1916 celebrations: a mixed basket of Easter eggs

Easter Monday 1916 Revolutionary celebrations in Dublin had its up and downs, its successes and its disasters.

And I was fortunate to have experienced many of them.

First prize goes to Mother Nature. Realising the heroic efforts of the men, women and children of the Rising had been pretty well ignored by the average JoeMacBlow in Ireland back then – it decided to put on a special show for the centennial.

And what a show it turned out to be, perhaps the brightest, prettiest, sunniest day this year. One that brought out thousands of Irish people to walk the sacred walkways tread by Connolly, Pearse, Plunkett and co., with many of the people wearing turn-of-the-20th century clothing, including tweed waistcoats, flat-caps, bonnets and brogues.

Being from West Belfast, I was also delighted to learn that security for Easter Monday’s 1916 commemorations in Dublin was organised by MICAB, the company owned by Andersonstown-based, former Republican prisoner, John Trainer. I guess all that experience in ‘security operations’ we got over the last few decades up North helps.

1916 commemorations Dublin

Meeting friendly security guards from Ardoyne at the Dublin 1916 Easter Monday celebrations was an utter delight.

Last prize on the sacred day goes to highly-paid, long-time RTE Loyalist, Miriam O’Callaghan. Behaving like a Russian doll with seemingly nothing inside but herself, she got smaller and smaller as an event she hosted entitled “Reflections on Exile – How we are viewed by our American cousins” at The Gaiety Theatre near Stephens Green wore on.

Miriam O'Callaghan, RTE presenter, 1916 Rising events, John Lee historian

Oops! Overpaid RTE presenter, Miriam O’Callaghan, made a few screw-ups on Easter Monday- none more woeful than to eminent historian John Lee at a packed event at The Gaiety Theatre during Dublin’s 1916 Rising tribute events.

Dear Miriam, salary in excess of 300,000 euro, plus expenses, made so many gaffes, she became comical entertainment embodied.

First of all, she had the talented musician-cum-singer Mick Moloney perform his lovely rendition of the ballad, ‘James Connolly,’ twice as RTE’s ineptness meant it had failed to record him properly.

Then, speaking to eminent New York University Irish history professor John Lee, she said, “Is that the proclamation of independence you have there on your knee? Do you know how important that is?” The solemn professor looked aghast.

Later, in a pathetic transplanted D4 attempt to redeem herself, the misguided O’Callaghan asked the same unfortunate, “Let’s talk some more about 1916? How important was it?” adding for assertive emphasis, “Spell it out for me.”

Mairead Mooney of Donegal-based Altan fame deserves strong credit for her words and her singing, though dressed as she was in an All-Black outfit, one might have thought she was a cheerleader for the New Zealand rugby team. But with that sulky-blonde-hair-all-down-my-back look lending her that unique sexy-sensual-come-get-me-wide-eyed-innocence combo, she sang a beautiful, unaccompanied version of ‘Roisin Dubh.’

Mairead Mooney, Donegal-based Altan, 1916 Rising events

Entering the political arena, Mairead Mooney, lead singer and fiddle-player with Donegal-based Altan, said at an event at The Gaiety Theatre on Easter Monday that the 1916 Irish rebels would “turn over in their graves” if they saw what Ireland had become.

Then, sitting on the ‘intellectual’ couches with Lee and Armagh-born Pulitzer-prize-winning poet, Paul Muldoon, for the Q&A session (probably under her PR minder’s guidance to raise her profile for a future Senator’s spot on the Arts and Culture panel when Sinn Fein rises to Government status), she said, bravely enough, “the rebel leaders of 1916 would probably turn over in their graves to see what Ireland has become today,” adding, as a matter of course, “more money should be given for the arts. After all, that’s what Ireland is known for throughout the world.” (And there I thought it was for widespread nepotism, corruption and political and financial incompetence).

Joseph Hillen Ashbourne, Irish Citizen Army parade,

My younger brother Joseph practices his routines as a member of the Irish Citizens Army, encouraged by his Brasov-born partner, Angela.

