Category: Culture

  1. Curried Yoghurt. Northern Ireland and the Irish language.

    I don’t speak Irish. Like almost every Irish kid I was taught it at school, but in my case this was interrupted when my parents moved overseas. Not much scope for learning the Irish language in a British school in Greece in the 1980s. That said, upon my return home to Dublin several decades later I can’t say my Irish is significantly worse than most of my contemporaries. It seems like few of my generation retained the language… even though most of them had daily lessons in the subject right up to the age of 16.

    That’s not intended as a criticism of the Irish language. It’s not even intended as a criticism of teaching or promoting it (though it suggests that if we do wish to increase the number of Irish speakers; whatever the hell the Irish Board of education was up to in the 1970s and 80s should be avoided like the plague). Rather it’s just to illustrate the fact that it’s not something I feel strongly about. If you’re a Gaeilgeoir and that annoys you… I’m sorry; it is what it is.

    I think it’d be very sad if the Irish language died out. More than that; if a strategy was developed (either in the schools or some as-yet undreamt-of community initiative) that was demonstrated to significantly increase the number of people voluntarily learning and speaking Irish, I’d genuinely celebrate it (for all sorts of reasons) and would have no issue with the government funding it. I’m not a strict utilitarian when it comes to public spending… so long as we do a half-decent job of trying to cover the essentials, a society should also try to fund those things, within reason, that are culturally important to it.

    If you’re a libertarian and that appalls you, don’t worry; your views will change quite a lot when you grow up.

    But again, let me stress, if I was shaping Sinn Féin / Republican policy in Northern Ireland right now, an Irish Language Act would not be one of my red lines. If I was them I’d be doubling-down on the “look how moderate and reasonable we’ve become” strategy, all the while quietly putting their faith in the inevitability of a unification referendum after Brexit tanks the British economy. Once they’re part of a united Ireland they can rejoice in their children sharing the same experience as those down south… that of resentfully learning a language they’re destined to immediately forget upon graduation.

    Instant Retraction!

    Did I just say an Irish Language Act would not be one of my red lines? I take it back.

    No seriously, I retract that. Total U-Turn. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that an Irish Language Act is now of primary importance for the formation of any power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. It’s a massive red line. And it is rightfully a massive red line.

    There is an effort in the UK media to portray this impasse as Sinn Féin digging their heels in about a trivial issue. Or worse, something that is simultaneously trivial and explosively sectarian. And when I say the UK media, I don’t just mean the usual suspects.

    The Mail, The Sun, The Express… they are all predictably predictable. But it was reading The Guardian’s shocking editorial on the subject that I felt genuine anger. Here we have the editorial position of what is ostensibly the newspaper of Britain’s liberal left, and it is either a shamefully ill-researched slab of ignorance or it’s a knowing hatchet-job on Irish republicanism.

    I want you to ponder this line from that editorial…

    “The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists.”

    That’s not the darker truth here. Let me explain the darker truth here… and in the off-chance the author of that Guardian editorial is reading this, I will try to use small words.

    No Angels

    Sinn Féin are perfectly capable of trying to make political hay out of any situation. That’s what politicians do. But the darker truth here is that a promise is being reneged upon. And I don’t care which side does it; it’s completely unacceptable. It would be just as bad if the DUP were being painted as unreasonable and aggressive (“weaponising language”) simply for holding Sinn Féin to what they already signed-up to. Pretty sure the editor of The Guardian would have no problem with that. Right?

    More than a decade ago, Unionists, Republicans, the Irish and British governments all gathered in Scotland. At St. Andrews, they revised and eventually agreed the rules by which the Stormont power-sharing executive would function. This included both procedural aspects and legislative ones. Among the promises made by all present was the following…

    (You can download the full text of the St. Andrews Agreement as a PDF from the UK government’s website. That paragraph appears in Annex B.)

    The text that finally made it into actual British legislation — Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 — isn’t as explicit, demanding instead that “a strategy be developed” […] “to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”

    Weasel words?

    So the DUP points to the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 and insists (technically correctly) that it doesn’t explicitly commit them to an Irish Language Act.

