Best of 2018

Here’s a list of some of the stuff I saw, did, heard, read – and a few of the places I ate and drank – in 2018 that I really enjoyed. As ever, it’s not necessarily the case that these things were produced, made, opened or published this year, it’s just when I got around to them.

Without a doubt, my album of 2018 was Shape of Silence by the amazing duo Saint SisterI was lucky enough to hear them live supporting Hozier in Oslo only a few weeks ago at an absolutely barn-storming gig. Saying that though, my gig of the year was Lankum when they played Riksscenen, the main venue in Oslo for folk music. The set was powerful, charming, and raucous good fun. The encore of “Fall down Billy O’Shea” was top class.

In terms of books, some of the best books I read were Christine Murray’s bind – probably the best book of poetry I picked up all year, in fact. Sally Rooney’s Normal People, her second novel was a stunningly good read and I absolutely flew through it. I also finally got around to reading Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Other books that had an impact on me this year were Mendoza and Peter Manson’s Windsuckers & Onsetters: SONNOTS for Griffithsfrom Materials; STEDET / DETTE by Gunnar Berge, published by House of Foundation; The English translation of Kjersti Skomsvold’s Monstermenneske, Monsterhuman, published by Dalkey Archives Press as part of their Norwegian Literature Series; Mathias Enard’s novel ZONE from Fitzcarraldo Editions was another standout and I finally got around to reading Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams from Verso.

At the Munch Museum this year, I really enjoyed the exhibition Mellom Klokken og Sengen (Between the Clock and the Bed). It was great especially to see Munch’s representation of The Death of Marat especially.

Places I enjoyed going to for coffee and other things in Oslo definitely include Galgen, San Francisco Bread Bowl, Egget Kafe and also Skippergata 22.

 

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Books (and other things) of 2017

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A piece by Mainie Jellett, one of the artist’s featured in a retrospective of Irish female modernists, held earlier this year at Greyfriar’s Gallery, Waterford.

There’s still a good three weeks left in the year I know, but I’ve decided to put up my list of my books for the year and one or two other things that I enjoyed in 2017. As with previous years, not everything I read this year came out this year. Any way, for what its’s worth here’s my choices for good books and other things from the past twelve months (in no particular order):

Fastness – Trevor Joyce

Joyce’s new book is a modern rendering of Edmund Spenser’s Mutability cantos.

Ghosts – Sean Bonney

A new pamphlet from MATERIALS, it will rattle around in your head for days on end.

A Line Made By Walking – Sara Baume

A brilliant second novel from the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

Autumn – Karl Ove Knausgård

The English translation of Knausgård’s first in his latest cycle of books – ostensibly a series of letters and explanations to his unborn daughter, the subject matter is wide ranging and unusual.

Essayism – Brian Dillon

An essay on the essay, but there’s nothing lazy or predictable about this brilliant short book.

Games without Frontiers – Joe Kennedy

The best book you’ll read on football and what it means now. A short, sharp book, it says a lot of what needs to be said about the state of the modern game and how engage with it.

Word by Word – Kory Stamper

A brilliant memoir of life working at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and a love affair with words and their meanings. An homage to the power of reading and its emancipatory power.

Sillion– Johnny Flynn

A superb album of folky stompers. On an album full of highlights particular highlight is Flynn’s Yeats-inspired ‘Wandering Aengus’, and ‘Tarp in the Prop’ and ‘In Your Pockets.’

Swims – Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

A single poem made of many poems, in which the author swims in rivers, lakes and the coasts of Britain – mixing memory, history, and ecopolitics and poetics.

Hode ved Hode – Cronqvist, Bjørlo, Munch @ Munch Museet, Oslo

Two contemporary artists place their work next to their favourite pieces – the results are intriguing and sometimes unsettling.

Between The Earth & Sky – Lankum

The second album from the Dublin band formerly known as Lynched, highlights include ‘The Granite Gaze’ and their slow version of ‘The Turkish Reveille’.

King of the Vikings – Waterford, Ireland

A brilliant interactive engagement with Waterford and Ireland’s Viking history in the heart of Waterford’s Viking Triangle. Did it earlier this year with my family and we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Beyond the Stars: The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky – Musee d’Orsay, Paris

A superb and wide ranging exhibition of paintings which was mounted earlier this year. I was lucky enough to be in Paris on a weekend break when this was on.

‘Maine, Evie, Mary and Grace’: Women Who Led the Modernist Movement in Irish Art – Greyfriars Gallery, Waterford

This exhibition ran until the end of September in Waterford’s Municipal art gallery and was a fantastic retrospective showing the power of women in Modernist art in Ireland.

