Full Minds, Empty Hearts

'Reality damages your sight Close your eyes'

‘Reality damages your sight
Close your eyes’

By Estelle Birdy

Have you ever been at a series of quite enjoyable yoga workshops somewhere in the world and found yourself considering (however briefly) running over and doing a big shit in the middle of the teacher’s fancy yoga mat? Have you ever considered screaming “That’s not a fucking sentence! What are you even talking about? Do you even know? Lads, he’s saying nothing! This means nothing. Nothing at all”, if the teacher said one more time, “Open up to the higher” or “Mindfully attaining your highest”? I have.

Have you ever wanted to say to a Positivity Mentor/ Mindfulness Coach/Wanky-Wank-Wank-Wanker, “Really? You’re all about the positivity and positive vibes? Is that because you’re so damn mindful or is it because your nostrils are positively choc full of the finest Columbian White of a weekend?” I have.

Have you ever hankered to say, “Why don’t you go fuck your mindfulness instead of fucking your yoga students/yoga teacher trainees behind your partner’s back?” while listening to some tit telling you how enlightened they’ve become since washing their arse chakra or something? I have.

Have you ever wanted to ask, “How come you say you’d like to spend more time hugging your kids but you can’t because you’re stuck in the queue in the RDS to hug a sweaty woman called Amma? And Amma’s on the phone to her accountant siphoning funds out of the charitable foundation to which you donate, and into the fund to build another floor on her pink skyscraper in the Kerala jungle?” I have.

Have you ever pondered why someone doesn’t have the money to take their parents out for a meal and a chat and a bit of wise advice because they’re trying to repay the loan they took out to pay for their Life Coach? I have.

Have you ever thought you were descending into a dystopian nightmare when you read of yet another yoga/mindfulness organisation being involved in yet another  alleged sexual harassment/abuse case and find that the leader of that organisation describes complaining (about anything) as “more poisonous than ingesting a poisonous substance”? When the positivity nobility talk about complaining- about anything- needing to be stamped out of our lives? When the American DSM lists defiance of authority as a mental disorder? I have.

Have you ever felt that you’d finally died inside when you found yourself putting a ‘Corporate Wellness’ page up on your website, realising that now you had finally become everything you despise and just another cog in the wheel of blandness? Have you ever felt that if you wrote one more bouncy, smiley little description of your fairly ordinary yoga class, you’d puke? I have.

Have you ever heard anyone ever say, “I completed my mindfulness course and then I produced this amazing, earth- quake inducing, passionate piece of art/music/writing/dance that moved people to tears the world over”? No. Me neither.

In a basement bedsit on Lennox Street in 1990 or thereabouts, I sat and listened as a friend of the time, told me and a couple of other friends, about his amazing trip to the States to visit his mother.  His mother had got in with these ‘amazing people’ and specifically with one ‘amazing woman’ called J.Z. Knight. J.Z. was in the habit of ‘channelling’ a 35,000 year old Egyptian (I don’t think he’s Egyptian anymore) male entity called Ramtha. They’re always Egyptian or Native American and usually royal. No hod carriers or shit shovellers have the time to channel themselves into amazing American women, apparently.

So our friend, let’s call him James, got us to sit down and listen, huddled round a tape recorder, for the best part of an hour, to a recording of  this American woman clearly putting on a silly voice and repeating meaningless phrases over and over.  She or he (I’m sure gender is fluid in the world of really old entities) kept saying things like ‘that that is’ ‘if it were, that was and is’ ‘I’m J.Z. Knight putting on a silly pretend man’s voice and repeating meaningless phrases over and over in classic brainwashing technique style’. I made up that last one.  Completely devoid of meaning, Ramtha’s repetitive ramblings, were pure nonsense.  Listening to it made us soporific though, lulled us almost, but not quite, to sleep. At one point, there was a break when my now husband asked, without a hint of a smile, why Ramtha spoke in that strange staccato way and kept repeating stuff. “Is it because English isn’t his first language?” “Yes, I’m sure that’s why!” said James gleefully missing the hidden laughter in the question, “He’s only getting used to being channelled and he is 35,000 years old.” Fair enough, I suppose.  I didn’t openly laugh (Maybe I did. Perhaps I’m remembering myself as a much more respectful person than I actually was) but my belly hurt holding it in. Baz, the husband, nodded sagely and went back to drying the dishes.

None of us said anything of the order of, “Are you off your fucking head James, you fruitcake?” or “Brainwashing  much?”, although that’s what we were all thinking. No, we just left and laughed about it outside, talked about the weirdness in the pub, then forgot the whole episode.  I didn’t think about it again really, until recently, when J.Z. Knight cropped up in conversation.  A fella I know told me how he’d been upset to hear of the death of a former friend of his, who’d lived in the building where my yoga studio now was. She’d  got in tow with this one called J.Z. Knight, moved to the States to live in J.Z.’s compound and had wound up dead, seemingly by her own hand. Had I ever heard of this one, J.Z. Knight? Funnily enough, yes, I had. I’d heard her putting on a silly voice one afternoon on a tape recorder, 25 years ago. I looked J.Z.up when I heard about the Irish woman who had died. J.Z.’s very rich now. Her face is pinned back behind her ears, she’s expressionless.  J.Z. sued a woman who claimed to also be channelling Ramtha. J.Z. won.  Clearly, Ramtha’s familiar with intellectual property rights and J.Z. could prove legally that she was the only one channelling the real Ramtha. Or something. The other woman was a Life Coach and it was another Ramtha who was causing her silly voice. Obviously.  J.Z. gets caught on camera being drunk, abusive, threatening and racist. J.Z., (and Ramtha presumably) talk a lot about mindfulness these days.  Oh and J.Z.’s running a cult called Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment these days. American loons right?

And these days, I’m an insider in this world of mindfulness and yoga and whatever yer having yerself and lots and lots of things are beginning to look very much like Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. I’m an insider with a vested interest in people believing in this stuff. It’s how I make my living, such as it is. I need some people to come to my classes, there’s no point in lying about it. Although, whether anyone will ever turn up again after this is debatable.  The fact that I am an insider, came about quite naturally, as it happens. I had always been interested in mysticism and weirdy stuff. I’ve had quite a few interesting experiences which, it seems, most people don’t have. So, since I’d been reading about and practicing a bit of yoga and meditation since my late teens, I decided to go and get it properly explained to me by some kids-in-the-know, in the Dublin Buddhist Centre, when I was in my late twenties. I did a meditation course. It was five weeks long. We were taught two simple meditations, Mindfulness of Breathing and Metta Bhavana. One is counting your breaths really and the other is just calling to mind various people you know and sending them good wishes. They’re easy, there’s no bullshit and they work. They work, as in; they help to clear your mind and eventually lift the veil from your eyes and help you to see reality. That’s the point of mindfulness see? It opens up your mind to reality, in all its beauty and ugliness, in all its joy and all its suffering. It was never, ever, intended to be something that propped up its bland lie of a cousin, positivity, or caused people to ignore what’s in front of them. But that’s what it has become.

