Shit-smeared walls and degrading bum searches

Sinn Fein hosts fascinating ‘Living History’ talk on the 1981 hunger strikes
Organized by the Sinn Fein cumann in Cloughaneely, an engrossing talk by former Irish Republican prisoners, Danny Morrison and Breige Brownlee took place at The Yard, Falcarragh, Donegal this weekend as a ‘Living History’ event about the tragic 1981 hunger strikes.
Focusing on the deaths of 10 young men 35 years ago in the H-blocks (it’s shocking to think it was so long ago), the two speakers captivated their audience with their personal, graphic accounts of life behind bars during one of northern Ireland’s most turbulent eras and of the awful circumstances that led to those brave men giving up their lives in such an agonizing way to achieve political status. The event also featured screening of the documentary, “The Blanketmen.’ 
In face of mind-numbing prison conditions including humiliating bum searches and other abuse at the hands of prison officers and the awful stench of shit-smeared walls as part of the ‘no blanket-dirty protest,’ one had to marvel (regardless of political views) at the absolute resilience of this body of women and men enduring years of confinement, many incarcerated without trial, resolutely united in a common cause – the reunification of Ireland.

One also has to admire their abiding sense of humor – something not easy to muster in such despairing circumstances – that helped Irish Republican prisoners deal with the dark, depressing moments that must have visited them often in their cells, especially with ‘screws’ dragging them into toilets to shear off their hair and wash them in freezing cold water or when they heard about the slow deaths of their comrades, the first being Bobby Sands on the 66th day of his hunger strike.
Brownlee talked about life in Armagh prison, with both pathos and humor, about how women there reacted supportively to events in the H-blocks and were determined to show a united front to the authorities, especially as one of the women was partner to a hunger striker. “It was an awful time, for all of us, but we knew we couldn’t let the men down,” she recalled.
At times, Brownlee added humor to her recollections, saying, ‘with my luck, I was the first person needing to go to the toilet after we women decided to join the dirty protest. It wasn’t easy to wipe it (her own shit) all over the walls of my cell but someone had given me a bottle of expensive perfume as a present so I sprayed it everywhere afterwards. It stunk to high heaven, the perfume more than the poo.” She also talked about how, having gotten used to wiping their shit on the walls, she and her comrades would create ‘masterpieces’ of art, Sistine Chapel- Michelangelo-style, then admired and laughed about each other’s artistry, or lack thereof. “It helped ease the terrible tension and stress we were all facing and helped keep up our morale,” she explained. Brownlee is now working in support of diverse community projects.

Morrison, who was public relations director for Sinn Fein and editor of ‘An Phoblacht’ newspaper and is now an author and creative writing coach (he was guest trainer and speaker at northwest Donegal’s annual Ireland Writing Retreat) talked in detail about the reasons for the prison protests and how they developed. He offered powerful insights into the detailed discussions that took place among prisoners on the ‘inside’ and their comrades outside the H-blocks, as well as negotiations with various bodies, including the British Government and various peace, justice and human rights groups such as the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.
As the only leading Irish Republican allowed into the prison to talk to the hunger strikers, the Falls Road man painted a striking picture of himself seated among six or seven of the hunger strikers – even pointing in the air to where each person was positioned around him in the prison hospital, including one, Joe McDonnell, in a wheelchair as he explained how negotiations on the prisoners’ demands were progressing. It must have been unenviable, utterly heart-breaking position for him to be in, seeing his friends’ bodies ravaged by hunger and sickness, some with mere days to live. Unfortunately, most of those men listening to him in that room, giving their views, would die. “To my mind, those Irish hunger strikers were just as heroic as the Irish leaders who died in 1916,” Morrison said.
Reflecting on how some people compare (unfairly in his view) the IRA of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to the rebels of 1916, he added, “If Republican leaders one hundred years ago had Semtex, they’d have used it, if they’d had cars that could be used as bombs, they’d have used them too,” he said.
I agree. To my mind, such unfair commentary from people, which we also hear often from supposedly intelligent commentators on national airwaves and in the print media, reflects a classic case of what I term ‘moral anesthesiology of time.’ That’s the main reason why Michael Collins is considered a hero yet Gerry Adams is demonized by some. War is war is war, awful as it is always is.

