Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


In search of the Marxist novel
Saturday, 15 January 2022 19:23

In search of the Marxist novel

Published in Fiction

30-year-old Irish author Sally Rooney has been in the headlines following her refusal to grant the translation rights of her new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021) to the Israeli Modan publishing house. Seventy prominent writers backed her decision in a statement in November. 

In May, Rooney had been among over 1,600 artists who condemned Israel’s “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” in a ‘Letter Against Apartheid’. Israeli apartheid, they said, is “perpetuated by international complicity; it is our collective responsibility to repair this harm.” The signatories to the new statement reaffirmed their support for the Palestinian people, saying:

Like her, we will continue to respond to the Palestinian call for effective solidarity, just as millions supported the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. We will continue to support the nonviolent Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

The authors include Irish Kevin Barry, Ronan Bennett, Seán Hewitt, and Rita Ann Higgins from Ireland; Rachel Kushner, Eileen Myles and Eliot Weinburger from the US; Monica Ali, Caryl Churchill, China Miéville and Kamila Shamsie from the UK.

Two bookstore chains with a presence in both Israel and in the occupied territories responded to Rooney’s decision by removing her novels from their stock. So who is Sally Rooney and what are her books about?

Rooney was born in 1991 in Castlebar in the West of Ireland and describes herself as a Marxist. Her mother ran a cultural centre and her father worked for Telecom until it was privatised. Rooney studied English at Trinity College. In an interview Rooney said: “I don’t know what it means to write a Marxist novel. I don’t know and I would love to know. It is the analytical structure that helps me make sense of the world around me.”

Alienated relationships prevail

Her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), focuses on two young women, Frances and Bobbi, who, having met at school, are now studying in Dublin and also performing artists. The novel is primarily about sexual relationships among young people, about the question of true love and genuine friendship in an environment where none of this seems to be possible. Most unusually for a contemporary novel, both protagonists see themselves as politically left-wing, even communist:

Bobbi and my mother got along famously. Bobbi studied History and Politics, subjects my mother considered serious. Real subjects, she would say, with an eyebrow lifted at me. My mother was a kind of social democrat, and at this time I believe Bobbi identified herself as a communitarian anarchist. When my mother visited Dublin, they took mutual enjoyment in having minor arguments about the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes Bobbi would turn to me and say: Frances, you’re a communist, back me up.

Bobbi is the most obviously interested of the two in social and international issues, she likes to sing anti-war songs, is well-informed and ready to discuss Syria, Algeria, Palestine. Frances, the narrator, comes from a single-parent working-class household. She is the only character in the novel’s plot who is not wealthy, the only one who has no money. While she is very aware of this, money is not something her friends think about.

Despite recurring references to left-wing views, however, they do not directly inform the novel’s plot, which revolves mainly around sexual relationships. But in a way, this is the crux of the matter. What we encounter in this first novel will characterise the next two: there is a lack of love in most relationships. The young people at the centre of the plot are unable to say that they love each other, find it hard to acknowledge a partner as a ‘girlfriend’/ ‘boyfriend’; there is a lack of genuine commitment. Unconditional love seems impossible. Alienated relationships prevail. Many of the young people are very lonely, have no real self-esteem, are damaged in their humanity. No help is given to them.

In Rooney’s second novel, Normal People (2018), the focus is again on young people, their relationships in their final year at school and follows the two main characters, Marianne and Connell to Trinity College Dublin, which the author knows from her own experience. Again, one of the two is a working-class child with a single mother, the other comes from a dysfunctional wealthy family. In both novels, the working-class child’s mother is the one older character that readers get to know a little better, although drawing people over thirty is not Rooney’s forte.

As in Conversations with Friends, the central theme is sexual relationships and how people treat one another. The plot is a little more complex, goes a little deeper than in the first novel. Once more, it is striking how left-wing the main characters think – and that they stand by their convictions, never deviating from them. That they recommend reading the Communist Manifesto seems perfectly normal. Connell’s mother is also left-wing.

Culture as class performance

Class distinctions are even more clearly highlighted in Normal People, and it’s emphasised that Trinity continues to be the elite university of the bourgeoisie. The larger social themes of class struggle and political protest are echoed by the conflictual relationships between the characters, and sometimes explicitly linked, as when the two main characters actually take part in a protest demonstration:

They went to a protest against the war in Gaza the other week with Connell and Niall. There were thousands of people there, carrying signs and megaphones and banners.

Rooney is also keen to highlight the class nature of the culture industry. Connell goes to a literature reading at the university:

It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared at these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything.

This quest for alternatives to the capitalist culture industry takes up even more space in Rooney’s latest novel, named after a Schiller poem Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021). Questions of interest to the author are discussed primarily in an email correspondence running through the book between Alice, the young, successful author, and her friend Eileen. The discussion covers a whole spectrum of political and philosophical-historical issues from a left-wing perspective. On the contemporary novel, Alice writes:

The problem with the contemporary Euro-American novel is that it relies for its structural integrity on suppressing the lived realities of most human beings on earth. To confront the poverty and misery in which millions of people are forced to live, to put the fact of that poverty, that misery, side by side with the lives of the ‘main characters’ of a novel, would be deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful.

And although political views occupy an increasingly large space in the novels, they still stand apart from the action, which again revolves around sexual relationships and friendships, around young people, some of whom hate themselves, and who are somehow damaged.

While the endings of the first two novels give only vague hope, this third one offers an alternative. It speaks for Rooney’s growing skill that this alternative is woven into the action of the novel and arises organically from it. This way out of alienation comes as at a certain cost for the woman concerned, who will now put motherhood first. However, it is unlikely that Rooney means this in absolute terms; it is what happens to this character and is not generalised as an exclusive alternative. One need only to look at this character’s partner to understand this.

Marxist readers will also be interested in Rooney’s underlying interest in religion for solace. She has stated:

How do people console themselves through periods of immense suffering? Capitalism doesn’t really have an answer (…) it doesn’t always help to read Karl Marx.

It is curious that the artist Rooney sees no role for art as a solace for the psyche, the thought at the heart of Keats’s To Psyche. Rooney’s position may well spring from her dim view of the arts under capitalism.

All art is political. Sometimes, it is the politics of turning a blind eye, or opening casements on faery lands forlorn, as Keats put it. Rooney does not write escapist literature, but a kind that confronts alienation. Her novels depict alienated relationships, alongside explicit political statements by her characters – who would no doubt stand with Rooney in her solidarity with the Palestinians. She understands that literature written from a Marxist perspective needs to go deeper than having characters make progressive political statements. Its political meanings must also be skilfully expressed in the plots and the actions of her characters, as in novels like The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Rooney’s novels have struck a chord with many people worldwide because her readers recognise their own sense of isolation. It is likely that Rooney will increasingly forge her characters’ views with what they do in her novels, and the alternatives they explore.

Thomas Kinsella, 4 May 1928 – 22 December 2021
Wednesday, 22 December 2021 22:20

Thomas Kinsella, 4 May 1928 – 22 December 2021

Published in Poetry

Thomas Kinsella has died, aged 93. He must be counted among the great Irish poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. He was very involved in uncovering the power of Irish language verse, translating into English the epic The Táin (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), and the verse collection 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed. But what puts Kinsella in a league of his own, is his poem A Butcher's Dozen written in response to the slaughter of 13 civil rights marchers in Derry on what became known as Bloody Sunday, on 30 January 1972, 50 years ago next month.

In honour of Thomas Kinsella, below we republish the article from 2019 about this poem.

Jenny Farrell protests the decision only to charge one paratrooper, and introduces extracts from Thomas Kinsella's poem, A Butcher's Dozen


Shock and disbelief is the reaction of most people in Ireland to the decision of the N. Ireland Prosecution Service (NIPP) only to charge one British paratrooper, “Soldier F” in connection with the murder of 14 innocent civil rights marchers on Derry’s “Bloody Sunday”, 30th January 1972. 

This morning relatives and friends of the Bloody Sunday victims had marched to Derry’s Guildhall in anticipation of the NIPP’s announcement.

The NIPP’s decision reflects the arrogant stance of the British establishment to these crimes committed in Ireland. Indeed, it echoes the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley’s statement last week that all killings by the British army and police during the Troubles were “not crimes”.

Her statement and today’s legal decision only to prosecute one soldier stand in direct contradiction to the findings of the Saville Inquiry and to the apology made by former British PM David Cameron in parliament, stating that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. 

Lord Saville’s public inquiry into Bloody Sunday ran for over 10 years.  Lord Saville found those killed and injured were innocent, and that the killings were unjustified and those killed posed no threat. It overturned the first, discredited report into the killings, by Lord Widgery, in 1972, which said British soldiers were fired on first and some of those killed had been armed.

Its report, in June 2010, identified 22 former British soldiers who could be charged with murder, attempted murder, causing grievous bodily injury with intent, or perjury. It has now taken almost 9 years for the NIPP to whittle that number down to one anonymous scapegoat, “Soldier F”. Saville linked him to the killing of 4 people on Bloody Sunday. According to the brother of victim Michael Kelly, what stood out about the evidence “Soldier F” gave to the Inquiry “he showed absolutely no remorse for what he did”.

Today, one of the solicitors for the Bloody Sunday families praised their tenacious 47-year campaign for justice that had resulted in the historic public inquiry and the prospect of actual prosecutions.

Alas, their campaign for justice is not yet over. The families will study this decision very carefully and look for legal possibilities to challenge today's decision before the High Court. They will seek to have the number of soldiers prosecuted increased as well as ensure the accused are named rather than they remain anonymous, as was the case at the Saville Inquiry. 