Then there was my brother Joseph. So proud of him, I am. Selected to march up O’Connell Street on Easter Sunday, he was also chosen to be a member of the Irish Citizens Army and promptly dressed up in suitable 1916 attire the very next day to re-enact the Battle of Ashbourne, the only victory in the entire revolution. And that was just a few of his duties over the Easter celebrations.

Dublin Easter Rising events

Two against one isn’t fair, but having commandeered my brother’s Lee Enfield, I obviously have the upper hand against Joseph and our nephew. Dara.

When I left Dublin this morning, he was headed to Liberty Hall for yet another event he had been asked to participate in at which President Michael Higgins spoke.

And last, but not least, my Transylvanian-born wife, Columbia, now an Irish citizen, who duly took up with a Republican group and marched proudly (with me alongside as dutiful husband) past the GPO, Dublin Castle and the Four Courts to Kilmainham Jail where rebel leaders were executed.

Columbia Hillen, Sinn Fein, Easter Rising Commemorations

My Transylvanian-born wife, Columbia (in blue, with scarf, and the only person with such a name among 21 million Romanians) displays her Republican spirit on O’Connell Street on Easter Monday.

So let’s wait to see what the next 100 years brings. Considering her birthplace, Columbia may be the only one of us alive then.

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Time for change. Real, lasting change. Time to grow up, we Irish have prevaricated enough

Today, you and I – along with several million other Irish people – will enter a voting booth, pick up a pencil and start X’ing.

In doing so, we’ll help seal the Fate of the Republic of Ireland for the next five years, and probably far beyond.

That is a daunting responsibility for all of us and we need to be clear and confident in what we do – for it is not only for whom we give our X but the very action in doing so that could have momentous repercussions. As has been proven scientifically, actions and words have a multiple energy far beyond the effect on the person taking the action or saying a word or phrase.

Without going into further details here, my advice is to be aware of the incredible power you possess that is yours and yours only.

Back to the national elections and one particular influence playing you.

Irish elections 2016, voting in Ireland

It’s time for us to grow up as a Nation. We’ve tried Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour – and they’ve all failed us. Let’s change the game right now.

Established media

‘Established media,’ no matter the country, holds a certain view about social development. Having been in turn, reporter, editor, publisher and journalism professor for over 30 years, I suppose I could easily be lumped in under this heading. I hope not, for the term refers to those media, usually right of left to varying degrees in their political thinking, which support the status quo, regardless of whom is in power nor the far-reaching consequences of that entity staying in power.

Why?

Inevitability it’s because members of the ‘established media’ have well-paying jobs they want to protect at all costs, ones that provide them with hefty salaries, thick expenses and a handsome pension at the end of it all. Change, they feel, means uncertainty. Perhaps, their jobs lost. After all, they are elites and the fall could be a mighty one.

That’s why it is key for us voters to be aware of these factors when we read newspapers, watch TV or listen to radio – especially media supported directly or indirectly by big business (Denis O’Brien at Independent Newspapers) or government (RTE). Health warning: don’t be unduly influenced.

I have been fortunate not only to have spent my media career in both broadcast and print (newspapers and magazines) but also in different countries including Ireland, north and south, the US and mainland Europe, so have gained a broader perspective than if I had stayed in my native Belfast.

As such, while abroad, I was shocked to learn that the entire body of ‘established Irish media’ failed utterly to warn ordinary folk of the economic bubble that burst upon them, a bubble as we know, created by crooked bankers, crooked developers, inept regulators, all caricatured by Fianna Fail’s infamous ‘Galway tent.’

From my standpoint, removed for so many years from journalism in Ireland, the cozy relationship between big Irish media and big Irish business was, and is, so obvious, with some few exceptions, sometimes (such The Irish Times columnists, Fintan O’Toole and Diarmaid Ferriter).

RTE’s Leaders Debate – an exercise in maintaining Right power

leaders debate Ireland, national elections Ireland

Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams (left), capturing Fine Gael Taoiseach Enda Kenny (second left) in pretty much a straight lie was the highlight of the entire set of nationalized ‘Leader Debates’ – but ask the ‘Established Media’ and you’ll get a very different answer.