Living in Andersonstown then (though born in Ballymurphy) and just beginning my journalism career, I remember vividly the night Bobby Sands died. While working full-time on minor issues for Belfast Telegraph newspapers, I was also covering the hunger strikes for international newspapers in Australia and the US. Hearing the crash of bin-lids being banged on pavements outside my door in the early hours of that fateful May 5th morning, I knew it meant only one thing – the death of the 27-year-old Twinbrook man. I recall jumping out of bed, getting dressed and rushing down the Falls Road and an American columnist for the New York ‘Daily News’ stepping out in front of me outside the former Lake Glen Hotel asking if he could come with me to ‘where the action was.’ Later, pushed up against a wall near the Royal Victoria Hospital for a body search by a British Army snatch squad, we were told of ‘burning barricades and snipers on roofs’ and warned we’d be ‘taking our lives in our hands’ if we went on.
We ignored the warning, crouched close to the wall and made our way to the makeshift barricade at the junction of the Grosvenor and Falls Roads, filing our separate articles for newspapers after dawn. But within 48-hours I was receiving trans-Atlantic telephone calls at the Telegraph’s small Carrickfergus office where I worked (not the safest place in the world then for an Irish nationalist to be receiving such calls) from major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, from well-known writers as Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, asking if I was with the columnist that night and what exactly had happened.
Seemingly, the inexperienced columnist had made up stories – not just that we had both heard soldiers saying words like ‘Don’t waste bullets. Aim for the head’ (which I hadn’t) but even naming a regiment and a particular soldier that were not even operating in the North at that time. Such inaccurate reporting was used as propaganda by the British media, especially the ‘red-tops’ – led by the Express Mirror, Mail and Sun – which tried to spin this reporter’s ‘figments of imagination’ to claim other reporters’ articles sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause were also based on lies. It made the gargantuan efforts by an overworked and exhausted Morrison and his staff in the Sinn Fein press office even more difficult, especially as they were already faced with such anti-Republican reporters as Chris Ryder of The Sunday Times and a ranting sensationalist Kate Adie of the BBC who Morrison said at the Falcarragh event, quizzed him mere hours after Sands’ passing about how he felt about ‘starving his friend to death.’
I also recall clearly making my way up the road from my Andersonstown home to that of Bobby Sands in Twinbrook for the wake and, with a heavy heart, seeing him laid out his coffin in the living room, then a few days later joining the tens of thousands of mourners who walked solemnly behind the cortege the few miles to Milltown Cemetery.   
Pearse Doherty, Breige Brownlee, Danny Morisson

(l to r) Pearse Doherty TD, Breige Brownlee, Tommy Francis and Danny Morrison at Saturday’s ‘Living History’ event at ‘The Yard’ Community Centre, Falcarragh. (Photo By Columbia Hillen).

In conclusion, the idea of ‘Living History’ events such as the one this weekend in west Donegal, chaired by Tommy Francis with fine organization by Eamon Jackson, his wife Eilis, and input by members of the Sinn Fein members including James Woods, is an excellent one. Wherever possible, we should have people involved in pivotal events in our nation’s history speak out about their experiences. It is a rare opportunity. This particular one on the 1981 Hunger Strikes, an event that attracted worldwide attention, was especially riveting and enlightening.
“With the hunger strikes now a topic on school curriculums, it was also an opportunity for young people to learn about specific aspects of our history straight from the mouths of those who were intricately involved and who are still alive to tell us what happened,” said Jackson.  
It is my fervent hope that such community events will also encourage more Irish people to openly discuss political ideas and electoral choices. Having had the good fortune to have lived in other countries, particularly the United States, I remain disappointed by the lack of lively, open political discussion among ordinary Irish people about the reasons for their choice of candidates. The longer Ireland remains a relatively closed society where people consider talking about their voting choice as akin to discussing their most intimate sex secrets, the longer corruption will continue and unsuitable leaders remain in the higher echelons of our government and civil service. We’ll all simply remain paralyzed in a time loop, with the same old ideas, the same parties, ruling the roost.
And just look what that attitude has cost us already.

