Archive for July 13th, 2010

Last night's recreational riot offering (Niall Carson / PA via AP)

As the brown stuff hit the fan in Northern Ireland over the last two days, I got into a bit of hot water for saying scuzzbuckets on both sides are incapable of letting go because they’ve no other identity than being an opponent, an archenemy…and bog all else to do in-between, despite the amount of money, pipe-dreaming and rejuvenation of the last 16 years. Within a few hours of last night’s recreational rioting You Tube Clips were up on the net, complete with Kaiser Chief’s I Predict A Riot sound-tracks. It’s summer time and the kids need something to do…

After spending three and a half years there, living in neutral, Catholic and Protestant areas (my last address was a rented coastal castle house with a Ranger’s Club at the end of the garden), I felt it would be inappropriate to let it all pass without comment. I attended University there, half-enjoyed a stunt in a tabloid, a summer in PR and researched/wrote a non-fiction book about a paramilitary moll, the sum total allowing an opinion regardless of who that pleases or riles. There seems to be passport-type rights when hauling ‘Northern’ hypothesis about which is a kind of partition of the mind!

And talking of passports, a lot of folk ‘up there’ happen to have a harp on theirs too. About 45% of the NI population aspire to unite with me, allegedly. What goes on is my business because unity would have massive social and economic implications for me and the society I live in. This is, after all, one island with ties of blood, commerce, ideas and history. In my opinion there’s an essential design fault in Northern Ireland that hasn’t been fixed despite agreements and power sharing – namely, sectarianism. Even on the day of the IRA ceasefire back in September 1, 1994 (it was 24 hours old) foundation stones were being laid for a new peaceline which would cut up a park into Catholic and Protestant zones in north Belfast.

People are educated separately, they play different sports, they don’t even share common sports facilities and fields, more than 90% of public housing is segregated, and so on. Obviously children growing up in that environment will see the “other side” as the constant unflappable enemy, even in so-called peace times. I’ve seen this first-hand with kids as young as six. Fond memories of escorting a German photo-journalist around the ‘walled’ areas of Belfast two summers ago and tiny kids on both sides lobbing stones at one another. “Those Orangies are nasty and threw them stones first,” a 6-yr-old freckled girl told us. “My Ma said ye can’t trust those Fenians,” an 11-yr-old boy explained when we drove around the other side to see who was throwing the stones back. It quite took my breath away. The first place they were hearing the sectarian sludge was at home.

Children of the ceasefire are definitively learning the bad lessons of the past. On the republican side the dissidents have a powerful if warped argument. Sinn Fein continues to laud what the IRA did – and what its street army of rioters got up to – during the Troubles. Therefore riots against Orange marches even in post ceasefire 1990s were a legitimate expression of communal anger. They commemorate and lionise those who took part in these protests as well as those who bombed, killed and maimed. Now suddenly there’s an ideological 360-degree turn which nationalists must accept. That any more of that kind of thing is wrong and unacceptable. To which the dissidents will say to both SF and crucially the kids spoiling for a fight in places like Ardoyne: just keep on doing what successive generations were doing, you are no different from them. Unless someone takes the axe to the root and tells a new generation that all that violence, both terrorism and street disorder, was futile and wrong, others will keep emulating it.
On a purely social ground the nihilism and destructiveness of youth in the North knows no bounds. In Lurgan they attack a train linking both main cities on the island of Ireland and endanger the lives of their fellow passengers. The overall damage is going to cost millions but to a generation brought up to expect that the state will pay for everything, financial considerations mean nothing. They won’t have to pay the bill! There is a collective lack of public responsibility that is not being tackled. Why? Because during De Troubles it was easier for the Brits to throw money at the problem as a means of counter-insurgency. This ‘strategy’ somewhere along the line became habitual. That’s why there’s more “community” workers than real workers in the North! It has one of the highest rates of civil service workers per capita in Britain. I saw this most glaringly when I applied for ‘Disability Living Allowance’ (DLA). The visiting doctor who came to my house to assess me admitted they were “too scared” to refuse applicants from flashpoint areas like Ardoyne, Shankill, Falls Road, Tiger’s Bay, etc., for fear of repercussions. It’s easier to process the paperwork and flush away any potential grief. I knew of someone who was getting full DLA benefits – including a people carrier, because they romanced a terrorist during the Troubles and were handily claiming ‘depression’ from this dating decision all these years later. The money was spent on silver wallpaper, holidays, DFS couches and bikini waxing.
Last night’s recreational rioting made me sick on so many levels. A journalist pal rang to say people were “sitting outside on their garden furniture” in the Ardoyne, drinking beer, cheerily watching the riots in the way most people do with a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A young boy aged about 10 was on his mobile to his mum telling her he’d be home soon if the “cops don’t lift me”. The new mini street armies are desperate to reclaim the hallmarks of a war they weren’t even born in time to recall. It’s a strange kind of sectarian serendipity, is it not? And as for being from Dublin and having an opinion on it, you don’t own the North matey, you just happen to live there.

