Monday, 20 March 2017

Future Taoiseach’s policies being hidden by tittle-tattle

SCANNING the front pages of the daily newspapers or listening to the morning talk-shows, your ‘average’ listener may be surprised to learn about some serious issues going on around them and their nearest and dearest.
For example, that, in January, one child became homeless in Dublin every five hours; one in eight people are now on a hospital waiting list; and even An Garda Síochána are facing extremely serious allegations of corruption and cover-up by the police and their political masters. 
Despite all this, the mainstream media has become obsessed with gossip and rumour over the leadership of Fine Gael.
The plight of homeless citizens or those waiting a disproportionate amount of time for necessary surgeries can wait, it seems, because the media establishment want to focus on whether Tweedle Dum or Tweedle Dee will take over from Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and be appointed Taoiseach by that party.
Even with their declining readership, newspapers still maintain the key role in influencing the daily news agenda on radio and television. Bright and early, our radio programmes give us the “morning headlines” from the main tabloids and broadsheets – picking out the key articles they think you and I should have on our radar. With the exception of an occasional inclusion of or, it’s usually an all-dead-tree affair.
And, unfortunately for those of a non-vacuous disposition, a Fine Gael leadership contest is a very alluring subject for flagging mainstream newspapers to gush about. 
The typical investigative reporting or time-consuming research required for hard-hitting pieces can be bypassed. All that’s needed is a Fine Gael backbencher who is happy to spill their guts to reporters while quaffing cappuccinos in the Leinster House coffee dock in the vain hope of some fresh airtime, a few column inches or having their back scratched or ego massaged in return.
New technology makes it even easier for hacks and politicians alike. 
An Irish Times journalist turned the supposed tight confidentiality surrounding one Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting into a complete joke as he effectively managed to live tweet the entire event from a remote location, clearly thanks to a source within.

Personalities are now more important than actual policies. 
The Irish Independent thought it appropriate to run a almost an entire two-page spread focusing on the private lives of Fine Gael leadership contenders Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.
In the piece, entitled “Image Matters: Why a spouse in the picture is seen as important for world political leaders”, the Indo noted how both men attended a Fine Gael colleague’s wedding in Dublin.
“But what really stood out,” in the eyes of the Indo, “was the fact that Simon Coveney was pictured with his attractive wife Ruth, his arm protectively draped around her. A happy, glamorous, glowing couple. And Leo was pictured on his own.”
The base subtext about ‘family man’ Coveney versus the openly gay Varadkar was clear.
Rather than producing this type of low-quality, tawdry journalism, the Indo’s time would be better spent examining Fine Gael’s record in Government (which is underwhelming to say the least and the responsibility of Coveney and Varadkar as well as the man they want to replace). They could examine whether either of these contenders for Taoiseach and erstwhile loyal lieutenants have any plans to do anything differently. Or is it just more of the same but with someone else in charge?
It was a point raised by Sinn Féin Finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty TD who told reporters at Leinster House that the saturation coverage of internal Fine Gael wranglings needs to stop. 
“We cannot allow a six-week distraction on who will lead Fine Gael. They need to get their house in order. They need to do it very, very quickly and they need to be focused on the issues that matter,” the Donegal deputy said.
An Phoblacht columnist Eoin Ó Murchú took similar issue with the ability of the media to boot scandals into touch. Speaking on TV3’s Tonight with Vincent Browne, he raised the pertinent issue of policy difference between the two Fine Gael contenders – noting that the only difference he could see was in terms of their position on the Irish language. 
“The actual issues of the housing crisis, the health crisis, Brexit crisis, the Northern crisis – none of that seems to be occupying the attention of either politicians or journalists compared to adding up the numbers of who says which one of these two people they want, when no one can find any actual difference of policy between them,” Ó Murchú said with a degree of exasperation.
“There may be [differences] but none of that has been discussed by the media and none of that has been advanced by themselves.”
The Fine Gael leadership contest won’t really hot up until after St Patrick’s Day. Let’s hope journalists worth their salt will run the rule over the policies, ambitions and visions of the two contenders for Taoiseach and give the citizens of Ireland a real picture of what they stand for rather than who they’re going out with.
  • This article first appeared in the February 2017 edition of An Phoblacht

Monday, 13 February 2017

Spike Island – a microcosm of modern Irish history

FOR tens of thousands of Irish people, a small rocky island in Cork Harbour was the last piece of Irish soil on which they set foot before being herded like cattle onto ships bound for far-flung British penal colonies.
One of those held on Spike briefly before his deportation was Young Irelander John Mitchel – after whom the fortress there is now named. Writing in his Jail Journal in 1848 after being convicted of sedition and treason felony for articles he wrote in The United Irishman newspaper, he described Spike Island as a “rueful-looking place”:
“In this court[yard] nothing is to be seen but the high walls and the blue sky. And beyond these walls I know is the beautiful bay lying in the bosom of its soft green hills. If they keep me here for many years I will forget what the fair outer world is like. Gazing on grey stones, my eyes will grow stony.”
Stepping off the small ferry that today services Spike Island, the first thing a visitor is struck by is just how physically close it is to the nearby bustling town of Cobh – the narrow streets, cars and people are easily discernible yet completely uncontactable. 

