Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

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


Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill
Monday, 24 February 2020 12:57

International Women's Day 2020: A grieving woman resolves to liberate Ireland

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell celebrates International Women's Day with a presentation of an Irish lament by a grieving woman who resolves to liberate Ireland

The most famous, fabled and feted Irish filí (poets) are male: the reasons clearly lie in patriarchal class society. So all the more reason for us to seek out the female representatives of a skill that in the old Irish days was associated with prophesying, or seeing – in fact the Irish word filí derives from just this meaning.

The oldest extant piece of writing which has come down to us, albeit through the lens of early Christian monks, celebrates powerful women including just such a prophetess poet, Fedelm. This profession was largely oral, having initially developed in a pre-literate society, and it survived for a long time in story-telling and so on. Some types of poetic expression were the preserve mainly of women. Most notably among these, perhaps, is the keening – lamenting a death. Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s “Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire”, “The Lament for Airt Ó Laoghaire”, spoken in 1773, is one of the greatest laments in Gaelic literature.

In this poem, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill describes the circumstances surrounding the murder of her husband Airt in Carriganimmy (Carraig an Ime), in county Cork, at the behest of the British colonial official Abraham Morris.

At the same time, the lament speaks on behalf of the oppressed Catholic Gaelic population of Ireland, suffering under colonial rule. Specifically, this is about the rebellion against the penal laws introduced at the end of the 17th century. Among other things, these laws prohibited education for Catholic children, restricted the right to property, for example a horse worth more than five pounds, marriage between people of different denominations, access to higher education and professions, etc. Morris outlawed Airt Uí Laoghaire for refusing to sell him a horse for five pounds, which Airt had brought back from his service in the Austro-Hungarian army. Morris decreed that Uí Laoghaire could consequently be shot on sight.

Airt and Eibhlín came from important families in the feudal Gaelic order. The earls had fled from Ireland to the European continent in the early 17th century following military defeats, consolidating the complete collapse of the old Gaelic order. Part of the surviving Catholic nobility, Airt was educated on the continent and served as a Hussar.

The Lament is divided into five parts. The first part was probably spoken by Eibhlín over the body of her husband in Carriganimmy. The lament begins with a short account of how the lovers met and, contrary to the wishes of their families, eloped and married.

My steadfast love!
When I saw you one day
by the market-house gable
my eye gave a look
my heart shone out
I fled with you far
from friends and home.

Next, Eibhlín reports what a good husband Airt made:

And never was sorry:
you had parlours painted
rooms decked out
the oven reddened
and loaves made up
roasts on spits
and cattle slaughtered;
I slept in duck-down
till noontime came
or later if I liked.

Eibhlín repeatedly addresses Airt personally - as friend and partner, as an equal. Here, she describes the awe and fear that Airt instilled in the English by his imposing figure and defying the penal laws. He carried a valuable sword, wore splendid clothes and rode his white-faced steed.

My steadfast friend!
it comes to my mind
that fine Spring day
how well your hat looked
with the drawn gold band,
the sword silver-hilted
your fine brave hand
and menacing prance,
and the fearful tremble
of treacherous enemies.
You were set to ride
your slim white-faced steed
and Saxons saluted
down to the ground,
not from good will
but by dint of fear
- though you died at their hands,
my soul’s beloved....

She also evokes their happy home life and Airt’s love for his sons. Then she speaks of the moment when Airt’s death became clear to her, when his horse returned riderless to their homestead. At this point, Eibhlín’s determination and courage, already hinted at in her marriage to Airt against the wishes of the family, become stronger. In three leaps, she jumps to the door, to the gate and into the saddle and gallops to the scene of the crime. Here she finds Airt’s lifeless body:

to find you there dead
by a low furze-bush
with no Pope or bishop
or clergy or priest
to read a psalm over you
but a spent old woman
who spread her cloak corner
where your blood streamed from you,
and I didn’t stop to clean it
but drank it from my palms.

This somewhat unexpected act of drinking blood corresponds to the tradition of lamenting the dead. Most remarkable, however, is the statement that no one is present, other than an old woman, who undoubtedly represents old Ireland. One of the ways in which this is evident is that she puts the ends of the traditional cloak where Airt bleeds. It is also significant that no Catholic clergy was present. Eibhlín is left alone with this woman. It is a desolate picture of the state of the country and its forgotten loyalties. Remarkably, in all this lamentation there is no hope for life after death, one might even say that the absent clergy at the scene disqualified it from a role in the liberation of the country. Eibhlín can only rely on herself alone - supported by the old woman, the memory of old Ireland.

In the second part, a dispute between Airt’s sister and Eibhlín takes place, in which her sister-in-law accuses Eibhlín  of having been in bed when she came to the farm from Cork. This may well be a commentary on the discord between the two noble families and, in a wider context, on the disintegration of the vanishing Gaelic order.

Given the very public appreciation of Airt in the third part, this was probably uttered by Eibhlín after the body had been prepared for burial:

My friend and my treasure trove!
An ugly outfit for a warrior:
a coffin and a cap
on that great-hearted horseman
who fished in the rivers
and drank in the halls
with white-breasted women.
My thousand confusions
I have lost the use of you.
Ruin and bad cess to you,
ugly traitor Morris,
who took the man of my house
and father of my young ones
- a pair walking the house
and the third in my womb,
and I doubt that I’ll bear it.

In this part, Airt’s last words to her are quoted, and then images from nature suggest that Airt was the true ruler of the country, even if this has been forgotten among the population.

Take the narrow road Eastward
where the bushes bend before you
and the stream will narrow for you
and men and women will bow
if they have their proper manners
- as I doubt they have at present....

Into every part of this lament is written Eibhlín’s resistance against foreign rule and the oppression of her people. This connects her very closely with Airt.

In the fourth part, Eibhlín’s sister-in-law speaks once more and explains how death and disease prevented her from coming sooner. Again, a metaphorical dimension suggests the disintegration of the old order. Returning to the murder, Eibhlín  explains her determination to avenge this. She will leave no avenue unused to obtain justice:

Jesus Christ well knows
there’s no cap upon my skull
nor shift next to my body
nor shoe upon my foot-sole
nor furniture in my house
nor reins on the brown mare
but I’ll spend it on the law;
that I’ll go across the ocean
to argue with the King,
and if he won’t pay attention
that I’ll come back again
to the black-blooded savage
that took my treasure.