‘GAA Jersey’ should be modern-era anthem for Irish native sport

If versatility is a sign of artistic talent – painters turning their skills to oils, watercolors and acrylics, landscapes as well as portraits; writers penning cross-genre, including poetry, short stories and novels – then musician-singer-songwriter Pat Gallagher can rightly claim membership of this rare cadre of gifted people.

As amply displayed this weekend at the Balor Arts Center in Donegal, Gallagher – supported by his outstanding group, ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ – can soften the hardest of hearts with poignant songs of lost lives and lost loves as in ‘The Volunteer’ about the 1916 Irish Revolution with its sad but uplifting refrain, ‘Close your eyes my little darling, may the angels keep you safe tonight, tomorrow in the new light you will rise,’ while also setting hands clapping and feet tapping boisterously with the dynamic ‘Crooked Jack,’ about an Irish gigolo, enlivened by mesmerizing fiddle and banjo playing by Stephen Campbell and Gallagher respectively.

As for musical genres: west Donegal-based Gallagher seems to have mastered them all (bar, perhaps, early 17th century flute-based Baroque sonatas, though he’ll probably achieve that too soon). Gospel, listen to ‘Strange Star, Middle Earth’ and ‘Dance For The Crowd.’ Blues, the homespun tune reminiscent of his home county, ‘Turf Man Blues.’ Country, ‘When I Grow Up.’ Traditional, ‘Evictions.’ Folk, ‘God Takes Visa.’ Rock, ‘Let It Go.’ Romantic, ‘She Looked My Way.” Celtic rock, ‘Arranmore.’

To cap it all, Gallagher and his multi-faceted band have just been traipsing the hallowed ground around Dublin’s Montrose House playing on one of Irish TV’s most popular entertainment programmes, ‘The Late, Late Show,’ with yet another creative musical invention – a lively, winning number combining hip-hop and Celtic rock performed with Letterkenny-based group, Phat Kiidz, entitled ‘GAA Jersey.’ So popular is the song it went viral, notching up around hundred thousand views on YouTube and media outlets nationwide and had the Balor audience rocking in the aisles as the hip-hop group emerged side-stage in psychedelic lime green jersey and fur-rimmed hoodie.

If the often less visionary elites of Ireland’s native national sport don’t play this song – repeatedly – during pre-match entertainment at Croke Park before this Saturday’s much-awaited football final replay between Dublin and Mayo, they deserve to be garroted with nylon guitar strings.

One catchy lyrical phrase alone ‘skinny jeans with the GAA, with the GAA jersey’ may set an enduring fashion trend, as well as return to the fold many young players whom some executives of the Gaelic Athletic Association complain have drifted off to ‘foreign’ soccer fields. And if anything is to put an end to the enduring curse that plagues the Mayo team, it could well be this inspiring song.

Who knows, maybe one day, a Platinum album will hang proudly on the wall of the ‘GAA Museum’ reflecting the song’s soaring sales. With lucrative proceeds from two 80,000-plus capacity crowds for the football final and replay (an estimated 8.5 million euro from ticket sales alone), the GAA could easily afford to buy enough copies of the record to move sales beyond platinum into the realm of diamond.

Can anyone think of a better, more timely musical gift for friends and supporters of the nation’s largest sporting organization both in Ireland and abroad? After listening to the rousing rendition at the Balor Arts Center concert last night, it had better hurry and place its order – they could all be sold out soon.

Dressed down-home in white T-shirt and dark waistcoat, his red hair flecked with gray or gray flecked with red, or whatever, with a baldheaded drummer, guitarist in ‘pink pyjamas,’ bass player in check shirt, fiddler intriguingly discreet in the shadow of a felt hat and mandolinist under a flickering crimson light, Gallagher and the Goats featured powerful voice backed by powerful musical prowess.

Such was the evening’s musical feast, even Conor Malone, manager of the Balor, joined in, the sweet notes of his saxophone wrapping themselves naturally around Campbell’s fiddle tones like a loving couple lingering late in bed on a Sunday morning – specially on the song ‘The Killer,’ about a Scottish boxing champion.

Then there was ‘Mary, Mary,’ an amusing tongue-in-cheek take on one of Ireland’s oldest talent contests and the swaying rhythms of ‘Drinking My Money,’ ‘The Glasgow Bus’ and, of course, the rousing standing ovation from the hand-clapping, merry swaying throng that greeted the ageless ‘Holy of Holy Hymns From The Goats’ – the pulsating ‘Las Vegas In the Hills of Donegal.’

