Archive | March, 2013

Getting my Irish Up

15 Mar

St. Paddy’s Day an’ all that.   When every one is Irish, at least for one night.  Me?  I’m Irish every night. 

Tonight I watched the film “Hunger” (2008),  depicting the 1981 hunger strike of the Irish rebels held in Long Kesh Prison in Northern Ireland during the height of “The Troubles” between the IRA and the British government.  It is not for the weak-stomached (my roommate had to leave the room), as director Steve McQueen does not allow his audience to turn away from the blinding light of Truth he shines relentlessly in our eyes.  Holding our fingers down on the firey braille of history, McQueen’s unflinching lens forces us to bear every hate-driven blow, gag on the stench of every feces-covered cell, until the fire that smoldered in every prisoner’s belly is ignited in our own.  Indeed, sickened as I was to witness what they had endured, I was compelled to not blink a single “no-washed” scene.  It seemed the least I could do.

I knew how the film was going to end:  Bobby Sands’ death after 66 days of hunger strike.   Twenty-seven-year-old Sands had determined the only way to penetrate the pity-proof armor of the Iron Lady herself–PM Margaret Thatcher–and her resolute refusal to grant Irish prisoners political status was to launch the deadly mission from which there would likely be no return.  Hunger strikes had been initiated before—Sands had even volunteered for one—but they had failed, as the participants had capitulated before their terms were met.  Sands was committed to seeing this one through to the end, hoping his death alone would induce English negotiation.  Nine others had to die following his death on May 5, 1981, before the British government caved to every stipulation.  (Technically, Thatcher never publically acknowledged the political standing requested of the prisoners, but she did give in and grant all other demands, including their wearing their own clothes instead of prison uniforms, an outward indication of their political and not criminal identification.)

I remember watching the news in Kentucky that spring of 1981.  I was 25—just two years younger than Bobby Sands—a young bride and fledging high school teacher.  This countdown to death on the nightly news was the first time I had really paid attention to what was going on in Northern Ireland, and I had as many questions as I had loyalties.   Anglo-Irish myself (father English-mother Irish ancestry), I found myself torn between the rousing Republicanism of the Irish rebels and an established allegiance to all things British—tea and crumpets, God Save the Queen, an’ all that—as any Anglophile English teacher would be.   I knew a little Irish history—my great-great-great had come over during the Potato Famine of the 1840s, for example—but that was about it.  I knew much more British history—we studied it, not Ireland’s—in school, and I guess I felt I shared a common sense of decency with that which seemed to emanate from the most civilized country in the world.  Or so I thought.

I remember thinking at the time, “She will not let him die.”  She, Mrs. Thatcher.  Terrorist or not, that boy will not be allowed to starve himself to death.  Surely she will intervene.  If not as the powerful Prime Minister of the former Empire, then as a mother—a Christian mother, denominations be damned.  Civility would prevail.  This was England after all. 

She did, though—let him die, that is.  She did not—intervene.  The world tilted on its axis a bit, and I felt it spin around me. 

Ten years later, while on a Fulbright to England in 1991, I would find myself in the middle of a riot.  Walking back from the Birmingham Theatre to our car, a group of protesters rushed out of the dark night, pushed a flyer in my hand:  “Free the Birmingham 6,” it read.  Who?

By the faint light of the car dash on the way home, I combed the leaflet, learning the “6” were six innocent Irishmen,  incarcerated since 1975 on trumped up charges they were responsible for bombing two Birmingham pubs in which 21 people were killed and countless others injured.  These six, guilty of nothing but their Irishness, had taken the fall because, in the wake of such tragedy, all England had demanded justice and the British courts could no longer be embarrassed by the lack of arrests.  And though the real culprit—a true IRA terrorist—admitted to the crime soon after their indictment, that evidence was suppressed, lest more rotten egg run down the cracked face of British justice.  Until 1991.  Not long after I returned to Kentucky when my Fulbright assignment was finished, the “6” were released, their sentences quashed.  A couple of years later, Irish director Jim Sheridan exposed their ordeal in his film, Image“In the Name of the Father” (1993), starring the inimitable Daniel Day-Lewis.  You can bet I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

I filled the following years investigating all things Irish; the more I learned, the more my loyalties shifted.  Just discovering how the English let the Irish starve during the Famine years would have been enough—but there were other atrocities:  Sands, the “6,” and many more.  And they weren’t all Irish:  Princess Diana’s trial by fire may have scorched the last shreds of any British allegiance; her death certainly put the last nail in that coffin.

Another trip across the pond—this time to Ireland, of course—and I insisted on standing on Northern Irish soil.  I roamed Belfast’s Falls Road, taking rolls of pictures of the infamous protest murals emblazoned with the once-smiling face of a young Bobby Sands.  I drove by Long Kesh Prison, slowly, the details of its terrible secrets as of yet unknown to me.  Turning south, I climbed the hills of the Republic, tracing the steps of possible ancestors as they had laid the stones of the so-called “famine fences,” ending abruptly nowhere but where they had fallen, dead. 

There’s more.  So much more.  But it’s the eve of March 17.  Time to turn one’s Irish eyes to smilin’ or something.  I’m afraid I am a bit immune to leprechauns and pots of gold, green beer and “Danny Boy” —but–Happy St. Patrick’s Day.  Erin Go Bragh.  An’ all that.

