Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Irish poets learn your application-writing-skills

Nothing quite matches the rancour of artistes scrapping for funding. They make a pack of feeding hunting dogs seem positively polite. Of late, teeth are gnashing on the pages of the Irish Times over an anticipated windfall being siphoned into a new quango: Creative Ireland. It’s not so much a call for art for art’s sake, but leave it to the Art’s Council, for f*ck’s sake.

Taoiseach Varadkar left a pretty vocal hostage when he let it be known during the Fine Gael leadership run-off that he wanted to double arts expenditure. But the literary establishment are worried this won’t be passing through their glad hands.

John McAuliff, the paper’s poetry editor, deputy chair of the Arts Council, and professor of creative writing at Manchester University wrote an op-ed dismissing Creative Ireland in symbolist terms as: ‘part-car, part-temple, part-group-hug and part-energy-drink’.

The campaign is being spearheaded by Culture Editor Hugh Linehan who took to the airwaves on RTE’s Arena to bemoan the state of affairs last week.

No doubt the government have some awful schemes up their pin stripes through Creative Ireland. They’ll be fitting out leprechaun suits, sending comely maidens to dance at crossroads, and offering throaty renditions of Danny Boy. Anything for the Yankee dollar.

But the current model of funding doesn’t make Ireland an easy place for artists to operate. A career in the arts is, overwhelmingly, a middle class luxury; and in order to survive most spend an inordinate amount of time filling out funding applications.

Here, the worth of projects often seem to be measured in abstruseness, what McAuliff refers to as the ‘painstaking annual decision-making process’. Not as painful as some of the resulting output one could say.

What most artists would settle for is a reduction in the cost of living across the board, but especially in the capital. This would make the pursuit of money a less overwhelming necessity. Most artists accept they will never be wealthy, but even a low income now is a form of penury, with dramatic rises in rents making life especially difficult. Bringing selected artists, usually already middle class, up to a middle class income does nothing to make society at large more sympathetic to art.

Most artists just want to get on with their work rather than justifying it in lengthy applications processes, and then feel compelled to promote themselves constantly among the select group who decide on funding. That means most who get serious go away.

James Joyce once playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’ Not under the current regime.

It’s hard to think of a single poet writing in Ireland today that has managed to transcend a readership of fellow-poets, or a visual artist who is really speaking to the public. As ever, most of what is good on the Irish cultural scene is happening far from the filing cabinets.

Leonardo’s Helicopter Day

Leonardo’s Helicopter Day

Leonardo in the market place
Catches sight of a row of caged birds
In a frenzied row
Tweeting as if obliged
To share a song and thirst
For better life to come
Beyond the confines of this
Their cruel capture
He walks among them mesmerised
Not appalled really, but amazed
At the sheer profundity of their cries
That recall not torture
Yet visited on man with all his
Capacities for insight.

And so he spies their captors
In the dusty marketplace
Under the Duomo
A layer of dirt
Clouding his judgment
And seeks out what seems to be
Their leader, an aged gentleman
Who, long-endured from town to town
The frenzied cries of all the many
Inured to what he has heard
And smelt and touched
Principled in many respects
Performs services uncalled for
Honours his daughters
Providing healthy dowries
To take into their market place
And three fine sons alive
Counting on the benches
Not usurers really
But offering service
To ease commerce

Leonardo seeing all this
Staggers and imagines each bird
Counts their blessings and realises
In a flash of inspiration
The precise possibilities of flight
Joyfully he greets the man
Whose eyes darkly consider
This grey presence whose fame
Now has spread beyond
Even Italy’s highways
This curious figure who, it is said
Breaks all conventions giving
Vent to passions wild and unusual
But a great man it is clear
Even he knew that
And assumed great wealth too.

Suddenly Leonardo took from his pocket
All the ducats he could muster
Not caring to enquire how many
But a frenzied handful
Sexual in his disregard
Passion’s play awakened
He pressed the sum into the hand
Of the man who could hardly
Refuse so great a weight
And then the artist cried
‘I wish to buy them all
Each and every one and cages too’.

Respectfully the deal was done
Leonardo passed by each cage
Opening them all he allowed
All a freedom
They gladly soared beyond
Their caged-lives
And the cages his attendants
Gathered in succession.

Stillness fell upon the market place
The dust settling
The artist in a daze
Amazed at the inspiration
Of his boundless empathy
He entered the celestial realm
Of his soaring imagination
And found a freedom untold
A god-awoken realisation
A helicopter day brimming
With a delight he could hardly
Understand how his vision could
Centuries henceforth descend
From the idea of a rescue
Of walkers lost on mountain tops
Becoming instead a gun ship
Astride the jungle spouting fire
Or drenching crops with pestilence
How could man murder imagination?
A vision of freedom repelled
By the vile torturers
Counting on the benches
Becoming ecocide.

(Listen on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/frank-armstrong-649911741/leonardos-helicopter-day)

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

Accounts of the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on October 25th 1917 read more like those of a party being violently gate-crashed than the single most shocking event of the twentieth century: the emergence of the Bolsheviks as leaders of the first Communist regime in history, in the world’s largest country. The old European order would soon lie in tatters, but outrageous indulgence rather than single-minded austerity marked this turning point in history. The ultimate descent of the Revolution into oppressive totalitarianism may be explained by intellectual hubris among its followers, and the violent methods of its leader.

Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917, ending a reign marked by ineptitude and intransigence. The Romanov dynasty to which he belonged had ruled Russia since 1613, and in that period conquered a vast multinational empire encompassing almost a sixth of the world’s landmass. Tsardom itself, which claimed a descet, and drew its name, from the Roman Caesars, had apparently passed into the dustbin of history. Historic failure to remodel Russian society along European lines – serfs were only emancipated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Empire for the challenge of modern, ‘total’ warfare. Nicholas, his wife and five children, were shot, bayonetted and clubbed to death by Bolsheviks the following year.

By October 1917 a socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky was leader of a provisional government. Fatally for that regime, however, Russia remained embroiled in a war she could ill-afford. In the meantime the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smuggled with German assistance into the country aboard a sealed train, intent on fomenting a violent uprising. ‘Russia’, wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, ‘lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle’. The American journalist John Reed attests to a rambunctious atmosphere in the then capital of St Petersburg: ‘Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.’

Inside the Winter Palace members of Kerensky’s cabinet – though not Kerensky himself – held out against the Bolsheviks who controlled most of the city. Red Army gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They succeeded, nonetheless, in panicking the defenders and many slipped away. At last the dilettante besiegers discovered the main doors were unlocked and stormed the building. Without significant bloodshed the cabinet were arrested, although some of the women’s militia defending the palace were raped. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, more people were hurt in the making of Eisentein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘battle’ itself. What ensued was a wild party.

According to the leader of the assault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The matter of the wine-cellars became especially critical’. Nicholas’s cellars contained Hungarian Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the emperor’s favourite. But:

the Preobrazhensky Regiment… got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got utterly drunk. We post guards from the Regimental Committees – they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.

What transpired after this farce was, however, no carnival. According to Montefiore Lenin was always ‘eager to start the bloodletting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ireland, he believed any successful revolution demanded a heavy death toll, favouring the ruthlessness of Robespierre’s Jacobins in 1789 over the more placatory Paris Communards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because its leaders ‘should have exterminated its enemies’, rather than attempt to exert moral influence. In August 1918 he issued the following order:

1. Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take all their grain away from them.
4. Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday. Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out your instructions.
Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s approach to violence may have been pragmatic in the context of the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but containing the “tougher people” he unleashed would prove highly problematic.

Up to ten million people died in that conflict, the vast majority civilians; far more than the approximately two million Russian deaths in the preceding war. But wartime militarisation left the country as combustible as a pine forest after a heatwave. The October Revolution was the hesitant match that brought the inferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel set during the Civil War in Kiev, recounts:

there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried under-ground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three-inch gun hidden in ever fifth-village, machine guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.

The events in St Petersburg reverberated around the enormous country, generating a dizzying array of factions that never managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the two largest Russian cities, despite the intervention of foreign powers.

Karl Marx did not believe that a Russian revolution would produce a Socialist government as the society was too undeveloped. Under Marxist theory Communism should emerge in the more advanced Capitalist societies such as the UK and Germany. After victory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed westwards towards Germany. The triumph, however, of Marshall Pilsudski’s Polish army before Warsaw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ – scuppered the prospect of world revolution. Communism would be confined to one country for two decades. Nevertheless, a generation of European intellectuals were seduced by the idealism of the October Revolution.

According to the poet Stephen Spender, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Britain in the 1930s: ‘Socialism was a variety of modernist behaviour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely believed that Capitalism was both deeply unfair, and ultimately doomed. Sympathies were also based on an assumption of being on the right side of history. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Communism … is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ In this teleology Communism was the ultimate stage, humankind having passed through Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism. It was linked to a belief in science and rationality, and opposed to the superstitions and inflexibility of Old Europe.

The appeal for others lay in ameliorating the disastrous economic conditions after the war. The novelist Arthur Koestler’s family never recovered financially from its effects. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931 after surveying the poverty and profiteering that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later recalled: ‘I was ripe for it because I lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good intentions.

Classically, revolutions devour their children, and Josef Vissarionvich Djugashvilli-Stalin emerged as the angel of death. According to an early biographer Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ultimate committee man’, who, ‘led because he followed the prevailing mood and expressed it in a grey patchwork of formulas.’ As to his role in the October Revolution Leon Trotsky – himself an early disciple of Lenin’s ruthless disregard for human life, who would eventually be murdered with an ice pick on Stalin’s orders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’

‘Trotsky’s testimony might be dismissed’, according to Deutscher, ‘were it possible to find among the welter of documents’, a few recording Stalin’s direction connection with the first days of the upheaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Afterwards as first Commissar for Nationalities Stalin operated in the background, building alliances and playing one faction off against another, as he awaited a chance to strike for power, which arrived after Lenin’s early death in 1924. The widespread acceptance of Lenin’s violent methodology when placed in the hands of this paranoid, and frankly wicked, personality brought untold suffering to Russia, and beyond.