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Flannery O’Connor

It was fellow Irish writer Claire Keegan who introduced me to Flannery O’Connor. Claire eulogised about Flannery so much at a class I took with her, that I ran out that day to buy Flannery’s first short story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. Before that I thought (presumed?) that Flannery was a man, possibly Irish. That was about twelve years ago and I have been a lover of Flannery’s work ever since. I’m re-reading that first collection now and still finding things to marvel at in it.

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1925; she was an only child and her great grandparents had emigrated from Ireland. I dislike the expression, ‘she was before her time’, because it’s an impossible thing – Flannery was of her time, obviously – but she had a modern outlook and was a sassy woman, despite being a devoted Catholic. Like many female writers, Flannery didn’t marry or have children – art and family life are often a poor mix. She did have plenty of close male friends but lost one to the priesthood and another to marriage with somebody else.

She believed in using authentic language in her stories – the language of her homeplace – and she did this to great effect. Her characters’ voices get into the reader’s ear and are totally believable. Her style is straightforward with occasional flashes of brilliant imagery. Though her fiction is often rough and harsh in subject matter, it’s also funny and moving. She doesn’t shy away from difficult things: motiveless murder, suicide and violence are some of her themes but there is always a subtle morality beating around the edges of the narrative. Her female characters are strong and opinionated, sometimes not altogether likeable, but they are always feisty and individualistic, which I love.

Flannery herself seems to have been mildly eccentric – she was obsessed with birds: she made suits of clothes for her chickens as a child and kept up to forty peacocks at one time. She suffered from lupus (the disease which killed her father) and was often ill but when she went to Lourdes she said ‘I prayed for my book not my bones’. She didn’t have any time for the romantic image of the artist as lonely and sensitive, believing instead that the artist should live fully in her community. Neither did she believe in ‘sinister calculation’ on the part of the writer – she thought writers should just write – and the ‘learned and literary interpretations’ of her work often appalled her.

Flannery O’Connor died at the age of 39 from lupus; she wrote two novels and 32 short stories. If you haven’t already read her, seek her out. She’s well worth it.

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Ethics go home!

The eagle-eyed Anna Carey brought the epically racist and fear-mongering (well, for racists) front-page headline of today’s Daily Express to our attention.

At first, I thought it read ‘One in 5 Britons Will Have Ethics’. Which, presumably, will preclude one in 5 people from reading the Express, no?

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Are there any women here?!” bellowed John Cleese to a bearded rabble in one of the opening scenes of Monty Python’s 1979 satirical smash-hit The Life Of Brian. Set at the time of Christ, Cleese played a Jewish official overseeing the stoning of a man convicted of uttering the name of God and the crowd were actually women in fake beards, their gender prohibiting any involvement in the heretic’s punishment. Death by stoning seemed a ridiculous enough notion on the spoof film’s release over thirty years ago and yet is a method of execution still in use today.

Which is why the case of Sakineh Mohammedi Ashtiani in Tabriz, Iran, has caused such outrage. Although it’s difficult to present clear details on the case when Iranian journalism is heavily censored, the facts state that since her husband’s death some time before, Sakineh engaged in ‘illicit relationships’ with two men, was found guilty of such in 2006 and sentenced to 99 lashes of the whip. This punishment was carried out but when one of the men was later charged with the manslaughter of her husband, she was apparently tried for complicity in the murder, acquitted and sentenced to death by stoning for adultery at the behest of the judge, who had the power to overrule a jury verdict based on his own ‘knowledge’. He believed that if she slept with the man who killed her husband after his suspicious death, she must have been entangled before the murder. There are more details which remain unclear – the unsubstantiated allegations of involvement in her husband’s death, a retracted confession which she claims was made under duress and her ability to speak only Turkish and not the Persian language Farsi which put her at a disadvantage in a court of law. Perhaps the international interest in this case is a nuisance to Iranian authorities but if their media were uncensored and human rights policies were not so completely out-of-line with their inclusion in the United Nations, to put it blithely, they wouldn’t have this problem. As it stands, Iran reneged on an agreement with the U.N. to allow a Torture Inspector to visit the country in February this year and as yet, there have been no alternative measures to facilitate this crucial investigation. An informative post regarding Iran’s gender-aparthedist regime and its contravention of U.N. Human Rights on the Status of Women, complete with sample letters and contact details, can be found on Mission Free Iran.

Building pressure from public petitions and human rights watchdogs in the last few weeks led the Iranian justice system to issue a statement: “Stoning to death exists in our constitution and our judiciary cannot change its course just because of pressure and campaigns by the West.

