‘Where the earth was soft for flowers’

There was warmth in the air – one of those rare April days in Ireland. The primrose-sprinkled verges were crowned with golden whin blossom, alive with birdsong. It felt like spring had resurrected Nature. A perfect afternoon to take photos. I’ve never had much patience with a camera, but my fourteen-year-old daughter wanted a few snapshots for her school project. She and her classmates had been given a history assignment to occupy them over the Easter break. The students could choose their own topics on condition that these had some ‘local’ relevance. Being a bit footloose in our area, my daughter found herself stuck for inspiration. Her Bosnian dad’s idea of the First World War as a possible theme was initially met with interest… then teenage scorn. While she was aware of WWI’s significance from her summers in Sarajevo, wasn’t the link to our locality rather tenuous? Or was this due to Ireland’s selective amnesia?

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An online search and a visit to the town library suggested the latter. A local historian had documented recruits from our county who had fought, across Europe and beyond, between 1914 and 1918. Many were killed in action in France and Belgium. Lads from along the coast, who’d joined the navy or who’d served as mercantile marines, perished in German torpedo attacks. Others faced death at Gallipoli. Or they succumbed to disease – pneumonia and, in one case, ‘malaria in Greek Macedonia’. Most were in their twenties, some in their late teens. Those who made it back to Ireland returned to a different country. Irish Volunteers who’d enlisted in the British army, in pursuit of Home Rule or adventure or just to escape poverty, didn’t get much of a welcome in a nation that, by then, was striving for independence. As their stories show, the experiences of the demobilised were often hushed up – the trauma they’d endured became their own dark secret. In keeping, perhaps, with a culture in which men didn’t talk about psychological problems. But, in the Ireland of that time, it was also politically prudent. Remembrance was something of a taboo. Still, there were reminders – graves and plaques etched in memory of the fallen.

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In the village down the road from us, a stone cross stands at the junction of the short-cut to the motorway. At a glance, it looks last century but its Celtic style harks back to an illustrious era of Irish ‘saints and scholars’. Although I pass it regularly, I’d never known that this monument is inscribed with the names of locals who were slain in the circumspectly entitled ‘Great International War’. Guarded terms were typically used for conflicts involving Ireland’s nearest neighbour. Gaelicised sculpture was a means of repatriating home-grown warriors whose imperial service, at a time of insurrection, left them in history’s limbo. Irish tradition is more associated with commemorating rebels. But the complexity of any attempt at national recollection is emerging. It’s almost one hundred years since the ‘Easter Rising’ – an event which came to define modern Ireland. And already there’s debate as to how it’ll be portrayed, revised, and ultimately branded, in advance of the centennial shindig in 2016.

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This anniversary will, no doubt, provoke controversy. During our president’s recent state visit to Britain, it was confirmed that a ‘senior member’ of the English monarchy will be invited to attend celebrations in honour of those who proclaimed an Irish republic, from the GPO in Dublin, on Easter Monday, 1916. The queen’s forebears would’ve likely disapproved and some revolutionary ghosts mightn’t be too impressed, but things have changed. ‘Changed utterly’… to recycle Yeats’ oft-repeated words. Aside from the pomp and media hype, the deepening royal and presidential rapport marks another step towards Anglo-Irish reconciliation. But achieving peace has proven an arduous process. And there have been brutal decades in between.

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Not only in Ireland. The incident deemed to have started the First World War – the assassination of the Habsburg archduke, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie – took place in Sarajevo. Through the subsequent century, that city has been dealt an unfair share of suffering. Although intrigue still surrounds the teenager, Gavrilo Princip, who secured an infamous spot in history on 28 June 1914. Was he a terrorist or a nationalist, an idealist or a just a hapless misfit? His posthumous labels have blurred. Like those ascribed to the Irish soldiers caught up in the ensuing carnage. Fusiliers such as Francis Ledwidge – the poet who, in Heaney’s tribute, struggled with a torn identity ‘from Boyne water to the Balkans’ before he was blown apart, in Ypres, in 1917. Traitors, heroes, suckers for propaganda… or were they mostly young guys who had few other chances? And those who’ve ‘died for Ireland’ – or anywhere else – in the years since then? Should they be viewed as freedom fighters or fiends? It always seems a question of perspective.

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Whatever the ‘cause’ of conflict, youth gets conned or is conscripted into it. Young people are ruined in the resulting violence. But their lives are seldom remembered in jingoistic tales. Syria’s children are the forgotten ones of this millennium. There are no cenotaphs to these unknown juveniles. Only the heartbreak of families plunged into a human-created hell. Senseless… Or does it follow some evil logic? History tells us that war’s puppeteers are those who tend to gain from it. And, irrespective of its outcome, they can be tenacious – clinging to power, even chuckling with their former enemies. Often that’s how truces are agreed and treaties signed. The past, though, teaches more than this. It urges us to listen to the survivors. To those who defied the hate-stirrers, those who resisted oppression. To support all who take risks for justice today – the unsung history-makers of the world.