Communism was a system of government committed to rational methods, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anonymous anti-hero in Notes from the Underground (1864) anticipates how a wilful character, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those principles. He describes a form of government where:

All human actions will then of course be calculated, mathematically, like logarithm tables up to 108,000, and recorded in a calendar; or even better, well-intentioned publications will then appear … in which everything will be so precisely calculated and recorded that there will no longer be deliberate acts or adventures in the world.

This he suggests would create a reaction, in the form of that avenging angel:

I, for example, wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the midst of all this reasonableness that is to come, suddenly and quite unaccountably some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a reactionary and mocking physiognomy were to appear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: “Now, gentlemen, what about giving all this reasonableness a good kick with the sole purpose of sending all those logarithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in accordance with our own stupid will!

He adds, ominously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find people to follow him: people are made like that’.

During the purges Stalin openly revealed an admiration for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the terrible’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few boyars. He should have killed them all, to create a strong state.’ Thus, Montefiore argues: ‘The magnates were not as oblivious to Stalin’s nature as they later claimed’. He found no difficultly enlisting loyal executioners, despite descending into the despotism and profound irrationality of a Red Tsar.

Thus, paradoxically, Communists and their fellow-travellers were bewitched by a dogma of extreme rationality, where the Utopian end justified the most shocking means. Koestler writes: ‘Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act’. Koestler eventually become disillusioned with the cause, and his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a probing psychological portrait of an innocent Bolshevik who assents to his execution in a show trial, sacrificing himself for the sake of the historical dialectic. Adherence to Communism took on many of the features of a religion.

Other Communists – usually at a remove from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism – such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm, were repelled by those who had abandoned their faith. In his autobiography he admits: ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev admitted to the depravity of Stalin’s rule, and after the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally suppressed, that he admits: ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

Communists reacted to these events like devout Catholics to revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by a Revealed truth, Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’: ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

The intellectual hubris of the Marxist idea of an end to history perhaps doomed the movement to a violent totalitarianism that brooked no dissent. Under Communism, according to the Polish writer Ryzsard Kapuscinski: ‘the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be’. He concludes ‘A civilisation that does not ask questions … is a civilisation standing in place, paralyzed, immobile’. Communism did not permit competing opinions. This led to intellectual stultification, formulaic art, and eventually declining scientific ingenuity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.

Many European intellectuals saw the October Revolution as a spark of inspiration anticipating a better world, and in a period when politics was closely connected to military struggle, violent excess was tolerated. In response, abandoning ideology may seem salutary; as Solzhenitsyn put it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’ However, without conviction human progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that survives is the kind of cynicism of today that sees no alternative to an ascendant Neoliberalism. The noble objective of Communism was to bring homo sapiens to a higher plain of existence. Despite the horrendous hangover that followed the October Revolution, perhaps we should not abandon that hope lightly.

History indicates that any improving idea is unlikely to succeed over the long-term if brutal methods are used to carry it out. Lenin criticised the relative passivity of the Paris Communards, but modern France is more socialist than present-day Russia. Significant shifts in consciousness – such as those brought by the Christian New Testament to Europe – tend to occur at an individual level rather than when imposed from above. In fact, as was the case after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, imposition may often lead to tyranny. An abstract idea, no matter how seemingly benevolent, in the hands of a ruthless politician, such as Stalin, may become a tool of oppression. Today few around the world still believe that the October Revolution was the catalyst for a better world

Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

No doubt farmers will dismiss out of hand someone who believes that animals have rights. But I hope you’ll hear me out.

I am not saying you are going to hell for raising animals for slaughter or for trying to make a living from your land, and to take care of you and your family. In my view all of society is complicit in a system that I consider wrong from the point of view of animals, the environment and human health.

My father comes from the West of Ireland where his father was a part-time farmer mostly raising cattle. My uncle took over the farm and today keeps cattle and sheep. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. I simply cannot regard him as a bad person for what he does, and nor do I consider most of my friends who are meat-eaters bad people.

So let me explain how I adopted my position. Some years ago I met an English gentleman who is now in his mid-80s who was in extraordinary that he attributed to a plant-based diet that he had adopted some thirty years beforehand. I was intrigued to see what the effect would be on myself and started incorporating foods he recommended like millet, sea vegetables and miso. Slowly my tastes changed. I began to really appreciate vegetables as never before and felt my health improve.

Subsequently my own father who had grown up with the standard Irish diet featuring plenty of red meat and dairy produce developed heart disease and had to undergo a distressing heart bypass operation in his late 60s. Slowly and with some reluctance he switched to an overwhelmingly plant-based diet. The health benefit was remarkable. It reached a point where he no longer needed to see his heart specialist. The change of diet and increased levels of exercise had brought about almost a complete recovery.

But health considerations was only the beginning of my journey. I began to examine the environmental impact of meat and came across reports like the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow which attributed 18% of human emissions to animal agriculture. I also found out that 32% of Irish emissions were coming from our livestock agriculture.

Yet the health and environmental arguments alone were insufficient for me to turn vegan. It was knowing the violent origins that meant I could no longer stomach animal products. This caused some ructions in my family, especially at Christmas time when I argued against the age-old tradition of Christmas turkey. Tears were shed, but we survived as a family and I learnt to be less shrill in my criticism of others.