 

 

 

The Wrestler: the disposable bodies and lives of athletes

As a young boy and teenager, I loved Friday night. It meant WWF (later, and now WWE) Raw on Sky Sports. Popcorn and Coke. Two and a bit hours, sometimes three, of bigger-than-life characters, crazy fights and crazier storylines. Heels, faces, turns. It was an entire world unto itself and I loved every second of it for years. I had wrestling actions figures, even had the SmackDown! ring as a toy. I bought the wrestling magazines. The videos. Got my parents to pay for the pay-per-view events, set the VCR to record in the middle of the night to have it watch later in the week.

My favourite wrestling characters were The Undertaker (although I was terrified of him as a child, I loved his transformation into the American Badass), The Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Jake The Snake Roberts, and Mick Foley in his many and varied guises. I remember viscerally hating Chris Jericho, Triple H and a host of others. I watched so much wrestling as a kid, I remember figuring out that the guy who used to go by The 1-2-3 Kid became X-Pac. It was a first clue to the gap between the wrestlers and the characters they assumed.

Professional wrestling taught me a lot about what it means to play a role, a character, about the extremes of personality. It also taught me that commentary tables were very shoddily made. It taught me a little bit about breaking the fourth wall before I ever even knew there was such an idea. One of the watershed moments for any wrestling fan of my generation I think must have been the death of Bret Hart’s brother Owen, during a botched stunt during a live pay-per-view event in 1999. I remember the buzz in the playground at primary school that week. I can remember conversations about whether it too was real or fake. It was of course, all too real. Wrestling, for all that it was fake, we learned, still needed real people and real bodies to perform and their performances were physical, athletic, and demanding.

Beyondthemat
1999 documentary that looked at life outside the ring.

What brought home the reality of wrestling to me most  though was the documentary Beyond the Mat, released in 1999. Following Terry Funk, Mick Foley and Jake The Snake Roberts in particular, the film, though far from perfect was at the time eye-opening for an 11-year old. It showed what a deeply unglamorous business wrestling could be for the majority of practitioners. It also showed that while fame, and fleeting fortune, could be part of the professional wrestling game, for many it was a worklife with no seeming end in sight.

 

 

 

 

 

2008_Mickey-Rourke-workout-300x199
Mickey Rourke in a scene from 2008 film The Wrestler.

I was reminded of all these things over the weekend when, amidst Olympics fatigue, I finally sat down to watch the 2008 film that revived Mickey Rourke’s acting career: The Wrestler. Although the character took a deal of inspiration from Mick Foley, his story parallels moreso that of Terry Funk in Beyond the Mat since Rourke’s character The Ram is in his early 50s and despite a beat-up body, apparently unable to retire – neither wanting to give up the fading reflected glory of his own past nor being financially able.

A deeply sad film in many ways, it is also a moving account of the way in which sporting glory can fade quickly. Perhaps the most depressing scene is that in the American Legion hall where there is a near empty meet and greet with fellow ex-professional wrestlers, many carrying injuries which might seem more appropriate to war veterans.

The Will Smith-starring Concussion, released last year, tells the story of Dr Bennet Omalu and his fight against America’s National Football League in their attempts to suppress his research on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brain degeneration suffered by professional football players. The film opens with the death in 2002 of Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster, whose life after playing was plagued by physical and mental health problems lived out of his pick-up truck. In many ways, it is a real-life example of what The Wrestler explores.

Criticizing this aspect of our professional sporting culture is not so new, in the movies or via other media. In the past, however, it was the lives of boxers which tended to be examined most closely. Films like recent efforts from Cinderella Man or The Fighter and classics like Raging Bull ask us many questions about the impact of sport and violence on people’s lives and the lives of those around them. Songs like Bob Dylan’s Who Killed Davey Moore? or Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer do much the same.  Books like War, Baby: The Glamour of Violence which tells the story of the Nigel Benn and Gerald McClelland fight which left McClelland all but brain dead, and Allyson Pollock’s Tackling Rugby which presents strong arguments for understanding rugby injuries endured at school as a public health issue, all add to the growing body of work that shows that after the career ends, and after the money dries up, and the fame and glory fade, sport can leave behind in its wake discarded and damaged bodies and minds.

