Monthly Archives: March 2016

Fail Better


I have David Cameron to thank for this post. No, really – I have.

This morning I awoke at 4.44am after a dream whereby I was serving David Cameron at a Westminster function. My attitude to him was servile, obsequious; he was, as I imagine him to be, loud, bombastic, patronising. Every fibre of my being in the dream hated having to smile and bow and scrape; but smile and bow and scrape I did, in survival instinct mode. And then I woke up.

My first thoughts, in the early morning hours, was that must have been the feeling that, prior to 1916, many Irish people felt towards their English lords and masters. That unsettled feeling of being treated like a second-class citizen – and in one’s own land. The many slings and arrows of imperialist patronising remarks about the ‘savage Irish’. People who are happy with their lot do not lead rebellions, and the bravery of those men and women who cleaved themselves to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation is but something which this generation can only imagine. Or is it?

Based in London, I’ve been following with interest the various and varied opinions on the commemorations for 1916. Clearly, there’s a section of society that sees it as something to celebrate unreservedly. And in a way, they are right. There’s another section who sees all the failures: the side-lining of women, the subsequent subservience of the Free State to another imperialist power, the Church and its Holy Empire, the enslavement and abuse of women and children, the gombeen politics – the list could go on. And in a way, they are also right. Here’s where I stand.

I grew up in the Ireland of the late 70s/80s. Being of Russian/Ukrainian/American/Irish and God knows what else parentage, I’ve felt connected to Ireland, though not of her. My presiding memories of those days is darkness and gloom. There always felt there was something not quite humane, not quite ‘Irish’ about the stranglehold the Church had over every aspect of society. People’s absolute, unerring, unwavering belief in the teachings of the Church both fascinated and frightened me simultaneously. In retrospect, and to a certain felt extent at the time, it was clear that Ireland had simply exchanged one imperial master for another – and one that was arguably more far-reaching and cruel. It’s one thing to impose oppressive laws of the realm over people; it’s far more insidious when oppressive laws are imposed on the human spirit.

Probably the biggest betrayal of the ideals of 1916 is the way that women have been treated in Ireland, like another second-class caste altogether. The sidelining of women in the life politic not long after the Civil War. The Magdalen Laundries. The fear that every Irish woman of a certain generation must have lived with of being incarcerated in one of these laundries, from any or all crimes ranging from being too pretty and a ‘temptation’ to unmarried pregnancies. Unequal pay and working rights up to the 1970s. The dominion that the State still holds over women’s bodies via the, quite frankly, archaic laws on abortion.

But maybe the biggest lesson that is most obvious to me is that, over the last 100 years – where the State has failed, it has been a failure of our own making. We can claim, to a certain extent, post-colonial trauma; but ultimately, our failures have been our own. We voted in the corrupt politicians, election after election, which led to an unsustainable Tiger economy and its inevitable crash. There are many in Ireland who gave into the venality of that period, based on the shakiest of foundations, and over-invested in property, like characters out of a John B Keane play. There was fear, the type of fear that a post-colonial economy exudes, the grasping for affirmation that we were as good as the rest of the world and could stand as equals. We learned that we couldn’t compete in that way or at that level.

But the good news that I see for Ireland is that we don’t have to. As someone who emigrated to the UK in the late 1990s, I hated coming back to Celtic Tiger Ireland where it seemed as if all people talked about was the latest property they’d invested in, their flash cars, the latest designer label they’d acquired. What has happened to many people since the crash is terrible, and they must be helped, and issues like poverty and homelessness must be addressed.

However, it seems to me that since the crash that the real riches of Irish society are returning. The creativity that has always been a hallmark. That ability to connect with each other on a more profound level. The ability to express ourselves through words, ideas that have not only shaped us, but the world. The spirit of rebellion in many of the protest groups that have sprung up: the water protests, the #WakingtheFeminists movement, Speaking of Imelda. What better way to celebrate rebellion than to engage with and support protest?

The biggest turning point for me however, and a key indicator of something quite unprecedented happening in Irish society was the ‘Yes Equality’ vote. I came home that weekend for my niece’s communion. I was struck equally by the joyousness and change that came about not only through the LGBT community, but also through the recently departed emigrants who returned en masse, with all they had seen and learned abroad, wanting, by their presence, to be part of a more equal and pluralistic Ireland; and by the greatly reduced numbers at the Mass the next day where the Church we attended was only a fifth full. I remember the packed Masses of Ireland of 30 years ago. This was something quite new, the passing of the old, the embracing of a brave new world with brave new ideals.

So on this very special Easter weekend, my stand on the 1916 commemorations is this: Let’s acknowledge the mistakes of the past, learn from them, and let them go. Let’s use our failures as stepping stones to achieve the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation: to ensure the “guarantee of  religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens…”, and renew our “…resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally”. These are lofty and noble ambitions. Like most ideals, they are difficult to attain, and, given our history, it’s also entirely possible that we did our best with the behaviours learned at the time, and it’s entirely possible that we can achieve these ideals, if there is but the will. In the words of one of our great scribes, Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.  Beannachtaí na Cásca oraibh go léir.





