Conor Kostick’s new novel, The Retreat, is a thrilling tale set in the Middle Ages during the crusades. It is narrated by Guibert Of Rocadamour, a naïve aristocratic youth, who joins a crusade expedition having soaked up the propaganda of the chansons and the chronicles. He is swiftly disabused of his illusions when the expedition is derailed at the outset, with the would-be crusaders sacking the castle of Devinium and stealing its wealth. From there, the novel follows a course of violent actions and reprisals all determined by the cupidity of the characters. So exciting is this tale that it is easy to overlook the political dimensions to the novel and the intriguing ambiguity at its centre.
This is not a history. I write because I feel a dark geas upon me: almost as though I have been condemned to search my own memories and relive these experiences.
Throughout The Retreat, there are references to Hades, the underworld. The narrator, Guibert of Rocadamour, references the line that Achilles’ shade gave to cunning Odysseus: ‘you told him to choose one day of life as a slave in dusty fields over an eternity of death as the ruler of Hades’. Later, he imagines himself as Orpheus, another voyager to Hades. Geas is a Gaelic word that the dictionary defines as ‘(in Irish folklore) an obligation or prohibition magically imposed on a person.’ This central ambiguity about whether the narrator is dead provides a fascinating lens to interpret the novel.
Historical accuracy is subtly present in the novel
Kostick is also an historian of the crusades who has written works like The Social Structure of The First Crusade, which built on his doctoral thesis, ‘The Language of Ordo in The Early Histories of The First Crusade’. So, there is considerable historical erudition subtly introduced in the story. In Chapter 5, Guibert writes:
The news of an expedition travelling to the Holy Land had attracted peasants and burghers of all ages. Entire families of poor people had joined the enterprise: grandparents, parents, and infants. Some of these farmers and city dwellers bore arms, worthless rusty scythes or spears with flimsy points. Most didn’t. Then too, we had monks and nuns of all ages marching with us.
The narrator is a noble who is forced to confront his class bias. This is fundamental to the story. Why? In part it is because the heterogenous make-up of the expedition’s members eventually upend his world view. Guibert often must rely on the good advice of Gerard, a commoner, for example, ‘I did not resent the fact that Gerard, a footsoldier, gave the orders for our army. Unnatural as it was by the standards I was used to at home, we were a long way from Rocadamour’. The is a double meaning in the word ‘unnatural’, implying both a break from the strict hierarchy but also ‘not existing in nature’. The excellent Song of Count Stephen which appears in chapter 16 captures the notion of a world turned upside down in one of its verses:
A monstrous roar comes from the trees.
Another army has appeared where none should be.
It is the cook, the nurse, the old and the sick.
The smith, the washerwoman, the former serf.
In their hands are tools not weapons of war.
The world has turned upside down.
To the monks, the nuns, adolescents and wives.
Count Stephen and his knights owe their lives.
There are some great conversations in the novel that quite subtly fill in the background realities of life in the middle ages. In one instance, there is a tantalizing glimpse of religious heterodoxy when Robert, a knight tells Jacques, a mercenary, about his experiences in the Holy Land. ‘Did you know the Bible doesn’t have all that should be in it?’ Guibert’s tart appraisal is, ‘his voice had in it the enthusiasm of men and women who carried obsessions in their hearts’. ‘Enthusiasm’ conjures up images of religious heresy which was rife in the middles ages.
Later in the novel, Gerard offers an amusing summary of the situation in Ireland,
There are a hundred kings in Ireland, each with a dozen princes, each with a dozen lords and each of them has at least a dozen followers. But every one of these men reckons a descent from the high-kings and that he would make a great and famous king himself one day. So fortunes rise and fall there faster than anywhere else in the world.
An historical novel about the crusades that shows how myths begin
We witness in the novel the myth-making process of the middle ages: the creation of chansons and chronicles which celebrate the valorous deeds of lords and knights. Through a single reference to a chronicle entitled The Deeds of Count Stephen the novel hints of the existence of a history of these events and the reader gets to witness the performance of a section of a chanson, The Song of Count Stephen, which exaggerates the bloody battle that we witnessed in the Beserkir chapter. Guibert is apotheosised as follows: ‘I am thunder and lightning. I am / Storm and wrath. I plunge my blade through iron / And bone. Unquenchable heat burns through me, / Like a forest fire.’ Guibert is slightly dismayed at the liberties that the poet takes with the truth. But the poet is unperturbed, ‘the song requires it. If you want history, speak of your deeds to a scribe. If you want fame, then have me leave the verse as it stands’
Turning the world upside down is probably one of the most enduring leftist slogans of all time, so it’s not accidental when it appears in the work of a left-wing writer. But here, its impact is compounded by the ambiguity at the heart of the novel. That is, the continual reference to ‘Hades’, the underworld, in lines like:
And I had not rid myself of the sensation that the shadows of the forest were those of Hades and we were all dead, that perhaps we had all died in the field with the rest of Shalk’s army, it was just that we did not know it.
‘…then the sky beyond the windows changed to a silvery grey and I knew we were now in Hades.’
Interestingly, this description occurs during the narrator’s nightmare episode in the chapter entitled: ‘A Dream That Affrightens’. I count ten references to Hades in the novel. Is the narrator in fact dead, hence his susceptibility to the levelling of class distinctions?
Class and gender are brilliantly interwoven in the relationship between Guibert and Cataline. Our narrator, the young knight, is full of the cliches of courtly romance while the peasant girl Cataline has already lived through a life of hardship and the savage death of her parents. Her post-coital words are profound: ‘Hush. It’s done. It’s all done. We live.’ Her later brusque rebuttal of his oppressive proprietary romanticism is brilliant and deeply problematic.
I lay with you because you deserved it, for what you did for us. And also because I think we will all be dead soon. Why not enjoy a little sweetness while we can? But I’m not some farmer’s daughter with designs upon a local knight.
Guibert’s relationship with the woman Cataline is a lens through which to view the class differences in medieval society. Noble women did not go on crusades, whereas Cataline and Melinde (a powerful wife of a mercenary leader) are active participants. Guibert is full of romantic clichés, no doubt gleaned from chansons, whereas Cataline is alert the hard reality of life. Her experiences provoke Guibert’s observation that ‘a lady who had never experienced the certainty of her own death, never witnessed a battle, nor carried a knife to slit the throats of wounded enemies, such a lady could never understand and comfort me like this’.
The Retreat is a tragedy driven by greed
Cupidity is the undoing of the expedition. Greed for loot provokes atrocities that propel the group towards disaster. The ‘Mutur’ leader, Rainulf, murders the rapacious Bishop Wernher later in the novel and steals his treasure.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the very just criticisms that characters direct towards their class enemies. For instance, when Rainulf disdains the contempt of Count Stephen (and Guibert, too), ‘do I need to witness the contempt of a man whose refined ways are paid for by the toil of a thousand serfs?’ While they are tracking down the forest dwellers that kidnapped Cataline, Guibert offhandedly makes a stunningly revealing statement of his cruel class position:
‘Sometimes a serf runs. But they hardly ever get far. One time though, Count Theobald sent one of ours all the way back from Troyes. Runaways would never manage to set a home or village of their own.’
This is a savage world where the innocent are slaughtered by paid mercenaries, ‘when a man is paid to wield a sword, he loses the right to follow his own wishes’. There is a dark irony in an expedition ostensibly travelling to Jerusalem to ‘lift our sins’ (as Melinde says at one point), which perpetrates atrocities along the way.
The Retreat is a great novel which merits a second reading to really get to savour the morally complex and brilliantly rendered ambiguity of this failed expedition. I read it the first time as a gripping and violent adventure tale. But then, looking through it again, I began to appreciate the novel’s many subtleties. It is fascinating how the novel successfully condenses so much of the world of the Middle Ages in the text.
One of the
most extraordinary acts of defiance against the British Empire took place in
India on 28 June 1920 when four Irish soldiers, members of the British army, thousands
of miles from home, decided to protest against the suppression of the
independence movement in Ireland. The soldiers belonged to the Connaught
Rangers and were stationed at the north of the country in the Wellington
Barracks, Jullundur (modern day Jalandhar). At eight a.m. that morning, Joseph Hawes,
Patrick Gogarty, Christopher Sweeney and Stephen Lally, all members of C
Company, approached an officer they felt they could trust, Lance Corporal John
Flannery, and told him that they wished to ground arms and cease fighting for
the British Army due to the oppression of their friends in Ireland.
Hawes had been on leave in Clare in October 1919 and had seen a hurling match
proclaimed by troops with bayonets drawn. He had spoken about this with his
colleagues (plus another man, William Daly) the night before and had made the
point that they were doing in India what the Black and Tans were doing in
Ireland. Their garrison was only ninety kilometres from Amritsar, where a
massacre of Indian civilians had been carried out by British Indian soldiers less
than a year earlier.
The four men wanted Flannery to have their addresses in Ireland in case their protest would led to their immediate execution. If they were going to die, they wanted to the true reason to be made known to their families. Then reporting to the guardroom, the protesters voluntarily asked to be arrested for being ‘in sympathy with Ireland.’
Jim Hawes and the start of the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in Jullundur 1920
This initial action, however, rapidly changed from being one where a few individuals would prefer imprisonment and the risk of execution to continuing in their role as British soldiers to a full-blown mutiny of hundreds of men. Soon after the protest had begun, excited groups of soldiers gathered here and there in barracks talking about the stand being made by their four comrades. At that time, half of C Company, fifty men, were away in the Solon barracks (guarding an important route from Delhi to Simla). This left forty-six soldiers of the company who formed up for parade at nine a.m., with Hawes, Gogarty, Sweeney and Lally conspicuously absent. Another soldier stepped out of line, Jimmy Moran, and announced that he wanted to join his comrades in the guard room. With that action, the discipline of the remainder of the company shattered and twenty-nine more members of C Company, plus the (armed) duty guard himself joined the protest.
thirty-five strong, the mutineers entertained themselves by singing rebel songs
and shouting ‘Up the Republic!’. When the two-hundred strong B Company, who had
been away at the nearby rifle range, returned and heard the commotion, the
soldiers – still bearing their weapons – made their way to the guardroom and a
lively discussion took place with the prisoners. Colonel Deacon, officer
commanding, thought he could successfully challenge the mutineers in front of
his men and so ordered B Company to sit on the steps of a bungalow nearby.
Deacon then had the protestors line up in front of the sitting men and proceeded to harangue the rebels, attempting to shame them with the great history of the Connaught Rangers; working himself up to tears with the regiment’s proud record; all their various honours. The colonel then offered to forget the whole matter if the protestors returned to their bungalows. Hawes, a private and therefore on the lowest rung of the military hierarchy, nevertheless stepped forward, uncowed and defiant, and confronted the senior British officer: ‘All the honours in the Connaught flag are for England and there are none for Ireland but there is going to be one today and it will be the greatest of them all.’ A resulting attempt to isolate Hawes was thrown back by the mutineers marching off in good order back to the prison with their hero safely among them. Humiliatingly for Deacon, when he now attempted to order B Company to move on, they refused to leave. Instead, they swarmed over to Hawes and his friends, leaving Deacon distraught. The other senior officers, along with NCOs hurried away as the rank and file soldiers realised they had the upper hand and could take over the whole barracks.
Rebel British soldiers form a committee and take over the Jullundur barracks
Urging Hawes to lead them, the crowd of Connaught Rangers released all the protesters from the guardroom and rallied as many other soldiers as they could. A rebel muster took place with around 300 participants. They elected seven soldiers to be their committee: Joe Hawes and Patrick Gogarty – two of the original protesters – along with John Flannery as messenger to the officers and Jimmy Moran, J.A. McGowan, Paddy Sweeny and James Davies as the other members. The Union flag was removed from a bungalow occupied by the rebels and replaced with a hastily sewn Tricolour.
in firm control, the mutineers doubled the guard; distributed the task of
making regular patrols; placed a permanent guard to monitor the senior officers
(to ensure they didn’t attempt any rash action that might lead to violence);
put a guard on alcohol; and commissioned a hundred green, white and orange
rosettes from the local bazaar. According to an army telegram of the time, the
attitude of the men was respectful but ‘obdurate in their refusal to perform
any military duty.’ That day, too, they sent messengers off some two hundred
kilometres to A Company, who were stationed at Jutogh and the other half of C
Company, who were in barracks at Solon.
