Blog

Ancient, History, Translated fiction

Curses on Vases: Illustrated Agamemnon

The House of Atreus is cursed. I have been making my way through Louis MacNeice’s 1939 translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, which is sometimes tough going, but that much is clear. As a way to get a better grip on the web of treachery and stink of ancestral blood, I decided to find images of the myth in Greek vases. Sure enough, there were no shortage of them.

According to some stories, the rot goes all the way back to Tantalus, who tried to serve up his son Pelops to the Olympian gods for dinner. The gods caught the trick in time and banished Tantalus to the Underworld to be eternally ‘tantalized’. They reconstructed Pelops (replacing his shoulder with an ivory prosthesis because Demeter had absent-mindedly swallowed his original one).

Poseidon riding a seahorse flirting with Pelops. A terracotta hydria from the 4th century BCE, Attic. At the Met Museum.

Some time later, Pelops (who was now as good as new) fell in love with Hippodamia. Her father was Oenomaus, a King who had heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his son in law. He had therefore decided to challenge each of her other suitors to a chariot race and then kill him when he inevitably lost. Pelops was afraid of losing like the 18 suitors before him, so he enlisted the help of his former lover Poseidon, who gave him four winged horses. Just to make completely sure of the outcome, though, Pelops also struck up a dirty deal with Oenomaus’ charioteer Myrtilus: If he took out the bronze linchpins connecting the axle to the chariot wheels, replacing them with  wax linchpins, the charioteer would have the right to sleep with Hippodamia on the first night of her wedding to Pelops. Myrtilus kept up his end of the bargain and the King was killed, dragged by his own horses. Pelops was not grateful to Myrtilus but threw him off a cliff. As the charioteer was falling to his death, he cursed his killer (incidentally, the site of Myrtilus’ burial place in Olympia was known as a taraxippus, literally a ‘horse disturber’, a place haunted by ghosts or dangers).

Bath-water jug by the White Sakkos Painter from Apulia (320-310 BCE) Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Pelops and Hippodamia had two sons: Thyestes and Atreus. The brothers fought for ascendancy and Atreus won. Atreus married Aerope but she became lovers with Thyestes. When Atreus learned of this adultery, he prepared a delicious feast for Thyestes, without telling him that the meat was Thyestes’ own children. Horrified by his consumption of human flesh, Thyestes cursed Atreus:

When he knew what all unhallowed thing
He thus had wrought, with horror’s bitter cry
Back-starting, spewing forth the fragments foul,
On Pelops’ house a deadly curse he spake:
As darkly as I spurn this damned food,
So perish all the race of Pleisthenes!
Note: Pleisthenes is one of the sons in the stew.

As time winds on, the malediction ripens. Paris abducts Menelaus’ wife Helen and takes ‘the fair mischief’ to Troy. Paris was staying as a guest in Menelaus’ house when he kidnapped Helen, which means his act was not only adulterous but also violated rules related to hospitality sacred to Zeus. None of this is good news for Troy:

What curse on palace and on people sped
With her, the Fury sent on Priam’s pride,
By angered Zeus! What tears of many a widowed bride!
Oil Jar with Paris and Helen, 420 – 400 B.C., Attributed to the Painter of the Frankfort Acorn, vase-painter; and Phintias, potter, Greek, Athens. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Agamemnon and Menelaus prepare an army to go to Troy. While they are wondering if it’s still the right thing to do, they see a pair of eagles:

And one was black, one bore a white tail barred.
High o’er the palace were they seen to soar,
Then lit in sight of all, and rent and tare,
Far from the fields that she should range no more,
Big with her unborn brood, a mother-hare.
Eagle catching a rabbit on an Etruscan vase, from Caere (ca. 550-530 BCE)
From Twitter feed of Peter Gainsford

A soothsayer gleans from this that Troy will fall but that it will anger Artemis, who hates to see young animals killed. In return she will demand “a curst unhallowed sacrifice/’Twixt wedded souls”.

Knowing that the trip will be basically successful, Agamemnon gathers forces to go help Menelaus get Helen back, but Artemis stalls the ships at Aulis. A priest advises Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia so the ships will be able to go on to Troy. He does so, and so earns the ever-lasting hatred of his wife Clytemnestra:

And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!
To stain with virgin Hood a father’s hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altar’s side!
Apulian red-figure volute-krater by the Iliupersis Painter 370BC-350BC in the British Museum

Meanwhile, in Troy, another curse is in progress. The god Apollo falls in love with Cassandra, a beautiful Trojan princess. Afraid of him, she promises she will marry him and he gives her the gift of prophecy. She then breaks her promise and he changes the gift to a curse—no one will ever believe her prophecies. Instead, they’ll scorn her and call her a “witch and cheat”. Cassandra predicts the Fall of Troy but she is powerless to prevent it. On the night it falls, Ajax the Lesser tears her away from the sanctuary of Athena, rapes her then gives her to Agamemnon as a slave.