One of the interesting developments I remember when watching professional wrestling was the emergence of mixed martial arts  (MMA) fighters first like Ken Shamrock – who came to professional wrestling after a successful career with UFC  – and later Brock Lesnar who would swing back and forth between the two worlds. Although there is still huge money in professional boxing, MMA is increasingly popular, with UFC the biggest promotion with Forbes reporting a profit of close to $158 million. World Wrestling Entertainment (as the WWF is now known), had a profit last year of $24.14 million. While the WWE now apparently helps any former employees fighting substance addiction, the UFC is increasingly under fire for where it leaves its fighters in retirement, with the Chris Leben story in 2014 being a perfect example of this. While a certain amount of the themes are dealt with in the 2011 film Warrior starring Tom Hardy, this film is a far cry from The Wrestler but it seems that in the coming years it will be UFC fighters who are the focus of filmmakers who want to understand the lure of the limelight and the violence of sport.

 

Reading History: Crosstown Traffic

As I continue this series of posts on books that have been important in shaping me as a historian, writer and, frankly, a person, and I was scanning my shelves to consider what to write on next, I happened on my extremely battered copy of Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop. Originally publishd in 1989, my edition was published in 2001. I’ve read few books as many times – attested to by the fact that it is split completely in half down the spine, yellowed, dog-eared, blood-splotched in places and generally in dreadful condition. It remains, many years after first reading one of the best books on music that I own. Continue reading “Reading History: Crosstown Traffic”

Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford

In popular representations of Irish culture, few things are more celebrated, while all at once, shrouded in mystery than our death rituals. Between removals, wakes, masses and burials, there is scope for rich tradition and variation in seeing off our dead. Famously of course, the Irish wake has taken on something of a life of its own, immortalised in song and story, from Finnegan’s Wake to Johnny Jump Up, two songs where the life-giving properties of whiskey are extolled in raucous fashion. Continue reading “Death, Dying and Drink in early twentieth century Waterford”

Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940

Cormac Ó’Gráda’s book Jewish Ireland in the Age of Joyce, was a ground-breaking work for looking at religious and ethnic minorities in Ireland historically. I recently heard Ó’Gráda speaking as part of the UCC Historical Society’s History Week. Ó’Gráda spoke about the potential of the 1901 and 1911 census, especially in relation to the study of minorities in Irish life from that period. With that in mind, and following on from some tentative work which I had done for my PhD thesis, I’ve decided to sketch a portrait of Waterford’s Jewish community from the end of nineteenth century up to the beginning of the Second World War. Continue reading “Jewish Waterford, 1893-1940”

Intermission: Musicians on Strike in Dublin, 1921-1925

Infinite Variety: Post-Independence Leisure

Following Irish independence and the end of civil war hostilities, leisure pursuits in Ireland experienced unprecedented growth. The Football Association of the Irish Free State and the new Free State League following the split from the Belfast-centred Irish Football Association (IFA) would form a cornerstone of popular working-class leisure, particularly in Dublin, where the first new league season saw all eight teams coming from the capital. Over the course of the 1920s, these Dublin clubs would be joined by Athlone, Fordson FC formed by workers the Ford marina plant in Cork and by 1930, Waterford FC. Many of the staple sides of the League in that era were from the factories of Dublin including Jacobs and St. James’ Gate. Dalymount Park was then the home of Irish soccer, and the game was in such rude health that as well as the Freemans Journal Saturday supplement, Sport, for a few brief years at least, a soccer-only newspaper, the Football Sports Weekly came out. As well as clicking through the turnstiles at Dalymount and elsewhere, you could find your favourite footballers in the back of cigarette packets, as cigarette cards with sporting heroes were reproduced for the Irish market. Better again, you could relive glorious goals and near misses watching, for a couple of pence, the newsreels before the main feature.[i]

If soccer wasn’t your thing, Shelbourne Park hosted from 1927 onwards greyhound racing as well as soccer. The sport, which began in the United States, soon found its way to the United Kingdom, with a track at Belle Vue Park opening in Manchester in 1926. Only a year later, the first greyhound races, with the electric hare whirring around the track, began at Belfast’s Celtic Park and followed quickly in Dublin. If you fancied a flutter but hadn’t the price of a special train to the races, or the price of admission, you could walk your way down to the newly opened licensed betting shops and lay a half crown on a horse, and if your luck was out there, there was always the hospital sweepstakes.