Geraghty of Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, was one of the mutineers who travelled
to Solon and his background gives the lie to the official account of the mutiny
by a regimental historian anxious to dismiss it as the action of ‘green
recruits’. As Geraghty said in an interview, ‘I had served in France from
January 1915 to the end of the war and had been wounded twice. And despite all
my service, by mutinying, I knew what I was doing. But the news coming from
Ireland disturbed my mind to such an extent that I was quite prepared to suffer
anything, irrespective of what it might be.’
the sixty-one men subsequently tried for mutiny, most were veterans of the
Great War, and, indeed, thirty of these had been in the British Army for more
than five years: five bitter years in which several of them had fought at the
Battle of Loos in 1915 and in a grim, cholera-stricken campaign around Baghdad
from 1916 – 1918, before moving towards Egypt and engaging in a fierce
encounter with German and Turkish troops near Jaffa in 1918, not to mention
their notable achievement in capturing a Turkish artillery column.
veteran soldiers were not afraid of fighting, nor had they mutinied as a result
of inexperience and dismay at what being a soldier actually meant. They were
profoundly aware of the vast power of the British war machine and up until 1920
had played their part in it. Now, however, times had changed. Joe Hawes later
explained, ‘When I joined the British Army in 1914, they told us we were going out
to fight for the liberation of small nations. But when the war was over, and I
went home to Ireland, I found that, so far as one small nation was concerned –
my own – these were just words.’
the face of these politically resolute soldiers, it was difficult for the
authorities to regain control. Major N. Farrell of ‘B’ Company, Connaught
Rangers, tried to get his men to obey their officers once more and warned them
that the mutiny would play into the hands of Indian nationalists and that they
would all be slaughtered. To this, Hawes answered spiritedly, ‘if I am to be
shot, I would rather be shot by an Indian than an Englishman.’ Local Indian
feeling was, in fact, sympathetic to news of the mutiny of Irish soldiers in
the British army. In Delhi, the popular newspaper Fateh reported the
mutiny of the Irish soldiers as an implementation of Gandhi’s strategy of civil
disobedience, demonstrating ‘how patriotic people can preserve their honour,
defy the orders of the Government, and defeat its unjust aims.’
Some of those involved in the mutiny felt, too, that there was a real hope of an alliance with those involved in India’s struggle for independence. Stephen Lally, one of the leaders of the Jullundur mutiny and later a member of the IRA, recalled: ‘I thought we might as well kill two birds with the one stone, and if we could get the Indian National Movement with us it would mean a great victory not alone for Ireland but India as well . . . we could have officered the Native ranks and in a very short time India would have gained her freedom.’
The mutiny spreads to Jim Daly and the Connaught Rangers in Solon
For the first two days, it did seem that momentum was with the rebels. Frank Geraghty recalled his mission to spread the mutiny to the rest of C Company in Solon.
On the 30 June 20, I with private Patrick Kelly, were detailed to go to Solon in the Simlar hills to communicate the fact that the troops in Jullundur had mutinied and to give the reason for the mutiny and to give instructions also that the mutiny, if they did mutiny, would be on the lines of passive resistance with no violence. I appealed to James Joseph Daly whom I approached as the most competent man and whom I knew personally wished to carry out an effort to start a mutiny. Daly, I knew, was inclined to the republican movement in Ireland.
Borne in Ballymoe, County Galway and raised in Tyrrellspass, Mulingar, County Westmeath, Jim Daly, was an ‘active sympathiser with Sinn Féin’ and responded with determination to the news from Jullundur. According to the version of events Daly later told to Hawes while they were in prison together, the men from Jullundur had been arrested on arrival at Solon but Daly could hear enough of their messages shouted through the bars to realise the situation. Although only 20 at the time of the mutiny and one of the youngest soldiers, that night he rallied about forty men and marched to the bungalow of the Commanding Officer to announce that they were taking over a bungalow in protest at repression in Ireland. In response, the C.O. told the men they were insane and switching between threats and inducements attempted to return the men to their duty as he saw it. The strongest argument at his disposal was that the action would be futile as they were thousands of miles from Ireland. After a long, hard silence Daly gave a curt response: nothing the C.O. said would avail. The mutineers left for their bungalow, which they named ‘Liberty Hall’, and as with their comrades at Jullundur, took down all the Union flags, hoisted the tricolour, made and wore Irish rosettes on their British Army uniforms and sang rebel songs.
Next day, early on 1 July 1920, Major W.N.S. Alexander and his officers arrived at Liberty Hall and managed to get the mutineers to form up to listen to his address. The Major thought that his arguments were having an influence when:
A man named Daly stood in front of the parade; he informed me that similar action would be taken simultaneously by every Irish Regiment in the Army, and that the news would be published in every paper in the United Kingdom: whatever influence I had said may have had on the less determined of the mutineers was promptly wiped out by this man.
Woodbridge tried next but again, ‘Daly intervened and succeeded in wiping out
the good impression made.’
On the night of 1 July 1920, scouts set by the mutineers at Solon, detected the imminent arrival of British troops. On this news Daly and his followers made a mistake, deciding to offer armed resistance to the recapture of the barracks. Lacking genuine contacts in the Indian nationalist movement, the best hope of the soldiers was not to escape and definitely not to fight against vastly superior forces but, as Hawes had urged, to keep the protest peaceful (despite serious risk of execution).
by Daly, about twenty rebels went to the company magazine building to attempt
to get hold of their rifles. Earlier in the protest, Fr Baker, the camp priest,
had urged the men not to carry arms. Lieut. C.J. Walsh, told the subsequent
Court of Enquiry: ‘I was officer I/C of an armed guard mounted on the magazine.
At about 2200 hours, four mutineers approached the magazine and tried to rush
the Sentry. I covered the leader with me revolver. I cautioned these men and
warned then that if they approached any nearer I would shoot them. They went
immediately in the direction of their bungalow. About five minutes later an
attack was made on the magazine by a number of mutineers armed with naked bayonets.
By this time the sentries on the magazine were reinforced by the remainder of
the Guard, and all Officers living in the line. The mutineers pressed on toward
the magazine, they were challenged at least three or four times, they took no
notice of the challenge, and, as a further warning I fired two shots from my
revolver into the air. This had no effect, so I fired into the attackers who
then withdrew. Shortly afterwards three men were removed on stretchers to the
station Hospital, two of whom I heard were dead, and one wounded.’
The dead mutineers were Pte Peter Sears, The Neale, Co. Mayo and Patrick Smyth from Drogheda, who was spectating, rather than participating in the rush. Eugene Egan lived, despite having been shot through the right chest. Following a final desperate challenge by Daly to a bayonet duel with anyone on the other side, the mutiny at Solon was effectively over. With the arrival of loyal troops, the participants were placed under arrest.
British officers try to regain control of the mutinous Connaught Rangers
at Jullundur, Colonel Jackson had arrived to take charge of the crisis for the
British army. He was in regular contact with the Commander-in-Chief for all
India, General Charles Munroe. Under a white flag, Jackson entered talks with
the leaders of the Connaught Rangers mutiny and insisted that they could not
win: that the British army was intent on retaking the barracks, even if it
required very soldier in India. This was almost certainly the policy decided
upon by the authorities as they had already mobilised two battalions, the South
Wales Borderers and the Seaforth Highlanders, both of which arrived with
artillery and machine guns on 1 July 1920.
the position of the rebels was now hopeless, but they continued to protest
through passive means and in particular, were resolved not to give up the
leaders of the mutiny for fear they would be executed: a very realistic
appraisal of the thinking of the senior officers. Although some eighty soldiers
abandoned the mutiny at this point, the others, over four hundred strong,
marched out to prison camp together and refused to allow their leaders to be
isolated. This defiance nearly cost dozens of lives, as the camp was designed
to ensure hardship. It had almost no protection from the Indian summer sun and the
water supply deliberately inadequate. ‘Inhumane’ was how a Captain Kearney put
it and only the intervention of the Connaught Rangers’ medical officer
prevented lives from being lost from sickness.
more immediate prospect of death for the mutineers came from the threat of
violence. In the process of being moved to another camp on 2 July 1920, Major
Johnny Payne made another attempt to separate the leaders from the body of
mutineers. He called out twenty names, which included the seven men on the
committee. No one moved, so Payne ordered thirty soldiers to pull out one of
the people he had identified (Tommy Moran) from the crowd. These soldiers
failed and were disarmed in the physical tussle, leading Payne to order fixed
bayonets and soon after, the final order before ‘open fire’, that of ‘five
rounds, stand and load.’
Fr Livens, the seventy-year-old army chaplain rushed across to Payne and pleaded with the major, managing to delay the crisis by interposing himself between the soldiers with raised rifles and the prisoners. This was a crucial moment, where just in time a rider came hurriedly over, blowing a whistle to gain attention. This was Colonel Jackson who rebuked Payne in public and took over the command of the loyal soldiers.
Over the following days the British officers managed to whittle down the number of mutineers by offering free pardons to those who returned to duty and assuring the rest that they would face death by firing squad. By mid-July there were 48 former Jullundur Connaught Rangers in prison at Dagshai, where they were joined by Jim Daly and 40 men from the Solon mutiny. Conditions in Dagshai were harsh and they were deprived of all but the most basic sustenance. Private John Miranda died there and his case draws attention to the fact that a number of the mutineers were English rather than Irish. John Miranda was from Bootle in Liverpool. An English Sergeant Woods, who had earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his behaviour in France, explained his reasons for joining the mutiny to the Court Martial, ‘These boys fought for England with me, and I was ready to fight for Ireland with them.’
one point, thanks to the sympathy of the Indian staff at the jail, a group of
six rebels, including Hawes and Daly, were able to get outside. In order to
address the scarcity of provisions, especially cigarettes, Hawes and Daly
decided to raid the canteen at Solon. A successful overnight mission saw them
return to the comrades in the prison with their ill-gotten cigarettes. Hawes later explained why they did not simply try to
It might be wondered why we did not make a break for freedom that night or any other night, but you must remember that we were in an alien country, thousands of miles from home, even unable to speak the language. Everyone would be our enemy both the king’s men and the native Indians to whom none of us could explain our position over the language barrier. Soldiers were not popular in India at that time.
The Court Martial of the Connaught Rangers who joined the mutiny of 1920
martial of the rebels, beginning with those considered to be the main leaders
of the mutiny, began on 30 August 1920. Eventually 59 Connaught Rangers were
given fifteen-year prison sentences, while thirteen men were sentenced to
death. Fortunately for most of them, the political situation had swung in their
favour. By the end of 1920 a radicalised Irish population were driving back
British authority in the country and the generals considered it inexpedient to
kill all thirteen out of concern for the possible public response. One man,
however, they were determined to carry out the sentence upon: Jim Daly. The
problem with commuting Daly’s sentence, as far as a review by Major-General Sir
George de Symons Barrow was concerned, was the effect leniency might have on
equivalent mutinies of British Indian soldiers. Barrow needed to retain the
threat of execution as a palpable one.
On 2 November 1920, Jim Daly, then 21, was executed at Dagshai jail where a curfew was in place to avert a rumoured Indian attempt to free him from jail. Years later one of the rebels, Michael Kearney of County Clare could still recall the horrible details of the execution.
was awakened around dawn by the shattering bang of the death volley from the
firing party of twelve. The governor of the prison, a humane man, lets us out
of our cells later in the day and we had the melancholy experience of seeing
the wall of execution.
poor body had been almost truncated and some of the men gathered tiny portions
of human flesh which adhered to the wall. These sad scraps were laced in a
little matchbox and given to Father Baker to be buried with our heroic comrade.
the Treaty negotiations at the end of 1922 came discussion of an amnesty on
both sides and the Connaught Rangers who were in prison as a result of the mutiny
were specifically included in it, leading to their release on 9 January 1923. Thereafter,
however, it was a struggle for many of the men to obtain employment or state
support. A campaign for a pension to be allowed the men led to a government
report in 1925 that showed fourteen of the ex-mutineers were without work. Following
the government refusal of the pension, mutineer John Lyons wrote that ‘those
who fought for Ireland fought in vain’. Again, in 1933, a pension was discussed
and investigation into the men’s circumstances found that four of the mutineers
had died in Poor Law Unions, with six men being out of work. James Devers, who
had been among those trying to attack the magazine at Solon was described as
being in ‘desperate need.’ Only after the passage of the Connaught Rangers
(Pensions) Act of 29 April 1936, were the men were able to claim military
pensions from the Irish state based on the time they spent in prison.
the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny of 28 June 1920
It should be obvious that the act of defiance by these Irish soldiers was an heroic one that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. To some extent, throughout the twentieth century there were moments that gave the public a chance to express their appreciation of the bravery of the mutineers in risking execution rather than continue to serve in an army that was repressing the national movement. On their return to Ireland there were celebratory meetings and a great deal of enthusiasm for the stand they had made. A poem in the Roscommon Herald, January 1923, gives a flavour of the public mood:
Minced with bullets, their comrade’s
Is spat into their ace,
As if to crush their Irish hearts
Or kill the spirit of their race.
Hopelessly the ruse met blank dismay,
Their determination stronger grew.
Their vows were made and sealed that day
To die for Roísín Dubh.
Had not kind Providence stepped in
And saved them from their doom,
Their hearts would now be lying still
Within the convicts tomb.
18 March 1928, a play by M.P. O’Cearnaigh, Flag
of India,was performed at the
Royal Theatre, Dublin to support the ‘Connaught Rangers Distress Fund’. Veterans
of the mutiny paraded along O’Connell St c.1936.
In the 1950s a campaign grew up to bring back the remains of Jim Daly, the Offaly-Westmeath Old IRA Memorial Committee voting in June 1954 to petition the government to make arrangements for Daly’s body and that of other mutineers to return to Ireland. Soon afterwards a number of local government bodies passed similar motions. The government, however, was not willing to raise an issue that might harm Anglo-Irish relations. In the run up to the 1966 commemorations of the Easter Rising the issue came back to public attention, this time with a precedent having been set in the reburial of Sir Roger Casement in 1965.
especially to the work of the National Graves Association, not only Daly but
Sears, Smythe and Miranda were included in a growing public campaign for the
return of the Connaught Ranger mutineers. Ultimately, the campaign was
successful (except in regard to John Miranda, who had no family in Ireland) and
ceremonies were held in 1970 at Tyrellspass for Daly and Glasnevin Cemetery for
Sears and Smythe. Joe Hawes, then aged 77, gave a speech at both events.