The band were joined on-stage for a grand reunion by Malone, the lovely Donegal-based singer, Jacqui Sharkey, accomplished harmonica player, Dermot Donohue, singer-guitarist, Dean Maywood, who was the support act for the Goats, and the Phat Kiidz.

Kudos then for a riveting musical evening to Gallagher (vocal, guitar, banjo), Mickey Gallagher (drums), Patsy Gallagher (lead guitar, mandolin, vocal), Odhran Cummings (bass), Shaun Doherty (guitar, vocal) and Stephen Campbell (fiddle), as well as guests, Malone, Donohue, Maywood, Sharkey, and the Phat Kiidz comprising Jay Kay, DoDa and Hapz.

Irish postman delivers valuable information about weather and health

He’s known by many as the ‘all-weather man,’ not because he can control climate but because he possesses the talent to do the next best thing – predict its many mercurial moods.

A postman for most of his working life, Michael Gallagher has used his many hours of cycling throughout rural Donegal, Ireland’s picturesque northwest corner, particularly the townlands on both sides of the Reelin River and around the Bluestack Mountains, to study the idiosyncrasies of Irish weather. Not to mention watching how creatures, both of earth and sky – the birds in the trees, sheep and cattle in the fields – react to imminent changes.

“Close observation of Nature in its many forms, basically everything that’s around us, grants us invaluable insights, giving us many clues as to how the weather might be over the coming days and weeks,” said the sprightly man. “The secret is to learn how to best observe and to know what those key signs are.”

Michael has now parlayed his knowledge into a slim volume entitled “Traditional Weather Signs’ (‘Tuar na hAimsire’ as Gaeilge). Within 36 pages of easy reading, you will find golden nuggets of information, including how hens picking themselves is a sign of rain and how crows fly low and caw loudly just before a storm. He informs readers that if a cat sits with its back to the fire it means frost is on its way while a dog eating grass means a change of weather will happen. Meanwhile, if a horse heads up a hill in late evening, good weather is not far off and if worms crawl on your doorstep beware of floods.

weather man Donegal, Michael Gallagher Donegal

Michael Gallagher (second left) enjoys concert of Goats Don’t Shave together with his daughter and guests

Of course, the sky itself holds the strongest clues as to weather changes ahead. A faraway ring on the moon, according to Michael, means a storm is near while stars ‘shining like diamonds in a clear sky in late autumn, winter or spring’ means a hard night’s frost. Also, ‘a red sunset bodes good weather, a red sun at night is the farmer’s delight,’ a phrase we’ve all heard spoken. A rainbow at night, however, is a sailor’s delight whereas one in the morning is a sailor’s warning. Signs of an approaching storm, he writes, include seagulls flying inland and bees humming around the garden or outhouses in winter.

But it is not just about the weather that Michael has become somewhat of an expert. Forty years of delivering letters and parcels has meant innumerable conversations with rural people. From them he has learned much about homemade, natural health remedies. Such knowledge is contained within the pages of a second book he has penned entitled ‘Remedies and Cures of Bygone Era.’

Remedies and Cures of Bygone Era, Donegal books

Organised in alphabetical order, Michael offers health tips that have been handed down from generation to generation. Apples, for example, ‘eaten at night, preferably baked, are excellent for all who are inclined to constipation,’ he writes. Goat’s milk, he believes, is therapeutic for asthma in children. Apricots taken before a meal help digestion. Beans, like peas, contain sulfur and are rich in potassium and lime, ‘to eat them is very beneficial for young people who suffer from any form of rickets.’  Parsley is beneficial for the kidneys while celery can be a cure for rheumatism. A raw onion dipped in salt eases chilblains. And if you suffer from stomach disorders such as flatulence, Michael considers a tea made from cloves to be an excellent remedy.

Both books combine text and photographs and grant insights into the complex world of weather and health. With a better appreciation about how Man and universal elements are inextricably linked and a rising trend among people of all nations towards living in greater harmony with nature, Michael’s two books are a valuable contribution to our increasing knowledge.