People have called Spike Island, or Inis Píc, ‘home’ for well over a thousand years. It was originally the site of an ancient monastic settlement founded in 635AD by Saint Mochuda. Skip forward 1,000 years and the monastic site is just ruins, yet from the 1600s to 1938 Spike was one of the most important British military bases in Ireland. Even after the Anglo-Irish Treaty the British insisted on maintaining their presence on this small but strategically important little island – it was the keystone of one of the three “Treaty Ports”. 
Spike’s life as a military base owes its beginnings to the American and French revolutions. 
Jittery at the prospect of Ireland being used as a soft underbelly to attack England, the British began to fortify the island with artillery and guns to command the entrance to Cork Harbour. An attempted landing of French soldiers at Bantry Bay to help the United Irishmen in 1796 convinced the British of the need to garrison and defend one of the British Empire’s most important ports. 
By 1804, work had begun on the formidable fortress dug into the island, consisting of six bastions surrounded by a dry moat and artificial slopes. It is almost invisible to approaching vessels.

The Great Hunger of 1845 would dramatically change the history of this place. 
On the most remote edge of the windswept south-west of the island, beyond a crumbling former ammunition storage building and across the old prison football field, is a small walled cemetery. The single Celtic cross and dozen smashed and badly-eroded headstones (their lettering illegible due to the elements) belie the reality that beneath the soil are the graves of more than 250 mostly unknown prisoners.
As a reaction to the Hunger, Britain began a policy of deportation of people they deemed to be criminals. Many of those thousands of Irish people herded onto boats from Spike had done nothing more than steal food or livestock in desperate bids to feed their starving families. The surviving records on display are filled with the words “burglary, theft, larceny and cattle rustling”. Others were ‘guilty’ of being homeless at a time when vagrancy was criminalised.
During An Gorta Mór, Britain had converted Spike into the largest prison in Britain or Ireland. With over 2,300 prisoners it was arguably the largest such facility in the world.
Between 1847 and 1883, more than 1,200 prisoners perished on the island. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and a shortage of medical care turned the prison into a death camp. 
Newspaper reports from the time show inquests into deaths of prisoners due to allegations of “harsh treatment” generally absolved the prison authorities of any responsibility, instead attributing the deaths to the starving prisoners’ “delicate” health. Most of the dead were buried in another graveyard on the east of the island. This graveyard was later buried by the British military, officially during the upgrading of fortifications. Along with further protecting the island the upgrading also hid the horrific and brutal legacy for over a century.
Spike continued as a mainly military base for the next few decades. It was briefly used to hold the captured crew of The Aud, who scuttled their ship after being captured attempting to land guns for the Easter Rising in 1916.
During the Tan War, Britain was again in need of somewhere secure to hold hundreds of Irish people. Around 600 were on Spike at any time during the Tan War.
In April 1921 a dramatic rescue took place when three senior IRA prisoners, including Seán MacSwiney – brother of Sinn Féin Mayor of Cork Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike – managed to break free from the fortress that was considered unescapable.

Captain Michael J. Burke, who led the rescue effort, recalled how his IRA unit  “commandeered” a motorboat in Cobh, raised the Union Jack to mislead British Royal Navy vessels and headed for the island. The three prisoners they wanted to rescue were being used to build a golf course for the British officers and they had managed to smuggle word in to them that they would be arriving near the shore at 10am. One of the prisoners, Thomas Malone, took a hammer he was using to mend a lawnmower and charged at a soldier who was armed with a rifle:
“I grabbed the rifle just above the muzzle and hit him in the temple with the hammer. He fell forward and I hit him a second time to make sure.” 
Seeing this, two other guards quickly surrendered.
The attack unnerved the man piloting the boat. “He thought this was going a bit too far,” recalled Malone. “The boatman thought that killing a soldier with a hammer was involving him in something he was not prepared to get mixed up in.” It fell to ASU commander Seán Hyde to remind the boatman that he and his boat had technically been commandeered in the name of the Irish Republic and therefore, if arrested, he was to tell the British he was forced to take part in the events.
The Volunteers on the boat were just off the coast of Ringaskiddy when the engine gave out. Paddling towards the shore, they came under rifle fire from the top of Spike but managed to make it to shore with Thomas Malone occasionally returning fire using the rifle he had confiscated from the knocked-out soldier. Arriving on dry land, the Volunteers found that the getaway transport promised by the IRA was less than adequate:
“To my horror, I discovered that our transport consisted of a pony and trap!” said Burke. The three prisoners and Seán Hyde took off in the trap – making it to the mountains and managing to evade a military cordon. The four other Volunteers hitched a lift on a boat with a young boy to Monkstown. Miraculously, all managed to make it to safety.