*This blog is dedicated to my cousin Pat Flowers who died today; he was one of the most Irish Americans I’ve ever known.  RIP, Pat.  We’ll miss you.


“Of those so close beside me, which are you?”–Theodore Roethke

9 Mar

Of the current conditions rampant in American society, which is worse?  Naiveté?  Narcissism?  Hypocrisy?  Revenge and retaliation?  Megalomania?  Obviously, I have listed these maladies in decreasing favor. 

Ignorance—which is at the heart of naiveté—can be excused (once) and corrected, though those who continue to ignore ready instruction are no better than the evil they support.  I do not use the word evil lightly:  I deeply believe evil is being supported widely throughout America as I write. 

My frustration lies in knowing many support it out of their lack of awareness—and yet they make no effort to educate themselves, though compelling evidence is obvious before them.  Is it pride—which is at the heart of narcissism—that restricts them from admitting their mistakes?  Or is it really a hypocrisy that allows them to say one thing—what they believe, what they stand for—and to do another, i.e., to support the aforementioned malevolence and immorality.   

I have heard it said we can be so opened minded our brains fall out—or, as Shakespeare’s Marc Antony put it:  “oh, Justice, thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason.”   We carelessly trample Truth in pursuit of what we mistake for liberty and justice for all. 

Those who are motivated by revenge—and we know who they are—are no more immune to hypocrisy than those against whom their retaliation is directed.  How quick we are to condemn when we are the victims; how silent we are if and when the tables turn and we become the perpetrators.  How conveniently we forget the principals upon which our protests were founded. 

Megalomania is a word reserved for a self-selected few.  In modern history, probably only one name rises to the top of this chart:  Hitler—though on less-publicized scales, every country, ever era has had most likely someone on this “Most Wanted” list.  Perhaps, in our naiveté—our narcissism—we dismiss probable current candidates as implausible, as we don’t want to look foolish.  Such recognition reeks of conspiracy theories to which only the gullible or narrow-minded could possibly subscribe.  Yet it is this opportune repulsion toward such low-brow traits that ensnares the most eager in the very attributes they flee, allowing the driven to plow on to their demonic destination with little resistance.

I can’t pretend to understand what motivates these power-ravenous monsters, as whatever it is, it isn’t anything that attracts or seduces me.  Don’t misunderstand:  I have my own flaws and fragilities, but to control others is not one of them on any level.    I do, however, oppose any whose purpose is to control me—and I resent those who will not stand in the gap with me to resist such subjugation. 

One would think their own narcissism would be enough to provoke them into self-protection, but I guess they are simply too self-absorbed to realize anything is happening around them that isn’t of immediate and instant self-satisfaction.  Thus, is the monkey captured with his fist in the jar, the frog boiled in what he assumed was soothing bathwater. 

Lord, deliver me.

Under my Skin

5 Mar

Last night I scratched my ankle till it bled.  Long and sharp as my fingernails were, I couldn’t seem to reach the itch.  Funny thing, I have had this itch ever since my sojourn in Cyprus—over 5 years ago.  If you’d been with us in Cyprus, you would have known how plagued we newcomers were by the sand fleas or flies or whatever they were (no one seemed to know).  Indoors, outdoors, sunlight or shadow—no where was uninhabited by the unseen but certainly felt sting of the swarming pests.   Not long after arrival at the Girne American University in North Cyprus, every one of us professors new to the island were pocked as if with measles with the angry red evidence of our victim-ness.  We tried sprays, we tried creams, we tried electric shock (seriously, in small, hand-held applicators)—nothing protected us.  Soon our conversations were filled with complaints and comparisons of scars and scabs.   At one point in the middle of yet another discussion degenerating into our moaning about this debilitating dilemma, one of us commented, “You’d think PhDs would have deeper conversations!”—and we all admitted we’d prefer to talk about literature or art, but our skin condition was too immediately compelling. 

Apparently the microbes lie dormant for a while in tiny but traceable Braille-like bumps beneath the skin, only to awaken who knows when or why to the bouts of frantic itching described above.  Whenever they do raise their ugly heads, in between scratching, I think about Cyprus—and other things I have allowed to burrow under my skin. 

Fortunately those other things are few.  I have learned to let go of a lot of previous hurts and resentments, if not so much from the knowledge it does more harm than good to hang onto them than from the consequence of diminished memory.  I might like to nurse an old insult or worry a worn scar—if I could remember it, but since I often can’t, I might as well chalk it up as a blessing instead of a blight.

There are a few, though.  Not that I dwell on the past obsessively, but every now and then a less-than-sweet reminiscence taps me on the shoulder, and I turn and gaze at its unsightly form.  Injustice is the more frequent visitor and anything mixed with remorse or shame.  I am more inclined to recall unpleasantness I have caused than that which has been heaped upon me which is not my fault.  I’m not Catholic, but I’d put good ol’ church of Christ guilt up against it any day.  It was only when I really took to heart what Jesus meant when he said for us to forgive as we would like to be forgiven ourselves that I finally learned to forgive myself as well as my “brother.” 

So, I’ll try not to let anything under my skin, if I can help it; and if I can’t help it, I’ll try not to scratch it if possible. 

I don’t think this is what Cole Porter meant when he wrote, “I’ve got you under my skin.”  At least I hope not.  That’s a whole ‘nother kind of itch for which there are few remedies.