Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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

 

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020
Friday, 09 July 2021 08:55

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews a new book on the fight to write by women writers in Ireland

And perhaps, before literature dies, there will come a day when no one notices an author’s gender or race but says only ‘I have just read an astonishing, unforgettable book by a fantastic human writer.’ I plan to live to see this.

So writes Mary Dorcey in the newly published Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne ed., Arlen House 2021). Does her statement contradict the book’s purpose? I think not. Rather, it reaches into a time beyond the experiences described here, into a future when such full equality of gender, race and class is achieved that they no longer spell marginalisation and exclusion from the cultural mainstream.

The twenty-one poets, fiction writers, playwrights in this book tell how they became the writers they are. They come from the whole island of Ireland, they author in both Irish and English, and they were born into a range of social backgrounds.

Most of the women were born in the 1950s and benefited from the abolition of secondary school fees. This dilution of class educational privilege was significant. The writers grew up in a society that oppressed women on many levels, intersecting with class background, resulting in a far-reaching and profound lack of self-belief.

“Nothing in my childhood suggested I might become a writer… I expected that one day I would grow up and become a shop assistant or hairdresser” writes Celia de Fréine. Educators ignored women writers, and society banned books by any progressive author, female or male.

The writers collected here describe their personal trajectories to becoming the authors they are today, how they learnt about women writers in the past and how they each individually broke into the world of literature, despite continuing societal prejudice. Catherine Dunne relates a 2015 experience where “novelist Catherine Nichols, disappointed at the silence from agents that greeted her latest manuscript, decided to send it out under a (male) pseudonym.” She received a very different response – similar to the experience of the Bröntes, over 150 years ago.  

This book is important. It sheds light on the history of Irish women writers, and the personal stories related in the book represent a much greater circle. It also highlights areas of continuing failures by the cultural establishment towards them. And it celebrates people like Jessie Lendennie and Eavan Boland who played a crucial role in encouraging women to take on the fight and write. It will be a long road before we reach the classless society anticipated by Mary Dorcey. Books like this are steps along the way.

The book will be launched online on July 15th at 7pm, see here.

Apeirogon
Friday, 18 June 2021 10:11

Apeirogon

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Unlike a pentagon, an apeirogon has an infinite number of sides, or aspects. The title of Colum McCann’s 2020 novel gives the reader an indication of the innumerable facets that form this novel. And yet at its core is the single, undisputed fact that the state of Israel is guilty of sustained human rights abuses, against the people of Palestine.

McCann tells the true story of Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, and their daughters: Abir Aramin killed by a rubber bullet in 2007, aged 10 and Smadar Elhanan killed by suicide bombers in 1997, aged 13. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan met through the organization Combatants for Peace, who state:

Our ultimate goal is to end the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders; two states living side by side in peace and cooperation or any other just solution agreed upon in negotiations.

The novel’s structure is unusual, in some ways resembling the workings of a restless mind. It seems to ‘jump’ from one thought to the next, the new idea prompted by an aspect of the previous one. Some of these ‘tangents’ can be tenuous and fleeting, others form key aspects of the complex woven fabric that is this novel.

This narrative style allows McCann to create a network of connections that spans the globe in terms of places and also in history. Everything is somehow connected. Human rights abuses form a pattern which include the Middle East. Rubber bullets were first used by the British in Northern Ireland, killing children there. And the use of deadly explosives is explored in many contexts, including the U.S.’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The mind, when it has to take in an enormity, cannot constantly dwell on it. In order to take in a tragedy, the mind keeps returning to the fact, with breaks, circling it, slowly grasping it over an expanse of time. In the same way, the narrative never loses sight of the killings of Abir Aramin and Smadar Elhanan. Each time we return to them, new aspects are added, their stories and those of their families etched more and more clearly.

The novel is structured like the Arabian Nights, counting 500 sections ascending in order and 500 descending – with a section entitled 1001 in the middle. A great number of these fragmented sections are devoted to migratory birds, which seem to form part of the web that holds the global and yet local story together.

The personal is set in a larger political context. Neither strand of the novel loses sight of the other. To give a small example, McCann turns to his homeland Ireland, and to the conflicted north of the island in particular, to draw parallels. Here, the descendants of the Elizabethan settlers, the unionists, fly Israeli flags, while the community that might be forgiven to feel occupied by a colonizer, identifies with the Palestinians:

In the 1980s the greatest sale of Israeli flags — outside of Israel itself — was in Northern Ireland, where the Loyalists flew them in defiance of Irish Republicans who had adopted the Palestinian flag: whole housing estates shrouded in either blue and white, or black, red, white and green.

McCann has been accused of mystifying “the colonisation of Palestine as a ‘complicated conflict’ between two equal sides”. However, McCann never appeases the Israeli state, indeed one might easily suggest the opposite. Here is an example:

Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician whose job it was to produce lithium-6 in the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for divulging details of Israel’s weapons program. Vanunu smuggled a 35mm camera into Machon 2 and took fifty-nine photographs despite signing a secrecy agreement years earlier. He divulged the details first to a church group in Australia where he fled. Later, in London, where he went to publish the information, he was seduced in a honey-trap operation by a Mossad agent. He met the female agent again in Rome where he was overpowered, drugged, kidnapped, bound to a stretcher, driven by motorboat out to a spy ship, bundled into a cabin. He was interrogated by Mossad agents, whisked back to Israel to a secret prison run by the Shin Bet. Nearly twelve of his years in prison were spent in solitary confinement.

and

Cheryl Hanin Bentov—the honeypot who lured Vanunu to his capture—became a real estate agent in Alaqua, Florida, specializing in gated communities and waterfront properties.

