Slaughter House Rules of the Jungle

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

Ireland is awakening to the environmental impact of its livestock industry. Village has led the way, tackling an unpalatable subject that the O’Reilly/O’Brien press and the Old Lady of D’Olier Street for a long time ignored. RTE has been more craven still in its favouritism towards a livestock industry, often lovingly referred to as ‘our farmers’.

He who pays the piper calls the tune. It is likely that editors and producers fear offending advertisers. I submitted numerous articles to the Irish Times on the subject. Ironically the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times proved more receptive.

Belatedly the Irish Times has covered the issue and ran a series by Conor Purcell, a climate scientist in UCD earlier this year focusing on livestock emissions. More recently on April 2nd they ran a forensic article by Village-writer John Gibbons entitled: ‘Meat is Madness: why it leads to global warming and obesity’ which joined the dots between the environmental and public health impact of meat production.

Nonetheless the public is still largely in the dark as to the manifest unfairness of ‘meatonomics’ in Ireland where landowners receive endowments as rural communities flounder. One positive that could flow from the Brexit debate is that focus will be drawn to the perversion of the CAP which was designed to protect farmers but now leads to concentrations of wealth in few hands and continued rural depopulation.

The Irish media still averts its gaze from the meat ‘processing’ industry, a sinister euphemism that averts the public’s gaze from the reality of millions of animals being slaughtered each year.

This bears out Ruth Harrison’s observation that ‘if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.’

To my knowledge no Irish newspaper has ever sent a reporter in to explore what happens in an abattoir or concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO). It is only when a case reaches the courts that it will enter the public domain.

One such was reported in the Irish Times in February 2015 in which a pig farmer Rory O’Brien was given a jail sentence of 18 months. Judge Sean O Donnabhain said: ‘This is cruelty on an industrial scale by one of the biggest pig farmers in the country. On a continuous basis he knowingly and without regard acted in this way’

Inside the rat-infested piggery animals were left to starve causing them to to eat one another the court was told. O’Brien’s farm, which closed in 2011, held over two thousand pigs. That implicates a lot of breakfast rolls.
Millions of animals are slaughtered in Ireland each year but no journalist to my knowledge has braved the killing floor. The excellent indigenous documentary film Foul (2006) by Andrew Legge explored the poultry industry but it is usually left to the Guardian to investigate what is happening in our killing industries.

Without journalistic coverage here we must draw on accounts of industrial slaughter elsewhere. Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book Fast Food Nation paints a lurid picture that is unlikely to be different in Ireland:
‘On the kill floor, what I see no longer unfolds in a logical manner. It’s one strange image after another. A worker with a power saw slice cattle into halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves as though they were two-by-fours, and then the halves swing by me into the cooler … Dozens of cattle, stripped of their skins, dangle on chains from their hind legs. My host stops and asks how I feel, if I want to go any further. There is where some people get sick’

He continues:
‘The kill floor is hot and humid. It stinks of manure. Cattle have a body temperature of about 101 degrees, and there are a lot of them in the room. Carcasses swing so far along the rail that you have to keep an eye on them constantly, dodge them, watch your step, or one will slam you onto the bloody concrete. It happens to workers all the time.’

Yet more scenes that recall Dante’s scurfy hell are revealed as he presses further inside:
‘I see: a man reach inside cattle and pull out their kidneys with his bare hands, then drop the kidneys down a metal chute, over and over again, as each animal passes by him; a stainless steel rack of tongues; Whizzards peeling meat off decapitated heads, picking them almost as clean as the white skulls painted by Georgia O’Keefe. We wade through blood that’s ankle deep and that pours down drains into huge vats below us. As we approach the start of the line, for the first time I hear the pop, pop, pop of live animals being stunned.’

Schlosser also encounters bestial working conditions usually undertaken by immigrant, unionised labour. ‘For eight and a half hours, a work called a “sticker” does nothing but stand in a river of blood, being drenched in blood, slitting the neck of a steer every ten seconds or so, severing its carotid artery. He uses a long knife and he must hit exactly the right spot to kill the animal humanely.

In the last circle of this inferno he meets the ‘ knocker’ , the man who welcomes cattle to the building: ‘cattle walk down a narrow chute and pause in front of him, blocked by a gate, and then he shoots them in the head with captive bolt stunner – a compressed-air gun attached to the ceiling by a long hose-which fires a steel bolt that knocks the cattle unconscious. The animals keep strolling up, oblivious to what comes next, and he stand over them and shoots. For eight and a half hours, he just shoots. As I stand there, he misses a few times and he shoots the same animal twice.’

One can only imagine the psychological toll that such gruesome work has on those who are compelled to perform it. Another issue that Schlosser refers to is the cumulative trauma injuries in the meatpacking industry which are higher than the rate in any other American industry.

These depredations are by no means confined to America. A recent report in El Pais (18/4) explored the Catalan pork processes sector which mainly employs migrants at low rates of pay. For the sake of jamon and chorizo workers are expected to remove the guts of animals at a rate of seven hundred carcasses an hour: ‘the repetitive nature of the work means that you can’t move your shoulders at the end of the day.’

The report identifies: ‘rampant racism, long hours and inhuman treatment of workers who fall or are injured’ which led to a two day strike in early April. One witness records how one of the Catalan boss ‘aristobutchers’ called him a ‘black piece of shit’ and threatened to send him ‘back to Africa, where you’ll die of hunger. Another worker claimed the same individual threatened ‘to pump them full of bullets. Most workers earn a basic salary of e800 a month, with e50 deducted for belonging to a supposed cooperative along with deductions for work materials, laundry and an e267 social security contribution. This in twenty-first century Europe.

The desperate treatment of workers in the livestock industry goes back to its emergence in American mid-West. An influential novel called the Jungle from 1904 by Upton Sinclair potrayed the appalling treatment of workers. It seems as if the absence of compassion towards animals shown by bosses in this industry extends to the way they treat workers.

Can Ireland really be avoiding these depredations especially when we hear of so many potentially vulnerable immigrant workers, Pakistanis and Brazilians employed in the industry and the litany of illegalities that have occurred from the horse meat scandal all the way back to the Beef Tribunal. One hopes that the Irish media will continue to join more dots.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/take-stock/)

The origins of Likud Ideology

The origins of Likud Ideology

(Published in Village Magazine, December, 2014)

It has been said that there are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one realistic the other miraculous. The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous, a voluntary agreement between the parties.

The latest round of conflict is, mercifully, largely over. On August 26th, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza had left approximately 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast destruction in its wake; just over 71 Israelis were killed, all but 5 soldiers. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza. Essentially, nothing has changed.

To explain the conduct of the Israeli authorities it is important to understand the ideology behind the Likud party, the dominant political force in Israel since its foundation in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Although Ariel Sharon split with the party and formed Kadima in 2006, relegating Likud to fourth place in the ensuing elections, they have since returned to power under the enduring figure of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab-Israeli wars which began with the foundation of Israel in 1948 have resulted in comprehensive Israeli victories, especially in the 1967 Six-Day War. This ascendancy has been consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US, Israel’s Cold War patron, as lone Superpower. The Palestinian case was further weakened by PLO support for Iraq before the first Gulf War.

But despite accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces perpetual conflict with neighbouring countries as most Arab people have a fixed view of Israel as a colonial, oppressive presence in the region. It is only continued autocratic rule in Egypt and Jordan that keeps these sentiments in check. Arguably the key juncture was the 1956 Suez Crisis when Israeli forces joined the French and British in attacking Egypt.

The Israeli electorate has consistently favoured leaders unwilling to countenance concessions, and the expansion of settlements has become a fixed policy. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 was a simple realisation that it was untenable to maintain 10,000 settlers inside a grossly over-populated strip of land containing over a million and a half Palestinians. There were bigger fish to fry in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

To explain the intransigence it is necessary to understand the ideology underpinning the Likud Party. Likud ideology can be traced to three principle sources: first, the writings of the Revionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky; second, the experience of the Holocaust; and third, the emergence of religious Zionism after 1967.

Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian born Jew, is generally viewed as the spiritual founder of the Israeli Right. In 1923 he wrote a still influential article entitled “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In it he asserted that a “voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future” since: “Every indigenous people… will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the dangers of foreign settlement.”

In response to resistance Jabotinsky advocated “an iron wall” of military might which “they [the Palestinians] will be powerless to break down.”
With military ascendancy achieved Palestinians would be ready to yield and only then “will they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogan “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups.” At that point limited political rights could be granted.
Such an analysis ordains that negotiations can begin only when the Palestinians produce a malleable leadership willing to accept their permanent exclusion. Jabotinsky’s metaphorical ‘iron wall’ was given a literal interpretation by Sharon’s construction of the ‘security fence’ that runs through the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was perhaps viewed by Sharon as a leader who would acquiesce to Israeli demands, but Hamas most certainly was not.

But Jabotinsky’s analysis was flawed as it ignored how the policy of the ‘iron wall’ could generate fatalistic extremism in the form of suicide bombing and the use of civilian shields for rocket attacks. He also failed to foresee the internationalisation of the Palestinian cause.
The second major influence on Likud, and Israeli society in general, is the trauma of the Holocaust experience. The collective memory of Jewish passivity in the face of genocide mandates a policy of fierce reprisal in response to the taking of Jewish life. Restraint is characterised as appeasement.

The leadership of the Israeli Right manipulates this latent fear of destruction, appealing to an international as well as a domestic audience.
In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’ Benjamin Netanyahu dwelt on the lessons of appeasement of Nazi Germany and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Western powers for the contemporary Middle East. Arabs are likened to Nazi Germany, Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans, and Israel to the small democracy of Czechoslovakia, the victim of Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler. For Netanyahu the lesson is clear, to grant concessions to Palestinians is to endanger the survival of the state of Israel.

This Holocaust motif was also employed by opponents of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed up to the Oslo Accords. Inside the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) two Likud deputies proceeded to open black umbrellas comparing Rabin’s peace deal to Chamberlain’s capitulation, while effigies of Rabin dressed in SS uniform were set alight at right wing demonstrations.

Suicide bombing and rocket attacks cunningly target this traumatic inheritance, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is difficult to contain, and generated support for the extremists on the Palestinian side. The loss of Israeli life calls for harsh reprisal, which in turn radicalises the Palestinian population. Acting out of the core Likud dogma, Netenyahu must respond to an attack even if this completely discredits moderate Palestinian leaders. The ferocity of Israel’s response to terrorism works against the moderate leadership that Jabotinsky’s model requires. Likud policy exceeds the idea of the ‘iron wall’.

The last major influence on Likud is the rise of religious Zionism, especially generated by the 1967 Six-Day War. The enormous territorial gains of this war were interpreted as a sign of divine favour and settlement of the land became a religious imperative.

Politically, this generated a raft of religious parties in the Knesset in the 1970s. The Likud was also strongly influenced by this messianic message and still relies on the support of religious parties. The principle at work is that anyone prepared to entertain abandonment of the sacred land is a traitor to the Jewish people.

Its force was demonstrated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively de-railed the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin’s killer was a young extremist by the name of Yigal Amir. During his trial Amir told the court that according to halacha (Jewish law), a Jew who gives his land to the enemy and endangers the life of other Jews must be killed.

The political durability of the religious right was shown by Sharon’s difficulty in removing settlers from Gaza, that ultimately saw him leave Likud, forming Kadima and entering into coalition with Labour. The difficulty of removing settlers from Gaza would be magnified ten-fold if it were attempted on the West Bank, containing the Biblical province of Judea as well as a third of Israel’s water supply, let alone sacred Jerusalem.
The Likud Party has thus moved to the right of its ideological founder, Jabotinsky, who envisaged some form of political settlement. Policy is hamstrung by paranoid reprisals born out of a cathartic need for pro-activity in response to provocation and a religious right that interprets sovereignty over land in religious terms.

In such circumstances it is hard to hold out any hope for peace, but there has been at least one instance where Israel was moved along the road to compromise. Under George Bush snr. ten billion dollars worth of loan credits were denied to them which forced the then Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.

A clear message, with financial clout behind it, that the international community, including the United States, will not tolerate continued intransigence could lead to electoral success for the more pragmatic Labour party and other secular parties. Unfortunately, however, the prospect of America leaning on Israel seems slight. In such circumstances the European Union should consider withdrawing the preferential trade status currently enjoyed by Israel under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Fatah have their bottom line, which is the 1967 borders including partial control over Jerusalem, and for any peace to hold there would also surely have to be concessions to the 1948 dispossessed. Whether Hamas would sign up to recognition of the state of Israel is not clear, although there have been suggestions that this could happen. Indeed it has been suggested that the latest round of conflict was motivated by fear of the unity government between Fatah and Hamas. It serves Likud ideology to confront corresponding intransigence.

A Likud administration will never allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and in the current circumstances the dominance of the Likud party will remain. In the meantime the peace process stalls, and the suffering of Palestinians continues to be a source of regional and global instability.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2014/12/likudation-the-ascendant-israeli-political-party-is-committed-by-ideology-to-oppressing-the-palestinians/)

An Enduring Legacy – Lessons from the Great Famine

(Published in Village Magazine, November 2012)

Who was to blame for the Great Famine? This thorny question rears its head with the recent publication of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press. We may accept the detached assessment of the American economic historian Joel Mokyr expressed some years ago that ‘Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile country… the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them parish’; but we should not ignore how many Irish Catholics profited from this great rupture in our history which led to a population reduction of over two million due to starvation and emigration. The enduring legacy must be explored.

Irish people at the time were treated as second class citizens by their government; relief for desperate hungry victims was not a statutory right under the Irish Poor Law, as it was under its English equivalent. Successive failures of the potato crop 1845-50 caused by the blight phytophtera infestans did not lead to market intervention that occurred where grain harvests failed in England. Irish grain continued to be exported and insufficient cheap maize was purchased on the international market at key points. Moreover, the infamous Gregory clause of the Irish Poor Law denied relief to tenants holding more than a quarter acre unless they surrendered their tenancy which turned it into a charter for land clearance and consolidation.

But in emphasising the inaction of remote authorities in Westminster we overlook the gains made by Catholic Irish farmers holding substantial farms above 20 acres. In one contribution to the Atlas Kerby A. Miller writes: ‘an unknown but surely very large proportion of Famine sufferers were not evicted by Protestant landlords but by Catholic strong and middling farmers, who drove off their subtenants and cottiers, and dismissed their labourers and servants, both to save themselves from ruin and to consolidate their own properties.’

A commitment to laissez faire, as well as a sense of providentialism that cast natural occurrences as part of a divine plan, informed the thinking of the leading British policy-makers at the time, foremost the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan who was responsible for relief measures. He concluded afterwards: ‘The result in Ireland has been to introduce other better kinds of food, and to raise the people, through much suffering, to a higher standard of subsistence.’ To the enduring chagrin of Irish nationalist he was knighted for his services in 1848.

The response of British authorities can be situated within a larger context of a shift in Imperial policy and an ongoing Agricultural Revolution whereby: ‘Farming changed from being an occupation primarily concerned with extraction from the soil into one involving the purchase of raw materials which were processed to produce a saleable product.’

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the great triumph of laissez faire. In contrast to most European states where protection was extended to farmers, agriculture in the British Isles was thrown open to the free market.
Those who derived wealth from industry rather than land would henceforth guide British policy. Free trade would drive down the cost of food in the ‘workshop of the world’. Henceforth regions of the Empire would specialise in the production of particular foodstuff for sale on the international market, with the development of steamships making this possible. In contrast, in the same period in France a high proportion of production continued to be consumed on the farm or within the locality.

Politically, the occasionally benign paternalism of the landed aristocracy would no longer hold sway. The first editor of The Economist James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’.