Ethiop Painter Terracotta Nolan neck-amphora (jar), ca. 450 B.C. Greek, Attic, Classical Terracotta; H. 11 1/8 in. (28.3 cm) diameter of mouth 4 13/16 in. (12.2 cm) diameter of foot 3 1/16 in. (7.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1956 (56.171.41)

When Cassandra arrives in Argos as Agamemnon’s captive, she immediately senses the family curse. She sees ghostly children—Tyndareus’ sons—on the roof and hears the Curse as Furies who physically occupy Agamemnon’s palace and gloat about all the misery therein, stemming from the ‘incestuous’ affair between Thyestes and Aerope:

Within this house a choir abidingly
Chants in harsh unison the chant of ill;
Yea, and they drink, for more enhardened joy,
Man’s blood for wine, and revel in the halls,
Departing never, Furies of the home.
They sit within, they chant the primal curse,
Each spitting hatred on that crime of old,
The brother’s couch, the love incestuous
That brought forth hatred to the ravisher.
Detail of Erinys (a Fury) from a Paestan Red Figure Krater by the Python Painter (ca. 360-320 BCE). In the British Museum.

When Clytemnestra boasts about murdering Agamemnon, the Chorus see her as a tuneless raven in an image that recalls the ‘harsh unison’ of the ‘chant of ill’ sung by the Furies of the house:

                                                Thy very form I see,
Like some grim raven, perched upon the slain,
Exulting o’er the crime, aloud, in tuneless strain!
Apollo and a crow

Clytemnestra herself agrees, suggesting that she is to some extent possessed by a daimon:

Right was that word—thou namest well
The brooding race-fiend, triply fell!
From him it is that murder’s thirst,
Blood-lapping, inwardly is nursed—
Ere time the ancient scar can sain,
New blood comes welling forth again.
Aigisthos and Clytemnestra ambush Agamemnon just out of the bath. Mixing bowl from Athens ca. 470 BCE at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Klytemnestra murders Cassandra on the altar of Apollo. Ironic! Marlay Painter, kylix (425-400 BCE)

Where will it all end? The problem is that the murder is wrong in at least three different, polluting ways: a wife has murdered her husband, a nephew (Aigisthos) has murdered his uncle, and a guest (Aigisthos) has murdered his host.  This all means that new blood will have to be spilled into infinity. Or does it? Aeschylus hashes out the resolution in the next two plays: The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

An old bath
History, Modern, Poetry, Reviews, UK

MacNeice in Ireland: A Prism of Delight and Pain

Until recently, I knew three things about Louis MacNeice (1907-1963): that he was from Ireland, that he was friends with Auden and that he wrote “The Sunlight on the Garden” . Then last year our friend Gabriel gave us a copy of Autumn Journal (1940), a long poem written in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a book that sketches History as it is experienced personally, in real time, in a dance of daily impressions, emotions, opinions, memories, hopes and doubts. Although it’s written in quatrains, it easily conveys the sense of genuine internal dialogue. He questions the use of being an “impresario of the ancient Greeks” at a college; he decides it’s right to vote in a by-election; he fondly remembers a holiday in Spain; he regrets the loss of his wife. The book provides intimate access to Louis MacNeice’s mental reality.

Portrait of Louis MacNeice by his lover Nancy Sharp

Now that I’ve lived in Belfast for a few months and have read his Selected Poems (edited by Belfast poet Michael Longley), another aspect of MacNeice has crystallized for me, and that the importance of his Irishness in his poetry. It’s a topic that has irritated critics on both sides of the Irish Sea, partly because he evades categorization and is maddeningly ambivalent about his loyalties. Once when asked where he lived, he replied jokingly that he had “a foot in both graves”.  Historically, English critics have almost accepted him as an honorary Englishman, being Auden’s pal, while Irish critics view his membership as a fellow national as problematic. The fact is, though, that Louis MacNeice is an Irishman: he was born to parents originally from western Ireland and he spent the first nine years of his life in the North East, in Carrickfergus and Belfast:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
         To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
         Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
          The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
          But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.
“Carrickfergus”
“Like crucifixes the gantries stand” in “Belfast”

At nine, he left the country and spent the rest of his life in England (minus a brief teaching stint in the USA) but he never stopped writing about his childhood in Ireland. While it is tempting to read his childhood poems (“Autobiography” and “Carrickfergus”) simply as lyrics to his youth, or therapeutic examinations of formative trauma, they are also subtle but serious reflections on the turbulent history and politics of the country of his birth. Just as the overlay of internal experience on shared historical reality is a feature of Autumn Journal, his Irish poems are enriched by their historical context; they are snapshots of a figure in a particular time and place. MacNeice’s ideal poet, remember, is “a reader of the newspapers”, “informed in economics” and “actively interested in politics” (Modern Poetry [1938]).

What’s more, the uncomfortable ambivalence that characterizes all of MacNeice’s poetry, his insistence on the essential and dynamic variety, a world where things are “incorrigibly plural” may partly be the effect of growing up in a country that constantly pulls in two opposite directions:

And if the world were black or white entirely
        And all of the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
         A prism of delight and pain,

We might be surer where we wished to go
        Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
        Road that is right entirely.
(“Entirely”)

What is most immediately striking about MacNeice’s attitude to his childhood home is a sense of disconnection. It seems, in spite of the vividness of his memories, that the north never felt like home to him, even when he was in it. In “Carrick Revisited” (1945) he describes it as an accidental ‘interlude’.

Torn before birth from where my father’s dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten in a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by any choice.

