Damien Dempsey has been a powerhouse on the Irish music scene for nearly two decades. He brings a voice to the struggles of those suffering in Irish society and beyond with poetry and sincerity. Damien’s Christmas Vicar Street gigs have become part of the Christmas calendar for many of his devoted fans. Saturday’s performance was no exception, with a packed-out venue. Damien has never been ambiguous about his politics and his music reflects this. The crowd in the gig represented all ages, with an overwhelming working-class representation and with people from all corners of the island. Hearing the whole audience sing out songs such as Colony highlights the level of consciousness Dempsey has raised in his loyal fans over the years.
From the stage: Damien Dempsey live
From the stage, Damien spoke openly about his own mental health struggles; he creates a space with his music to help break the stigmas around mental health and encourage people to talk openly about their own struggles. As two people in the middle of a crowded floor we observed so many resonating with this message as they openly sung along to Sing All Our Cares Away.
Not only does Damien sing about the scourge of mental health and its destruction to so many, he also brings a message of anti-racism and the importance of the power of women to his songs and gigs. His music talks about the gentrification of Dublin and beyond in the guise of a housing crisis at the expense and displacement of the working class. Damien is known for his activist and solidarity work, from supporting the anti-water charges movement, to singing at the Moore Street occupation, as an activist in Apollo House and supporting Repeal. The range of influences in Damien’s music includes reggae, R&B, and Ireland’s folk tradition, fused to create a multi-dimensional sound, one that is accompanied by lyrics that convey a strong message of class politics in a way that everyone can relate to. The value and influence of an artist such as Damien Dempsey to working class struggles can’t be underestimated: like many others before him, Damo’s sincere and simple music raises issues that affect us all and vocalises the social and economic issues in a way that resonates widely with people.
It’s accessible and revolutionary at the same time.
The redoubtable Ken Loach has followed up his Palm D’Or winning I, Daniel Blake with a devastating drama about a family struggling to make ends meet in a precarious working environment. Along with his longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has crafted a very necessary film about working life for so many people today.
Ricky has gone from ‘shit job to shit job’ since the crash of 2008 derailed the family’s prospects. A constant plaintive refrain heard throughout the film by different family members is: ‘I just want to go back to the way things were’. Ricky takes a job as a self-employed delivery man believing (probably out of desperation) that it will finally give him the means to succeed. But, in order to put down the deposit on the van of £1000, he convinces his wife Abbie, a home carer on a zero-hours contract, to sell her car. From these desperate beginnings things soon begin to get worse. This brilliantly acted film will leave you emotionally spent as you watch this increasingly frazzled couple attempt to battle the exhaustion of long hours in high stress conditions and the fall-out of neglect at home.
There is a scene in the film that nicely weaves the personal with the political and provides a wider
background to the film. Abbie is visiting Mollie, a favoured care recipient. Against the rules of the agency
that she works for, (you’re not supposed to be friendly with your clients!) they are enjoying a fugitive
moment of companionship sharing photographs with one another. Mollie shows her photos from the
1984 miners’ strike where she helped run the canteen. They are treasured memories of friendship and
solidarity but from a tragic defeat for the labour movement. Abbie’s funny photographs are from her
courtship with Ricky (at a rave), from a happy time when it seemed that they were going to buy their
own home. But, the collapse of Northern Rock put an end to their hopes. It’s only in the photographs
that Ricky and Abbie look happy. Now, they are exhausted and struggling to cope. A moment of marital
intimacy is aborted because Abbie says she feels so sad she could cry for a week.
You always get a character in a Loach film who articulates very convincingly the point of view of the class enemy. Here, we have Moloney, ‘patron saint of nasty bastards’. He thinks that a company’s shareholders should erect a statue to him because he runs such a brutal operation for them. In the interview at the opening scene he gives Ricky some insidious language about this new economy, ‘you don’t work for us; you work with us’, but, before long, we see the brutal reality behind this rhetoric. Drivers are constantly monitored by their scanners, on severe time constraints, liable to sanctions, if they fail to meet targets. Ricky is horrified when his friend gives him a plastic bottle for emergency piss stops. But this is reality for the armies of delivery drivers frantically meeting the orders from companies like global giant Amazon. In an interview, scriptwriter Paul Laverty sardonically quipped, ‘I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos pissing in a plastic bottle because a meeting went on too long!’ When Ricky does need to use the bottle one time to relieve himself, he is savagely beaten and robbed. As he sits in the hospital waiting room with Abbie waiting to her from the X-ray results, Maloney rings him to inform him that he is liable for over £1500 because of the robbery. This, after he had incurred numerous sanctions after missing work because of domestic issues with his son, Seb. The reality of the new economy: all the costs to the worker.