Whose side the U.S. State is on in the Middle East conflict is apparent in several episodes, for example when Bassam Aramin insists on an inquiry into the death of his daughter (having had to pay for an autopsy himself) and the judge, who defied all efforts to prevent this, travels to the site of the attack and finds:

The court is of the opinion. We have come to the decision. We have weighed the varied testimonies. Abir Aramin was a resident of the Jerusalem municipality. We have decided. The responsibility of the State of Israel. It has been determined.

While There had been no criminal charges, no official admission of guilt”, it is nevertheless considered a “landmark” judgement.

Following this:

Several newspaper articles were published in Israel and the United States deploring the judge’s decision in the aftermath of the Aramin case. No civil proceedings should ever be allowed in such a military situation, they said. The criminal courts had already indicated that there was a lack of sufficient evidence. Why should the State have to shoulder the burden? It had been pointed out in court that it was possible that the child had been hit by a rock thrown by rioters and, even if she had been struck by a stray rubber bullet, an unlikely scenario, the Commander had testified that they were under relentless attack. The legal decision could, in the future, endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers forced to make crucial split-second decisions in the interests of security. If made to hesitate, they could endanger not only themselves but their fellow soldiers and indeed citizens. Furthermore, and most alarming, Bassam Aramin was a convicted terrorist. He had spent seven years in prison for a series of hand grenade attacks. He belonged to the Fatah faction, which he continued to support. One million shekels would, no doubt, go a long way towards another terrorist venture and who could know what he was planning now

And when Bassam Aramin visits US Senator John Kerry in his office, there is a recognition that…..

The American rifle. The American jeep. The American training. The American tear gas. The American dollar

…is central to Israeli state violence.

McCann does not paint a black-and-white picture. The parents of Smadar Elhanan do not side with their state. Her father, Rami, has developed this position over time, while her mother Nurit, openly supports Palestinians and frequently receives abuse and death threats.

Abir Aramin’s father, Bassam, was incarcerated aged 17 for seven years, for throwing stones. He comes from a tradition of struggle against the occupation. McCann never leaves any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. Near the end, McCann returns to his title-giving word once more:

From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.

McCann takes risks. One of these is selling the movie rights to Steven Spielberg, who has famously stated:

from my earliest youth, I have been an ardent defender of Israel [...] And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world. [...] If it became necessary, I would be prepared to die for the USA and for Israel.

One wonders how many sides will be left of McCann’s Apeirogon – five, or six? In the context of the recent escalation of violence  in the Middle East and Ireland’s condemnation of Israel’s de-facto annexation policy, Apeirogon by Colum McCann is worth reading more than ever.

Albrecht Dürer – Champion of the Peasants
Saturday, 15 May 2021 13:23

Albrecht Dürer – Champion of the Peasants

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell writes about Albrecht Dürer, who made art in supported of the democratic movements of his time

Albrecht Dürer was born 550 years ago, on 21 May 1471, during the Renaissance, a time of upheaval that rang in the early modern age. With improved production methods, industry and trade grew rapidly, bringing with it more money and the strengthening of a new middle class. Modern science developed, age-old truths were called into doubt, and working people began to challenge their appointed places in the social, political and religious hierarchies. It was a time, among other things, when many peasants protested, arose and demanded to be treated as equals.

The Reformation in Germany was an expression of these social changes in the early 16th century. The rising bourgeoisie in the countries north of the Alps, especially Germany, felt the need to break with the papacy. The opposition forces did not yet possess the economic and political power that would have enabled them to subjugate the papacy to their own interests, as in Italy. The Reformation movement began with Wyclif in England, continued with Hus in Bohemia and culminated in Germany. Popular social opposition became part of it. Social forces in religious guise fought the Hussite wars in Bohemia.

In Germany, a differentiation within the forces that had initiated the Reformation soon became apparent. When the upper middle-class patricians realised that the Reformation meant a complete break from Rome, and that there were elements within this movement that aspired beyond bourgeois class society, they returned to the bosom of the papacy.

As Engels describes in “The Peasant War in Germany”, Luther became afraid when he realised the socially explosive effect his challenge to Rome’s hierarchy had on the peasants, who understood this to legitimise aspirations to change their own lot. So his theological reforms did not question class divisions.

Thomas Müntzer became the leader of the popular opposition. He led the Peasant War, which challenged the old social order, while Luther along with the bourgeoisie turned against the revolutionary peasants, preventing the unification of all oppositional forces, thereby setting back major social change by centuries. The peasants and their urban plebeian allies were defeated and Müntzer was imprisoned and beheaded.

The influence of the working classes on German art of the Reformation period is frequently underestimated. It survives in numerous pamphlet woodcuts from the early 16th century, but above all in many prints by Dürer and his circle. Dürer's influence can be seen in the work of Grünewald, Riemenschneider, Jörg Ratgeb and many other artists, and infuses German art of the Reformation period with a haunting popular appeal.

Albrecht Dürer’s genius so dominated the art of the early bourgeois revolution in Germany that it has been called the Dürer epoch. He was born in Nuremberg as the son of a goldsmith, studied for three years in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, spent four journeyman years in Basel, Strasbourg and other places, and finally settled in Nuremberg. Twice he crossed the Alps to Italy, first in 1495, the second time in 1505/06, each time spending an extended period in Venice. A third journey took him to see the Netherlands in 1520/21, where he made many important acquaintances.

Picture1 

This remarkable portrait, created during the journey to the Netherlands, is based on an actual encounter and not Dürer's imagination. The drawing shows the artist's great interest in people who came to Europe because of growing international trade, which of course included the slave trade. The woman depicted here is Catherine, a 20-year-old servant of the Portuguese commercial agent João Brandão, who administered the Portuguese spice monopoly in Antwerp. Dürer was his guest when he travelled to Antwerp in 1521. It is likely that Brandão acquired this African woman through his trade connections. Her name suggests that she had converted to Christianity.