“Bloody Sunday” was a watershed in the North of Ireland conflict. It was to result in the decline of the powerful civil rights movement and the rise of the Provisional IRA. The peaceful demonstrations demanding equal rights for Catholics in the late 1960s exposed internationally the sectarian, repressive and gerrymandered regime operating in Britain’s backyard, “Northern Ireland”. 

In August 1969, the British Labour government brought British troops onto the streets to stop the pogroms against the Catholic community by the armed, sectarian pro-British N. Ireland police force, the RUC.

The British Labour government disarmed the RUC and began to introduce democratic reforms. However, in June 1970 the role of the British state changed, when Edward Heath was elected Prime Minister. The Tories – or to give thei official title the “Conservative and Unionist Party” – were in power, and they sympathised with their fraternal party in the North of Ireland, the Unionist Party, that had controlled the sectarian state for almost 50 years.

Repression of the Catholic community rather than democratic reforms became the order of the day, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.

The demonstration in Derry on 30th January 1972 had been aimed against internment. The killings on “Bloody Sunday” were seen as a deliberate act by the British Tories and their Unionist allies to force the unmanageable peaceful protests for civil rights off the streets. Both at home and abroad it was more acceptable to fight “terrorism” than to deal with peaceful demonstrators demanding their civil rights. Besides, in N. Ireland the British army could perfect its anti-insurgency techniques.

So, while only one of the soldiers who fired the shots is to be prosecuted, the politicians, civil servants and army officers who pulled the strings are not. Of late, particular attention has been drawn to retired General Sir Mike Jackson. He was second-in-command of the army in Derry on Bloody Sunday.  During his evidence at the Saville Inquiry he suffered from severe memory loss.

This contrasts with his disputed account of another mass killing in Northern Ireland months before Bloody Sunday. In August 1971 during internment the Parachute Regiment shot dead 11 innocent people, including a mother and a priest, in what is now known as the “Ballymurphy Massacre”. Jackson was press officer for the Parachute Regiment, stationed in Belfast, and he briefed the media that those killed in the shootings were Republican gunmen. This view was contradicted on Monday last at the on-going inquest into the “Ballymurphy Massacre”, when the then commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment, Gen Sir Geoffrey Howlett, 89, admitted that of those killed “most if not all were not IRA”.

Jackson’s role in Northern Ireland did not hamper his career, which saw him involved in the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. On 1st February 2003 he became chief of staff of the British Army, a month before the illegal invasion of Iraq – another war where those who pulled the strings go completely unpunished.   

Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s poem A Butcher’s Dozen was written in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, following the Widgery report which whitewashed the atrocities, and published on 26 April 1972.

Kinsella later said:

The Widgery report was a great insult. [My] response was instant; the poem itself was written and issued in seven days. … I debated with myself at the time whether to keep it anonymous, but that would have been wrong. Commitment is important when faced with wickedness and injustice. … The poem was some at some personal cost, however. There was a considerable loss of readership – a permanent chill in the atmosphere from readers of my work, and from friends. I received a letter from one friend who simply put an end to our friendship. They signed off, “No British person would behave in such a way.” This continued even after total vindication [in] the Saville report; and the apology [from prime minister David Cameron] in the British parliament. I stand over my decision to write [it].”

The poem opens in tone and rhythm reminiscent of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819:

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys - over all
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
"Once there lived a hooligan.
A pig came up, and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones,
Who lost his life for throwing stones."

It continues, commenting on British justice:

"The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where's the law that can't be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We'd be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
- All that's left; it's turning sour.

As various ghosts of the dead speak, one refers to the witches’ broth in Macbeth – only this pot is worse!

A joking spectre followed him:
"Take a bunch of stunted shoots,
A tangle of transplanted roots,
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests,
Some dried colonial interests,
A hard unnatural union grown
In a bed of blood and bone,
Tongue of serpent, gut of hog
Spiced with spleen of underdog.
Stir in, with oaths of loyalty,
Sectarian supremacy,
And heat, to make a proper botch,
In a bouillon of bitter Scotch.
Last, the choice ingredient: you.
Now, to crown your Irish stew,
Boil it over, make a mess.
A most imperial success!"

Kinsella’s concluding lines will stand for the way many in Ireland feel today:

I stood like a ghost. My fingers strayed
Along the fatal barricade.
The gentle rainfall drifting down
Over Colmcille's town
Could not refresh, only distil
In silent grief from hill to hill.

For the full text, please click here.

The Nobel prize for Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Thursday, 09 December 2021 16:42

The Nobel prize for Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah

Published in Fiction

On 10 December, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death, Abdulrazak Gurnah will receive the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of black Africa.

Wole Soyinka was the first black African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. Other Nobel Prize winners from the African continent are Nagib Mahfuz (Egypt), Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee (both South Africa). The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, and who is considered one of the fathers of modern African literature, never received the prize.

In all likelihood, neither will the Marxist Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been strongly favoured in recent years. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie and Nuruddin Farah from Somalia are repeatedly mentioned as other African authors worthy of the prize. But no black African author has been considered for the Swedish Academy’s award since Soyinka – until this year, when Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah was unexpectedly declared the Nobel Laureate for Literature.


Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Born in 1948, Gurnah’s youth was marked by the last years of British colonial rule and the troubled early years of independence. Much social tension on the small island in the Indian Ocean off the Tanzanian coast sprang from the conflict between the Arab and African populations. The British, who maintained good relations with the Sultans of the Persian Gulf, and fearing rebellion in Africa, launched Zanzibar’s independence in 1963, at the same time affirming Arab rule.

An eyewitness at the time, the legendary Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński wrote in The Shadow of the Sun:

Abeid Karume was the leader of Zanzibar’s Afro-Shirazi Party. Although this party, representing the island’s black African population, won a majority in the last elections, the government was formed by an Arab minority party supported by London—the Zanzibar Nationalist Party. The Africans, outraged by this fact, organized a revolt and abolished Arab rule. That is what had just transpired two days ago.

 Three hours after Prince Philip, in the name of Queen Elizabeth, transfers Zanzibar into Arab hands, Field Marshal John Okello makes his move, and in the course of a single night seizes power on Zanzibar.

This led to persecution and massacres of the Arab and Indian populations, and many fled. Gurnah and his brother, of Arab descent on their father’s side, also emigrated to England to study in late 1967. Gurnah only returned to Zanzibar on a visit in 1984.

Gurnah’s memory of this period is largely painful. But in some of his works, especially in By the Sea (2001), he addresses the solidarity of the GDR with Zanzibar, which was important for both countries, especially in the 1960s. Zanzibar was the first non-socialist country to recognise the GDR diplomatically and to defy the Hallstein Doctrine, West Germany’s claim to sole diplomatic representation. After the unification of Zanzibar with Tanganyika to form Tanzania, President Nyerere also insisted on maintaining recognition of the GDR and entertained diplomatic relations with both German states, despite the Hallstein Doctrine. In addition to projects such as a housing construction programme, many young Zanzibaris went to the GDR for training courses and studies.

Zanzibar appears as a setting in most of Gurnah’s novels, usually dealing with the fortunes of individuals and families in the turmoil of the times. Migration and being caught in between cultures are important themes in Gurnah’s work, for which he was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize: "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

By the Sea

 In this novel Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old Zanzibari refugee and former businessman, seeks asylum in England following 11 years of imprisonment on Zanzibar. Here he meets his compatriot Latif Mahmud, whose shared past consists in two evictions linked to Omar’s business dealings with the Persian trader Hussein, who exploited and defrauded all parties involved. This conflict is embedded in the history of Zanzibar. It begins in the last years of British colonial power and ends with Omar’s departure. Brought together by fate, both men now try to remember the exact course of events and the circumstances surrounding this period of their lives. These memories form the core of the novel.

Right at the start, Omar reflects on the colonial history of East Africa:

Then the Portuguese, rounding the continent, burst so unexpect­edly and so disastrously from that unknown and impenetrable sea, and put paid to medieval geography with their sea-borne cannons. They wreaked their religion-crazed havoc on islands, harbours and cities, exulting over their cruelty to the inhabitants they plundered. Then the Omanis came to remove them and take charge in the name of the true God, and brought with them Indian money, with the British close behind, and close behind them the Germans and the French and whoever else had the wherewithal.

The action here, as in other novels by Gurnah, is set in the petty bourgeoisie and middle class – the class of often impoverished shopkeepers, small businessmen, mostly of Arab, Indian or mixed descent, not the dispossessed African population of labourers and fishermen.

The school-educated Omar says of the British colonial masters:

In their books I read unflattering accounts of my history, and because they were unflattering, they seemed truer than the stories we told ourselves. I read about the diseases that tormen­ted us, about the future that lay before us, about the world we lived in and our place in it. It was as if they had remade us, and in ways that we no longer had any recourse but to accept, so complete and well-fitting was the story they told about us.

Mahmud, a generation younger, goes to study abroad in East Germany in the 1960s, shortly after gaining independence, through his mother’s connections with a minister. Here, Gurnah paints a picture from the perspective of the young African who does not find paradise. Even before starting his studies in dentistry, he is persuaded by friends to defect, which takes him to England. The author based his picture of Mahmud on reports from school friends. It is important, however, that the GDR’s aid projects for Zanzibar occupy such considerable space in this novel.

Abdul G by the sea

Omar also reflects critically on the role of the USA after the end of colonial rule:

Then the President became disenchanted with the Americans. Partly this was because of the swelling chorus of discontent with the United States across Africa at the time. They had shown their hand too openly in the murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo – boastful CIA officers could not resist making unattri­butable claims. They were murdering black Americans at home, when they only wanted the vote and equal rights as citizens, aspirations familiar to all of us at the time, aspirations which chimed with our discontent over arrogant oppression of non­-European people all over the world.