Take, for example, the ‘Leaders Debate’ on RTE earlier this week. My view: Miriam O’Callaghan’s performance was biased and amateurish, certainly compared to Claire Byrne in the previous debate. O’Callaghan read at times so automaton-like from her prepared script while attempting to stamp her ‘established media’ credentials on the final outcome.

Did you notice how, having mentioned the widespread cronyism that has gone on under the tutelages of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour (hard to avoid), she then turned to Gerry Adams – who, not having ever been Taoiseach or a Government Minister here, couldn’t be accused of cronyism. But that didn’t stop O’Callaghan, citing, unfairly, two particular persons, Bobby Storey and Danny Morrison. Her inaccurate accusation of Morrison being a felon was so reckless and willful an attack that it could well lead to a major lawsuit for which, rightly, RTE should pay generous compensation. Morrison was long ago cleared of all charges in the case the British state brought against him and RTE’s researchers should have been well aware of that.

Not only but in the televised debate, there was one dramatic and defining moment, one captured by Gerry Adams on camera before millions: that, for the first time after multiple denials and prevarications, Taoiseach Enda Kenny admitted – caught unawares – that HE had appointed Donegal’s John McNulty, a Fine Gael Seanad by-election candidate, to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, even though McNulty had no prior interest whatsoever in art throughout his entire life (unless you include the art of deception).

Gerry Adams Sinn Fein, Enda Kenny Fine Gael

Moment of triumph for Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams (left). Caught in a lie, Taoiseach Enda Kenny (right) fumbles to keep him at arm’s length.

Hypocrisy of RTE’s Miriam O’Callaghan

I also find rather despicable the hypocrisy of Miriam O’Callaghan in bringing up the issue of cronyism. I met her in the Belfast studios of the BBC in recent years having been invited to attend an event celebrating the investigative program, ‘Panorama.’ I had learned that not only did Miriam use her role as a presenter to help get lucrative contracts with her employer, RTE, for some of her eight children, but also for her private production company, Mint Productions, one she established with her second husband, Steve Carson. Then helped him get a job at the Beeb in Belfast (my belief is that Carson left RTE, in great part, because the conflicts of interest he and his wife were involved in by gaining outside contracts with RTE for his children and Mint Productions was encroaching more into the public arena and the RTE elite were becoming uncomfortable that their lucrative jobs could be at stake for allowing it, but also because of some silly broadcasting mistakes Carson made).

Miriam O’Callaghan elections,

Expensive looking dress. Miriam O’Callaghan and husband, Steve Carson, have done pretty well financially as full-time RTE employers, while also obtaining RTE contracts for their own production company, as well as for their children. But there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

At the public debate that was part of the ‘Panorama’ event, hosted by Miriam, I asked her about these things as the first question from the floor. Her answer shocked me, “I don’t know anything about those things. My husband and I don’t discuss professional matters.”

This is the very same lady who tried to hammer Mr. Adams, Danny Morrison and Bobby Storey so unfairly on national television earlier this week – about cronyism.

Analysis or simply spin?

Immediately after RTE’s 90-minute ‘Leaders Debate,’ the station hosted ‘The Spin Room,’ with so-called experts analyzing the debate. Even though Gerry Adams catching Taoiseach Kenny out on the McNulty issue was by far the most dramatic new development in the whole debate – literally a ‘journalistic scoop’ – the station did not even re-broadcast that short exchange between Adams and Kenny – even though they did replay other videos from the debate, labeling several of them as moments of what they called ‘Adams’ substandard performance.’

RTE’s ‘Leaders Debate’ was peppered with examples of ‘Established Media’ bias. There were plenty more elsewhere:

Noel Whelan, in his column for The Irish Times, wrote that, “The only sustainable outcome (of the election) is a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail Government.”

Sarah McInerney, a political reporter for The Sunday Times, who lives high on the hog in a spacious home in one of the most elite areas of Dublin, said during ‘The Spin Room:’ “The next Government will be Fine Gael-Fianna Fail. If they can’t do business, no-one can.”

Pat Leahy, deputy editor and political editor of The Sunday Post, in his very first column  days before the election was even called, wrote: “For Sinn Fein, the big breakthrough – participation in government – won’t come this time. The party doesn’t really want it to – that’s what its strategy to rule out anything but a left-led coalition means.”

