Participating in the Human Race

Many, many years ago I edited the magazine of St Paul’s Youth Club, a club set up, I think, by Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Peel and Billy Burns, a very pleasant, middle-aged bachelor who was shot dead by the British army during the Falls curfew.

The magazine covered youth club activities, stories about bus-runs, a few poems – though no politics as Canon Montague would have disapproved. I introduced a fashion-page which I asked Marian McCurdy to write so that she would have to talk to me and work late on editorials. I wrote the pop page. One of the earliest journalistic lessons I learnt was that if you say something controversial you will receive attention, excite interest and discussion, though not, in our case, sales, as the magazine was free.

In one issue I wrote that Paul McCartney’s song ‘It’s Just Another Day’ and Perry Como’s ‘It’s Impossible’ were both crap.

“It’s impossible,
Tell the sun to leave the sky,
It’s just impossible…

“It’s impossible…
Ask a baby not to cry,
It’s just impossible…”

Followed by more, followed by:

“Impossible! (hmmmmm)
The club was based in an upstairs classroom of the old school in Cavendish Square were pimply Peter Fox and I, in a surprisingly large space on our own, used to show the hotpanted girls how to dance. On the Tuesday after the magazine came out I was surrounded by angry McCartney and Como fans who told me in no uncertain terms that my opinion was crap and, furthermore, I didn’t know how to dance or kiss.

Anyway, my jibes were fairly innocuous and I don’t think I ruined the careers of either crap singer. Which brings me to my subject: revisionist journalism.

In itself, historical revisionism (the challenging of received wisdoms and notions, sorting out facts and realities from shibboleths to arrive at more honest, objective and informed interpretations) can play a very positive, educative role. Unfortunately, most revisionist historians and their allies in the media have tended to produce merely a propagandistic, anti-republican interpretation of history to shore up British rule, or to tell us that the 1916 Rising was unnecessary, Pearse howled at the moon, and life under old Stormont represented the Good Old Days.

On one occasion, in the ‘Irish Times’, Kevin Myers got so carried away with himself that he described dead IRA Volunteers as the offspring of a sow’s litter. The ‘Sunday Independent’ routinely went out of its way to be controversial, constantly attacking and deriding, not just republicans, but even John Hume for his peace efforts. But it wasn’t just in journalism that these attacks were made. Last year, Colm Toibin in his introduction to ‘The Penguin Book of Irish Fiction’, extolled the writer John Banville who in his Irish novels as far back as 1973 made “fun of rebellion and land wars and famine”, which is as about as funny as cracking a joke about the Holocaust.

Many of these newspaper commentators were shattered by the IRA’s cease-fire, given that they had spent the previous years claiming that the peace process was a sham. They had to shift their attacks to other subjects, such as Travellers and, more recently, asylum seekers and refugees.

But two weeks ago the ‘Sunday Independent’ crossed a line when its columnist Mary Ellen Synon launched an incredible attack on the Paralympics in Sydney, describing them as “grotesque” and “perverse”. Physical competition, she said, “is not about finding someone who can wobble his way around a track in a wheelchair, or who can swim from one end of a pool to the other by Braille. Yet we are supposed to imagine that there is some kind of equivalence in value between what the cripples do and what the truly fastest, strongest, highest do. There isn’t.”

Synon went on the radio that same day and defended her offensive remarks (as did the paper’s editor the following day), assuming in her usual arrogant fashion that she was untouchable, a trail-blazer cutting a swathe through Ireland’s bleeding-hearts and do-gooders. Little did she count on the backlash. John Dolan of the Disabled Federation of Ireland eloquently rebuffed her charge: “Those athletes she describes as cripples, the lame and the blind,” he said, “are trying very hard to participate in another race – the human race.”

In the end, Synon and the paper were forced to apologise, but only after calls were made for a boycott of the paper and for a ban on advertising by the various Regional Health Authorities.

No disabled athlete wants sympathy, nor to be patronised, just to be treated as equals in their field, and to be free from abuse and hatred.

‘The Sky’s The Limit’, a group of young adults with learning difficulties, based at the Suffolk Day Centre, have performed before large crowds in Clonard Monastery and The Waterfront and have given audiences great enjoyment. They dance, they act and they mime and we approach and appreciate them on special terms, admiring the effort they put into their performances, the obstacles they have overcome, the confidence they exude, the pride they take in their achievement.

It isn’t Riverdance (though Synon probably hated that also) or the London Palladium or Broadway. It’s even better than that. It’s human beings communicating with each other and loving each other for what they are. Something that Mary Ellen Synon doesn’t know how to do.