Eibhlín's determination to do everything possible to achieve justice reasserts her previous boldness in her choice of partner and her ride to the scene of the crime. In her quest for justice too  there is a progression from the sale of all possessions to pay for lawyers, to visiting the king in person, to her own revenge if these paths prove fruitless. More and more Eibhlín develops into the woman who will not stand idly by but revenge the man who represented Ireland’s Gaelic order. By implication, she will stand up for her people.

The fifth and last part reflects a greater distance to Airt and was probably only available at the second burial. Due to some legal obstacles, Airt Ó Laoghaire’s body was not buried in the ancestral cemetery at the Monastery of Kilcrea, Co. Cork until a few months after his death.

Once again Airt’s generosity is evoked and Eibhlín states that she is successfully running the farm, that the grain and livestock are thriving despite her great grief. In many ways, Eibhlín  has taken up Airt’s legacy. There is no mention of a new man. Eibhlín will run the farm, raise the children, never forget Airt, and avenge him. Contrary to the expectations in the 17th and 18th century Aisling poetry, in which a female  figure awaits a male saviour, Eibhlín takes her fate into her own hands. She, like Aoibheal in Brian Merriman’s “Midnight Court” only a few years later, follows the tradition of strong Gaelic women, and will free Ireland from foreign rule.

Chopin and the revolutionary inspiration of his Polonaise in A flat major
Friday, 31 January 2020 18:02

Chopin and the revolutionary inspiration of his Polonaise in A flat major

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell discusses Fryderyk Chopin and the revolutionary inspiration, force and vigour of his Polonaise in A flat major

Fryderyk Chopin was born on 22 February 1810 in Żelazowa Wola near Warsaw, to a Polish mother and a French father. He grew up in Warsaw but left Poland in 1831, shortly before the Polish popular uprising against the tsarist oppressors. He moved to Paris, where he lived until his death aged only 39 on 17 October 1849. In Paris, he made friends with some of the most outstanding progressive figures of his time: with the great Frenchwoman George Sand, who became his lover, the Hungarian nationalist and composer Franz Liszt, the revolutionary French painter Eugène Delacroix, the great Polish poet and political activist Adam Mickiewicz, the German exiled poet Heinrich Heine, and others.

Chopin always remained close to Poland. During the 1830s and 1840s Europe witnessed political repression, unrest, and conservatism. In this atmosphere the great significance of national cultures in shaping national consciousness and the struggle for independence became increasingly important and apparent. This growing national awareness was also reflected in the arts and in music.

Polish music was no exception. The Polish people, who suffered triple occupation by Prussia, Russia and Austria, who were deprived of their independence, who suffered terribly under the pressure of the Holy Alliance, whose national culture was being suppressed – this people proved through its art that it was alive and fighting. The genius of a Mickiewicz in poetry, the genius of a Chopin in music, reflect this struggle in their art.

Chopin wrote mainly music for the piano. He chose smaller forms to express the struggle and aspirations of his people, frequently using Polish peasant dance forms such as mazurkas and polonaises. He revived the music of the whole nation. The folk music of Poland informed his harmonic language. Chopin’s music defined a tradition, not only in Poland but has contributed to our musical heritage internationally. It is an assertion of Polish resistance, something that all independence-loving people can identify with.

Polonaise in A flat major (1842)

Chopin created 17 polonaises in total, his first when he was aged seven, and composed seven of these after he left Poland. The later compositions opened a new chapter in the history of the genre in the direction of the “epic-dramatic poem”. Each of these seven mature, dramatic works has its own distinctive shape, style and expression. The last three compositions are grand dance poems. Chopin’s late Polonaise in A flat major (Opus 53, Héroïque) is written in a heroic tone. On hearing it, George Sand wrote in one of her letters “The inspiration! The force! The vigour! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol”.

Its stormy octaves in the middle section have suggested to some commentators the image of attacking hussars, to others an attacking cavalcade. Some have called it the “secret national anthem” of Poland. However, Chopin did not leave a ‘story’ to go with this polonaise. I think it is perhaps best understood as the triumph of the Polish dance. The theme is confident and dance-like. It goes through various developments and returns jubilant, proud and heroic in a clearly victorious coda. And it is in this context of the triumphant people that Sand’s comment makes complete sense.

Laughing Old Woman
Friday, 27 December 2019 09:24

A deep and compassionate humanism: the 150th anniversary of Ernst Barlach

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell presents the life and work of Ernst Barlach, born 150 years ago

Ernst Barlach was born near Hamburg on 2 January 1870. He was the most important German sculptor of the 20th century. Brecht said about his work: “His genius, meaning, ingenious craftsmanship, beauty without embellishment, stature without over-stretching, harmony without smoothness, vitality without brutality make Barlach's sculptures masterpieces”.

Barlach was educated in Hamburg and Dresden, also studying in Paris. A trip to Russia in 1906 was a decisive moment in his artistic development. The sense of community among the ordinary people there impressed him deeply, but also their sadness, and a threatening silence after the failed revolution of 1905.


In 1910, Barlach settled in the northern town of Güstrow. Systematic slander of his art started even before Hitler took power. In Güstrow, Barlach created much of his work, removed and partly destroyed by fascists after 1933. In 1937, the commission for “degenerate art” confiscated his works exhibited in German museums, including the memorial for the victims of war in Magdeburg Cathedral. He wrote to his brother Hans following this event: “I will not be able to work for the foreseeable future ... I won't go abroad, I feel like an emigrant in my homeland - and worse than a real one, because all the wolves are howling at me and behind me.” In this year before his death, he created masterpieces such as “Freezing old Woman” and “Laughing old Woman”, testimonies to his courage, his terror and his humour. Barlach died on 24 October 1938 and was buried in the town of his childhood, Ratzeburg.

Barlach's independent sculptural style is sparse, weighty, expressing both serenity and tension. His masterful woodcuts strongly influenced Käthe Kollwitz and Gerhard Marcks as well as sculptors of younger generations.

