Archive for October, 2008

BBC discussion on religion

The BBC has been running a series of items on the decline of religion in Ireland. They invited me onto a podcast panel and this is the end result. I thought they had pulled me in because they had read my new book, but no; just a coincidence.

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Vox Pop

I was at the premier of the Steve McQueen film Hunger last night in Belfast and recorded this vox pop with people coming out. I think their fresh responses to the film give a sense of the power of it and the readiness of audiences to believe in its integrity.

Many questions have been raised about whether this is IRA propaganda. In fact, the suicide of Bobby Sands is depicted as the fanatical resolve of a man who is past being able to share the concerns of the outside world, where even other republicans want to avert a hunger strike.

(Note for techos – the vox pop was recorded on a Marantz PMD 620 using the built in stereo mics and the manual recording level control to reduce the back ground. I think it worked well.)

I am reviewing the film for Fortnight. Here’s a clip of that review:

We see a new prisoner being admitted to a shit smeared cell and feel ourselves almost sickeningly present with him.
We follow this new prisoner through his induction into the practice of smearing the wall, pouring urine under the door, channelled by a wall of greasy foetid food, to his first secretive wank in a shared cell and his first hammering by prison officers who are trying to get the place cleaned.
This prepares us to imagine that we are going to follow the stories of these individuals through to the end but we are not. We will see the prison officer stand sweating in a light snow shower, suggestive of Auschwitz ash. We will see the prisoner learn to exchange messages and parcels in the visiting area, where they are concealed in mouths, rectums and vaginas. In one scene, a woman shuffles under her skirt to withdraw a parcel and passes it across to a prisoner who shuffles it deftly up his own hole. And the woman smiles, enjoys a joke, perhaps even imagines that this is intimacy.
For her this is novel and even fun; he is only thinking about the practicalities.
When we get to the allegedly interminable scene in which Bobby Sands debates the morality of hunger strike with a Catholic priest, it comes as a relief from the audience’s own sense of confinement in the ghastly world of filth and violence.
Sands, joking about the wounds on his face implicates the priest unwittingly in a joke about the man who has been murdered by the IRA.
There are a few difficulties in the exchange between Sands and the priest. Sands’ recollections of Gweedore include barley fields and woodland. Mine don’t. These are local incongruities, like the prison officer leaving his home in Gransha off the Glen Road, details that won’t trouble foreign audiences.
The priest tells Sands that he has become an obsessive fanatic, unable even to love his own child. He accuses him of planning his own suicide. He throws every argument a sane compassionate person could muster against a ruthless man who is prepared to march boldly to his own death and take, potentially, dozens after him.
When the camera then turns to close-up on Sands the effect is almost unnervingly intimate. Then Sands delivers his reply with a story from childhood to illustrate his own courage and individual moral conscience.
From then on we are into the story of his grotesque deterioration.


Just got home from Dublin to read the tirades against the above on Slugger.

Republicans will not use the word suicide to describe Sands’ decision to die because the word was used accusatively against him and was central to the argument with the church about the morality of what he was doing.
But it was a decision to die, made in the light of an understanding that Thatcher would not move before at least one hunger Striker had died. So, if I am not concerned about the need to defend the morality of the republican cause or to make their case to the church, why should I avoid the word suicide?

Because it implies despair? OK, but I don’t think it necessarily does imply despair. Is Hari Kiri suicide? It is the ending of one’s life in acceptance of a principle and may not necessarily entail despair.

We have similar pressures from Jihadis to avoid the use of the word suicide in relation to what they call ‘martyrdom operations’. Many of them are motivated by strong conviction and don’t see themselves as discarding their lives and hopes.

Maybe we should equally avoid the term suicide to spare the feelings of those people too. Indeed, maybe we should avoid it altogether since families of all people who kill themselves are entitled to consideration.

I was rebuked recently – and I take the point – for using the term ‘commit suicide’, the word ‘commit’ implying sin or offence – presumably on the understanding that the word ‘suicide’ itself doesn’t but is just a technical term for taking your own life.

Whatever – I am not going to contort language to defend the reputation of Bobby Sands.

As for whether I have simply sold out to take money from some notional master – who is this master who pays me so well? Where can I pick up the money?

And bitter? I don’t think so. I write very little about republicanism these days. But I got an invitation to this film out of the blue and went along and thought that is was really good. Worth commenting on.