My story may seem of little relevance to farmers and I don’t expect too many to go down the road I have travelled. But from a business point of view it might be useful for farmers to recognise that the global market could change and the number of vegans, especially among the younger generations, is gathering a global momentum. Already products such as Beyond Meat are hitting the shelves of Walmart in the US. In the UK some 12% of the population, rising to 20% among 16-24 year-olds, are now vegetarian at least. Where the US and UK go we tend to follow.

What would the implications be for Irish farmers if a fast food retailer such as McDonalds decided to use ‘meat’ from plant proteins that was cheaper, healthier and less offensive to the increasing number of vegans? Do Irish farmers who overwhelmingly raise livestock have contingency plans for a significant dietary shift, especially if pressure is put on the European Union to withdraw subsidies on food that creates high emissions? Animal products can never be an environmentally conscientious choice, no matter what the marketing spin.

What opportunities are there for innovative Irish farmers to produce crops for direct human consumption? Could crops like hemp or peas represent great opportunities? Is dulse seaweed the healthy bacon of the future? Would vegan-friendly labelling shift more of a product? Fundamentally, do we need to look at adapting a subsidy regime that gives minimal flexibility to Irish farmers?

One of the remarkable things about the world today is the pace of change.
Through social media especially ideas diffuse very rapidly. There is no doubt that veganism is on the rise in Ireland and elsewhere and it’s important for conversations to occur between vegans and farmers. There is no point sitting in our respective bunkers. We might have more in common than we anticipate.

Oh Really O’Reilly

Oh Really O’Reilly

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed Damien O’Reilly, the presenter of RTE’s Countrywide and occasionally Liveline, received a payment of €1,500 to act as Master of Ceremonies at An Bord Bia-Origin Green trade event in Dubai earlier this year. This casts serious doubt over O’Reilly’s objectivity in regard to that controversial campaign.

Origin Green projects an image of Irish agriculture as sustainable and harmonious with nature, but greenhouse gas emissions from the sector remain at 33% of the national total. The programme includes 90% of all Irish beef produced, and 85% of all dairy farms in the country. A mere 0.5% of applicants have been refused admission.

This has brought accusations of greenwashing. The Irish Wildlife Trust recently called on the Government to scrap the Origin Green certification scheme on the basis that “some of the country’s worst polluters are among those certified.” The IWT’s campaigns officer Padraig Fogarty claimed it was a marketing label promoted by An Bord Bia, which should be “exposed for the sham that it is”, and scrapped. Fogarty’s recent book Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature reveals how an unprecedented range of species native to the island are facing extinction, including the legendary curlew.

A submission by An Taisce to An Bord Bia on Origin Green, from October 2016, stated: “Judging the sustainability of Irish agriculture under the three key environmental headings targeted by Origin Green, namely Climate, Water and Biodiversity reveals that, far from being sustainable, Irish agriculture is actually a major environmental pressure and threat”.

Origin Green has emerged during a period of expansion and intensification in Irish agriculture under Food Harvest 2020 and Foodwise 2025, which are at odds with a carefully cultivated image that has seen celebrities such as Saoirse Ronan feature in its advertising campaign.

The executive summary of the Harvest 2020 document lays bare the strategy: “Green. Capitalising on Ireland’s association with the colour ‘green’ is pivotal to developing the marketing opportunity for Irish agri-food. This will build on our historic association with the colour and highlight the environmental credentials associated with our extensive, low-input, grass-based production systems… consumers in key markets will learn to recognise implicitly that, by buying Irish, they are choosing to value and respect the natural environment”.

However, what is happening across the country is “completely incompatible with the purported aspirations of Origin Green” according to An Taisce. In terms of climate change they dismiss it as “a glossy PR campaign supporting Irish agriculture’s “sustainability illusion.”

The country faces up to €610 million in fines from the European Commission unless emissions targets are met by 2020. Revelation of this cash payment call into question O’Reilly’s capacity to interrogate Origin Green and An Bord Bia meaningfully, as his role on Countrywide reporting on agriculture should entail.

On March 2nd of this year Irish Food UAE (@irishfoodinuae) tweeted a picture of a beaming O’Reilly arm-in-arm with lovely ladies in green dresses. The tweet read: ‘Damien O’Reilly assisting in the promotion of Irish food in the Middle East @RTERadio1 @RTECountryWide @BordBiaMENA.’ Clearly there was no attempt to conceal his involvement, but the payment of €1,500, and the cost of the trip which came to €2,600, apart from calling into question his objectivity, and may be in breach of RTE’s Staff Code of Conduct.

An Bord Bia stated that O’Reilly acted as Master of Ceremonies at the event: ‘which included a panel discussion on Ireland’s sustainability story and Origin Green.’ This coincided with a Ministerial Trade Mission to the Middle East bringing together regional buyers, importers and distributors.

In a statement An Bord Bia sought to distance themselves from involvement claiming the Irish Business Network in Dubai invited O’Reilly, and paid for his flights, and that it was a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event, and that they were only one among a number of sponsors. But why then would An Bord Bia make a payment to O’Reilly and take care of many of his expenses? It should also be noted that An Bord Bia’s response to the Freedom of Information request described it as an ‘Bord Bia Origin Green trade event’, not a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event.