Within this constellation Ireland would supply beef and dairy for its near neighbour; tillage and horticulture, particularly carried out by peasants at a subsistence level, should be abandoned. By 1900 pastoral farming dominated as never before. It hardly mattered that a succession of Land Acts (1869-1904) had transferred ownership to former tenants. Those independent farmers would continue to generate ‘saleable products’ for the market.

An old way of life died for good as a result of the Great Famine. Subsistence communities, known as Clachan, were wiped out. Granted, Irish peasants were unwitting architects of their demise: plentiful potatoes allowed for early weaning which generated exponential population growth; almost 9 million in 1845.

Parts of Ireland had some of the world’s highest population densities, but according to Mokyr was not overpopulated on the eve of the Great Famine. It was the switch to pasture that made it so. Fernand Braudel observes: If the choices of a society are determined solely by adding up calories, agriculture on a given surface areas will always have the advantage over stock-raising; one way or another it feeds ten to twenty times as many people.’

Perhaps improvement in education levels, especially with the advent of free primary education in 1831, could have encouraged family planning and improved employment prospects. A more ordered transition to modernity might have occurred instead of the fearful flight to cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and New York. But this would have required a government committed to the welfare of the population, and a settlement of the land question whereby gross inequalities, the legacy of seventeenth century conquest, were extinguished. However, Kerby observes that even: ‘Catholic nationalist (wealthy farmers and townsmen) as well as the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergymen were much too conservative to countenance a peasant assault on Irish property relationships.’

A genuine revolution in land-ownership might have achieved this, but the demise of smallholders made the Land War of the 1880s a battle for the spoils of the Great Famine.

Exploring these ‘what ifs’ is counterfactual history, but it is important to recognise that the Great Famine was not inevitable and that the system of land-usage dominated by livestock for the international market that endures to this day is a recent innovation. One Protestant landowner referring in the 1850s to this shift said: ‘the extermination of humans and the substitution of brute animals for the human race on the soil of Ireland, is not an improvement grateful to my mind.’

Prior to the Great Famine Irish peasants were comparatively healthy. Irishmen’s heights were greater than those of equivalent Englishmen in a variety of occupations and situations and life expectancy was greater than most other Europeans except those of Denmark and England.

They had a sparse diet relying primarily but not exclusively on the potato; it actually constituted only one third of the land under tillage in the 1840s. They also consumed oats, especially in Ulster, vegetables, wheat and barley, butter milk, and whatever could be foraged in the form of seaweed, shellfish, berries and nuts. For most meat was a rarity. With a settlement of the land question diets would have become more varied based on the locally-sourced ingredients enumerated with less reliance on the potato.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in diet away from what was produced locally; beef and dairy were only for the tables of the well-off in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1904 sugar consumption rose tenfold and with it came increasing mortality from diabetes. Baker’s bread became the staple, and sugary tea the succour of the poor. This was Trevelyan’s idea of a ‘higher standard of subsistence’.

In an article written in 1913 George Russell (A.E.) observed of the transition: ‘There is no doubt that the vitality of the Irish people has seriously diminished, and that the change has come about with a change in the character of the food consumed. When people lived with porridge, brown bread and milk as the main ingredients in the diet, the vitality and energy of the people was noticeable, though they were much poorer than they are now… When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood. These weakly looking boys have been fed on white bread’.

It is worth considering the effect of colonisation on the eating habits of the Irish who transitioned to a diet that was a product of colonisation, a trend that has continued. As Homi Bhaba puts it: ‘Although colonised subjects endeavour to imitate or mimic the behaviour of the coloniser, the mimicry is always imperfect – almost the same but never quite’.’

In response to colonisation we invented sporting codes, but because our colonisers had a stunted gastronomic culture we did not invent one for ourselves. But as this emerged in Britain in recent times there has emerged a pallid mimicry: our versions of Nigella and Jamie are neither as sultry nor as charming.

A self-respecting Irish gastronomy might hark back to the tradition of the Clachan, instead of the present models of taste that favour the livestock produce of land clearances. The food of the Clochan was light, wholesome and ecologically sensible. It should appeal to the contemporary gastronome.
Moreover, recent research by Goodland and Anhang has shown that up to 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock farming. It may be a sad irony of history that Irish livestock-farming will indirectly contribute to famines in the Third World as climate change brings drought and ecological catastrophes.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2012/11/lessons-from-the-famine/)

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

(Published in Village Magazine, April, 2016)

Aflons Mucha’s Slav Epic enjoys pride of place in the Czech National Gallery in Prague. It is a cycle of twenty large and portentous paintings completed between 1910 and 1928 recalling the history and myths of an heterogeneous people inhabiting territory from the Asian steppe to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The artist imposes his peculiar predilections and aspirations in broad strokes to produce imagery simultaneously troubling and enthralling: a pacific nature is emphasised but a belligerent Germanic ‘other’ is also apparent.

The first painting has a contemporary resonance. Mucha claimed his intention was to depict the Origin, the Adam and Eve of the Slavs. The English guide says: ‘He portrayed them crouched down like defenceless refugees, wearing expressions of fear’. On the hill behind we see a hostile horde that have plundered and set fire to their village. Implicit is recognition that all peoples have at one time sought refuge from invasion.

But that understanding is sorely lacking in the Czech Republic today along with other countries across Central and Eastern Europe. Not since the US invasion of Iraq have attitudes differed so greatly between what Donal Rumsfeld famously referred to in 2003 as ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe.

Many in Western Europe are exasperated by the attitudes of their Central and Eastern European counterparts, regarding it as hypocrisy considering the number of Central and Eastern Europeans who have migrated west for work and previously as political refugees. Central and Eastern Europeans appear to be from Mars and Western Europeans from Venus; but there is hardly a genetic basis for the intra-continental differences.

Perhaps most surprising to Westerners are attitudes in the Czech Republic a state geographically, and to an extent culturally, Western European: Prague’s architectural splendours are further to the west than Vienna and here revolutions have been pacific Velvet affairs. The state of Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in continental Europe apart from France in 1939. But successive opinion polls have shown that Czechs to be overwhelmingly opposed to receiving refugees despite shocking scenes that have generated strong feelings of empathy elsewhere.

How to explain this apparent imperviousness to the suffering of others? Four factors appear to be at work: the first is the historical and current relationship with minorities; the second is the enduring economic fallout from the Communist era; the next factor is the malign influence of the current Czech President Milos Zeman; finally after a twentieth century during which the Czech people have been unwillingly controlled by three empires – the Hapsburg, Nazi and Soviet – there is a strong sense that the Czech people should be allowed to control their own affairs.

The Czech Republic has produced statesmen of international renown. Former playwright President Vaclav Havel was one of the heroes of the struggle against Communist dictatorship; although his equation of the extension of US power with the expansion of liberty, culminating in support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was naïve at best. Nonetheless his emphasis on individual autonomy and artistic expression was an antidote to the conformity of the dark Communist years.

Looking further into Czech history we find the great Tomas Masaryk the first president of Czechoslovakia whose liberal sentiments contrast with the hateful rhetoric that pervaded the leaderships in countries surrounding an embattled state that was effectively handed over to the Nazis by the British and French in 1938.

In a speech in 1928 marking the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the state he said: ‘I repeat and emphasize what I have said before, namely, that everything in the nature of Chauvinism must be excluded from our political life’. Arguing for a pluralist civic nationalism he said that: ‘the necessary State unity does not mean uniformity’.

Although that state did not perfectly integrate its broad composite of minorities his pacific leadership (he said that Czechoslovakia should only have an army as long as other countries did) engendered tolerance, especially religious. One individual who grew up in inter-war Prague recalls: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

Masaryk also said that: ‘politics is leadership and that democracy therefore has its constant and urgent problem of leadership’. The current President Milos Zamen is offering leadership of a different character today in Czech Republic.
Zamen is part of a rising phenomenon of politicians speaking in foul-mouthed terms about marginalised groups which has reached its apotheosis with Donal Trump is apparent in the Czech President. He regularly departs from political correctness and appeals to fear and xenophobia.

Thus in the wake of the New Year’s Cologne sex attacks he claimed that ‘it’s practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Western Europe.’ This was one in a line of statements expressing intolerance towards Islam and support for Israel.