Sinn Fein and Independents: a viable alternative to the same old…

What such ‘Established media’ commentators are saying is that with Labour in free-fall, there is no other choice – but there is, though they don’t dare mention it: a winning combination of Sinn Fein and Independents.

Through sheer hard-work and diligent application, Sinn Fein has increased its popularity, both in votes and seats at both national level (in the election five years ago) and in the local elections (two years ago). Not only but Martin McGuinness – who has acknowledged that, like the 1916 heroes, Padraig Pearse and James Connolly before him, he is an Irish Republican, and was a member of the IRA – did well in the Presidential Election. In fact, his penetrating dramatic contribution on the final televised Presidential debate in 2011, in effect, won Áras an Uachtaráin (the Irish ‘White House’) for Michael D. Higgins.

As for the Independents, their rise up the political ladder over the last five years is just as impressive as Sinn Fein’s, but the ‘established media’ again do not want you or I to consider that duet option. So they’ve tried to pour cold water on it, saying Independents in government is unworkable, especially when they’re Lefty Liberals.

History, however, proves them wrong, repeatedly.

Steve Farnsworth, political journalism

US professor, journalist, author and political commentator, Stephen Farnsworth, says Liberal and Left-wing coalitions can and do govern well.

A long-time friend, Stephen Farnsworth, veteran American journalist with whom I was a colleague in the US, author or co-author of five books and now a tenured Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, told me over the last few days, “Not so.” Pointing to the Liberal minority governments of Lester Pearson of Canada in the 1960s, he informed me, “Pearson was Prime Minister during the 1960s and his amazing record, with the Liberals and the NDP, Canada’s left party, working together, included  universal health care, student loans, the Canada Pension Plan, the new Flag of Canada, a unified armed forces, a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and he fought to keep Canada out of the Vietnam War. His government also abolished capital punishment de facto.”

Now, wouldn’t it be nice if a coalition of Sinn Fein and the Independents could achieve even half this? Why not? Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour have already failed miserably.

Here in Donegal, there is no shortage of quality Sinn Fein and Independent candidates (and I’m not speaking about pseudo-Independents such as cash-for-favors local councilor, John O’Donnell, who, interestingly, is urging people to vote for Fianna Fail’s Pat the Cope). A TD combination in Donegal of Sinn Fein’s Gary Doherty, Padraig MacLochlann and Pearse Doherty, Independent Thomas Pringle and one of the other candidates, now local councilors, such as Niamh Kennedy, Dessie Shiels, Frank McBrearty or one of the other ‘real’ Independents, seems to me like a good choice.

After all, haven’t we given the Fine Gael-Labour coalition five years to put things right, and what have they done? The former used this precious time to ignore the needs of the vast majority of Irish people and instead strengthened elitism, with economic research showing the most affluent 20 per cent of people in Ireland own 73 per cent of the country’s wealth and the poorest 20 per cent own just 0.2 per cent. Alas, Labour simply sold out its long-held principles for a whiff of power. As for Fianna Fail. Wasn’t that the political party that slept with crooked bankers and developers, bankrupted Ireland, closed hospitals and schools, lost our Sovereignty and sent the country groveling to Brussels for handouts?

Don’t let Big Media misuse and abuse you. This is your time in that voting booth, alone, your time only, a time when no-one has the right to tell you what to do.

As the French might say if they were here – ‘Bon voting‘!

In addition to voting today, there is one other place to which perhaps you would kindly attach your name, for a cause that is both noble and just, virtues hard to find in today’s questionable political world.

Public apology and re-affirmation of support for a true Irish Republic

or

President of Ireland Michael Higgins, apologize & publicly support heroes, families & ideals of 1916 Irish Revolution

Meeting the IRA chief of staff on the steps of a New York library

library

New York Library’s ornate limestone building – an unlikely place to to meet the IRA’s former chief of staff.

Standing on the broad steps of the New York Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street awaiting the arrival of the IRA’s former chief of staff was quite an exciting experience, especially for a naïve teenage undergraduate such as I was then.