History overtakes Gurnah’s characters and makes them its pawns; the author remains committed to individual fates. From his perspective, he rejects simplistic notions of liberation, migration, Muslims and East Africa, and so By the Sea is more concerned with the complicated relationship between the two narrators than with Omar’s precariousness as an asylum seeker. Although the frame story is about Omar’s situation as an asylum seeker in England, most of the text follows the two men’s conflicting narratives of their lives in Zanzibar and their eventual negotiation of a new acquaintance based on their shared history.


This novel, published in 2005, also examines the history of Tanganyika through the lens of a petty bourgeois Indian-African family. The story spans almost 90 years, from 1899 to about 1984, beginning with the fateful rescue of a Mzungu – a European – whose love affair with Rahena, sister of his rescuer, continued for years, and its aftermath through the generations. The deserters from societal rules become tragic figures.

The story is set first in the colonial era, later in the early 1960s, the years around independence and afterwards. Rashid, who emigrated from Zanzibar to study in England and narrates some of the novel, shares aspects of his biography with Gurnah: he too studies English, obtains a doctorate, gets a lectureship, marries in England. He only returns to Zanzibar for a visit in the mid-1980s, when his parents have already died. Until then, his family advises against visiting because of expected reprisals. Gurnah paints a bleak, desolate picture through the accounts of Amin’s brother:

We are all becoming increasingly addicted to the mosque. The government delivers its socialist lies and we all rush for the mosques. The days are getting darker in every way. Food is becoming more scarce. There are power cuts and water shortages. So it’s inevitable that mosques will get fuller and prayers last longer. I find an unexpected pleasure in this communion.

Still revered today across Africa for his socialist Ujamaa policies in the post-colonial early years, Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, is also portrayed less than sympathetically:

Poor minister, they captured him and humiliated him as they did all the other ministers. They’re all in jail on the mainland now, guests of President Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika, who glows with pleasure at what has befallen us.

Gurnah and Ngugi's views on colonialism

Gurnah’s perspective differs from that of Ngugi, whose view of colonialism is more uncompromising, who writes about resistance, and who also comments scathingly about Africa’s neo-colonial present. While Gurnah is strongly indebted to English literature, and to the tales of 1001 Nights, Ngugi has consciously and pioneeringly discarded the language of the colonists and writes only in Gikuyu. His novel Matigari, published in 1987, rapidly entered popular culture, to the dismay of the authorities. When the then President Daniel Arap Moi heard that a certain Matigari was abroad in Kenya, asking difficult questions, he ordered his immediate arrest. All copies of the book distributed in Kenya were confiscated and destroyed.

Gurnah’s character Rashid reflects on the writer Sundeep as he remembers former fellow students:

 Sundeep … has become a writer of some fame. He spent a year living in Malawi and wrote … an irreverent comedy about post-imperial absurdities … President Banda did not like it and had the sale of the book banned in Malawi. Sundeep was well out of harm’s way by then, and having his book banned by a President-for-Life who was just reaching the peak of his authoritarian career did not do his reputation any harm. … I’ve read most of his books but I no longer look forward to them. I think that despite their zest and fluency, they have grown increasingly certain of their judgements, and to be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry.

 This portrait contains certain similarities to Ngugi, which are supported by Gurnah’s views on him in academic publications.


This ironically titled novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. The action takes place between 1900 and 1914 in colonial East Africa:

 Everywhere they went now they found the Europeans had got there before them, and had installed soldiers and officials … The traders spoke of the Europeans with amazement, awed by their ferocity and ruthlessness. They take the best land without paying a bead, force the people to work for them by one trick or another.… Taxes for this, taxes for that, otherwise prison for the offender, or the lash, or even hanging.

The plot centres on Yusuf, who is sold into bondage at the age of 12 by his father, who runs a hotel for a certain Aziz and cannot repay a debt. The boy works for Aziz without pay and never goes to school. He is not the only child who comes to Aziz in this way. Khalil is a few years older and becomes his best friend and advisor. Yusuf thus comes from the impoverished petty bourgeoisie but slips into servitude through bondage. Nevertheless, he is under Aziz’s protection. Despite the relationship of dependence, there is a certain sense of security.

Abdul G book paradise

Over the years, Aziz takes Yusuf with him on his trading caravans, and so Yusuf gets to know an Africa marked by tribal wars, superstition and disease. Germans are also heard of again and again, slowly spreading. Years later, Yusuf learns that his parents are dead. Like Khalil, he does not know how to free himself financially from Aziz. With Aziz, a life as a trader awaits him. So, at the end of the novel, he runs after a German Schutztruppe of African askaris to join them. He does this despite just witnessing their willingness to use violence against their own people. Although various gardens of paradise appear in the text, there is none for Yusuf or Khalil. Other characters are also excluded from this possibility.

After Lives

Published in 2020, this novel picks up historically where Paradise left off. Now, however, the German colonialists and their Schutztruppen move to the centre of the action. A lot of German and references to German culture and colonial history appear. Gurnah clearly enjoys languages and integrates mainly Swahili but also Arabic into all his texts.

Abdul After Lives

Once again, interest in the fate of the characters is central, through which Gurnah creates an empathy for these people who are guilty of crimes against their own people. He shows what draws them to the Schutztruppen, how they are treated as sub-humans and how they still act against their own interests. The focus is on their human motivations, their pride, not their misdeeds. They learn German; Hamza, a main character, learns it particularly well. But he is badly injured by an officer in a rage and eventually deserts.

Another character, Ilyas, ends up in Germany through the turmoil of the First World War, stays, and another stroke of fate awaits him there. The lives of these characters, why they join the Schutztruppen, what else life has in store for them – everything makes up a whole in which, characteristically for Gurnah, there are no heroes, only people who somehow survive.

Although the time span of this novel includes the years of the Maji-Maji rebellion, this is only mentioned in passing. The 2-year rebellion was brutally crushed. The Germans also used famine as a weapon, wantonly destroying the crops of suspected Maji-Maji supporters. The Maji-Maji rebellion in Tanganyika was the most significant African resistance against German colonial rule.

The jury members of the Swedish Academy, who are not above bourgeois prejudices, would do well not to wait another 35 years before picking another book from Africa.

Provenance, by Kate Thompson: fighting inequality and injustice to Aboriginal peoples
Monday, 15 November 2021 09:42

Provenance, by Kate Thompson: fighting inequality and injustice to Aboriginal peoples

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Provenance, by Kate Thompson

As Elliot Fielding struggles in an Australian hospital to piece together his fragmented memory following serious head injury, the reader embarks with him on the road to make sense of his life before. The narrative delves into the realities of Aboriginal life, through the fictional Warlpiri community in the central Australian Tanami desert, and indigenous art.

Elliot, through whose lens this world unfolds, is an English doctor, come to work in the remote community, inspired by a previous visit to the red sands of the desert. With little knowledge of this society, he takes up a post in a medical centre for Aboriginal people, and complications unfold the more involved he becomes in the lives of his patients.

The Western reader expects to encounter alcoholism, mental illness and other manifestations of indigenous cultures being robbed of their land, culture, and livelihood by colonial ‘civilisation’. Kate Thompson, however, focuses primarily on Aboriginal art as the language of the native Australians. It is apparent from this fascinating novel that she has personal knowledge of her subject.

Sensitive to the realities of the indigenous people, the author never wholly departs from the Western outsider point of view of Elliot, never attempts to speak as an Aboriginal. Choosing a character who slowly learns something of the native Australians’ lives, and later their art, allows her to express a growing understanding of their culture. And over time, his patients learn to trust Elliot, as a Westerner, while never admitting him fully into their lives.

‘I thought you didn’t mind people seeing your culture. I thought you liked sharing it with the whitefellas.’ ‘Some parts we don’t mind,’ Doris said. ‘But that little dance we do for people, over there in the town sometimes, special times, that one not our culture, not proper one, Same with those paintings. They are just one little bit, one story. That’s like you read one page out of the Bible and think that is your whole law.’

Elliot’s central assignment in the novel is to sell some paintings by an elderly artist, Doris Banks, who asks him for a Toyota in return. In this request, the clash between capitalist and pre-capitalist society is highlighted; money in native Australian communities is something shared across the community, and cars are also common property. The Toyota is needed to manage distances: ‘We don’t need much. (…) Little bit of fence around the back and that side. Make it safe, for women dancing, you know? And one Toyota.’.

The art market for Aboriginal paintings is shown to be diverse, ranging from centres that facilitate artists, to ‘carpetbaggers’ who go into the desert to acquire artwork directly at a fraction of the price they then sell them for. And while Doris Banks’ request that Elliot sells her paintings for her feels natural to her, this is totally unacceptable to the white art dealers.

The continuing exploitation of the indigenous artists is an important theme in the novel, reflected in its title Provenance “what makes the same painting worth three figures in your bit of plastic pipe, and five figures in someone else’s bit of plastic pipe.” Provenance, the record of ownership, also refers to something’s origin, a close semantic connection with indigene. The fact that these art dealers supply the provenance, reinforces the theme of resistance in the novel to the notion, that “white people were the ones who knew what was best for Aboriginal people.”

Thompson does not idealise the realities of Aboriginal society. This is no pastoral, the native Australians we encounter are not ‘noble savages’. More clearly, we are shown Western incomprehension of worlds beyond their immediate experience. Having travelled into the desert with the native Australians under the guidance of Luke on a visit to a significant site to fulfil obligations, Elliot exclaims, “What were you thinking of, bringing us out here into the middle of nowhere?” Luke gives him the answer he deserves “this place is not nowhere to me.” and Eliot understands in one of his many dreams “that old tree is deeper than it is high and that its roots stretch far down into a time that is governed by a set of elementals he will never comprehend.”