At this time, prisoners were still dying on Spike.  Shortly before the Truce in June 1921, prisoner Paddy White was murdered by a British sentry during a hurling match in the camp square. Two memorials to him (one unveiled in the 1950s and another more recently) mark the spot where he was killed. 
Recounting the incident, Limerick IRA Volunteer Richard O’Connell said:
“We were out hurling and the ball went into the wire. Paddy White rushed over to pull the ball out with the hurley. If he got through that wire it would have been into his own hut, which had nothing to do with escaping from the place.”
The next thing was the soldier on sentry duty put up his rifle and shot White dead.
“We went over, knelt down and said a prayer for Paddy while he was dying. He died within a minute. We took him in then. The soldiers started mocking us while we were praying over White,” he said. 
The prisoners maintained a guard of honour over their comrade before his body was transported to Cobh, and from there by train to his native Clare for burial. 
Richard said he later learned how the soldiers on the island that day were from the Essex Regiment, which had recently suffered seven deaths in an IRA ambush at Crossbarry. The Volunteer says he believes the shooting of Paddy and subsequent taunting of the Volunteers was their way of exacting revenge.
The British finally handed back Spike Island to the Irish Government in July 1938. 
A military outpost during “The Emergency” (the state of emergency during the Second World War), the island later reverted back to prison usage and remained in operation until 2004. In popular memory it is associated with joyriders, pickpockets and young offenders. 
The prison and military garrison ensured the survival of a small village on the north of the island – mainly consisting of families of those employed there – until 1985, when prisoners took control of the fort. The Defence Forces were even deployed to quell the chaos. The small community disappeared overnight as the state informed them that they could no longer guarantee their safety. Today their homes along with their church, school and community buildings are slowly being reclaimed by nature.
With its last civilian residents departing in 1985, and its convict residents gone by 2004, Spike is today a national monument. Throughout its 1,400-year history, Spike Island has been a religious sanctuary, a place of learning, a place of immense suffering, an impenetrable fortress, an internment camp, a prison, and throughout it all inextricably intertwined with the history of modern Ireland. 

  • This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of An Phoblacht

Fake News: Seeking truth or reasserting Establishment media as gatekeepers?

THE PROLIFERATION of “fake news” could be coming to an end now that social media giant Facebook has unveiled its plan to tackle a problem which many commentators are blaming for having a large part in Donald Trump winning the election to become President, the most powerful (and dangerous?) man in the West.
Closer to home, in Europe, the German Government says it is considering measures – including serious financial penalties – to censure social media sites which allow fake news to remain after receiving takedown requests.
There is still a major sticking point: What is the universally-accepted definition of “fake news”? 
Many fake news websites are easy to spot: sensationalist clickbait headlines and purely fictional reports are used to generate advertising revenue by making their “stories” go viral across social networks. 
The most notorious example came during the US Presidential election. A group of teenagers from the largely-unknown small Macedonian city of Veles (population 44,000) are said to have raked in thousands of euro via Google’s AdSense online advertising and monetisation tool by posting fake news stories catering to Trump supporters. Headlines included “Pope Francis forbids Catholics from voting for Hillary!” on sites masquerading as American news websites.
What worries some people is that this latest attempt to clamp down on fake news is actually a form of censorship aimed at restricting the ability of users to access information and to ensure the mainstream media retains its position at the top of a drastically altered media food chain. 
The treatment of partisan media outlets such as Russia’s RT or South America’s TeleSUR should be monitored closely and compared with that of US-based partisan outlets such as Fox News
RT and TeleSUR have come in for criticism from the Western mainstream media (even the British press!) for what they claim is bias and propaganda in their reporting. In their defence, these channels say they simply give a voice to the views of audiences largely absent or ignored in Western reporting.
When Barack Obama reminisced about ‘the good old days’ when three TV channels delivered news that most people trusted (“We are going to have to rebuild within this wild, wild west of information flow some sort of curating function that people agree to”), Facebook’s Adam Mosseri announced that the social media network has “started a programme to work with third-party fact-checking organisations” and that false news will be flagged as such.” 
And this is where the problems begin.
Such moves will worry citizens here in Ireland who remember a time when “curators” here decided that nationalist opinions on the conflict in the North were too dangerous for the general public to hear and decided that Sinn Féin and other voices and views should be banned from the airwaves. The British Army, RUC/UDR, SAS and MI5/MI6 – protagonists in the conflict – however, suffered no such restrictions and their viewpoints reported as fact, not even possibly fake.
The British 'Sun' newspaper's famous fake front-page story on the Hillsborough disaster