Whatever then my inherited or acquired
Affinities, such remains my childhood’s frame
Like a belated rock in the red Antrim clay
That cannot at this era change its pitch or name—
And the pre-natal mountain is far away.
“Carrick Revisited”

This disconnection is built into the history of Ulster itself. Originally Irish, like MacNeice, it is has not been fully Irish nor quite English for a long time. The events that created this state (the Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, Partition, as you like) “may never now be righted by any choice” even in 2020.

The Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Louis’ father John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942) was a rector for the anglican Church of Ireland, and he would later become a bishop. John MacNeice was a man of conscience who sought interfaith cooperation and peace. In 1912, for example, he supported Home Rule and refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, a brave (though hopeless) stance, considering the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded that very year and marched the streets in their thousands against ‘Rome Rule’.  In 1936, when officiating at the funeral of Sir Edward Carson (the architect of Irish Partition), John MacNeice refused to allow the Union Jack to hang over Carson’s tomb. (Interesting side note: Carson was also the prosecutor whose cross-examination of Oscar Wilde put the latter in gaol for homosexuality).

While John MacNeice was personally on the side of interfaith cooperation, he must have been aware that the Church of Ireland owed its existence to the repression of the country’s Catholic majority. It was the church of English colonists, for centuries the only church acceptable to the Crown (in spite of its dearth of adherents). In 1704, for example, the Test Act restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland, a law that remained in place until 1829.  And from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all Irish regardless of their true faith, were compelled to pay a tithe to the Church of Ireland, a practice that only ended after the Tithe War (1830-1836) .

 “Carrickfergus”, an apparently simple poem about MacNeice’s childhood, implies this history, the jarring juxtapositions and sad complexities of a society shaped by colonial interests:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

Patrons of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church where Louis’ father preached, the Chichesters had a huge amount to do with the poverty of the Catholic population. Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) arrived in Ireland to assist Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War, a conflict that started when Irish Gaelic earls Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebelled against English rule. In 1600, Chichester was appointed head of the English garrison at Carrickfergus and he immediately resorted to scorched-earth tactics in the area not only to deprive O’Neill’s army of food but also to starve and murder local civilians. In his own description of the campaign, he boasted, “I burned along the lough within four miles of Dungannon and killed one hundred people, sparing none, of what quality, age or sex so ever, besides many burned to death; we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatsoever we find…” It sounds as if he was pleased with himself and indeed he was handsomely rewarded for his service; under James I, Chichester was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served in this role from 1605 to 1616, during which time he oversaw widespread persecution of Catholics and engineered the Plantation of Ulster, uprooting Catholics and awarding their land to wealthy Scottish and English landowners. Biographer David Lloyd (1635-1692) praised him for being “effectually assistant, first to plough and break up that barbarous nation by conquest, and then to sow it with seeds of civilty.”

Portrait of a Psycho (c) Belfast Harbour Commissioners; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When he arrived in Ireland, Chichester had been on the verge of bankruptcy; by the time he was removed from Irish affairs, he held title to 100,000 acres of land.  MacNeice’s ironic “their portion sure” conceivably refers to Chichester’s “cut” rather than to any special nook in Heaven.

Louis MacNeice’s parents are seen dimly. His father is always shown in his official capacity, an anglican churchman, and his mother Elizabeth (Lily) a soft ghost. The poem “Autobiography” describes her with painful vagueness, “My mother wore a yellow dress, / Gently, gently, gentleness.”. Sadly, Lily contracted uterine cancer when Louis was still very young. After a hysterectomy she fell into a bout of depression and left their home for a psychiatric facility in Dublin. A year later, she contracted tuberculosis and died. MacNeice writes simply, “When I was five the black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same.” (“Autobiography”).

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that “Autobiography” is a political poem, but it is still a notable coincidence that two things of historic significance happened in 1914 so that “Nothing after was quite the same”. The first was the “black dream” of World War One, a bloody debacle that caused a whole generation to lose its taste for war. The second was an amendment to the Home Rule Act that would exclude Ulster counties from impending Home Rule, effectively cutting the country in two. The amendment was powerfully argued for by Sir Edward Carson, the Irish Unionist and first signatory to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which had vowed to resist Home Rule using “all means necessary.” Before this Home Rule Act was put into law, the Great War started but Partition was now practically certain: Northern Ireland would be separated, traumatically, from its motherland.

Carson

MacNeice dramatizes the building conflict between Unionists and Catholics mainly through details caught by a child’s eye, snatches of conversation gleaned from the domestic circle. “The Gardener” from Novelettes is the portrait of a gardener “With a finch in a cage and a framed/ certificate of admission/Into the Orange order” who becomes increasingly senile and decrepit until he can no longer even attend the Twelfth of July parades:

At ten o’clock or later
You could hear him mowing the lawn,
The mower moving forward,
And backward, forward and backward
For he moved while standing still;
He was not quite up to the job.
The Orange Parade of 1920

In “Belfast” he glimpses wretched Catholic women briefly and feels a mixture of pity and shame:

In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin
A shawled factory-woman as if shipwrecked there
Lies a bunch of limbs glimpsed in the cave of gloom
By us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.
Belfast Linen mill 1918
And in Autumn Journal (Canto xvi) he recalls an atmosphere of fear heightened by rumour and ignorance:

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district
(Autumn Journal canto xvi)

This vignette evokes two incidents related to the future Irish Civil War: the gun running of Roger Casement and the bloody Belfast riots of 1920-22.