Living in west Belfast in the midst of ‘The Troubles,’ I imagined it could conceivably have been a key scene from a movie about a clandestine guerrilla operation.

But it was nothing like that.

By then, Seán Cronin, the IRA’s former chief of staff and mastermind of Operation Harvest, a campaign that carried out military operations on British security installations, was a well-respected author, academic and US correspondent for The Irish Times. In contrast, I was a humble humanities student at the Ulster Polytechnic, now the University of Ulster, working part-time in the Celtic Bar on the Falls Road for disco money.

Seán Cronin

Dungloe-born social activist Peadar O’Donnell – about whose  life a conference was held this week (see news story below) – had brought us together.

Months before, I had – by chance, for an undergraduate thesis – become one of the last persons to interview Peadar in Dublin just before his death. And Seán was writing a book about the 1930s, a tumultuous period in Irish history when Peadar with Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and others had launched the Irish Republican Congress (the subject of my thesis).

It being a time before Google, Facebook or e-mail – in fact, fax was a new-fangled machine I had only vaguely heard of – neither Seán nor I knew what each other looked like. And as there were scores of people lingering on those broad library steps that sunny summer’s day so many years ago, meeting up wasn’t so easy.

But eventually we did, Seán saying later – half-jokingly – that his past training had helped him scope out the situation and pick me out as “the Belfast boy among the Yanks.’

After introductory formalities including my proudly handing over my thesis (part of which he later published in his book), we retreated out of the hot sun into a nearby coffee house. There we spent some time chatting about this and that – his days in the IRA, his arrest and imprisonment, his work as a journalist and not least, the man who had brought us both together, Peadar O’Donnell. Little did I know then, of course, that I too would become an international journalist and live and work in west Donegal as Peadar had.

 

Peadar O’Donnell

Teacher, social activist, soldier, author

As people attending this past weekend’s annual conference in Dungloe learned, Peadar was one of the foremost radicals of twentieth-century Ireland. Born in that town into an Irish-speaking family, he was a teacher on Arranmore Island but by 1919 was a leading organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and had also attempted in Derry to set up a unit of the Irish Citizens Army. Later he joined the IRA and remained active during the Irish War of Independence, leading guerrilla activities in the border area, becoming commander of the IRA’s Donegal Brigade in 1921. He gained a reputation as being headstrong, and sometimes launching operations without orders. Summing up aspects of his character, a speaker at the conference this week said if at a wedding Peadar wanted to be the groom and if at a funeral, the corpse.

Opposing the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Peadar was among the IRA leaders who took over the Four Courts in Dublin and helped spark the outbreak of civil war. Imprisoned in Mountjoy, he participated in a mass Republican hunger strike, resisting for 41 days.

civil war photo

Turbulent times in Ireland’s revolutionary history – radical changes that deeply affected leaders like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean Cronin.

Through it all, the west Donegal man saw himself as closely following the principals of James Connolly, seeing the republican cause not solely in Irish nationalist terms. In 1923, while still in prison, he was elected as a Sinn Féin TD for Donegal and after his release took over as the editor of the republican newspaper, An Phoblacht. He did not take his seat in the Dáil and did not stand at the 1927 general election. He tried to steer the IRA in a left-wing direction and founded organisations such as the Irish Working Farmers’ Committee and the Anti-Tribute League, which opposed the repaying of annuities to the British government owed since the Irish Land Acts. He also founded the short-lived socialist republican party, Saor Éire.

The Irish Republic Congress that he helped establish was a left-wing movement that met with success in organising Belfast Protestants under the Republican Congress banner, leading to a march by the Shankill Road branch to Bodenstown churchyard in June 1934 to honour Theobald Wolfe Tone. The Congress ultimately split, however, on a proposal to turn it into a political party, O’Donnell rejecting this idea, arguing that it had more power as a united front. Like Gilmore and other Irish Republicans, he ended up fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the International Brigade against Franco.

After the 1940s, O’Donnell devoted more of his time to writing and less to politics, publishing his first novel, Storm, in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), which received national and international acclaim, The New York Times describing it as a novel of ‘quiet brilliance and power’, the London Spectator ‘an intensely beautiful picture of peasant life.’ Other books followed – Adrigoole (1929), The Knife (1930); On the Edge of the Stream (1934); The Big Windows (1955) and Proud Island (1975). He also edited the Irish literary journal, The Bell, having founded it with well-known writer, Seán Ó Faoláin.