Dürer's obvious interest here is in the individual person. His deep humanism infuses her portrait with the same dignity he affords the peasants he depicts. Dürer was the first German artist to capture the peasants’ self-confidence that had been stirring since the late 15th century. He was the first to portray peasants as aesthetic subjects. Through Dürer, depictions of peasants appear in the revolutionary pamphlets of the time.

Picture2

This wonderful copper engraving shows three armed peasants in serious conversation. They are clearly intelligent and dignified people. One of these rebellious peasants carries a rapier, another has a knife in his pocket and spurs on his shoes. The third figure reaches into his waistcoat, from which he might produce a leaflet.

Dürer also set an example during the Peasant War. When Luther turned against the peasants and became the princes’ vassal, Dürer took a stand against him. Luther advised that the princes slaughter the rebellious peasants. Dürer, on the other hand, professed his support for the rebellious peasant army with his Peasants’ Monument.

In 1525, in the third book of his “Unterweisung der Messung” (Instruction in Measurement), as a model for the proportioning of a monument, he included a woodcut that championed the cause of the peasants.

Picture3

The column shows livestock, household and agricultural equipment from a peasant holding, now the booty of the conquerors. Instead of the victorious conqueror crowning the pillar, there is a peasant, pierced by a sword. We see him in the posture of Christ at rest, the slain peasant as the true follower of Christ. The Peasant War was just over, and siding with the revolutionary peasants was far from safe.

Many artists suffered persecution. Matthias Grünewald took part in seditious acts, had to flee from Aschaffenburg to Frankfurt, and died as a persecuted person in Halle. Jörg Ratgeb’s main work, the Herrenberg Altar painted in 1518/19, is inspired by a passionate and rebellious spirit. In it, he portrays the representatives of the church as fat, arrogant executioners. Ratgeb joined the peasants and became a military advisor. Following the defeat of the peasant army, he was publicly quartered in the marketplace of Pforzheim in 1526.

Tilman Riemenschneider was a leading sculptor of the late Gothic period. In 1525 he was 60 years old, a respected citizen of Würzburg and a member of the council, and was arrested, expelled from the council, and tortured. He ceased all artistic activity after this. In the last years of his life, Dürer turned away from art to more scientific preoccupations and died at the age of 57 on 6 April 1528. He remained close to the common people in his thoughts and actions. He sided with the democratic movement and fought for it with the weapons of his art.

The greatest artists of that time in Germany stood with the people.

In future we will turn the guns on you
Monday, 10 May 2021 14:55

In future we will turn the guns on you

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell marks the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune

As we mark the 150th anniversary of the French proletariat’s heroic first bid to set up La Commune in Paris, let us examine Brecht’s interpretation of this great event in his play “The Days of the Commune”.

The Commune broke out spontaneously on 18 March 1871. War with Germany, hardship, unemployment and anger against the upper classes, among other things, drove the population of Paris to revolution and placed power in the hands of the working class, and the petty bourgeoisie which had joined it.

However, only the French proletariat stood by their government; deserted by their allies, the Commune was doomed. The French bourgeoisie came together in a coalition supported by Bismarck. On 21 May the army stormed Paris and killed thousands. By 28 May 1871, the army had defeated the Commune.

In 1948/49 Brecht adapted a play, “The Defeat”, dealing with the same subject and authored by the Norwegian poet Nordahl Grieg on his return from the Spanish Civil War. The political situation having significantly changed after the surrender of Nazi Germany, Brecht wanted to focus on the lessons from the defeat of the Paris Commune.

Brecht tells the story of the community around the seamstress Madame Cabet, who becomes involved in the revolution simply to survive. The people within the commune briefly experience a new form of social existence. The plot reveals both achievements and mistakes of the revolution. The people around Madame Cabet perish with the Commune. The new way of life is destroyed by the bourgeoisie’s use of merciless terror, which the Commune hesitated to use against its enemy.

Brecht’s play opens with the situation before the rising, on 22 January 1871. Bricklayer “Papa”, watchmaker Coco and the seminarian Francois realise that the bourgeoisie are profiting from rising prices, while the National Guardsmen are dying defending Paris from the Prussians. The social conflict requiring the proletariat to take over the state becomes obvious.

The plot shows the steps the Communards take to begin a new life. A cannon acquired from army stocks to defend the working-class districts becomes a symbol of the armed working class. Madame Cabet in Rue Pigalle takes charge of it. The community guard it against attempts to remove it from them.

After the election of the Commune, “Papa” and others are persuaded the people have triumphed. At its first meeting, the Commune proclaims the principles of its future work: replacing the standing army with the armed people, the separation of church from State, no night work in bakeries, all factories, which had been abandoned by their owners, to be handed over to workers, the salaries of civil servants not to exceed the average working wage. But the Commune lacks the resolution to march on Versailles or to occupy the Bank of France, the symbolic strongholds of power and capital. They do not fully understand the necessity of doing so. And so Versailles unleashes a civil war on the communards. In Rue Pigalle, the neighbourhood builds a barricade to defend their lives and the Commune.

Scenes involving the community of Rue Pigalle are at the heart of the plot. They show the old order replaced with new human relationships, yet stressing: “Never expect more of the Commune than you expect of yourselves.” Work and enjoyment are no longer divorced. The people as legislators see themselves as both working and enjoying life; they have adopted a new attitude to life – Bread and Roses too.

The communards, who have known nothing but violence and exploitation, wish for peace. They spare their enemy, because the new era seems incompatible with terror. Yet history necessitates unequivocal assumption of political power under penalty of defeat. The communards are faced with this contradiction, and Brecht shows how they grapple with it and how they are destroyed.