Roger Casement

In the lead up to the Easter Rising, Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement arranged for shipment of guns from the German government, for delivery in April 1916. The weapons were carried in a Norwegian vessel Aud-Norge, while Casement and his comrades travelled to Ireland in a German U-boat. The British managed to scuttle Aud before it landed but the U-boat put Casement ashore at Banna Strand, 21 April 1916 (three days before the Easter Rising). He was discovered there and arrested on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. His was a cause célèbre due to his fame as a humanitarian activist in the Congo and Peru, for which he had been knighted in 1911. The British Government used (possibly forged) diaries detailing his homosexual liaisons to dissuade supporters from advocating clemency. Despite high-profile intercessors and a United States Senate appeal against the death sentence, he was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Gun-running at that time was something of a national sport. In April 1914, in the Larne gun-running, Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender had managed to smuggle almost 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire for the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Shipments landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor with no police intervention. The Howth gun-running incident  occurred that same year, in July, when 1,500 Mauser rifles were delivered to Irish Volunteers from a private yacht in broad daylight. Scottish troops intervened ineffectually and, when baited by the crowd, attacked the protesters with rifle fire and bayonets, killing four civilians and wounding 30 more.

As for the “shooting in the York Street district”, even if MacNeice cannot have personally witnessed it since he was at school in England, it suggests the “carnival of terrorism”  that rocked the city between 1920 and 1922 and claimed the lives of at least 455 people, 58% of them Catholic–in a city where Catholics were only 25% of the population. The Irish Government estimated that 50,000 Catholics left the north permanently in response to violence and intimidation in this period . Neither the British Government nor the local Unionist leadership made any effort to reinstate these displaced people:

When my silent terror cried;
Nobody, nobody replied.
“Autobiography”

Checking the roll call of the dead, 1920

Inevitably, there are echoes and tributes in MacNeice, to Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus utters that famous statement of despair, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Canto XVI of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal follows directly from that thought:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

This canto, as well as “Valediction” (1934), is one of MacNeice’s most direct comments on his attitude to Ireland. Both poems express a reluctant connection and an agonizing frustration with its problems. In “Valediction” he burns his bridges with the Old Country in a somewhat priggishly elegiac tone:

…being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;
I have to observe milestone and curio
The beaten buried gold of an old king’s bravado,
Falsetto antiquities, I have to gesture,
Take part in, or renounce, each imposture;
Therefore I resign, goodbye, the chequered and the quiet hills
The gaudily-striped Atlantic, the linen-mills
That swallow the shawled file, the black moor where half
A turf-stake stands like a ruined cenotaph;
“Valediction”

Canto xvi of Autumn Journal is comparatively unhinged, an exhilarating philippic that lashes out against all of it:

I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

Brian Boru, legendary King of Munster

The quote from from Catullus 85 (“I hate and I love. How can I do that you might ask./I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”) exposes this is as a love poem: Catullus’ extensive cursing of Lesbia was only a sign of his wounded love, and MacNeice’s rage is belied by exhausted admissions and entreaties:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an underwater belfry.

 “Why should I want to go back/ To you, Ireland, my Ireland?” he asks, and the question answers itself but ultimately solves nothing.

Uncategorized

In the Falls, Reading the Walls

Last week we moved to a place near Falls Road, the heart of Belfast’s Gaeltacht Quarter, where most residents are Catholic and Irish Republican who, as a group, support the use and transmission of the Gaelic language (hence Gaeltacht, which means ‘Gaelic speaking’).

One of the first things I noticed walking in the neighborhood is the number and nature of the murals and signs. They seem to be doing lots of things, rhetorically speaking: establishing the shared identity and politics of the neighborhood; building morale by stressing milestones and successes of the community; inspiring people to emulate specific heroes; rousing empathy for martyrs; connecting the Irish independence movement with those of other peoples around the world; teaching tourists a bit about Republican history; and keeping the struggle alive–every time you walk to the shop, for example, you will be reminded that many families of those who were massacred have not yet received apologies, and that the UK Government continues to run down the clock on the inquiry into the brutal assassination of Human Rights Lawyer Pat Finucane, in spite of the UK Supreme Court deciding there has never been a human-rights-compliant inquiry into his death.

Finucane, who had successfully challenged the British Government in several human rights cases, was murdered at the breakfast table in front of his three children in 1989

As a tourist with a pretty shaky understanding of Irish history, I’ve been studying the murals with great interest. Personally, as they often prompt me to find out more, they seem like a pretty effective device for communicating news and history that has often been ignored or suppressed by other media outlets.

One of the biggest figures in the murals in our part of town feature James Connolly (1868-1916); in fact, there’s a statue of him just a couple of blocks from our place. He was the founder of the Irish Socialist Republican Party and the Irish Citizens Army, which defended workers and strikers from the frequent brutality of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. But what he is most remembered for is being effectively the Commander-in-Chief of the Easter Rising , an armed insurrection against British Rule in Ireland that began on 24 April, 1916. That insurrection failed and he was shot by firing squad–he had to be tied to a chair because injuries he’d sustained in the Rising made him too weak to stand. W.B. Yeats mentions him in the poem “Easter 1916” and the Republican folk band The Wolfe Tones have a whole song about him.