A yoga and meditation teacher I admire and who taught me a lot, tells his story of delving deeply into meditation. He’s the real deal. He went hard core. Spent a long time on silent retreat meditating in Burma with only occasional interaction with his Buddhist teacher. He tells of the transformative nature of this mindfulness practice. He also tells of his return to the States and his complete emotional and mental breakdown after he got there. His shaking with anxiety, his fear, his anger. He tells of how this was painful and horrible at the time but also completely appropriate and natural as he was seeing reality for what it was. Being present rather than Being Present™. The fog had lifted and the picture that the reality of day- to- day American city life presented, was not an altogether pretty one. Mindfulness was meant to be about really seeing that reality.  If mindfulness is about was being in the present moment (and I believe it is) then sometimes that present moment has something really, really bad happening in it. Ignoring that bad thing isn’t being mindful or present or whatever the latest blah word is, it’s being ignorant. The reality of life was what mindfulness was about and still is for many great teachers and practitioners (even some of the ones who now call themselves Mindfulness Coaches) but they are drowned out by the Positive Mindfulness Cult.  You can a take a weekend course or a Masters in mindfulness, whichever you fancy, and you too can become a Mindfulness Coach. No need for the difficult slow stuff anymore. Do a correspondence course and Buddha’s your uncle. That’ll be €90 an hour, thanking you.  This is mindfulness as competitive sport and you’d better not get left behind in the race to the bottom of bland. You’ll need that Mindfulness Coach and you’ll probably need some expensive leggings and the iPhone Being Present™ app.

The idea of mindfulness of anything is not new. It’s very old and it’s fairly simple. Mindfulness as we knew it had its roots in Buddhism and Hinduism but really, if you’re doing anything contemplative, from chanting in Glenstal Abbey to sweeping the kitchen floor while being fully aware of what you’re doing, you’re practising mindfulness.  Meditation was a tool for profound personal and societal change, grounded, first and foremost, in a code of ethics. Simple ethics like non-greed, non-violence, truthfulness. It was not, as a far as I was aware, something with which to stupefy the masses and get them to accept just about anything because, you know, “this too will pass”.  Stripped of its ethical roots, its difficulties sanitised, mindfulness has become an empty word and a useful tool to blind the plebs and make them believe they’re “attaining their highest” or “that that is and was”. One of the things that underpinned all of these Eastern practices was personal discernment. You were meant to consider everything you were being told carefully, go slowly, check whether each thing you were being told made sense. Use your own judgement. Even the feckin Dalai Lama warns people to spy on any teacher they might consider going to, for years. He says to watch your proposed teacher carefully. Check out how they behave in their ordinary lives. Are their ethics in accord with your own? Does what they’re saying make sense? Not that I’m advocating stalking here but has everyone lost their bullshit radar? If it sounds like bullshit to you, be open and consider it carefully, but if it sounded like bullshit at the beginning, it’s most likely to be bullshit at the end too. You’ll find the Positive Mindfulness Cult leaders spouting about the negativity of ‘judgement’ or ‘complaining’ all over the internet. Feel yourself coming over all judgemental when a teacher tells you that as long as your root chakra’s in order, money will flow to you? Chant Om a bit louder and you’ll get over it.

Rather than opening our eyes to reality, mindfulness today, seems to be about ensuring a hum-drum flow of ‘positivity’ Far be it from me to diss positivity. I have even, on more than one occasion, been accused of being a glass- half- full person myself! It’s just this false positivity that makes me want to chuck up my happy food. Only positive emotions are allowed in the Cult of Positive Mindfulness and very few emotions qualify for the ‘positive’ title. Anger, grief, fear, sadness are all negative emotions, apparently. It seems to me, from what I know of basic fucking physics, for every positively charged thingy, there’s a negatively charged thingy and that keeps everything in balance in the world. It’s not so in the world of the Positive Mindfulness Cult though. No matter how appropriate those ‘negative’ emotions may be in any given situation, there’s no need for the individual discernment that Buddhism or yoga or any long standing practice worth its salt, called for. Nope. Everything is glamourous and beautiful and smiley. This is mindfulness with a capital M, Mindfulness™.

Happiness is the only emotion that really counts and even then, this happiness is bland and unexpressive.  A mere beatific smile that never reaches the eyes. If you act too happy, you’ve probably got a mental disorder. Feel too passionate about something? Pills or Mindfulness Class™, you choose. Last week, I read of a woman reprimanded by the teacher at a Vipassana meditation, for her grief and sorrow at the death of her child four months prior. She mentions this phobia of emotions in this world of Mindfulness™. I agree with her. The phobia is everywhere. Not least in the workplace where mindfulness is the new discounted gym membership. The workplace is a venue for logic, not emotion. A place for mindful automatons. And mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness Om. A place to subtly prop up the patriarchy because emotions that are deemed feminine have no place here. The Positive Mindfulness Cult has swamped the building and if you feel some unease around that, that’s your own damn fault. Take a pill or go to a Level 5 Positive Spirituality Mindfulness Coach and get them to feed you some spiritual oneness soup for the soul. Either way, bland wins.

As you drown in a sea of hashtags and only positive vibes, productivity goes up and you no longer see the people drowning in the Med. No longer are you chained to all those negative emotions like, “I feel sad and aggrieved that I am enslaved to a mortgage, chained to this job, forced to accept any wage. No more do I feel anger at being forced by my enslavement to debt, to accept that I am lucky to have a job. For now my corporate employers provide me with the most wonderful Mindfulness™ classes at lunchtime. Who needs a union? My rights are all in my mind anyway. It’s my own attitude to pain that’s causing me this pain.”. Not only do you get back to your work station in a much calmer frame of mind but you can never sue your employers for workplace stress because look what they’re doing for you…

You step over the homeless drug addicted man to get into your yoga class. If you even notice him, you wish him well and accept his situation for him. If only he’d been more mindful, he might not have become depressed or got addicted to heroin. You can see your own reflection in every single highly polished surface of the anti-street sleeper spikes in the doorway of your workplace. Like a hundred little selfies each morning.

You’re glad of your amazing workplace. They froze your eggs for you, after all, so you can have a little baby when your career allows. No need to be mindful of the body clock or of fostering deep relationships. That’s all in a frozen canister somewhere.  You do your Mindfulness™ of a lunchtime and you should see your productivity! It’s through the roof man! In the background, maybe you know that you’re working to increase the profits of an organization that has investments in weapons that kill thousands of children, just like your own, currently frozen, future kids. Perhaps this fills you with a sense of ambient fear because you’re a human being and no matter how mindful you’ve become you can’t stop feeling connected to other human beings. Never mind. Work harder at your Mindfulness™ and flourish! If the uncontrollable shaking in your hands or your palpitations get the better of you, take another pill. The legal sort. You’ll get more out of your mindfulness class if your teeth aren’t chattering anyway. And sure the pills are made in Cork, so you’re helping the all- important economy. Any unease you have with any of this is your fault. Get a self-help book with a meaningless pseudo-scientific name that includes the word quantum and is filled up with phrases that take you round in meaningless circles until you don’t know your arse from your elbow.

Maybe you work for a nice big employer that produces stuff to paralyse, almost invariably, women’s faces. Keep on keeping on ladies. Soon you won’t have the burden of showing those negative emotions at all. Be mindful of the fact that by paralysing your face, not only are you reducing your ability to show emotion but you’re also reducing your ability to empathise with anyone else too! Soon that junkie you stepped over won’t bother you in the least and while you’re at it, your expressionless face is also helping the economy. The man on RTE said so, with a chuckle.