This play could hardly be more topical now than it was when the socialist world was forming in the aftermath of the second world war. It was immensely significant in 1970 Tanzania, where my father Jack Mitchell studied and performed the drama with his students, less than ten years after independence. And today, we witness the full and frequently military attack of the military industrial complex on the peaceful working people of the world. As Brecht said: “The womb is fertile yet from which that crept.”

Resolution of the Communards

Realising that the roar of cannon
Are the only words that speak to you
We must prove to you that we have learned our lesson
In future we will turn the guns on you. 

Excerpts are taken from the translation of Clive Barker and Arno Reinfrank “The Days of the Commune”, Methuen, London, 1978.

Writings and Particulars: New Website from Alan O'Brien
Monday, 03 May 2021 13:33

Writings and Particulars: New Website from Alan O'Brien

Published in Life Writing

We are delighted to announce the opening of the official website for J.A. O'Brien, writer, journeyman bricklayer, journalist and socialist republican, very much of the James Connolly strand.

The website has links to his personal blog and is also where his memoir, "Against the Wind: memoir of a dissident Dubliner," can be purchased.

Further to this there is a link to the Audio-Book version of "Against the Wind" that itself is a treat, being narrated naturally and colourfully by Gary Furlong.

Finally, there is a section on the blog for discussion about aspects of the book or any other questions about his other writing.

Prokofiev and Peter and the Wolf
Thursday, 22 April 2021 07:27

Prokofiev and Peter and the Wolf

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell introduces Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, one of the most famous pieces of music for children ever written

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is among the great composers of the 20th century. He was born 130 years ago, on 23rd April 1891 in Sontsovka in the Ukraine, into a rural family. Village life, with its peasant songs, left a permanent impression on him. His musical mother arranged trips to the opera in Moscow when he was a child. Prokofiev’s subsequent ten years of study (1904-1914) at the Petersburg Conservatory, under Rimsky-Korsakov among others, were a time of great artistic growth.

When the Tsar was overthrown in 1917, Prokofiev understood a new dawn had broken and he wrote a vast quantity of new music. In the summer of 1917, he joined the Council of Workers in the Arts, a significant organisation in Russia’s left-wing artistic struggle. Stranded for nine months in the Caucasus due to the civil war, he could only return to Petrograd in early 1918. Believing that music was not to the forefront of the Council’s activities, Prokofiev obtained official sanction to undertake a concert tour abroad.

From 1918, he began touring the USA and Europe as a pianist and conductor and stayed out of the country longer than originally intended, largely due to the blockade of the USSR. He stayed in  the US for almost two years and returned there on several occasions for concert tours. In France, Prokofiev came into close contact with avant-garde musical developments, an interest he had had from early on. He had already performed pieces by Schönberg in Russia. Prokofiev’s musical talent developed rapidly. He studied the works of Stravinsky, particularly the early ballets, but maintained a critical attitude toward his countryman’s innovations, with whom he had a strained personal relationship. From 1922, Prokofiev spent over a year and a half in Ettal, Bavaria, before returning to Paris. In Germany, Prokofiev married the Spanish-born singer Carolina Codina, whom he had met in the US and with whom he went on to have two sons.

Prokofiev toured the USSR several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1936 he finally returned to his homeland with his family, where he became active in the Composers’ Union. Having met writer and translator Mira Mendelson in 1938, he left Carolina in 1941 and married Mira in 1948. Carolina Codina was arrested for ‘espionage’ shortly after this, sentenced to 20 years in labour camps and released in 1956. Yuri Andropov facilitated her departure from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Prokofiev was attracted by the work of modernist Russian poets, by the paintings of the Russian followers of Cézanne and Picasso, the theatrical ideas of Meyerhold. In 1914, Prokofiev had met the great ballet impresario Diaghilev, who became his mentor for the next decade and a half. All these influences impacted on Prokofiev’s compositions while he lived abroad. Yet, Prokofiev had not lost touch with the music of his homeland and his ties to it had never been severed. This return home resulted his composing in numerous masterpieces.

Peter and the Wolf

One of these, the most famous of all, is Peter and the Wolf. Natalya Sats, then director of the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children, had commissioned this piece to introduce children to some of the instruments of the orchestra, and classical music. Prokofiev had met Sats while taking his sons to her theatre in 1936. Prokofiev wrote a draft for the piano in a few days, finishing the orchestration 9 days later, on 24 April. The piece was performed to great acclaim, with Sats narrating, at the Pioneer Palace in Moscow. Prokofiev later said: “In Russia today there is a great emphasis on the musical education of children. One of my orchestral pieces (Peter and the Wolf) was an experiment. Children get an impression of several instruments of the orchestra just by hearing the piece performed.”

Prokofiev himself wrote the story, which is narrated by a speaker. First, the narrator introduces the characters with their musical motifs. In the course of the story, the narrator explains what is happening. If you know which instrument belongs to which animal, the music speaks for itself.

All the people and animals in the story are played on different instruments:

Peter is represented by strings (including violins, violas and cellos), sweet, clear sound. Their light, high sound describes Peter as a happy and outgoing boy.

The confident, forceful hunters are played by the timpani and trumpets, with the timpani and bass drum beats enacting rifle shots.

The bird is characterised by the flute, fluttery, happy chirping.

The slightly nasal sound of the oboe suggests the quacking, waddling duck.

The soft, warm sound of the clarinet evokes the velvety, elegant and sneaky cat.

No instrument is better suited to the slow grandfather, than the dark, thick low register of the bassoon.

The wolf is conjured by three French horns. He is dangerous and lives in the forest; the French horn with its large and deep sound suggests this perfectly.

Peter w

Peter who lives with his grandfather on the edge of a forest, understands the language of the cat, the bird and the duck. The animals are his friends. One day, the wolf emerges from the forest and devours the duck in one gulp. Peter devises a plan to catch the wolf with the help of the bird.