As we approach the centenary of the mutiny, a new event has been planned, which involves the erection of a monument to three of the mutineers who were from Sligo (James Gorman, Martin Boy Conlon and Jack Scanlon) and a series of short talks. Here, however, it should be noted that the effort to find ‘balance’ which caused the Fine Gael government to try to honour the RIC seems to risk marring the event. For there are many British historians (such as Charles Townshend) – and plenty of Irish ones too – that have very little sympathy for Ireland’s revolutionary past and who construct arguments that belittle the role of figures like Joe Hawes and Jim Daly.
Downplaying the extent of radical Irish nationalism in the mutiny
One of the invited historians is Mario Draper, Lecturer at the University of Kent. Draper’s thesis is that the mutiny was less about Ireland than about discontent with local conditions. He dismisses the explicit testimony of the men that they were braving execution for the sake of Ireland’s national struggle as a ‘narrative of convenience’. In later life, he argues, these men were exaggerating the political side of their protest so as to get adulation and pensions. Instead, it was about local difficulties and poor communication between senior officers and the rank and file. Draper does not provide eye-witness reports to confirm an approach that would no doubt portray Spartacus as a gladiator who was merely disaffected over poor quality food, rather than the existence of slavery.
I, on the other hand, do value the testimony of the men themselves and I do give serious value to the importance of ideals in motivating human behaviour, to the point that people throughout history have been willing to risk their lives to challenge injustice and oppression. So when ‘Tom’ Tierney told Sam Pollock, ‘I didn’t think it was fair that our country should suffer what we fought to stop the Germans doing’, I believe that gives the answer to the apparent contradiction between someone fighting for the British army and yet protesting against the policy of that army in Ireland.
There was many an Irish soldier who joined the British forces during the Great War in the belief they were stopping Germany from exploiting small nations and were earning a reward for Ireland. When, by 1920, it was clear that Britain was straining to the utmost to prevent independence for Ireland and was deploying the Black and Tans in a cruel effort to intimidate the population the same soldiers could experience a deep crisis and a determination to get out of the British army and help the volunteers. This was a journey that is well known for figures like Cork IRA leader Tom Barry and it is entirely plausible that the same considerations shaped the mutiny in the Connaught Rangers in 1920.
It is a profound insult to Joe Hawes and his comrades to doubt this was the real reason for the mutiny and to say that in later life they played up their desire to support Ireland’s struggle against the British empire because it suited their self-interest to do so.
Moreover, the contemporary evidence of the British themselves confirms that it was the mistreatment of Irish civilians that was troubling the hearts and minds of the soldiers. Lieutenant-Colonel H.F.N. Jourdain, wrote to the London papers, saying that the men had been ‘led astray by the accounts they had received about the Black and Tans.’ If the real issue behind the mutiny was local discontent why did the mutineers sing rebel songs? Wear green, white and gold rosettes? Fly the tricolour? During the court martial, the men from England who joined the mutiny were asked why they had protested on behalf of Ireland. None of them replied that they had other grievances. Rather, they expressed loyalty for their Irish comrades and sympathy for Ireland.
It is unlikely that the Connaught Rangers who mutinied in 1920 will get the 100 year commemoration they deserve from the current event. Hopefully, relatives who have organised in a Facebook group will be able to arrange an event with a more inspiring message than, ‘it was only really about the men being given too much work’. And Councillor John Lyons of Independent Left will be urging Dublin City Council to the same.
The mutiny of the Connaught Rangers was an incredibly brave and principled act on behalf of Ireland’s struggle for independence, one that was almost sure to lead to the participants facing the firing squad or many years in prison. That the men were willing to make this stand, rather than continue to serve an army behaving brutally in Ireland, should be properly honoured in 2020.
Speaking in the extended aftermath
of the so-called Indian Removal Act of 1830, Andrew Jackson, the slave-owning
US president famed for his previous (and merciless) warfare against Creek and
Seminole tribes in the American South, laid out the case for indigenous
extermination. ‘They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral
habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable
change in their condition,’ he claimed, concluding that as the many native
communities of the South were now ‘established in the midst of another and a
superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or
seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of
circumstances and ere long disappear.’ By the end of Jackson’s second term of
office, ‘the force of circumstances’ – implemented by a combination of
wild-firing federal troops and unrestrained settler militias – had resulted in
the violent relocation of almost sixty thousand indigenous people from their
land and homes to regions west of the Mississippi river, in what historians
(shy of the term ethnic cleansing)
oftenrefer to as the ‘Trail of
‘All the presidents after Jackson
march in his footsteps,’ Dunbar-Ortiz by contrast observes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United
States, a powerful chronicle of native life and struggle over the
approximately five centuries of European colonization that witnessed the
shaping of the USA as we know it. ‘Consciously or not,’ Dunbar-Ortiz writes,
America’s ‘ruling class’ has consistently imitated the task Jackson set for his
own administration: how (in her words) ‘to reconcile democracy and genocide and
characterize it as freedom for the people.’ Tellingly, Jackson’s portrait today
graces the modern $20 US dollar bill, while the nation’s current
commander-in-chief has praised him as a political forefather to his own brand
of toxic, bigoted, wealth-wielding populism.
In Jackson’s era as now, however,
the imperialistic arrogance of the US government was met with (at times
brilliantly effective) resistance; and it is one of the many merits of
Dunbar-Ortiz’s historical account to foreground the continuous uprisings of
indigenous peoples, as well as the persistence and diversity of indigenous
cultures, in the face of intensifying colonial aggression. Cataloguing the relentless
and self-heroising savagery of US policies (federal and settler alike) towards
indigenous populations, her narrative in the process shakes loose many of the
foundational assumptions on which American politics and historiography has
traditionally been built. Eloquently, meticulously, and with an almost
devastating critical focus, she not only dissects the doctrines of manifest
destiny (the right to colonize Westwards) and civilizing mission (the right to
whitewash such colonization, and expand it globally), but also probes inherited
concepts concerning property, the use and ownership of land, industrial
development, and the like. ‘The Haudenosaunee peoples,’ she notes of the
alliance of tribes spanning the Great Lakes and the St Lawrence River to the
Atlantic, and as far south as the Carolinas,
avoided centralized power by means of a clan-village system of democracy based on collective stewardship of the land. Corn, the staple crop, was stored in granaries and distributed equitably in this matrilineal society by the clan mothers, the oldest women from every extended family.
As here, throughout her account
Dunbar-Ortiz refuses to fossilise indigenous traditions, writing instead as if
the same modes and formations of communal organisation were living
possibilities (and perhaps they are). In a similar fashion, we encounter
Tecumseh: a Shawnee warrior and one of the key figures of an indigenous
confederacy formed in the early nineteenth century to resist the decrees and
incursions of the US government and speculators. ‘The way, the only way to stop
this evil’, he is recorded as saying,
… is for the red people to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now, for it was never divided, but belongs to all. Sell a country?! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?
Such episodes hold up a mirror to
the many, violent commodifications of capitalist society – modern and
historical – exposing its delusions, as well as its frequent brutality
(Tecumseh himself was eventually killed in 1813).
As with issues of land and property,
the question of class – of who works, who gains, and how these social relations
are developed and enforced over time – is latent in much of the story that
Dunbar-Ortiz returns to the record, and sometimes openly bares its fangs.
‘Although a man of war,’ she writes, General Philip Sheridan of the Union Army
‘was an entrepreneur at heart’; she quotes Sheridan in a letter to Ulysses S.
Grant in 1867, ‘We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians stop the
progress of [the railroads].’ Systematic, sustained colonial violence was the
pre-condition for capitalist accumulation in the emerging republic; tracing the
profit motive through its history is to discover, again and again, the stench
of scorched earth and race hatred that made many of its most esteemed
emissaries rich, from the oil and railroad baron, John D. Rockefeller, to
industrialist and Wall Street tycoon, J.P. Morgan.
Sheridan himself is an unsettlingly
emblematic figure in this narrative. The originator of the genocidal aphorism
that the only good Indian is a dead
Indian, this ‘entrepreneur at heart’ was born to Irish parents who fled
serf-like rural poverty in Cavan for America in the early nineteenth century.
As such, Sheridan was never fully accepted as an equal by the political and
military elites who nonetheless praised his uncompromising zeal as a commander
and, indeed, his later supposed achievements as an environmentalist (he
championed the founding of Yellowstone National Park, after having forcibly
cleared the same region of its original inhabitants). This dynamic is evident
in Abraham Lincoln’s aloof and subtly eugenicist description of the fast-rising
officer: as a ‘brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not
enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can
scratch them without stooping.’
Sheridan’s case was in many ways
typical. In the second half of the nineteenth century, some of the most
ruthless regiments and settler militias of the emerging United States –
responsible for the murder, mutilation, and destruction of thousands of
indigenous tribes and villages – were lead and stocked by Irish emigrants,
themselves (like their relatives in Ireland) very often racialised as un-human
or sub-human in popular and press culture. One result, as David Roediger has written,
is that ‘politicians of Irish and Scotch-Irish heritage’ in the same period
worked diligently to disseminate ‘the idea that a new white American race,
decidedly inclusive of the Irish, had superseded the Anglo-Saxon race as the
benchmark of fitness for citizenship’ in the new democracy: setting the terms
of a discourse with which white nationalists and supremacists, including the
likes of Steven Bannon, still engage. Such themes are of course particularly
resonant in Ireland today, which in recent months has witnessed a surge in
racist mobilising and violence deliberately designed to appeal to a (diffuse,
but insidious) tradition that ties Irishness to notions of white supremacist
victimhood. Some awareness of the history of these ideological postures is
arguably more necessary than ever. As Dunbar-Ortiz summarises, ‘living persons’
may not be ‘responsible for what their ancestors did,’ but ‘they are
responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.’
Time and again, in fact, we are
reminded that populations dehumanised, displaced, and even exterminated by
colonial dogmas and military directives have participated, in one form or
another, in the ethnic cleansing and conquest of indigenous communities
elsewhere: communities with whom, superficially at least, they would appear to
share common cause. On this last point, she is unflinchingly factual, observing
that former slaves and freedom fighters of colour in the American Civil War,
for example, joined (and were deliberately stationed by federal authorities on)
the frontlines of anti-guerilla campaigns against native communities, an
apparent contradiction that adds an edge to Bob Marley’s song on the same
Soldier’. Likewise earlier, during the
Spanish campaigns of the sixteenth century, we learn that ‘Cortés and his two
hundred European mercenaries could never have overthrown the [Aztec] Mexican
state without the Indigenous insurgency he co-opted’. In this case, however,
one of the great strengths of Dunbar-Ortiz’s account is her equally clear-eyed
perception that ‘resistant peoples’ hoping ‘to overthrow [an] oppressive
regime’, should not be blamed for, their cause cannot be used to excuse, the
‘genocidal’ aims of the ‘gold-obsessed Spanish colonizers or the European
institutions that backed them.’ By persuasion, force, or guile, every colonial
enterprise in history has enlisted sections of the populations it sought to
subjugate for the furtherance of its aims (exploiting existing divisions in
order to secure whatever form of hegemonic power best favoured its own
perceived interests); the racist, resource-hungry killing machine of the
Spanish conquest was no exception to this pattern.
Although completed in 2014,
Dunbar-Ortiz’s research and approach nevertheless speak to a number of
political realities that have evolved in the years since. Reading so unified an
account of indigenous life and struggle, indeed, it’s difficult not to interpret the extreme levels and
incidence of violence against indigenous women in the US today (‘one in three
Native American women has been raped or experienced attempted rape, and the
rate of sexual assault on Native American women is more than twice the national
average’) as a continuation of a history of state formation for which the
murder and brutalisation of native women and children specifically was standard
procedure: whether in crimes such as the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 (one of
several atrocities that Dunbar-Ortiz rightly posits as precursors to later
chapters in America’s imperial story, including the Mai Lai Massacre of 1968)
or through federally implemented separation and re-education policies (forcing
children into missionary, abuse-laden institutes) of the early twentieth
Dunbar-Ortiz’s prose is also
palpably sensitive to the ‘centuries of resistance and storytelling passed
through the generations’ of indigenous communities, reminding readers that for
native tribes still living under conditions of imposed marginality and social
invisibility, ‘[s]urviving genocide’ is itself a form ‘dynamic, not passive’
resistance. From which vantage-point, the Wet’suwet’en nation’s ongoing, militant opposition to the Canadian government’s decision to install a gas
infrastructure on their land – like the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s resistance
(beginning in 2016)
to the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US – may be seen as part of the long,
many-seasoned trajectory of indigenous self- and environmental protection that
Dunbar-Ortiz outlines: protection in the face of settler-colonialist state
projects that have always regarded such actions as illegitimate, such
communities as disposable. As the preface has it, everything in this ‘history
is about the land: who oversaw and cultivated it, fished its waters, maintained
its wildlife; who invaded and stole it; how it became a commodity (‘real
estate’) broken into pieces to be bought and sold on the market.’ In that
respect, the struggle goes on, drawing on traditions that books like this keep
fresh in the memory, vivid as spring.
The spread of
a new coronavirus – 2019-nCoV – has to be of concern to everyone. Efforts to keep
the virus out of Ireland have failed and any attempt to shrug off the dangers
posed by the situation by saying, for example, that many more people will die
of the flu this year, are seriously misplaced. Unlike the flu, as of March 2020
there is no vaccine for the coronavirus. Nor is there a method for ensuring the
survival of those who contract it.