    But that British law is not what all parties agreed and signed at St. Andrews. That piece of paper, the St. Andrews agreement itself, between the DUP and Sinn Féin (amongst others) clearly and explicitly promises an Irish Language Act. And that’s the context we find this whole farrago unfolding within.

    It’s not about the Irish language. It’s about one side, one community, being told it doesn’t need to honour its commitments. And the other being painted as antagonistic when they call foul. Britain’s attitude towards Ireland has become deeply disturbing. On one side we have the editor of The Guardian openly suggesting the DUP can pick and choose which former agreements they need to abide to, while a senior sitting Tory MP (and former minister) suggests that maybe the entire Good Friday Agreement be jettisoned…

    Culturally speaking, I don’t understand what the hell is going on in Britain right now. I feel bad for my UK friends who largely seem as mystified as I am, but I also fear for the collateral damage this whole British psychotic episode might have on us here. Ireland is a million miles from the country I remember from the 1970s, but I’m far from convinced “the peace process” is 100% finished yet. And it would be sheer lunacy to start picking at that scab now.

    I’m aware that the Irish Language Act is not the only obstacle to the resumption of power-sharing. But even if it was, it’s not something that can be compromised on. As soon as you say one party to an agreement does not have to uphold their promise, there is zero chance power-sharing can have a future.

  2. Trump’s Big Button

    I’m picturing a hypothetical afterlife in which Sigmund Freud is reading Trump’s twitter feed and becoming increasingly paranoid that the commander of the world’s most powerful nation is deliberately mocking him with a crass caricature of his most well-known ideas.

    In this hypothetical afterlife Freud sits at a table in a pub, drinking a Vodka-redbull, and complaining bitterly to Joyce and Einstein who are sympathetic but see the funny side. “Ach, you’ve heard me go off on my ‘cultural relativity’ rant enough times by now”, chimes in Albert when Sigmund pauses to gulp his drink and snort a quick line of coke, “so I get it”.

    Freud shakes his head in a manner both frantic and emphatic. “That’s different though”, there’s a dismay in his voice, “they were still taking you seriously! This Trump guy is just taking the fucking piss. And I don’t understand why!”

    Joyce nods sagely. “Yeah maybe, but sure it could be worse, you could be one of those poor feckers over there”.

    He gestures towards the darkened booth where Marx and Nietzsche sit, pale, unmoving, staring blankly at the wall, a look of horror on their faces.

  3. First Letter of St. Jim to The Bastid Unbelievers

    Speak thee not of Politics or Religion for verily it can ruin a party.

    In my case it’s really just politics I need to avoid… that’s what gets me into trouble.

    I’m alright when I talk about religion. I end up getting too abstract and esoteric. The eyes of my listener glaze over and they start thinking about whether or not there’s any coffee left in the tin at home and if they should stop on the way and get some (just in case). Spar will still be open. I’ll be talking about category errors and The Parable of The Last Supper and quoting Bateson’s “Style, Grace & Information In Primitive Art” or “Form, Substance, and Difference” while my listener makes a mental note to pick up some of those paper filters because thinking about buying coffee jogged their memory, and they realised they put the pack of filters back in the drawer with only one left in it. They don’t even notice when I tell them they’re wrong about almost everything regarding religion, and the stuff they’re right about… they’re right about for entirely the wrong reasons.

    But that’s OK, because the same goes for everyone else. With the possible exception of me and Gregory Bateson.

    And Bateson’s been dead for 37 years.

    Schrödinger’s Catholic

    That’s me. Schrödinger’s Catholic. I can make a passionate defence of religion while fully acknowledging “Holy Books” rank in the 5 Worst Catastrophes Ever To Happen To Humanity (along with agriculture, industrialisation, the mosquito, and “Mistletoe & Wine” by Cliff Richard). I can also launch a savage attack on religion while simultaneously insisting that our culture literally cannot survive rapid secularisation; a phenomenon which is ripping it to shreds before our eyes and is soon to join “Holy Books” in that Top 5 (probably replacing the mosquito).