Eventually, we might all really believe that companies who go out of their way to avoid paying even the laughable 12.5% corporation tax in a country where hundreds of people lie on trollies in our two-tier health system, give a continental about the health, mental or physical, of their employees, other than to keep them at their stations beavering away to increase those untaxed profits? Eventually, when we all become mindful enough.

Of course, I could be completely wrong here. I know lots of people who are great teachers. I go and learn from them myself. I know lots of people who have done mindfulness courses and have found that it really helped them in their daily lives. I don’t want to hurt or insult any of these people (although I fear, I already have). It’s just that with the ever greater numbers of people doing this stuff, I just don’t see any great effects. Where’s the clear thinking? Where’s the change from a patently unequal world of violence and suffering for the many and riches and comfort for the few? Where are the societies based upon compassion and care? People are literally shaking with fear and anxiety all around me. Good people. Caring people. People say they’re depressed and they’re told it’s their fault, work harder at your mindfulness, take a few more pills. Teenagers feel something other than buoyant glitzy-selfie joy and they think they’ve got an illness. Whatever you do don’t consider that your depression might be utterly appropriate given the meaninglessness of your work, the burden of your debt, the poverty of your life and that of others.  Don’t ever think or feel something that messes with the positivity façade. While we hum and chant, the numbers of homeless people mount. We talk about the interconnectedness of all living beings but the child who dies in the dust of a collapsed Haitian sweatshop while making our brightly coloured yoga leggings, isn’t feeling too connected at all to Denis O’Brien’s sixty-million euro jet in Dublin.  If all this Mindfulness™ is so great, why is nothing getting any better?

I do hope I’m proved wrong. It might very well be that I’m just shit at Mindfulness™ and I’m bitter about that. I just see a world of drones being created. A world where everyone stays within their little box. No passion, no difference, just one long mindful blandness and then you die. No one’s grieving when you do, because that’d be negative, and you’ll come back anyway. Hopefully, if you’ve been extra good, as a Google employee. Om Fucking Shanti.

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”Why Grandmother, what big teeth you have’: Q&A on 1916 Commemorations

I received some questions from Ian Curran, an Irish journalist based in London, on the subject of the commemoration of the 1916 Rising in Britain and Ireland. My answers are below. Thanks to Ian for the questions.




1) With regard to the ‘Reclaim 1916’ project, what is it about the Rising, from your perspective, that has to be reclaimed?

I don’t know a great deal about the Reclaim 1916 project, other than what I’ve seen on its website, though I would be broadly sympathetic. For me, what marks 1916 out from what went before is the idea of rupture from the existing regime: you proclaim a republic and you set about creating it. In this sense ‘reclaiming’ 1916 feels slightly strange, this idea that you’re seeking to go back to what it was all about at its origin in order to begin anew. My perspective, I suppose, would be more along the lines of: what kind of institutions need to be built, what things need to be defended, what kind of struggles need to be fought, in the here and now, in order to make real the democratic ideals as expressed in the 1916 proclamation?

In another sense, however, I do understand the need to reclaim it. A few weeks back, on College Green in Dublin, there was a large banner hung as part of the 1916 commemorations. It featured four men who had nothing to do with 1916: Henry Grattan, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, and John Redmond. It turned out that the idea had come from the Office of the Taoiseach, the Irish prime minister. They were featured because they represent what is called the ‘constitutional nationalist’ position, which basically holds that whatever is to be achieved in terms of Irish freedom must emerge from established political and legal institutions, that is, the ones that England has allowed. The idea that the ‘constitutional’ path was the one to follow is often proposed in Ireland, in certain elite political and media circles, as a sort of counter-history to 1916. It proposes that had there been no violent uprising, had everything been conducted within the rule of law, then Irish freedom and independence could have been achieved without bloodshed.

This is the idea proposed, by Bob Geldof among others, and it has been round for more than a century. Roger Casement, for example, thought differently, though. If I mention him here it’s because he was recently described on an Irish state broadcaster news programme as ‘the Bob Geldof of his day’, which, in terms of an insult, is a great deal worse than urinating on Casement’s grave. His stance, as expressed from the dock in England, prior to his execution, is as eloquent a response as any to these circles: ‘We are told that if Irishmen go by the thousand to die, not for Ireland, but for Flanders, for Belgium, for a patch of sand in the deserts of Mesopotamia, or a rocky trench on the heights of Gallipoli, they are winning self-government for Ireland. But if they dare to lay down their lives on their native soil, if they dare to dream even that freedom can be won only at home by men resolved to fight for it there, then they are traitors to their country, and their dream and their deaths are phases of a dishonourable phantasy.’

So, there is a long thread of opposition to 1916 that continues to the present, and it rests, I think, on the idea that history is made by great men, notable statesmen -with the emphasis on ‘men‘, of course- and it is a matter for the rest just to obey, to choose their masters every now and again, and basically keep out of it. That idea is not confined to people who openly view 1916 as an abomination, however: even among those political parties who honour 1916, this view of history and politics -which is also strongly held in England- by and large prevails. It is a question for elite groupings to decide what’s what, and any challenge to this consensus is viewed, as Casement puts it, as a ‘dishonourable phantasy’. So if we’re talking about ‘reclaiming 1916’, I think it should be the sense that it is not simply the act of a small band of visionaries, but rather a key moment in a people’s history of Ireland: it arose as a consequence of popular agitation and struggle, notably women’s struggle, and the development of ideas, and it still remains that way in many people’s minds, however much others attempt to celebrate it as primarily the founding moment of the Irish State as it exists today.


2) How do you think that the ‘official’ commemorations of the Rising in Britain and Ireland have dealt with the legacy of the 1916? To what extent to you think that aspects of the Rising have to be fudged or de-emphasised to allow such a large programme of commemorative events to take place across Britain?

I know very little about how the Rising has been officially commemmorated in Britain. But at the heart of the Rising is the matter of the First World War, and the fact that Irish people were being called upon to go out and kill for Empire, as many had done in the past. One only has to look at the way the First World War is commemorated in Britain, with so much pomp and ceremony and so much of a sense that this slaughter was a righteous fight for the freedoms won in Britain today, to see that if there have been official commemorations of the Rising in Britain, and I assume they were organised by Ireland, they are unlikely to actually remind British people what the Rising was about. I do not think it likely that official Ireland will confront Britain with the bloodstains it created, or remind it of its blind imperial ignorance that continues to the present in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. There is also the question of the dirty war in the North, and so many people dying as a consequence of British forces using loyalist paramilitaries -when not the army proper- to inflict terror on the population. That ought to be as much a question for people who live in Britain -what does it mean to be a citizen of a state that commits such acts- as it is for people in Ireland, but it is given a wide berth by most people in both jurisdictions, not least because it gets so little official or media attention.

As for official commemorations in Ireland: central to the main ceremony outside the General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street was a show of power by the Irish State: the army on full display. Behind this lay a need, I think, to articulate the idea that the true heir of 1916 is the State that exercises a legitimate monopoly of violence. There were lots of people who were quite content to see the army deliver tricolours to Irish schools, and show off their guns on the day of the ceremony, because it was a way of signalling that the day of other groupings -in particular the Provisional IRA- laying claim to the right to armed struggle on behalf of Ireland, had passed.

