I prefer good art and archaeology to bad politics

Taken from Andy Pollak’s monthly blog

Sometimes the sheer badness of politics in Northern Ireland takes my breath away (badness=bad faith, lying, incompetence, being mired in the past). Take the third week of October, for example. Peter Robinson boycotted the opening meeting of the British government initiated all-party talks he had himself called for to deal with the deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Fein on a wide range of issues which has led to the North being largely ungoverned for the past year. The DUP also reneged on an agreement to allow a Sinn Fein MLA to take up the role of Speaker of the Assembly.

Meanwhile Gerry Adams ran into a real storm when he had to defend himself against charges from a young woman from one of the IRA’s ‘first families’, Mairia Cahill, that he had done nothing after she informed him she had been raped by an IRA man and then subjected to an IRA ‘kangeroo court’ at which she was forced to confront her assailant. Adams is a far more adroit politician than Robinson, but because of the constant requirement to defend the IRA as noble freedom fighters whatever evil deeds they have perpetrated, he will continue to get dragged back into the ugly past by bombshells like this.

In that week I came across two extraordinary small books that gave me some reason for hope: a book of satirical paintings launched at the Ulster Museum and a 30 year old pamphlet from an eminent archaeologist pleading for sharing and common ground. I say extraordinary because they were both humorous and open-minded and optimistic, grounded in history in its broadest sense, and emphasising the humanity, complexity and essential Irishness of the North’s divided history.

The book of paintings was by the Belfast artist Rita Duffy (whose studio now straddles the border between Fermanagh and Cavan) and was called ‘Thaw’ – because she believes art can play a role in thawing the great, icy mass of sectarian fear and hatred in her native place. The paintings feature satirical food product labels which poke fun at the folly and pretensions of iconic leaders and movements in recent and contemporary Irish history.

Duffy spares no sacred cows. Here you will find Ulster Vinegar (“100% Matured Vitriol Vinegar…produced through a historical process of slow fermentation of pain, anger and grievance”); a chocolate covered AK 47, “all romantic freedom fighters’ chocolate of choice”; Padraig Pearse Pasta Sauce, made from “tomatoes grown by the young men of ’65 and ’67 coming to their miraculous ripening”; Edward Carson’s Covenanters Marmalade (“What answer from the North? My friends, it’s Marmalade. We perish if we yield.”); B Special Honey to get rid of the bitter taste from the marmalade; and Peace Line clothes pegs as a way of domesticating the horrible ‘peace line’ security fences that tower over the washing lines of houses in many poorer parts of Belfast. These products are soon to be available on tee shirts from www.thawfactory.com or rita@ritaduffystudio.com

Duffy tells us that when politics fail, we always have art, not least to remind us of the unpalatable and absurd ‘narcissisms of small difference’ that are what is left of our ancient Irish quarrel. It is noticeable that in Duffy’s paintings women usually loom large – although women, the rulers of the kitchen and scullery, are largely absent from these posturing male food labels. As Catherine Marshall, Head of Collections at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, points out in her introductory essay: Women have the power “to replace the language of division by an agreed language of commonality.” I hope and pray it will be so (although in next month’s blog I will explore why brilliant Irish women are so poorly represented in our politics).

The second little gem I came across was a 1984 pamphlet – ‘Ulster: The Common Ground’ by the distinguished geographer and archaeologist E. Estyn Evans, a man from the Welsh borders who graced the world of Irish scholarship until his death in 1989. He was a scholar who would be listened to even more closely today, with his emphasis on the whole human environment, including the earth, as the shaper of humankind.

Evans puts our little contemporary squabble into the context of 5,000 years of Irish history. He notes that during the Bronze Age, “this corner of Ireland was among the most advanced, culturally and technically and commercially, of all regions not only in Ireland but in the British Isles.” The archaeological evidence shows that this was because “people of different origins and cultures had learned to live together, to mix, to quicken each other. So Ulster, which is best known to the English today as a place of unrest and civil strife, is thought of by British archaeologists as the place where they had that brilliant Bronze Age.”

Evans, brought up in England by Welsh-speaking parents and who spent most of his adult life in Northern Ireland, urges that we should pay more attention to archaeology. This would show that “the clash of native and newcomer has been repeated over and over again, and we should try to discover how at various times they have not only come to terms with themselves but produced great blossomings of culture. I think you will find that it is precisely this clash of native and newcomer that struck the sparks in Irish culture.”