    The bible was a terrible mistake (see also: All Other Holy Books). But it was an inevitable one. Human culture could not NOT have produced it. Lamenting Holy Books is like lamenting art. Given what we know of the human species, any society that looks like ours couldn’t have plausibly got here without agriculture, industry or Holy Books.

    They are awful. They screwed us up good and proper. But here we are.

    We can’t possibly go back, but I don’t see a way forward. Mythology / mythopoetry is the mechanism by which cultures codify and transmit their value system. One of the original inbuilt safety-mechanisms of this, is that the mythology is transmitted orally. Changing the old stories is hard, yes, but it can be done when circumstances dictate. If a society needs to adapt; it can do so within a couple of generations.

    And by and large that was probably fine for a couple of hundred thousand years. Then, right when our society started to change rapidly, we created the technology to carve our value systems in stone. Sometimes literally. And as soon as this technology became available to codify mythopoetry in a form that makes regular revision impossible, it was always going to be a total disaster. And it has been.

    But here’s the thing… you can’t blame that poor desert preacher for any of that. At least I don’t think you can.

    “Host / guest” relationships are more or less sacred all over the world, as far as I know. And are of course one of the reasons why, to go back to where we started, the bread and the wine happen to be sacred objects.

    Don’t get it upside down. The bread and the wine are not sacred because they represent Christ’s body and blood. The bread and the wine are primarily sacred, because they are the staff of life; the staff of hospitality… of guests… of hosts… of health and all the rest of it. And so, secondarily, we equate them with Christ.

    The sacredness is real. Whatever the mythology. The mythology is the poetical way of asserting the sacredness. And a very good poetical way of asserting it. But bread is sacred whether or not you accept the Christian myth. And so is wine. Unless you’re determined to eat plastic.

    Gregory Bateson | Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (approx 50 minutes in)


    See, the words of Jesus were never meant to reach us the way they did. Him and His mates thought He was preaching Natural Law… The Gospel. He wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean He wasn’t performing a vital social function, nor that His words* didn’t contain vital Truths. Because He was. And they did.

    The deliciously dark irony is that despite it all; despite Holy Books having allowed the powerful to somehow weaponise our own value system and turn it against us… here, in the Age of The Internet, there may finally have been a role for them to play. But it’s too late for them. The rational among us will never forgive them. And I’m not even saying they should.

    * I capitalise the pronouns to irritate atheists. No other reason.

  4. Transmission #4

    Transmission #4: The empire is in decline.
    The youth look upon the veterans with pity and contempt.
    So much violence, so much suffering, endured and dealt.
    And for this?

    Living above the cellar bar had its perks. At least that’s what he told people. Rent was cheap, he’d say. But rent was cheap everywhere in this part of town. You’re never more than a flight of stairs from a vodka-redbull, he’d whisper with a faux-conspiratorial grin. But he rarely drank these days.

    In truth there was only one perk that mattered to him. And it was one he never mentioned. In these times and in this part of town, living above a cellar bar was — for a veteran like him; a decorated hero of the Battle of Nova-Prague no less — simply the safest option. With a bouncer on the door and the everpresent unmarked-but-obvious police surveillance vehicle that lurked within a few hundred metres of anywhere that people regularly gathered, he managed to remain largely unbothered by anti-vet yahoos and active-revisionists.

    He rarely left the flat these days. The End Times were a bit easier to cope with if you could order your groceries online and get them delivered. No need to deal with the stares and whispers. The nudges and the smirks. The comments. The stones.

    The knife.

    He winced a little. It had healed months ago, but the memory was still vivid. The voice of the woman… girl really… she can’t have been older than 16 or 17… “this is for all them you killed”… he wanted to remember it as an angry shriek or a hiss, but it wasn’t. It was blank and matter-of-fact, a touch of weariness, the voice you’d use to announce you were going to put out the bins.

    They never found her. Did they even look? He found it hard to imagine the attack hadn’t been caught on a dozen cams… right there, as it was, in the post office queue. He supposed they probably did look — they had to — just not very hard. She’d made a fresh addition to the spiderweb lattice of scars that covered his torso; the outcome of a disagreement between hardened carbon-nanofibre body-armour and a traditional armour-piercing round.