Ricky and Abbie have two kids, Sebastian, the eldest and Liza Jane. Though Liza, Jane looks distraught at what is happening to her family (one terrible moment, when she bursts out crying after confessing to something is utterly heartrending), she is performing well in school. Sebastian, or Seb, is in trouble at school. He seems completely disabused of the entire system, and shoplifts spray paint for his graffiti art. The scenes
with Sebastian and his friends are probably the only ones that point to self-activity or self-expression:
Seb even sold his winter coat to purchase spray paint! When Sebastian gets arrested for shoplifting
during a particularly fraught time for the family, Ricky collects him at the police station. Luckily, he
meets a kindly copper who gives him a well-meaning talk about how fortunate he is to have a loving
family and that he can get his life back together and be what he wants etc. The message of the film for
me would imply that all this is well meaning nonsense. Sebastian’s graffiti collective is closer to some
truth about class war politics than pieties about bootstraps and knuckling down.
It has always been a great strength of Loach that he manages to get such brilliant performances from
inexperienced actors. The performances of the four main actors in Sorry We Missed You are superb,
particularly in some emotionally fraught scenes. The cumulative effect of watching Ricky and Abbie
struggle through the long working days (“What happened to the 8-hour day?” Mollie says at one point)
and try to deal with the issues at home is really devastating. This is one of the most unflinching
portrayals of working life ever seen on screen but also, one with an obviously deep sympathy for the
characters. Ken Loach is one of the great socialist filmmakers.
So, it is probably surprising that the film ends on a note of such despair. I watched the film in the IFI with two friends and we were distraught at the end, in shock, could hardly look at one another. When you remember earlier Loach films also during times of defeat, like Riff Raff, there was some satisfaction when Robert Carlyle burned down the building site at the end in revenge against a brutal employer. Here, we don’t have that. I am thinking that Loach sees the total hopelessness of the current system and that it must go. But, destruction of this atomising system of colossal enrichment of the few is a collective project.
Everyone goes through a crisis of belief at some point in their lives. We grow up with certain views of the world presented to us and when they don’t fit experience, have to revise or abandon them. This process can be incredibly painful and in the case of Helena Sheehan, it’s hard to imagine a more total collapse and rebuilding than her journey from nun to communist. Her autobiography, therefore is an important book, not just for documenting her times and the very interesting circles she moved in but in allowing the reader to explore in some depth a crucial question for us all: how do I know my current belief system is right?
That’s a big question
for anyone, but it’s especially important if you are going to devote years of
your life to a particular political strategy and try to persuade others of it.
Helena Sheehan’s political
trajectory, charted with complete honesty in this book, was from conservative
Catholic, to the US New Left of the late 1960s, to Official Sinn Féin on her
arrival in Ireland in 1972 and to the Communist Party of Ireland in 1975, which
she left early in 1980. Joining the Labour Party in 1981, Helena helped found
the Labour Left group and was close to Michael D. Higgins.
There’s plenty in the
autobiography for those wanting to cherry pick her insights into characters
like Seamus Costello, Tomás Mac Giolla, Betty Sinclair and Michael O’Riordan,
but my interest is in the deeper story.
In 1965, having committed
herself to the Sisters of St Joseph in Pennsylvania, Helena found herself at
odds with the lifestyle of the order. In particular, watching news broadcasts
on the march from Selma to Montgomery in spring 1965, she saw nuns participating
and wondered why she couldn’t do the same. She taught, ‘We shall overcome’ to
the kids in her class. In other words, it was waves of history (as she puts it)
that tore her away and while a few years later, nuns left the order in droves, Helena
was one of the first to do so.
The intellectual crisis this brought about, compounded by losing her teaching job for being too ‘controversial’ and falling out with her family, was nearly fatal:
I was alone and desperate as it was possible to be. My world was in ruins. In time, I would rebuild on new foundations. But between the collapse of one worldview and the construction of another, there was only an abyss. I often wonder where I found the strength to endure that emptiness.