We hear about Peter’s love for animals, grandfather’s worries, about birds arguing whether they should swim or fly, about the cat’s unsuccessful pursuit of the bird, about the arrival of the wicked wolf, and finally, how the bird and Peter catch the wolf, and everybody’s triumphal procession to the zoo.

The story begins on morning is calm and sunny, upward moving leaps in the melody, Peter’s strings play a happy tune, there are upward leaps, the flutes (bird) trill. When the birds argue, the mood becomes louder and discordant, with a back and forth between the instruments. As the wolf appears, chases, and catches the duck, the mood conveyed by the music becomes alarming, threatening, the rhythm becomes faster and the oboe (duck) climbing in pitch with anxiety, discord ends in loud alarm. Following this crisis, Peter, and the bird attempt to catch the wolf with a lasso. The mood becomes anxious, a sense of breath being held as the music descends in pitch. Soft strings pause before the brass blares loudly. When the wolf is caught, it is taken to the zoo in a jubilant procession with all involved. The mood is happy and we hear trills, fast arpeggios on clarinet, strings, flutes and there is a sense of happy skipping.

This musical fairy tale is an example of socialist realism. It features a ‘group of heroes’, not an individual one. Peter and the bird need one another to defeat the wolf. Humanity and nature live in harmony. This is underscored musically. It is profoundly humanist: the adversary, the wolf, is not killed but put out of dangerous action and made available for educational purposes. There is an optimistic ending in that the wicked wolf is defeated but also that the duck seems to have survived in the wolf’s stomach. And all this is expressed in the music: The group hero idea while the wolf is captured, as well as in the tutti of all the themes in the procession to the zoo. And the duck’s survival in sounding a very muted duck theme at the end – from the wolf’s belly, as it were.

PeterandtheWolf

It is a happy ending indeed, celebrating friendship, courage and co-operation in the defeat of danger and evil.

Even if the haunting melodies seem simple at first glance, they are not. The musical story is vividly and beautifully interwoven, in word and sound, action and musical gesture, including many masterful tone paintings. Listeners learn that music can tell its own story, once you understand that themes can represent characters that are repeated initially until you get to know them. They then develop into variations. They can interact, they can struggle, they can harmonise. This wonderful introduction to understanding classical music is not didactic and it is not just for children. It is thoroughly memorable and enjoyable.

“Peter and the Wolf” remains Sergei Prokofiev’s best-known composition to this day.

Easter 1916 and Maeve Cavanagh, 'poetess of the revolution'
Saturday, 03 April 2021 16:31

Easter 1916 and Maeve Cavanagh, 'poetess of the revolution'

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces Maeve Cavanagh and presents one of her poems

Last Easter, we published some poems written by three leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. They were Pádraig Pearse, who wrote the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, and his comrades and signatories Thomas MacDonagh and James Plunkett, accessing through their verse their revolutionary aspirations. All three were executed following the defeat of the rebellion.

Among the rebels were a significant number of women, who were not executed, including some poets. This Easter, I wish to introduce one of these, Maeve Cavanagh, who had been a member and secretary for some years of Cumman na mBán, the Gaelic League, and Connolly's Irish Citizen Army. She was also involved in the cultural and educational activities held in Liberty Hall.
Part of Maeve Cavanagh’s aspiration was to make the ordinary working people of Dublin more politically aware. For example, she spent considerable effort trying to dissuade men from joining the British Army in the first world war. In her 1914 poetry collection Sheaves of Revolt, she describes the brutality and horror of war and its aftermath:

So hurry up and take the ‘bob’
The Butcher cannot wait,
The German guns are talking,
At a most terrific rate.
And if you should crawl back,
Minus arm or minus leg,
You’ll get leave to roam your city
To sell matches – or to beg.

Maeve’s brother Ernest was a cartoon artist whose anti-war work featured in Irish Worker, Fianna and Irish Freedom. Ernest, who worked at the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), was shot dead by British troops on the steps of Liberty Hall during the Rising.

Maeve Cavanagh herself was much involved in the preparations for the Rising and was well acquainted with James Connolly. Connolly called her “the poetess of the revolution” and published one of her poems in The Workers’ Republic. She also wrote a play about the Rising, “The Test: a play of 1916” and was active in trying to secure a reprieve for Roger Casement. All these, alongside her eye-witness accounts of the uprising, are now held in the National Library of Ireland. Her poetry, unfortunately, does not feature in the Irish public's literary consciousness.

Eastertide, 1916

by Maeve Cavanagh

The warring nations mazéd heard
The slogan cry of Eire ring,
And they who in her fain hope shared
Exultant watched her gallant spring-
The wolf-dog stood at bay once more,
And heard unmoved the Lion’s roar.

The hours were told - her time had come -
At noontide on an April day,
She bore the Truth - and Lie struck dumb
In all her glorious, deathless way.
Ere to his couch the sun sank down
Her flag flew over Dublin town.

And Connaught o’er broad Shannon ‘s tide,
Her noble challenge swiftly sends,
True as of yore from Slaney’s side
Brave Wexford’s thrilling answer wends -
And history stoops to write to-day
The fairest page she’ll pen for aye.

What tho our fairest, dearest fall?
We shall not grudge the awful price
To-day we stand in freedom’s hall,
And Freely make our sacrifice.
We’ve seen our Goddess face to face
All times cannot this hour efface.

Written on the hoisting of the Irish Republican Flag over the G.P.O. - Dublin, 24/4/1916

'Towards a social order worthy of the human race': Rosa Luxemburg's 150th anniversary
Thursday, 04 March 2021 11:42

'Towards a social order worthy of the human race': Rosa Luxemburg's 150th anniversary

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell presents and discusses Margarethe von Trotta’s film about Rosa Luxemburg

On 5 March 2021, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Rosa Luxemburg’s birth. No one who wishes to get a sense of Rosa Luxemburg as a person, both political and private, will regret watching Margarethe von Trotta’s meticulously researched 1986 film of the same name. It is available with English subtitles here.