How much of the language of the landscape, its beauty, and native culture is expressed in indigenous painting, is a growing realisation for Elliot and the reader.

 Kate Thompson is an award-winning writer. The daughter of the social historians and peace activists Dorothy and E. P. Thompson, her books always display an awareness of social injustice and the manipulations of the powerful. This novel and her other books also reveal and side with people’s resistance against inequality.

A voice for the voiceless: In memory of Máire Mhac an tSaoi
Monday, 01 November 2021 09:16

A voice for the voiceless: In memory of Máire Mhac an tSaoi

Published in Poetry

One of Ireland’s foremost Irish language poets and scholars, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, died aged 99, on 16 October. Her fellow poet Louis de Paor said of her work that it reflected “the intimate experience of women at a time when women’s voices were largely inaudible”.

Born in Dublin on 4 April 1922, her Belfast-born father Seán McEntee had fought in the GPO in 1916 and was elected for Sinn Féin in the 1918 election. Her mother, Margaret Browne, also active in the republican movement, acted as a courier during the Rising. Recalling “a really big row” at home in 1937 over the new Constitution “because of the article stating that women should not be compelled by financial necessity to work outside the home”, Mhac an tSaoi gives some idea of where her emancipatory aspirations for the women of Ireland were born: “My mother, who had carried the finances of the family all the way since 1922, while my father earned hardly anything, was furious. She couldn’t bring herself to talk to him.”

From a privileged background, she embarked on a formidable academic career. Because of Irish legislation banning married women from the public service, which only changed in 1973, Mhac an tSaoi had to resign from the diplomatic corps in 1962 to marry Conor Cruise O’Brien, a relationship that affected her political views. However, she opposed the Vietnam war and resigned from Aosdána, the Irish association of artists, when Francis Stuart was nominated to be a 'Saoi', the highest artistic honour in Ireland, because of his perceived Nazi sympathies. In the early 1970s, she also helped in the campaign against closing down a national school in Dún Chaoin, in the heart of Irish-speaking Kerry by bringing out an LP of her poems, “Ómós do Scoil Dhún Chaoin” (Homage to the School in Dunquin).

Mhac an tSaoi engaged deeply with the Irish language, stating it was “the prime catalyst in the creation of a truly European culture” and thereby vital to Ireland. She began writing in Irish. The theme of female sexuality featured prominently in Mhac an tSaoi’s first poetry collection, Margadh na Saoire (“The Hiring-Fair”, 1956), especially in Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ógáin  (“Mary Hogan’s Quatrains”). Mhac an tSaoi herself compared the sequence to an Irish language version of Yeats’s Crazy Jane. Writing in Irish helped evade the Censorship of Publications Act, which may well have stopped this volume from appearing had it been written in English.

To get some idea of Mhac an tSaoi’s writing, I will look at a short poem from this early collection, “Margaret in the hairdresser’s” (“Máiréad sa tsiopa cóirithe gruaige”). This is a translation into English of the Irish original.

Five years old! My amber flower!
It was foolish of me to fix your hair
So lightly you stepped to the hairdresser
To be soaped and scissored, pinned and dried
With such good grace, willing and obliging
As a lamb to its raddle for shearing and marking
Until you landed on earth like Shirley Temple,
Though not so pale, a charming girl,
Before the mirror revealed the new you... and then
Oh such lamentation may I never hear again!
With your head in my lap you wept your fill -
I won't pretend I don't know what horrified you
Love, marriage, the monthly blood, all
Staring back, childbearing, the common lot.
Bless your little head and your crowning glory
As you bawl your eyes out at your mother’s waist
With hatred for the female and no escape from it!
My soul’s treasure, if only I could help you I would.

 The title suggests an ordinary, everyday event. The opening exclamation “Five years old!” drives home a young age, a child leaving early childhood and entering primary school age. The world is getting bigger, there is still great closeness between mother and child: “My amber flower!” In the next line, the mother already blames herself for not preparing her daughter for this step outside the home, feels she has over-protected her, that Mairéad is unprepared for what awaits her. Mairéad is unsuspecting and expects only good from the world, “So lightly you stepped to the hairdresser”.

The verbs in the very next line, “soaped and scissored, pinned and dried” suggest an assault, cutting and pinching, emphasised by the hissing sibilance, a caesura and then another attack in the punch-like sounding verbs that follow. This attack is endured with “such good grace, willing and obliging– a line that offers brief hope that all might be well. Then Mhac an tSaoi turns the emotions around again dramatically, as she compares the child’s innocence to “a lamb to its raddle for shearing and marking”. Here we get a first sense of sexualisation in a very rural image: raddle is a coloured pigment used to mark sheep for various reasons, including to mark the backs of ewes a ram mates. These are the thoughts that go through the mother’s head before the girl sees herself in the mirror.

Mairéad’s mother realises the transformation, that puts her child into a league with Hollywood's child film star from 1934 to 1938, Shirley Temple, dating the experience related in the poem to the late thirties or forties. Again, there is a struggle between attraction and repulsion, as the mother on the one hand sees how her daughter is transformed modelled on the fashionable child beauty of the day, at the same time realising how this appearance sexualises her.

However, when the girl sees herself in the mirror, some possibly unformed realisation hits her, and her reaction is unequivocal: “such lamentation may I never hear again!” She understands at some level that an irreversible transformation has taken place that allows for no return to innocence. She seeks comfort in her mother’s lap – at the same time a very young child’s need for a mother’s protection, as well as a symbolic desire to return to the womb.

The mother/speaker intuits the reason for her daughter’s shock at what she sees as she looks at her ‘new self’ in the mirror: “Love, marriage, the monthly blood, all/ Staring back, childbearing, the common lot.” She empathises completely with her child. Once more, the girl’s small stature is emphasised, “at your mother’s waist”. Her mother is more resigned to what seems like her daughter’s inevitable future lot, tries to comfort her and refers to the ‘beautifying’ hairstyle. The speaker understands her daughter’s “hatred for the female” – meaning the female lot – and the realisation that there is “no escape from it!

The poem ends with the speaker’s deep regret at her powerlessness to truly protect her daughter against the condition of women in Ireland at that time: “My soul’s treasure, if only I could help you I would.” 

It wasn’t until 1979 that some form of contraceptive became available in Ireland, with some further easing in 1985. But it was only in 2018 that Ireland decided overwhelmingly by referendum to finally end the constitutional ban on abortion, which had led to the Magdalen Laundries, the unhappiness, distress and the deaths of untold numbers of women. As trailblazer for female poets in 20th century Ireland, Máire Mhac an tSaoi recoded this experience in her poetry, and helped pave the way for others.

Liam O’Flaherty and the Irish Free State
Wednesday, 20 October 2021 08:35

Liam O’Flaherty and the Irish Free State

Published in Fiction

As Ireland observes the centenary of its incomplete independence – the setting up of the ‘Free State’ with dominion status and the partition of the country – care must be taken not to distort history. One of the authors who lived through the years of upheaval and the years of the Free State, Liam O’Flaherty, wrote about those times honestly and unflinchingly.

Liam O’Flaherty is one of the foremost Irish fiction writers of the 20th century. Like none other, he commented on the times as they were unfolding in his novels written in the 1920s and early 30s. He achieved his international breakthrough with the novel The Informer in 1925 – a novel set during the War of Independence.

In addition, O’Flaherty’s interest in Irish history resulted in the first Irish anti-war novel, Return of the Brute, a Civil War novel, The Martyr, as well Famine (1937), Ireland’s first serious artistic grappling with this Irish holocaust.

O’Flaherty was born in 1896 on the largest of the Irish speaking Aran Islands, Inis Mór, and he left the island for secondary education aged only 12 in 1908.

During WW1, in 1916, O’Flaherty joined the British Army. Back in Ireland, the Easter Rising took place in late April 1916. The Rising was defeated and its leaders were executed. In the Easter Proclamation, the leaders had set out important aspirations for an independent Ireland:

  • the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland
  • the Irish Republic to be a sovereign independent state
  • religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens

Awareness of these demands help to understand O’Flaherty’s supreme disappointment with the state that evolved after 1922.

Class-based divisions in the struggle for liberation

British atrocities after the 1916 Rising fuelled the War of Independence, which took place from 1919 to 1921. In May 1921, Ireland was partitioned by the British Government, which set up Northern Ireland. A ceasefire and talks between the British and the leaders of the Irish rebellion resulted in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December 1921, ending direct British rule in 26 of the 32 counties. A year later, the Irish Free State was established, which was not a republic, but a Dominion of Britain. This Treaty, was the cause of the Civil War between the forces of the pro-Treaty provisional government – later  the Free State government – and the anti-Treaty volunteer army (IRA), which had its own executive. 

This class-based division of a united front for liberation into the monied forces with the Catholic Church behind them on the one hand, and on the other hand the dispossessed who aspire to a new society, became very evident during the Civil War and the subsequent Free State government. Its post-Civil War reality is apparent in O’Flaherty’s book The House of Gold.

Two parties that still figure largely in Irish politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, emerged from Sinn Féin, the national liberation movement, after the Civil War. The pro-Treaty party Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, aligned itself with big business, and then with the European fascists. It was supported by the Catholic hierarchy. Fianna Fáil, the anti-Treaty party, had its base among the working class and small farmers. However, the difference between these two Civil War enemies has dwindled to practically nothing today, and they have governed Ireland on separate occasions in similar ways for the past 100 years.