Barlach's lithograph “Mass Grave” of 1915 was not deemed safe for printing until much later, in a very small edition. His lithograph “From a Modern Dance of Death” depicts the murderous grimace of war. His 1919 large-format woodcuts express social degradation as a direct result of the dehumanisation caused by war. They include “Death of a child”, “Robbers of the Cross and Coffin”, “Good Samaritans”. These works moved Käthe Kollwitz so deeply that she tried her hand at woodcutting, creating her famous memorial sheet for Karl Liebknecht.

In January 1952, Brecht recorded his “Notes on the Barlach Exhibition” at the German Academy of Arts.


Brecht wrote about “Russian Beggar Woman with a Bowl” (1906): “A powerful person with hard confidence, from whom no thanks for alms may be expected. She seems immune to the hypocritical assertions of a corrupt society that one can achieve something by diligence and making oneself useful.”

In “The Melon Cutter” (Bronze, 1907), Brecht praises “a work which created an eater from the people with great sensual power. He has seated himself exactly as it is best suited for this very activity, and he does not lose himself in his work.”


Brecht liked this wood carving of “Three singing women” (1911) “because the combination of power and singing is pleasant to me.”



Song is represented differently in this sculpture “The Singing Man” (Bronze, 1928). Brecht finds this man “bold, in a free posture, clearly working on his singing. He sings alone, but apparently has an audience. Barlach's humour desires him to be a little vain, but no more than is compatible with the practice of art.”


In “Dancing old Woman” (Tinted Plaster, 1920) Brecht praises the “humour, which is extremely rare in German sculpture. The grandeur with which the old woman lifts her skirt to dare another little dance! Her gaze is directed upwards: she delves in her memory for the right step.”

The Kiss groups 1 and 2 (bronze, 1921) are “of great interest” to Brecht “because the sculptor ... achieved a greater intimacy by roughening the material, i.e. by actually coarsening it. The work is a pleasing departure from the sweet, genderless Cupid and Psyche figurines in the drawing rooms of the petty bourgeoisie.”

EB 7 Freezing old woman

The year they were made is particularly significant for the sculptures from 1933 onwards. There is “The Book Reader” (Bronze, 1936). A man sits bent over, holding a book in his heavy hands. Brecht said: “He reads with curiosity, confidently, critically. He is clearly looking for solutions to urgent problems in the book. . . I like “The Book Reader” better than Rodin's famous “Thinker”, which only shows the difficulty of thinking. Barlach's sculpture is more realistic, more concrete, not symbolic.”

“Freezing old woman” (Teak, 1937) interests Brecht because this crouching “maid or small farming woman, so visibly physically and mentally abandoned by society” could not “protect her hands from the cold”. Brecht continues, “It is as if her job is to freeze, and she shows no anger. But the sculptor shows anger, far more anger than pity”.

In his commentary on “Seated old Woman” (Bronze, 1933) Brecht refers to how “masterfully the clothing is designed”. “One tiny detail makes it completely realistic: the woollen scarf... The old woman sits upright, she is thinking. ... I can imagine a worker nudging Barlach’s old woman with his elbow: Take power! You have everything that you need.”


From 1937 comes “Laughing old Woman” (wood). Brecht enjoys its irresistible cheerfulness and points out that this was the year in which Barlach's works were banned from German museums as degenerate. “Her laughter is like singing, it has loosened the entire body, making it almost look young.”

All these sculptures point in a realistic way to the essential humanity in people and express Barlach's love of people, his deep and compassionate humanism. Brecht concludes, “Barlach writes: 'It is probably the case that the artist knows more than he can say. But perhaps it is so that Barlach can say more than he knows.”

Waiting for Godot
Friday, 06 December 2019 08:06

Waiting for Godot

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses Beckett's Waiting for Godot and its message to us today

Great Carthage waged three wars. It was still powerful after the first, habitable still after the second. Gone without trace after the third. - Brecht, 1951 (transl. JF)

Samuel Beckett died thirty years ago, on 22 December 1989. He received the Nobel Prize for literature, 50 years ago, in 1969. Arguably, Beckett’s most famous play is Waiting for Godot. Typically, when presenting this play today, its comic content is emphasised, as is its ‘absurdist’ label, suggesting that life is meaningless.

Beckett had moved permanently to France in the late 1920s. After the outbreak of WWII, Beckett remained in Paris, where he joined the Resistance following the Nazi invasion of France. He only barely escaped the Gestapo on a number of occasions, and after members of Beckett's underground resistance group were arrested, he was forced to flee to the unoccupied zone in the South of France, where he continued to support the Resistance.

From 1947 on, Beckett wrote primarily in French. Waiting for Godot, written in 1948, is no exception. The Second World War was just over, and this is a supremely important factor in understanding the play, and one that is rarely recognised.

Although this is not specifically stated, Beckett’s play effectively presents the audience with a post-nuclear-war scene. The stage is practically empty except for a country road and a bare tree. In this landscape, two characters, Vladimir (Didi) and Estragon (Gogo), just about exist. These two men struggle to perform the most elementary actions like taking off a shoe. They sleep rough and are regularly beaten up by gangs at night. This is so commonplace that they barely comment on it. The human experience is reduced to simply staying alive and performing, with effort, the simplest actions. Homo sapiens, it seems, has all but been stripped of the ‘sapiens’ part. The characters even find it difficult to stand upright.

In 1948, after World War II and the nuclear carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people have almost come to the end of their humanity and any positive human experience. The tree of life is almost barren; in this play, it becomes a possible prop on which to hang oneself.

Traditionally, plays begin with an exposition leading to action, or indeed in the middle of an action. In Waiting for Godot, there is no prospect for action. The first utterance of the play is “Nothing to be done.” The entire play presents us with the two main characters, Didi and Gogo doing nothing and waiting in vain. They have replaced the protagonists of the past – those who struggle against adversity, injustice or attempt to create a meaningful life. Narratives that were once useful to endorse human goodness have all been stripped of their meaning, including a clearly vain hope for God(ot) to arrive. In fact, waiting for God(ot) prevents any movement out of this state.

Past certainties are undermined; theatre as we know it has come to an end. The idea of human perfectibility is finished. The parables of the Bible too are useless. Didi and Gogo hardly remember them. When a boy appears to tell them that Godot is not coming today, Estragon refers to himself as Adam. Humankind has become what Shakespeare’s King Lear refers to when he speaks of the most destitute: a “poor, bare, forked animal”.