The film begins on 7 December 1916 with Rosa Luxemburg in Vronke prison, cutting back to this location again and again. Von Trotta uses Luxemburg’s prison letters to her good friend Sonja Liebknecht as a leitmotif throughout the film to paint a very sensitive and personal portrait of this Polish revolutionary. From this prison setting, the viewer relives many episodes of Rosa’s life as flashbacks. Some of these evoke the more personal aspects of the Polish revolutionary’s life. Early childhood is touched on, and some of the sequences are in Polish, adding greatly to the authentic feel of the film. Indeed, throughout the film Luxemburg occasionally speaks in Polish, especially to Leo Jogiches, her close comrade and lover of many years. It is also suggested she may have had polio, as Barbara Sukowa, the actress who superbly embodies her character, limps noticeably during the film.

Luxemburg’s deep love for nature is emphasised in many ways – in her letters and in her tenderness for animals, her pet cat, and her ‘garden’ in the prison. This garden comes as a surprise but is true to history. Luxemburg enthusiastically wrote to Sonja Liebknecht on 19th May 1917: ‘I can hardly believe my eyes, today I planted something for the first time in my life and everything has turned out so well right away!’ Luxemburg's collection of dried plants was long considered lost and only rediscovered in 2009 in a Warsaw archive, 23 years after this film was made. Her herbarium and nature drawings are an impressive document of her resilience during imprisonment in various gaols including in Vronke, where she tended the prison garden. Rosa’s tenderness and love of nature, of animals, so manifest in her letters, is also expressed towards children and her close friends, creating the sense of a profoundly humane person.

Luxemburg the private person and the political activist are presented as inseparable. Her uncompromising humanity motivates everything she does. Von Trotta does a magnificent job in bringing together important stages in Luxemburg’s political career, going back to earlier imprisonment in Poland for her involvement with the then strongest workers’ party in Europe, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). At times, it can be a little difficult to pinpoint the exact time of an event and von Trotta does not tell the story strictly sequentially. What emerges is a consistency of Luxemburg’s views.

The betrayal of the social democratic leadership

The main parts of the film focus on Luxemburg’s political activity in Berlin. Considerable time is devoted to Luxemburg’s growing disillusionment with the SPD. It shows her disgust at Bernstein, and her early alliance with Kautsky. Poignantly, the SPD leader Ebert says to Luxemburg at a dinner party that events in Russia have ultra-radicalised her, and chillingly says ‘we will hang you’.

From early on, she senses and tackles the reformism of the SPD leadership. The films shows her political break with Kautsky and other leaders of the SPD, although she remains a lifelong friend and correspondent of his wife Luise. The complete betrayal of the social democratic leadership becomes shockingly clear in the scene where Karl Liebknecht emerges from the Reichstag to tell her that all SPD parliamentarians have voted in favour of the granting of war funds. Liebknecht was the only member of parliament in 1914 to oppose these. National chauvinism as a direct result of this party’s reformism drives them into their disastrous support for WW1.

Luxemburg, keenly aware of the growing danger of war from very early on, unmasks the profoundly inhuman nature of war time and time again, as the senseless slaughter of working people in the interests of power and profits. She steps up her activities even more as the world war approaches, and increasingly, the anti-war struggle becomes a central focus of the film. All speeches quoted in the film are documented, and apply uncannily to our own times, over a hundred years and two world wars later:

Were we suddenly to lose sight of all these happenings and manoeuvres, …could we say, for instance, that for forty years we have had uninterrupted peace. This idea, which considers exclusively events on the European continent, ignores the very reason why we have had no war in Europe for decades is the fact that international antagonisms have grown infinitely beyond the narrow confines of the European continent. European problems and interests are now fought out on the world seas and in the by-corners of Europe. Hence the “United States of Europe” is an idea which runs directly counter both economically and politically to the path of progress.

Following her arrest for speaking at an anti-war rally in Berlin in 1913, she defended herself in the courtroom:

When the majority of working people realise … that wars are barbaric, deeply immoral, reactionary, and anti-people, then wars will have become impossible.

Faced with the betrayal of the SPD leadership, Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Zetkin discuss the need for a new party, the Spartacus League, which became the Communist Party. Luxemburg is put in ‘protective custody’, imprisoned again on 10th July 1916, first in Berlin and later in Vronke Fortress and then finally in Wroclaw in Poland. She was released on the 9th November 1918. During this time, she is allowed books, letters and secretly passes visitors her contributions to the ‘Spartacus Letters’.

On the day of Luxemburg’s release the Kaiser abdicates, and SPD politician Scheidemann proclaims Germany a republic, with SPD leader Friedrich Ebert taking power. He prevents the country from turning into a soviet, socialist republic, which Liebknecht proclaims on the same day. The Communist Party of Germany is founded on New Year's Day 1919. Uprisings in Berlin against the Ebert government follow in the second week of January. Luxemburg and Liebknecht do not see eye to eye in the analysis of the rising. They are now wanted persons. They are betrayed, tracked to their hiding place on 15th January 1919 and the rest is history.

A social order worthy of the human race

The film does not make clear Ebert’s final betrayal of his erstwhile comrades: General Staff Officer Captain Waldemar Pabst informed the Reich government at an early stage about the arrest of the two. Pabst took the decision to have Liebknecht and Luxemburg murdered, considering the executions in the national interest. Pabst lived until 1970 in West Germany and in old age maintained that the SPD leadership, in the person of Noske and in all likelihood Ebert, had agreed the killings.