New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz argues that the war on fake news is in fact about censoring real news:
“The more ‘curated’ the media becomes, the less likely we are to hear opposing viewpoints and to have ours challenged. That’s a bug, not a feature.”
Instead of moving to restrict free speech and clamp-down on yellow journalism, the real solution to tackling fake news is for newspapers and media outlets to get back to the basics and cease giving airtime to “unverified reports” (rumours) and celebrity Twitter spats.
Dr Eileen Culloty of Dublin City University’s Institute for Future Media and Journalism maintains that fake news is only part of a much bigger problem. Identifying a range of issues from confirmation bias to media literacy, Dr Culloty says the credibility of traditional news media has played its part in allowing fake news to flourish through the use of sensationalist headlines to drive sales and influence elections:
“The public in general is accustomed to dubious reporting – whether as a result of phone hacking scandals in Britain, the publication of PR and spin as news, or blatant bias on key issues. 
“Of course, not all journalists are guilty but each scandal damages the reputation of the whole profession. This is a problem because building public trust in legitimate news sources is a significant corrective for online fake news.
“For all the criticism of online misinformation, it is worth remembering that the free flow of information is one of the great achievements of our age. The downside is that a much greater burden is placed on people’s capacity to assess the credibility of the information they come across. Balancing information freedom and the credibility burden is the big challenge for society.”
  • This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of An Phoblacht

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Cutting through the nonsense: RTÉ's report on Syria

“In Aleppo alone 2002 people have been killed... and that's with a truce in place”. 

That was the introduction to an extremely sub-par piece of journalism we were subjected to on RTÉ's Drivetime on Wednesday afternoon as the state broadcaster bombarded rush hour listeners with a half-truths, bias and blatant falsehoods in what was supposed to be a report on how Donald Trump's election as US President will affect the ongoing Syrian Civi War.

Despite what RTÉ claims, there is no truce in Aleppo. There was a unilateral ceasefire by the Syrian Military and Russian Air Force to allow humanitarian aid into the jihadist-occupied parts of the city.[1] In response, the so-called “rebels” launched what was described as a “new offensive” on Government districts “unleashing a series of deadly car bombings and mortar attacks”.[2]

RTÉ's then quotes the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) who it says have “documented 733 civilians... being killed by Russian and Assad air strikes” adding “41 civilians have been killed by Assad's artillery shells in that time”.

Aside from such blatantly biased terminology (can we expect reports from Mosul to refer to “Obama air strikes” or “Obama artillery strikes”?) what RTÉ doesn't tell us is that the loftily-named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is in fact just one individual, Rami Abdel Rahman, a pro-Opposition former prisoner who runs SOHR out of his home in Coventry, England, and claims he relies on an anonymous network of sources across Syria for his reports. [3][4] Russia has described the information from SOHR as “fake” adding that the “group” is “no more reliable than a waiter in a pizzeria”[5] while the UN has stopped using reports from SOHR as they cannot be verified.

Next, the listener hears a snippet of an interviewee, whom RTÉ identifies as “Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – who appears to have resumed dropping chlorine on the population of Aleppo.”

Again, when will we hear US President Obama accused of “dropping white phosphorus on the population of Mosul?”

Earlier this year the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) confirmed its latest disposal operation “completes [the] destruction of all chemical weapons declared by the Syrian Arab Republic.” [6] In fact, the only suggestion in recent days of chemical weapons use has been on the part of the Al-Qaeda aligned rebel fighters.

On Tuesday the Syrian Foreign Ministry requested the OPCW investigate the use of chemical weapons by armed groups in Aleppo.[7] Meanwhile, the Russian Ministry of Defence also accused rebels of using chemical weapons in Aleppo and said it had uncovered a chemical weapons factory in the 1070 Apartment Complex in south-west Aleppo, which was recently retaken by the Syrian Army [8][9].

No reference is made to either of these allegations by RTÉ.

RTÉ then continues from perpetuating bias and half-truths into a full scale misinformation campaign:

“He [Trump] must have been briefed that Russia is in fact, not targeting ISIS”, we are told.  