Released in 1968, this song reached number 15 in the Irish pop charts

Although the Rising failed in the short term, it became one of the most galvanizing events in Republican history. Outrage about the execution of the rebels, particularly Connolly’s, resulted in greater awareness of their goals throughout Ireland and the world. This resulted in more popular support. It was only five years later, in May 1921, that the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed, providing for the establishment of an Irish Free State as a self-governing dominion and allowing Northern Ireland (formed in 1920) to opt out of the Irish Free State, which it promptly did.

Other heroes of the Easter Rising appear frequently in the Falls. For example, just a couple of blocks from us, is this portrait of Countess Constance Markievicz. The daughter of the Arctic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, she and her sister Eva were both political activists. Constance was hugely inspired by Connolly and even designed the uniforms and composed the anthem for the Irish Citizens Army. She was in the thick of the fighting during the uprising, killing a policeman and wounding a British sniper. At her court martial, she said, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.” She was sentenced to death but because she was a woman (and possibly because she came from the upper classes), the court commuted the sentence to life in prison. On learning this, she said to her captors, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She later became the first woman elected to the United Kingdom House of Commons as a member for Sinn Féin, then the first Irish female cabinet minister.

Getting her eye in in 1915

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 split Republicans into two camps: the pro-treaty Provisional Government and the anti-treaty IRA. The latter group saw the treaty as a betrayal of their goal of a free and united Ireland. That split divided the nation in the Irish Civil War and its effects can be seen even today in Irish politics.

In our neighborhood, it’s pretty clear that the muralists are anti-treaty. There is nary a sketch of Michael Collins, for example, who was Chairman of the Provisional Government until his assassination in 1922. Most of the figures in this mural, for example, were anti-treaty figures.

James Connolly, Éamon de Valera, Liam Lynch, Pádraig Pearse and others I don’t know.

One dominant theme in the murals, and one I didn’t expect, is Irish involvement in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Actually Irishmen fought for both sides in this struggle, and the majority of Irish supported Franco because they perceived the war as a clash between Catholicism and Socialism. The Irish Brigade fought on the Nationalist side for Franco. On the other side, left-leaning Republican Frank Ryan and the Irish Communist Party organized for about 200 Republicans to join the fight against Franco among the International Brigades, army units from all over the world recruited by Communist recruiters.

Mural honoring the XV International Brigade near the Peace Wall

Spain pops up elsewhere, too. At the top of our street is this expression of solidarity with the Catalan Independence Movement:

The Republicans claim common cause with many other groups fighting for human rights against hostile state actors.

Since 1963, the Free Papua movement has waged a low-intensity guerilla war against Indonesian occupiers.
Tamil Eelam is a proposed independent state that Tamils hope to create in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
The murder of George Floyd by the white police officer Derek Chauvin highlighted systemic racism in the United States
Abdullah Öcalan is a political prisoner, a Kurdish leftist political theoretician and one of the founding members of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
Leila Khaled is a Palestinian refugee and a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP)

And then there are the pictorial tributes and reminders of the Troubles, especially massacres committed by British troops on civilians and also the sacrifice made by the Hunger Strikers who were fighting for the right to be treated as political prisoners.

Kieran Nugent, imprisoned in Crumlin Road Jail aka the ‘Maze’, was the first ‘blanket man’, refusing to wear a prison uniform because he considered himself a political prisoner

The’Usual Suspects’ here are (from left to right) Brian Nelson, Media cover-ups, British Intelligence, Loyalist Death Squads, Government Ministers, British Army, RUC, PSNI, Special Branch.

And, almost an afterthought, is the most pressing issue that we are all facing now (apart from Covid-19, that is):

Uncategorized

20 Scenes of War and Peace

  1. Leo Tolstoy
“Portrait of Leo Tolstoy” (1887) by Ilya Repin

Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece was published in its entirety in 1869, 57 years after the French Invasion of Russia, but it was a period that still had a hold on many writers and artists throughout Russia and Europe. Tchaikovsky, for example, composed his commemorative “1812 Overture” in 1880.

2. The Emperors

“Emperor Alexander I and Emperor Napoleon in the Hunt” (1908).

Ilya Repin was a close friend of the Tolstoys and painted portraits of Leo, his wife and children. Here he also addresses the theme of Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, nearly 100 years after the Invasion. Neither of the Emperors come off particularly well.

3. Hélène

Portrait of Hanna Vańkovič (Sołtan)” c.1805, by Jan Rostem

“The princess Hélène smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room—the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing each the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back, and bosom—which, in the fashion of those days were very much exposed—and she seemed to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her as she moved towards Anna Pavlovna.” (Page 12)

Hélène not only has a French name, but she also embodies what Tolstoy seems to regard as the vices of Napoleonic France. She is visually charming but empty-headed and artificial. She has no respect for her husband at all, to the point that she considers marrying two other men while still married to him. She fancies herself an intellectual and conducts a popular salon but is described as a vicious nincompoop.