He also noted the way successive waves of newcomers had become absorbed into Ireland – even though some of them “still obstinately refuse to call themselves Irish.” He stressed that “you cannot send those of planter stock back across the water, any more than you can recall millions of Irishmen from America.” And he pointed to “a very paradoxical figure: an Orangeman from the Bannside, waving a British flag and pouring scorn on the Englishman because he can’t get his tongue around a good Gaelic place name like Ahoghill.”

So when we get depressed about the dismal state of the North’s politics, we should comfort ourselves with the Buddhist thought that all this is impermanent. The violent sectarianism of the northern part of Ireland is a mere two centuries old, the colonisation which gave rise to it is only four centuries old, and in another two, three or four centuries – if the earth survives – they will be remembered as nothing more than a temporary aberration in the six or seven millenia history of people on this island. Isn’t that a comforting thought of a kind?

  • Turgon

    So Andy boycotting the start of a talks process is as bad as covering up child rape? Glad you told us I would never have equated the two. I guess I learned something new today – at least about your views.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good heavens, Turgon, why does everything have to be so “he’s got one, so I get one for me, too!” literal? The article is not saying that these things equate, simply that they are both products of “the sheer badness of politics in Northern Ireland”. Andy is very clear that he’s talking about things that happen in a climate of “bad faith, lying, incompetence, being mired in the past”, something that both of his examples are thorougherly soaked in.

    I’m deeply concerned with the culture of general abuse of power being illucidated and brought entirely into the open, and have commented often on Slugger on GA and his treatment of Áine and Maíria, but Peter’s arrogant contempt for the electorate, if less obviously expressed, is just as corrosive of public morality. So far the Standards and Privilidges Report on the issues that Peter refused to stand down over has only been discussed behind closed doors, and the final public publication of the report is still awaited four years after events!!!

    What Andy is trying to say is that there is another thread of public experience locally that is not bogged down in the dreary mire of endless political confrintation, where empathy brings people together as equals, rather than in some endless replay of the cycle of master/slave see-saw of our political framing. Estyn Evens, whom he mentions, was the inheritor of the hard work of thirty long years of cultural reconcilliation by F.J. Bigger and his “privilidged” contemporaries, who led the way in developing a broad pluralist perception of our local culture. But even Evens failed to realise that this empathic bonding of cultures was not engendered by conflict, and in his “I think you will find that it is precisely this clash of native and newcomer that struck the sparks in Irish culture” the use of “clash” smothers the degree of empathic polycultural fascination with the “other” that engenders new thought and art, and makes us grow.

    But as long as we vote for those unempathic politicians whose stock in trade is “bad faith, lying, incompetence, being mired in the [politically expedient] past” no bonding is possible.

  • carl marks

    Interesting post, on a sort of related point the Antrim coast were a great many of the archaeological sites are located was also a place where the troubles had the least affect and people got on with living their lives spared many of the horrors visited on the rest of us and Ballycastle is the location of Corrymeela a center dedicated to peace and understanding.
    I’m not suggesting a direct link to the bronze age but a interesting coincidence none the less.

  • Nevin

    IN THE SUMMER of 1914 while salmon fishing off Downings in north-west Donegal, Patrick McGinley from Gola Island received a telegram from Francis Joseph Bigger, a Belfast solicitor who he had met the previous year while fishing at Ardglass, County Down. The telegram summoned McGinley to Belfast immediately; on arrival he was given a letter and directed to Bangor in Wales, where he would make contact with Erskine Childers. On his arrival in Wales boat moored there, the Asgard.

    Mired in Irish nationalism, so not a reconciler in any shape, form or fashion.

  • Turgon


    I suggest you leave Mr. Pollak to defend himself – except that he hardly ever lowers himself to come below the opening post.

    Pollak equated the bad faith of failing to attend the start of talks with the bad faith of covering up child rape and yet still called Adams the more “adroit” politician.

    Pollak also has form on slugger. If he attacks nationalists or republicans he always attacks unionists more on the same thread. Other times he attacks unionists without attacking nationalists / republicans (see here his very one sided and completely off topic attack on Tom Elliott). As I said his views are entirely his own business and he can express them as he wishes. However, his pretence of any concept of neutrality should be challenged and his pretended even handedness is exactly that: a pretence.