He has also previously stoked anti-German feeling, referring to his opponent in the 2013 Presidential election Karol Schwarzenberg as a Sudetan German and claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer to Germany after World War II during which many thousands died.

The heavy-drinking President has also pursued friendly relations with Vladimir Putin and is roundly disliked in liberal, relatively cosmopolitan Prague. But his divisive views, so out of step with the legacy of Masaryk, have proved a successful political strategy and today he is the most trusted politician in the country with a 56% approval rating according to a recent survey.

A major reasons for this is the continuing discontent of the majority of the population with their economic status. Thus, in a survey conducted by the CVVM agency in October 2014, 55 percent of Czechs characterized the economic system that existed in Czechoslovakia before 1989 as ‘better’ or ‘on the whole better’ than the current one.

This nostalgia for the Communist era may come as a surprise but it reflects the two-tier economy that has grown up. Prague now contains a substantial population that have grown wealthy in particular off the back of a booming property sector that has attracted significant foreign investment.

There is also a high level of corruption that stalls development. This problem dates back to the Communist period where it was said that you weren’t looking after your family unless you stole. The Czech Republic’s proximity to wealthy European states and liberal laws have also proved an enticing focus for organised crime from around Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Moreover, in an era when wealth is flaunted as never before through social media, consumer desiderata from flash cars to the latest technologies and foreign holidays float before a population whose static income usually inhibits them from sharing the spoils. Excessive alcohol consumption is perhaps one indicator of a simmering resentment. The Czechs are among the world’s biggest drinkers and a lot of is consumed in a manner distinctly unfestive.

But perhaps the single biggest cause of unsympathetic attitudes towards refugees comes from a troubled relationship with minority groups. As indicated until the Second World the state of Czechoslovakia was a diverse society with Czechs the largest minority among Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romany. It was external factors that brought this arranged but reasonably content marriage to an end although friction, especially with the previously ascendant Germans, was apparent throughout.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the expulsions of the German minority Czechoslovakia emerged a more homogenous society a process completed by the Velvet Revolution which saw it separate amicably with Slovakia in 1993. In Prague today one sees few people of colour although there is a significant Vietnamese minority that compliantly run small shops across the city. But there remains one significant and vilified minority: the Romani.

The Romani (referred to inaccurately as Gypsies – their origin is not Egypt – and the term is regarded as a racial slur) are the descendants of migrants from northern India that came to Europe in the middle ages. Many were enslaved until the nineteenth century. The Nazis sought to eradicate them killing up to a half million, an event known as the Porajmos. Romanticised as wandering musicians, their peripatetic mode of existence is anathema to the settled industrial societies that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Under Communism they were forced into settled lives that stored resentment and bred criminality. Attitudes have hardened in Czech Republic and other nearby states despite the miscegenation that is apparent in the saturnine looks of many self-identifying ethnic Czechs. Yet many apparently open-minded people reveal what can only be described as racism towards this minority that number up to a quarter of a million in a country of ten million. The anti-social conduct of some Romani in a generally law-abiding society is a particular affront, and there is a widespread sense they receive favourable treatment from state agencies.

The appearance of a wave of dark-featured people at Europe’s gates is easily associated with the resident minority. This is compounded by the awful excesses of Political Islam that have been broadcast around the world and the challenge of integration in some European countries. There are also perhaps lingering memories of the Ottoman bogeyman who laid siege to nearby Vienna as late as 1683.

In the nineteenth canvas of his Epic Alfons Mucha reaches The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia. In it we see a hesitant and confused gathering in the snow before the Kremlin. According to the guide this reflected Mucha’s shock at the backwardness and ignorance of many of the people he encountered in a study trip in 1913.

The historical trajectory of the Czech people has been quite different from that of their Russian counterparts and ultimately it is difficult to reconcile Mucha’s pan-Slavonic vision with the historical diversity of that broad linguistic group. But the motif has a contemporary parallel as, just as freed Russian serfs struggled to reconcile themselves to the capitalist society of the twentieth century, similarly citizens of Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, have struggled to recover from first Nazi brutality and then Communist totalitarianism.

Coming after centuries of Hapsburg rule there is a firm belief that the Czech people should control their own destiny reflected in the decision to opt out of the Euro. To understand these attitudes the views of the renowned literary critique Arné Novak (1880-1939) might prove insightful. He wrote that ‘The Czech national temperament continually fluctuates between two poles: on the one hand, a self-righteous over-estimation of everything native, with a stubborn clinging to ancient prejudices; on the other hand, impatient curiosity about the latest foreign literary fashions, and a readiness for slavish imitation.’

If we are to accept this caustic assessment and apply it to Czech politics the “stubborn resistance” might be observed in a resistance to being dictated to on the issue of refugees by the European core, especially Germany. Meanwhile, a hint of ‘slavish imitation’ might be discerned in uncritical acceptance of American foreign policy.

Apart from contending with the the demands of economies presupposing inequality, the entrepreneurial spirit has been difficult to ignite in an older generation worn down by repetition and a lack of meritocracy. Further, the pernicious presence of secret police informants across society under Communism has left a legacy of suspicion and a lack of openness to strangers. Unfortunately these resentments now manifest themselves in antipathy towards those who have sought refuge in Europe, and the irresponsible statements of the Czech President have inflamed the chauvinism leading to “stubborn resistance” that his great predecessor Masaryk decried.

Song is Existence

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2015)

In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.
Sean O’Faolain

Donal Dineen recently described this as a ‘golden age’ in Irish music. We might take heart when a DJ of his calibre with knowledge crossing genres and continents makes such a pronouncement. His sets and peripatetic shows reveal a remarkable and unyielding musical engagement; his vocal input merges clarity, wit and pathos even if at times he does wander.

Of course it will be for posterity to judge whether such a description is warranted, or whether Dineen ‘has gone off on one’. Nonetheless it is worth assessing this creative outpouring in our midst, track its merits such as they are and even plot future directions.

Any golden age in music cannot be divorced from the wider socio-economic and cultural context. Musicians are not free floating forms insulated from broader currents. If this is a golden age for Irish music then to some extent it extends to Irish life at large, or at least there’s a cloud with a very silver lining.

On many levels we’ve ‘never had it so good’ in spite of the Celtic Tiger failing a dope test: the country has maintained its population unlike after other historical crises albeit with a diminished standard of living and increased emigration. But the brain drain is not all in one direction. Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in Ireland. In terms of music, there is sufficient wealth for patronage of concerts to continue and a comparatively generous social welfare system (for all except the under-25s) forces few musicians into serious poverty.

Importantly those who have arrived are keen to integrate and a garrulous culture is happy to accommodate outsiders. Ireland doesn’t have the colonial baggage of some of its neighbours and there is little obvious racism.

Of course there is serious inequality, a public health time bomb, far too great a concentration of economic activity in Dublin and an often atrocious attitude to the environment. And yet there is a spirit in Ireland that visitors and even residents remark upon. Strangers actually talk to one another. Distasteful efforts to brand and commodify the Irish welcome does not mask genuine warmth.

In the sphere of music many New Irish are asserting individual creativity and drawing on international influences shaped by appreciative Irish audiences. In jazz and world music, the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, the Italian pianist Francesco Turrissi and half-Sierra-Leonean-half-Irish singer Loah could enjoy a global audience.

Meanwhile traditional forms have been nourished by interactions with foreign styles. The ‘session’ which blurs the boundary between audience and performer thrives, particularly outside Dublin.

Surveying the wider culture we have long been a country on the geographic edge, but also on edge creatively. A unique history in European terms of colonization, suffering what has been defined as the worst famine in human history then emerging at the end of the nineteenth century as a noisy underclass uncomfortably situated near the centre of an empire where the sun never set. An accident of geography gave the Irish population a modern education and substantial equality in the United Kingdom.

Exploring the context of the Irish cultural revival that began at the end of the nineteenth century, the literary historian Joe Cleary identified ‘conjunctures’ or intersections of socio-political and economic forces that generated impressive artistic achievements.