True, some four out of five people who become sick from the coronavirus will not suffer greatly but about 3.4% of those who contract the virus will die. Those who are old, those with underlying conditions, and those who smoke or who previously smoked are most at risk of death, which typically comes from respiratory failure.
The virus enters
the lungs and penetrates deep into the tissue there, creating pneumonia and
becoming life threatening for older people, particularly if the person already
has hypertension or diabetes. Men (5%) are more likely to be killed by the
virus than women (3%).
At the time of writing (1 March 2020), there are 88,382 officially confirmed cases; there have been 2,996 deaths; and – more positively – 42,769 people who have recovered. You can see the latest, up-to-date, live data for the spread of COVID-19 here.
Ireland’s first confirmed case was announced on 1 March 2020 and within hours, Scoil Chaitríona, Mobhi Road, was closed for two weeks. Shockingly, and this is something I’ll return to below, only for the fact that the information was shared by parents on social media were the public informed of this important news.
The official HSE website failed to explain that the case was that of a student who had returned from Italy or give a timeline or location for the report that someone had tested positive for the virus.
What are the
causes of the coronavirus COVID-19?
viruses have intermittently troubled humanity throughout our existence. Recent
outbreaks include the SARS virus of 2002 – 4 and the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. The
latest, 2019-nCoV, is said to have started at the massive Wuhan market in China;
Wuhan, capital of the Hubei province, has over 11 million people. There is some
evidence for transference of the virus from livestock in the Wuhan market, with
early clusters of cases associated with activity there.
At the same
time, a certain amount of what is frankly, racism, has obscured the origins of
the virus. Some accounts of the appearance of coronavirus have expressed in mocking
and hostile terms the belief that it has arisen from the wide variety of
animals eaten in China, including those that do not feature in the Western
Yet only a minority of the infections arose in people who had been in the Wuhan market streets near wildlife. A quarter of those originally infected had never been to the market and the earliest case of the coronavirus had arisen before anyone from Wuhan market was infected. One research team has speculated that the local hog population was the source of the new virus, based on the fact that this livestock species has similar physiology to humans in critical respects.
in factory farming in China is likely to have been a contributor to the
appearance of the coronavirus. In the past, new viruses often failed to spread
beyond a small, local area because their means of transmission to large human
populations was disrupted. In the twenty-first century, the speed of
transmission is completely different to even the twentieth. A Chinese farmer
can bring poultry, say, to the urban market very quickly with modern industrial
methods and an infection can be shipped to a major city very quickly.
And as the
environmental scientist and socialist, Rob
Wallace, has written, the connectedness of the entire planet means the unprecedentedly
swift spread of new viruses.
H1N1 (2009) crossed the Pacific Ocean in nine days, superseding predictions by the most sophisticated models of the global travel network by months. Airline data show a tenfold increase in travel in China just since the SARS epidemic.
Why is there
so much misinformation about the coronavirus?
in 2020 there exist vested interests that mean instead of a unified, planetary
response to the coronavirus, one where everyone is accurately informed about
the necessary steps to halt the increase in cases and deaths, there exist
people who have a reason to put out misinformation.
For a start,
there are those who have the incentive of making money to drive them to create
confusion around the virus. There are websites selling cures and medical equipment
that professes to be the answer to the virus, but isn’t. Iran, in particular,
has had some wild nonsense passed around via websites and social media,
suggesting mint, vinegar, saffron, rosewater and turmeric, among other
substances, can act to prevent the virus. More criminally, worldwide but with a
focus on Japan, there are email scams which seem official and to be containing
important information about coronavirus, but when you open them, they install
trojans into your computer and search for valuable personal information.
Politicians have misinformed their constituents about the coronavirus
From the very
beginning of this outbreak, politicians in authority have had a dangerous,
irresponsible approach to dealing with the virus. A tragic example is that
provided by Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan. At the end of 2019, he
posted on a chat group for doctors that there might be a new SARs-type virus as
there were seven patients showing symptoms at his hospital. He advised medics
to wear protective clothing. For this, he was visited by the police, brought to
the Public Security Bureau and made to sign a document acknowledging that he
would be brought to justice if he persisted in stubborn, impertinent and illegal
activity. On 10 January 2020, Dr Li started coughing, he had caught coronavirus
from one of his patients. On 30 January the diagnosis was confirmed and he died
at the start of February.
the evidence was overwhelming for the coronavirus outbreak, Chinese officials
were still underreporting it and discouraging an effective response. Yet the
West is little better.
for example, has twice explained to the world that the threat of coronavirus
will ‘go away’ in April with warmer weather. He’s said that life will return to
normal after the spike and that the media have been exaggerating how dangerous
the virus is.
And in their
own way, the caretaker Irish government have been failing us. Their theme is ‘don’t
panic’. Well, yes, panic wouldn’t help the situation. But is it panicking to want
to know where the virus has been present and what measures are being taken to
prevent it spreading? As the case of the student from Scoil Chaitríona shows,
Fine Gael have a strategy of keeping detailed information out of the public
domain as much as possible and assuring us that no special measures are needed.
is creating panic rather than ending it. The less we know, the more we
speculate and rumours (not without foundation in respect to the Mater hospital,
but made up in other instances) of other possible cases fly around social
media. Crucially, too, lives will be lost if the message goes out – as it did
this morning on RTÉ’s panel discussion – that public concern about the coronavirus
was massively exaggerated and we should carry on as normal. We shouldn’t even cancel
travel plans to centres of infection like northern Italy.
By repeating the idea that more people will die of ordinary flu and failing to have someone on the panel with genuine expertise in pandemics, RTÉ ensured a complacent message came across, one that was exactly in tune with the ‘don’t panic’ theme of government communication. Yet the comparison with annual flu is utterly misleading. Not only is coronavirus far more likely to kill someone, we are still at the very early stages of its spread. If coronavirus is anything like H1N1 from 2009, which it seems to be, the final figures will be grim. According to the Lancet, probably some 284,000 people were killed in one year as a result of that last virus.
interests are preventing the necessary measures to stop the coronavirus
the Chinese authorities, Donald Trump and Fine Gael is the terrifying prospect
of massive losses to business if they take strong measures to stop coronavirus:
measures such as closing airports, schools and factories. In the last week,
even at the thought that such measures might prove necessary, stock markets
lost nearly six trillion dollars in value.
The world economy
had been picking up slightly in the wake of the resolution of the US-Chinese
trade war but now it will plunge downwards. Already, indicators are showing we
are heading for a dip comparable to 2008 and this is likely to worsen.
There is a
clash of interest between many businesses and the needs of public health. In
insurance, for example, companies only have to pay out to passengers who cancel
their trips, if the government has placed official advice not to travel to the
region of the planned trip. There is pressure, therefore, on the government from
this industry not to introduce notices advising against travel or to limit the
regions covered by the notices.
Or, to take the example of large sporting events such as the
2020 Olympics. So much vested interest and wealth is tied up in the Olympics
that authorities have been extremely reluctant to announce its cancellation, when
it is an obvious precautionary step to take to do so. On a much smaller scale,
despite the advice of Ireland’s chief medical officer, there was considerable
delay before Ireland’s rugby international with Italy was postponed.
Yes, people will lose fortunes over this outbreak. But lives
lost can never be regained and nor will they be compensated for, in the way
that some businesses will escape the full hit of the impact of the cancellation
of events and the temporary closure of factories.
Ireland is not ready for the impact of coronavirus COVID-19
We have a particular problem in Ireland when it comes to
coping with an outbreak of the coronavirus: we are already starting from a
situation where there is a huge shortage of hospital beds. Years of neglect of
the public health system, both in terms of staff and facilities, means there is
already a crisis, even before the spread of the coronavirus. Every major hospital,
the HSE tells us, has identified an isolation room to which a COVID-19 patient
will be taken. In other words, with the exception of the Mater hospital, which
does have an isolation unit already functioning, these are hypothetical spaces.
And of course, as soon as the outbreak hits hard, the
theoretical preparations are going to prove pathetic, inadequate and dangerous
to hospital patients and staff. Coronavirus patients are going to need
intensive care to survive, particularly in regard to equipment to assist their
breathing. Yet, as Dr Michael O’Dwyer of St Vincent’s Hospital told
the press the use of intensive care beds was at ‘a hundred and ten percent capacity’.
There has not been a free intensive care bed at St Vincent’s since Christmas.
It would only take around a hundred coronavirus cases and
the consequent five or so patients who need life-saving interventions would
strain the system, with knock-on effects in other areas. Instead of identifying
rooms, ‘in case’, the government should prepare for a worst-case scenario and
immediately recruit the extra staff and actually set up the extra intensive
care rooms that have been identified. To do this, however, would be a complete
reversal of Fine Gael’s approach to health, where there has been an unofficial
embargo on recruitment for months.
Another failure of the government in Ireland with regard to the coronavirus is that they have not insisted that all large workplaces and public transport hubs provide facilities for the hygiene measures needed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Where are the hand sanitizers at all the LUAS, Dart and railway stations? At the major colleges? At the libraries? Theatres? Big workplaces? Some have them, most don’t.
I gave a lecture at Trinity College Dublin two days ago on another threat to humanity, that posed by geo-engineering. The hand sanitizers I passed were empty. Whether that was a failure by the college or government or both, it was symbolic of a deep complacency and resistance to spending money to avert a crisis.
Will workers in Ireland be paid if the coronavirus means that their workplace closes?
If the virus spreads through Ireland, there will be more closures
like that of Scoil Chaitríona. The situation for entire workplace closures seems
to be that while the employer might request workers do what they can from home,
failure to pay staff who are available for work would probably be a breach of
contract. For individual workers, however, there is likely to be something of a
battle between unions and management.
In theory, if you are advised by the HSE to self-isolate, your employer is not obliged to pay for your absence. Or if you have to leave work to care for a child sent home from a school closed because of coronavirus, you might be told this has to be paid leave, that the situation is not one of force majure. In the examples above, which were issued by TCD HR on 5 March, pressure is put on staff to take annual leave, parental leave or unpaid leave. Obviously, in the interests of public health, the government should insist that all workers who are being responsible and self-isolating must be paid. Ditto the parent who cares for a child in isolation. But again, this is not Fine Gael’s approach. They are, along with Fianna Fail, the friends of the employers and have issued no such guideline. It will be up to the unions to establish this policy or workers themselves, taking industrial action in support of their member who has protected everyone by not coming in to work.
From the UK comes a warning on this issue, where Wetherspoons,
who also have businesses in Ireland, have refused to pay workers for their absence,
other than the statutory payments under the sick pay regulations and that means
nothing for the first four days then only £94.25 a week. Not only is this a moral
disgrace, financial hardship might well will lead to people with the virus
coming to work instead of self-isolating. In other words, a tough line by the
employers is a disastrous one for the public.
There is a petition in support of workers rights in Ireland here, demanding that the government insist that workers who are self-isolating should be paid.
The free market is not the way to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus
Another way in which competition between businesses is making
the the coronavirus far more dangerous than it should be is in regard to
developing anti-viral solutions. Those pharmaceutical companies involved in the
development of vaccines are doing so for the potential to profit from the
crisis. Shares in Moderna for example, rose by eleven percent in one day in
January when the company said it had US health funding for research on a
vaccine. Clearly, investors calculated there was money to be made for the
company, after fulfilling its obligations to the US state.
This private company solution to the development of a vaccine
means we must be concerned about its cost and that inability to pay might lead
to a divide between the rich and poor, in terms of who is protected from the
virus. This is happening all the time in medicine and the Irish government should
have no hesitation in breaking a private monopoly over a vaccine should one
arise. Again, this is not a step that the Fine Gael caretakers would endorse.
The market has already failed us in regard to a vaccine for the
coronavirus: as Professor Peter Hoetz explained to the Guardian,
the tragedy is that after SARs a vaccine could have been stockpiled and made
ready to go. But ‘the investor enthusiasm for a Sars vaccine was zero.’ No
global health organisation or government stepped in and we are now racing
against time to develop a vaccine. The issue is not so much the creation of a
vaccine, there are several promising approaches, but the necessary delays in
testing, to make sure there are no unforeseen and dangerous consequences.
The US provides a clear case what happens when the right to
make a profit and the free-market are seen as essential to health care.
Herald reported how it works there. Osmel Martinez Azcue, acting
responsibly, reported to hospital for a check after returning from China. The subsequent
bill to his insurance company was $3,270. In a country with 27.5 million people
without health insurance and more than a third of the workforce are not
entitled to sick leave, the private system of medicine clearly doesn’t make
sense in the face of a public health care challenge like an epidemic.
A socialist society would be a lot less vulnerable to coronavirus-type outbreaks. Agriculture would be less likely to create the conditions in which viruses develop among animals and cross over to humans; our representatives would not be under pressure from businesses to delay the necessary measures to halt the spread of the epidemic; we’d have much more investment in hospitals and staff to treat patients, and we’d share knowledge about the epidemic and possible vaccines and cures globally, for free.
What are the symptoms of the new coronavirus, COVID-19?
a bad flu, the symptoms of COVID-19 are fever and tiredness. Also a dry cough. Some
people report aches and pains, nasal congestion, a runny nose or diarrhoea. The
symptoms usually begin gradually. If you have a temperature, cough and
difficulty breathing, look for medical help.