4. Marya Bolkonskaya

Portrait of a Girl” by Alexey Venetsianov

“Princess Marya, sighed and glanced into the mirror which stood on her right. It reflected a weak, ungraceful figure and thin face. Her eyes, always sad, now looked with particular hopelessness at her reflection in the glass. ‘She flatters me,’ thought the princess, turning away and continuing to read. But Julie did not flatter her friend: the princess’s eyes—large, deep, and luminous (it seemed as if at times there radiated from them shafts of warm light) were so beautiful that very often in spite of the plain-ness of her face they gave her an attraction more powerful than that of beauty.” (Page 96)

If Hélène represents the sordid vanity of Napoleonic France, Princess Marya represents the simple, soulful piety of Russia. She puts up with some pretty shocking abuse from her crusty old dad, tends to the souls of the poor peasantry and doesn’t even mind when she catches a one of her suitors pashing with her lady-in-waiting.

5. Duel Between Pierre and Dolokhov

The Duel” by I.E. Repin

“The spot chosen for the duel was some eighty paces from the road where the sledges had been left, in a small clearing in the pine forest covered with melting snow, the frost having begun to break up during the last few days. The antagonists stood forty paces apart at the farther edge of the clearing. The seconds, measuring the paces, left tracks in the deep wet snow between the place where they had been standing and Nevitsky’s and Dolokhov’s sabres, which were stuck in the ground ten paces apart to mark the barrier.” (p.337)

6. Nikolai Rostov Meets Prince Alexander

Portrait of Alexander I of Russia by unknown artist

“The Emperor drew level with Rostov and halted. Alexander’s face was even more beautiful than it had been three days before at the review. It shone with such gaiety and youth, such innocent youth, that it suggested the liveliness of a fourteen-year-old boy, and yet it was the face of the majestic Emperor.” (p. 271)

7. Andrei Bolkonsky Meets Kutuzov Before the Battle of Austerlitz

Portrait of M.I. Kutuzov-Smolensky” by Roman Maksimovich Volkovsky

“Prince Andrei glanced at Kutuzov’s face only a foot distant from him and involuntarily noticed the carefully washed seams of the scar near his temple, where an Ismail bullet had pierced his skull, and the empty eye-socket. ‘Yes, he has a right to speak so calmly of those men’s death,’ thought Bolkonsky.” (P.180)

8. Battle of Austerlitz

Battle of Austerlitz” Charles Thévenin

“Just as in a clock the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French—all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, fear and enthusiasm—was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors—that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.” (p.274)

9. Andrei is Wounded at Austerlitz

El Herido” (The Wounded Man) by Goya

‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,’ thought he, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the struggle of the Frenchmen with the gunners ended, whether the red-haired gunner had been killed or not, and whether the cannon had been captured or saved. But he saw nothing. Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it.” (p.299)

10. Natasha Rostov

Portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaevna, youngest daughter of Emperor Nicholas I, by Karl Pavlovich Brullov (previously thought to be a portrait of U.M. Smirnova)

“Natasha laughed at every word he said or that she said to herself, not because what they were saying was amusing, but because she felt happy and was unable to control her joy which expressed itself by laughter.” (p.321)

11. Catoptromancy (Divination by Mirror and Candle)

Svetlana Guessing Her Future” (1836) by Karl Bryllov

“She sat a long time looking at the receding line of candles reflected in the glasses and expecting (from tales she had heard) to see a coffin or him, Prince Andrei, in that last dim, indistinctly outlined, square. But ready as she was to take the smallest speck for the image of a man or coffin, she saw nothing. She began blinking rapidly and moved away from the looking glass.” (p. 570)

12. The Wolf Hunt

“Wolf hunting with Borzois” by Evgenii Tikhmenev

“The angry borzois whined, and getting free of the leash rushed past the horses’ feet at the wolf. The wolf paused, turned its heavy forehead towards the dogs awkwardly, like a man suffering from the quinsy, and still slightly swaying from side to side, gave a couple of leaps and with a swish of its tail disappeared into the skirt of the wood.”  (page 533-534)

13. Alpatych Goes to Smolensk

“Road in the Rye” by Grigory Myasoedova

“‘Women, women! Women’s fuss!’ muttered Alpatych to himself and started on his journey, looking round at the fields of yellow rye and the still green, thickly growing oats, and at other quite black fields just being ploughed a second time.

“As he went along he looked with pleasure at the year’s splendid crop of corn, scrutinized the strips of rye-field which here and there were already being reaped, made his calculations as to the sowing and the harvest, and asked himself whether he had not forgotten any of the prince’s orders.” (p.744)

14. The Battle of Borodino

Detail from Franz Roubad’s panoramic painting of the Battle of Borodino (unveiled 1911)

“Over the whole field, previously so gaily beautiful with the glitter of bayonets and cloudlets of smoke in the morning sun, there now spread a mist of damp and smoke and a strange acid smell of saltpetre and blood. Clouds gathered, and drops of rain began to fall on the dead and wounded, on the frightened, exhausted, and hesitating men, as if to say: ‘Enough, men! Enough! Cease…Come to your senses! What are you doing?'” (p.878)

