Posts Tagged ‘Ireland’

Brendan Behan, lighthouse painter

2 September 2017

I once learnt in the Maritime Museum in Moville, Co. Donegal, that the Irish writer Brendan Behan had spent some time as a young man working as a lighthouse painter. This was in that time after his second spell in jail for IRA-related activities, but before his literary career had become a success.

He wasn’t very good at painting, possibly to the longer-term gain of Irish literature. The museum has a letter from the Principal Keeper at St John’s Point lighthouse asking that he be sacked immediately. The local paper, The Down Recorder had an article when the letter came to light later.

“He is wilfully wasting materials, opening drums and paint tins by blows from a heavy hammer, spilling the contents which is now running out of the paint stores.

“Drums of waterwash opening and exposed to the weather, paint brushes dirty and lying all around the station — no cleaning up of any mess but he tramps through everything.

“His language is filthy and he is not amenable to any law or order.

“The spare house, which was clean and ready for painters has been turned into a filthy shambles inside a week.

“Empty stinking milk bottles, articles of food, coal, ashes and other debris litter the floor of the place which is now in a scandalous condition of dirt.”

Here’s the letter.

I was thinking of this because I was listening to Philip Chevron’s version of Behan’s lyric, “The Captains and the Kings”, with its precise disdain for England and the Empire:

We have many goods for export, Christian ethics and old port

But our greatest boast is that the Anglo-Saxon is a sport

On the playing fields of Eton we still do thrilling things

Do not think we’ll ever weaken of the captains and the kings

Behan wrote the song for his play The Hostage. While I was looking for the Chevron version, I found a recording by Behan himself, singing it in his “Oxford accent”:




Watching the door

13 June 2010

I was in Belfast and Derry last year on holiday, and while I was there read Kevin Myers’ fairly recent memoir of reporting the Troubles in the north of Ireland 35 years ago, first for RTE and later as a freelance. You realise, some way in, that you are watching a man coming to terms with post-traumatic stress. He never says it, of course, and my saying it here is not intended to diminish a well-written and compelling book. But about half way through Watching the Door,  he admits us to a dream he had, every night for several years, even after he has left the city.

The men appeared out of nowhere. They were masked and armed and said not a word. Both raised their guns, but only one fired at me, hitting me neatly in the neck, and down I went, on my back. I knew I was doomed, that the wound was fatal. My spine was severed, and my trachea torn open. The two men walked over to finish me off … As I began to speak, the air merely bubbled through the bullet hole in my trachea, splattering boiling hot blood over the ice-cold rain on my face. Then they fired.

The catalogue of killings is relentless – he acknowledges his debt here to David McKittrick – the violence remorseless, his own part in it all captured on the page. In the introduction, he describes his role as being that of ‘a maggot’; at the end, working now as a freelance, the final straw is the La Mon tragedy in which 12 people were burnt alive:

Each penny earned in this way now depended on someone’s death. No killing, no money. The relationship was immutable and unavoidable. A fireman watching television in the base earns the same as a fireman fighting an inferno. Not me. I needed bodies. After my initial report about Le Mon I told NBC to look elsewhere.

The psychology of the violence is well captured, as is his increasing distaste for it. A story about a powder-blue Mercedes, owned by one of the two drivers who ferry him around for the Irish broadcaster RTE when he first joins the station’s Belfast bureau seems to stand for it all. The driver is shot by a soldier while changing a battery within sight of an army barracks. The Catholic car dealer who buys it from his widow, and his business partner, are both killed by the UDF when they drive it on business to the Protestant Shankill Road area. The hooded body of one is left on the back seat. The car, now unsaleable in Belfast, is sold cheaply through a Dublin newspaper: the new owner died in the vehicle on the way back south after losing control on a bend.

Belfast was [in 1972] now like that Mercedes: cursed from on high, and violent and terrible death awaited the unwary at every turn and every hour. … Every morning brought a harvest of bodies of the stupid, the unlucky and the gullible who had died terribly.  Protestants and Catholics were equally likely to fall victim to this lethal mood.