Peadar married Lile O’Donel in 1924, even though they had never met before. But they had communicated extensively during his time in prison. They began their honeymoon in a Dublin hotel that evening but by the following morning he was on the run once again as he had been identified.

Dying at the tender age of 93, he left strict instructions –  ‘no priests, no politicians and no pomp.’ His wishes were granted.

Looking back down the years, remembering my discussions on this larger-than-life character over a cup of tea in a downtown Manhattan café with someone as distinguished as Seán Cronin, whose own life was every bit as colorful and adventurous, seems now to have been a figment of a lively imagination.

I probably didn’t fully appreciate then the incredible opportunity that had been presented to me to turn the pages of history in the company of great men who wrote them. Now, with the wisdom of age and hindsight, I think I do.

 

Conference celebrating life of Peadar O’Donnell highlights key social issues

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(l to r) Clare Daly TD for Kerry and social activists Paula Leonard and Clarrie Pringle describe the struggle by women in Irish society to gain recognition.

Analysis of a women’s co-operative in the Rosses that attracted over 200 knitters and of a left-wing movement, the Irish Republican Congress, were elements of a three-day conference this week celebrating the life of Dungloe-born socialist, teacher and author, Peadar O’Donnell.

At a panel chaired by community leader, Paula Leonard, social activist Clarrie Pringle described how collective efforts “cut out greedy middlemen who took hefty profits from the hard work and knitting skills of local women.”

“Knitting needles were known as ‘poverty sticks’ then as Donegal women attempted to stave off hardship,” she said. “So successful was the co-operative that not only did women get more money for their work but greater independence by learning business skills, including working with banks and statutory bodies.” Later still, some women started their own small companies, quite unusual for the time, she added.

Also speaking on the panel entitled ‘Women in Struggle’ held at Ionad Teampaill Chroine in Dungloe, Clare Daly TD in Kerry, praised the efforts of Pringle and her colleagues “as showing what women can achieve if given a fair chance.” Daly said the key role women have played in Irish history, including the Ladies’ Land League, has been “skewed or silenced by certain bodies for political and social purposes, but now thinking must change to meet modern reality.”

The two speakers agreed that difficulty of divorce and restricted access to contraception in the emerging Irish state made it hard for women to progress socially and politically.

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( l to r) Author and Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, TD Thomas Pringle and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, analyze the success and failure of the Irish Republican Congress.

Both Daly and Pringle blamed the Catholic Church for “holding back the progress of women in Irish society.” Daly said, “There is no place for the church in political life, in selecting core curriculum in schools nor in governing women’s bodies” while Pringle added, “When we look back on the oppression of women and children in Ireland, we must inevitably view the Catholic church as a predominant influence. Shame of sexuality was bred into women for over a hundred years.”

They both called for a human rights module to be introduced into the national school curriculum,

In a second panel chaired by TD Thomas Pringle, Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, discussed the merits of the 1934 Irish Republican Congress, an effort by Peadar O’Donnell and others to create a stronger left-wing republican base to combat poverty and inequality.

“In many ways, the Congress, though short-lived, was a high point of left-leaning Republicanism of that era but it was also a lesson in abject failure,” said O’Broin. “It showed the immense challenges involved in linking nationalist and socialist traditions then and building socio-economic bridges, especially in northern Ireland.”

He added, “With the IRA’s ambivalence towards such a radical movement, Fianna Fail’s continued platform building then and the inability of Congress leaders to read the political situation and devise proper strategies, it, in effect, helped result in sixty years of Fianna Fail rule.” Saying there are “many lessons to be learned from the Congress,” McCartan added, “Greater appreciation of working-class issues is key to a fairer society as is the building of a common consciousness and a confidence in ordinary people that they can change things.”

John Crowley, who travelled from Scotland to attend the conference, said, “Overall, there were some very interesting analyses and from diverse viewpoints with many of the issues still relevant in today’s society.”