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Cats: Part 2

But when we got Jackson home, some of my father’s thinking about cats began to make sense.
Cats brings coughing and sneezing into a house and it would have been natural for countryfolk of a couple of generations ago to connect that in their minds with tuberculosis.  Indeed, they probably saw tuberculosis symptoms exacerbated by cat allergies.
I give Jackson the secret nickname Toxin.
We have had three other cats over the years in the house and had never noticed that they weren’t quite as allergenic as this one, but that, ironically, was probably because the others were surly withdrawn and traumatised cats.  Smudge had been put out of Twinbrook by the Provos, at least his family had.  Skitter had been found on a skip in a shoebox with her siblings when she was only a few hours old.  The kittens were distributed among teachers at the school where my wife works, and Maureen hand raised hers.  It was virtually feral.  But cats had been with us for all our time together so we hadn’t noticed how toxic they were.  Maureen’s asthma just seem inevitable and routine.
It had cleared up after Skitter died so we should have seen the cat connection plainly then.
But I wanted to surprise her and knew how much she loved cats and thought that on balance the happiness that she would get from having another one in the house would weigh against the occasional asthmatic coughing and spluttering.  And sure wasn’t the new inhaler working wonders anyway?
And it also seems that after years of the surly Skitter, the arrival of an affectionate cat would be a particular treat.
Toxin was lethal.  I, who had not been aware of any allergic reaction to previous cats, suffered puffy eyes and hard flaky snot.  Maureen hugged and kissed him and doted on him.  What was the point in having an affectionate cat if you couldn’t do that?
So I trawled the net for advice on how to survive little Toxin.
Some said that it might be possible to teach a little kitten to enjoy being washed.  The allergenic chemicals are in the saliva which the cat licks all over its body.
Toxin’s affectionate disposition gave way to raw savagery when he was introduced to water and shampoo.
We seemed to make some small progress with spray-on shampoo that could be brushed off, but Toxin sat blithely licking it off when I’d finished.
And the heaving and the coughing and spluttering went on.
Except for a couple of days when we were away in Scotland, only to resume ferociously when Toxin lept into her lap to welcome her home.
I took on the fathering role, which is to say that I did the nasty jobs, like taking toxin to the vet, first for a checkup and then to have his balls off.  I had fed him antibiotic tablets twice a day, clenching his jaw shut to force him to swallow them.  And I gave him eyedrops.  At first he accepted this interference in his privacy but progressively his resistance increased until I had to wrap him in a thick towel and clench him firmly while he straightened like a rod and shot out his claws. At one point he even barked at me.
Maureen’s worry was that if we sent him to a new home he would be traumatised, but he was acquiring the sense already that the world was against him, or at least that I was against him.
We found friends on Facebook who would take him.
He’ll have children to play with; he’ll be happy, I assured her.
I was now as fastidious as any official cat protector.
For Maureen, it was like watching a child go out into the world.  Her tears were for little Jackson and her hopes that he would be happy.
I admit, that my own sympathy had not risen that high.

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My father hated cats.
He thought that they spread TB. He wouldn’t have a dog in the house either but he wouldn’t even have had a cat in the coal shed.
He was a Donegal peasant who had refined his manners enough for the city back streets and the pub and no more. He was from among people who were plain and harsh, which is what the Donegal rain would do to anyone.
So one thing he would not understand if he was around today is the procedure you go through to get a cat.
If he had wanted one for catching mice – and he didn’t because he didn’t mind mice – but if he had, this is how he would have done it.
He’d have gone to a neighbour.
‘Have you drowned that litter yet? he would have said.
And if the neighbour hadn’t got round to it; ‘well, leave one out of the bag for me, will you.’
He spoke to people as if he was giving orders even when he was asking a favour.
‘Cats and magpies. They kill for pleasure. Only people who don’t know them could love them.’
Well, my wife loves them and our last cat – a beast so grumpy that I fancy my da might have softened to it – crossed over to the other side last month, taking its eight surplus lives with it. And I chose to surprise her with another.
There are plenty of places to get a cat, but it turned out not to be as easy as just turning up at the Cats’ Protection League with a plastic cage to carry one home in.
I went with my niece, who is even further along the family tree from the Donegal roots and therefore a sweeter nicer person. She loves cats and was almost purring herself at the sight of pictures of them in the reception area when a woman greeted us with.
‘Lovely, but have you had your home visit yet?’
I turned into my father in reaction to that.
‘Why do we need a home visit?’
‘No need to be aggressive’, said the woman. I thought I had come to do her a favour and take one of her cats off her hands. She saw herself more as a social worker in an adoption agency.

‘Do you have children?’ I didn’t like this. Play coy with a social worker and she’ll suspect all sorts of reasons for it.
I said I would like to ask questions first, before discussing my personal history and opening my family circumstances for inspection. Hmmmm. She had clearly handled difficult people before. She had a strategy.
She handed me over to a male member of staff who would show me their kittens, and then, if I wanted to proceed, I could arrange a home visit and be inspected too.

That seemed reasonable.
The kittens were mostly scrawny and scarred wee things. One of them liked ham, said the man. They clearly weren’t what I wanted anyway. I was looking for something more – ornamental. So we went on to Assisi, another animal shelter which the Cats’ Protection man said didn’t insist on home visits.
There we picked Jackson, an almost totally black three month old kitten who extended a pleading paw through the bars of his cage. There are very few real black cats left, apparently, since the line was almost expunged in the purge of witches’ familiars.

Jackson, once we had changed his name, would fit in well. First we had to make a ‘donation’ and fill in a form.
He whimpered in the plastic cage on the office counter while I detailed all my past cats and their deaths: Smudge, Misery and Skitter – two roadkills one diabetes and euthanasia – not a good record. I then had to agree to a future home visit – which hasn’t happened yet – and sign a commitment not to let Jackson go outside the house.
I had got off lightly.
A young couple beside us had chosen kittens to bring home. ‘The manager wants you to bring your children here so that we can observe how they interact with the kittens before we let you take them.’
These people were entirely agreeable. They read this perhaps as confirmation that Assisi was just the sort of outfit they wanted to receive cats from, run by cat lovers like themselves.
My da would have told them to get stuffed.

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