Rather like the profusion of nature at the fault line of two clashing tectonic plates, the meeting of a peasant society with an advanced industrial society generated an embarrassment of cultural riches. The Irish acquired the language of the colonizer but some chose to distort it and question the prevailing Positivism of the period. In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake the English language was subjected to an almost mocking treatment by James Joyce and W.B. Yeats was inspired by peasant lore to a mysticism central to his oeuvre.

Both Joyce and Yeats were also profoundly musical. Yeats in particular developed a remarkable sonorous quality to his verse, quite at odds with the Modernist rejection of form that has transformed much contemporary poetry into a largely academic pre-occupation. This loss of a wider relevance for poetry could have dangerous, dislocating consequences.

In Songlines the travel writer Bruce Chatwin recalls how the Aboriginal population of Australia believe their ancestors sung their land into existence. He writes: ‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’ He concludes that ‘the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organized his social life.’ Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: ‘Gesang ist Dasein,’ meaning ‘song is existence’.

Songs are of course both music and words, but the inspiration for song seems to originate in a different part of the brain to speaking. Fascinatingly, some stroke victims who lose the use of their brain’s left hemisphere can no longer speak but retain a capacity to sing. The right hemisphere is associated with nuance and metaphor which are the lifeblood of poetry.

But when a musician plays her instrument she is largely working from the left hemisphere. This is not surprising considering the mathematical basis of chord progressions and rhythm. To some extent the playing of an instrument is the operation of a noise-making machine which is in the responsibility of the practical left hemisphere.

But when composing the musician enters the domain of the right as symbolic meaning interacts with the relative order of a musical key. A sensitive instrumentalist can also recognise the sentiments expressed in lyrics, echo and embellish them. This coordination of hemispheres helps explain the power of music, especially singing in combination with instruments, to lift us out of our seats.

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain MacGilchrist explains that: ‘both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that that are also maintained separately.’

Religions have long understood the power of songs. Hymns have always occupied an important place in Catholicism and Martin Luther said: ‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was not as naïve as it may seem. Their success arrived at a time when organized religions were in decline and the enduring connection between spiritual devotion and song music gave Beatlemania characteristics of a religious revival, although any movement was forestalled by the egos in the band.

Religious songs take a meditative form quite removed from an exoteric tendency in religions towards legalistic control. It seems that if a religion rejects song that oppressive tendencies become manifest: this is apparent in the austere form of Islam expressed by Wahhabism which forbade the use of musical instruments. The only verse permitted to be sung was the Qu’ran which was learnt by heart. Exponents chant programmatically with little scope for revealing their emotions. Wahhabism informs the ideology of Islamic State and other conservative variants of Political Islam. In contrast Sufism, another branch of Islam, embraces song and poetic expression. Without the symbolic insights of song, religions can become judgmental and absolutist.
Irish Catholicism also took an oppressive turn in the twentieth century. Its music was perfunctory and removed from the common people: the Church enjoying an uneasy relationship with traditional music which tended to be associated with pagan superstitions, including the idea that tunes derived from the faeries.

Fortunately, unlike in England, traditional Irish music survived as a signature of Irishness, and perhaps some of the vitality and warmth apparent in Ireland is drawn from a resilient musical tradition. MacGilchrist writes that music ‘has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of a shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together’.

Of course many forms of music have been popular since independence from the Show Bands to Rock and Roll and even House and Hip Hop today, but the important thing is that music remains in the blood; the Songlines enduring in shifting genres.

Pace Cleary, the decline of the Tiger might be identified as the ‘conjuncture’ out of which emerged the rich stream of musical creativity that Dineen observes. The shock of a renewed acquaintance with poverty after years of mindless consumerism has seen many return to the creative musical well.

But arguably this golden age comes with a significant caveat as much contemporary Irish music is removed from the deep insights of poetry. This might owe something to an enduring discomfort with the English language as a foreign imposition, but also to the excesses of Modernism in poetry. This lacuna creates an imbalance in collective Irish hemispheres.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys who lives in Dublin recently claimed that Ireland is a great place to write songs. Though not Irish by birth he has tapped into the Songlines.

A recent album An Interview with Mr Yeats (2013) is a homage to the poet. It transposes a number of the master poet’s work into song, but the result is perhaps too reverential as the poems are retained in their entirety and not subjected to Scott’s own poetic inspiration evident in other work. Poetry should be recast each generation otherwise it atrophies and a distance emerges between it and our ever-evolving language.

One band that does display a balance between the poetic and the musical is The Loafing Heroes led by an Irish singer-songwriter named Bartholomew Ryan. His words are joined by musical virtuosity from an unusual instrumental array that intensifies the experience of the lyrics. The creativity of the right hemisphere and order of the left are harnessed to powerful effect.

Like many who have drawn from Irish Songlines, Ryan has spent much of his adult life beyond his native shores. Often the greatest insights accumulate from a distance. We just have to observe the legacy of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats all of whom did not live in Ireland for much of their lives yet played a huge role in forging what we pereive as Irishness.

One song ‘Dream of the Celt’ from Ryan’s recent album Crossing the Threshold concerns Roger Casement: ‘A seeker and a poet who sailed from shore / That enigmatic gentleman who lives beyond his name’. Casement was one of the 1916 conspirators and was executed after landing in Kerry in a failed mission to join the Rising. Casement had a genuinely global sensibility exposing the horrific crimes of Leopold in the Congo for which he was knighted. But he was a convinced Irish nationalist and situated that struggle within the wider constellation of his opposition to colonialism.

We find a subtle reference to Yeat’s poetic homage to Casement in the Ryan’s lines: ‘There’s a ghost knocking / there’s a ghost beating down my door.’ Thus the spirits from another age inform our present relationship with what it means to be Irish: The Songlines of the ancestors, or as Ryan puts it in another track, ‘Into the Nothing’: ‘Walk along the songlines and into the heart / Dream the dreamtime and bring us back to the start’.

A golden age of music in Ireland could become a golden age for poetry too. There are great exponents working in Ireland today, many with a playful, irreverent approach to language, but their work tends not to enter the mainstream. If poetry and music draw closer rather than seeing one another as separate domains we might find a more powerful drawing from our Songlines, and a balance of the hemispheres.

The nuanced communication of ideas through wider poetic appreciation might help us contend with the serious challenges of our time. A golden age in both music and poetry could inculcate greater sensitivity to nature and empathy with human suffering. Our great music can make words dance.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/song-is-existence/)

A Czech in Ireland (longer version)

(Unpublished, 2016)

The Irish Free State avoided most of the depredations of World War II. There were casualties from a few bombing raid and Belfast suffered grievously but the Emergency is mostly remembered for insufficient white bread and Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy with a letter of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler.

Moreover, in an era before mass aviation refugees found it difficult to travel to Ireland and the authorities issued few visas either before or after the war. There were notable exceptions such as the Viennese couple Edward and Lisl Strunz who ran The Unicorn Restaurant for many years.

Another refugee from the period was Denis Scrivener (née Zdenek Skrivenek) who first escaped to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the eve of the World War II. He returned home in 1945 but felt compelled to leave permanently in 1949, this time moving to Ireland accompanied by an Irish wife Nan Keating and their young daughter Maria. After overcoming significant adversity in his adopted country he became a successful businessman, setting up Farmhand that employed up to fifty people.

Scrivener’s story is recorded in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland). Written with clarity and honesty, it offers a touching insight into the human toll of seismic political events: first the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 only months after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler that promised ‘peace in our time’, and handed the country over to the Nazis without a bullet being fired; then a Communist dictatorship that followed World War II and lasted until 1989.

Denis’s father was a furrier and during the inter war years ran a successful shop in the centre of Prague. He led a privileged existence with summer trips to the French Riviera and displayed an abiding interest in the opposite sex to the understandable irritation of Denis’s mother. She had lost her first husband in the First World War although she had a child, Lilly, by him, six years older than Denis the only child from the second marriage. From his account it seems Denis enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood animated by winter sports and cultural visits to surrounding countries.