What should I do if I think I have coronavirus?
Isolate yourself, including from your family e.g. occupy a room for yourself only. Seek medical advice promptly from your GP or the HSE helpline (below). Call before leaving for care to help prevent the spread of the virus and also to be directed to the appropriate place.
What should I do to limit my exposure to the coronavirus?
Firstly, everyone in Ireland now needs to take the risk of infection seriously. The virus can spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs. Try to maintain at least 1 metre distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing. As it can probably survive on a surface for days, regularly and thoroughly wash your hands after being in public places.
How can I minimize the risk of becoming infected?
Regularly and thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub (at least 60% alcohol and let the santizer dry on the hand). Don’t bring your fingers to your eyes, nose and mouth (entry points to your body for the virus).
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
Not at present.
Who should I call in Ireland for more information about the coronavirus?
On 24 February 2020, Raheny Fianna Fáil councillor Tom
Brabazon was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin at a special meeting of Dublin City
Council. His victory came in a vote of 34 to 26 (three absences) against
independent candidate Anthony Flynn. In 2015, Tom Brabazon let slip an
extremely conservative view of women, when he wrote an article for the Northside
People against gender quotas in politics and said, ‘we should want real
women with real life experience of the education system, the workplace, childbirth,
childcare…’ He went further on the Sean O’Rourke show on RTÉ (9 March 2015),
saying that women who had actually given birth were best placed to discuss
Immediately, this drew a huge reaction from women who considered themselves perfectly real without having to give birth or raise children.
Slapped on the wrist by Micheál
Martin, Brabazon issued an apology and retreated to the extent that he said he did
not intend to be hurtful. The new Lord Mayor did not, however, revise his core
conservative beliefs in regard to women and this became apparent during the
Repeal campaign. On 5 October 2015 and again on 6 March 2017, Brabazon voted
against a DCC motion that called on the government to hold a referendum to repeal
the 8th amendment of the Constitution. During the campaign he put his name to a Pro-Life
statement in support of the ‘No’ position.
Independent Left’s Niamh McDonald said, ‘As the chair of Dublin Bay North Repeal group I am disgusted that such a man was voted in as Lord Mayor. His past history and comments have shown him not to be in favour of women’s empowerment or women’s equality. Dublin constituencies voted overwhelmingly for women and pregnant people to have reproductive choices and if our new lord Mayor had his way this would never have become a reality.
‘What I feel is a real betrayal of the Repeal movement comes from those parties such as the Social Democrats, Greens and Labour who were active in the Repeal campaign in Dublin Bay North and beyond, who have now agreed to Tom Brabazon’s nomination and who have voted him in. These parties won votes from the Repeal campaign in order to get elected and have now used those votes go against this movement.
‘Repealing the 8th was only half of the battle to ensure everybody has reproductive justice. Our current legislation is too conservative and narrow, it excludes many in society who are already marginalised. At a minimum, we need exclusion zones and to end the three day waiting period.
‘We have a review of the current legislation in less than two years and we need representatives who are willing to stand up to those who want to remove the gains we have made and also who will fight for more.’
Brabazon’s conservative family values
fit with his connections to the previous generation of Fianna Fáil politicians.
A strong supporter of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Brabazon tried to
challenge the popular perception of Haughey as corrupt by proposing that Dublin’s
port tunnel be named in Haughey’s honour: ‘You would like to
think that somebody whose public life was dominated by goodness would have a
memorial,’ said Brabazon in 2006, apparently without smirking.
Why did the Greens and Social Democrats vote Fianna Fáil?
After the local government elections of 2019, Fianna Fáil did a deal with Labour, the Green Party and the Social Democrats to get control of Dublin City Council. “The Dublin Agreement 2019 – 2024” is the excuse that the Greens and the SocDems (Labour don’t seem to feel the need to excuse voting for Brabazon) are now giving for their support for Tom Brabazon as Lord Mayor of Dublin. The agreement itself is ten pages of dry, well-intentioned phrases. But the practical action arising from the document does not serve the real needs of the people of Dublin, nor our desire for urgent action on housing. This agreement allowed the sell-off of public land like O’Devaney Gardens and the wasting of millions on a white-water rafting facility.
Many people who voted for Green and Social Democrat candidates in general election 2020 just cannot understand why these parties would support Fianna Fáil in general and an anti-woman figure in particular. The vote on 24 February 2020 in Dublin’s council chamber seemed to completely contradict the spirit of ‘vote left, transfer left’ that swept through working class communities in the general election. It would have been easy, in the light of the general election results, for the Greens, Labour and the SocDems to leave the Dublin Agreement, saying that it was clear there was now a mandate for change. No doubt far more of their supporters would have agreed with such a stand than will agree with their vote for Tom Brabazon.
The explanation for the apparent contradiction in the behaviour of these parties is to be found in their history and their politics. Elsewhere in Europe, Greens can be found who are definitely on the left and side with working class communities but in Ireland that has never been the case. The Irish Green Party is a particularly conservative one, highly networked to Irish business (Ciaran Cuffe is a millionaire who notoriously held shares in General Electric, Chevron Texaco, Merck, Citigroup, Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson before this information became public). With honourable exceptions, they have often been hesitant on the struggle for abortion rights, preferring silence to leading the way towards change, and while their decision to run David Healy, a candidate with pro-life views, in Dublin Bay North was terrible, it was their attempt to escape the issue when it was raised that is the real indicator of their weakness in this regard. Although the general election campaign raised hopes that the Green Party had changed since its shocking, anti-working class performance in coalition with Finna Fáil 2007 – 2011, essentially, it has not. Its commitment to helping run Irish and international capitalism as a context for its policies means that even on issues to do with climate action, it will do little more than provide cosmetic, trivial changes.
As for the Social Democrats, they were born from a split from the Labour Party and have the same politics as Labour except with a pleasant purple colour-scheme and a lack of support from trade unions. They too start from a premise that they must be ‘responsible’ in respect to the economy and that any changes on behalf of working class communities can only be introduced insofar as such changes are acceptable to the wealthy and the owners of businesses and property. This attempt to mediate between us and the rich wasn’t particularly successful for Labour even in times of prosperity, where there was a certain amount of space for improved spending on housing and health. Sitting on the fence can be tricky and it is particularly difficult to be on a fence that is wobbling. In the 2020s, politics is highly polarised, such as is evident in the vast difference in beliefs between Bernie Saunders and Donald Trump in the USA. And what the vote for Dublin Mayor demonstrates is that when forced to come off the fence, the Social Democrats (just as with Labour) will jump down on the side of the elite.
What does the Dublin Mayoral Vote show for the future of Irish politics?
At the time the vote for Mayor of Dublin was made, the national picture was unclear, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael looking to form a government that excluded Sinn Féin, one that would need a willing partner or two from among the smaller parties. While the Social Democrats ruled out joining that particular combination, they conspicuously did not rule out joining with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a different alignment. The Green Party are equally willing to participate in government alongside one of the right wing parties. Whatever combination of parties eventually emerges to create the Irish government (or, if there is another general election), we can draw a number of conclusions from the vote for Tom Brabazon.
Firstly, the exciting and positive vote for change in general election 2020 is only the beginning of a process of a widescale move to the left in Ireland (and especially in working class communities). As people who want decisive and urgent action on climate, housing and health see that the Social Democrats and Greens (and Labour) won’t take that action, it’s likely that parties to the left of these will grow.
Secondly, even if we had a left government that was trying to tackle these challenges in a manner that – for once – favoured working class communities, the Greens and the Social Democrats would not make for reliable partners. Probably, a government reliant on them would face the same issues that Syriza in Greece faced in 2015. When international pressure from businesses and powerful politicians came to hammer down on Greece, the left government caved in and backtracked on all its radical ideas. If the Greens and the Social Democrats can’t even bring themselves to stand up to Fianna Fáil in Dublin City Council and ditch the Dublin Agreement and a pro-Life Mayoral candidate in favour of a housing activist (Anthony Flynn), we aren’t going to see Che Guevara-style t-shirts being worn of SocDem and Green Party leaders. They are bound to give in to the demands of landlords and business.
Thirdly, on a smaller point but one that might prove important in the long term, the results of the election led to a difference in approach on the socialist left. While People Before Profit considered it a duty to enter a left government alongside the Greens and Social Democrats, the Socialist Party and Paul Murphy (RISE) were, quite rightly, more cautious. Supporting such a government from the outside is much better than being part of it. As soon as even a small strike or protest breaks out against the government, if you were outside of government you’d have your hands free to support the protest. If you were inside, you’d have to bring the government down, which might not be the worst outcome (the worst outcome would be if you sacrificed the cause of the protestors to your presence in government) but it would make it look like you were dishonest in your negotiations around the program for government.
Finally, and the most important
conclusion for us in Independent Left, is that the campaigns for change that
are bubbling away in Ireland, such as over childcare, pay equality and housing,
must continue. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a government. Even a ‘left’
minister might fail us, while the caretaker ministers and the senior civil
servants can be forced by successful strikes and protests to implement the
changes we need. Waiting for a Sinn Féin-lead government could take months and ultimately
could lead nowhere. In the meantime, we can use the boost provided by the
election and especially the demoralisation among Fine Gael and their supporters
to galavanise existing campaigns and launch new ones.
Peter Linebaugh’s 2019 book Red Round Globe Hot Burning is his greatest masterpiece yet in a lifetime of triumphs. It is a mind-blowing contribution to his lifelong quest for the commons. This is a quest begun through his apprenticeship to the late Edward Thompson (whose copy of The Trial of Edward Despard Linebaugh has carried with him in his luggage all his life), and deepened with his stunning work The London Hanged. Then there is Linebaugh’s utterly miraculous collaboration with ‘fellow shipmate’ Marcus Rediker on The Many-Headed Hydra. Throw in his unforgettable Mayday Essays and his work on The Magna Carta Manifesto, not to mention his Stop Thief, a wonderful, Wobbly-inspired titled collection of essays and you have a writer of such extraordinary power that reading him can move you to tears (and will always lift your spirits). His subjects are the picaresque proletariat of the revolutionary Atlantic: some of the boldest, most irrepressible characters to ever walk the earth.
The title of this recent book is taken from William Blake’s Vision of The Daughters of Albion
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
Linebaugh, like his mentor Thompson, is a Blake enthusiast. He writes perceptively about Blake’s work, seeing the revolutionary thinking in Blake’s complex prophecy in The Book of Urizen which he interprets as an allegory designed to describe the Atlantic transition to child labour and slavery.
It is how Linebaugh glosses the phrase ‘Red Round Globe Hot Burning’ that speaks to everything about our world today, beset as with are with fascist berserkers and a climate out of whack. In his tale ‘at the crossroads of commons and closure, of love and terror, of race and class, and of Kate and Ned Despard’ Linebaugh, ‘the people’s remembrancer’, depicts two revolutionary lovers who broke through the hardening walls of white supremacy and made a valiant attempt to overthrow the still nascent industrial capitalist system and restore the commons. In the words that they wrote together while Despard was in prison, and that he delivered from the scaffold not long after other legendary heroes from the United Irishmen suffered similar fates:
But, Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.
Edward Despard was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British army who once saved the life of Nelson and was greatly respected for his abilities as an engineer. He married Kate, an African American woman, and turned revolutionary in part because of his experiences among indigenous commoners in Nicaragua and Honduras. It was Despard’s open sympathy with people of colour that provoked the baymen of Honduras ‘to take arms in Defence of our lives and properties against an armed banditti of all colours’. Kate, ‘the fearless abolitionist, the tireless prison reformer, the United Irish woman, is the hero of this story’. She visited Ned in three prisons, was a terror to the authorities, for to quote Nelson, she was ‘violently in love’ with Ned. In one awesome campaign she successfully prevented Jeremy Bentham from building his panopticon on Tothill’s Fields commons.
The themes of Linebaugh’s latest book
The methods that Linebaugh uses to tell this tale are bold and well suited to his themes. He roams like a true commoner through space and time and across many disciplines (History, Literature, Climate Science, Thermodynamics, Engineering, Mycology, Zoology, etc) which makes his book such an incredible read. I have been through it now six times and each reading offers fresh delights. He makes great use of the poetry of John Clare and Blake, two fervent lovers of the commons, and of the poetry of the ‘hidden Ireland’ where insurrectionary thoughts were never far from the surface. He employs both statistical and anecdotal evidence to illustrate the truth behind his favourite peasant ‘koan’:
The Law locks up the man or woman who steals the goose from off the commons,
But leaves the greater villain loose that steals the commons from the goose.
Also, like a true Blake enthusiast, he has an uncanny knack for reading hostile official sources in a ‘Satanic light’ to provide brilliant evidence of the class struggle. What always stands out in Linebaugh’s work is his love of language, particularly the language of poets and proletarians. You really get the sense of Linebaugh relishing the language of each quotation he uses. There is one from an extraordinary passage: part Linebaugh, part William Covel, execrating the enclosers of Enfield commons, which nicely illustrates how much of ‘a true Leveler’ Linebaugh has become through his years of thinking and writing about a tradition inspired by Winstanley and the diggers.