Expressing her profound belief in the eventual and unstoppable liberation of humankind, Luxemburg declares:

In Schiller's drama, Wallenstein says on the night that was to be his last, as he gazes with inquiring eyes at the stars to unravel in them the course of things to come: “The day is near, and Mars rules the hour”. This also applies to today's times. Mars, the bloody god of war, still rules the hour. Power is still with those who rely solely on a forest of murderous weapons to thwart the working people in their just struggle. Wars are still being prepared, parliament is still being controlled, and more and more military bills are passed, the people are still being sucked to the last drop by the gluttonous Moloch of Militarism. Mars still rules the hour. But, as Wallenstein said, “The day is near, the day that is ours.”

So, too, the day approaches when we who are at the bottom will rise! Not to carry out that bloody fantasy of mutiny and slaughter that hovers before the terrified eyes of the prosecutors, no, we who will rise to power will be the first to realise a social order worthy of the human race, a society that knows no exploitation of one human by another, that knows no genocide, a society that will realise the ideals of both the oldest founders of religion and the greatest philosophers of humanity. In order to bring about this new day as quickly as possible we must use our utmost powers, without looking to any success, in defiance of all public prosecutors, in defiance of all military power. Our slogan will become reality: The people are with us, victory is with us!

Set Their Spirits Free! Callout for a new anthology of children's literature
Friday, 19 February 2021 21:13

Set Their Spirits Free! Callout for a new anthology of children's literature

Published in Fiction

Writing for the young has the potential to set their spirits free. It can encourage children to approach ideas and issues from new perspectives, and so prepare the way for social and political improvements. Imaginative, vividly told stories and graphic illustrations leave long-lasting memories and can inspire and liberate the imaginations of rising generations by exposing and criticising conventional ways of thinking and behaving. Alternatives to injustice, inequality, discrimination, and the climate emergency can be imagined, thus nurturing the seeds of transformative change.

Supported by the Irish labour movement, Culture Matters has already published two well-reviewed and internationally successful anthologies of poetry and prose by working people from contemporary Ireland: Children of the Nation, and From the Plough to the Stars, edited by Jenny Farrell. We plan to continue this project of collecting irish working people’s writings with a third volume, in the spirit of the Dublin Radical Club. This was founded almost 100 years ago by Liam O’Flaherty and other progressive artists, “to encourage all forms of progressive cultural activity in Ireland”. 

There is a long tradition of socialist and working-class writing for children. It goes back to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and continues unbroken to this day, including writers such as Mary Ellen Cregan, Pádraic Pearse, Brendan Behan, Liam O’Flaherty, and Linda Anderson. So the theme is children's literature: poetry, songs using well-known tunes, short stories, modern versions of traditional children’s stories, and non-fiction, aimed at children up to 12 years old. 

The volume will be dedicated to the disadvantaged and underprivileged children in Irish society, and we hope to particularly attract contributors in Ireland with a migratory or refugee background. As with our previous anthologies, we are grateful for the support of the Irish labour movement. The book will be professionally illustrated with complementary artwork. 

Rules and guidelines

1. You may submit up to three pieces of writing (new stories for children, modern versions of traditional stories, poetry, songs using well-known tunes, or non-fiction), unpublished in print. Please let us know if your submission has already been published online, so that we can give acknowledgements.

2. There is a maximum of 2,500 words per story.

3. Submissions can be in English or Irish (if in Irish, our international readership will appreciate your English translation, please). For contributors with a migrant or refugee background: a short extract of the text may also be printed in the original language, depending on space.

4. You must be either resident in Ireland or have an Irish emigration background.

5. Please also send a brief biography outlining your connection with the working class, 150 words max.

6. The deadline for submissions is 31st July 2021.

7. Send your submissions to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

While we are unable to offer fees for publication, we will supply free and discounted copies to contributors. You retain copyright on any submissions, but your material may be published in print and online by Culture Matters.

John Keats: Revolutionary Romantic
Thursday, 11 February 2021 13:05

John Keats: Revolutionary Romantic

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell marks the 200th anniversary of Keats's death. The image above is of Keats on his deathbed, by his friend Joseph Severn

G. B. Shaw stated that “Keats achieved the very curious feat of writing a poem of which it may be said that if Karl Marx can be imagined writing a poem instead of a treatise on Capital, he would have written Isabella.” Shaw’s view clashes with that of most mainstream critics, who deny Keats any political thought and declare him a worshipper of some unspecified ‘Beauty’. This month marks the 200th anniversary of Keats’s death and is an opportunity to spend a moment reclaiming this revolutionary romantic.

The English and then the American and French revolutions had demonstrated the irreversible arrival of capitalist society, in Europe and elsewhere. Conservative governments across Europe understood and feared the implications of these revolutions, and reacted with increased conservatism and suppression of democratic movements. Although Britain already was a bourgeois society, it now feared insurrection by the working classes, and became a repressive regime itself.

English and Scottish Romanticism is the first expression of radical self-criticism of post-revolutionary and increasingly industrial capitalist society. In its most advanced proponents, like Shelley, the vision reaches beyond bourgeois society and nurtures the first of the working-class movements, the Chartists.

When the Frame-Breaking Act of 1812 made the destruction of mechanised looms a capital felony, Byron used his 1812 maiden speech in the House of Lords to side with working people against this government tyranny. Wordsworth and Coleridge had joined the conservative establishment, arguing for repression, restoration and counter-revolution, for which Byron takes them to task in his opening stanzas of “Don Juan”.

Radicals and Dissenters

Keats stands alongside Shelley and Byron as an upright defender of humankind, against its enslavement and destruction. Born and educated in the Dissenter tradition, Keats became an apothecary, a doctor for the poor. When Keats left medicine for poetry, he entered the circle of the radical writer Leigh Hunt. Other members of this group were the brilliant critic, Dissenter and radical William Hazlitt, the painters Benjamin Robert Haydon and Joseph Severn (the latter would eventually accompany Keats on his final journey to Italy), John Hamilton Reynolds, who shared Keats’s religious disbelief, and Shelley.