    As I said if we wishes to come on and debate fair enough. His more usual strategy is to avoid such debate (see here).

  • Nevin

    Carl, Corrymeela became an oasis for many folks from those areas worst affected by the Troubles and the Carry On Up Torr blogs illustrate the potential fate of archaeological sites. Torr is in the north-east corner of County Antrim.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good grief, Nevin, have you so few enemies you need to begin inventing them! First you try and tell me that the reprieved women at Wigtown were drowned, (an early eighteenth century Presbyterian propaganda claim long answered with actual primary source documentation!) and now you tell me that FJB, whom my family knew well, was a simple up-down nationalist! The real Bigger inspired people from all sections of the community, actively put them together at his soirees as a practical reconciler, and even (well documented) supported the British war effort in 1914!!!

    While I have every respect for your contemporary efforts to illucidate what’s really going on on the north coast, when it comes to history your customary sense of balance seems to exit by the back door. You need, respectfully, to read more primary source material in order to get a much clearer picture of what was really happening in 1914, when Bigger was praising both lots of volunteers (check the newspapers for that year)!!!! Or, if a few decades of research is beyond possiblity, simply read or speak with someone like Philip Orr, who does his best to present the complexities of our history from every perspective. There has been an attempt by the likes of Eamonn Phoenix to cut and paste Bigger into a sort of plaster saint for one side, but (please forgive the pun), he was much, much “Bigger” than that.

    Pat McGinley may have been brokered to Erskine Childers in this instance by FJB, but Paeder Toner McGinley’s cousin would have had a lot more links to Childers anyway.

    “Mired in Irish nationalism”, spoken about Frank Bigger, is a phrase that would even embarass the rather one sided Roy Foster! The real hard core Nationalist boys, such as Jack White, thought Bigger far too “mired” with open minded liberal moderation (and a bit of an addiction to pipes and banners) to even let him speak on a Nationalist political platform alongside the rather boring Rev. J.B. Armour in 1914! Bigger was all too steeped in the very composite “Irish” culture of the pre-WWI years (eg: the non-politcal Gaelic League), rather, and only too willing to help anyone, no matter what their political angle, if he thought their researches might benefit the whole community. He’d probably have funded (or procured funds) for NALIL for a start……..

    You’ll be trying to tell me next that Estyn Evens was a physical force man……..

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thanks Turgon for the clarification. But I’m coming from what he’s written here, simple horizin! Well, ok, I’ll check out his past record, but his point still stands ( I think) even if, as a painter myself, I’m no great fan of the much overrated (in my opinion) Rita Duffy, who might flounder outside of our little fishbowl in the wee six.

    And the degree to which we dole out our acid on either political side is ever a matter of personal understanding. I believe myself to be entirely even handed, but I’ve recently been called (by Belfast Boy) an anti-Irish racist, and in the past I’ve been accused ( by son of strongbow among others) of rabid nationalism. I’ve even been called a spoofer (by SoS again) due to what I believe must have been a deficit in his humour genes. And so it goes (“Ça ira”)……….

  • carl marks

    love Torr, but i have to say I prefer climbing at fair head!but all in all the people of the Antrim coast seem to have got on with life in a more civilized manner than those in other places..

  • Nevin

    “You’ll be trying to tell me next that Estyn Evens was a physical force man…..”

    How exotic, Seaan 🙂 Despite your extended mithering, you’ve failed to address the incompatibility FJ’s participation in the gun-running escapade and your portrayed of his role as a reconciler.

    I’ve got two of Evans’ books – ‘Irish Folk Ways’ and ‘The Personality of Ireland’ – and I see no references to FJ.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Simply read a decent amount of FJBs own writing, and then read Estyn Evens again, it will all become clear. But, knowing through family contacts some of those who actually knew Estyn Evens himself, I know that he was quite clear on the immense debt he owed to Bigger’s inceptive work.

