A Northern Irish court case has revealed Liz Truss and Boris Johnson’s labours to inflame a culture war against trans people, after the previous Conservative government had decided to treat us reasonably. The anonymous JR111, let’s call her Jennifer, applied for judicial review because the government blocked her from getting a gender recognition certificate. For example, the government has a list of specialist psychiatrists qualified to diagnose “gender identity disorder and transsexualism” for a GRC, but none of them practise medicine in Northern Ireland. Continue reading
The bird flew low over the water, and I could see bird, reflection, shadow, all together: a perfect photograph. Thank God I did not have my camera!
In the park, the paths are wide, curving between the lakes, meadowy grass and trees; but there are ten yards when the path is narrow and the trees meet overhead. Here the light changes to forest-light, a relief on a hot sunny day. I have been practising mindfulness in the park, opening my awareness to my surroundings now, seeing heaven in a leaf. Now on the narrow path as a woman approaches I stand aside, and my attention is caught by that branch, those leaves, just in front of my face. Children play in the woods to my left.
-Hello, she says.
-Hello, I say. I have been practising mindfulness here, paying attention to the birds, flowers and trees.
-I like to say ‘Hello’ to people in the park. (We are both explaining ourselves.)
We got chatting. She is interested in mindfulness. I say I am a Quaker; there are Quakers, Buddhists and Baha’i in Swanston, there were Sufis in Nupton at one point. She is a recovering Catholic, no longer a believer. We chat away for a bit, pleasantly.
-Teresa? (Surely no-one pronounces it with two syllables.)
-Treeza. Though I really like the French pronunciation, Thérèse.
She comes here a lot. I propose walking with her, so turn round to go back where I came. Later, I propose sitting on the bench, looking over the lake to the island where the birds circle. It is inscribed in memoriam: she is not sure about cremation, but she would like a bench like this, in the park. She will talk to her son.
Some time after my back is uncomfortable in the direct sunshine, I propose going on. She assents: she had been feeling her back burning a bit. She pays me some delicious compliments. “You have a beautiful rich voice and a wonderful dramatic way of expressing yourself”. I would love to be an actress, and she would have loved it too.
We discuss Northern Ireland, where she lived until she was fifty and had her breakdown. She lived in Ian Paisley’s constituency- have you heard of him? He died recently. It was not like Belfast or Armagh, but there were bombs. She did not like people radicalising.
-The Catholics were discriminated against. When I am pushed too far, my back goes up and I resist too.
I am amazed to find myself, so partisan from the sidelines during the Troubles, defending the ‘RA to a Catholic, as we walk along the causeway between two lakes. She agrees they faced discrimination, and says there is a very high incidence of PTSD in Northern Ireland.
She always wanted to be a teacher. As a small child she dressed as a nun and wrote on a blackboard, for nuns did all the teaching. The church was oppressive- she is utterly delighted by the referendum result, and hopes the North will soon have equal marriage too- but the nuns instilled in her a love of art and literature, and Seamus Heaney helped her survive. She had to bring up her son. Now she does very little but loves to walk in the park. She does not know what she will do when her grandson, now 15, goes to University.
This story has turned in my mind since. Her son booked for her to go with him, his wife and son to somewhere hot, to a self-catering place. A week before, she said she could not go: the stress was too much for her.
I would call that chaotic and passive-aggressive, and unfair to him; then my view changed. Next day with Serra the psychotherapist we smiled joyfully at each other, and said,
-She got what she wanted!
-How? says Serra, smiling:
-She asked for what she wanted!
Perhaps she had agreed to go because it was conventional fun, the kind of thing people are supposed to want. Perhaps her son should have realised that it was not right for her. She knew in her heart she did not want to go, and eventually found the strength to communicate that, far better than going and being miserable.
I will turn off here to go home, and she will walk on to where her car is parked, a little away where she does not have to pay the parking fee. We hug and bow namaste. I thought of calling this “Treeza”, but the correct title is obvious.
In Northern Ireland, it is not possible to have truth and justice. Evidence will be hidden, unless the perpetrators are sure it may not be used against them. Which do we want, and who should decide? The Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which did not answer this question, has been shut down.
Terrorists saw themselves as soldiers, defending their communities. With pervasive discrimination, even oppression, against Catholics, this is arguable. The Quaker Edward Burrough wrote in 1661, if anything be commanded of us by the present authority, which is not according to equity, justice and a good conscience towards God… we must in such cases obey God only and deny active obedience for conscience’ sake, and patiently suffer what is inflicted upon us for such our disobedience to men. The HET has not referred any cases of killings by soldiers to the Director of Public Prosecutions, because soldiers were carrying their weapons lawfully, and firing them might be lawful too if they reasonably believed that their lives or the lives of others were in danger. Sinn Féin want IRA killings treated in the same way, but use code, speaking of the hierarchy of victims rather than of killers.