Our two protagonists are not defined in class terms. They seem to be vagrants. However, they are not completely alone in the world. Not only do we hear of random violence against them, at two points in the play, once in each act, Pozzo passes through with a slave (Lucky) whom he has tied to a rope and treats like an animal. Pozzo is a nod to the existence of a ‘master’ class, one who has money and still holds slaves. Lucky seems like a version of Prospero’s Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the indigenous native of the island, kept ignorant and enslaved by Prospero. In the one, all but incomprehensible, statement made by Lucky, he says: “Given the existence . . .of a personal God ... outside (of) time . . . who . . . loves us dearly . . . and suffers . . .with those who . . . are plunged in torment . . . it is established beyond all doubt . . . that man . . . for reasons unknown . . . (has left) labours abandoned left unfinished . . . abandoned unfinished . . .” In other words, God/ man has left labours unfinished.

When Pozzo sees Gogo and Didi, he comments: “You are human beings none the less. … Of the same species as myself. … Made in God’s image!” Any aspiration to godlike form and intellect has been annulled, or perhaps the reverse applies: God is this.

When Pozzo and Lucky appear again in Act II, Pozzo has gone blind and Lucky mute. This is a downward spiral in human development. Thinking is an effort. On one occasion, Didi and Gogo contemplate suicide by hanging from the bare tree (of life?). One reason, they do not do this is that one of them may remain alive and therefore alone. That is a fate worse than death. “I remain in the dark.” This gives some hope. Two characters are after all a small community and they do help each other survive.

Apart from this dependency on another human being, there is another example of common humanity. When Pozzo asks Gogo and Didi for help to get to his feet, they respond to this (after asking for money) “it is not everyday that we are needed.” This profound statement acknowledges that Pozzo’s call for help is addressed to “all of mankind,” and “at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not.” Ironically, all four men end up on the ground and their cries for help go unheeded. Standing upright has become impossible. Purposeful labour and action no longer define us.

Beckett’s play is of immediate relevance to the world today. Like Brecht, he warns of the ultimate destruction of humanity. However, Beckett leaves us with a sense of that all is not lost. His characters still help each other at times of need, they still have that humanity. The tree bears a few leaves at the end of the play, it is not dead. Yet that hope is tenuous. Will the characters be strong enough to move on? Beckett does not give his audience much hope. There is no progress in the play. All we can do is take this message to heart and change the world.

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland
Thursday, 21 November 2019 14:30

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland

Published in Festivals/ Events

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland

On Saturday, 23rd November at 3 p.m. in Connolly Books, Dublin, Fr. Peter McVerry will launch a unique anthology of poetry in both Irish and English by Irish working-class writers from the thirty-two counties of Ireland. There are sixty-seven contributors, women and men, of all generations, including both emerging and established writers. The common focus is on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working-class life in contemporary Ireland.

The anthology is edited by Jenny Farrell, published by Culture Matters, and has been generously supported by the Irish Trade Union movement.

The ‘children of the nation’ were promised equal treatment in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916. However, the lived realities of the working class, the unemployed, the precariously employed, the homeless, and other groups have rarely appeared in mainstream published poetry in Ireland and Britain.

This is the first anthology to be published in Ireland which focuses on poetry written by and about working people and their experiences, cares and concerns. As Brian Campfield, past President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, writes in his Foreword:

The anthology is inclusive and egalitarian, and values authenticity, relevance and communicativeness as well as literary skill and inventiveness. It is grounded in individual effort, but has transformed these individual endeavours into a collective expression of the lives, aspirations, concerns and hopes of that class in our society which constantly has to struggle to get its voice heard and valued.

The poems are about life at the margins of society. The themes include class, the treatment of women, work and worklessness, poverty, violence, racism and many other social and political issues. They express suffering, exploitation and abuse, but also hope, solidarity and internationalism.

One of the central themes is homelessness – homelessness in the sense that people are alienated from this society, and forced into emigration; homelessness in the sense of not being able to afford a home, and being at the mercy of private landlords; but also homelessness in its starkest, most inhuman form of being out on the streets with nowhere to go. As one poet in the anthology concludes:

The/ rich get richer and the/ poor grow more/ poor, and most of us have/ nowhere to/ live. For there ain't no home/ in Dublin.

It is therefore fitting that Fr. Peter McVerry will launch this pioneering anthology. There will also be brief addresses from the Irish Trade Union Movement and from Culture Matters, as well as poetry readings by some of the contributors.

The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland. ISBN 978-1-912710-25-6

Price: €10/ £9 plus p. and p., available here.

From the dystopian chaos of the free market to the solidarity of co-operative communism: the Maddaddam trilogy
Tuesday, 12 November 2019 17:20

From the dystopian chaos of the free market to the solidarity of co-operative communism: the Maddaddam trilogy

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell discusses Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy

Margaret Atwood, who turns 80 in November 2019, has written several novels that explore dystopian situations or circumstances where people are subjected to control and violence. Arguably, the most famous of these is The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). However, what distinguishes Atwood’s work is that people resist such coercion, not just in individual acts but most successfully as part of a secret group or illicit organization. This might be considered a leitmotif of her work. We encounter such resistance not only in The Handmaid’s Tale, but also elsewhere, for example in the deeply disturbing The Heart Goes Last (2015), or in her contemporary take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hag-Seed (2016).

Oscar Wilde, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, had this to say about hopes for a positive future:

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.

Utopia, according to Wilde, is the hope of a better possible life, one where humanity will feel at home. Thinking about what will define such an ideal, and that progress towards it, occupied writers from Thomas More to William Morris. With the Industrial Revolution and the appearance of more hidden forces at work in society at the beginning of the 19th century, the arts increasingly reflected the experience of horror, the experience of extreme violence over people and nature. The old, visible powers of feudal society (God, king, law) enter into an alliance with the invisible powers of capital, and everyday life becomes a world in which the ghostly terror of an anonymous, dominating and oppressive power is omnipresent, and which can break out at any time. Examples of such horror are the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Goya’s Caprichos and Desastres de la Guerra, and Schubert’s Winterreise. Towards the end of the 19th century, further manifestations are Stoker’s Dracula and Munch’s The Scream.

the scream

These visions of horror become the dystopias of the 20th and 21st centuries, many leaving little hope for liberation. Continuing wars with their displacement of people, the ever increasing anonymity of domination and accompanying loss of control, as well as environmental disaster are all valid factors feeding into this pessimism.

Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy imagines an all but post-human world. She explores a world where the free market has led to global anarchy. A technocracy of enormous corporations has destroyed national governments, communities, the ecosystem and almost extinguished life on the planet. Apart from a very few humans, there are left genetically engineered animals such as pigoons, wolvogs and rakunks, and artificially created creatures called Crakers, produced by Crake in his top-secret Paradice project.

Oryx and Crake is the first of the trilogy, Year of the Flood the second, and Maddaddam concludes it. Oryx and Crake sets the scene. The time is in the future, however, the elements making up this future have their recognizable roots in our present. The world is divided into the haves and have-nots. The haves are the corporations, and their employees live in corporation compounds. They are given better lifestyles than the working-class pleebland inhabitants. The raison d’être of the companies is to produce, in competition with others, products promising eternal youth, vitality, sexual prowess and the promise of resulting happiness: AnooYoo, HelthWyzer, OrganInc and RejoovenEsense. OrganInc created pigoons to grow organs for transplant. AnooYou "preys on the phobias and voids the bank accounts of the anxious and the gullible." HelthWyzer manufactures pills for profit, not for health, indeed health is one of their last considerations. In the race for profits, they introduce viruses into their ‘health’ products, to which they can then develop and sell antidotes. Wars over markets are commonplace.

The compounds are policed by private Corporation Security, CorpSeCorps, who control their populations’ movements, by violence and murder, if they deem it necessary. Opposition is not tolerated. A hierarchy exists between the corporations, some being rather less successful and thereby poorer than others. The wealthiest ones still provide real food to their workers; the less successful ones seem to be sliding into the artificial food and conditions that are imposed on the outside world. This setting is the profit-making class, with its more or less bribed employees.


The outside world is called Pleebland (plebeian land, desolate neighbourhoods, where the poor live). The pleeblands still contain cities like "New New York" and San Francisco and hold some attraction for the corporation employees as, while dangerous and diseased, places of entertainment and ‘time out’. Permission and passes are required to go there. This is where the poor live, those at whom the sale of products is aimed.

The story is told from the point of view of Snowman from the novel’s current time, with flashbacks to his past when he was still Jimmy. His best friend at the time, Glenn, is referred to as Crake, a name he picked as a character in an online game the two played called Extinctathon, controlled by the enigmatic Maddaddam.

Both characters have parents who have disappeared. Crake’s father died in a car accident when Crake was very young. Crake believes his father was eliminated for objecting to the practice of introducing disease into the population in order to profit from then selling the remedy. Jimmy’s mother, whom the reader gets to know better, runs away from the compound and protests against their practices. Such defection is dangerous and she knows she needs to disappear without a trace. The corporation tries to locate her, follow her surreptitious messages to Jimmy and interrogate him occasionally regarding her whereabouts. It is likely, although not certain, that Jimmy and Crake witness her execution online.

These two people are not the only examples of resistance to corporate rule. During the coffee war, there is mention of "Union dockworkers in Australia, where they still had unions, refused to unload Happicuppa cargoes". While Crake’s father’s protest is an individual one, these dockworkers act in unison, and they are supported: "in the United States, A Boston Coffee Party sprang up." Jimmy’s mother, too, has clearly joined opposition groups. When Jimmy hears from her or sees her online, she is always part of broader movements.

Crake’s highly valued academic science and maths skills ensure his speedy progression in corporation hierarchy. Jimmy’s verbal skills land him in advertising. Eventually, Crake brings him to the most powerful RejoovenEsense corporation, in which he is a very senior operator. Jimmy’s job here is to run the ad campaign for BlyssPluss, a product to increase sexual performance, protect against STDs, extend youth and function as male and female birth control to reduce global population. Secretly, Crake works on the creation of humanoids, the Children of Crake. These are ‘grown’ in an artificial dome.

Jimmy and Crake both love Oryx, whom they first see in a child pornography film. She is Asian by birth and was sold, as was common practice in her village, to a white man. Her odyssey brings her to North America and Crake later hires her to be a teacher for his Crackers: to explain simple concepts and communicate with them. She also markets BlyssPluss around the world.

When the catastrophe strikes, both Crake and Oryx die violently, and Jimmy takes the Children of Crake to a safe place by the sea. Just how safe this place is, is debatable, as the environment is badly damaged and they need to seek food and other essentials for survival. The children of Crake have been programmed to live on plants only.

This first volume of the trilogy ends as first the Children of Crake, later Snowman, encounter other human survivors. Perhaps playing on a set of fossilized early human footprints discovered on the shore of Langebaan Lagood, South Africa, in 1995, Snowman traces the whereabouts of the humans by following their imprints on the beach. He finds "Two men, one brown, one white, a tea-coloured woman". He is uncertain as to what to expect, knowing his own species, and considers different scenarios of how to relate to them. In the end, he leaves them without making himself known and returns to the Children of Crake, who he knows are naïve, friendly, peaceful, and care for him.

While Oryx and Crake (2003) is set in the Compounds, the second volume in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood (2009), is set contemporaneously in the violent and disease-ridden pleeblands. This is where the novel’s central female characters live, Toby and Ren, relating the stories of their lives and individual survival of Crake’s pandemic. The narrative shift from compound to pleebland is echoed in that from individual narrator to two narrators, from male to female, from isolation to group.

The two women had been members of a religious sect (albeit themselves not terribly religious), the pacifist and ecological God’s Gardeners, who had predicted the apocalyptic Waterless Flood brought about by environmental destruction. As they see it, Crake’s pandemic is this flood. God’s Gardeners is a dropout group, which is not idealized by Atwood, but shown with its own weaknesses. A disagreement over tactics, causes Zeb to leave the pacifist Gardeners and engage in active bioterrorist opposition to the Corporations’ security police. As the narrative draws towards the present, surviving Gardeners are forced into hiding and are hounded by dehumanised criminals (“painballers”), who murder and kidnap.