    And, Nevin, looking at the bigger picture is what is required, and this needs what we painters call a reducing glass, something the opposite of a magnifying glass. Its called having a broad sense of the entire picture and so gaining a sense of proportion. Doing this, for a start, you might notice that Bigger’s “gun running” (actually finding crew for a Erskine Childer’s yacht, how do you know he knew anything about German guns?) that you cite is, on the broad spectrum, simply a current attempt to work up a minor detail in order to make Bigger seem like someone who might just have been a dangerious Republican. He was hardly that! No-one told him anything and the poor man did not even have a secret service file on him, ever, last time I checked! And to see the thing in perspective please remember that in 1914 future ministers of the Imperial Government, and the great and the good everywhere, were also engaged in the latest fad of gun running. Also, don’t forget, FJB was enthusiastic about both groups of volunteers, seeing them as, he hoped, a return to the liberal volunteers of 1778. Wrongly, I know, but the hopes of a generious reconciling intellegence, who longed for a reconsiliation of hearts, not the one sided ideology of a driven fanatic for the cause.

    But then you really need to look properly at FJBs entire career and stop getting hung up on “single shot” details such as the Asgard business. When, for example, you actually look at “The Volunteer”, the weekly journal of the Irish Volunteers in 1914, FJB is writing about flags and uniforms of the Irish Volunteers of 1778-1793, about St Marys’s in 1783, not about weapon training or drill. Anyone looking across his entire career finds a man with carefully researched cross community interests, all called “Irish” at that time (as, perhaps, they still should be! The English call them “Irish” still).

    I’ve recently been reminded in a conversation with someone whose family also knew FJB that all who actually knew him, at every level of society and no matter what their political shading, were proud to call him a good friend. The one sided misunderstandings and the sort of partizan cat calling that has just recently had his re-erected grave cross at Mallusk again blown up by ignorant men determined to see him as “a Republican enemy” is very much the province of those who know nothing whatsoever about him, except the odd uncontextualised historical detail picked up on the internet, such as your Asgard snippet.

    Please, Nevin, before attempting to dismiss someone who actually understood the warp and weave of our diverse and complex culture in its entirety, and cared deeply about the lot, please, please at least take the trouble to find out about the man properly.

  • Nevin

    ” I know that he was quite clear on the immense debt he owed to Bigger’s inceptive work.”

    Yet Evans fails to reference Bigger in those two books. I’m not attempting to dismiss Bigger; I’m just pointing out that he can’t be portrayed as a reconciler. Further up you’ve caricatured him as an Irish nationalist wimp, not ‘a dangerous republican’.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear Nevin, “you’ve caricatured him as an Irish nationalist wimp”, no, simply as a good man wanting to think the best of those around him, but yes, he was certainly not a dangerous Republican. Agreed.

    About the lack of reference, goes on all the time. Robert Graves almost word for word at times plagiarised “Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe” in writing his “The White Goddess”, but no mention of Donald MacKenzie anywhere! Everyone does it, especially when the work they are drawing on has become uniquitous in any situation.

    One of the first things you find when actually reading Bigger and his work on the second series of the “Ulster Journal of Archaeology” is that almost everything we know about virtually all the local past has been rehearsed for the first time in his work. It’s like the narrow passing point of an hour glass, everything has come to us through that conduit. So for Estyn Evens to not reference it is similar to him not referencing the very air he was breathing.

    And yes, while I now know you do not think of Bigger as a reconciler, respectfully, his full record speaks otherwise. As I’ve said before, please do not think that you know everything that may be said about subjects you have not put the work into studying properly. Your understanding of the pre WWI situation seems simply too modern, too thin on reading to appreciate the cultural mores of that time. As I said on this site some years back:

    ” It is always dangerous to project the baggage separatism has acquired over a succeeding hundred years onto the convictions of figures from a very different past. It is, after all, another country, and they did things very differently…….”

    In his day Bigger was probably the strongest proponent of a generous cultural fusion of our all too conflictual disparities that could be found anywhere in Ireland. If such a man cannot be called a reconciler, none may be so called.

  • Nevin

    ” his full record speaks otherwise”

    Seaan, his record speaks of a blending of antiquarianism and Irish republicanism, not exactly the attribute of a reconciler.

    “Your understanding of the pre WWI situation seems simply too modern, too thin on reading to appreciate the cultural mores of that time.”

    You could, naturally, be mistaken 🙂 Here’s <a hrefa little something that FJB might not have picked up when he was commemorating the 1798 era.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Always someone else’s weblink, Nevin! About time you discovered what thinking these things out for yourself actually means. For a start time actually changes meanings, and describing someone as an “Irish Republican” in 1652, 1783, 1848, 1908, 1956 and 2014 would mean very, very different things. Few so described at these times would recognise the others so described. But perhaps being a Republican at any time is in itself a crime in your book……

    As a Jacobite legitimist I’ve no team to cheer in your cat fight.