Eventually, Helena found a way forward via philosophical existentialism to the radical left in Philadelphia (she was studying at Temple University) and by 1970 was deeply involved with city politics. This is a fascinating part of the book, depicting a non-stop lifestyle and a feverish intensity of revolutionary discussions and actions that has rarely been seen since. Helena was in constant discussion with Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, anti-Vietnam protestors, members of the Weather Underground movement, Feminists, Gay rights activists, etc. Her background and intellectual rigour seems to have made her an extremely valuable activist, more able to connect the revolutionaries to wider audiences than many of her peers. And also to spot nonsensical posturing.
This is also the part
of the book that in my view, most meets a challenge that she states in the
preface, of wanting to connect the social and economic changes of her times
with the experience of an individual. Her grasp of the totality of US society,
allows her writing to be both wonderfully vivid at a personal level and at the same
time to portray a massive systemic crisis. The same strengths are not evident
in the sections on Ireland and the USSR, not because her beautiful writing
style falters but because I don’t think, even now, reflecting on her life, she’s
as clear about the nature of the social systems she’s writing about. These chapters
lack her ability, for example, to juxtapose popular culture and sub-culture the
way she does so brilliantly with the chapters on the USA.
And this brings me
back to the question of belief systems. For a long time Helena was, to put it
bluntly, a Stalinist, even after leaving the CPI. Since ‘Stalinist’ is an insulting
term that evokes dictatorial practices and bullying, I need to state that Helena
comes across as never anything but totally honest and someone who does not
believe (as, alas, so many on the left seem to, even today) that there are
situations where the ends justifies the means. As she quite rightly observes,
ends and means are connected. Helena’s loyalty to the USSR was one of genuine intellectual
conviction. Having studied Marxism of a certain type, seen its power, coherence
and strength of insight, especially when compared to the anaemic philosophy she
encountered while working on her PhD at TCD, Helena sincerely accepted that the
USSR was socialist.
How does it happen
that someone who has struggled to pick herself up from near death for having
invested herself in one ideology (Catholicism) that came crashing down upon
her, then adopted another that would do the same? The book stops in 1988, just
before the fall of the Berlin wall, with a signal that this would be the second
great intellectual crisis of her life. The cheap answer, which seems to have been
thrown at her several times, is that this is just her nature, to uncritically commit
to a big-picture ideology. From nun to communist is not such an extraordinary
journey from this perspective.
Helena’s own rebuttal
to that is that she’s acquired her second, communist, worldview after years of effort
to achieve intellectual and moral clarity, whereas she stumbled into the first,
unformed and driven by forces of which she was largely unconscious.
Let’s agree that, broadly
speaking, to be a socialist is a fine thing. Really, this is an inspiring book
because it is about a life spent largely in causes that have improved the position
of working people, of those nations resisting empires, and especially the
position of women. Nevertheless, as soon as you think you have the full
picture, worse, if you defer to someone else in your party you think has the
full picture, you’re doomed to one day finding yourself articulating a view
that no socialist should hold.
In Helena’s book, I
don’t think she ever defers to someone in authority, except perhaps the dead
authorities of brilliant thinkers. But I do think her model of Marxism is (at
least for 1975 to 1988), ultimately, a sterile one, by which I mean the
categories that Marxists use to discuss social structures (mode of production,
surplus value, etc.) have been imposed on history rather than derived from it.
How do I know my
current belief system is right? Because I’ve
studied; I’ve fought; I’ve struggled to change the world; I’ve tested it
constantly against unfolding events; I’ve had to build it up from the ruins of
previous belief systems. That’s all impressive but it’s not enough. My view
is that you also have to be open to the possibility that this hard-fought for model
is wrong. It’s difficult, because the path to becoming a post-modernist
(something that Helena despises, with good reason), begins with surrendering
the primacy of your belief system.
Yet when I see a human being who clearly has great honesty and integrity fail to mention the Hungarian uprising of 1956 in her discussions of Eastern Europe; fail to support the Prague Spring or the early days of Solidarity in Poland and instead, describe her sojourns in the USSR largely in halcyon terms, I have to shake my head in dismay. Now the book only ends in 1988, so Helena’s current views might be much closer to mine on these issues (i.e. on the side of those who rose up against the rulers of Russia and the eastern block). But for me the most fascinating aspect of this candid auto-biography is that it makes you question your own understanding. Readers will ask themselves: if someone with Helena’s strengths can end up a Stalinist, then where am I heading?
It’s not easy, being ambitious
and determined enough to believe the whole world can become a place of equality
and freedom, yet modest enough to accept your current approach to achieving
that goal could be flawed. Yet on reading this entertaining autobiography, it
seems to me that’s the fast-flowing contradiction that socialists have to