Echoing the ending of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood concludes as the main characters find other survivors, including Jimmy, and the two painballers, along with their kidnap victim. They do not kill their criminal captives, but tie them up and feed them. The closing paragraph announces the arrival of Crake’s Children approaching them: “many people singing. Now we can see the flickering of their torches, winding towards us through the darkness of the trees.”

The final book in the trilogy, Maddaddam (2013), is written from the perspective of Zeb and Toby, who were both introduced in The Year of the Flood. Their stories are told in the wake of the same biological disaster. They eventually meet up with Jimmy (Oryx and Crake) and other survivors. Together with the Crakers, they start remaking civilisation, but are still troubled by criminals. Some humans mate with the Crakers, but eventually die out. The end part of the story is told by the human-like the new race. They are peace-loving and environmentally aware.

Atwood’s outlook is cautiously, if thinly, optimistic for the survival of life on the planet. Despite an impending, profit-driven environmental catastrophe, wars, and cynical disregard for human beings, it is the ordinary human beings who have the greatest potential for survival. Very few do survive, but they realise that continued existence can only be achieved in solidarity with one another, not in competition, rivalry, exclusion, and individualism. While the danger is by no means defeated, a return to the awareness our tribal ancestors had of community, the state that Marx and Engels called primitive communism, is essential. And perhaps humankind will only live on in a new, more co-operative version of itself.

The Architects: a film about the reasons for the GDR's collapse
Friday, 08 November 2019 14:26

The Architects: a film about the reasons for the GDR's collapse

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell discusses The Architects, a film made in 1989/90 which traced the reasons for the collapse of the GDR 

30 years ago, on 9 November 1990, the inner-German border was opened, West Berlin was flooded with shoppers, and over the next few days and weeks the East German state toppled and collapsed. Why did it happen?

“The Architects” was one of the last films to be made in the GDR: the shoot began five weeks before the border opened, on 3 October 1989, and continued through to January 1990. It reached the cinemas in June 1990, as the currency union paved the way for the political joining of the two German states. Due to the turmoil of the times this film was viewed by very few; yet it is an interesting artistic document detailing – from the perspective of its artists – the reasons that led to the collapse of the socialist system, as it existed in the German Democratic Republic.

Briefly, the storyline is that a team of young architects is commissioned by the state to design the infrastructure for a vast estate of apartment blocks. They have to contend with the state and party apparatus, economic requisites, a fear of innovation and a lack of imagination. The architects are in their late thirties, the exact age of their country. They studied in Weimar, with all its associations of modern social housing during the Bauhaus and indeed, as referenced in the film, in the GDR itself.

The film follows their struggles to implement their dreams to design a habitable estate, one that does not merely provide the material conditions for survival like accommodation, transport and supermarkets. Their vision is a departure from prefabricated architecture. It is based on non-standard, imaginative elements, ecological construction, a cinema, a Vietnamese restaurant, and recreational facilities. In short, a place where people will be happy to live and stay. It is a metaphor for a society needing to live up to its own vision.  

The political critique could hardly be more obvious. Director Peter Kahane said that the screenplay described his own experience as a filmmaker, and the officials deciding on whether or not the film could be made appeared in their own roles in the film itself. Yet despite containing stark criticism of the state, tracing reasons for its collapse, the film was given the go-ahead and given the necessary state funding.

In the film the young team charged with the radical architectural design are cautiously hopeful that they can implement their plans. This is especially true of the team leader, Daniel, who puts up a heroic fight. The arguments used against the team are unconvincing and smack of fear of innovation. Hope is maintained almost to the end, and uncannily continues as everything collapses around them. But it comes too late for the team, and their belief in the project falls to pieces.

Why is this film of interest to us today, 30 years on? Perhaps because the socialist society depicted here shows people who have work and pleasant housing, at least indoors. There is neither poverty nor unemployment or homelessness. There is no evidence of social difference in terms of incomes. From this understanding, from this reality, people wish for more: individuality, imagination, variety. Their main complaint is boredom, paternalism, and an absence of trust. And here they come up against the political powers of the state.

The film is made from a position of achievement. The fact that full employment, cheap social housing for all, free education and medical care, all this social security is not enough, is a statement about the maturity of the society. After our basic human needs are fulfilled, we need cultural centres in the locality, cinemas, restaurants, and architectural art in every neighbourhood. People expect this, and not to have it is rightly seen as deprivation. This is another reason why so many leave the country. What expectations they have for the West and how this pans out is not the focus of the film.

The shoot coincided with people leaving the country in droves, and this is reflected in the film itself. However, Daniel’s Swiss friend, who had studied architecture in Weimar with him, visits because he wants to see the place again. When asked what he is working on, he says refugee accommodation, adding: “We from Weimar are architects with a social conscience.” He has not made money building wacky villas for the wealthy. As it happens, Daniel has the better prospects at that stage of building wacky designs for the working people of the estate. 

However, it was not to be, and Daniel loses hope and courage to continue his project, he loses the belief in himself and his ability to change things. The film was overtaken by history in the making, it documented the GDR’s reality as it became history. For me the interest lies not only in its awareness of what went wrong, but also in its lack of awareness of what had gone right.

“The Architects” is available on DVD with English subtitles.

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'
Monday, 07 October 2019 14:38

Gandhi: 'The worst form of violence is poverty'

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews Walk with Gandhi, Bóthar na Saoirse, by Gabriel Rosenstock (Author) and Masood Hussain (Illustrator)

Bóthar na Saoirse (Road to Freedom) Walk with Gandhi is a beautiful book to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s birth on 2 October 1869. The book is a collection of haiga – a style of Japanese painting often accompanied by a haiku poem. The artists are the watercolourist Masood Hussain, from Kashmir, and the Irish poet and haikuist Gabriel Rosenstock. Hussain’s exquisite watercolours are a re-interpretation of historical photographs taken of Gandhi. Rosenstock’s haiku are in Irish and English. This is significant, as one of the main themes of the book is colonialism and Gandhi’s awareness and opposition to it, including the colonising function of language.

colder than all the prisons

you’ve been thrown into …

Downing Street railings

In addition to the amazing interplay of the two art forms, the book is interspersed with fascinating insights into Gandhi’s life and philosophy. These reveal that the book is designed to make Gandhi accessible for the younger generation. They invite readers to consider historical events, forms of protest, the effects of colonialism, and relate them to the present.