O’Flaherty’s experience of WWI left him strongly anti-war and a committed socialist. He travelled widely after the war, but returned to Ireland in late 1921, and became a founder member of the first Communist Party of Ireland in November 1921. On 18 January 1922, two days after the establishment of the Irish Free State, O’Flaherty, as Chairperson of the Council of the Unemployed and other unemployed Dublin workers, occupied the Rotunda concert hall for four days, flying a red flag. The Civil War began in May 1922 and O’Flaherty joined the Anti-Treaty Republican side. After their defeat, he fled to London in July 1922.

There he began writing. He became a close friend of the German socialist, Carl Lahr and his wife Esther Archer, who managed the Progressive Bookshop. The left-wing circle around this bookshop became O’Flaherty’s political home. In London, he encountered first-hand the Expressionist movement, and almost all of Liam O’Flaherty’s 1920s novels are expressionist in character.

We return to the Civil War and its aftermath for a moment, as this is significant for understanding O’Flaherty’s work in the 1920s, all of which comments on the new Free State.

Liam Mellows, imprisoned and executed by the Pro-Treaty forces during the Civil War, notes in a prison letter on 25 August 1922:

In our efforts now to win back public support to the Republic we are forced to recognise whether we like it or not – that the commercial interest, so-called, money and the gombeen men are on the side of the Treaty, because that Treaty means Imperialism and England. We are back to Tone – (…) - relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic.

The forces that seized power in the new Irish state confirmed this to the letter. Their betrayal of the ideals of 1916, the betrayal of the ideals of the War of Independence, becomes a paramount theme in Liam O’Flaherty’s 1920s novels. The aspirations of the Easter Proclamation were sacrificed to money and power. The right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all its citizens – all were abolished in one fell swoop.

How religious and literary culture conforms to ruling-class hegemony

The Catholic Church, a central institution in Irish religious culture, actively supported this betrayal and soon the Free State became a Catholic State for a Catholic people. All aspects of society in the Irish Free State were controlled by the Catholic Church. This included the notorious Church-run ‘Mother and Baby Homes’ for unmarried mothers, where children given away by the nuns for adoption, and there was an unspeakably high mortality rate for children. Recently the remains of 796 babies and young children were discovered in the sewage system of just one of these institutions, in Tuam, Co. Galway.

In 1929, the Censorship of Publications Board, a central institution in Irish literary culture, was established to prohibit any publications they found to be obscene. This made it illegal to buy, sell or distribute any such censored publications in Ireland. The first book banned by this Board was The House of Gold, O’Flaherty’s Galway novel that took to task the men who seized power in the Irish Free State following independence. Four more works by O’Flaherty were banned. The index of censored works consisted of hundreds of books by Irish and international writers.

These are the two overarching themes Liam O’Flaherty takes on in his novels and some short stories: the betrayal by the Irish bourgeoisie of the ideals of Independence, and the crippling of Irish people by the Catholic Church.

Two examples of Liam O’Flaherty’s work to illustrate this undertaking, the 1929 novel The House of Gold, and his 1925 short story “The Outcast”.

The House of Gold

This novel is set in the fictional town of Barra, easily recognised as Galway, the city closest to O’Flaherty’s homestead on the Aran islands.

The novel’s significance lies in the way it exemplifies and typifies for Ireland, and by extension for other post-colonial countries, how the newly empowered, corrupt native bourgeoisie has replaced the British ruling class, headed by the power-hungry Ramon Mor Costello and his clerical allies. 

Ramon Mor is a Cumann na nGaedheal politician, who extracts his wealth from a largely rural proletariat and deprives the town of Barra and its environs of its wealth and hopes for the future. He is what in Hiberno-English is known as a gombeen man. The word comes from the Irish word “gaimbín”, meaning exorbitant financial interest, a term that became notorious for those shopkeepers and merchants who exploited the starving during the Famine by selling food and goods at high prices and charging enormous interest rates.

The House of Gold is O’Flaherty’s only novel in which a gombeen man figures in a leading role. Although this character was inspired by a particular Galway businessman, O’Flaherty states unambiguously in the novel: “in every little town in Ireland you will find a man like Ramon Mor”.

The action of the novel takes place over the course of 24 hours. It follows a number of main characters: Ramon Mor Costello, his unhappy, beautiful wife Nora, her lover Francis O’Neill, who shares some features with Liam O’Flaherty, the town’s doctor Jim Fitzgerald, as well as quite a number of people associated with them, including the police. The action begins at midnight with a rendezvous between Francis O’Neill and Nora. What arises in the plot is Nora’s probable rape by a priest, her attempts to break free of Ramon and his family, Ramon’s business dealings, a public meeting, a robbery, and two, if not three, deaths.

This sounds like a thriller; yet the novel, in its 21 chapters, focuses less on the background action, than on individuals, their motivations, their relationship with Ramon Mor. The various encounters take place in a number of locations – Ramon’s house, his office, outdoors on the hillside, at the fish market, in the church, the doctor’s house, the pub and at a public meeting in the town’s main square. The scenes, depicting people of all social strata, are filled with talk and energy, they are individualised, visual, and dramatic.

The social panorama of the town unfolds, as all are shown each in their dependence on the tyrant Ramon Mor. This dependency causes distress and indeed something close to madness in some of the characters, for example Father Considine. Other characters suffer due to their weakness, their inability to stand up to Ramon Mor. These include the doctor, Ramon’s sister, Fr. Considine, and Nora herself.

Rather than follow a strictly chronological, linear, traditional plot curve, the events take a back seat to the relationships that are revealed in the novel. It is noticeable that here, as in other O’Flaherty novels, there are no heroes, no characters the reader is invited to identify with. Instead, in Brechtian style, readers are kept at an emotional distance, which encourages them to view the scenes with a detachment that allows for critical thought and reflection. The reader sees the characters and their relationships for what they are, undeterred by emotional identification. O’Flaherty proves himself here, as in other novels written in the 1920s, to be part of the European modernist avant garde, and must be classified along with Brecht and other left-wing modern writers of this time.

The essential truth about the Irish Free State after independence was, as Liam O’Flaherty saw it, that the new, Irish bourgeoisie has simply stepped into the shoes of the English and Anglo-Irish landlords. They have literally moved into their big houses and continue to exploit the working population in the same way as before. As the character Francis O’Neill says:

That house you are living in now once belonged to Sir Michael de Burgo. He was the landowner around here. …. He was a tyrant and an enemy of the people. … but he was seven times better than the man that’s there now, because, after all, it was not his own class or his own flesh he was eating, same as Ramon Mor is doing. … in the last rising of the people, I and the like of me put the finishing touches to the landlord class, fighting with the whole country against us, while Ramon Mor lay low, waiting to see how the cat would jump, by God, at the same time, making money out of our blood by selling rations to the soldiers we were fighting. And when it was all over and we won, it was he stole into that empty house and grabbed the land we fought for.

Ramon Mor Costello, along with many of the characters around him, are damaged by the times of their own making, deprived of their humanity in diverse ways, out of touch with themselves and their own people. O’Flaherty shows that independence has not brought about a freer society. Yes, Ramon Mor has money and power in the new state, but even his wealth is shabby and rundown. His political power serves only to increase his power over his people, to make them miserable. Their lives are no different to before, very little has changed or improved.

In addition to this, readers see the influence of the Catholic Church, which is never far away from Ramon Mor. The doctor comments,

The Church is more sacred than the law, and the citizen has very few rights where the clergy are concerned.

Many of the impoverished ordinary folk, the people living in the mountains, emigrate. They are Francis O’Neill’s people. He encounters them on their way into town. Among them is a big man who understands:

Who’d stay on these rocks but a lunatic, working for Ramon Mor Costello? (...) sure there’s nowhere else for them to go but to America. Aren’t they flying every day, as if there were a plague in the country? Soon there’ll be nobody left. And that miser down there, that grabber Ramon Mor is the cause of it. He has ruined the country. My curse on him.

The villagers see small boats from the Aran islands approaching Galway Bay harbour. These are Ramon Mor’s people. And we have another encounter, this time between Ramon and his own villagers. A parallel character to the big man in the previous scene, is Tommy Derrane:

a well-known fellow in the district, because of his strange conversation and his demented wit. He was terrifying in appearance because of his wild, restless eyes, his pale face, his sudden grin, his hunched shoulders, his bobbing chin and the twitching of his limbs. He was dressed in island costume. He was tall, large-boned, lean, terribly vital, a typical islander.

Derrane says:

God listens to the prayers of the rich. All the power of the world is in service to the rich man.

 The rich man turns everything into gold, for he is wise and he has no pity for the hunger of an empty stomach. He has no conscience. He doesn’t see the misery of the poor, for he has a magic veil over his eyes. He is deaf and blind like God, who made Hell as well as Heaven.

It is the ordinary working people who see through Ramon Mor completely, understand his nature and know they can neither trust him, nor expect to be treated any better than they were under de Burgo. Derrane and the big man in the earlier scene represent the potential of the people to see through Ramon. Both have energy and insight, and are unafraid, yet isolated. Both are seen as outsiders and the majority of the people around them are subservient to Ramon.

There seems little comparable insight in the town’s population. The town is destitute, semi-derelict, the inhabitants overcome with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. There is no sense of the kind of energy and anger we see in the individuals from the rural outposts. The middle-class characters in the novel are ineffectual, often too afraid of Ramon and his power to act decisively. This fear impacts on a latent resentment that fails to spark into rebellion.

At a public meeting, we come across the proposals for change and reactions of different people of the middle class – the solicitor, the doctor, the proprietor of the Railway Hotel, Finnigan, the businessman Fogarty. Solicitor Mr Fitzpatrick addresses the meeting. He says that the people of Barra “must root out the cancer that is eating into the heart of their social life.” While Fitzpatrick has insight, the reader has no indication that this will go anywhere.