[Covel’s] class consciousness was vivid. He inveighed against the possessors, their fat and scornful eyes, their taunting speech – “What lyings! What cheatings! What blood! What murders! What divisions! What tumults! What pride! What covetousness!” “Oh how the buyers and sellers are guarded, fenced with walls, and defended with Laws!” He said that the wicked of the world rule by three principles: 1) strength united is stronger, 2) “divide and spoil,” and 3) “make poor enough, and you will rule well enough”. In particular, he denounced lawyers, clergymen, corporations, and great tradesmen. Gold and silver were their signs of glory “but to others [they were] a sign of death.” In contrast, mariners, those who follow the plough, and those who practice handicrafts were useful, for on their labors all others depended.
You could with great success and much happiness for yourself practice bibliomancy with Linebaugh’s book. It would be a great spiritual defence in these frightening times to open the text at random and read his glorious prose or the many brilliant quotations he has selected. His discussion of the different kinds of love, for instance, is marvelous,
This is a story both of a couple and of the commons. Doubtless eros was part of their love – Ned and Kate had a son- and so was philia, or that egalitarian love of comrades and friends. The love of the commons was akin to that love the Greeks called agape, the creative and redemptive love of justice, with its sacred connotations.
So, what is the commons that Linebaugh writes of? I would say a permanent revolution in social reproduction inspired by the history of commoning. He advocates for the omnia sunt communia of Thomas Müntzer, the great religious communist leader of the German peasants’ revolt. The great digger, or ‘true leveller’, Gerard Winstanley’s ‘the earth was made a common treasury for all’ inspires his thinking. Linebaugh distinguishes between the radical claims on the commons made by Winstanley to those of Thomas Rainborough.
Winstanley propounds a communist theory of land. Rainborough is all about government and the nation, whereas Winstanley is all about land and subsistence. Rainborough was a Leveler, while Winstanley called himself a “True Leveller”. Rainborough is deferential (“truly, sir”), while Winstanley is declarative (“freedom is the man who will turn the world upside downe”).
Spence is one the most beautiful, awe-inspiring, irrepressible radical worker intellectuals from the British Isles. He wrote brilliant tracts like the extraordinary work on social reproduction, The Rights of Infants.
Aristocracy (sneering): And is your sex also set up for pleaders of rights?
Woman: Yes, Molochs! Our sex were defenders of rights from the beginning. And though men, like other he-brutes, sink calmly into apathy respecting their offspring, you shall find nature, as it never was, so it never shall be extinguished in us. You shall find that we not only know our rights, but have spirit to assert them, to the downfall of you and all tyrants. And since it is so that the men, like he-asses, suffer themselves to be laden with as many pair of panyers of rents, tithes, &c. as your tender consciences please to lay upon them, we, even we, the females, will vindicate the rights of the species, and throw you and all your panyers in the dirt.
When he wasn’t revisiting his plans for a commoners’ republic, Spencer was singing revolutionary songs, like A Song to Be Sung at the Commencement of the Millenium.
Hark! how the Trumpet’s sound,
Proclaims the Land around The Jubilee!
Tells all the Poor oppress’d,
No more shall they be cess’d
Nor Landlords more molest
And, if not that, he was chalking slogans on walls and roads (“You rogues! No landlords!” “Fat Barns! Full bellies!”). He minted these class war coins with slogans like “Let tyrants tremble at the crow of Liberty”. When he was arrested, as he was many times, he used his trial to restate his plan for an egalitarian society. As Linebaugh writes, ‘Spence was for all creatures – animals, as well as humans – regardless of gender, race, or age’. His thinking which evolved from the commons into ‘a precursor of communism’ was made up of many strands:
Spence combined the practicalities of the commons’ customary rights with the ideals of universal equality. He drew on several ideas and traditions, the Garden of Eden, the golden age, utopian, Christian, Jewish, American Indian, millenarian, dissenting. All of these ideas were experienced in a context of a commons of the sea (his mother was from the Orkney Islands) and of the land (the Newcastle Town Moor), not yet enclosed.
Linebaugh on the great slave revolt of San Domingue (Haiti)
One of the ‘Atlantic Mountains’ that is a towering presence in the book is the Island of San Domingue (Haiti). The greatest slave revolt in human history which was begun on the night of August 22 1791, at the Bois De Caiman (a commons), ‘an all-out war began that culminated twelve years later – at the time of the Despard conspiracy – in the abolition of slavery and the independence of Haiti. It is a great and horrifying story of human freedom that reverberated throughout the Atlantic mountains, shaking every peak and valley’. The successful ‘black Jacobin’ revolutionaries led by Toussaint Louverture taunted their French adversaries (who were sent on a genocidal mission of extermination by Napoleon) by singing songs of the French Revolution, now in Thermidorean decline. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who took over as leader following the capture of Louverture named his army ‘the army of the Incas’ in a fabulous salute to the failed Tupac Amaru revolt in the Andes of 1780 which had first caused the Atlantic Mountains to shake. Linebaugh refers to the work of Susan Buck-Morss, whose book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, underlines the vital influence that the Haitian revolution had on Hegel’s development of the Master-Slave dialectic. It is incredible to think of the Haitian revolution as a root of the Marxist dialectic when you consider that Marx’s great hero of world history was another slave revolutionary, Spartacus.
Another of the great revolutionary movements of the time was that of the United Irishmen with whom Despard would eventually intersect. He became a member of the United Englishmen and of the London Corresponding Society. After Despard’s hanging, Kate disappears into the fold of the surviving cohort of United Irishmen. The United Irishmen was a glorious moment in Irish history made up of the amazing characters, a movement for ‘the men of no property’, although there were bourgeois figures like Valentine Lyons (whose mansion Kate found refuge in). The military leader was Edward Fitzgerald, ‘scion of the most privilege strata of aristocracy’. But the mass of the people was ‘helots’, a term used by William Drennan, who also coined the phrase ‘the emerald isle’ and composed the oath of the United Irishmen. These were the dispossessed, many of whom seethed with revolutionary discontent. ‘In Ireland’, Linebaugh writes,
We witness popular mobilization for the cooperative production of subsistence, in a powerful political practice known as “hasty diggings”. The Northern Star, the Belfast newspaper of the United Irish, reported that when William Orr of county Antrim was imprisoned, between five and six hundred of his neighbours assembled “and cut down his entire harvest before one o’clock on that day – and what is passing strange, and will no doubt alarm some people, would accept of no compensation”.
Revolutionary influences coursed through the Atlantic. In The Many-Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker describe the picaresque proletariat as transmitters of revolutionary messages. In an extraordinary passage that beautifully describes how Robert Wedderburn who was radicalised by the ideas of Thomas Spence became a ‘linchpin’ of the revolutionary Atlantic: they write,
Like the linchpin, a small piece of metal that connected the wheels to the axle of the carriage and made possible the movement and firepower of the ship’s cannon, Wedderburn was an essential piece of something larger, mobile and powerful.
Linebaugh has often referred to the ‘boomerang’ of the revolutionary ideas from the Diggers and the Ranters from the English revolution of the seventeenth century as they hurled about the Atlantic and returned to the British Isles in the eighteenth century. Both Despard and the United Irish were part of this movement influenced by the revolutionary currents of the time and attracted to the commoning traditions of indigenous peoples. Edward Fitzgerald was inducted into the society of the Iroquois having been saved from near death by his servant Tony Small, a freed slave. The revolutionaries of Haiti and Ireland were greatly influenced by the writings of Constance Volney, ‘one of those aristocratic Frenchmen whose enlightened outlook contributed to the breakdown of the old regime and whose thinking soared with the revolutionary waves that began to break in 1789’. In 1799, Captain Marcus Rainsford, an officer in the British army, who had served during the American revolution got to experience firsthand revolutionary Haiti: ‘the sons of revolution, American and Haitian, ate from a common dish’. The ‘dish with one spoon’ that the Iroquois leader, Joseph Brant spoke of is an inspiring example of radical egalitarianism in dialectical opposition to the refinements of fine dining. Linebaugh writes:
The meal may be the basis of human solidarity or a mirror of social hierarchy. By the seventeenth century, at least among European nobility, eating from a common dish was finished: everyone had a spoon and a fork and their own plate. Such became the bourgeois savoir vivre by the eighteenth century. These notions of civilite and politesse slowly became a means of differentiating humanite.
Captain Rainsford meets a black labourer who keeps a copy of Volney’s Travels, one of the earliest European texts to posit the African origins of human civilization, much as Martin Bernal did in the late twentieth century. It is one of the many beautiful pieces of anecdotal evidence that Linebaugh presents where humans transcend the pernicious barriers of racial supremacy. Ironically, Volney’s Ruins includes ‘the revolutionary invocation’:
Hail solitary ruins, holy sepulchers and silent walls!….confounding the dust of the king with that of the meanest slave, [you] had announced to man the sacred dogma of equality.
This text, beloved by the United Irish, was definitively translated by Thomas Jefferson and Joel Barlow, two inveterate racists. Such are the contradictions of history.
Climate Crisis in Red Round Globe Hot Burning
‘Red round globe hot burning’ refers to the effects that our climate is now experiencing from our carbon-based economic system. The rise of Industrial capitalism was intimately tied up with the theorization of the earth as a machine. Linebaugh quotes from James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, published in 1795:
When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of these several parts, the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end.
‘A geological epoch commenced with a machine, the steam engine, at the same historical moment that the study of the earth, or the science of geology, conceived of the earth as a machine with heat energy at its source.’
But Linebaugh is rightly wary of an uncritical use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ which puts equal blame on the coal miner forced to labour long hours in hellish conditions with the big mining interests who were at the apex of a brutal class society, whose rise (per Karl Marx) was written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire. Any reading of Marx’s Capital, especially the utterly horrifying sections on ‘The Working Day’ or even more pertinently his section on primitive accumulation would lead one to recoil from a catch-all term like the ‘Anthropocene’ which avoids any mention of class struggle, the very motor of historical materialism. Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital provides a brilliant Marxist analysis of this intense period of class struggle and technological change.
Linebaugh is also scathing of the ‘stages’ theory of history.
Historical determinism is the law of empire: knowledge of the future is gained by its stadial methods, and its signs are the machines of social production.
Stadialism put the imperial centre and the colonial periphery in different time frames: civilised and primitive. ‘In the new United States, the stadial theory anticipated extirpation.’ It is interesting that the one text of Karl Marx that Linebaugh includes in his bibliography is The Ethnographical Notebooks, described by the late, great Labour historian, Wobbly biographer and Surrealist Franklin Rosemont as one of those ‘works that come down to us with question-marks blazing like sawed-off shotguns, scattering here and there and everywhere sparks that illuminate our own restless search for answers.’ Rosemont’s essay ‘Karl Marx and the Iroquois’ is a fascinating and provocative look at late Marx who was seriously inspired by his reading of anthropological texts. Rosemont writes:
The neglect of the notebooks for nearly a century is even less surprising when one realizes the degree to which they challenge what has passed for Marxism all these years. In the lamentable excuse for a “socialist” press in the English-speaking world, this last great work from Marx’s pen has been largely ignored.
Rosemont bemoans the fact that few Marxists had bothered to take up the challenge laid down by these notebooks which both radically altered the traditional ideas of stages of history on evolutionary progress through class struggle and technological change and looked back to the excitement of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts.
Fragmentary though they are, the Notebooks, together with the drafts of the letter to Vera Zasulich and a few other texts, reveal that Marx’s culminating revolutionary vision is not only coherent and unified, but a ringing challenge to all the manifold Marxisms that still try to dominate the discussion of social change today, and to all truly revolutionary thought, all thought focused on the reconciliation of humankind and the planet we live on. In this challenge lies the greatest importance of these texts. A close, critical look back to the rise and fall of ancient pre-capitalist communities, Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and his other last writings also look ahead to today’s most promising revolutionary movements in the Third World, and the Fourth, and our own.
I would argue that Linebaugh is a worthy successor to this late Marx. This book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, is a wonderful testament both to revolutionary and creative writing and to the forgotten heroes of the working-class movement.
Ned and Kate were colonial subjects who lost their bid to put humankind on a different path, a road not taken. Their love for each other was part of their love for the commons. Eros, philia, and agape met their downfall in the Malthusian love of calculated breeding, or ektrophe, which serves the state and capital.
But in the words of the lovely poem by Thomas Russell, quoted by Linebaugh,
Fine Gael called this election and rubbed
their hands with excitement. Full employment, Leo Varadkar looking great in
dealings with Boris Johnson over Brexit, property incomes soaring. What could
possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything that can go wrong
when you live in a champagne bubble and have no insight into the struggle of
those on medium and low incomes. You speak with complacency and in ignorance,
you are contemptuous of the electorate and you think, ‘a future to look forward
to’ is a clever slogan.
Ireland has 78,000 millionaires in 2020 and
they certainly have a future to look forward to. For the rest of us, unless
something changes, we can only see more pain over the fact our incomes are
eaten up by mortgages and rents; more difficulty accessing health services our
families need, with longer waiting times; and more deprivation and anti-social
activity in our neglected communities.
There was a roar of anger released in this
election and it was channelled behind Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin are a working class
party in the sense that their activists are generally drawn from the working
class and they know the challenges working people face. So their policies and
their articulation of that roar led them to becoming the lightning rod for our
fury at Fine Gael and also at Fianna Fáil. We hadn’t forgotten who landed us
with massive tax burdens by bailing out their banker friends and who backed
Fine Gael with ‘confidence and supply’.