State killings were covered up and excused. The Government still seeks to cover up details of cases even where state complicity in murder has been admitted. The Democratic Unionist Party, however, consider that too much pressure has been applied to “state actors” while terrorists and former terrorists refuse to be full and active participants in the process of truth recovery. From a Freedom of Information request, the HET completed 1082 reviews by victim, including assault as well as murder or attempted murder. Only 65 arrests followed, with two individuals pleading guilty, and no breakdown was given as to whether those charged were Republican or Loyalist. Evidential difficulties with prosecution years or decades later were clear when HET was set up. Relatives will not know the circumstances of a death without a direct confession, unobtainable without immunity from prosecution.
In practice, killers are as safe from punishment as they would be with immunity, but it sticks in the craw to admit that; and different groups want different murderers punished, and are unwilling to negotiate. If we admitted that there was little chance of successful prosecution, we (the people) could agree that it was better that families heard the truth about their relatives. In nine years, HET issued reports to the relatives of 2,300 casualties of the conflict. 64% were “very satisfied” and only 3% were “dissatisfied”. 3466 people died in The Troubles between 1969 and 2001.
After a damning report by HM Inspector of Constabulary, HEC was shut down in spending cuts. I would not have heard of it but for Prospect magazine.
Irish drama comes to UK TV screens, familiar yet alien, dark, twisted and tortured. It is not necessarily popular over there, as the Irish Times found “a touch of the Oirish” in Jack Taylor, clichés Ireland should leave behind. Possibly we British have less money to make our own.
Love/Hate is a gangster drama about a drug lord in Dublin and a young challenger. Life is cheap. A man fooling with a gun shoots himself: he had taken out the magazine, and did not know there was a bullet in the chamber. A woman plots a fairy-tale wedding in an expensive venue, but it is the wedding from hell as the gangsters get drunk and fight. I am reminded of The Hostage, Brendan Behan, which I saw- in Belfast, I think, could’ve been Dublin- where the young new IRA men of the 1950s are incompetent and think of killing, and the older IRA man is trying to sort things out but practical about killing if he needs to. In the end the soldier dies by accident.
Jack Taylor, a gumshoe from Galway with some sub-Chandler voiceover, had silliness about a serial killer who posed corpses in scenes from classic Irish drama, after a drama about Magdalen laundries. Three friends were tortured by a sadistic nun referred to as Lucifer. One died having been locked outside in pouring rain, made to pray the Rosary. The other two were broken, and led very different ruined lives, making a hell for their families. A woman who refers to the inmates as whores, who deserved everything that happened to them, was revealed as a former inmate herself. There was a reconciliation scene, when a son, having hated his mother, found out she had been an inmate, and they sat beside each other, silent: human beings, as close as we can be. Intensely moving.
Quirke, British-Irish co-production, starred Gabriel Byrne as the anti-hero, lacking all conviction, who appears perceptive or ignorant as the plot requires. British pretence and hypocrisy is turned up to the maximum, and the darkness underneath involves church orphan scams and child abuse. In this world a murder is the right thing to do, and a woman haemorrhaging after a botched abortion refuses treatment as she wants to die. So perhaps not perceptive or ignorant, but in denial, lost in a fog, unable to choose between harm or greater harm.
In Amber, a teenage girl goes missing in Dublin. Her father, previously a successful businessman, becomes obsessive, chasing random innocent people. Her mother, eventually, moves on, with a new relationship. We are teased in flashbacks of the girl, and shown moments from the last day her father saw her: she skives school, goes to town, takes the tram- in the end of the last episode, she walks down a country road, and disappears. There is no resolution here.
So I won’t give one either.
Though I love that photograph, taken by Gailirish and on Wikimedia. He both co-operates, with that direct gaze, and sabotages it with the hand thrust forward; she gets a shot in a vital moment; in that moment, they are in relationship.
What is that image? Caliban trudges over, sniffing suspiciously, and pokes it with a stick. That hypocrite Ariel would no doubt pretend to luxuriate in it, then fly off. What could it mean?
As a somnolent hymn to Mary rose
I felt an old pang that bags of grain
and the sloped shafts of forks and hoes
once mocked me with, at my own long virgin Fasts and thirsts, my nightly shadow feasts
Haunting the granaries of words like breasts.
I sense the old fear more clearly now than then, perhaps. Heaney is on an ancient pilgrimage route, which is reassuring: why would he want a pilgrimage if he did not respect it? Yet this simile
like an absence stationed in the swamp-fed air
above a ring of walked-down grass and rushes
where we once found the bad carcass and scrags of hair
of our dog that had disappeared weeks before
is the absence felt in the church, under the kneeling boards. I reassure myself that this absence is only in the utterly corrupt Irish Catholic “church”- or even the absence is the still point in the turning world.
What if he should convince me? And- I want to understand him, know his position, which must involve interpreting and categorising this.
A footnote explains that William Carleton converted in the early 19th century from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland- still “my lot” though I know that Erastianism is a crippling flaw in a church. “Traditore! Traditore! Traditore!” To join the church of the overlords- I judge, and sympathise. Another footnote explains lines are quoted from the Inferno, where Dante is assured of the care of Beatrice. And then we meet the murdered man. His brow was blown open above the eye and blood had dried on his neck and cheek… shites thinking they were the be-all and the end-all came to his shop in the night, banged on the door, and when he answered it shot him.