This is untrue. The Russian Air Force is currently supporting Syrian ground forces in Homs Province – around the city of Palmyra which was retaken from ISIS in March – and also east of Salamiyah in northern Homs and southern Hama Provinces. The Russians have also been aiding in the defence of the city of Deir Ezzor, which has been surrounded by ISIS for several years.[10]

This same myth has been peddled by other mainstream media outlets. In October, The Associated Press made a similar claim which it was forced to retract and clarify when it was shown its own reporting directly contradicted the claim. One AP story spoke of how: “The [Syrian Army] push into the town of Qaryatain took place under the cover of Russian airstrikes and dealt another setback to the IS extremists in Syria”. [11]

So, why is Ireland's state broadcaster peddling blatant mistruths?

We are then treated to an unnamed spokesperson for the so-called “Syrian Opposition” who accuses Trump of being misinformed, and goes on to claim “the US has been helping the Syrian people and at the end of the day the US respects international law, Russia does not”. 

At no point is this unnamed individual challenged on these assertions.

The idea that the US respects international law in Syria is certainly not based in fact. It must be recognised that Russia is the only foreign actor operating within the law in Syria. 

“Forcible action at the request of a government is permissible in international law. States can use force within the territory of another state if the government of that state has agreed to it”. [12] Whether RTÉ likes it or not, the United Nations recognises the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.[13] Therefore, only actions permitted by that Government are considered legal.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the United Nations Assembly in New York in September: “Without such coordination [with the Syrian Government], any action [by external forces] would be considered a breach of sovereignty, a flagrant interference, and a violation of the principles and purposes of the [UN] Charter. [14]

The report then goes on to claim that 32 people were killed when Russia “bombed a hospital and a blood bank” in Aleppo. 

There's two issues here. First, this claim is again made by the Coventry-based SOHR with zero supporting evidence. Secondly, Russia is not conducting operations in Aleppo – the Syrian Arab Air Force is.[15] 

Thirdly, even Reuters – whom RTÉ claims its report was fact-checked with [16] – notes that the hospital itself was not bombed, instead it reports how a “bombing struck next to a children's hospital and blood bank in the Shaar district”. [17] 

This would imply the airstrikes were targeting something or someone in the vicinity of hospital, but not the medical facility itself. 

It should be noted that Médecins Sans Frontieres admits to withholding the locations of its facilities from Syria and Russia, making it impossible for either air force to differentiate between medical facilities and other buildings.[18] 

Families who have fled eastern Aleppo have confirmed to reporters, including renowned British Journalist Robert Fisk (whose dedication to human rights in journalism won him numerous awards including Best Print Journalist at the Amnesty International Media Awards) that “all these hospitals are also bases for militias and their weapons. The hospitals have some patients, but lots of rockets are on the top of hospitals where they use them to rocket the west of the city”. [19]

Regardless of RTÉ's position on the horrific conflict in Syria, listeners are entitled to unbiased and non-partisan coverage. The Drivetime piece might as well have come directly from the press office of  the US State Department.

Friday, 4 November 2016

St Enda's and the Hermitage

NESTLED in the foothills of Dublin’s Kilmashogue Mountains, in the village of Rathfarnham, sits ‘The Hermitage’, a grand 18th century house and gardens with a history deeply intertwined with Ireland’s freedom struggle. In the late 1790s, as the finishing touches were being placed on the house which would become home and practice to dentist Edward Hudson, a short distance away the British military was embarking on a construction project of its own. 
Despite the defeat of most of the United Irishmen forces following the Battle of Vinegar Hill, the Wicklow Mountains remained a hotbed of Irish rebel resistance. Michael Dwyer, known as “The Wicklow Chief”, and his forces struck repeatedly against isolated British garrisons, local loyalists and allied yeomanry before melting away in a formidable guerrilla campaign that caused deep concern in Britain and tied down thousands of troops. Other rebel leaders (such as Joseph Holt) had taken an amnesty offer from the British. Dwyer’s men included many Irishmen who had deserted from the British Army. They faced execution for treason if they were captured or surrendered, and therefore formed the strong backbone of his fighters.
British military leaders sitting in Dublin Castle were said to stare out in trepidation at the mountains overlooking the capital, which they believed to be swarming with rebels ready to descend upon the city. This fear prompted the construction of the Military Road in 1800 – which would run along the spine of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains and allow the British forces to flush out the rebels from the inaccessible interior. 
At this time, “The Wicklow Chief” made contact with young revolutionary Robert Emmet – a wealthy Anglo-Irish Protestant who deeply sympathised with the Irish Catholic population. He had worked in France to secure support during the 1798 Rebellion and returned to Ireland after the defeat, despite being wanted by authorities, to reorganise the United Irishmen and launch another uprising. 
During this time he frequently visited the Hermitage, staying in a fortified lodge on the outer perimeter wall which is now known as “Emmet’s Fort”. From here he would rendezvous with his sweetheart and fiancée, Sarah Curran, who lived nearby in The Priory. 
Emmet and Curran had been engaged in secret as her father (John Philpot Curran, a liberal nationalist) deeply disapproved of Emmet’s political views. Emmet was executed just months later for his leadership of the rebellion of 1803. Sarah Curran was disowned by her father and had to move to Cork with relatives and later to Sicily, where she died five years later. Her final request was that she be buried in the garden of The Priory, next to the small grave of her sister Gertrude who had died in a falling accident as a child. Her last wish was refused by her father. 
The resting place of Robert Emmet has long been a source of speculation. Local rumours have it that his body was smuggled to Rathfarnham shortly after his beheading on Thomas Street and buried beside the body of little Gertrude. The story of Robert and Sarah inspired Thomas Moore’s poem, ‘Sarah Curran’:
She is far from the land where her young hero sleeps, 
And lovers around her are sighing: 
But coldly she turns from their gaze and weeps, 
For her heart in his grave is lying.
Emmet's Fort on the perimeter of The Hermitage, where Robert Emmet would stay during his secret visits to his fiancée, Sarah Curran