What was more, the ceremony, in contrast to the 50th anniversary in 1966, was fenced off to the wider public so that only a select few could witness the events first hand at the GPO. So from my view there was an ugly militarism with an emphasis on State sovereignty that sought to evacuate any sense that 1916 was a people’s event. I remember a letter from John Montague to the Irish Times some years back, urging a Yes vote in the Lisbon Treaty, in which he warned portentously that Cathleen ni Houlihan -WB Yeats’s image for a sovereign Irish state- must not be a wallflower again. When I saw the pictures of the ceremony it was not so much Cathleen ni Houlihan but ‘why Grandmother, what big teeth you have’. Whatever the actual content of the Proclamation, however much the key figures of the Rising are proclaimed latterday saints, Irish elites have no commitment to democracy in any meaningful sense and I think the main ceremony expressed that quite well.


3) A few weeks ago I interviewed Ireland’s Ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall. He said that commemorating the deaths of British soldiers in Dublin was part of the “pluralistic” approach to the commemorations that the Irish State has taken. This is obviously something you disagree with. Why, and can you think of any other examples of revolutionary commemorations which pay respect to the dead on both sides?

The ceremony this Sunday past in Glasnevin Cemetary -where many key figures in Irish history are buried- is a case in point. A ‘Remembrance Wall’ was unveiled, with political and religious elites looking on, dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Rising and the events that followed. So you see James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army -who had been a deserter to the British Army and who had resolved to fight against everything it stood for- listed alongside soldiers from the South Staffordshire regiment that had massacred 15 civilians on North King Street. It looks like the great and the good think this is some sort of grand humanistic gesture, a recognition that any life lost in war is an awful loss. Well it’s one thing to recognise the dead, but it’s quite another to rid their memory of any kind of context or detail. Some people say that this thing could only happen in Ireland, but that is not really true. For example, back in 2004, in Spain, there was an official parade through Madrid’s main thoroughfare, and it included a member of Franco’s Blue Division, which fought alongside the Nazis, walking alongside a soldier from the International Brigades. From a standpoint that understands history and takes it seriously, this is completely absurd. But from a standpoint that seeks to eliminate any room for real political dispute and difference, it is quite logical. And what it says is that political dispute -which is a necessary element of democracy- is in and of itself violent and unacceptable. We are all in this together, and we cannot allow ourselves to fall prey to ‘dishonourable phantasy’. It just so happens that the kind of things that now fall into the category of ‘dishonourable phantasy’ are questions such as universal health care, the power of the financial sector over the rest of society, and public services as a matter of right.


4) Mulhall also asserted that part of the importance of commemorating the Rising in Britain was to raise awareness of the “interconnectedness” of our two histories. He sees it as part of the “wider process of reconciliation” between the two countries. What do you think is the status of this reconciliation today and how do you see the Rising commemorations interacting with that process if at all?

I think official ideas about reconciliation are mostly bunk and always have been. We need to distinguish here between the broad mass of everyday people on both islands on the one hand, and the machinations of the British and Irish States on the other. Like a great many Irish people, I have spent years living in England. I have friends there and family there. I don’t need any reconciliation with English people. We get on fine, and I would venture that this is true of most people. I have political objections to the role of the British State in Ireland, but I also have political objections to the role of the Irish State in Ireland. Does that mean I hate Irish people? The problem is the conflation of genuine and principled political objections with atavistic animosities, and elite groupings -the Fenian Proclamation of 1867 referred to them as ‘the aristocratic locusts, whether English or Irish, who have eaten the verdure of our fields’- who always talk up the latter as a means of avoiding the former.

There was a video released, it was played at one of the official celebration events, I think, showing individuals all over the world reading excerpts from the Proclamation. It was like an Aer Lingus and Private Health Insurance ad rolled into one, with people on Wall Street, Hollywood and in front of the British Houses of Parliament. And it was striking that for all the American accents reading the lines, there wasn’t a single English or Scottish or Welsh accent. The guy standing outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster had an Irish accent. So there was no recognition whatsoever for the generations of Irish people who had emigrated to Britain and had worked at building the place or staffed its hospitals. It doesn’t matter whether it was by accident or design: I thought it was sad and disgraceful. Why is it apparently inconceivable that an accent from Birmingham or Liverpool or wherever could read out the Proclamation?


5) Mulhall claims that it is “fundamentally unsound for anyone 100 years after an event to claim possession of that event.” He said that for any groups to claim political descent or credibility from the rebels is “flawed” and “must be resisted at all costs.” To what extent do agree with this and why? Do you think this is something that the Irish Government has been engaged in throughout this commemoration process?

In what sense do people claim ‘possession’ of an event? A large part of the world has long considered a crucifixion that took place thousands of years ago on a hill in the Middle East as ‘theirs’: it is an event that appears to them as true and in turn they commit to remain true to it, in a whole variety of ways, sometimes diametrically opposed. Clearly there are people who see in the Easter Rising something that holds true in their own lives, for whatever reason, and they identify with it. Whatever claims are being laid to political descent from the 1916 rebels, the most strident claim was made by the Irish State in its military procession. Should we resist that “at all costs” too? If so, the ambassador is really spoiling us with his calls to armed insurrection in the present.


6) Do you have any hope that the Rising centenary has revived republican sentiment in Ireland to any extent?

If it were to ‘revive Republican sentiment’, then we should ask: what kind of Republican sentiment? I think there is an interconnectedness of histories now that goes way beyond those of just people in Ireland and people in Britain. There are a lot more people living in Ireland now whose own personal histories stretch back to other parts of the world, whether Africa, India, Latin America, or other parts of Europe. And it is here I am slightly wary of the republican sentiment that sees things primarily in terms of State sovereignty, rather than a popular sovereignty that has at its core the extension of democracy to all areas of life and the active participation of all. The opening address of ‘Irishmen and Irishwomen’ in the Proclamation was undoubtedly radical at the time, but not so much now, except in one respect: women in Ireland are still not considered as autonomous citizens, as evidenced by the country’s draconian abortion laws. This is not only a vital matter for women, but also, I think, a vital matter in terms of how we see ourselves bound by the State. I have no interest in any republican sentiment that treats this kind of State, this kind of State sovereignty, as legitimate, and I am thinking in particular here of the carceral regime of Direct Provision, whereby certain people who come to this country are held in the most degrading conditions and denied basic rights because the State finds they do not fit the bill of desirability. No-one has the right to exercise such decisions over others. If there is a Republican sentiment to be revived, it is that part of Irish republicanism that finds common cause with the Universal Republic of the Paris Commune. I am hopeful, but I wish I could say it was likely.

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Memory, Anger, Betrayal: A Museum Visit


We had spent a good hour waiting in the queue to get in. In front of us were three teenagers. A girl and two boys. I got the feeling by the way they spoke and the things they said that maybe they were friends from some school or group for people with special educational needs. The girl and one of the boys were a couple, and from time to time they would smooch. If the other boy felt uncomfortable, he was good at hiding it. If the couple felt he was disrupting their day out, they were good at hiding that too. `

Behind us was a couple in their sixties, with their grandson. They were white, he was mixed race, around 9 years of age. The grandson was wearing a green fedora -maybe belonging to his granddad- that would blow off in the wind onto the decorative gravel. He would stomp off after it, relishing the crunching sound from the gravel under his feet. It was hard to place their accent. They were Irish but I thought that maybe they had been living in England and come over. The grandfather said to me that the Irish were great at queueing, a thought that had never occurred to me. No idea if it’s true, or how you might prove it, but my experience boarding trains in Dublin tells me otherwise.