Denis’s parents met in his mother’s native Vienna but settled in his father’s homeland: the new state of Czechoslovakia, born after World War I, which prospered under the liberal guidance of Thomas Masaryk who was president from 1919 until his death in 1935.

Denis escaped to London in 1939 before the German invasion but his remaining family harboured a secret that would prove fatal to some of them. Although officially Roman Catholic Denis’s mother was Jewish by ancestry. In liberal inter-war Czechoslovakia that did not appear to be of any consequence. Denis recalls that: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

That changed abruptly when the Germans invaded. If the Nazis discovered that Denis’s father was married to a Jew he too would have been considered one under their race laws. Denis asserts that: ‘if my father’s character had been less strong than it was then his infatuation with another woman could have caused a premature and tragic end to my mother’s life. Not an exaggeration to say this, merely a reflection on the realities of the time.’

His father did not succumb to that temptation despite his wife discovering at least one of his infidelities and being in Denis’s estimation ‘a rather difficult wife to live with’: albeit her husband’s conduct might have explained any irascibility.

Alas Denis’s sister Lilly was not so fortunate. She and her two children Inuska and Tomicek were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941. Here, remarkably, she re-married and the family survived for two years in no small part down to the influence of Mr Skrivenek who from outside procured extra rations for his step-daughter’s family. But alas Lily, her two children and husband Kuba were all transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, a fate that befell most of Denis’s Jewish relations.

During the occupation Denis’s parents were also incarcerated by the Nazi authorities, and even subjected to solitary confinement, for a period of ten months. Miraculously his mother’s Jewish background was not exposed. This came about because they were denounced to the Gestapo for currency fraud by Denis’s mother’s own sister, who had moved to New York before the war. She informed on them because some of her property had not been sent to her. It reveals his mother’s attachment to her family that she could overlook this treachery to the extent that for a time in the late 1960s they would even live together in Dublin.

In 1939 Denis had escaped on one of the last trains out of the country. At the British border controls in the Netherlands what helped him through without a visa was a good knowledge of English learnt at the English Grammar School in Prague. But for that he might have suffered the fate of the failed applicants who he observed being beaten up by the Dutch police and bundled on a train back into the jaws of Nazi Germany.

Denis worked various jobs on arrival in wartime Britain. He found employment in a munitions factory in what he considered the dowdy town of Warrington where willingness to work long hours for extra pay brought friction with the union that felt this showed his fellow workers in a bad light. But he mainly lived in London where he became a waiter in The Dorchester serving, among others, Winston Churchill and the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. It was then that he met and fell in love with a Tipperary nurse Nan Keating. They married in 1943 in London.

But their honeymoon was a hurried weekend in Southend-on-Sea as Denis had by then volunteered for the Free Czech Army. He joined a tank regiment and was soon acting as an instructor. He paints a bleak picture of army life that recalls episodes from the great anti-war Czech novel The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. He admits that life ‘for many months was difficult to endure’, as he encountered bullying officers and dreadful food. Denis’s regiment arrived in France two weeks after the D-Day landings in 1944.

As the Americans and British armies swept through Western Europe Denis’s regiment stayed put containing German forces in Dunkirk. They sustained considerable casualties from artillery bombardment but Denis emerge unscathed. Through his eyes we see the misery and filth of war and how simply surviving from one day to the next becomes an overriding objective. At least with a keen eye for a profit margin, that would serve him well in later years, he enhanced his paltry allowance by selling his cigarette rations at a substantial mark-up to the liberated French.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945 and at last he returned to Czechoslovakia in the wake of American forces in 1945 who halted in Pilsen to allow Soviet forces liberate Prague. Now within 100km of his native city Denis resolved to make his way there before he had leave to do so.

Travelling by motorbike terrible thoughts ran through his mind. He had had no contact with his family for six years and the Jewish Holocaust was being revealed. At his parents pre-war apartment he found no sign of their names on the residents’ list outside. His heart sank but at last he found out from a neighbour that their plush pre-war residence had been commandeered by the invaders. They had moved to an inferior flat, but it seemed they were alive.

When his mother opened the door to him she promptly fainted, but soon recovered and was delighted to hear of his marriage. His father, typically, asked whether his wife had good legs. Only later did Dennis learn of his sister’s fate, her family’s, and many others. He managed to re-join his regiment without repercussions and soon returned to Prague to resume his pre-war employment in his father’s firm.

Nan Keating arrived in Prague after some months on a British aeroplane. The couple found a stylish apartment on Wencelas Square in the heart of Prague’s Old Town and the joviality of the inter-war years seemed to be returning. For some time the young couple were able to soak up Prague’s alluring night life. Soon a first child, Maria, was born and Nan, who had already acquired some Czech in London, was learning about Czech cuisine under the critical gaze of her not always helpful mother-in-law. But that pleasant interlude would not last long as Nazi tyranny was quickly followed by Communist dictatorship.

The Communist party was well supported in pre-war Czechoslovakia and had been to the fore in opposition to the Nazis. In 1947 elections the party won over 30% of the vote and led a coalition government. But the country was effectively left to the Soviet Union by the Western Powers as it had been to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

This became apparent when often unruly Russian soldiers began to flood the city. Denis recalls how they became: ‘more evident around Prague and their chief leisure occupation became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

His anxiety grew as the Communists gradually asserted total power expelling other parties from the government. His tipping point was the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the Tomas Masaryk. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the foreign ministry.

Denis resolved to emigrate to his wife’s country which he had never visited, though he did consider returning to London which Nan would have preferred. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Unfortunately adventurous and romantic choices do not necessarily make for an easy life.

Their mind was made up when a visa arrived from the Irish Department of Justice and they were on their way to Ireland just after Eamon de Valera left office after sixteen years in power. The thrusting, cosmopolitan Czech was in for a testing period when he arrived in the economically-stagnant and inward-looking Ireland of the 1950s.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Denis arrived first with his daughter, the three year old Maria, who stubbornly refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan soon followed.

The problem for Dennis was that for all his business acumen he arrived without a regular trade or profession and the furrier business wasn’t booming in post-war Ireland. He hatched a number of schemes from importing biros to manufacturing toys but for much of the 1950s he was forced into long hours of unrewarding and often menial labour.

Along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy. He endured a particularly unpleasant episode under the employment of one Cork businessman who forced him into hard labour with the promise that he would be given a motor car sales franchise in Dublin. He bitterly recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against. But at least Denis exacted a measure of revenge against that businessman in the courts.

Through hard work and persistence Denis slowly made his way by becoming a skilled salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Dennis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. Within a few years these skills brought rewards and he eventually launched his own company which he called Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today.

He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’ But he retained an affection for the country and even after he had handed over Farmhand to his son John and spent a few years in the UK and Canada he decided to return to live out his final years in his adopted country.

It is revealing that Denis should recall one particular episode from this childhood. An older boy, unknown to him or his friends, noticed the commotion and asked Denis if he would like to be shown how to perform a figure of eight. Denis was delighted at the prospect and handed over the bike. The boy performed the stunt and promptly cycled off on his new bike. Denis’s life was punctuated by loss, material and otherwise, and he encountered a few con-men along the way but he would work hard to restore his fortunes.

His account shows what life was like for an ordinary person living through terrible times and finding a sanctuary of sorts in a remote country where he struggled to make his way. On an epic journey he encountered all sides of the human character and confronted sustained adversity making him a remarkably resourceful individual but perhaps the constant striving left him a troubled man too. The drive that brought him such success left little time for family life and it might come as no surprise that Nan and he separated after he became successful.

His survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example suggests that those wishing to enter Europe will also offer a dynamism and hard work ethic to their host societies.

A Czech in Ireland

(Published in the Irish Times 5/4/16)

Seventy years ago in 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the largest political party in free elections forming a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. By that time Denis Scrivener (nee Zdenek Skrivenek) had returned to Prague with his new Irish wife Nan Keating. But the Communist Party soon became a tool of the Soviet Union and a dictatorship followed for over forty years.