It was this connection to Irish history and its idyllic location that prompted Pádraig Pearse to relocate his St Enda’s School (Scoil Éanna) – opened in 1908 in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh – to The Hermitage in 1910. 
Speaking of his new home, Pearse said:
“I live in a place that is very full of heroic memories. In the room in which I work at St Enda’s College, Robert Emmet is said often to have sat; in our garden is a vine which they call Emmet’s Vine and from which he is said to have plucked grapes; through our wood runs a path which is called Emmet’s Walk – they say that he and Sarah Curran walked there; at an angle of our boundary wall is a little fortified lodge called Emmet’s Fort . . . It is easy to imagine his figure coming out along Harold’s Cross Road to Rathfarnham, tapping the ground with his cane, as they say was his habit; a young, slight figure, with how noble a head bent a little upon the breast, with how high a heroism sleeping underneath that quietness and gravity!”
Inside the lobby of the old schoolhouse, beneath a painting of the crucified Jesus Christ, sits a block with a small brass plate bearing the inscription: “Robert Emmet was beheaded on this block – 20th Sept 1803.” 
If the block and the old facade and steps of the former schoolhouse are familiar it is because some of the only film footage that exists of Michael Collins was recorded on the steps of the building. In 1919, the Dáil began selling Republican Loan Bonds to support Ireland’s struggle for independence. The launch of this event took place on the steps of St Enda’s and Collins, as Minister for Finance, signed the Bonds on Emmet’s block.
Pádraig Pearse was an educational pioneer. His desire for a new education system was expressed in his 1913 essay ‘The Murder Machine’, in which he eviscerated the English system as “the most grotesque and horrible of their English inventions for the debasement of Ireland”.
Pearse’s school was firmly rooted in the Gaelic tradition, the Irish language and the promotion of Irish nationalist thought.
“The story of Joan of Arc or the story of young Napoleon means more for boys and girls than all the algebra in all the books. What the modern world wants more than anything else, what Ireland wants beyond all other modern countries, is a new birth of the heroic spirit,” wrote Pearse.
Inside, the rooms are kept much as they were during Pearse’s time. An impressive collection of weapons from previous rebellions was purchased by the school and put on display. Portraits of Irish patriots and martyrs adorn the walls, while beautiful sculptures by Pádraig’s brother, Willie, are on display.
St Enda’s School won praise from across nationalist Ireland, including from W. B. Yeats, Roger Casement and Constance Markievicz. It even prompted Indian nationalist Rabindranath Tangore to open a similar institution in Bengal.
Speaking at the school in 1914, Douglas Hyde (the first President of Ireland from 1938 to 1945) said: 
“Pearse’s philosophy is the philosophy of all who are concerned with the creation of what might be called an Irish Ireland, as distinct from an imitation English Ireland.” He said schools like St Enda’s are “bringing back again the consciousness of belonging to a nation”.
Pearse fostered a love of everything Irish in his students. He was also a nature-lover, and The Hermitage, set amidst woods, fields and streams, allowed the boys to explore nature with emphasis placed on classes such as horticulture. Old display cases contain small animals, seeds and plant specimens collected by the students, while Pearse’s notes alongside them explain how students were under “geasa” not to kill wild things and any specimens captured for study were to be released unharmed. Sports, Irish dancing, and drama were core subjects and St Enda’s provided a beautiful backdrop for plays such as ‘Fionn: A Dramatic Spectacle’ – the performance wonderfully captured in photographs at the time.
A group of former St Enda's students known as 'The Dogs' pose for a photo on Easter Sunday 1916 before heading into battle alongside the Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army
The Irish Volunteers would frequently drill in the grounds of St Enda’s and, in the lead-up to the 1916 Rising, a group of former students known as “The Dogs” continued to lodge in the building while attending university. In the evenings they would meet in secret in the school basement, which they had transformed into a bomb factory. Fifteen of “The Dogs” would go out to fight during the Easter Rising.
As the dust settled after the Easter Rising, five of St Enda’s teachers – Pádraig Pearse, Willie Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh and Con Colbert – were executed by British Army firing squads. The school closed and was occupied by British forces. It was reopened at its old home in Cullenswood House before returning to the Hermitage in 1920.
Pádraig Pearse
Margaret Pearse never recovered from the execution of her two sons. Committed to keeping the memory of her sons alive, she and her daughter, Margaret Mary, continued to run the school. In 1921, Margaret Pearse was elected to the Dáil as a Sinn Féin TD for Dublin County. She opposed the Treaty that partitioned Ireland, telling the Dáil:
“It has been said here on several occasions that Patrick Pearse would have accepted this Treaty. I deny it. As his mother, I deny it, and on his account I will not accept it.”
She added that if she voted to support it:
“I feel in my heart – and I would not say it only I feel it – that the ghosts of my sons would haunt me.”
Mrs Pearse died in 1932 and St Enda’s closed three years later. In 1968, in accordance with her mother’s wishes, Margaret Mary left it to the state to be used as a memorial to the Pearse brothers on condition that it opened every day and entry be free.
In contrast to the carefully-maintained house and grounds in what is now St Enda’s Park and the Pearse Museum, Sarah Curran’s home at The Priory suffered a very different fate.
The deaths of his two daughters left John Philpot Curran a broken man. A news report recounted how the once well-maintained grounds deteriorated and locals would observe “a lonely grave over which an old man lies sobbing . . . every day the same sad sight would have met our gaze: the broken figure of John Curran crying like a child for his youngest and favourite daughter”.
The ruins of The Priory now sit overgrown in a small green at the centre of a nearby housing estate with no markers or plaque to remember its historic importance. Gertrude’s (and if rumour is to be believed, Robert Emmet’s) grave has been lost to time and in the construction of the housing estate in the 1970s.
• The Pearse Museum and St Enda’s Park are now managed by the Office of Public Works. They are open every day and entry is free.
  • This article first appeared in the October 2016 edition of An Phoblacht