It wasn’t the typical crowd you get at a museum in Ireland. For one, it was a crowd. Second, it was by and large made up of what people used to call, and sometimes still do, the plain people of Ireland. You never hear much talk about them on the airwaves, and you don’t see them much on TV either. When it comes to public gatherings, you’re more likely to see them at GAA matches than at museums, though not all of them will have the money to make the trip up to Croke Park if their county is playing. Many of them are poor and you can see it on their faces, in their dress, and in the way they carry themselves, as if they don’t want to fill out the space that surrounds them. They are warm and open and funny and caring and everything that those in this country who are not usually pretend to be.

When we eventually got to the door of the Rising exhibition, we were ushered in one small group of 10 or so at a time. The first thing you see are screens showing images of Ireland at the time of the Rising, captioned with facts about war, poverty, population and emigration. To your left there is a copy of the Proclamation on prominent display, and a voice reading it out, playing on a loop with a timer telling you when the next reading starts. With so many people around and wanting to get in you realise it is going to be hard to take in as much as you might like.

Personally, I don’t have much of a connection to the Rising or the Proclamation. As far as I know I had no relatives involved, since they were all living 80 or so miles up the road, and I don’t know anything about what those relatives 0thought about the events of the time. Whilst people in the south were taught about the great men of 1916 at school, I learned nothing about it in the primary school I attended, and later only in GCSE History, a subject that was optional. There were of course community organisations and groups and families that did treat all of this as part of their history, but it didn’t have much bearing on me. That the local GAA club was called the Pearse Ógs carried no deeper association for me. 1916 may or may not have weighed heavily on the brains of the people who were waging an armed campaign against the British State, but it wasn’t saying much to me. If anything, it was part of a backdrop I didn’t want much to do with.

When I was in primary school, still in the small children’s yard at playtime, there was a chubby awkward kid. His mother worked in the school canteen. One day we learned in the yard that his father had been shot dead by the IRA that Sunday. If I told you more about the circumstances, you might be able to find some explanation for it. You might be able to say that given the prevailing conditions, given the context, given the person in question, given the way others were being treated at that moment in time, it was inevitable that such acts would take place. And you might be right, and I might be able to agree. The next step in testing how firm your stance is might be to try the argument out on a five or six year old boy whose father has just been shot dead. If I mention this -I have plenty of other examples- it’s because it speaks to the fact that I grew up with a heightened wariness of the gap there might be between rhetoric and reality, a suspicion of things that come across as grand or heroic because of what they might obscure, and things like 1916 seemed to me like part of all that. However, wariness isn’t the same thing as wisdom. Wariness can be fed and exploited by others. Later on, as I read a bit more about it, I began to develop a fuller, more rounded sense of what that period was all about, but all the while keeping a certain distance: empathy – yes, sympathy – yes, admiration – yes, but it was not me looking upon ‘our’ history, as so many talk about it.

Something unexpected happened when we moved from the screens showing the historical images and approached the copy of the Proclamation and the recording of it being read out. It wasn’t so much a lump in the throat as the feeling you get after you’ve been hit full smack in the face with a football. I don’t know if it was intended as such but I listened to the audio as though it were a re-enactment of Pearse reading out the words in front of the GPO. There is a slick, officially-produced video in circulation at the moment featuring Irish people across the world reading out lines from the Proclamation. There are people standing in Hollywood, on Wall Street, and in front of the Eiffel Tower and the British Houses of Parliament. There are plenty of American accents, and accents from other places too. But there are none from Glasgow or Liverpool or Birmingham or anywhere else in Britain where so many Irish people have emigrated over the years. They read the words aloud with assuredness and poise. It is as though the Proclamation marked the beginning of a success story for globalisation. In the audio tape at the exhibition in Collins Barracks, however, the actor reads with an impatient urgency and it feels like a text written by people -ordinary people with shortcomings, not demigods- under conditions they have not chosen, people who have searched for the right words but they don’t know how it is really going to turn out, but you know how their story is going to end. The things they are calling for are -from the standpoint of today- reasonable and right, moderate if anything, and by taking a stand for them, by proposing to take what others will not give, they are going to be shot dead for it. What I feel hearing this is not some Kerrygold-greased feeling of exalted pride, or being in the midst of some grand historical sweep. It is anger.

Is one hundred years a long time? For me, at that moment, it feels like the executions happened a week ago. We proceed through the exhibition. The place is packed and the crowds are poring over every detail. The exhibits are accompanied by lots of text and the sheer number of people about makes it hard to take it all in. I’m familiar with the sequence of events and the groups involved but many other people seem more familiar, and for those who are not it’s a good introduction. I press the answers to a few questions into a screen and it tells me, BuzzFeed-style, that the figure I most closely identify with is Francis Sheehy Skeffington. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that in recent days I am sickened more and more by the thought of guns. When I see images featuring guns I find them repulsive, however just the cause that the images might celebrate. I have no doubt that there are times when firearms are necessary for the defence of just causes. But to have to resort to them is an awful and terrible thing, not a glorious one. James Connolly, one of those executed, wrote that ‘there is no such thing as humane or civilised war! War may be forced upon a subject race or subject class to put an end to subjection of race, of class, or sex. When so waged it must be waged thoroughly and relentlessly, but with no delusions as to its elevating nature, or civilizing methods.’ This is why I will not watch the military parade the following day.

We get to the part of the exhibition focusing on the men who were executed. There are artefacts laid out belonging to them: equipment, personal effects. You can pick up an audio device and listen to testimonies gathered from the dead. As I write this a headline pops up on a newsfeed: ‘1916 Rising leaders were ‘egotists’, Arlene Foster says’. Unionism has long looked upon ignorance as a virtue. You can hear from what is said that those who were executed were deeply worried about what would happen to those they were leaving behind, and for not having done enough for those who depended on them, but yet confident that they were doing this for everyone. There is nothing to suggest they wanted to die. This area of the exhibition is quite cramped, the spaces devoted to each of those executed are quite close together. You get the feeling that there is little difference between the dead men and those now going over the things they left behind. It is a public exhibition, but it feels intrusive, almost. It reminds me of a couple of things. These days when we turn on a computer screen we read text generated through light and electricity in the here and now. But the text itself, the thoughts and effort that went into creating them, could have happened ten or fifteen years ago. Sometimes this dissolves our sense of past and present: I have long exchanges in e-mails and social media accounts between me and people who are now dead. And yet when you read the messages it is sometimes as if they are communicating to you there and then. It isn’t like when you hold a time-worn letter in your hand. That is what it feels like. What it also reminds me of is an event I attended two years ago, in the upstairs of a GAA club. It was James Connolly’s shirt, on display beneath the glass, that stirred this memory.

Upstairs in the GAA club was a display laid out to remember a close school friend of mine who had been murdered, along with another classmate, while they were playing an arcade game in a taxi depot. A loyalist paramilitary had walked into the taxi depot unmasked, and shot them both in the head. My friend’s school artwork was on display, photos of his hurling team, medals he had won, his schoolbag, and his grey school uniform shirt. The shirt was from the last day of school, unwashed. Boys and girls in the class had scrawled their signatures over it in biro, marking what felt to them like the end of an era. I think I did, too. But I found I couldn’t make out any of the signatures. At school I knew most people’s handwriting, but clearly it was not something I had committed to memory. You never imagine you might have to.