Denis had survived war-time exile in Britain where he met Nan and joined up with the Free Czech Army, crossing the channel just after D-Day in 1944 and seeing action around Dunkirk. His remarkable story and subsequent life in Ireland is recounted in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland).

The half-Jewish Denis had already endured the murder of his sister and her two children in the Holocaust along with numerous other family members. Now demobilised he observed unruly Russian soldiers flooding into Prague. He recalls how their chief leisure occupation: ‘became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

Denis had returned to work in his father’s successful furrier business and he and Nan were living on Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. By that stage Nan had learnt Czech and together they enjoyed a lightness that settled briefly over Prague before the unhappy tide of history washed through once more.

A daughter, Maria, was born but Denis’s anxiety was growing over what was happening as the Communists asserted total power by expelling other parties from the coalition.

He made up his mind after the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas Masaryk the founding father of Czechoslovakia. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the ministry.

Denis resolved to live in his wife’s country which he had never visited, though Nan would have preferred a return to London. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Their minds were made up when an Irish visa arrived from the Department of Justice.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Dennis arrived first with his daughter Maria who initially refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan followed soon.

In time Denis would become a successful entrepreneur but along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy.

He endured a particularly unpleasant experience with one Cork businessman who tricked him into hard labour with the promise of a Dublin franchise. He recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against.’

At last Denis became a salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Denis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. In 1962 he launched his own company Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today. He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’

Denis’s survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country, as I do now in Prague on a romantic journey in the opposite direction. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example illustrates how migrants often bring a hard work ethic and dynamism to their host societies.

(http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-about-denis-scrivener-an-enterprising-czech-in-ireland-1.2597944)

Large scale immigration requires ‘the nation’ to be redefined

(Published in Metro Eireann, 2007)

‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’ (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Provisional census figures indicate that the there are approximately 400,000 non-nationals living in this country. Coping with such a level of diversity is a new challenge for the indigenous population of a peripheral island historically removed from the European mainstream, une isle derriere une isle as a French historian once put it. To date most of the new entrants have come from other EU states, but if, as seems likely, our economy continues to grow, increased numbers will arrive from elsewhere.

In order to achieve successful integration we may need to learn from other states in the Union, in particular Britain, where a model of multiculturalism prevails, and France where a different policy – that of assimilation, has been pursued. In 2005 both countries experienced serious incidents, civil disturbance in France and the terrorist attacks of July 7th in Britain, which called into question the efficacy of their respective policies. To achieve a peaceful transition, in this country, from a relatively homogenous society to one that is successfully cosmopolitan, it will be vital to strike the right balance between respecting diversity and encouraging integration.

The Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007

In a recent address to the Law Society the Tanaiste, and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell revealed the legislative response, in the shape of the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill 2007, the government will make to the large scale immigration of recent years.

In his speech, McDowell also explored how we identify ourselves, a theme which has been put in sharp focus by the pronouncements of the leader of the opposition, Enda Kenny, to the effect that we are a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people, which, apparently, makes us ‘understand better than most the special challenges of immigration and integrating new communities’. In an international climate which features a perceived ‘clash of civilisations’ to define ‘the Irish’, an increasingly diverse population, in racial and religious terms can, at best, be regarded as naïve, and at worst provocative. Mr McDowell, to his credit, repudiates the Fine Gael leader’s simplistic characterisation and instead advocates a ‘republican’ model rooted in ‘diversities of identities and traditions’.

The Minister also adds to the lexicon of Irish historiography by coining the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Irish to distinguish between the indigenous population and new arrivals, many of whom will become citizens. One letter-writer to a national newspaper complained that, by analogy, an Irish person living in England could be referred to as ‘New English’, suggesting that this would be entirely unsatisfactory. This, however, is more testament to the stunted level of integration in Britain; the McDowell definition suggests that ‘Irishness’ is not the sole preserve of indigenes.

McDowell argues that there is little a government can do to promote integration: ‘[T]he breadth of the approach to this issue internationally suggests that integration policy and objectives are not particularly tied to legislative diktat’. He does, however, envisage some form of citizenship test: ‘[Citizenship] should perhaps be conferred only on those who can demonstrate that they have a minimum level of understanding of the nation and state to which those duties are owed and a minimum capacity to interact linguistically with the other citizens of the state’. The legal basis for a language test might be difficult to find in a country where the Constitution defines Irish as the ‘first national language’. Would immigrants be required to learn Irish? This approach evokes memories of Norman Tebbit’s absurd ‘cricket test’ for immigrants to Britain. The idea appears misguided; such an examination might demand a level of knowledge from a new immigrant that many a native would not attain.

Island Refuge

From independence, this state did not welcome foreign intrusion. Notably, Jewish refugees were not offered sanctuary during the Second World War. This reluctance can be explained by the efforts of a newly emerged governing elite to forge an unvarying national identity based on language and Catholic values.

The arrival of exoticism from abroad, in any shape or form, was not encouraged, especially while the country’s population continued to be drained by emigration, and resources were scarce. Cead Mile Failte would be extended so long as foreigners remained foreigners, admiring us from afar, or ideally, providing us with tourist dollars.

Times have obviously changed, the policy of autarky; the goal of self-sufficiency belongs to the past, we swim in the global economic maelstrom. It took some time to get there but now we serve as an exemplar to other post colonial states; the star pupil of the EU, brash and self-confident. While the boom depended in the early stages on the young population, since the turn of the century we have come to rely on foreign labour.

The relative opulence of virtual full employment counters a prevailing inclination towards begrudgery among the ‘Old Irish’, and also means that the new arrivals have, in general, avoided poverty. Further, as the majority have come from other European states, most of the ‘New Irish’ share cultural traits common to the ‘Old’, not to mention similar pigmentation. These factors have defused the threat of xenophobic political movements emerging. However, with birth rates at historic lows across the EU, and with the likelihood that the economies of Eastern European will improve as community membership takes effect, demand for labour will be filled from elsewhere if our economic success is to be sustained. This will bring increased immigration of peoples from countries with traditions and lifestyles more divergent to our own.

Londonistan

In Europe, it is possible to identify two main approaches to immigration; the British model of multiculturalism, and the French alternative of assimilation, neither of which have proved entirely successful.

In Britain, the issue of immigration came to the fore in the 1960s, most memorably in Enoch Powell’s speech predicting ‘Rivers of Blood’. The doomsday scenario has certainly not come to pass, although there have been numerous incidents along the way; race riots, the infamous Stephen Lawrence murder, and more recently the modest rise of the BNP and UKIP.

The main thrust of successive British government policy has been to deter discrimination. The Race Relations Acts (1965-2000) provide a legislative scheme for ensuring equality of treatment in areas such as employment, education, and housing. Further, a long liberal tradition has allowed immigrants, stretching back to Karl Marx, to freely express their opinions. Indeed, during the 1980s and 1990s ‘Londonistan’ emerged as a place of intellectual ferment for Islamists. This has been offered as an explanation for why Britain had not been subjected to attack by Islamic terrorists before the events of July 7th 2005 shattered the delicate modus vivendi.

Stemming perhaps from colonial experience, the British approach has been to identify various ethnic or religious blocks and patronise their leadership. However, the attempt to define, and to an extent control, ‘ethnic’ groups often generates confusion; for example in the ethnic coding for the 2001 census; ‘Muslim’ is offered as an ‘ethnic’ category under the heading ‘Asian’, while ‘Jewish’ (another religious category) falls under the heading ‘White’, with ‘Arab’ (are Jews and Arabs not supposed to both be Semites?) defined under ‘Chinese or Other’. The point is that ethnicity is a malleable concept, subject to change according to individual whim.

The British Home Office patronises various groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain (which is provided with financial support), as representatives of religious or ethnic blocks. But it is not always the case that individuals are satisfied to be represented by so-called ‘community leaders’, or that these often self-appointed individuals accurately reflect the views of their ‘community’; recently, a group of Jews in Britain came together to launch Independent Jewish Voices, an organisation opposed to the policies of Israel which are supported by the long-standing Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Anyone who has lived in London can testify to a level of alienation not experienced in other large cities. A trip on the Tube offers a parade of withdrawn faces. Tolerance can often lapse into a superficial political correctness, while communities stick to themselves.