Two of the poems written at this time, Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition and To Kosciusko - the latter co-written with Coleridge and Hunt - express themes that would be part of his continuing principled stand against the Christian religion and in favour of an international outlook on politics. While Keats’s most accomplished poetry contains these ideas in a less overt form, they are nonetheless present, and were easily understood by the Tory press, who dismissed him as a “Cockney poet”.

Here are the stanzas Shaw refers to:

XIV.

With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip; - with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

XV.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

XVI.

Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gush’d with more pride than do a wretch’s tears? -
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs? -
Why were they proud? Because red-lin’d accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years? -
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?

Keats describes ruthless global exploitation, something we easily recognise today: in mines, in factories, in rivers, and at sea. While these stanzas are unusually direct for Keats, he evokes an aspect that becomes increasingly central to his poetic idea: how the human senses are destroyed in what he refers to as the ‘barbaric age’ of capitalism. He captures and depicts these times as inappropriate to humanity. “Ode to a Nightingale” is heartbreaking in its description of an unnatural world:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

‘Beauty’ evolves as Keats’s measure for a humane world. A profit-driven society that insatiably pursues money at all costs, including brutal repression and wars, destroys beauty. In a society like this, “the Ceylon diver … went all naked to the hungry shark; / For them his ears gush’d blood” and here “but to think is to be full of sorrow”. Yet, despite it all, Keats shows that beauty arises as human potential, over and over again with every new generation.

And beauty is felt through the senses. For Keats, fully realised human potential means humans can appreciate the world through their senses. Capitalism destroys these senses: loins and ears gush blood, eyes are hollow, eyes are leaden. While the reader has to activate mentally all senses to ‘live’ the images, the actuality of this potential lies in the future. The building blocks exist. Humanity has the ability to experience with all its senses the beauty of a humanised world. In the world as it is, this potential is thwarted; “Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes”.

Keats focused his poetics on what defined a truly human world, a place where humans are at one with themselves and their environment. He believed that human beings could only develop their full sensuous potential in a world with which they were at one. In the world of 19th century Britain and Europe, this was patently impossible. Keats explores the nature of this beauty in his great odes of 1819.

Ode to Psyche is about the poet’s calling as priest of the human soul. The fact that the human soul has become the proper god and that the poet feels compelled to be her priest indicates Keats’s heightened awareness of the artist’s social responsibility. Art replaces religion as the sanctuary for the human psyche: “Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind”.

In Ode to a Nightingale, the speaker initially feels that beauty exists only in nature and in the integrated village community. These spheres clash with his life experience, where beauty expires. The beauty found in the nightingale’s world ought properly to exist in all of life. To seek beauty away from human life, charms “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”

Ode on a Grecian Urn examines the function of visual art and its relationship to poetry and life. Visual art can fix and freeze for eternity moments of the highest vitality and creativity. However, it lacks life’s pulse. Art sharpens awareness of life’s dynamism, but cannot substitute it: “never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal”. The implicit comparison between sculpture and verse in this ode reveals the poet’s growing certainty that his own art form is better suited to embody life’s processes.

Some of the images in Ode on Melancholy demonstrate the ability of verse to capture and preserve dynamic processes. The true culmination of beauty exists in natural life. Experiencing its highest intensity defines its passing: to “burst Joy's grape against his palate fine”. Here, in the dialectics of natural life, true melancholy is found, if one is prepared to face life in all its complexity and contradiction.

To Autumn brings the themes of beauty, and the function and possibilities of poetry, to their conclusion. Truth lies in natural life’s process and universality, in its material totality and total materiality. The life of nature is hence a paradigm for human life.

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Beauty and Truth

For Keats, beauty is intrinsic to life as it should be, where humans and nature are in complete harmony with one another, where beauty is dynamic, changeable, in process, and includes its fulfilment. Beauty is life in tune with itself. To achieve this, is the meaning of life. In this sense, beauty is truth. Keats’s affirmation of human sensuality, the ability to engage all the senses in appropriating the world around, is linked to his vision of a society, where nature and humankind are at one, as the true home for humankind.

Keats’s sensuousness is no escape into a fairyland. It is programmatic. It challenges the inherent asceticism of many monotheistic religions, with their promise of a better afterlife. His poetry is this-worldly, it enacts this-sidedness and joy-in-life. Keats implicitly contrasts Christian belief with the pleasure-affirming this-sidedness of the pagan beliefs, which is why they feature so strongly in his poetry. Like Shelley and Byron, Keats saw the reactionary role played by the Christian churches in 19th revolutionary Europe as conservative, controlling and intrinsically anti-life. This conviction marks Keats’s entire work.

At a time when denial of the physical senses and sexual pleasure was suppressed in 1920s Ireland, his programmatic sensuousness inspired Harry Clarke to create the stained-glass window illustration of “The Eve of St. Agnes”. But Clarke does more than illustrate the poem. He creates his own, striking sensuousness.

JF Picture2

The image of Porphyro in Madeline’s chamber stands out as particularly colourful, inspired by Keats’s intensely imaginative idea of a moonlit chamber, aglow with colour:

A casement high and triple-arch'd there was,
All garlanded with carven imag'ries
Of fruits and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumberable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings;
And in the midst, 'mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blushed with blood of queens and kings.

Clarke must have presumed familiarity with the poem:

Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love's alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes' moon hath set.

The erotic nature of Clarke’s image is clear.

Keats died 200 years ago on 23 February, aged only twenty-five. He is one of the greatest writers in English, with a revolutionary vision that reaches far into the future.

Jenny Farrell is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism: Examining the Odes of John Keats (Nuascéalta, 2017), available from Connolly Books Dublin, Charlie Byrne’s and Kenny’s Bookshop Galway, or online.

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