The payment and costs may seem small beer, but RTE’s Code of Conduct for Employees states: ‘Staff are responsible for ensuring that they maintain the highest standards while involved in dealings with outside agencies’; and that ‘staff should never solicit or accept personal advantages or gifts of material value from firms or persons as a result of the staff member’s association with RTE.’ At the very least O’Reilly does not appear to have exhibited the “highest standards” in dealing with An Bord Bia – Origin Green.

When contacted a spokesperson for RTE said: “this was a paid engagement which falls under the Personal and Public Activities Guidance”, and that permission had been sought and granted.

When pressed the spokesperson said the manual containing these guidelines was not a public document. It seems unusual that RTE would have one document open to public scrutiny regarding the relationship of their employees with external businesses, and another entirely for internal consumption.

The spokesperson further rejected the idea that Damien’s journalistic objectivity was either undermined or affected by this engagement

Especially in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, we should be wary of any greenwashing by the agricultural sector as we confront the unique challenge of Climate Change, and the prospect of hefty fines from the European Commission.

The national broadcaster must engage in a full, frank and transparent assessment of the Origin Green programme. Ultimately this will be to the advantage of farmers who confront adverse weather conditions, especially those seeking alternatives to the dominant use of land for grazing livestock. This makes Ireland’s agriculture sector the least efficient in the EU in terms of revenue per ton of CO2 produced.

When RTE’s leading journalist covering agriculture receives payment, however construed, from an organisation promoting a misleading picture of Irish agriculture’s sustainability, it stretches credulity that an objective analysis of that campaign will be undertaken.

Countrywide has already offered an outlet for outright denial of human responsibility for Climate Change when Michael O’Leary appeared on the show in April. O’Reilly is too polished a performer not to have challenged O’Leary’s barmy assertions, but it is inappropriate that a platform to ventilate these views should have been offered in the first place. Such debates only serve to confound the public, and delay action.

A few months later in July, in another of his moonlighting roles as a columnist in the Irish Farmers Journal, O’Reilly expressed admiration for Ryanair and its managing director saying: ‘It’s become a bit of a national pastime to criticise Michael O’Leary and his airline but I’m a fan of how they do business’.

Naturally, there was no mention of O’Leary’s views on Climate Change which goes some way to explaining why that criticism has become a “national pastime”.
A bizarre coda to this story comes from another debate on the role of agriculture in Climate Change on Countrywide in August in which O’Reilly welcomed John Sweeney as ‘Emirates’ Professor in Maynooth. Could it be that flying to Dubai was still on his mind?

In Praise of Hemp

In Praise of Hemp

(Published in the Sunday Times, 19/10/14)

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar a marauding mob scour the city for the Emperor’s assassins. They chance upon Cinna the Poet, namesake of one the conspirators. On being asked his name, fatally he replies ‘Cinna’ at which point the First Citizen cries ‘tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator’.

Understandably vexed Cinna wails: ‘I am Cinna the poet; I am Cinna the poet’. One of the mob responds: ‘It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.’ And that was the end of the unforunate Cinna the poet.

What could we have learned about this indignant chap if the mob had not descended? Perhaps, through his presumably mellifluous verse we would have gained great insight into human nature. Poor Cinna the poet’s crime was to have the wrong name, and he winds up in historical limbo in a box marked ‘fictional potential’.

Alas a similar fate seems to have befallen hemp a crop variety with unrivalled versatility. A guilty name has brought undeserved suspicion. Hemp’s failing is that it comes from the Cannabis family, varieties of which are strongly associated with loafer students and malcontent adolescents.

Innocent Hemp with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels insufficient to get any kind of Rasta party started was caught in the hysteria against reefer madness. Farmers are effectively prohibited from growing it in the United States, and a certain taboo might exist here too. Our UK neighbours are not so wary: commercial growing began in earnest in the 1990s, and one farm in Northern Ireland has grown it since the seventeenth century.

This wonder crop offers an incredible array of uses: serving as a nutritious foodstuff, a fibre for rope, clothing and other materials; a building material that produces concrete-like blocks; an alternative to petroleum-based plastics (BMW among others are now using it in their cars). It can also be made into paper: ironically, the US declaration of independence was signed on it. Its US opponents should put that in their pipes and smoke it, so to speak.

The nutritional potential of hemp is impressive as it contains a full profile of the essential amino acids. It can also be rendered into a milk, prepared as a tea and its flour can be used in baking – one of the contestants on last year’s the Great British Bake Off used it in a cake mixture. Hemp oil is renowned for its healthy properties, containing 80% essential fatty acids – vital to our health – only a small proportion of which is saturated fat.

The last Teagasc study into Hemp conducted in 2007 concentrated on the oil and the fibre, but not the seed. According to their findings one acre of hemp yields an average of 700 pounds of grain, which can be pressed into 50 gallons of oil and 530 pounds of meal. That same acre will also produce an average of 5,300 of straw which can be transformed into about 1,300 pounds of fibre.