Acknowledgement from social commentators and politicians that all is not well in multicultural Britain is beginning. In a recent article in The Guardian (1/2/07) Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the reality of multi-culturalism is ‘one of far-reaching alienation among young British Muslims. In an NOP poll last year, less than half of British Muslims interviewed identified Britain as “my country”.’ The situation in many communities of Afro-Caribbean descent is also a cause for concern, as gun crime reaches alarming proportions.

One source of the difficulties is the existence of an entrenched class system that encourages segregation. The effect of this is reinforced by colonial traditions that frowned upon miscegenation (cohabitation or marriage between different races); Britain is more mosaic than melting pot, and global currents enlarge the cracks.

Political Islam lays emphasis on the umma, the Islamic community, to the exclusion of ethnic or national identities. Social stratification has provided a breeding ground for this ideology, especially in the North of England ravaged by Thatcherism. Added to this social discontent, the foreign policy of the British government, strongly associated with what is perceived as a U.S ‘crusade’ against Islam, has created serious tensions that culminated in the suicide attacks of July 7th, 2005 which marked a new chapter in inter-communal relations. Currently relations are frosty, and much could depend on the foreign policy that emerges from the Blairite abdication.

The tradition of tolerance in Britain is to be admired, but the rigid stratification of ‘ethnic’ groups is increasingly a cause for alarm among politicians and social commentators in that country. Successive governments have tended to ignore the challenge of integration, giving rise to a situation where it would be fair to ask how many people would see themselves as ‘British’ as opposed to any of the other competing identities.

Veiled Threats

French colonisation developed by contrast, a policy of Assimilation (although Association was practised in later colonies such as Morrocco and Syria). The objective was to mould Frenchmen out of the native populations and there was no such taboo around miscegenation as under British colonisation. Indeed, the more sensual French tended to celebrate the native, perhaps most memorably in Gauguin’s depictions of Tahitian life.

However, efforts to integrate native populations ultimately failed, owing perhaps to the exploitation that defines the relationship of coloniser to colonised. This failure was seen most starkly in Algeria, the oldest of French colonies which had been integrated into Metropolitan France, where a brutal war of independence led to the deaths of at least 350,000 (and over twice that number according to Algerian sources) which effectively led to the demise of France as a colonial power, and has caused lasting enmity.

Within France, the state seems to continue a policy of Assimilation towards immigrants most of whom arrived during France’s trente glorieuses, (1945-1974); the thirty years of prosperity that followed the Second World War. In contrast to Britain, the French government does not allow official statistics based on ethnicity or religion to be compiled. Nonetheless, it is estimated there are 6.7 million people of immigrant background.

The absence of statistics cannot, however, mask clear fault lines exemplified vividly by the continued success of the National Front, Europe’s largest avowedly xenophobic party, the leader of which, Jean Marie Le Pen, interestingly, fought in the Algerian War of Independence. Its continued electoral success shows that there are ingrained prejudices in French society directed against those perhaps still considered colonial underlings. Indeed, an analysis of 1999 French census data elicited evidence of significant occupational segregation with immigrants occupying ‘jobs shunned by natives.’

Recent years has seen unemployment hover around 10%, generating discontent, and latterly civil disturbance. Scenes projected by the fictional film La Haine came vividly to life on a massive scale in 2005 as riots erupted in les banlieus causing extensive damage to many French cities, and leading to the declaration of a state of emergency.

Although the Renseignements Generaux (French Intelligence Agency) denied that there was an ‘Islamic factor’ to the riots, the aggressive policy of secularisation, a polite form of Assimilation, has fuelled tension. The ban on the wearing of the hijab (and other religious symbols) in schools allows Islamic militants to portray the state as Islamophobic, but for many in France this has become a fundamental tenet of their republicanism, so it would be almost impossible for any government to change course.

French society is highly politicised, strikes and manifestations seem to occur more regularly than in any other state on the planet. To an extent this is indicative of a healthy body politic, and revealingly, a 2006 survey, conducted by the Pew Research Centre, found that 72% of Muslims in France perceive no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, in contrast to Britain where Muslims split evenly (47% saw a conflict, 49% did not). Furthermore, French foreign policy, particularly the French stance on the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has brought the French government more in step with the views of most immigrants.

Nevertheless, the seeming unwillingness of the state to face up to diversity ignores the frictions in French society, and the ban on the hijab only stokes tensions without achieving any discernable objective. Ultimately, it is likely to be economic factors, especially the prevalence of unemployment, which will define future relations. It also remains to be seen how, if elected, the current Presidential favourite Nicolas Sarkozy, who advocates a more pro-American foreign policy, will effect relations.

Clean Slate

Unlike many other European states, the ‘Old Irish’ can define a relationship with the ‘New’ without the burden of colonisation. Indeed, as colonial subjects, and with a history of emigration, we should begin with a certain empathy with many Third World immigrants. Also, a tradition of neutrality means that this state is unlikely to get involved in foreign misadventures. But initial goodwill, on both sides, could rapidly dissipate.

There are clearly lessons to be learnt from the French and British experiences, and Michael McDowell is disingenuous to contend that the legislature does not have a role in confronting the question of integration. Council estates, and les banlieus have emerged in Britain and France as breeding ground for poverty and crime, allowing terrorism and civil disturbances to flourish. It is crucial for integration that our government pursues housing polices that counter the possibility of such ghettos. Already, socially deprived council estates have engendered a pernicious gangsterism among the ‘Old Irish’. It is surely vital that a like degeneration does not manifest itself among the ‘New Irish’.

Another danger, in the longer term, is that the gulf in wealth between the migrant and native could fuel tensions. An increase in the minimum wage, or further reduction in the lower band of income tax, would have an equalising effect. Otherwise, a neo-colonial relationship could take hold, with immigrants taking on the subaltern roles in Irish society with ‘occupational segregation’ emerging.

From the French experience it is worthwhile to observe the value of instilling in immigrants a sense of pride in the nation. The educational system is crucial to this endeavour. The presence, still, of habit-wearing nuns still teaching in schools, ought deter controversy over the issue of the hijab, but our education system does perhaps require a dose of secularisation; schools run by religious orders are unlikely to be acceptable to many non-Catholic immigrants, and it is important that children from different backgrounds are acclimatised to one another. The bifurcation of Protestants and Catholics in the North of Ireland can perhaps be traced to the segregation of schools there.

Modest Proposal

Article 27 of the Canadian charter reads as follows:

‘This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.’

The Irish Constitution already ‘cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage’; would it not be fitting to amend our Constitution to include a similar endearment towards immigrants?

Rising Tide

Fortunately, no significant racist or xenophobic political movements have emerged in this state; in contrast to many other European countries where, in recent years, political parties advocating stringent controls on immigration have grown in popularity, and have even entered into ruling coalitions. For all its faults, the melting pot of U.S. society has been far more accommodating to immigrants. Perhaps Europe’s inability to integrate immigrants is best explained by how, with France perhaps excepted, pride in the nation is generally bound up with attachment to a particular ethnic background, or volk. There is an urgent need to repudiate this conflation, and re-appraise this understanding of the ‘nation’. The views of Dominique Schnapper of the Constitutional Council of France are endorsed: ‘The Classical concept of the nation is that of an entity which, opposed to the ethnic group, affirms itself as an open community, the will to live together expressing itself by the acceptance of a unified public domain which transcends all particularisms.’

If we define ourselves as a ‘Celtic and Christian’ people we embrace an exclusive “particularism” that will exclude immigrants. Michael McDowell’s definition of the ‘Old Irish’ and ‘New Irish’ is helpful, as Irishness ceases to be exclusive. Nonetheless, the state should refrain from a heavy-handed Assimilation, allowing for the celebration of other cultures, not just our own. It is also important that this government move beyond rhetoric and adopt policies that will smooth the process of creating an “open community”.