I have read a great deal in recent days about the political lineage of the 1916 rebels, and what it is their actions are supposed to have produced. Some of the claims are reasonable, others are ridiculous but are still treated as serious. Into the latter category I would place the claim that the Rising was ‘undemocratic’. Religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities for all citizens, the pursuit of the happiness of the whole nation and all of its parts, self-government: these are all basic and quite modest democratic ideals, however much they are covertly despised nowadays by people who proclaim themselves as democrats. The people who made a stand for these ideals in the midst of a cataclysmic war for Empire were executed. In a truly democratic society, one that believed in reasoned debate rather than simply paid lip service to it, the question of democracy would need to be weighed against what the attitude of the ruling powers was toward it. The executions were intended to send out a strong signal that democracy, in fact, would not be tolerated.

Into the same category I would place the claim -which is entertained with some relish in Ireland’s newspapers- that the rebels were the precursors of Al-Qaida or Islamic State. No: if there are any reasonable parallels to be drawn in this regard, it is such things as ISIL laying siege to Kobanî and the Helga firing on Liberty Hall. And while so much has been said about the supposedly harmful legacy of the 1916 rebels, has anyone said anything at all about the legacy of Maxwell’s executions? Has anyone said anything about any precedent that this might have established? Has anyone thought to imagine that we might trace a line from Maxwell through to the likes of the LVF in the 1990s? We are talking about hundreds of lives here, ignored by all these evaluations that feign even-handedness and celebrate the grand events of state where none of this is ever mentioned. It is conventional wisdom in Ireland that the British forces made a miscalculation in executing the rebels, because of the public reaction that created the groundswell for independence. Yet when this is spoken of as mere error or miscalculation, the question that they had any right to do any such thing is set to one side, accepted as a given. Has anyone considered, in these weeks supposedly dedicated to remembering, that the British forces might have subsequently learned from their errors, and that the strategy and tactics of a dirty war -supplying arms to paramilitary death squads as a means of terrorising the population- would prove more effective in achieving political aims in future? If they have, I have seen no evidence for it, in any of the coverage devoted to commemorating 1916.

Part of me wishes I could stop being angry about all this. Part of me wishes that the filament of anger inside me that I have had for decades. that began to overheat as I went through the exhibition, would fizzle out, once and for all. ‘Anger is an energy’, sang one child of working class Irish immigrants to England. But if anger as an energy can be a spur to action and enlarged sense of empathy, it can also degrade and erode. ‘They put a hot wire to my head/Cos of the things I did and said/And made these feelings go away/Model citizen in every way’. I’d be lying if I said it did not seem easier at times to let these feelings go, and become a model citizen ready to forgive and forget in accordance with whatever is being proposed. But overall I’ll take anger over betrayal any day.


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The Begrudgers

I wasn’t expecting much from Ireland’s 1916 centenary commemorations, and I’ve paid little attention to what has been written and broadcast about it. This is in part because I haven’t had the time, and in part because I just prefer to look at these things in my own time. It is also because my head has been poisoned for decades now by the kind of rubbish that by all accounts is being pumped out with renewed vigour by Ireland’s media, with the usual suspects given pride of place.

The Rising is not beyond criticism. It would be absurd for any democrat to suggest that it is. But it’s one thing to call into question this or that aspect of it, or assess its legacy dispassionately, and quite another to disregard any kind of serious historical thinking as a means of suppressing real thought and debate. In this regard it’s no coincidence that plenty of the prominent voices most critical of the Rising, its aftermath and present day ramifications, are not only supporters of Ulster unionism and contemporary British and American imperialism, but also Islamophobic bigots and longstanding supporters of the murderous racist and colonialist state of Israel. Such people are more than happy to give full-throated support to acts of violence in the here and now that far surpass anything that the 1916 rebels engaged in. What’s more, their concern for the victims of such violence here in Ireland does not extend to anyone brutalised or murdered by the British State in the 100 years since the Rising, nor for what it might mean to live as a citizen of a State that perpetrates such atrocities.

Nor is it any surprise that their explications of the event resort to crude ahistorical caricature about ‘tribes’, ‘the Irish DNA’, ‘blood sacrifice’, ‘terrorism’ and so on, or that they leave unquestioned the right of Britain to rule Ireland through force of arms and to crush rebellion with all the brutality it saw fit to administer. On top of this they have the gall -and the platform- to lecture others about democratic mandates.

At the bottom of it all is the idea that the savage and backward brutes need to have obedience beaten into them if it cannot be bred, and that the last thing one could wish to happen would be for the Rising commemorations to become an opportunity to rile up the rubes. And so they are presented as contrarian voices, the vital counterpoint for a pluralistic debate, in largely the same way as the fanatical Iona Institute weirdoes are the go-to people for a debate on any issue where religious sensibilities might have to be discussed.

Their intended function is not so much to see Ireland rejoin the British Commonwealth amid mass displays of chest-beating atonement (though no doubt such thoughts bring them a shiver of excitement) but rather to keep public debate within the narrowest of parameters.

Questions about whether the Rising was justified overall are intended as a cue for tedious counterfactual exercises and fruitless deliberations over just war criteria.

Questions about whether Padraig Pearse, say, was a fanatic, or a repressed paedophile even, are intended to psychopathologise any kind of radical political action or thought. They are intended draw attention away from consideration of the real material conditions and political considerations that produced the Rising, lest they might be used to draw the wrong kind of parallels in the present.

(Of course, parallels with jihadist suicide bombers will be entertained with great interest.)

On a more upbeat note, it is a happy coincidence that Ireland has no government at the minute. This means that Ireland’s political establishment is entering the main days of the Rising commemorations without any notable figures parading the power vested in them by Ireland’s wondrous political system.

It bears emphasising that this moment of ungovernability would not have come about were it not for the huge and unprecedented social mobilisation in response to the imposition of water charges and all it represented.

For all it might be denied and glossed over by the print and broadcast media, for all its participants might have been denigrated, demonised and patronised, when not simply ignored, it is as a consequence of this movement that Ireland’s political elites appear so diminished, so venal, so artless.

The fact that this is such a gloomy moment for Ireland’s political establishment, means we should also see it, if not as a golden moment, then a golden opportunity at least, for politics in Ireland. Fuck the begrudgers. Up the republic.


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The Hidden Prometheus on Proclamation Day

'Here you go, son, all yours' 'Thanks, Dad'

‘Here you go, son, all yours’
‘Thanks, Dad’

Yesterday morning I went to a flag-raising ceremony as part of the primary school’s ‘Proclamation Day’. The children -many of whom arrived decked out in green wigs, shamrock head boppers and so on- gathered down outside the church. There were percussion instruments laid out for them, and they proceeded in a colourful noisy line the short distance to the school, banging tambourines, shaking maracas, laughing and joking among themselves.

When they got to the school yard they played around for a bit and then gathered around the flagpole where the Irish tricolour -delivered by the army some days previous- was raised aloft, to applause for the children who had raised it, and then to a rendition of the national anthem, accompanied by one teacher on keyboard and another on guitar. I suppose it was as informal a national flag-raising ceremony in a school might get.