Despite Ireland having a climate suited (and set to become more so with climate change) to the production of this crop none is grown on an industrial scale. The main problem for potential Irish hemp farmers is the absence of a processing plant to dehull the seed in order to get at the inner kernel.

One food producer Deidre Collins of M. D. Dee’s Wholefoods indicated that she is paying €8000 a ton to a German company for hulled organic hempseed. She would be delighted to support local farmers and provide local employment but there is no option of doing so as things stand. Naturally any extra transport costs have to be born by consumers of her healthy meat-free sausages and other plant-based products.

The absence of Irish hemp is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in Irish agriculture which is dangerously reliant on external subsidies that reinforce an environmentally egregious and unsustainable system of food production which keep the cost of healthy plant food for human consumption at unnecessarily high prices.

It strikes me that one solution to the impasse would be to adopt the approach of the French agronomist Parmentier who was responsible for making the humble potato acceptable to his suspicious countrymen and women.

As a prisoner of war of the Prussians in the 1760s he subsisted happily on a diet of potatoes for some time. On being released he was determined to make them acceptable in his native land. His first task was to end the prohibition on cultivation as their consumption had been associated with leprosy. The Paris Faculty of Medicine finally declared them edible in 1772.

Next he began a marketing drive that would impress any contemporary practitioner. First he used product placement to associate them with the rich and famous, his masterstroke however was to have armed guards surround fields of ripe hemp just outside Paris. But the guards were ordered to accept even the slightest bribe to leave their posts. Soon potatoes were all the rage. French cuisine would not be the same without them.

It would seem that hemp needs a similar makeover allowing Irish farmers, food producers and manufactures to avail of this wonder crop, and thereby rescue it from the anonymous fate of Cinna the poet.

Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.

Stuffed and Starved

In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.

The Green Revolution

The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.

Pre-domesticated Varieties

Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.

Food Sovereignty

But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.

Shifting Diets

Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.

The Shadow of the ‘Craic’

The Shadow of the ‘Craic’

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2017)

There is nothing intrinsically funny about a fat man and a thin door, but put the two together, and bang, you have comedy; not so amusing of course if you happen to be the corpulent individual struggling through the narrow gap.

Comedy charts the border of good taste, at times encountering sharp ravines of cruelty; following also, less perceptible, subterranean streams of conformity. Its exercise is essential to the interrogation of power but can, conversely, serve to normalise repugnant behaviour, or speech. Nevertheless, taboos – the scorched desert no one should cross – still operate, as Kevin Myers discovered.

It seems a fair generalisation to make of Irish people that a sense of humour is prized above other virtues. This is tied closely to appreciation of ‘craic’, a word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which only migrated into writing in the early 1970s.

It may have an onomatopoeic quality – the drum “clack” that sparks a session perhaps – and is distinct from ‘banter’ in British usage, which is limited to conversational witticisms. Our craic runs deeper and can be situational, often associated with drunken antics, and their blurry recall. The word ‘wisecrack’ seems to have a distinct origin, and dates back to the 1920s.

When the rural-urban divide was more pronounced the word tended only to be used outside Dublin – where the Old English “yee” prevailed rather than the more confusing, conventional “you” in the second person plural (the less said about the debasements of ‘Dublinese’ “yis” or “yous” the better). But through increasing national harmonisation (or homogenisation), that mixture of conviviality and comedy – that is the craic – has become an emulsifying agent in our imagined community.

Crack warms friendships with laughter, makes bearable a dreary job with complex jokes poking fun at authority, fuelling the week (and the weak) with amusing tales distilled from weekend capers, and expectations of further doses. It is fitting that it should only be a recent addition to the written corpus, for it has an essential presence in the moment. Even phone-checking ceases when it is in full, raucous, flow.

As in any primarily oral culture, you just have to have be there. As with the setting of riddles or verbal charms, participation, and appreciation, defy textual learning; demanding instead a keen apprenticeship: mostly spent sitting around a table in roguish company, rain beating against the window, staying up far later than you should.

A nascent waft of this wanton playfulness is, nonetheless, evident in the ribald wit of some of our greatest writers. The earliest Irish saga-poets pepper their tales with humour, mostly derived from sexual antics and gluttonous excess, alongside moments of intense weirdness.

Centuries later writing in another tongue, Jonathan Swift seemed infected with the country disease, and Hiberno-English sprang into life as a literature-of-the-absurd, with power and privilege subjected to unflinching satire. Swift’s Modest Proposal to cannibalise babies for the delectation of landlords, thereby solving the demographic crisis, was so close to the bone as to jar.

The community of Irish letters has bred a disproportionate number of jokers, prominently Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, whose bon mots we inherit. Passing through customs we declare nothing but our genius; before a maritime plunge point to “the snot-green scrotum-tightening sea”; at sunrise, observe how the “sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”; or simply, look back with pride on the great cultural awakening: the “Celtic toilet”.

Used wisely and humanely literary humour is a vital antidote to the posturing of the privileged, and in a country where so much of life is spent indoors, it is not surprising that it should be used to pass the time. But the invention of humour is generally reactive, and at its best amplifies the serious business of creation.