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Buzzkill – Ireland’s bees are being wiped out

MORE THAN 30% of all fruits and vegetables and as much as 70% of all the world’s food production is heavily reliant on one tiny insect – the honeybee. Its role in pollination is absolutely vital in agriculture but all is not well in Ireland – a third of our wild bee species are in danger of extinction.

Nobel Prize-winning playwright Maurice Maeterlinck famously wrote (although often misattributed to Albert Einstein):
“If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
While that may not be entirely true, the disappearance of the planet’s most important little workers could indeed spell the beginning of an ecological Armageddon. 
Across the globe, many bee species are simply vanishing due to a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. So far there has been no single cause identified but the use of pesticides, loss of habitat and the spread of mites are all believed to be factors.
In some parts of the world, particularly in the USA and China, vast swathes of land are essentially devoid of pollinators. Beekeepers have seen a surge across the USA for their services as farmers rent mobile hives in the hopes of pollinating their crops. In some parts of China, where chemicals have all but wiped out bees, workers are paid to climb trees and hedgerows and pollinate flowers by hand.

Irish Wildlife Trust ecologist Billy Flynn says the Irish countryside has been made “inhospitable” to pollinators.
“The need for shelter and food are common to all living things, and we have deprived many of our native invertebrates of both,” Billy says.
He points to the loss of nesting sites, removal of hedgerows, disappearance of small woodlands, the lack of native wildflowers and the constant cutting of park and road verges as soon as dandelions and daisies appear as all contributing to this decline.
The decline, which included an up to 50% reduction in bees in the Six Counties, prompted a debate in the Assembly in 2008 and eventually led to The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan 2015-2020, supported by over 80 public, private and non-governmental bodies.
The Heritage Council’s Michael Starrett said: 
“Gone are the days we can choose to ignore warning signs. Our science is sound. Our concern has to be to get it done. The alternative is not acceptable, and should not be acceptable to anyone. This is about improving the quality of our environment.”