15. The French Army Loots Moscow

Scene from the Borodin Panorama Museum

“There were masses of wealth and there seemed no end to it. All around the quarters occupied by the French were other regions still unexplored and unoccupied where, they thought, yet greater riches might be found. And Moscow engulfed the army every deeper and deeper. When water is spilt on dry ground both the dry ground and the water disappear and mud results; and in the same way the entry of the famished army into the rich and deserted city resulted in fires and looting and the destruction of both the army and the wealthy city.” (p.963)

16. Moscow Burns

Fire of Moscow from 15-18 September” by A. Smirnov

“Deserted Moscow had to burn as inevitably as a heap of shavings has to burn on which sparks continually fall for several days. A town built of wood where scarcely a day passes without conflagrations when the house-owners are in residence and a police force is present, cannot help burning when its inhabitants have left it and it is occupied by soldiers who smoke pipes, make camp-fires of the Senate chairs in the Senate Square and cook themselves meals twice a day.” (p.963)

17. Execution of a Workman

“The Shooting of Moscow Arsonists by the French” (1898) by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin

“Probably a word of command was given and was followed by the reports of eight muskets; but try as he would Pierre could not afterwards remember having heard the slightest sound of the shots. He only saw how the workman suddenly sank down on the cords that held him, how blood showed itself in two places, how the ropes slackened under the weight of the hanging body, and how the workman sat down, his head hanging unnaturally and one leg bent under him.” (p. 1041)

18. Andrei is mortally wounded

In the Garden of Gethsemane” (1869) by Nikoai Ge

“He remembered that he had now a new source of happiness and that this happiness had something to do with the Gospels. That was why he asked for a copy of them. The uncomfortable position in which they had put him and turned him over, again confused his thoughts, and when he came to himself a third time it was in the complete stillness of the night. Everybody near him was sleeping. A cricket chirped from across the passage; someone was shouting and singing in the street; cockroaches rustled on the table, on the icons, and on the walls, and a big fly flopped at the head of his bed and around the candle beside him, the wick of which was charred and had shaped itself like a mushroom.” (p.987)

19. The Retreat

Retreat from Moscow” (1854) by Franciszek Kostrzewski

“And the cavalry, with spurs and sabres urging on horses that could scarcely move, trotted with much effort to the column presented to them–that is to say, to a crowd of Frenchmen stark with cold, frost-bitten and starving–and the column that had been presented to them threw down its arms and surrendered, as it had long been anxious to do.” (p.1166)

20. Napoleon

“Napoleon Bonaparte Abdicated at Fontainebleau” (1845), by Paul Delaroche

“‘C’est grand!’ say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil, but only ‘grand‘ and ‘not grand‘. Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand is the characteristic, in their conception, of some special animals called ‘heroes’. And Napoleon escaping home in a warm fur coat and leaving to perish those who were not merely his comrades but were (in his opinion) men he had brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is tranquil.” (p.1152)

History, Modern, Nonfiction, UK

The DeLorean in Dunmurry

I’ve been wondering about the DeLorean for a couple of months because this space-aged car of stainless steel played a big (albeit brief) part in the recent history of Belfast. Several locals have mentioned it as important to the city’s psyche, part wound and part triumph.

Ron Cobb’s design for the movie car, a DeLorean converted into a time machine.

When Ron Cobb died last week, it seemed like a good time to investigate. Cobb had a hand in making many of the movies I loved growing up: Sleeping Beauty, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Alien, Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian. A self-taught designer, he also drew cartoons and designed the ecology flag.  Judging by headlines to his obituaries, though, he is perhaps most famous for converting a DeLorean into a time-machine in Back to the Future.

The story of the DeLorean starts with an extremely charismatic figure in the American auto industry, John Z. DeLorean (1925-2005). In the early 1970’s, Delorean was on his way to becoming a top executive at General Motors. At 40 he’d already become their youngest division head and was known (among other things) for creating one of the most popular muscle cars of the time, the Pontiac Gran Turismo Omologato. He was also responsible for the new look Pontiac Gran Prix and the Chevrolet Vega. Thanks to his snazzy dressing, longish hair, beautiful wives and jet-setting ways, he gained a reputation for being a corporate maverick. As The New York Times put it in 1984:

“As the golden boy of General Motors, he wore long sideburns that violated the company’s unwritten dress code, chided his superiors, and , at the second of his three marriages, had as his best man the president of the Ford Motor Company at that time. He loved race cars, sculpted, owned a tenth of the San Diego Chargers, played a jazz saxophone and survived on four hours of sleep a night.”

John DeLorean and his wife of the time Cristine Ferrare

For some reason, he left General Motors in 1973, soon after being promoted. His story was that he couldn’t imagine spending the rest of his working life in a rather stultifying atmosphere. On the other hand, some of the people in the company didn’t much like him so perhaps he was invited to leave. For whatever reason, he decided to go solo and formed the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC).

In 1974, DeLorean and DMC’s Chief Engineer Bill Collins went to the Turin Auto Show to scout designers. In the end, they went with Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro . The design they chose, the famous gull-winged, sharp-nosed sports car, was heavily based on the Tapiro, a 1970 concept car Giugiario had designed for Porsche.

The Tapiro

Receiving business loans from the Bank of America, from forming partnerships and seed capital from various celebrity friends, DeLorean looked around for somewhere to base his new company. Hoping for lucrative government investments, he searched the world for unlikely but promising places. Eventually he settled on Northern Ireland. The British Government, at that time a Labour Government led by James Callaghan, was keen to reduce violence in Northern Ireland (then in the throes of The Troubles) by reducing unemployment. They offered to pay $120 million of the company’s $200 million startup costs.  