Understanding the rise of the Sinn Féin vote
Our class found a way to lash out at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and it was through Sinn Féin, whose spokespeople did a great job of expressing how we felt and offering well-informed refutations of right wing lies (remember how Leo Varadakar said during a TV debate that the rent freeze in Berlin hadn’t worked? It has been agreed but hasn’t come in yet). Even though the large newspapers and television stations did all they could to hammer down the Sinn Féin vote in the last days of the campaign, the electorate in working class areas wasn’t budging.
Some of the tallies as the boxes opened
were incredible. Eighty, ninety percent Sinn Féin and just handfuls of votes
for the right wing parties.
The transformation of the Irish political
landscape in election 2020 is exciting for those of us on the left and
humiliating for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
In Dublin Bay North, as elsewhere, at first it seemed as though the socialist voice of the working class was going to also be swept away by the growth of the Sinn Féin vote. The Green vote too, might have been a challenge for socialists (although it was more of a challenge for Labour and other middle-ground and middle class parties). But as the counts went on, the transfers from Sinn Féin were strongly to the left, much more so than had been anticipated, although there were some losses to the presence of radical socialists in the Dáil and as activists with the advantages that being a TD brings to helping organise campaigns. We were sorry to see Ruth Coppinger and Séamus Healy lose their seats but delighted that after a difficult looking start, on the whole, the socialist left held their ground. In fact, we should have gained a seat in Dublin Bay North and at the expense of Seán Haughey of Fianna Fáil, who before the election had been a twenty-to-one favourite.
It must have come as an unpleasant shock for Fianna Fáil that far from winning a second seat, Seán Haughey was down at 6,651 first preferences and ultimately, even after 13 rounds of transfers, couldn’t get a quota. Our own first preference vote was a disappointment, at only 1,882 for our candidate Councillor John Lyons. This seemed to be at odds with the very strong energy for change we’d been encountering on the doorsteps but the transfers of poll-topping Denise Mitchell for Sinn Féin clarified what had happened. There was indeed a massive vote against the establishment and for the left but it had first found a channel in Sinn Féin.
The split left vote saved Haughey’s seat
Elsewhere, the huge Sinn Féin transfers were bringing in candidates of the left and that should have been the case in Dublin Bay North too. Except that that the nearly 5,000 transfers for socialists got split three ways. Instead of one candidate reaching around 9,000 votes and pushing Haughey into sixth place by the end of the election, the Fianna Fáil candidate got lucky. Inevitably, transfers get diluted: even between members of the same party, 50 – 60% is typical. So around half of the votes expressing a desire by working class communities to vote Sinn Féin then vote left were thrown away and in the end, John Lyons, the best placed of the socialists, went out on the thirteenth count with 6,421.
In advance of the next general election, there needs to be a good-faith conversation among the potential left candidates about local government and Dáil seats, in the hope of avoiding this situation arising again.
Positive outcomes for Independent Left from GE2020
Despite the fact that John Lyons did not win Independent Left’s first ever Dáil seat, there are a lot of positives from the election for our small party. With no national presence, financial support, media presence or infrastructure we ran a fantastic campaign which in other circumstances would have brought about a shock for the right and a terrific victory. It helped that our election material was absolutely in tune with our audience. Our theme was ‘a tale of two cities’ and we both listened to and helped articulate the feeling that while the very rich and the landlords were getting richer, the rest of us were being left behind.
We got energy too, from the Childcare
Strike and the Teachers’ Strike, which we connected to in Dublin Bay North with
a lively contingent on the childcare march and support for the picket lines at
the schools around the constituency.
Another big positive for us was meeting new
people who have joined Independent Left and have added to our mix of
socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, parents, students, young and
old. We are still a project that is evolving but it was really interesting to
see how the joint effort of the election brought out a variety of skills and
expertise among us and also bonded us in the common effort. Modern socialist
parties can be a lot more freeform, dynamic, lively and conversational than the
traditional model of a small, centralised handful of people with years of
expertise directing everyone else. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, etc. allow
for everyone to have an opinion and – in our case – a lot of laughs too. If you
have been supporting Independent Left in this campaign, you’d be welcome to
What will happen next in Irish politics after GE2020?
Nationally, a discussion is taking place about government formation and it
seems that Sinn Féin are positioning themselves to enter government with Fianna
Fáil and a smaller party or two. Probably, there is a huge debate within Sinn
Féin about this and we hope that the anti-Fianna Fáil voices win. Why? Because
Fianna Fáil might well offer a border poll. they might even allow Sinn Féin to
introduce a rent freeze, which of course would be very welcome. But the price
for these would be too high, because the wealth of the very rich and especially
corporations would be untouchable, because it would be business as usual in every
other regard. Worse, it would disillusion those people who made the effort to
vote for change. While Independent Left have been offering hope, diversity and
solidarity within working class communities and trying to direct the alienation
people feel against the real causes of this, the system we live under, there
was a far right presence in this election who offered despair, division and a
violent, racist and homophobic turning inwards of our communities. They will
try to capitalise on the sense of betrayal if Sinn Féin backed a Fianna Fáil
But isn’t the alternative a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael government? Wouldn’t that be worse? Actually no, it wouldn’t. Because the ability of any government to impose policies that harm working class communities is set by the willingness of people to stand up and organise and resist the government. We defeated the water charges and with a popular Sinn Féin party in opposition, we can not only throw back anything the government brings at us, workers can push now for pay equality, pay increases, while working class communities can challenge for more resources. This is a much better scenario and one that has a very strong prospect of leading to a left of centre government next time around, than one where for the sake of a few policy gains the excitement currently alive in working class communities subsides into apathy and disillusionment.
Regardless of how the political consequences of election 2020 develop nationally, Independent Left have emerged from the election as a stronger force in Dublin Bay North and we look forward to playing our part in the campaigns to come.
Message from John Lyons to his supporters after the count for Dublin Bay North on Sunday 11 February 2020.
The Repeal of the 8th amendment on 25 May 2018 was a seminal moment in Irish history and an amazing moment, one that starkly illuminated the fact that we are no longer a country dominated by the Catholic Church. The dazzling victory felt even stronger than that of the same-sex marriage referendum. It was a hard-fought result, one that couldn’t have been achieved without mass participation in the repeal movement. Everywhere, but especially in urban and working class areas, the issue of abortion was discussed and women shared their experiences.
This was one of the crucial differences compared to previous efforts to liberalise Ireland’s severe abortion laws. The atmosphere of shame and silence that prevented the reality of the need for safe and legal abortions from being expressed was shattered by women having the confidence to speak out in a fashion that was unprecedented for Ireland. With sincerity and conviction, canvassers swayed those who held reservations into voting for repeal. As one of the canvassers in Dublin Bay North put it:
Personal stories and individual experiences that weren’t readily available on television or even on the web were key to the success of the campaign.
Editors Kath Browne and Sydney Calkin invited a range of contributors to write for an anthology that analyses the campaign and also the implications of the result for Irish society and, indeed, the international struggle for reproductive justice.
Different perspectives on the politics of Repeal are offered by Theresa Reidy, Linda Connolly, Fiona de Londras, Máiréad Enright, Sydney Calkin, Elżbieta Drążkiewicz-Grodzicka and Máire Ní Mhórdha. For analysis of the campaign itself, the book draws on Mary McGill’s reflections of events in rural Ireland and the Repeal story within the Irish language community is covered by a chapter from Lisa Nic an Bhreithimh. Lorna O’Hara discusses the power of the iconic ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural, while Eric Olund’s research is in regard to the press. The aftermath of Repeal and its potential consequences both here and internationally are discussed by Richard Scriven, Kath Browne, Catherine Jean Nash, Noëlle Cotter, Lisa Smyth and Dorota Szelewa.
Dublin Bay North during the Repeal the 8th campaign
There is something of an academic flavour to the book, but the editors are to be commended on their inclusivity and in particular the publication of ‘Campaigning for choice: canvassing as feminist pedagogy in Dublin Bay North’, a chapter by Niamh McDonald, Kate Antosik-Parsons, Karen E. Till, Jack Callan and Gerry Kearns. The framing of the chapter suggests that its value is in providing a case study of successful feminist pedagogy, but really, there is wealth of more general lessons that can be learned from the experience of Dublin Bay North Repeal group, ones that are important for wider campaigns and, indeed, our own socialist project. It helps that Independent Left’s own Niamh McDonald is a contributor to the chapter. Niamh was Chair of the Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Campaign and with her voice, along with others, we hear from working class women who shaped the outcome of the referendum.
One of the challenges facing the group was in how to maximise the energy of
the many people new to political activism with the experience of those who had
years of experience in trying to bring about reproductive rights for women.
They solved this with a number of strategies: there was a ‘buddy’ system, to
team up those new and less confident about knocking on the doors of strangers
with those who were familiar with such activity; they avoided a potentially
patronising and top-down stultifying effect by placing an emphasis on the empowering
of the new voices; the internal social media conversations were egalitarian and
encouraging (i.e. were not heavily controlled by moderators); decision-making
was transparent and democratic; activists with a political background were
welcomed but no one party was given a pre-eminent role, finally, respect was
reciprocal. Newer activists might say,
My buddy had been knocking on doors for months, and gave me great advice, and boosted my confidence. It also made me feel safe.’
While the more
experienced activist could recognise that the enthusiasm of the new activist
was encouraging and helped lift her, ‘on bad days.’
All in all, the campaign
provides a model, not just for feminist pedagogy but a methodology for creating
an inclusive grass-roots campaign. The success of this approach, the fact that Dublin
Bay North Repeal retained members and grew to the point that 80 – 100 canvassers
were assembling and knocking on doors every day, was decisive in bringing about
one of the largest votes for Repeal in Ireland. Overly hierarchical organisations
inevitably stifle people who want to express themselves but are not used to
doing so. To win the argument around Repeal it was absolutely critical,
however, that women of our community, of the working class, got to speak and
got to be heard. As one canvasser summarised the situation: ‘our arguments were
based on compassion and real life experience’. Real life experience was heard
by canvassers, was brought into the campaign and shared, and working class women
as canvassers themselves reflected the reality of the necessity of abortion
Dublin Bay North Repeal
activists were self-aware enough of the importance of their achievement that
they consciously strove to preserve the lessons of the campaign by issuing a
survey to members in the aftermath of the vote and with 125 responses, obtained
essential feedback from which the lessons of the campaign could be drawn. Very
much to the credit of the editors, these lessons have been included in After Repeal.
Some twenty-percent of the Dublin Bay North campaign members were male and among them and one of the founders of the group was Councillor John Lyons. The launch of the book during the election campaign is very timely, firstly because, as John Lyons put it in answer to a question on Twitter to all candidates from the @DBNRepeal account, there is still a lot to achieve:
It took a huge effort to get the referendum and win it, but we aren’t done. We have a legislative review this year, people still travelling, maternity hospital ownership, we need exclusion zones, a countrywide service with no barriers to access. I want to see all goals achieved.
Secondly, it has emerged that the Green candidate, David Healy, is pro-life, voted against Repeal, and endorsed pro-life social media posts. It took some effort for this information to become public and it would be tragic if Dublin Bay North returned a majority of anti-choice TDs after such an inspiring campaign. Yes, climate change is a very urgent issue, but as Not Here Not Anywhere have shown, the left in the Dáil have just as good a record as the Greens on environmental issues and its therefore possible to express support for radical action on climate and the continuation of the struggle for reproductive rights in the general election.
Kate Antosik-Parsons, contributor to the Dublin Bay North chapter in After Repeal expresses why she is voting for Councillor John Lyons in the general election of 2020.
On 4 February 2020, hundreds of second-level schools closed as a result of a strike by 19,000 teachers, members of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). These teachers voted by a massive 92% to 8% to engage in a campaign of industrial action. The issue driving teachers to strike is a simple one: people doing exactly the same job should get the same pay. Yet this principle is violated throughout the public sector as a result of savage cuts imposed by the Fine Gael / Labour government that formed on 25 February 2011.
A two-tier pay system was put in place that punishes those
who took up jobs from 1 January 2011 onwards, as a 10% reduction in basic pay
was imposed on new teachers and all new entrants were obliged to start on the
bottom point of the pay scale regardless of previous teaching experience.
Additional cuts to certain allowances meant new teachers lost up to 15% of
their pay. The pay
gap in starting salaries between post-2011 teachers and those employed
before 2011 is over €4,000 a year even when not taking into account the fact
that before 2011 teachers started on the third point of their scale.
Unity among teacher unions is the way to win pay-parity
There are three teaching unions in Ireland, the TUI, the ASTI (Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland) and the INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation), while the latter focus on primary education, they too have been trying to achieve pay parity, by taking a court case to the European Court of Justice, claiming discrimination on the grounds of age. This case was lost so now the hope of INTO members will be that their colleagues in second-level schools win their strike and therefore pave the way for all teachers to win back equal pay. The INTO should also now ballot for strike action on the issue.
For the ASTI, the situation is similar, in that these teachers
too consider the issue of ending
the two-tier pay system an urgent one, the union describing it as a ‘shocking
stain’. Unfortunately for teachers as a whole, the ASTI and the TUI have, up to
now, not stood together in tackling the issue. The ASTI went into battle on the issue in 2016
and were knocked back, having to retreat with only small gains and having incurred
punitive costs. The government imposed penalties on ASTI members for having ‘repudiated’
the public service agreement and these penalties amount to some €15million in
lost increments and other benefits.