Bob Finnerty, the labour union organiser, speaks against him and says “It’s not people like you who are going to free the people from oppression. It’s up to the working class...”

While all this is going on, the doctor arrives at the conclusion that he was “really equipped for leading an analytical life, for accepting reality and for influencing his fellow-creatures towards the pursuit of beauty by moving inwards on his own soul”. Little hope for real change comes from any of these people. The police too, it is suggested, are in the hand of Ramon Mor.

Too great is the combined power of Church and State. When the doctor suggests setting up a library, the townsfolk comment:

How are ye going to have a library, when Fr. Considine’d come and burn the books? Not that I want a library. That man Ramon Mor has this town sucked dry. Along with taking the people’s money, he has taken their hearts as well.

The hearts that struggled for independence have been taken away by this unholy alliance. And because there is no visible change to colonial times, the people give up hope. The ideals of 1916, the ideals of 1921 have been sold out. Instead, the Free State has become a neo-colonial backwater ruled by the gombeen, and created a system where even access to literature and thought is censored.

In this way we find in The House of Gold a complex social panorama of Irish society in the early years of Irish Free State with many echoes that ring true to the present day. To quote from Tomás Mac Síomón’s perceptive introduction to his republication of The House of Gold 80 years after its first and only publication:

This re-issue of The House of Gold by Nuascéalta, the first since 1929, should find particular resonance in a contemporary Ireland where the threatening figure of the local gombeen merchant has been replaced by that of the Troika. An anxious, submissive and debt-ridden citizenry, unjustly beholden to foreign bond-holders, now takes the place of the debt-ridden citizens of 1920’s Barra, cowering under the baleful glare of Ramon Mor Costello.

Since such contagion has now infected the entire world of contemporary capitalism, the basic theme of this extraordinary novel is truly universal. If only for its masterly depiction of the vicissitudes of a population deprived of real power, alternative leaders and a sense of direction, Liam Ó Flaherty’s The House of Gold deserves an honoured place in the world canon of socially committed literature.

It is typical of O’Flaherty novels of his time that there is no hero, no one person who truly grasps the situation and attempts to change it. The central character is a villain. All other important characters belong to the middle class and are weak, highly improbable leaders. These must be sought among the people – Francis O’Neill’s own people, whom he meets coming from the mountains and Tommy Derrane from Aran who directly challenges Ramon Mor. However, they are very marginal indeed. The majority of the people we encounter appear traumatised by the loss of the ideals for a society that would treat “all the children of the nation equally”, as the Easter Proclamation had determined. Demonstrating the absence of a united force capable of bringing about change shows the realism of O’Flaherty’s work. A sense of stagnation prevails.

The Outcast

O’Flaherty’s short story “The Outcast”, published February 1925, is a text in which the world of a well-fed and well-rested priest, attended by an intimidated housekeeper, clashes with the reality of a young girl who has recently given birth and who appeals to him for help. His response is true to the time and reflects a power and inhumanity on the part of the Church, and the political establishment that facilitated it, which continued for a very long time.

The young girl says,:

I have no place to go to. No shelter for me child. They’re afraid to take me in in the village for fear ye might ... Oh! Father, I don’t mind about mesel’, but me child.

She states here quite clearly that no one in the village will dare oppose the iron grip and diktat of the Church. It is left to this young girl to go to the priest and appeal for humanity. But of course, she is too isolated and weak on her own, and so she is insulted and sent away. Not only does O’Flaherty highlight the Church’s power and control, he also underlines the deep-seated clerical prejudice against and hatred of women. Indeed, in this short text, the housekeeper covertly tries to hand the distressed girl something in an act of solidarity, an attempt to help:

The housekeeper opened the hall door. She was thrusting something into the girl’s hand, but the girl did not see her.

I mentioned the Church-run homes earlier, where unmarried mothers and their children were kept in gulag-like conditions, the children frequently not surviving. Any birth control was banned until 1979, with further easing on the sale of contraceptives in 1985. However, abortion was completely illegal and impossible to obtain in Ireland until very recently, when the law was changed by referendum in 2018. This means that for almost 100 years, women who did not wish to or could not go ahead with a pregnancy, had to travel abroad to terminate it. Many, many women died as a result, as even in the event of fatal foetal abnormality, or indeed life-threatening conditions of the mother, no abortions were performed. As we speak, there are still people who picket abortion clinics in Ireland to harass the women who have the need to avail of this service. And the present Irish government continues to permit this form of intimidation.

O’Flaherty’s writing in Irish

O’Flaherty was a native speaker of Irish and a gifted storyteller. He wrote poetry and short stories in Irish as well as his play Dorchadas. Dorchadas is possibly the only expressionist play ever written in Irish. O’Flaherty tells of the fate of an amazing project in a 1927 letter to the Irish Statesman:

I wrote a few short stories for the Gaelic League organ. They printed them … I consulted Pádraic Ó Conaire and we decided that drama was the best means of starting a new literature in Irish … the two of us went to Dublin …[and] put our scheme before them [the Gaeltacht Commission] for a travelling theatre and so on. I guaranteed to write ten plays. They thought we were mad and, indeed, took very little interest in us. In fact, I could see by their looks and their conversation that they considered us immoral persons.

And so, what might have been a truly vibrant project to move literature in Irish into the 20th century, and even embrace modernist writing, was extinguished by the Free State. Reverberations of its actions and inaction are felt to this day. O’Flaherty recorded the minutiae of these inglorious years like no other Irish writer.

The revolutionary realism of Caravaggio
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 10:10

The revolutionary realism of Caravaggio

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell discusses the work of Caravaggio, who revolutionised European art. Image above: Judith Beheading Holofernes

Born 450 years ago, on 29 September 1571, Caravaggio lived and worked in Rome. 

The development of the new middle class of traders, merchants, artisans – the bourgeoisie – brought with it the dawn of the modern capitalist, era. The artistic expression of this new era of middle-class confidence, was the Renaissance. The Reformation, which began in Germany in 1517,  was its religious expression. This new class needed to legitimise its claim to political power at all levels. Protestantism replaced the strongly hierarchical older, feudal Church with one that did away with the middle-men structures. This reflected the new thinking that challenged the established political hierarchy, and aspired, theoretically at least, to political power for all.

The Reformation had forced Catholicism to retreat in many parts of Europe. However, outside of Britain, no successful bourgeois revolution consolidated the growing economic power of the middle class that would have eliminated feudalism. Instead, feudal absolutism emerged. The nobility remained the ruling class, although increasingly capitalist forms began to shape economic life.

The Counter-Reformation and the Baroque

The Counter-Reformation refers to the mainly political and military actions of Catholicism between 1555 and 1648, aiming to reverse the conditions created by the Reformation in central Europe. Its leading force were the Jesuits. The Counter-Reformation led to the resurgence of Catholicism, to significant shifts in political power in Europe and to the reclamation of Austria, Bohemia and Poland for Catholicism. The Counter-Reformation and the Baroque went hand in hand. If the Renaissance had been a violent time, the Counter-Reformation was even more so.

The arts reflected the character of this age, and the purpose of the Baroque was to glorify the power and external splendour of the absolute state. The ruling class deluded itself into a fullness of power that it had long since ceased to possess. With this came an unprecedented class differentiation in art. In addition to the ruling culture of the nobility, bourgeois-democratic and upper middle class forms of culture evolved. While the interests of the upper middle class associated with the nobility are reflected in the Baroque, democratic tendencies were expressed in realist works of art.


In St. Nicolas Church, Prague, statues of clergy stabbing rebellious peasants


In 1591, a young painter from northern Italy came to Rome. His name was Michelangelo Merisi, who took the name Caravaggio after his birthplace. He revolutionised art in Europe. Caravaggio’s sense of reality, his this-worldly sensuality, re-established and further developed the realism of the early Renaissance.


Sick Bacchus (1593), an early self-portrait of Caravaggio, then aged 22, already confidently departs from convention:

It is a disconcerting picture. Bacchus, pagan god of revelry, intoxication, and sexual promiscuity, is depicted as a victim – he looks weary, even exploited. The vine leaves and grapes, promising intoxication and gratification, are offered as though to a customer. The white himation resembles a sheet. The smile seems fake, and there is a suggestion of an unhappy male sex worker.


Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1593–1594)

Painted around the same time, Boy Bitten by a Lizard depicts another ordinary person, without signs of rank or status, reacting to a sudden shock. Again, there is a hint of a sexually exploited young male, in a state of partial undress and with a rose behind his ear. While the rose indicates romantic love, jasmine, also included, was a traditional symbol of desire. While the youth reaches for cherries, he is bitten by a lizard (real lizards don’t have teeth). Both pictures should be interpreted in the context of Caravaggio’s target audience – the Roman clergy.

The Genre Picture

Caravaggio was one of the first to develop genre painting, showing the lives of ordinary people. Two early examples of this are The Gypsy Fortune-Teller (1594), and The Cardsharps (1594). They focus on the lower social orders, which became an important model for him and heightened the realism of all his work.

Both pictures were startlingly original in late 16th century Europe, foregrounding on canvas the class that had never been considered a worthy aesthetic subject – tricksters.


In The Gypsy Fortune-Teller the young woman is seen removing the naïve nobleman’s ring as he gazes into her eyes. Already, Caravaggio’s insistence on realism in both subject matter and depiction is clear: the young woman has quite dirty fingernails! Such attention to realist detail shocked his audience.