The freedom to choose


Sometimes the choice lies between no words and too many words. When tragedies happen, as in Brussels, or Turkey, or indeed the daily carnage that is Syria, a feeling of overwhelm and helplessness sets in. For some, there’s an invisible barrier that comes down when tragedies occur in perceived far-away places; when European cities come under attack, many feel it’s ‘us’ against ‘them’. The problem with that attitude is that it is all us. Let me tell you a story.

There was a very sensitive young boy who lost his father to cancer aged eight. He was the youngest of 4 and somewhat apart from the others in age (3 boys and one girl). In the aftermath of that death, each sibling went their own way in how they dealt with their grief. And in many ways, life, truly, dysfunctionally went on. He struggled with school and home-life, and went down a bit of wayward path, as many young adults do. In his early 20s, he was hospitalised for burning out the lining of his stomach through excessive drinking and drugs. Roughly about a year afterwards, and seemingly from out of the blue, he converted to Islam. (A family member claimed the conversion happened in the toilets of Dirty Nell’s, a pub near Shannon. Stranger things have happened).

As the saying goes in Ireland, there’s no convert like a reformed hoor  and he was filled with the sort of righteous zeal that only the newly minted convert can exude. Islam gave him a badly-needed structure on the one hand, the sense of being part of something, of belonging, a family; on the other hand, like many zealots, his interpretation of the religion (like most religions) and desire to prove himself a worthy convert only served to underline some of his own pre-Islamic prejudices, encouraged and enflamed by hanging around with some Saudis with an all-too apparent radicalising influence. A massive turning point, though he did not know it, was when he agreed to an arranged marriage through his mosque to a Moroccan Muslima. With the benefit of fresh new eyes, she saw the potential in the rough diamond and began chipping away at it with love. A supportive kind of love that resulted in two little girls, a PhD and a very happy marriage and family life. Love triumphing in the essentials.

I offer this story, because that young boy is my youngest brother. I have seen from personal experience how, through circumstances often beyond one’s control, life can buffet us about and lead us down some strange paths. We are faced with crossroads, where we are faced with our darkness or our light. If we’re lucky, we will find a loving soul along the way who will direct us towards the light. Not everyone is so lucky; but ultimately everyone has a choice as to their path. I have arguments and fundamental differences of opinion with my brother politically, but these issues are everything to do with differing and long-held world views and nothing to do with Islam.

Where this becomes interesting in our world, as things currently stand, is how the microcosm of the life personal is intersecting on a global stage with the macrocosm of the life politic. It’s long been a political ploy to divide and conquer; and as a political tool, its efficacy is tried and tested. It’s why for centuries any group of people considered as ‘other’  has been viewed as suspicious, with the perceived threat amplified to conceal the actual.

The biggest question for me, whenever an attack happens, is: who benefits? Who actually benefits from disunity? Financially, politically and in real power terms? To me, it’s blindingly obvious. Banks primary investments have historically been in the areas of munitions, energy and big pharma. We know that politicians have links to arms dealers, the financial industry, and pharmaceutical companies. We know now that the 1% do exist and most of them (not all) live on a different moral realm than the rest of us, where the lives of millions of refugees pale in comparison to a spreadsheet’s bottom line.

So what’s the solution? We can’t ignore that the 1% who feed off the 99%’s pain exist, and whether we care to acknowledge it or not, they are human beings like the rest of us. They may often display the worst aspects of narcissistic sociopaths (yes, I’m looking at you, IDS and Camborne &Co) but they also reveal to us the dark little psycho that, Patrick Bateman-like, lurks deep inside us all. My guess is that this type of personality will always exist, and it is the moral responsibility of the rest of us to keep it in check – not to keep voting it in to  positions of power.

So my solution is simple: make kindness pay. This solution arose, funnily enough, out of having Christmas dinner with some banker friends and suggesting to them that no one wanted the epitaph ‘I made some great deals’. When faced with their own mortality, they agreed. Everyone knows you can’t take it with you, so hold out the carrot of a legacy of kindness, of philanthropy even more powerful. Make unity pay. Be mindful about where you shop and what you buy. Give up your Sky subscription and stop funding a media mogul whose sole objective seems to be to spread disharmony across the globe. Change your bank to one that doesn’t invest in munitions (hard in the UK, I know and especially with the Co-Op being overtaken by Lloyds – but they do exist). Do your homework on your MP and then make an educated vote. Speak to someone you are suspicious of – maybe it’s because their skin is a different colour, the clothes they are wearing, too modest/flamboyant, they’re disabled or homeless – our prejudices are many, but behind each person is a story. My experience is that when one gets down to brass tacks, our stories, to our own surprise, often overlap. And suddenly that person, who you were once suspicious of, is humanised.

If you’re the type of person who dismisses this as do-gooder, happy-clappy nonsense – try it for a week. Or else ask yourself – why does the commonality of human experience and the concept threaten you so much? Do you want a better world, or do you want to be ‘right’? Kindness is not for the faint-hearted, and we live in a world that needs more. The choice is ours.