Gandhi Poster Suite 2 ok

The information put together for the readers is not designed to turn Gandhi into a saint. It relates aspects that surprise us, for example, that “He achieved much for the status of his fellow Indians in South Africa … but native Africans – such as Zulus – do not hero-worship Gandhi today. Au contraire! Gandhi took the side of the British in the Zulu uprising of 1906.” It was in South Africa that Gandhi’s journey began, when he was thrown off a train for sitting in a “whites only” carriage. This awakening was the beginning of his lifelong quest for freedom and justice. Mandela said about him later, in India: “You gave us Mohandas; we returned him to you as Mahatma.” Many of the tactics Gandhi first used in South Africa, he employed again in India.

Back in India, in 1915, his friend the poet Rabindranath Tagore gave him the name title “Mahatma”, Great Soul, a name Gandhi never warmed to; it deified him in some way. Tagore makes several appearances in this book. One of these connects him to the Irish anti-colonial struggle: Pádraig Pearse was in correspondence with Tagore and his play The Post Office had its world premiere in the Abbey Theatre in 1913.

Gandhi Poster Suite 5 ok

The Book “Bóthar na Saoirse” explores many facets of Gandhi’s life. For the younger readers it could well be a first introduction to exploring ideas of colonialism. For example, the following haiku echoes Frantz Fanon’s book The Wretched of the Earth:

are there hats enough

to go round …

the wretched of the earth

In the following haiku, Rosenstock gently hints at India’s own discrimination of the ‘Untouchables’, not without a reminder that “many societies have their own forms of class discrimination, snobbishness and exclusiveness, often based on dress, accent, schooling, money, property and other outer distinctive markings”.

a hand

like any other hand …

the untouchables

A fascinating insight Rosenstock provides in this book is linguistic links between Irish and Indian languages. Readers of this book discover that the “Irish word for a cow is bó and the Sanskrit is go…. The Celtic name Bovinda (White Cow) is the same as Govinda, another name for the Indian deity Krishna. A little clue to the cradle of Indo-European civilisation!”

This book is a gem. It is beautiful, a wonderfully enriching pleasure in terms of aesthetic appreciation and engaging the mind. It quotes many people on the significance of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, such as Albert Einstein’s: “I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men in our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.”

To finish with a quote from Gandhi himself, one that struck a particular chord with me is: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

The book is published by Gandhi 150 Ireland, 5 October 2019 Paperback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-0-4 Hardback: ISBN 978-1-9162254-2-8 Ebook: ISBN 978-1-9162254 -1-1

Gandhi Poster Suite 8 ok

Self portrait, 1630
Thursday, 26 September 2019 18:35

The revolutionary painting of Rembrandt van Rijn

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell marks the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt van Rijn with a discussion of some of his dynamic, democratic and deeply humane paintings

Rembrandt’s Times

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Flemish cloth trade had developed into the strongest competitor of Florentine cloth makers and traders, giving rise to a growing Dutch bourgeoisie. Early capitalism developed quickly in Flanders and Brabant, with the trading centre of Antwerp, while the provinces in the French-speaking area remained agricultural and mainly dominions of the nobility.

The conflict between bourgeoisie and aristocracy became an expression of national interests, reflected in the struggle against Spanish domination. The bourgeoisie was the leading force in the national liberation struggle of the Dutch people.

Only the northern provinces of the Netherlands succeeded in 1648 in freeing themselves from Spanish rule, giving power to the bourgeoisie. Awakened national pride, love for the homeland as well as pride in bourgeois prosperity were all expressed in painting. Dutch artists painted everyday life and ordinary people at work. They raised genre painting to the level of great art, and for the first time in history, ordinary people were painted in all their diversity. Dutch art was the first to develop secular genre painting.

Cheerful aspects of life dominated the arts. The peasant world was included, however, mainly for amusement. Soldiers and beggars completed the range of subjects. The only painter who expressed a warm humanity for beggars was Rembrandt. His genius was unrecognised in patrician Holland, yet only Holland could produce such an artist. Only the Republic that had a plebeian history linked to the struggle for independence could be his historical ground.

Rembrandt’s Art

The young Rembrandt’s paintings are full of joyful energy, as his Self-portrait with Saskia (1635) shows. Towards the end of the 1620s, his art had grown – in warm, gold tinted coloration, and in its ability to dramatise space through light-dark contrasts.

R Self portrait with Saskia 1635                        

Self-portrait with Saskia, 1635                                                                                                   

The Night Watch (1642) represents a new departure. Group portraits had become a special achievement of Dutch art and expressed proud community spirit. People wanted to see the members of a guild or a corporation represented together. The civic militia, organised in militia guilds, played an important role in the wars of independence, making such paintings artistic expressions of the bourgeois revolution. Rembrandt broke with the traditional style of a fairly stiff group portrait, by subjecting all participants to dynamic action and a dominant light-dark contrast.

R The Night Watch 1642

The Night Watch,1642

Instead of an impressive company of admirable officers and disciplined men, Rembrandt paints a rather disordered assembly. Each guard seems to be looking and pulling in a different direction, doing his own thing impervious to the others. Lance and flag point in opposite directions. In the midst of it, a diminutive golden figure, with Rembrandt’s recently deceased wife Saskia’s features, holds the company’s emblems.

In this way, Rembrandt subverts what had been a heroic genre. There is liveliness, sound and motion, with a man loading his musket, the commander giving orders, a drummer drumming, a flag swung, a barking dog and the boy – carrying a powder horn and dashing off to collect more powder for the three musketeers – all adding to the commotion. Two areas of bright gold on either side of the captain focus the eye on him, as do the diagonal lines of the flag, rifle, and lance, all pointing towards him. Nevertheless, the captain and his lieutenant in the centre foreground do not impose order. This animated, energetic movement was so new that it must have perplexed both guild and viewers. It is so powerfully forward-moving that the viewer feels a need to get out of the way. It is a truly revolutionary painting.