So while some reports suggest otherwise, the fate that awaits Ms. Ashtiani could be to hang but it’s just as likely that she may be buried up to the neck before men pelt her with stones until she dies. Another fifteen people also face a similarly brutal fate and the number awaiting sentencing is far higher.

The penalty for adultery under Article 83 of the penal code, called the Law of Hodoud is flogging (100 lashes of the whip) for unmarried male and female offenders. Married offenders may be punished by stoning regardless of their gender, but the method laid down for a man involves his burial up to his waist, and for a woman up to her neck (article 102)
Article 104 of the Law of Hodoud provides that the stones should not be so large that a person dies after being hit with two of them, nor so small as to be defined as pebbles, but must cause severe injury. This makes it clear that the purpose of stoning is to inflict grievous pain on the victim, in a process leading to his or her slow death.
[www.wfafi.org] Click for short .pdf of Laws Against Women in Iran.


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Every July, hundreds of directors, producers, actors, broadcasters and cinema-goers converge on Galway for the city’s annual Film Fleadh, a six-day festival celebrating Irish and international cinema.
In addition to screening a diverse selection of drama and documentary features and shorts, the Fleadh also hosts masterclasses with leading actors, directors and screenwriters; round-table debates between industry professionals and an X-Factor-style Pitching Award, in which five shortlisted writers present their ideas in front of an audience and a panel of judges in the hope of winning a cheque for €3,000. This year, the Fleadh boasted eight premieres of Irish features – not to mention the Irish premiere of Toy Story 3 – and, in the past, the festival has provided a launchpad for films such as His & Hers (2009) and Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty (2008).

Despite only spending two days at the Fleadh this year, I still managed to catch some interesting films, including:

This wonderful feature documentary by first-time directors Ross McDonnell and Carter Gunn follows a number of American beekeepers as they struggle to protect their livelihood from the threat of the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” which has been decimating the honeybee population in recent years. Despite all of the positive things I had heard about Colony, I avoided seeing it at both the Dublin and Guth Gafa Film Festivals, mainly because I suspected that a documentary about bees might well be coma-inducingly boring. In fact, this beautifully-shot film features a number of compelling and decidedly human stories, including that of the eccentric but likeable Seppi family, whose collective struggle in the face of adversity seems to mirror the labours of the industrious members of a beehive.

Counting Sheep
Like Colony, this purely observational documentary addresses the fact that, in many developed countries where small-scale farming is no longer profitable, the era of family-run farms may be coming to an end. The film centres around two brothers who work with their father as shepherds in the mountains of Transylvania, while their mother and sister are away in Germany, working on the production line in a zucchini factory. Over the course of a year, director Dieter Auner follows the young men as they carry out the work that has sustained their tiny community for centuries. Gradually, it becomes clear that shepherding is no longer a profitable way of life and in order to experience any real prosperity – in the form of a car; a hoover; a box of Pringles – the family is dependent on the money earned by the women abroad. Though the film felt a little long, it provided a worthwhile insight into a culture on the verge of extinction.

I must confess to being somewhat unclear on what the director of Hoodie, which won the jury award for Best First Short Drama, intended to convey with this piece. The central character is a teenage boy, who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. The film opens with the boy wandering down by the Belfast docks in the company of a sinister stranger, who proceeds to perform oral sex on our be-hoodied protagonist, until said protagonist changes his mind and escapes back to his leafy, middle-class estate. At home, the boy pointedly runs a bath, in a presumed attempt to wash away the guilt and shame inspired by his dockside encounter. In the final key scene of the film, after “Hoodie” has spent the evening silently watching television with his parents, he logs into a seedy online chatroom, where he is propositioned by his married, middle-aged neighbour, who suggests that they “wank cam2cam”. The boy seems conflicted but finally closes his laptop, an all-too-temporary escape from what, the film seems to imply, are the horrors of homosexual sex and gay life. While the film looks great and has an ominous score reminiscent of There Will Be Blood, it relies heavily on negative gay clichés – anonymous sex; the husband with a secret; the exploitative older man – to tell what can only be described as a truly pessimistic tale.

I also popped into the Directors In Dialogue talk, hosted by the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland, which featured an impressive line-up of directors, including the aforementioned Dieter Auner, Anna Rodgers (Today Is Better Than Two Tomorrows), Dylan Williams (Men Who Swim) and Joonas Berghäll (Steam Of Life). Williams’ and Berghäll’s films both explore masculinity and manhood in Scandinavia: Men Who Swim is about Williams’ experience of joining a Swedish men’s synchronised-swimming team while, in Steam Of Life, Berghäll travels to sixteen different saunas around Finland to interview a cross-section of Finnish men about love, loss, fatherhood, life and death. Even though I spectacularly failed to see either of these films, I’m hoping to get my grubby paws on the DVDs at the earliest possible opportunity.

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