Billy Flynn says there are few plans that mean so much for biodiversity on this island: 
“This is a call for action that may well be critical in saving many of our invertebrate species from extinction. By doing so, we might be able to stave off a calamitous collapse of ecosystems the like of which we have not yet seen.”
As well as engaging with county councils, farmers, and environmental and heritage groups, a new part of the plan aimed at gardeners and homeowners was launched this summer. Simple tips include planting native wildflowers, leaving a patch of the garden to grow wild, manual weeding rather than pesticides, and installing an ‘insect hotel’ nesting site for solitary bees. It also contains a handy list of what plants and shrubs are best to attract pollinators all year round.
There’s already been a great response from local organisations, including Sligo Tidy Towns who are running beekeeping classes in the community gardens. Places like Leighlinbridge in Carlow, Castletownroche in Cork and Galliagh in Derry swiftly incorporated insect corridors – uncut areas of wildflowers – into their Tidy Towns plans and they are now commonplace across Ireland.
In July, scientific research debated at European level conclusively showed that insecticides – as well as killing or seriously weakening bees – are having a detrimental effect on bee fertility. 
Dublin MEP Lynn Boylan, an ecologist, says the temporary ban on three insecticides should be made permanent in light of the evidence and called on the European Commission and Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture to take this into account.

Speaking to An Phoblacht, the MEP said:
“Governments need to stop contradicting themselves. On one hand they are producing detailed plans for protecting bees, which is welcome, yet in Europe they continuously take the side of the big corporate lobbies and chemical companies which have been directly linked to the decline in bee numbers.
“In the absence of Fine Gael ever opposing corporate interests, I’d encourage everybody to do what they can to help bolster the bee population.”
  • This article first appeared in the September 2016 edition of An Phoblacht

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

How Israel is using gay rights to deflect from the Occupation

DUBLIN’S annual Pride Parade parade in June saw signs saying “Queers Against Israeli Pinkwashing” as members of Ireland’s LGBT community showed their anger at Israel using a veneer of acceptance of gay people to gloss over its ongoing brutal occupation of Palestine.

In recent years, Israel has been busy promoting itself as one of the few gay-friendly tourist destinations in the Middle East. Tel Aviv was named “World’s Best Gay City” in 2011. The Israeli Tourist Board has pumped millions of dollars into promoting the country as a gay-friendly destination through billboard advertising, sponsorship of LGBT film festivals and other events.

Same-sex marriages may be conducted in Israel but they have no legal recognition, although if a couple have a marriage certificate from another country where it is legal then their marriage is legally recognised. Despite this, Israel still has the most advanced LGBT rights in the Middle East where in some countries, such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, homosexuality can result in a death sentence.
Though Israel’s Pinkwashing campaign has been going on for over a decade, not everybody got the message. 

In 2012, Channel 10 News in Israel exposed a communique from former Israeli Deputy Ambassador to Ireland Nurit Tinari-Modai to Israel’s Foreign Office in which she suggests that left-wing and Jewish activists in Ireland who oppose Israel’s occupation should be smeared by claiming their opposition is based on “sexual identity problems”.

Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah said the Deputy Ambassador’s comments “indicate an innate homophobia that is at odds with Israel’s efforts – known as pinkwashing – to portray itself as supportive of the rights of people who identify as LGBTQ”.

A month before Dublin’s Pride Parade was the world-famous Tel Aviv Pride festival. ‘Pinkwatching Israel’ – an organisation created in 2010 to “expose efforts by Israel and its supporters to pinkwash Israeli crimes” – called on those thinking of travelling to Tel Aviv for the festival to take a deeper look at Israel’s gay-friendly persona.

“Gay pride brochures fail to mention that it is also an hour away from the world’s largest open prison, Gaza, and that it is built on stolen land,” the group said. “They forget to mention that the gay soldiers you dance with in the Pride parade check, arrest, and kill Palestinians on a daily basis.
“After your day of Pride, some tour operators will take you to Bethlehem or the Dead Sea, without telling you that you will travel through the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories, or that the wine you are drinking in the Golan Heights comes from businesses that have been declared illegal under international law.”

Fadi Khoury, an Arab LGBT activist who boycotted the Tel Aviv Pride parade this year, told the AFP news agency:

“Israel wants to rebrand itself as a liberal democracy – despite the Occupation – by claiming that neighbouring societies, especially the Palestinians, aren’t as tolerant towards sexual minorities. A moral human rights struggle cannot be one that is partial. The state is the same source of human rights infringements for both the Israeli LGBT community and the Palestinians under occupation.”
LGBT activist Haneen Maikey, an Arab citizen of Israel, told Israeli newspaper Haaretz that, despite the hype, in reality there are very few gay rights in the country:

“There are specific court cases that, when won, allowed certain individuals for instance to adopt a child. What is worth noting is that these decisions are case-specific, in the sense that they are made for this specific case, for this specific child and for these two mothers. You cannot build a human rights campaign on court cases that are not ratified.”

Attacking Israel's policy of ‘pinkwashing’, she said:

“Stop speaking in my name and using me for a cause you never supported in the first place.

“If you want to do me a favour, then stop bombing my friends, end your occupation, and leave me to rebuild my community.”
  • This article first appeared in the August 2016 edition of An Phoblacht