Wednesday, March 29, 2017

'And the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher': Behind the town Martin McGuinness loved so well

Since leading Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness died aged 66 on March 20, much ink has been spilt on the life and legacy of the ex-IRA fighter who helped negotiate Ireland's peace process. Praise and sometimes slander, from highest offices around the world to ordinary people, have come the way of the deceased man from Derry in Ireland's north. 

But how many of these bastards have bothered to use McGuinness's death as a great excuse to bang on about one of the greatest songs most famously sung by possibly Ireland's greatest-ever folk singer as part of one of the great Irish folk bands? Huh?

A whole bunch of people have missed this rather obvious trick. But no more! The absence of Luke Kelly and the Dubliners in discussions of Martin McGuinness's life and times ends here! I WILL END THIS AND I WILL END THIS NOW!

Yes! You can listen BELOW to Irish songwriter Phil Coulter's classic song "The Town I Loved So Well", first recorded by the Dubliners in 1973. 

It describes the Derry that McGuinness, like Coulter and thousands of other working-class men and women, grew up in. It captures the tragedy of the violence that wracked it from the perspective of the working class who were its victims. And YES there is much more to say and GODDAMN IT fear NOT I go on to SAY FUCKING BUCKET LOADS OF IT DOWN BELOW IN THIS VERY POST! 

But first, before anything else should even be thought, much less said... first... Luke Kelly.

In my memory I will always see
the town that I have loved so well
Where our school played ball by the gasyard wall
and we laughed through the smoke and the smell
Going home in the rain, running up the dark lane
past the jail and down behind the fountain
Those were happy days in so many, many ways
in the town I loved so well 
In the early morning the shirt factory horn
called women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog
While the men on the dole played a mother's role,
fed the children and then trained the dogs
And when times got tough there was just about enough
But they saw it through without complaining
For deep inside was a burning pride
in the town I loved so well 
There was music there in the Derry air
like a language that we all could understand
I remember the day when I earned my first pay
And I played in a small pick-up band
There I spent my youth and to tell you the truth
I was sad to leave it all behind me
For I learned about life and I'd found a wife
in the town I loved so well 
But when I returned how my eyes have burned
to see how a town could be brought to its knees
By the armoured cars and the bombed out bars
and the gas that hangs on to every tree
Now the army's installed by that old gasyard wall
and the damned barbed wire gets higher and higher
With their tanks and their guns, oh my God, what have they done
to the town I loved so well 
Now the music's gone but they carry on
For their spirit's been bruised, never broken
They will not forget but their hearts are set
on tomorrow and peace once again
For what's done is done and what's won is won
and what's lost is lost and gone forever
I can only pray for a bright, brand new day
in the town I loved so well

The song is a great demonstration of the talents of Luke Kelly as a folk singer, as he hits lines bemoaning a sudden and devastating shift towards violence with ever greater force.

The song starts depicting a working class community that suffers poverty (the men are on the dole, though the women work in local factories), but with a strong sense of community and pride. The narrator leaves and later returns to find a town "brought to its knees" by violence, with the "army installed by the old gas yard walls, and the damned barbed wire grows higher and higher". Kelly's voice is almost broken with barely suppressed anger as he declares "My God, what have they done?", before insisting the town's spirit is "bruised but never broken" and they set their eyes towards peace.

It is a song about social realities in the folk tradition, and is not explicitly political. It is no "rebel" song, and while it bemoans British military violence there is no suggestion of sympathy for the armed resistance McGuinness helped lead in the 70s. If anything, the reference to "bombed out bars" suggests the violence, from all sides are fuelling the singer's despair and grief.

But this doesn't reduce its capacity to capture the reality that made McGuinness who he was.  When it was clear the armed struggle could not bring about a speedy end to the war, while the violence wrecked havoc on all aspects of society in Ireland's north, McGuinness was part of the push for an end to armed conflict to shift the struggle to peaceful means.

The ;picture of Derry, and what happened to it in the Troubles,  provides a great frame to understand Martin McGuinness.

Born the son of a tailor in 1950, McGuinness grew up poor, in the working-class (and largely Catholic and nationalist) Bogside in Derry. Leaving school at 15, he worked a series of low-paying jobs. He was working as a butcher's apprentice when, in 1969, he witnessed one atrocity against his community too many and joined the IRA.