The Cardsharps also laughs at how a young gentleman is tricked. The opulently dressed young gentleman has come to the notice of card tricksters in a gambling den. Their yellow-and-black costumes hint at wasps closing in on him. The backgammon board at the edge of the table suggests he has already lost money to them. The narrative of the picture implies that the gentleman has been successfully persuaded to try and regain his losses. Yet it is hopeless. The viewer sees more that he does: spare cards behind the back of his opponent, with an accomplice signalling in code how to ensure a winning hand. Once again, there is little doubt as to who is streetwise, and who is the fool.


Another famous example of Caravaggio’s realism, of his bond with the ordinary people, is Judith Beheading Holofernes. In his depiction of Judith, Caravaggio used Fillide Melandroni, a well-known courtesan, as a model. She was instantly recognisable to the people of Rome.

Religiously motivated killing takes centre stage in this painting. Renaissance artists had focused on the beauty of the human form and nature, not so much on human suffering. During the Counter-Reformation, torment and violence had a considerable impact on art, as they had in everyday life. Caravaggio painted the moment when Holofernes is beheaded, his head only half-severed from his body. His eyes are opened wide with horror, his mouth is screaming. Severed heads nailed to the Ponte S. Angelo over the Tiber were a common sight in Rome.

Judith is painted in the best clothes of a woman of the people. Caravaggio also departs from biblical tradition in showing the maid alongside her mistress. This is an intensely realistic representation of a working woman. He painted directly from life, showing the wrinkles on the face and working hands of this woman. In fact, she is shown to hold up her apron in readiness to receive and dispose of the head. Caravaggio’s contemporaries deemed such portrayal “too natural”. The maid really stands out in the picture contrasting strongly with the more idealised beauty of Judith, and even of Holofernes. She is chosen and painted as a third focal point, not to be missed.

For the first time in this painting, Caravaggio uses the light/dark contrast (chiaroscuro) that was to become characteristic of his work: figures, accentuated by artificial light, standing out against a dark background. In this technique, Caravaggio prefigures Rembrandt.


St. Matthew and the Angel, Caravaggio’s 1602 painting, is a picture that famously exists in two versions. In this first painting, Saint Matthew sits on a scissors chair, dressed in short workman’s clothes, leaving his arms and legs bare. His legs are crossed and his left foot almost breaks through the painting, at the point, where a priest would hold up the host at Mass. To make matters worse, Matthew is flat footed, with dirt under his toenails. He seems to have difficulty writing, his hands unused to holding the quill, as he peers on to the pages – even his writing appears too big. The angel helps him write the Gospel.

The viewer looks on the scene from above. It seems that Caravaggio gave Matthew the likeness of Socrates, often depicted as a humble man, who said that the only true wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing. The clergy rejected Caravaggio’s interpretation of the saint as an illiterate peasant, and objected to the intimate relationship between the apostle and the angel holding his hand. He had to paint a second picture.


Caravaggio’s second painting is less realistic. Matthew is no longer wearing working clothes. Instead, he is biblically dressed and towers above the viewer. The angel hovers over him, there is no physical contact, and Matthew writes by himself.

Picture10 resized 

Caravaggio refused, wherever possible, to bow to Counter-Reformation diktat. Many of his works were rejected because of his intense realism and his depiction of ordinary, working people in his paintings. He used real-life models for his religious figures, famously Roman prostitutes as models for his Madonnas. One of the well-known courtesans, Anna Bianchini, drowned, possibly murdered, in the Tiber in 1604. Caravaggio had been commissioned to paint Death of the Virgin and, according to legend, he used Anna’s bloated body as the model for the dead Mary.

The painting caused an outcry, because the identity of Mary was so clear. Her bare feet, her red dress, and the realism of death, all make for an unholy appearance, unfit for a devotional picture of the mother of Christ. An early biographer suggests that Caravaggio painted the murderer into the picture: the dark, bearded young man, looking away from the scene.

The lives of ordinary people

Caravaggio’s sense of realism stood in the way of painting idealised forms. Even in his religious paintings, he used real-life models from among ordinary people. These were the people that mattered, that life was all about, as far as Caravaggio was concerned.

Caravaggio worked mainly for Roman clergy and so most of his works have religious themes: yet they are profoundly humanist. This painter rejected the highly ornamental, empty and often triumphalist Baroque manner. He painted everyday reality, the ordinary people he encountered on the streets of Rome, including the most deprived – beggars, prostitutes, criminals. Even his religious paintings are linked to the violence and deprivation Caravaggio saw all around him. He was unwilling to look the other way.

When Caravaggio killed a man in a quarrel on 28 May 1606, he was forced to flee Rome, and spent the rest of his life on the run, spending time in Naples, Malta, Messina, and Palermo. He died in exile in 1610, aged only 38, and was buried in an unmarked grave, leaving behind masterpieces that have influenced European art from the 17th century onwards.

The barriers to working-class writers: Review of The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices
Saturday, 11 September 2021 08:40

The barriers to working-class writers: Review of The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices

Published in Life Writing

Jenny Farrell reviews The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh 

Working-class writing is coming to the fore in Ireland. “The 32” follows the publications of two anthologies of working people’s writing, “The Children of the Nation” and “From the Plough to the Stars” (Culture Matters, 2019, 2020).

All three anthologies stand out in the literary landscape for being just that: anthologies. Much as the publications of individual working-class writers must be admired for breaking through the class barriers in the publishing industry, these anthologies together give a strong sense of the voice of a class speaking; the strength that arises from standing together, a fact to which The Irish Times and the Independent, in their reviews, are oblivious.

One of the statements this book makes, and some of its contributors attempt to answer, is how to define the working class. The texts printed within its covers agree on some of the basic aspects: above all, it means to be poor. It certainly means to be scorned by those who represent the establishment and dominate education, culture, politics, the media. They reinforce their preconceived, ill-informed notions of the working class by all means at their disposal. Erin Lindsay observes: “Whether it’s in film, music, or conversations overheard on the street, the idea of being working-class is contorted and presented back to us without our presence in its creation.” This motivates taking charge of one’s own narrative, a theme that recurs throughout the collection.

This is an issue of key relevance to publications such as The 32 and the Culture Matters anthologies. These anthologies undertake the epic task of removing class barriers and creating a more democratic and grassroots publishing culture, indeed focusing on the class that is generally excluded.

Censorship by RTE

By way of example, Alan O’Brien, working-class writer and contributor to the  Culture Matters anthologies, submitted his radio play “Snow Falls and So Do We” to RTE, based on the true event of a woman dying of hypothermia in a Ballymun flat. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE when they were to broadcast his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as "miniature hero", actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.

This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish Constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly,  they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social depravation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.

So, not only are working-class people excluded from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also prevented by the media – including the publishing industry –  from expressing artistically their experience of the world. By recognising this class barrier and attempting to tackle it, these anthologies of working-class writing are blazing a new trail. However, unless other cultural workers, institutions, trade unions and universities acknowledge this deficit with a view to redressing it, they will remain a drop in the ocean.

Kevin Barry writing in “The Gaatch” points to where establishment prejudice invariably leads:

On Thursday mornings I attended the sittings of Limerick District Court. I did the courts for a couple of years, and I can’t remember ever hearing a working-class defendant’s word taken over the word of a guard. You could predict with high accuracy the forthcoming judgements from the look of the defendant taking to the witness stand. If he or she had a working-class kind of gaatch to them – as we’d say in Limerick, meaning that they carried themselves in a certain way, dressed in a certain way, spoke in a certain way – they would very likely be found guilty. 

Being presumed guilty because of belonging to the dispossessed, is reiterated in Rosaleen McDonagh’s experience as one of the Travelling community:

Five o’ clock in the morning the sound of police sirens. Bursting into the caravan, looking for stolen goods, tax and insurance, drugs, firearms. They pull my brothers and my father out of bed. Trousers and boots, no shirt. Made to stand in the middle of the site alongside thirty or forty other men and boys of various ages. … Nothing was found; all tax and insurance related to our vehicles were in date.

And so, the importance of speech, dress, address, and school, appear time and again in these texts. The greatest part of these are memoirs, or ‘faction’. Poverty looms large, and a sense of deliberate exclusion from mainstream lifestyle pervades. Class barriers are seen and cited all the way, and education is viewed as a way out. Many of the authors describe the difficulty of pursuing a writing career. 

Therefore, it is unsurprising that an overall impression forms that in order to live a better life, you need to get out of the working-class trap. The disadvantages seem to outweigh any positives. And yet, Erin Lindsay states in complete contradiction to the received mainstream view:

Growing up, my house was full of conversations and debates about history, philosophy, politics, life, ethics, love – they taught me everything I know.

And Dermot Bolger says – with Gorky – that working life is a university:

It was a last valuable lesson I learned in the only university I ever attended before commencing my journey as a writer.

Class consciousness, pride and solidarity

Working-class writing is as old as the working class itself, arising with the Industrial Revolution, landless peasants before that, much of this in the oral tradition. Within class society, the working class is to a large extent indeed cheated out of fair pay, cheated out of education and opportunities. The introduction to “From the Plough to the Stars” presents a Marxist definition: 

Our understanding of ‘working class’ are those people who sell their labour power and share only marginally in the fruits of their labour. They create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. This includes the urban and rural proletariat, small farmers as a peripheral group, as well as the rising number of people in precarious employment, the homeless and the unemployed.

In some of the texts in “The 32”, you find a sense of solidarity and pride in class, the sense that surely poverty and lack of education is not the ultimate and eternal definition of working class – that there is a potential that will allow this class to challenge the society that keeps it on the poverty line. This strength, this process of liberation, is a hallmark of Maxim Gorky’s working-class writing. It envisages a society where there is little difference in income and living standard between the skilled industrial workers, farmers and professionals. In this (socialist) society being working-class does not spell poverty, poor education and neglect by society. It is entirely possible to be a working-class intellectual, and it was in the USSR and other socialist countries that working-class history and art first became the subject of academic research. It is thus ignorant and damaging to be told that having achieved a university education, or working in the arts, means one is no longer working-class.