The jocose textual madness of Ulysses should not obscure its profound political import. Joyce’s greatest character, the cosmopolitan Leopold Bloom exposes the hypocritical nationalism of the Citizen, and sees clearly that he is one of a people “that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.” Anti-Semitism, then, as now, is no laughing matter.

Earlier in Dubliners Joyce exposes us to a memorable depictions of craic, though he does not seem to have been familiar with the word (this does not stop the Joyce Tower promising “music and general craic” for Bloomsday, 2017), and there is a bitter twist. In ‘Counterparts’ Farrington is lauded in the pub after work for a witty retort to his hectoring superior’s question: “Do you take me for an utter fool”. His response “I don’t think, sir, that that’s a fair question to ask me”, has them all in stitches. But he ends the day realising the joke will cost him his job, which shines an unforgiving light on his other failings.
Returning home: “He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, and he had not even got drunk.” In the end his son is the scapegoat: Farrington severely beats him with a stick for failing to keep the fire alight.

Almost uniquely among Irish writers, W.B. Yeats left little evidence of the comedic, after his willing anointment as national poet during the Irish Literary Revival (the so-called Irish Twilight, or “Toilet”), and parallel promotion of the occult. Only rarely does the mask slip from the stern visage to reveal a curling lip. In ‘The Tower’, surveying the landscape around his home Thoor Ballylee in east Galway Yeats recalls an old story about a Mrs French whose serving-man, could divine:

That most respected lady’s every wish,
Ran and with the garden shears
Clipped an insolent farmer’s ears
And brought them in a little covered dish.

A few stanzas later Mrs French’s musical appreciation, “gifted with so fine an ear”, is shaped into an artful pun. Yeats is rarely given to such play, preferring devotion to acoustic patterns that make his charm poetry so well adapted for song.

Unfortunately during the early 1930s Yeats’s fidelity to his Art lapsed into reactionary excess that made him briefly a Nazi fellow-traveller; like numerous “pious” Irish Catholics at the time, but for different reasons. A more light-hearted author might have found an accommodation with the Modernist departure from poetic form, which he connected with a barbarous Marxist rejection of beauty. But there is little evidence of his verse being infected by the lazy stereotypes of a right-wing columnist. No anti-Semitism is evident, at worst we find a nod to eugenics in the lines from ‘Under Ben Bulben’: “Base born products of base beds”; he was too fine a poet for cheap jokes.

Theodore Zeldin writes: “since truth cannot be easily swallowed whole or raw, jesters were usually also poets, magicians or singers, able to convey unpalatable insights in an epigram, a witty story or a song.” It is the accommodation of comedy within tragedy that gives Shakespeare’s King Lear such peculiar force, where the character of the Fool masks his wisdom with buffoonery.

The close physiological connection between laughter and tears, generally associated with sorrow, is also instructive. Humour may lead us somewhere profound, but then the laughter ceases. Ecclesiastics 7:3 says: “Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.”
Comedy routinely slips into cynicism, as is often evident in formulaic, and vulgar, ‘stand up’ routines. Zeldin further argues that comedy can reinforce conformity “by being its safety valve”. He points out that carnivals, such as the medieval festival of fools: “have throughout history made fun of authority, and turned hierarchy upside down”, but “did so only for a few days.” Similarly, we draw humour from satirical depiction of Donald Trump, but this may normalise his conduct by turning into a humorous spectacle.

Jokes may also be truly sick, as the history of totalitarianism shows. Jonathan Glover writes that “In the death camps the Nazis turned the cold joke into an art form, with increasingly imaginative embellishment on the themes of cruelty and humiliation.” Friedrich Nietzsche gives an insight into how this was possible when claiming that “in laughter all evil is compacted, but pronounced holy and free by its own blissfulness.” The gay release of laughter allows depraved participants to evade consideration of their actions. Thus, humour has an important role in confronting tyranny, but may also reinforce it.

There is an unspoken code for what can be subjected to comedy, which one of Woody Allen’s best characters, the comic writer Lester from Crimes and Misdemeanours articulates: “comedy is tragedy plus time”. Thus, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination a joke would have been entirely inappropriate, but as time passed it became acceptable. Similarly, jokes about Genghis Khan’s brutality are permitted, while the memory of Hitler’s excesses are still raw. Therefore, lazy allusion to Jewish stereotypes for comic effect remain taboo. Lester adds that if it “bends” it’s comedy, but if it “breaks” it’s tragedy.

The breaking point also relates to the power of a targeted group to respond to nasty jokes. Kevin Myers has previously made salacious comments about feminists, vegans, children born outside marriage and Muslims, but last month he chose a class of victims (women of Jewish background working in the British media) with a capacity to fight back. The joke did not bend, and Myers got his P45.

When humour is seen in a less flattering light, our own devotion to craic may be questioned. For decades Irish politicians have been subjected to biting satire, which has not brought much electoral inconvenience. Steeped in craic, we shrug our shoulders and hang the absurdity of lying politicians and inept planning. Idealism is similarly scorned.

The migration of craic into written usage, reflects the carnivalesque atmosphere in Ireland at large. A dreary job, a hopeless search for accommodation gives way to the expectation of the next festival – that New Age festival of fools – or just a weekend on the tear. Farrington’s brutality in Joyce’s epiphanic tale exposes the shadow of the craic.