The title of this piece is taken from ‘A Soldier’s Grave’ by Francis Ledwidge.

For more poems and information please see the website of the Francis Ledwidge Museum: http://www.francisledwidge.com/

See also: ‘In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge’ by Seamus Heaney: http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/in-memoriam-francis-ledwidge/

 ‘Easter, 1916’  by W. B. Yeats: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/247616#poem

‘The Unreturned Army: County Louth Dead in the Great War 1914-1918’ by Donal Hall, County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, 2005.

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The silence of the learned

Where are the ‘best minds’ of our generation? Defiant Beat poetry has drifted to the fringes of living memory. Its prophets have long burnt out in drug-addled debauchery or been sanitised by the system at which they used to howl. Even those who did rehab are past retirement age. The rebels of yore are eclipsed by today’s leading voices – an urbane lot who know what to say and how to say it. As guests on news shows or opining in the papers, their views are influential. And their arguments can be stimulating, once the listener or reader is ready to question. Columnists, academics, luminaries of the arts, high profile social commentators interpret the issues of our times. Though it’s worth wondering what determines which topics they discuss and from which angles. Then to ponder the silent gaps in the script and what might lie behind these lacunae.

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Take debate in Ireland as an example. For several weeks the ethics of the Irish police force, An Garda Síochána, have been scrutinised. Scandals over the annulment of penalty points for road traffic offences and the inappropriate recording of phone conversations have exposed perturbing flaws in policy. The Garda Chief Commissioner has resigned. The Minister for Justice is trying to save his skin by fudging apologies. Inevitably, the controversy has filled hours of airtime and acres of newsprint. Fundamental principles have been violated. There have been allegations of police corruption, attempts by those in power to discredit whistle-blowers. But if you’re not one of the ‘pillars’ of the local community who may have had the liberty of evading punishment for dangerous driving, the relevance of this story seems quite slim. While the more serious threats to judicial procedure resulting from tapped phone-calls become moot when they’re plucked to tedium on radio by the doyens of the law. Mere mortals heave a sigh and tune out.

It’s not that we don’t find the whole scenario ‘disgusting’, to use what’s currently Ireland’s hottest adjective. Frankly, it’s that no-one is surprised. The latest Garda saga is just another offshoot of the culture of nudges and winks which bred the crisis in which the country remains mired. It’s little more than a sideshow to the nation’s unresolved economic problems. For, however the government spins its claims of ‘recovery’, unemployment figures are still appalling and their true extent is masked by emigration. There’s no upturn for families harried to breakdown by extortionist banks or for people on welfare who face increasing hardship. Never mind that health, education and social services have been shorn to bail out kleptocrats.

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Eminent economists have forwarded countless theories to explain Ireland’s collapse. Now they’re engrossed in predicting future risks. This burgeoning analysis has evolved into a profitable industry. It’s served as raw material for lectures, articles, books. Hyper-numerate professors and business hacks have been rebranded elucidators. Begone boring fustiness! They’ve morphed into slick panellists, comedy festival hosts. Teaming their sharp wits with a touch of cool, they bandy about ideas in marquees at boutique gigs. These guys (they’re almost always male) have got talent. I marvel at their knowledge and their red-blooded passion for finance. But aren’t they merely bolstering their careers? Bar the odd exception, are these authorities really aware of the ‘pain’ about which they’re handsomely paid to speak, though rarely share?

Here I’m not writing out of philistine disdain but as a woman flailing against the effluent of recession, trying to keep my family afloat. And I’m luckier than most. At least I’m grasping some sort of life-ring – a recent doctorate from Ireland’s top-ranking university. Well, so much for the league tables… Qualifications obtained in this era of austerity have become tickets for entry into, often unwaged, insecurity or for one-way flights to find work overseas. Still, with any education comes responsibility. The more you’ve benefitted from your learning and experience, the more you should see these assets as something beyond tools for self-aggrandisement. Right?

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Wrong! OK, clearly my research area isn’t economics. Judging by present standards, it appears a liability to have a social conscience. Maybe it’s due to the shift towards a more corporate than collegial ethos in third level institutions – the emphasis on marketing, the managerial structures that value those fittest to achieve goals measured in money or prestige. Or perhaps it’s always been that way… alumni of hallowed universities aren’t usually inclined to challenge the parameters that scaffolded their success. Even among students (myself included) who scraped along on ‘free’ fees and scholarships, it’s easy to forget that access to higher education is far from universal. Instead of contemplating this underlying inequality, it seems to make greater sense to study those who continue to be excluded. After all, advocating for the marginalised can lead to rich professional rewards.