Naturally, ASTI members have a great deal of bitterness about this situation but Independent Left urge them to direct that bitterness at the government not their colleagues. Now is the perfect time to push forward on this issue. This is not so much because of the election – although there is no harm at all getting candidates to commit to restoring pay parity – but more because right throughout the public sector there is a growing mood for action on this issue. The nurses who struck in February 2019 made some gains and, perhaps more importantly, the government was sufficiently worried that they didn’t try to repeat the punishment of imposing penalties. They know public sector workers are much closer to a major revolt across the board than they were in 2016. Since the ASTI took the lead on the issue, three years of rising rents, medical costs, child care costs and a general increase in stressful living has changed the mood of other workers.
ASTI members should be proud of being the first into this battle and welcome the fact that reinforcements are now joining the cause. Ideally, all three teacher unions should co-ordinate strike action on this issue for the same day. At a minimum, teachers have to respect one another’s picket lines.
The ASTI, TUI and INTO leadership cannot officially call for members not to cross picket lines as it is illegal to do so (highlighting the importance of the demand by Councillor John Lyons, who is standing in Dublin Bay North for General Election 2020, that the 1990 Industrial Relations Act be abolished). Independent Left have no such constraint and as we take inspiration from the lives of James Connolly and Jim Larkin, we appreciate how essential is solidarity and respect for picket lines to winning strikes. Moreover, the ASTI have said:
the union will support any member who does not pass a picket should disciplinary action be threatened or taken against them.
They have also asked members not to undertake any duties
performed by TUI members and this alone should be sufficient on health and
safety grounds to cause many schools to close, even where the numbers of TUI
strikers are small.
Independent Left support the TUI strike on 4 February 2020
Probably, over 400 schools will be closed by the strike of 4 February 2020, including the 260 Education and Training Boards’ schools. This strike is a powerful way to bring the campaign for pay parity forward and regardless of who forms the next government, the new cabinet will inherit real pressure to make concessions.
From the point of view of parents, having to come up with a contingency arrangement for our children is a challenge. But it is very much in our interests to support the teachers. For one, the low pay in the sector is leaving schools short-staffed. Over ninety percent of secondary schools report difficulty filling posts. More generally, education is in desperate need of an injection of funding. And, of course, the demand of the teachers is an entirely fair one.
This is why Independent Left members went to the picket lines on 4 February to show our support for the striking teachers and we encourage parents and the public to do the same at future strikes.
Our education system discriminates against working class communities
Supporting teachers in the struggle to win parity of pay and, indirectly, to improve recruitment and retention rates is just one facet of a radical overhaul of the education system that is needed. As John Lyons highlighted in his election 2020 campaign as candidate in Dublin Bay North, we still have far too many schools under church control. My son goes to one where the principal circulates material against same-sex relationships, material which sees diversity as a plot by the UN to reduce population growth! John Lyons also is drawing attention to the need for meaningful supports to be put in place to allow all children equality of access. Although the government boasts of increase employment for SNAs, the fact that SNA hours have been reduced and the number of children requiring support has increased means the overall service is a long way behind that of 2013, when the Fine Gael – Labour government slashed SNA hours. The recent changes to the resource allocation model of NCSE is a particular disaster for visually impaired children.
Just looking at the school buildings in different parts of the city and your intuition will tell you something is wrong in Irish education. If you stroll past Wesley fee-paying school, for example, you’ll see two resurfaced hockey pitches, two cricket pitches, another for soccer. No less than four for rugby and if you got a glimpse inside you’d see two basketball courts a major hall and a gym. In 2018, Wesley obtained €150,000 from Shane Ross from the Sports Capital Programme to for those resurfaced hockey pitch. And for our kids on Dublin’s north side? Typically they play soccer on tarmac or, as in my son’s school, in a car park.
Research by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography, Maynooth University allows us to visualise the bias in education in Dublin. As he puts it:
There is a wedge of privilege extending southwards from the city centre. If we map the proportion of people going from school to college, the districts with the schools most likely to send students to college form a coherent band on the southside (Dublin postal districts 2, 4, 6, 6W and 14, and the local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown).
This discrimination can be overcome, but not without a challenge to decades of neglect for our schools from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and their coalition partners.
On Wednesday 5 February thousands of childcare workers went on strike to march in Dublin in protest at the crisis in childcare. Independent Left members fully supported this action. Yes, it was a challenge to arrange alternative childcare for the day but action was urgently needed and the march was a necessity. Not only did the protest show how powerful and united is the sector, but it was met with a hugely positive public response as we all know how the sector needs radical changes.
The state needs to follow the example from the rest of Europe and subsidise childcare, treating it as an essential service, not a for-profit sector.
The march was organised by the Early Years Alliance an organisation facilitated by SIPTU and consisting of workers, providers, unions and parents.
I spoke to a childcare worker who participated in the action and shared our childcare policy with her. Her description of her daily life provides a powerful illustration of why this strike was necessary.
My husband starts work at 7.30 a.m. so it’s my job to get the kids up and to school. I have two boys, eight years and three years. I drop my eight-year-old off at the school gates at 8.30 to hang around until 8.50: no other way to get him to school and me to work. I got stuck in traffic on the M50 on my way to work as a childworker. I’m very lucky that my three-year-old attends the same creche as me, so only one drop-off for me.
Today, I got to work with five minutes to spare; I’m usually fifteen minutes early, I have to be. Planning needs to be done, the classroom needs to be set up, etc. I bring my son to his classroom where two staff are already setting up the room, completing planning sheets and general organising of the room for the children’s arrival at 9 a.m. Their shift doesn’t start until 9, we only get paid from 9, yet they’ve been here at least twenty minutes setting up. They are very kind to take my son five minutes early so I can get to my classroom and begin my set up.
As the day goes on, we have a first aid incident. We have a child protection concern. I am organising a Together Old and Young visit to a local nursing home. I speak with a parent who is concerned about her child’s development, all within the first hour-and-a-half. We are told we are short staffed today and full time staff need to take a shorter lunch to accommodate. This is not a bad day, just a regular one in this line of work. I also have to discuss the upcoming protest with parents.
Overall, they are very sympathetic to our cause and those who are able to will arrange other means of childcare for Wednesday 5 February to alleviate some staff to attend the protest.
My shift finishes at 1 p.m. and I go to collect my son. But as usual I don’t leave my room on time because someone always needs something: a hug goodbye, a form signed, a conflict between children that needs resolution or even a staff member who needs to go and use the toilet!
I collect my son and he is full of smiles and chats about what he has done that day. He says a fond goodbye to his teachers as if they were his friends!
All of this is so important in our society and I am sick and tired of feeling the way I do in this sector. Yes, I love my job but hugs and smiles and a child’s positive progress doesn’t pay the bills… never even mind the cost of childcare.
Upon reading your article, admittedly, I had a chip on my shoulder, ready to read about ‘tax breaks’ and ‘extended ecce’. I was nicely surprised. It’s nice to see childcare workers being mentioned more than once and in a positive manner.
Zappone says I should join a union if I have a grievance… my problems are not with the management team of the creche, it’s with the state and the ridiculously high expectations they are putting on me and my colleagues.
Sixteen years I’m working in this sector and I’m losing faith.
Everything that is in the link you sent me is true. The whole sector needs an overhaul, childcare should never be for profit! In all the different positions I’ve had, the worst practice I’ve seen has been in private centres and it is not through the fault of the staff.
Change needs to happen it MUST be done in collaboration with the people who are actually on the ground working directly with the children. All these new schemes sound amazing, but when they are put into practice it just pushes us further and further to breaking point.
Thank you for giving me a bit of hope for the future of my profession.
Councillor John Lyons expressed his full support for the strike.
Parents shouldn’t be paying such high costs for childcare and staff should be given increased pay and a proper career path with full training. This campaign can win and the protest on 5 February is the right way to go about forcing the new government, whoever is in power, to listen and to respond.
Interview with a community childcare worker ahead of the strike of 5 February 2020
In advance of the strike by childcare workers, I spoke to ‘Anne-Marie’ who works in a community childcare centre.
NMcD: Why are you going on the protest?
A-M: I’m going on the
protest to support the early years professionals in the community and private
sectors who for years have been under huge pressure, who are not treated as
professionals, who are expected to hold the rest of the country by looking
after and educating the children; for children with additional needs; for
afterschool clubs; for everybody.
For all these years we’ve
got very little extra funding, we’ve got more people coming an assessing us and
making sure we are doing our jobs. We have, I think, eight different government
bodies that come in at the drop of a hat to see what we’re doing and to make
sure we are doing everything right. And that’s fine, we’re all about good governance
and transparency but it’s just constant.
Then there is new
childcare funding, which came out in November, is making it even more difficult
for parents and for services to be sustainable. Every couple of years funding gets
changed and we never know from one year to the next year if we can be
sustainable and continue to run the community service that we run. It’s not
We’re a community. So
we are middle of the road paid, compared to the girls that are on ten Euro-something
an hour but it’s below the Living Wage and it’s not good enough.
NMcD: It’s a community creche that you run here. We’re in an area of economic deprivation in north Dublin. Can you tell me the kind of service that you provide and support you give to families in the area and why it is important that we need to fund community creches?
A-M: This community service
has been running for a long time in this area. Like all the other community services
out there, particularly in areas with disadvantage, we have children with a lot
of additional needs, not just official additional needs but because of their
lifestyle and home circumstances. We’ve a lot of homeless children; children
whose parents have experienced addiction; who are in recovery; young parents
who have left school early. A lot of single mums. And that just puts extra
pressure on the children, because of whatever’s going on at home. The children all
come here and get a breakfast; they get a proper home-cooked meal. Not everybody
is going home to a cooked meal with fresh fruit and vegetables every day. They
are really cared for and looked after here. It is the home from home, well that’s
what we want it to be. But it’s very difficult to provide that when your
funding and constraints are there.
I think in an area
like this it should be like a DEIS
service, where we have additional staff to provide the care and support that the
children need. We have a lot of parents that would come to the office looking
for different supports, whether it’s things going on at home. It’s more than
just drop your child and run out the door. We provide additional supports: we
have a lot of children that are referred to social workers, public health
nurses, Focus Ireland. We do support the whole family. We do refer children on
to psychologists, speech therapists for additional supports. It’s constant it’s
When you look at the
funding over the last few years, for example, the ten years since they put up
the ECCE scheme (that’s the three hour sessions per day for the pre-school
groups), that’s for thirty-eight weeks per year. When that started ten years
ago it was €64.50 per week per child, ten years later it is €69. So that’s an
increase of four Euro fifty in ten years. That’s the equivalent of forty-five
cent a year. Now we give the children breakfast, we give the children lunch, we
have to pay the staff when they are on holiday because it is not covered by the
funding, these staff possibly have to go and look for jobs in the summer or
sign on in the summer, so that’s a lot of women – predominantly – who are
signing on through the summer. We want permanent jobs, proper wages and we want
support from the government to make that happen.
NMcD: In an ideal world, how would you like government support to run to make life easier?
A-M: At the moment the
inspectors and regulation people that come out to see us are TUSLA, Pobal, Department
of Education and Skills, Department of Health, the Revenue, Workplace
relations, Building Control and Fire Control. So all these people can come at
any point through the day when you are trying to support and look after
children. Any of them can come in and look for a huge amount of paperwork. We
need one government body to run us and support us and understand. There’s
overlapping, so they are looking for that and then the next week someone else
can come in the look for basically the same thing. We all want the same thing: we
want children to reach their full potential.
Early intervention is
the key. We have six children here with undiagnosed additional needs. We won’t
get any AIM support staff to support these children until they are three. We
have six children that are under two that, in our opinion, have additional
needs. That puts extra pressure on staff in the room. Two members of staff with
ten children in the room and there could be three or four children with additional
needs. Nobody is recognising it. We all talk about early intervention but it’s
not happening. If we had an extra member of staff in the room as the DEIS model, we could provide better care
for the children.
NMcD: Would you say the waiting lists for children seeking early intervention affects your work as well?
A-M: Definitely. If we’ve
got a child and the parent has maybe said, ‘I’m a bit worried about her speech’,
it’s fourteen months on the waiting list, depending on when they go on it, then
they have to go in for an assessment, then it could be another six months
before they are seen and go through a stage of intervention. That child is
nearly two years older at that stage. So if you saying it at two,
two-and-a-half, that child is nearly at school before they are getting any
NMcD: And the formation of language is vital in the first three years?
A-M: The first three years
is just massive for every area of the development of children. It gives them
the bottom of the pyramid. It gives them the basic skills to build on over the
years. People think that their child starts their education at school but they
start during pregnancy and certainly during the first three years. That’s why
it is essential. We have over a hundred children on our waiting list at the
moment. We are a seventy children service. Most of those on the waiting list
will never see the inside of this building because people stay for four or five
years. We are one of the only services in this area that takes children under
two. We take children from six months. That’s the early intervention that they
need. We need extra staff in each room because the biggest cost to childcare is
the staff, and even though they are paid way under what they should be paid,
that’s the most important part of your money because ninety percent of your
money goes on staff.
NMcD: A final question, how has the feedback been from the parents when they know you are closing on Wednesday for the protest?
A-M: A couple of them are disappointed because obviously they want continuous good quality care for their children. But most of them have been supportive because they understand, because they know us, know what we provide and how essential it is for their children’s development. Also for their own time, headspace and development. So some of the parents will be coming and marching with us. Which is great.
If the new government that forms after the election on 8 February does not respond to the sector, then another day of strikes and protests will be necessary.