I don’t care much for flags -the red one an exception- and I don’t like Amhrán na bhFiann much: for me it has always been something played at discos and public events to remind that the fun is under strict ration and at the discretion of others. It doesn’t make me want to retch the way God Save The Queen does: imagine singing to God so that someone else will rule over you.

Later in the day the children read their ‘Proclamation for a new generation’. I didn’t get a copy but I expect it is decent enough – certainly better than a great many adult attempts to synthesise what a good society ought to be like. From other examples I have seen online, it looks like children have more or less the right idea and the right priorities.

It’s strange, though, to witness a commemoration of an act of rebellion in a context -the school- where rebellion can be an undesirable disturbance, a disruption of the exercise of proper authority and order. Schools have uniforms for a reason, and it isn’t a coincidence that their practices of rules and regimentation resemble the barracks and the prison, and this uniformity can end up appearing ‘natural’.  Recall the ‘Mary said yes to God’ religion textbooks released last year: school is mostly about saying yes to rules, yes to what important people say, yes to higher powers, whether these go by the name of God or the State or (a contemporary favourite) the Rule of Law, and yes to parliamentary democracy where you get to vote once every for years and get back in your box the next day.

No-one is ever taught in school that they should be a law-breaking citizen, and you can see from Proclamation Day photos how the presence of police and armed forces looms large, with military flyovers, even. But school isn’t just about teaching. It’s also a place where children learn. Sometimes they do it with a teacher’s assistance, sometimes they do it in spite of the teachers and their parents. There would not have been much human progress if people did nothing but obey. In fact it is disobedience, not obedience, that is at the heart of human progress. Sometimes this carries great cost: the mythical creator of humanity, Prometheus, disobeyed the Gods to gift humanity with fire, and was chained to a rock for eternity for doing so.

Children are notorious for taking things seriously, and the persistent danger of the Rising here in Ireland is that people might end up taking its ideals seriously. The fear is that they might transform what the Rising has been -for State ideology, a useful founding myth for encouraging exploitation and domination in the name of high ideals- into something vital and relevant to people’s lives. In so doing, they might expose a radical betrayal on the part of its would-be custodians.

Of course, not every charge of betrayal remains faithful to what is being defended, and things can slide quite easily into a necrophilia upon which the ruling order merely nourishes itself.

We are never all that sure how or if these ideals, and what sustains them and gave rise to them, have been kept alive. Surveying what has happened in recent decades, there might be plenty of grounds for declaring them dead. There are plenty of people inclined to do so, and for different motives.

But if they were really dead, I doubt we would have pictures of venerated political nobility, who had nothing to do with the 1916 Rising itself, hanging from a huge banner outside the site of Grattan’s parliament. Things like this suggest that the powers that be still worry a great deal about what children might think.


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On The Difference Between Left And Right

Yes, I know. Terrible title. I’m not that enthusiastic about where this post is going to go either. I’ve witnessed so many discussions of this topic that drift off into pointlessness. So please bear with me.

Yesterday I saw this graph and accompanying tweet.

The background is the recent election results in Ireland. Some people have voiced the opinion that the big drop in support for the big parties that have governed in the Irish State for decades may give way to a genuine left-right split in Irish politics.

The difference between the two not-so-big-now parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, dates back to the Civil War, and, as many representatives of parties in recent days have themselves noted, there is very little difference between the two on ideological grounds when it comes to economic and social policies. This is true: both of them are populist parties who claim to be acting in the interests of the whole country whilst pursuing policies on behalf of the capitalist class, and are mostly men in suits and ties. Both of them have their fair market share of altar-rail eaters, landlords and racists, and both of them hate the poor and suck up to the rich, but Fianna Fáil are generally better at concealing this. Both of them are mainstream. Both of them are centrist.


Now that the Civil War differences may be conclusively set to one side so that the two parties might properly collaborate in governing the country, there is something of an expectation that their merger will open up a real and meaningful divide in the parliament on matters of public policy. This is most commonly expressed in terms of left and right.

Some people do not think dividing things in terms of left and right is a good thing. They think politics is a matter of uniting, not dividing. Some of these people are in fact fascists, but not all of them. WB Yeats, who had a bit of a sneaking regard for the fash himself, provides a vivid expression of this anxiety in his poem The Second Coming. If the centre cannot hold, that is, if there is a centrifugal force that impels political actors to extreme positions, then things will fall apart. Next thing you know, people will be eating swans, maybe worse. So it is a good thing, from this general perspective, that Irish people remain in the centre.

In geometric terms, however, the centre is only relative to other points. You have to define the space around the centre. A lot of the time, in standard political parlance, this is defined by Stalin at one extreme and Hitler at the other, and, as the saying goes, les extrêmes se touchent.

At both ends, men with moustaches and armies, living parallel lives but somehow diametrically opposed. So the goal of politics, from this point of view, is to keep things in and around the sweet spot in the middle between Hitler and Stalin.

If you think this is a caricature, let me remind you that a recent article by Irish Times political correspondent Stephen Collins, an evaluation of the Irish political landscape, was illustrated by a cartoon depicting Hitler and Stalin. Mind you, you do get the occasional brain surgeon arguing that Hitler was in fact a socialist because he said he was. The consideration he may not have been telling the whole truth here does not usually count for much. Nor, for that matter, the fact that Hitler believed in a master race called upon by History to wage grand racial war, and that this isn’t really compatible with socialism.

I digress.

What does it mean when someone says they are left-wing or centrist or right-wing? It’s actually quite hard to tell, unless you get them to elaborate on how they feel about a whole range of matters. It won’t do to say that someone is left-wing because they say they are.

Most parents, I suppose, will tell you they have a child of above average intelligence. Regardless of how you define intelligence, you can’t conclude from this that most children are above average intelligence, no matter some parents might complain that there are a few kids in the class dragging everyone else down.

You have to have some sort of agreed objective measure for these things, and the trouble with this, when it comes to defining left, right and centre, is that it largely relies on subjective definition. You can choose what you think is the appropriate measure, but to do that requires subjective input, and that means figuring out what you think is important to include, and what you think should be ignored.

To complicate things further, the common understanding of left and right changes over time, and it looms in people’s minds to varying degrees, depending on time and place. If you read the works of James Connolly, for example, there’s very little mention of the left at all. (I say ‘very little mention’, but I couldn’t actually find any, so I’m being conservative here). Let me put it in clearly Marxian terms: ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.

So common ideas about left and right are -if you think Marx is correct here, and I certainly do- inevitably shaped by the ruling class, to the extent that it ‘controls the means of mental production’. If you ever listen to a debate or read an article about ‘the left’ in an Irish media outlet, you will see that no time is devoted to what ‘left’ actually means, and those who are identified as on the left are continually interrupted, whereas the right is scarcely even mentioned.

How we perceive left and right, the sense of what we think possible within those boundaries, the whole range of images and associations that goes with these words, the way in which we locate ourselves along such a spectrum: all these things are bound up with the way in which politics is represented.

In so far as we ourselves ‘lack the means of mental production’ -in so far as we’re unable to think beyond the narrow political gauge we are supposed to travel, in so far as we lack alternative sources of communication and access to communities of political interest that think differently, our ideas about left and right are not going to get us very far: we will mostly oscillate between Hitler and Stalin, and, like the indecisive donkey standing equidistant between two stacks of hay, we will likely fall somewhere in the middle.