A climate of competition, in which personal gain is championed, can’t be conducive to dissent. The same also applies outside the education sector. Editorial slants are unlikely to clash with the interests of media owners, be these the state or billionaire tycoons. Consequently, issues of concern might be given a glib mention but not the probing they deserve. Recognised artistic endeavour is likewise largely confined to privileged circles. Themes demanding self-interrogation by those who engage with them often get no more than a superficial gloss. Polyphony, apart from the tokenistic leeway occasionally granted to voices beyond established cliques, is very limited. And, I suspect, not just in Ireland.

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What’s ‘in the news’ depends, to a substantial degree, on what attracts the focus of prominent critics. Discussion among these gurus frequently descends into political point-scoring, contorting statistics, and chattering about trivia which they deem to be of significance. In line with their perspectives and perceived audience, current affairs get calibrated. National topics take precedence over objectively ‘bigger’ stories further afield. International reports with domestic salience are prioritised over those which sound less relevant. Thus the impact on the price of gas in the EU can sex up a conflict that’d otherwise be neglected. Conversely, long-running, complex tragedies with unimaginable numbers of casualties don’t appeal.

Syria? Don’t talk about the war… It’s a stale subject. Why should our brightest spokespeople waste their genius on a situation that seems so irresolvable? It’s spiralled out of proportion, human rights organisations are now estimating over 150,000 fatalities. The UN has stopped counting. Death on this kind of scale is incomprehensible, even for the masters of comprehension. Also, it’s bad optics – too many disturbing images to foist on weary viewers. Apocalyptic pictures of Yarmouk’s starving or the naked corpses of tortured detainees draw gasps of revulsion, but apparently lack pathos.

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Whether it’s due to the world’s emotional numbness or its impotence, interest in the Syrian war has waned. Not without a dash of Islamophobic prejudice, it’s been dismissed as yet another Middle Eastern conflict. Furthermore, any search for a global response is marred by previous foreign incursions into the region, the legacy of Western belligerence in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the UN is neutered by the stultifying enmities of its key members. So the horror drags on… coverage reduces, donor fatigue rises. Poor neighbouring countries are left to cope with the vast majority of the 2.5 million Syrians who’ve managed to flee, while wealthy states fail to meet minimal quotas for provision of resettlement places. Things are even worse for the millions trapped within Syria. As António Guterres, the head of the UNHCR has said, ‘Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.’ But who has listened to him?

The impassioned statements of Syrians directly affected by the war and of people who are aiding its survivors have been ignored by those who might be able to make a difference. By political leaders and their governments, but also by respected thinkers whose silence or specious disengagement has been conspicuous. Except for a bit of bluster over chemical weapons, it’s as if there’s an embargo on intellectual discourse about Syria. Where are our wise ones when it comes to showing solidarity with victims of war-crimes? The academics, both within and beyond the flourishing schools of ‘peace and conflict studies’ or niches in departments of history and theology… How many of them have written or spoken (and not simply for a pay cheque or publication in a peer-reviewed journal) about the fact that today, as slaughter happens, we turn away? Where are the writers and other artists whose work is so esteemed – is Syria beneath their lofty thoughts?

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What about students? Should coming of age not mean more than passing exams and passing out on drunken binges? Since the start of my activist days, as an undergraduate, I’ve been amazed at the absence of that ‘revolutionary spirit’ which I’d once believed was part of college life. But I know from agitating for Bosnia that all it takes is for one person to speak out… then friends get involved and word begins to spread. So my advice to anybody (slightly) younger than me is ‘dare to try!’ Even if you ignite only a flicker of awareness, you can singe prevailing apathy. And isn’t that more offbeat than participating in societies or activities which ‘look good on your CV’?

There’s no point, though, in denying that the intelligentsia is extremely prone to educated deafness. It’s an ailment typically triggered by crises in places that are considered unimportant. Bosnia and Rwanda sparked outbreaks in the nineties. Now it’s again pandemic. Very few have adjusted their register to hear the wails of the persecuted in Syria or the cries of those caught up in emerging conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Reactions have been muted. The label ‘civil war’ has been employed to equalise blame and to justify the shrugging of erudite shoulders.

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Too clever to admit they don’t care much about Arabs or the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, the sages refine debate to ideological quibbling. But such dilettantish theorising does nothing to end mass murder or the torture and sexual violence perpetrated in campaigns of terror. These atrocities, which occur daily in Syria, require each of us who can to take a stand against them. And this demand should ring loudest in the ears of those who inspire, on campus or via broadcasters and publishers. It must resound with those who are regarded as our ‘best minds’. For it’s a call for them to say that, as human beings, we’re all interconnected. We’re not just individuals dealt arbitrary cards from fortune’s deck. Some of us are not more expendable than others. It’s finally time to stop the sacrifice of the silenced.

The Irish Syria Solidarity Campaign are organising events in Dublin on Wednesday 16th April, discussing the situation in Syria with one of the few academics who has devoted extensive time and thought to it, Dr. Thomas Pierret of the University of Edinburgh. These meetings, in Griffith College (at 12pm) and DCU (at 5pm), are open to the public and free of charge. Please see the poster below for details:

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