Later, Rembrandt develops a lyrical intimacy that infuses family scenes with a humanity that constitutes Rembrandt’s timeless significance. The moving painting Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656) uncovers depths of the human psyche, and finds its greatness in love and forgiveness. Colour and light interweave, creating an inner glow. Rembrandt focuses on the gentleness and warmth of Jacob’s blessing, not showing the disagreement between Joseph and Jacob regarding this blessing. Also, the inclusion of the children’s mother, Asenath, in this scene, is a deliberate departure from the Bible, and reflects the growing status of women in 17th century Holland as well as the importance of love in marriage. Asenath is shown to be involved and an important figure in the family setting. Her presence illustrates Rembrandt’s realism and the ingredient of doubt that he brings to his art. The painting’s colours underline the warmth and tenderness of the scene, and the perspective from which it is painted heightens the sense of the viewer surreptitiously witnessing a momentous family moment.

R Jacob

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, 1656

In the course of Rembrandt’s lifetime, the bourgeoisie had aligned their standard of living with that of the nobility. They became mainly interested in the outwardly beautiful and representative. Rembrandt’s incorruptible artistic honesty, shaped by the democratic spirit of republican Holland, inevitably came into conflict with the ruling class. From the middle of his life, his work was no longer valued.

Rembrandt anticipated a democratic culture that was yet to come. He was the first to place modern knowledge, understanding – and therefore doubt – at the centre of his art. This places him among the ranks of the great Enlightenment artists and thinkers, and connects him with the ideas of the French Revolution.

All but forgotten in old age, he died in poverty and alone, on 4 October 1669.

The revolutionary realism of 'Peasant Bruegel'
Saturday, 31 August 2019 13:14

The revolutionary realism of 'Peasant Bruegel'

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell discusses the life and work of 'Peasant Bruegel', unearthing the radically subversive protests and criticisms of political domination which are expressed so beautifully in his paintings

The greatest of the 16th century Dutch realists is without doubt Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Born around 1525, Bruegel died 450 years ago, on 9 September 1569. His lifetime coincides with the Netherland’s struggle against Spanish domination. The Netherlands, which at that time included the territory of the present Netherlands as well as Belgium, Luxembourg and part of northern France, belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and was dominated by the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs. Into Bruegel’s lifetime fall: an escalation of the Inquisition, the persecution of Protestants, and Calvinist iconoclasm.

Bruegel was the first of a large family of painters. He became known as “Peasant Bruegel” due to one of the main features of his work, the centrality of the Dutch peasantry. However, his art reflects Dutch reality in many more ways. Not only did it draw inspiration from popular expressions and proverbs and put the people of the Netherlands at its centre, his paintings for that very reason contain many hidden attacks on Spanish imperial domination. In this way, works such as The Procession to Calvary, Census at Bethlehem, The Massacre of the Innocent and many others, sometimes cloaked in religious guise, helped to prepare the Dutch Revolution by putting on canvas the realities of life for ordinary people, and thereby supporting the Dutch quest for independence:

brueghel procession to calvary

The Procession to Calvary – detail

In this painting, Jesus is wearing the same blue clothes as the peasants, who are coming to his aid, both women and men. The red-coated mercenaries, all on horseback, are clearly depicted as their common enemy.

brueghel Census at Bethlehem

Census at Bethlehem

Domination of the Dutch peasantry by the Spanish oppressor is also very apparent in the two paintings Census at Bethlehem and The Massacre of the Innocents. Both are set in freezing landscapes. Both carry a political comment about the Dutch/Flemish under this Habsburg branch of the Holy Roman Empire. In Census at Bethlehem, the people clearly suffer from the financial and military yoke of the foreign power. They queue to register, and to pay taxes to the Empire. Tellingly, the tax collectors sit next to the Habsburg coat of arms (a black eagle on a golden shield), painted on the wall beside the window. Mary and Joseph are shown heading towards the tax collectors. They too are depicted as Dutch people in subjugation.

brueghel hunters in the snow

Hunters in the Snow

Bruegel’s sequence on the seasons have their roots in the book of hours, but they have come a long way. These paintings mastered seasonal atmospheric values of nature for the first time, and organically integrated the ordinary working people into the landscape. In his winter landscape, Hunters in the Snow, the hunters and their dogs return from work. They are bent over with tiredness, on their way home to the village. In this painting, Bruegel’s training as a miniature artist is spectacularly clear in the amount of life going on in the distance. The viewer sees the expansive landscape through the hunters’ eyes, following their footsteps across the snow-covered ridge. Villagers skate, a woman crosses a bridge carrying brushwood. Even a chimney fire can be detected in the village’s farthest cottage, with villagers working hard to extinguish it. An icy cold wind blows towards the observer, and one senses the shelter that the huts offer their inhabitants.

brueghel the wedding dance

The Wedding Dance

Bruegel celebrated the rich traditions of Dutch culture, highlighting the threat to it posed by the Spanish ruling class. Most famous of all are of Bruegel’s depictions of peasant life, as for example The Wedding Dance. This very this-worldly picture would have been frowned upon by the Church, as it disapproved of dancing and any obvious sensuality and joy-in-life. At this picture’s centre we see the joined hands of bride and groom dancing in the open air. The bride is the only woman without a white scarf and a working woman’s apron, her red hair is loose, and she is wearing a black dress (white dresses only became fashionable in the 19th century). The entire village is invited and it is a joyous community occasion. The dynamic movement within the picture is stunning, expressing the people's enormous energy, and one can almost hear the bagpipe music. Aside from the dancing, there is sexual freedom among the villagers too. The bagpipe itself is a sexual symbol, apart from it being a folk music instrument. The unrestrained enjoyment of life, the energy, the dancing, music and sexual freedom are all a clear statement of resistance to the attempt by the Spanish ruling class at political and religious control of the Dutch people.

brueghel fish etcjpg

Big Fish Eats Small Fish

Bruegel also produced more directly socially critical allegorical works such as Big Fish Eats Small Fish or the not so allegorical pair The Rich Kitchen and The Poor Kitchen. These are still enjoyable, recognisable and true to this day:

Brueghel kitchen 1    brueghel kitchen 2

The Rich Kitchen and The Poor Kitchen.           

Bruegel captured his time, from the point of view of subjugated people in his country, and he did it in a remarkably realistic and humane way. His art represents the early stages, the progressive, indeed revolutionary, element of bourgeois realism. For this reason, viewers today can easily understand and identify with Bruegel’s partisanship with the ordinary, exploited and oppressed folk, and their rebellion against their condition.

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