The life of a journalist in such circumstances inevitably becomes complicit, to the point of becoming a target. One of the UDA hard men tries to kill him (he’s saved by a tip-off from a companion); he flees from a planned beating by the IRA; a pistol is cocked to his head by a member of the Paras; he stumbles out of the debris of a pub bombing only because he happens to be in the urinals when it explodes.

It’s an honest story, well told. I think he may be too hard on himself, looking back at 60 on his 20-something self, for I am not sure that others would have fared better. Buried in the story are several occasions when he did the right thing, either as a journalist or as a person, sometimes at some risk to himself. And he’s sharp on the British government and the British Army’s place in the conflict, and their blindness to the role played in the conflict by the UDA and UVF loyalists.

In a memorable passage, he observes that Belfast in the 1970s had, as a city, become clinically insane. He starts by believing that he understands its madness, but realises that the longer he stays the less true this is. He’s walked into a world, and a time, which is impossible for an outsider fully to grasp; he’s tolerated for a while by those who live there while he suits their purposes, but he’ll never learn their codes and private meanings.

Lost in exile

2 September 2009

I’ve been listening to Christy Moore’s song Missing You (written by Jimmy McCarthy) and realise that it is – in some ways – a reworking of the traditional Irish song Carrickfergus (versions here by Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry), about the pain of exile and the impossibility of returning home. In Carrickfergus, “I’m drunk today and I’m seldom sober”, and home is simply too far away: “But the sea is wide and I cannot swim over/ And neither have I the wings to fly”.

In Missing You, the singer is a building labourer, closer to home in England, and the song captures the casual discrimination of the sites in one fine stanza:

To where you’re a Paddy, a Biddy or a Mick
Good for nothing but stacking a brick
Your best mate’s a spade and he carries a hod
Two work horses heavily shod.

The singer can’t afford the price of the flight home, but in any case. sleeping rough, “I’ll never go home now because of the shame”.

Both songs are cautionary tales about the losses of exile, but in Carrickfergus there’s still some of the delusions of the blarney (he’s still “a handsome rover from town to town”). Missing You, in contrast, is bleak; almost too bleak, in that it is a song with a rich melody which the lyric strips of hope.

Irish routes

25 March 2009


I’m going to the north of Ireland on holiday quite soon, so I’m tuned in to stories about Irishness at the moment. The writer Nick Laird was complaining about the way he had been classified by his publisher, as an Irish poet (the Heaney effect?) but a British novelist:

On forms, under nationality I write Irish/British, though I’d be happier with Ulsterman, since Ulster itself (incorporating Northern Ireland and the Irish counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal) is a province administrated by both Dublin and London. The poet John Hewitt put his own position thus: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European. This is my hierarchy of values and so far as I am concerned, anyone who omits one step in that sequence of values is falsifying the situation.”

It gets more complex. Later in the same article Laird explains how he evades the certainties which Americans try to pin on him by establishing his religion – by drowning them in the detail of family history:

In America, where I live at the minute, you’re Irish, but when you qualify that you’re from Northern Ireland, you get the little glimmer of (mis)understanding. Then they say, pleased with themselves: “So are you Protestant or Catholic?” Cathestant or Protholic? … I hate this question, as the interlocutor thinks the answer will explain everything about you, about whether you’re the oppressed or the oppressor. I bamboozle them with detail. My mum was raised Covenantor in Armagh and my father Church of Ireland in Donegal – part of the republic but in Ulster. My mum’s family’s originally from Cork (where, as Protestants in the 1920s, they were burnt out and fled north). They glaze, and change the subject. But why should the situation not be complicated?

I come from England, as does most of my family, albeit from one of those peripheral regions far enough from London to have an identity of its own. But some of my family detail would be complicated, too, for despite the trite conventional wisdom (that in the olden days everyone grew up and died in the same village) in the past people moved around far more than we imagine. It should be complicated, for our histories and identity lie inside that complexity.