Derry is the second largest city in the six Irish counties that Britain retained when Ireland was partitioned in 1921 at the end of the War of Independence that ended direct British rule over 26 of Ireland's 32 counties.

To ensure a population in the partitioned state that was "loyal" to the Crown, it was established with an artificial majority of the largely loyalist Protestants, with the largely nationalist Catholic population a minority (Derry, however, has a clear Catholic majority).

The state was set up on the basis of Protestant supremacy, with Northern Ireland's first prime minister James Craig famously declaring it "A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people."

Run along sectarian lines, Catholics suffered poor services, housing and were denied access to many jobs, often reducing to living in slums. Local voting rights were granted to those who owned property. As many Catholics didn't own homes, they couldn't vote. In Derry, this meant that despite Catholics being the majority, the town was run by bigoted pro-British Protestant unionists.

Most of Northern Ireland's working class were Protestant, but within the working class, the poorest and most deprived were overwhelmingly Catholic (and nationalist).

In his funeral oration at McGuinness's graveside, his long-time comrade and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said:
Like many other Derry ‘wans’, Martin grew up in a city in which Catholics were victim of widespread political and economic discrimination. 
He was born into an Orange State which did not want him or his kind. Poverty was endemic. 
Unsurprisingly, such injustice sparked opposition. Inspired by the US civil rights struggle, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967 to campaign for equality for Catholics. The response to peaceful civil rights marches was extreme violence — especially in Derry.

Extra-legal loyalist gangs and the infamously sectarian and violent Royal Ulster Constabulary viciously attacked marchers. When marchers sought to defend themselves, attacks grew into anti-Catholic pogroms.

Catholics in mixed or largely Protestant areas were driven from their homes, which were often burned — turning the Catholic areas of cities like Belfast and Derry into besieged ghettos. Adams, in his 1997 memoir Before the Dawn, describes police snipers on building tops, opening fire on any Catholic they saw move. At this time, the IRA was all but non-existent.

In 1969, tens of thousands of Catholics were forced from their homes, many fleeing across the border into the Republic of Ireland — at the time, the largest forced movement of people in Europe since World War II.

The besieged population did not take the repression lying down, and brutal attacks by police and loyalist gangs were met with barricades and riots as people sought to defend their communities. In January 1969, with barricades erected, the nationalist areas of Derry (including the Bogside) declared their areas "Free Derry" — a liberated zone, protected by residents armed with clubs, rocks and petrol bombs, in which the sectarian authorities were barred from entering.

In August 1969, three days of violent street fighting between the RUC, which used CG gas (the first time it was used against civilians within the British state) and the nationalist community,  known as the Battle of the Bogside broke out, sparked by attempts by a notoriously sectarian Orange parade to march through nationalist areas.

With the community undefeated, the British government took the fatal decision to mobilise British soldiers, sending them to the Bogside.

The Troubles had begun.

The British military failed to take control of Free Derry until 1972 (while the IRA operated openly, defending the area), but the path to full scale military conflict was opened.

In his graveside oration, Adams continued:
I remember [Martin] telling me that he was surprised when his father, a quiet modest church going man, marched in the civil rights campaign here in Derry. 
The Orange State’s violent suppression of that civil rights campaign; the Battle of the Bogside, and the emerging conflict propelled Martin into a life less ordinary.
Listen to the song again with this context.

With British soldiers on the streets, the conflict spiralled into war, as a civil rights struggle morphed into an armed struggle for national liberation.

To crack down on the newly re-energised republican movement, the British authorities introduced internment in August 1971. Doors were smashed in, homes raided and hundreds of overwhelmingly Catholic men and women (most of whom weren't active republicans) were interned without trial, often tortured.

In Before the Dawn, Adams describes a terrible event in the working-class Catholic neighbourhood of Ballymurphy, where he lived. The day interment was introduced, the British Army set up a "free fire" zone in the area. For three days, soldiers opened fire on sight on anyone within their line of fire — shooting 11 civilians dead, including a priest who ran to to aid a wounded man and a mother of eight, on the streets desperately trying to round up her children to keep them safe.

This massacre predates the start of the IRA's bombing campaign. There has never been any justice for the atrocity. The soldiers responsible came from the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment. Five months later, on January 30, 1972, the same regiment opened fire on unarmed civil rights marchers, killing 14 in the infamous Bloody Sunday massacre.