    Transmission #4

    It was the implants that made him visible. Deactivated, dead, but too complicated and expensive to have surgically removed. For most vets the integration with the central nervous system proved irreversible even if they’d had the money. He’d been unconscious, slivers of armour being surgically removed from his chest, when The Peace was declared. Much later, he’d emerged from hospital to a changed world, months of agonising physiotherapy behind him, more months ahead. The Glorious War was declared a Crime Against The Empire. The politburo was purged, the Generals went to house-arrest, the Colonels were shot, the Lieutenants got promoted and the Emperor’s cousin got publicly beheaded for perpetrating the Crime.

    So he crawled into a cheap flat above the cellar bar and now he watches The End Times on a flat screen on the wall. From below the sound of Hong Kong Vaporwave and GooseCore Be-Bop provides the appropriate soundtrack.

    Maybe he will have a vodka-redbull after all…

  5. Being Sat Upon

    This is something I’ve often remarked upon. As an Irish person who spent a lot of time in the UK but has since returned to Dublin, it’s very noticeable how prominent the UK is in Irish culture and media, and by contrast how near-invisible Ireland is in most of the UK.

    My wife — who is neither Irish nor British — can occasionally get a bit irritated by how UK-centric the Irish media is. And I do sympathise.

    But I also completely understand it and — contrary to the original tweet — am not in the least bit surprised by it. It is fully explained by this Douglas Adams line about horses…

    It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion about them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.

    – Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

    The featured image on this post (on social media shares) is copyright Brian Lenehan (cc-by-sa/2.0)

  6. A time for compromise

    Sinn Féin are doing their utmost to miss an open goal. This right now is the moment in history for them to be at their most adaptable. They need to bend over backwards to compromise – even to the point of acquiescence – because it offers them such a strategic advantage.

    As the effects of Brexit kick in, Northern Ireland is likely to be badly hit, and the DUP will increasingly appear unreasonable and destructive — not just to those outside NI politics, but to a lot of Unionists too. In 3 or 4 years time it is highly likely that Unionism, as a political force, will be at an all-time low. If Sinn Féin spend that time aggressively adopting the “voice of reason” role, I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility that they might succeed in holding and winning a border poll (surely their ultimate endgame?)

    Brexit makes such a thing possible (even if not hugely likely). But the only way it works (in my opinion) is if Sinn Féin play it right. And that means turning themselves into a party that a reasonable Unionist does not automatically view as The Enemy. They can’t afford to instantly alienate every single non-republican in Ireland if they are to ever achieve their stated aim. Now… I don’t know if that’s even possible; if Sinn Féin can make that change or if Northern Irish society could even permit it to happen.

    But that has to be the goal. And it starts with a willingness to compromise.

  7. Transmission #2

    Transmission #2: The empire is in decline.
    Even at its height the veterans insisted the best was behind them.
    It has always been in decline. It has always been the End Times.

    The End Times are good news for some of the business folk in the cities of the Empire. Good news for the brewers, the distillers, the weed growers and the backstreet pharmacists. Good news for the cellar bars that turn the labour of millions into hard cash.

    There’s one particular cellar bar in one particular city. Somewhere near the middle of the Empire, but not close enough to the action to ever be a destination. This particular cellar bar does steady, if not roaring, trade. Nobody does a roaring trade any more. At least, nobody we know. But some cellar bars do better than others. This one has regulars; enough so it doesn’t have to meet the expectations of anyone else. But not so much as to make the place actually popular. At that point you may as well go the whole hog and take the “cellar” out of the name and put up a sign.

    Hire a Norm and find yourself a Cliff.

    In this place the air still drips with beer, sweat and the confused infusions of a hundred vapes. Just like any other cellar bar. And it’s dark, just like the others.

    Here, the only lights are behind the bar and in the toilets. For the rest, illumination comes from projectors. Old movies loop and fade to black. Rich, dark, film, the flicker. Apocalypse Now, The Maltese Falcon, Transmission #2, something from the Marx Brothers, Dust Devil, Until The End of The World, Metropolis… of course there’s Metropolis. All of them wide-angled and out of focus, soundtracks barely audible, overlapping, engaged in whispered conversation of explosions, screams and urgent double-cross. Buried below.