Left and right, in political terms, are not eternal categories that stand outside history. In fact, in political terms anyway, they have been around for less than 250 years, and originate in the Estates-General in France. Socialist ideas, communist ideas and ideas about democracy have been around for a lot longer. In recent years in Europe there have been many instances of parties laying claim to a left-wing nomenclature and tradition while pursuing policy after policy that concentrated ever greater power and influence in the hands of the rich and helped undo a century of progress won through popular struggle. In most cases, claiming there is a ‘real’ or ‘true’ left in this context waiting around the corner to put things right, so to speak, does not have much purchase. In a way, it fixes the site of decisive political action in a parliamentary assembly. So I am not that enthusiastic about ‘the left’ as a name for a collective political force, whilst recognising both the need to insist on the distinction between left and right whenever it is denied, and the importance people attach to it as the name of a particular group of people and a collective memory.

I certainly don’t think people should stop using it, but I don’t think the fundamental opposition, the most important political one, is between left and right but between capitalism and democracy. If I had some greater control over both history and the means of mental production, I would get people to talk less about ‘the left’ and more about ‘the democracy’ instead: James Connolly’s name for ‘the sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent’. Sadly, I don’t.

The recent election results have likely been far more traumatic for the political establishment as a whole than it is willing to let on. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil are likely to fall prey to a composition fallacy: that by combining they somehow become stronger than the sum of their parts. In all likelihood they will be weaker, because the traditional back-and-forth that has characterised the political spectacle for generations has come to an end.

Even if they come to some sort of arrangement whereby one operates as part of a minority government but with the support of the other, they will appear less as two contending political forces and more as two components of a regime that operates on behalf of big business first and foremost. The back-and-forth between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, I think, has less hold on people’s political imaginations now than any time in living memory.

Both parties still appear moored to a conservative consensus -the preservation of draconian abortion laws to a greater or lesser extent, the protection of the rights of banks, tax avoiders and property speculators- that sits at odds with the daily reality growing numbers of people have to endure. There’s only so much chest-beating about ‘the national interest’ that such people can take before they recognise it as a malignant fraud.

So another scene is in order. In the elections, this was the choice between stability and chaos. On the one hand, the parties of good sense, prudence and progress. On the other, the violent terrorists, criminals, scruffs and rabble-rousers. Whilst fans of the West Wing might prefer that there were some sort of dividing line between right and left, but with a heavy weighting towards the centre, it may well be that stability versus chaos will go on for a bit yet. But it is conceivable that Irish politics starts to appear as a contest between right and left, but within a very narrow horizon of possibility. If it does, it’s up to the left -whoever feels part of that- along with a great many others, to lay bare that the fundamental conflict is between capitalism and democracy. Otherwise we are left with theatre.


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Au Pairs and The Hidden Hand



Business correspondent with the Irish Times, John McManus, has an article in today’s paper where he challenges the wisdom of yesterday’s ruling by the Workplace Relations Commission that a person working as an au pair should be considered an employee. In so doing, he offers the example of his own experience with an au pair staying in his house. He describes two tasks the au pair was expected to perform. One was children’s laundry. The other one was to ‘iron a table cloth for a dinner party’. In the latter, he says she performed the task ‘that would have passed muster with the manager of Patrick Guilbaud’s’. It seems ludicrous, he says, that such a relationship should be defined in terms of employer and employee, even though, as he says, he was paying her to carry out these tasks.

In yesterday’s Irish Times, there was an article in the Personal Finance section by Fiona Reddan, titled ‘Can I afford to give up work to stay at home with the children?’. The tacit proposition of such a headline is that staying at home with the children does not constitute work. The body of the article carried on in a similar vein: ‘is it worth your financial while to keep working?’; ‘many people ..take..a step away from the workforce when they have children’; ‘some 42 per cent of women aged between 34-64 don’t work’ (a figure that presumably includes mothers who look after their own children -and probably those who look after other people’s children too); ‘if you’re thinking of taking some time out from the workforce to raise your family..’.

Reddan’s article reflects the conventional attitude in Irish society -and many other societies- towards domestic labour and childcare. If it happens in your own home, it is not considered work. This is despite the fact that the country would come to a standstill in a very short space of time if people ceased to care for their children, cook meals, do the washing, and so on.

The economist Arthur Cecil Pigou noted how this phenomenon is treated when it comes to economic statistics. He called it the unmarried maid paradox. The work of a woman who works as a maid in a man’s house and gets paid for it is included in GDP. If she were to marry the man and do the work unpaid, it would not be included. As I’ve previously written, whenever a state commits to reduce its budget deficit, by cutting public expenditure, it does so without having to worry about the effect of its policies on unpaid labourers in the home -mostly women- because those people’s work, from the official point of view, does not exist. So all public debate that centres on GDP growth as the main indicator of progress -this was the focal point of the electoral campaign of the outgoing government parties- always already places the priorities of big business above those of people who do work unpaid in the home.

Perhaps the work of au pairs does not seem like work because they are performing it in the family home, since work in the family home is not, by convention anyway, considered real work. Not like the work of a waiter ironing tablecloths in Patrick Guilbaud’s. Not like the work of a person in a launderette. After all, those people get paid for their work. Well, by and large.

McManus suspects that the MRCI supported the case as a means of ‘exposing the extent of exploitation of illegal immigrants as childcare workers’. But the person who brought the case was from Spain, and clearly felt -over and above any kind of family-like bond she had formed with the children she was caring for- that her work had not been recognised as such. Perhaps McManus -along with many whose view of the world is shaped by the worldview of business elites, the teachings of the Catholic Church, economic orthodoxy, or just established patriarchal practice- might put the former au pair’s motivation down to ‘Spanish mores’, in the way he thinks his own au pair’s upset at her treatment had to do with the fact she was Italian. Others, not least those who have to shoulder the burden of domestic labour without any form of recognition, people who are ‘exhausted, depressed and weak’ -to use the words of the person who brought the case, and who felt ‘enormous love’ for the children she had to care for- might be more inclined to see it as a bit of common decency and dignity in standing up for the rights of others.

I have seen some people argue that the McManus article is more nuanced than the headline suggests. True enough: he does not say that it is ludicrous to equate employees and au pairs, but that it seems ludicrous. And he recognises that the ruling may have positive consequences, if a more decent public solution to childcare is achieved. He suggests that it might lead to ‘a social service taken for granted in most other European countries – particularly the Nordic social democracies we are so keen to emulate’. The thing is, though: if these things are taken for granted, it was not always the case. Let us recall that the crèche system in France, as Kristin Ross’s fine book reminds us, can be traced back direct to the Paris Commune and the Women’s Union that was formed during it. And Nordic social democracy came about as a consequence of long militant worker struggles: not, as the dominant narrative in Ireland would have you believe, through simply voting for such an option come election time. These things come through agitation and resistance and an unwillingness to simply endure the current state of things in the hope that some paternalistic figure will make the move for us. In this regard, the courage of the person who took the case deserves to be recognised. So too, as it happens, the resistance of any au pair, who, unable to endure the exploitative mental prison of a patronising petit-bourgeois family any further, decides to wreak some havoc with the furniture and take the shine off the evening’s insufferable dinner party. That may not have happened in McManus’s case, of course, but one can certainly hope that it did.

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