press’ Kate Shanahan said: “There are passages so good that one can predict that the writer is on the threshold of becoming a new voice in Northern Irish literature. Unfortunately, the sharply observed dialogue and characterisation of one section may be weakened by over-statement and self-conscious dialogue in another…

“[T]he final section of the book, which deals with Nicky’s arrest, interrogation and incarceration in prison has a cinematic scope that is quite outstanding…Taken a step further, this novel would translate well into a screenplay…

“For some people, its author will always be seen in his persona as a former spokesperson for the Republican Movement. Whether you agree with his politics or not, on the evidence of his book, Morrison is a writer first and foremost and one worth watching in the future.”