Callaghan

In 1978, construction of the new factory began in The Cutts, an area between Republican Twinbrook and Unionist Dunmurry. The workforce would be drawn equally from both communities—each one having a separate gate. This area of West Belfast had the highest levels of unemployment in Europe at that time—about 50% of men were out of work. In fact, many of them had never worked at all. What’s more, violence was a constant fear. In 1978, the year the factory started being built, a PIRA bomb at Le Mons restaurant killed 11 civilians and an RUC officer and wounded thirty more. Kidnappings, shootings, bombs and riots were a depressing fact of life.

In his book The DeLorean Story: The Car, The People, The Scandal, Nick Sutton describes the excitement and hopefulness of local people for the project:

“In late 1978, in a magnificent splash of Technicolor and glamour, John DeLorean came to Belfast, complete with his entourage. The scene could have been lifted from a Hollywood blockbuster, his glamorous wife Cristina the leading lady. The main player in the drama was, of course, the magnificent stainless steel gull wing sports car, then just a photograph and a couple of prototypes. Most important of all was the pocketful of money John DeLorean had been given by the UK government to spend in the area. This had not gone unnoticed by the locals; the British government had finally done something sensible.

“Who could ask for more? The dream had landed. Everyone was going to work.

“And for a wonderful few years, they did.”

There is a some touching video footage from that time that shows DeLorean and the crew showcasing the first few cars for the benefit of the press and for the families of the workers. The excitement and pride among people interviewed is palpable. And DeLorean, who was 6’4, looms among them like a kindly giant, persuasive with his air of quiet confidence:

Reporter: Your super car, of course, is going to be a super dream for a lot of people who live in West Belfast. They really are placing an awful lot of hope in the DeLorean car, aren’t they?

DeLorean: Well I think it’s mutual. I think originally we came up here we were just businessmen doing a business deal. Now all of us have become so infected with the absolute mandatory requirement that this project be successful, that we’re really more interested in making it successful from the standpoint of the people than we are from any personal standpoint. And by God it’s going to be successful.

But it wasn’t.

Assembly lines only started in early 1981 after delays and budget overruns. There were some quality control issues that were costly to fix and the Delorean didn’t reach the consumer market until January 1981. By that time, the new car market had slumped due to the 1980 economic recession. The car itself attracted lukewarm reviews and by February 1982, more than half of the 7,000 DeLoreans produced remained unsold. DMC was US$175 million in debt and the Dunmurry factory was placed in receivership.

Margaret Thatcher and Colin Chapman, founder of Lotus cars, who was involved in developing the DeLorean

Margaret Thatcher, who’d been elected in 1979, had never been very impressed with the large government investment in DMC. Official files show that she was reluctant to provide the company with loans. In this television interview, DeLorean says that Thatcher’s government refused to honor a contract he’d drawn up previously with Callaghan’s government:

“We started the project under Roy Mason, who was the Secretary of State under the Labour government. When the Conservatives were elected, they decided not to honor the contract signed by Labour.… we never got the last part of the contract, which was 93 million under the working-capital clause and that put us out of business.”

Belfast workers with one of their cars

 

In 1981, the company failed to break even and in January 1982 the company was in dire straits. DeLorean lobbied the British government for aid but was refused unless he could find a matching amount from other investors. What happened next is something quite odd. As DeLorean went about seeking new investors, he became the target of an FBI sting operation in which federal agents and informants posed as bankers and wealthy investors. On October 19, an informant picked up at LAX, drove him to a hotel room and presented him with a suitcase full of cocaine before federal agents burst in on him and arrested him on charges of drug trafficking. That same day, the British government shut down the Dunmurry factor.

On October 2 1982, Ronald Reagan announced a bold new plan to combat drug abuse and trafficking.

After a long trial, a federal jury found him not guilty because of clear evidence that the government was trying to entrap him. Two years later, he was charged with fraud and tax evasion but also judged not guilty. Although the British government was convinced that he had embezzled millions of British taxpayer money for his personal use, they never got around to extraditing him. However, as Nick Sutton says, “In an act of unbelievable spite the UK sequestrated ₤990,000 from what they described as ‘surplus’ from the DeLorean Motor Cars Ltd pension for Belfast employees.”  

There are a couple of recent films about DeLorean. One is called Framing John Delorean  (2019) and the other is Driven (2018) starring Jason Sudeikis and Judy Greer and written by a Bangor-county native named Colin Bateman.

Alec Baldwin stars in Framing John DeLorean

As fascinating as DeLorean’s character is, though, as Nick Sutton says, “The losers in this saga….were not John DeLorean, who was declared bankrupt in 1999, or the management team, many of whom found other jobs. It was the 2,500 employees at Dunmurry. Many of them never worked again.”

Barrie Willis, who was director of purchasing at the Dunmurry plant, believes that there should be a museum or interactive center built in the city, similar to the one built for Titanic Belfast.

“The ship and the car were both failures but they were both glorious failures.

A cluster of doomed DeLoreans outside the Titanic Belfast