“Forgive the way I have lived indifferent-
forgive my timid, circumspect involvement,”
I surprised myself by saying. “Forgive,
my eye, he said, “all that’s above my head.”
Out into the afternoon sunshine. Will that huge mass of black cloud rain on me before I get back home? The wind is so strong I fear it will blow the wig from my head, which would matter on the bridge over the river. I nearly step on a khaki snake as it darts into the undergrowth, its fear and shock greater than mine. The profusion of blackberries is so great that I can still cherry-pick the softest and most luscious, and be satisfied.
I might forgive my sensitivity. It is almost bearable.
I had not read it, really. I may have forced myself to look at the words, one after another, hurriedly so I could lie to myself that I had, perhaps. I wrote in my diary on 7 May that I had got it: “One needs to read modern poetry, if only so as to drop names” but did not write about it again that month.
As I thought: this was Culture, and Culture is a good thing. But Heaney was an Irish Catholic, the Enemy, the Terrorists: at the absolute best deeply suspect. The book made no impression on me at all. I did not see the value in it. Unlike my battered copy of TS Eliot Collected Poems (Stephen Languish 2 8 86) it is only battered from being moved from house to house.
Around 2000, at the Community Building weekend- too soon for me after Good Friday 1998, the IRA had not decommissioned- I met Tom Deevy, also known as Christopher Condren (I have no idea why or when he used the different names) and said to him something like, You’re Irish Catholic, you’re the enemy, and yet- you’re not; and he said he felt something similar.
Celebrate that moment of openness. Celebrate the opportunity, and that I took it, and won, and recognised, that connection and that divide. I had been so chained up, how could I be otherwise; This has been so difficult! The pain of it! I am not chained like that, now. Why should these poems have any effect on this racist homophobe?
Then there was the BBC documentary. I videoed it, because, still, this is Culture, and Culture is a Good Thing. Kirsty Wark and Melvin Bragg and others talk of Heaney reverently, and there are extracts from his TV documentaries and interviews, and I half-watched part of it, while playing with my computer.
Then this morning I watched the rest of it, and saw- how beautiful he is! He was a voice against death, and- I must not be too harsh on that earlier I, but- I could not see it, because it was important that the Right Side win. I see it now. I am glad I see it now
So, Station Island. Much thicker than the average slim volume. The title poem is a long poem in twelve parts over thirty pages. The first part, of five-line stanzas, each line 4-7 syllables long, with clauses and sentences ending mid-line, seemingly randomly- these statistics are actually the best way I can give my impression of it-
It introduces three characters: Simon Sweeney, tinker and Sabbath-breaker; a crowd of shawled women; and a Narrator, split between self-as-child and self Now. Trapped in my ideas of clear, defined categories, Good and Bad, rather than Good and Good, of course I could not understand it.
At last, perhaps I will read it.
Scots was one of five dialects of English, spoken in the north, as far north as the Forth and Clyde. David I, who ruled lands as far south as Doncaster, spoke Middle Scots and invited Norman lords from England to rule Scotland, introducing the feudal system which has only been abolished this century. So I am irritated when Scotland is referred to as a Celtic country: it is more complex than that. I identify as a Northumbrian Scot, but probably have some Celtic ancestry. The Scots word for Gaelic, Erse, from Irish, has pejorative connotations.
The Fair Maid of Perth, by Walter Scott, tells of an English-speaking Perth only thirteen miles from Dunkeld, the edge of the Highlands. Gaelic-speaking despised savages threaten the town. As Scott says, Perthshire is Scotland’s most beautiful county: Blairgowrie, east of Dunkeld, lies on the line between the highlands and the flat arable lands to the south and east.
Gaelic is spoken mainly in the Hebrides- not Shetland or Orkney, which were pledged by the King of Norway as a dowry for his daughter, and whose language and ritual still show some Norse influence. But a great deal of Glasgow’s population came from the Highland Clearances, so their ancestors were Gaelic speakers. So my friend, though she and her husband spoke no Gaelic sent her son to a Gaelic-speaking nursery, and even I dabbled a bit, though I got no further than Kimmer a Hahu and Hammy Skee. A man called Domhnull told us to call him Doll: if we tried to mimic the Gaelic pronunciation we only mangled it further.
The driver of my school bus, born about 1919, learned Gaelic at his mother’s knee, but could not speak it when I knew him: it had been beaten out of him in school, where English only was to be spoken. That was a crime.
Looking at the Northern Irish Citizens Advice Bureau website, I see “ceetizens advisement buroo”. Well, in the Good Friday Agreement Irish Gaelic is an official language, so “Lallans” had to be too. Ireland was colonised in the 17th century, by Scots in the North and English in the South- so Dublin is an English city, even if it calls itself Baile Átha Cliath. I wish the Unionist negotiators had chosen a different concession. I do not know how much dialect survives there, as opposed to different pronunciation of words because of accent, and while I would use the phrase “on the broo” to mean claiming Jobseeker’s allowance, I understand the word arose because men looking at the phrase “Employment Bureau” did not know how to pronounce it.