    Peter Lorre and Martin Sheen stare wide-eyed at one another while you order a beer. And a vodka-redbull. Make it a double.

    Transmission #2

    Why the hell not?

    Behind you an argument in Polish ends with a bitter laugh and a vile insult. You don’t speak Polish but there’s no mistaking the tone and the sharp intake of breath it provokes.

    You’ve been ordering vodka redbulls with every second pint for a while now. The bar stools aren’t all that comfortable, and the movie illumination only works in fits and starts. But the beer is cold and it’s good. They sell little packets of mini-poppadoms, each with a sealed sachet of mango chutney, and nobody cares if you slip some pot into your vape alongside the vanilla.

    But mostly, it’s the sound of the place. That’s what keeps you there. The sound of the place.

  8. The reasons for Brexit

    This is my favourite of today’s reasons for Brexit. Tomorrow we may be back to blue passports for all I know. Or bendy bananas. Yes, I know you — dear “sensible” Brexiteer — may find such notions risible or patronising. But the great thing about democracy is the bendy-banana woman on Question Time had exactly as much say in the referendum as you did. There were doubtless people on the other side who voted “Remain” for reasons you would find silly.

    But I doubt there’s as many of them. And I doubt they’re as silly.

    Truly, the reasons for Brexit are many and varied. But I’ve yet to hear a single one that rang true for me.

    Anyway; it appears from the above tweet that the UK is leaving the EU — a massive policy shift and one that, even if you’re a fan of Brexit, clearly has the potential to wreak havoc if carried out badly (both on the UK and its neighbours) — and it’s doing it because they think some of the people working in the EU aren’t very nice to them.

    “Arrogant” and “unelected” it seems. And it’s hard not to read that and immediately think of The Citizen in Ulysses… sure, sure he’s the butt of many a joke, but there’s plenty of insight amid the bombast and rhetoric…

    – That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.

    – On which the sun never rises, says Joe.

    – And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

    The navy is still there, albeit less fearsome than it once was… but so is the hereditary chamber, the royalty and the belief that Empire was something to take pride in. So is the sense that 52% of the population can make a massive, long-term decision without even considering the impact it might have on a close neighbour (one who has been treated quite shabbily enough already) and then start trumpeting about The Will of The People.

    “Arrogant”? “Unelected”? Is it possible, just possible, that there’s some projection going on here?

  9. A brief question to the BBC regarding “balance”

    Dear BBC News,

    While thankfully you don’t do it as often as you once did, you do still give air time to Climate Change Skeptics / Deniers ostensibly in the interests of “balance”. What’s more, these skeptics / deniers are rarely climatologists but instead tend to be politicians, ex-politicians or business people with no recognised qualification in the field; though often with ideological positions or personal agendas that are fundamentally opposed to industrial regulation.

    However, I have noticed that — when discussing the Holocaust — you fail to provide air time to David Irving so that we may hear both sides of that story (or better yet, perhaps a non-historian, ex-politician with overt antisemitic views… perhaps give Jean-Marie Le Pen a prominent slot next Holocaust Remembrance Day?) In the interests of “balance” of course.

    For the sake of clarity, let me point out that I’m not actually suggesting you give air time to Holocaust-deniers. You have quite correctly accepted that the evidence for the Holocaust is strong enough that it doesn’t merit a contradictory voice.

    What I would like to know, therefore, is precisely what standards of evidence are applied by the BBC that are passed by the Holocaust, but failed by Climate Change? Why does the BBC feel the evidence for Climate Change is lacking? What aspects of the scientific consensus does the BBC find unconvincing or doubtful? If there is doubt about the science, why doesn’t the BBC interview a climatologist on the matter rather than a politician and industrial lobbyist? And — importantly — precisely what further evidence does the BBC require before they stop giving air time to Climate Change Deniers?

    Yours, very etc.