The texts in this book focus on the here and now in Ireland, the lived experience of the authors, ranging from the 1950s through to 2020. Paul McVeigh, has achieved a good balance of contributions from the Republic of Ireland as well as the North. Here, the sectarian prejudice against the Catholic population adds significantly to social inequality, as several contributors attest. And when we refer to bigotry and discrimination it is to welcomed that a member of the travelling community, Rosaleen McDonagh, as well as a representative of the queer community, Marc Gregg, are given the opportunity to add their voices.

Regrettably, no Irish language texts are included. This would have paid necessary tribute to the long tradition of working-class writing as Gaeilge in Ireland. The exclusion of this tradition by the publishing industry is shameful and needs to be challenged by those who have taken up the pen to put an end to social injustice. This can only be achieved by the whole of the working class standing together.

Along with “The Children of the Nation” and “From the Plough to the Stars”, “The 32” presents a differentiated image of what it means to be working-class in Ireland today. These three anthologies will be followed by a fourth publication, “Land of the Ever Young”, a beautifully illustrated book of working people’s writing for children, in November of this year.

From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 17:55

From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left

Published in Life Writing

Jenny Farrell reviews Mick O’Reilly's From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2019)

At the end of From Lucifer to Lazarus, Mick O’Reilly raises a question many working-class authors ask themselves when writing about their lives: “whether it is worthwhile telling the story of my life and not the story of the thousands of other people I worked with and fought employers for over the years. I am sure many of them have a similar story to mine, but workers like us rarely go to print – our stories are usually told by others.”

Douglas Stuart, Scottish working-class winner of the 2020 Man Booker prize, puts it similarly: 

I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.

Although both authors differ in many respects, they put their finger on something that is very relevant. Mick O’Reilly, born in the Liberties in 1946 and reared in Ballyfermot, communist and trade union leader, writes about his experiences as a highly class-conscious person in the Irish trade union struggle. Douglas Stuart on the other hand was born into the Glasgow working class thirty years later, in 1976. Stuart’s book describes growing up in 1980s Glasgow, a city devastated by Thatcherite deindustrialisation. It is a book about his childhood. Communism and trade unionism do not feature in it. And yet the same question, a similar realisation, is common to both books. 

Mick O’Reilly’s autobiographical book is a fascinating read for anybody interested in Irish left-wing trade unionism. It is a toolbox for trade unionists, a history book, a political declaration of a worldview by one who dedicated his life to the furtherment of the working-class cause, the liberation of humankind. 

The author describes growing up in Dublin, not finishing primary school, and first experiences on the shop floor. He takes the reader on a journey through time, as the young O’Reilly becomes involved with the trade union movement and how he progresses to becoming a trade unionist, indeed a trade union leader over time. It is fascinating the impact the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising had on the young O’Reilly, on a short holiday from England, in shaping his Irish identity and motivating his return to Dublin and precarious employment. A number of other factors contributed, among them a 1966 performance of Seán O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars” in Birmingham, which sealed O’Reilly’s decision: “This isn’t where I belong. If I’m going to make a contribution to this Marxist movement, I’d better do it in my own home place.” After that, his biography is firmly tied to Ireland, in the Republic, as well as the six counties, its political and labour movement. 

Factory life in Ireland and Britain was O’Reilly’s university in politics and trade union struggle, kicking off properly with his job in car assembly plants, the training ground for the future trade union leader in the early 1970s. It was here that he joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders. He joined the Communist Party in 1967 and became very active in the Dublin housing action committee. He was centrally involved in setting up he Connolly Youth Movement, took part in the campaigns against the EEC, and negotiated protection for car workers. He writes about fighting for pay rises, supporting victimised colleagues, as well as taking political strike action in response to Bloody Sunday. 

O’Reilly speaks openly about the difficulties within the labour movement, the many conflicts and struggles. A major event in his life was his sacking and reinstatement as officer of the ATGWU, now UNITE. O’Reilly had been appointed to the post of regional secretary in Ireland. He was the first official from the Republic. And this happened against the wishes of Bill Morris (now Lord Morris) and Margaret Prosser (now Baroness). Their opposition constituted gross interference in the Irish region, which had been largely independent of the British section of the union. However, as O’Reilly remarks, “I ran the union from a rank-and-file perspective,” and that was clearly unacceptable.

This was not the only serious disappointment. The betrayal of the working class by a treacherous trade union leadership, resulting in the anti-worker legislation of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, is also an important topic in the book.

He writes about various greater and lesser role models along the way, and his life-long involvement with the communist movement. This is the kind of historical insight one will find hard to discover in history bookthat are written by historians who lack a working-class understanding. As O’Reilly states when he described what eventually encouraged him to write the book:

I was interested in trying to capture people’s memories and the collective consciousness of the time because when I read what was going on in the media and listened to reports on the radio and online, I was, and still am, convinced that it’s the Irish middle class, talking to the Irish middle class about the Irish middle class. I rarely hear working-class voices and the stories of their lives, which are largely ignored.

Working-class lives, be it as factual account, or as faction, need to be published and read. These are the stories that matter, and that give working-class readers a sense of belonging.

Shuggie Bain and working-class writing
Tuesday, 24 August 2021 09:44

Shuggie Bain and working-class writing

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell review Douglas Stuart's new novel

Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Booker prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, set in his home town of Glasgow in the 1980s. Like many working-class writers, Stuart found himself doubting the value of his story:

I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working-class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.

The bulk of the novel relates the experience of growing up at a time when Thatcherite policies devastated Scotland’s industries, with a stark rise in unemployment. The once thriving Scottish steel, car, shipbuilding, mining and engineering industries were destroyed, along with the communities that worked in them.

‘No. No more school. We need the money.’ ‘Aye. The state of the day’s world ye’ll be supporting any man ye do get.’ The women all had men at home. Men rotting into the settee for want of decent work.

Few women work either. They buy items they cannot afford from the Freemans catalogue and find themselves ever deeper in debt, with large families and the:

…..last holiday most of them had seen was a stay on the Stobhill maternity ward.

Nan applied the pressure like she had a thousand times and went about collecting money from all the women and marking it in their books. It would be an eternity to pay off a pair of children’s school trousers or a set of bathroom towels. Five pounds a month would take years to pay off when the interest was added on top. It felt like they were renting their lives. The catalogue opened to a new page, and the women started fighting over who wanted what.

The novel portrays this working-class experience through the eyes of Shuggie, growing up with an alcoholic mother, Agnes.

The reader is introduced to the working-class circle around Agnes. Her father had been a labourer:

These were hands that had loaded grain trucks for twenty years, hands that had laid pungent tarmacadam, hands that had killed Italians in North Africa. He was one of the few who returned – there were many sons from Glasgow, from Inverness and Edinburgh, who had sacrificed and would never be coming home.

Despite their common lot, the working people are shown to be divided along denominational lines – Catholic and Protestant, with the same prejudices as across the Irish Sea. Agnes’ first husband and father of her older children was a Catholic working man, whom she leaves for the sexier Eugene Bain, a Protestant hackney driver and father of Shuggie. This second husband moves the family out of his in-laws’ council flat and into an equally deprived mining community, before abandoning them. Part of the reason for this is Agnes’ drinking.

The reader gets the close-up view through young Shuggie’s eyes of his mother’s complete unravelling and the suffering it brings to her children. His older siblings initially help protect their mother but ultimately realise that they cannot save her. Her condition thwarts her children’s potential through Shuggie’s schooling and Leek’s artistic talent.

Despite an interlude of hope with the help of the AA, a job, and her children at school and happy, this does not last. Alcoholism and its effect on people and communities is explored in detail from the perspective of a loving and protective child, who observes all the secrecies, shame and suicidal self-hate that it brings. Agnes is not alone – either with this ravaging illness, nor in terms of support offered to her by people close to her. The addiction, it seems, is endemic in this community and an expression of its own destruction.

Douglas Stuart knows intimately what he writes about. His mother struggled with alcoholism and died when the author was sixteen. And while what we read is fiction, it is deeply informed by Stuart’s own childhood. He comes from “a long and proud tradition of slaters and joiners and tradespeople.” He takes pride in his class and says that despite an absence of books in his childhood and youth, “it didn’t make us any less caring, any less empathetic.” Stuart writes this into the book. There is a very strong sense of solidarity and community. By writing this story, he shows that this community is an important subject of literature and art.

James Kelman

In its 52-year history, Stuart is the second Scottish writer to be awarded the prize. The only other Scot to win it, James Kelman, also a working-class writer, programmatically writes in the idiom of his people. The novel that controversially won him the Booker Prize, was “How Late it Was, How Late”. This is a stream-of-consciousness narration of an unemployed alcoholic Glaswegian, in and out of jail, battered and blinded, disregarded by society, and yet somehow a resilient survivor.

For Stuart, Kelman’s Booker win was seminal. It showed him that the Glasgow vernacular had a rightful place in literature, that literature was not the preserve of the middle and upper classes, but must be owned by the working class as one way of telling its story. He says:

It changed everything in literature for me. Not only was it about working-class people, it was written in a broad Scots dialect. That’s how people around me talked, but you rarely see that in literature, rarely see it celebrated. It was an affirming moment for me.

While neither Kelman’s nor Stuart’s novels indicate characters and ways of combatting the outrageous economic and cultural deprivation of the Scottish working class, they nevertheless describe this class with insight and regard, indeed love, as a class that is entitled to their equal share in the nation’s wealth.

Shuggie Bain is published by Grove Press, New York, 2020

Page 1 of 7