We may assume the comedic to be creative but it should perhaps be seen as merely inventive. A deeper creativity seems to be marked by an absence of, or at least an advance from, comedy as George Steiner proposes in his Grammars of Creation (2001). An artist believes in the icon that is his work; thus art may remain sacred, even where religious faith has lapsed.

In contrast, according to Steiner: “Invention is often thoroughly humorous. It surprises” Whereas creation “astonishes us, as does thunder or the blaze of the northern lights.” Such moments, when we gaze on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, or listen to a Shelley’s verse, call for reverence, not laughter,

Ireland has endured a traumatic history, a nightmare from which Joyce sought to awake, where humour has played an important role in preserving sanity. At its best in Irish literature, as in Swift, it is profoundly serious, and permits dissent which could not otherwise be expressed. But where a culture becomes obsessed by the need for a funny story – the craic writ large – the comedic may become conformist, and a barbed comment from a position of privilege becomes oppressive.

In general free speech should be protected, but the plight of vulnerable groups in our society requires a balance to be struck. Editors have responsibilities beyond the law. After all, who wants to feel like the fat man struggling through the narrow door?

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.

Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’

The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’

Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.

In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.

He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’

The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’

The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.

Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.

Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.

Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’

Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.

This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.

In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’

Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Having been found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates awaited execution with blissful disregard, declaring: ‘You are sadly mistaken, fellow, if you suppose that a man with even a grain of self-respect should reckon up the risks of living or dying, rather than simply consider, whenever he does something, whether his actions are just or unjust, the deeds of a good man or a bad one.’

Likewise, those of the Fine Gael tradition – or tribe – see defence of the rule of law as a sacred duty. This self-anointed role found its purest expression in the 1932 democratic handover of power to the ‘slightly constitutional’ Fianna Fail party. Like Socrates, Cumann na nGaedheal – the precursor to Fine Gael – chose political hemlock over abandonment of principle, and spent sixteen years in the political wilderness.

In the ideological stew that is Irish politics, and in an era in many respects post-historical and distractedly global, a commitment to the institutions of the state – emphasised by the late Liam Cosgrave – flickers in Fine Gael.

As a Minister for Transport Taoiseach Leo Varadkar displayed those instincts – with guts – in his public support for the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, against then Commissioner Martin Callinan in 2014. His intervention came at a crucial point in that sordid affair that has prised open the security forces of the state to highly unedifying scrutiny, leading to the resignation of two Commissioners.

But in becoming the natural party of government after the bail-out – for the first time since 1932 – Fine Gael also decisively shifted its appeal to the commercial classes, and departed from the 1960s generations’ social democratic leanings.

This re-alignment poses an existential threat to a party that has been a bastion of constitutionalism. In particular, questions remain over its relationship to billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose media interests extend to the newspaper with the widest circulation in the state, a host of local publications and two national radio stations.

We cannot be allowed to forget the corruption revealed by the Moriarty Tribunal in 2011, and that no criminal prosecution was brought in response.
O’Brien now dispenses writs of defamation against journalists with the abandon of a card dealer whose fortune is so great he has nothing to lose. The joke is that no Irish journalist worth his salt has not received such a threatening letter.

Press freedom is a crucial measure of democratisation and the rule of law. This is maintained, especially, by guarding against monopolistic practices. Arguably, it also requires state investment – via a licence fee or out of taxation revenue – and oversight of offensive content, such as hate speech.

All media is, to some extent, compromised by the demands of the market, with survival made more challenging with the arrival of the Internet. As George Orwell wrote: ‘The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.’ Maintaining an adequate forum for the ventilation of ideas in that commercial space is crucial.

As much as we may bemoan the Irish Time’s coverage of various issues – and freelancers gnash their teeth at a perceived journalistic establishment – as the main outlet for the Irish intelligentsia the paper is an important democratic pillar. Thus, for Communicorp, the parent company of Newstalk and Today FM, to prohibit radio stations from interviewing Irish Times journalists is a challenge to the integrity of the state itself. For O’Brien to wash his hands of responsibility for that black-listing lacks credibility.

O’Brien’s media outlets coarsen debate, feed a culture of celebrity, and like Rupert Murdoch’s, use extensive sports coverage as a ‘battering ram’, drawing attention away from more important issues. The media space available to the intelligentsia declines with each glossy picture of a scantily clad model.

The question is whether during the Kenny years of drift and incoherence the Fine Gael party has been compromised by its relationships with O’Brien. Kenny even shared a podium with O’Brien at the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

If Fine Gael remain a guardian of the rule of law it must confront O’Brien. The Criminal Assets Bureau seems the appropriate means of moving in on his extensive assets, starting with media holdings that insulate him from public censor. White collar crime is another form of gangsterism. In how he deals with O’Brien we will see if Leo Varadkar really is a good and just man.

An increasingly number of countries, both rich and poor, are beset by oligarchs who exercise undue influence, and restrain the capacity of the intelligentsia to contribute to debates. The rule of law and democracy in Ireland faces a similar challenge in the shape of Denis O’Brien