  10. The British Empire Strikes Back

    This right here. This is why Brexit will be a godalmighty disaster. That’s a Conservative Party MEP saying that. Not some random commenter below a Daily Mail article lamenting the end of the British Empire. Check out the banner image on the guy’s profile

    British Empire 2: The Hannansphere

    No, I assure you, that’s not a joke. That’s the flag beneath which a tory Member of the European Parliament chooses to speak to the public. It’s the kind of detail that makes you wonder whether Hannan might not be a character created by Peter Cook, somehow escaped from the pages of an uncommissioned script. But it’s tough to be whimsical for too long when it’s clear from his tweets that this Tory MEP genuinely thinks of Ireland as “belonging” under that flag. And he’s a little put out, quite frankly, that everyone else doesn’t think so too.

    It’s not just Hannan. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll has recently resurfaced — given fresh new relevance by the brexiteering lurch towards isolationism. In this poll, a significant majority of respondents believed Britain should be more proud than ashamed of its imperial past.

    And this is why we find ourselves in a peculiar farce. The British unilaterally* took a course of action that at the very least is causing a lot of concern here in Ireland; and at worst could potentially be catastrophic for our country. And yet a significant portion of the British Establishment and commentariat seem vaguely affronted by the notion that we’re not falling meekly into line behind them. The referendum campaign on the British mainland barely mentioned Ireland. And the subsequent General Election campaign featured Ireland mostly as a 1980s-era prop with which the tories could beat Corbyn.

    I love the UK. I lived there for many years. Went to university there. Worked there. Met many great friends there. Here in Ireland, if I was ever idiotic enough to enter politics, I would be immediately tarred with the term “West Brit” and it’d be a tough label for me to shake. By a great many yardsticks, I would be considered an anglophile for an Irishman**.

    Point being… given the mess of a situation we find ourselves in, and accepting that we can’t change the past… if the argument for Ireland to leave the EU and join some kind of federation with the UK was likely to find any sort of traction here in Ireland, then I’d be exactly the sort of person who would give it some consideration.

    But I’m not. When Irish people are polled on EU membership, you get numbers that would appear baffling to a lot of British people. Even after the frankly unjust and unjustifiable way in which the Irish citizenry were treated during the banking crisis… even then we never polled less than 80% in favour. Right now… it’s creeping closer to 90. At some level we didn’t fully appreciate until quite recently, we Irish are European. And if we leave the EU, it’ll be because the entire thing collapses, or we get dragged out kicking-and-screaming for some other reason. It won’t be because we feel an attachment to the Union Jack, or because it makes logistical sense for us to climb into the boat with the British, even as they blow holes in the hull with an antique blunderbus inherited from their Great Grandad.

    Brexit is a psychotic pitbull the UK brought into the neighbourhood. It’s up to them to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone else. It’s not up to us to accommodate their delusions that the thing is a harmless poodle.

    The British have seriously screwed up with Brexit. Whatever they have done to themselves (and it may be very damaging indeed), they have likely inflicted a great deal of harm here in Ireland too, risking both political and economic upheaval in a region that might still have a bit of Semtex knocking about in it. And yet the Tories are exasperated when, far from backing them up, the Irish are infuriated. After literally centuries of utterly shameful behaviour in Ireland (Empire-nostalgia notwithstanding), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect Britain to start acting like half-decent neighbours for once.

    Fat fucking chance.

    * Let’s be clear… I am in no way questioning the legal — or even the moral — right of the British people to choose their own path (within reason — you’re not allowed randomly nuke countries even if you vote for it 52-48). However, if something is to be described as truly “democratic” then I’d argue everyone significantly affected by it should be given an equal vote. The Irish were not allowed to vote on Brexit. Again, let me stress, I’m not saying we should have been. I’m just saying you need a different word than “democratic”.

    ** Though it’s a good deal more complicated than that. There are aspects of British culture (the monarchy, the militarism, a huge chunk of the national character surrounding class, self-image and nostalgia for empire) where I would be far more extreme in my dislike than even the most fervent Republican. So yeah, as ever, do be careful with those broad strokes.

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