    Just by the way, the Crown and Shamrock plaque you linked to pretty much sums up the reconciliation element I’m attempting to help you discover. Don’t just click, look at what comes up! Unfortunately, I cannot actually look myself at your second link, which does not take my courser…….

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear, Nevin! Sometimes I am so engaged in attempting to try and answer questions with information that may help clarify what seems obscure that I entirely miss the “Elephant in the corner.”

    “Seaan, his record speaks of a blending of antiquarianism and Irish republicanism, not exactly the attribute of a reconciler.”

    So (possibly) being a Republican (more accurately a “Cultural Nationalist”) and living in Ireland means that Bigger could not see the other side of a situation, respect it, and look for a meeting of minds on a genuine middle ground. As an Irish Jacobite Legitimist myself, I am not actually a Republican, but I have never lumped all Republicans on our Island into one homogeneous texture of thought, certainly not one where an empathic understanding of another persons political position is ruled out. I cannot see, for the life of me, why someone being a Republican (or an Antiquarian for that matter) should mean that a belief in the reconciliation of our antagonisms is something they would not deeply desire and strive for.

    Bigger was through much of his life a constitutional nationalist politically, with great numbers of close friends across the broad Unionist community. 1914 was a moment when everyone was going a bit mad, in my estimation, and FJB was very, very far from the inner councils of those politically active. You cannot use an instance (and that entirely out of context) from a few months in one year to colour an entire lifetime of Liberal reconciliatory effort. As I’ve said before, you really need to read more real history……….

  • Nevin

    “As I’ve said before, you really need to read more real history………. an entire lifetime of Liberal reconciliatory effort”

    Seaan, perhaps you should try to cut down on the patronising guff. The Liberal Party split over the Home Rule issue in the mid-1880s so Bigger had thirty years to drift from that earlier unity in that segment of society to the company of folks who had alleged links to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. That’s a drift away from reconciliation.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Respectfully, Nevin, I have read the texts, my family knew Bigger, and from your comments you appear to be unable to consider that anyone who does not share your own political raft can be allowed to be considered a force for reconciliation.

    Simply because you are stubbornly unwilling to be reconciled to poor, daed Frank Bigger, this does not mean that he would not have moved heaven and earth to become reconciled to you.

    As I’ve said before, you need to encounter less politically coloured secondary sources, and to read more real history from primary sources….

    If I can be of any help, just ask…….

  • Nevin

    Seaan, the primary sources are, er, politically coloured too. I read both and I then arrive at my own conclusions. I see you are stubbornly determined to cling to patronising guff!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Which is why, Nevin, some of us train in the discipline of historical research, so that we may review material with some objectivity, and not be driven by the myths we have imbibed in our immaturity.

    If I can help you from this impasse in any way, please let me know, my respect for your local and environmental work remains completely unchanged, and it grieves me to see you so stubbornly sticking to such a weak, untenable position about one of the few unquestionably liberal figures who so richly and without sectarian rancour contributed to the blending and reconciliation of our divided cultures in the Black North.

  • Nevin

    “If I can help iyou from this impasse in any way”

    I’ll leave to your myths and straw men, Seaan. Bigger’s political choices across the nationalist spectrum don’t place him in the role of a reconciler.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Bless you Nevin, I’m sorry this has simply become a “he was” vs “He was not” for you. I leave it to others who will be more open minded to judge FJBs record. He will be remembered long after these petty divisions he never recognised are mouldering in the graves of others long forgotten.

    Although, I note, you have not yet answered the question, can a Nationalist or a Republican be a reconciler? If you really think not, then we might just as well tear up the GFA and all get set in again……

    Please let me know!

  • ngoc1610175

    with the Buddhist thought that all this is impermanent. The violent sectarianism of the northern part of Ireland is a mere two centuries old, the colonisation which gave rise to it is only four centuries old,
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    and in another two, three or four centuries – if the earth survives – they will be remembered as nothing more than a temporary aberration in the six or seven millenia history of people on this island. Isn’t that a comforting thought of a kin

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