McGuinness, a leading IRA member in  Derry at the time, witnessed the events on Bloody Sunday. In an April 1972 Irish Times profile of McGuinness entitled (to McGuinness's embarrassment) "The Boy Who Rules Free Derry", he said:
The worst I ever felt was Bloody Sunday. I wandered about stunned, with people crying and looking for their relatives, and I thought of all that about honour between soldiers. The British Army knew right well we wouldn’t fight them with all those thousands of people there, so they came in and murdered the innocent.
Think of this context and listen to the song again.

It's not hard to see how the likes of McGuinness ended up IRA volunteers, responding to such conditions with guns in their hand.

McGuinness may have become a leader of note, but his story was typical of his generation. Young working class men and women, looking to live ordinary lives, were driven to resist by violence and oppression.

A story told often about young working class men from nationalist areas being "lifted" by the British occupying forces, interned with trial and tortured — despite frequently having no involvement in republicanism. Instead, they were interested in the same things as young men everywhere — watching sport, getting drunk, trying to get laid.

But once released, the previously apolitical youths would search out their local IRA recruiter.

Adams pointed out in his 1997 memoir Before the Dawn, the working class nationalist in Ireland's north were not better or worse than anyone else. They were neither devils nor saints, just ordinary people facing extraordinary violence. Neither inherently pacifists nor predisposed to violence, they didn't want war but were willing to fight one when they felt they had no choice.

And with that reality of ordinary people — will all the good and bad that comes with it — came good and bad in the armed conflict.

There was incredible bravery, resilience and sacrifice. (None are more justly famous than the 1981 hunger strikes in which 10 men died rather than give up their dignity in the face of the Thatcher government's heartless cruelty).

This existed along with reprehensible violence that can not be justified no matter the cause. (One infamous example is the 1987 Remembrance Day bombing, when an IRA bomb went off at an Remembrance Day event at a War Memorial in Ennskillen in Northern Ireland and killed 10 civilians. The incident was described by Sinn Fein as a "huge tragedy" and Sinn Fein's An Phoblacht criticised it as a "monumental error". The IRA unit responsible was disbanded. The IRA had not intended to kill civilians, instead aiming to target British soldiers, but such deaths were always a strong risk with such bombings.)

The point is not whether both aspects have equal weight — I think the republican movement, whatever it did wrong, was trying to respond as best it could to a horrific situation not of its own making. Merely to point out that people enter such struggles with all their flaws and imperfections, not helped in this instance by the role of militarist thinking in the republican tradition.

(There is something sickening about the lecturing of one side of a conflict, which did not start the conflict, by those writing in safety who have never lived through one thousandth of the suffering of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.

And when pointing out the reprehensible, it is reprehensible not to point out the sheer scale of the violence dealt out against not just active republicans but the general Catholic population during the Troubles, who were targeted for cold-blooded mass murder by loyalist death squads operating in collusion with the British state. This ugly truth is proven in great detail by Anne Cadwallder's 2013 book Lethal Allies: British Collussion in Ireland.)

McGuinness and Adams, especially, grasped that the issue was not simply which side had greater cause or was responsible for more suffering, but finding a way to resolve the armed conflict so the struggle for republican goals — and to advance the interests of working class people who bore the brunt of the conflict, from all sides — could occur in a peaceful framework.

 As a few commentators have pointed out, there were never *two* Martin McGuinnesses, a violent terrorist first and a peacemaker second. Rather just one with the same goals, who proved willing to adapt strategy and tactics through experience. Adams put it in his speech at McGuinness's funeral:
"There was not a bad Martin McGuinness or a good Martin McGuinness. There was simply a man, like every other decent man or woman, doing his best."
Keep this in mind, then listen to the song again.

The best evidence of that intent — to do his best for the community he came from, lived in, loved and sought to serve as best he could — came with the turn out to McGuinness's funeral. Thousands accompanied his coffin and is made its way down the streets of his beloved Bogside.

McGuinness's funeral, March 23.

Looking at the pictures of McGuinness's tricolour-draped coffin almost lost in the sea of people, I wracked my brains to think of a single living Australian politician whose funeral would generate such a response. I finally concluded a few could — but only to ensure the bastards were definitely dead and buried.

Make no mistake. The town McGuinness loved so well sure loved him back.

"The Town I Loved So Well" may not be a rebel song, but here is one about Joe McDonnell, one of the republican prisoners who died in the 1981 hunger strikers.

'And you dare to call me a terrorist, while you look down your gun...'

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