The development of this infinite variety of entertainments, argue Kevin and Emer Rockett, were part of the process that led to the development of cinema, but were also part of creating entertainment venues that could be controlled, unlike the unruly fairs and pattern festivals of the eighteenth century and earlier, such as the notorious Donnybrook; this was a process similar to that which drove the modernisation of sport.[ii] While the legitimate theatre developed in the late nineteenth century for Ireland’s emerging middle class, working-class people had their own theatre: music hall and vaudeville, described by Kevin and Emer Rockett as “a form of entertainment that emerged from an altogether more basic source: the pub or public house.”[iii] Of course, the music halls and similar venues frequented by working-class people often used the forms available in these theatres to poke fun at their social superiors.[iv]

The music halls, argues Christina Herr, occupy an important place in the work of James Joyce in his rendering of Dublin in Ulysses, particularly in the “Circe” episode of the novel, reflecting the importance of the music halls in the Dublin of Joyce’s time for working-class people.[v] Cinema in the 1920s in Dublin would occupy a similarly important place. Kevin and Emer Rockett write that the appeal of the cinema, not unlike the music halls was “of a shared communal space, which was characterized in the first instance as pleasure-giving rather than being as part of, or governed by, the instrumental rational order of capitalism, the state, or the church.”[vi] This demand for the cinema was all a result of greater purchasing power of unskilled workers, the regulation of opening hours for the cinemas, particularly on a Sunday – the most important day for adult attendance at the cinema, and a boom in the building of cinema spaces.[vii] Such was the demand and interest in the cinema in post-independence, that hundreds of people were employed in the sector. These hundreds worked as ushers, projectionists and did other work in the cinemas, along with hundreds more musicians who, solo or together as orchestras, provided the soundtracks to the newsreels, cartoons and feature films watched by people in their thousands.

The theatres and cinemas in Dublin had a body called the Theatre and Cinema Association (TCA), an employers’ organisation, who set wages and conditions for staff. Most of the cinema and theatre workers were part of the ITGWU – ushers, bar attendants, and projectionists, although there was also a cinema operators union. The musicians who provided the sound in the silent film era had a union too, a union unafraid to speak up on behalf of their members. Amid the troubles of the war of independence in 1921, for instance, a minor dispute between the Musicians’ Union and the TCA over employment conditions saw the musicians threaten a stoppage of play which resulted in representatives of both bodies meeting at the Theatre Royal, a meeting that ended amicably.[viii] Close to twelve months later, a dispute between staff and management at the Theatre Royal that involved the TCA, ITGWU and the Musicians’ Union was resolved by a settlement, in talks held by the government’s Department of Labour.[ix] These disputes were relatively minor by comparison with what happened in 1923, when a draft proposal by the TCA was rejected by ballot of the cinema workers who were members of the ITGWU.

The draft proposal asked that the employees take a wage reduction of between 12.5 and 15%. As a result, the management of the city’s cinemas, theatres and music halls threatened that they would lock-out the workers. This decision to reject the ballot and the possibility of a lock-out meant that the musicians, who played and earned their living through the same theatres, would also lose out on work and pay. As the Irish Times noted what this meant in real terms was a reduction in pay of 2s 6d for women cleaners in the theatres, as well as wage reductions, apparently depending on the standing of the theatre, for bar attendants, checkers, ushers and stage workers. For cinema workers it meant reduced pay as well rolling back on ‘certain rights peculiar to the trade, which had become established by custom’ which had been recognised in the previous agreement.[x] When matters came to a head on June 17 1923, the Sunday Independent ran a story with the headline “No Plays No Pictures” and quoted a manager of one of the theatres as saying “we are locking up tonight and taking keys from staff. There will be no performance here, nor in any other theatre in Dublin, on Monday night, and we don’t know when we are opening again.”[xi]

A 1923 newspaper report on the lock-out of part-time workers in cinemas and theatres.
A 1923 newspaper report on the lock-out of part-time workers in cinemas and theatres.

FJ 1923

According to a member of Dublin Corporation interviewed in the same article, it was estimated that some 25,000 people went through the doors of the various theatres, cinemas and music halls a night on average. The lock-out was expected to have a knock-on effect for everyone from the restaurant trade to printers and bill posters. The Freemans Journal meanwhile was reporting that the management were firm on the issue writing that one manager said ‘with great determination’ that “my house will remain closed until the staff returns to work on the terms already laid down. We are quite prepared for a long period of idleness.” The same report, reproducing figures the same as those in the Sunday Indpendent, reckoned it affected roughly 250 theatre employees.[xii] The closures would last roughly a fortnight, when an agreement between the workers and the management was reached at a conference held in the Mansion House by Alderman A. Byrne.[xiii] The settlement of this dispute seems to have satisfied the workers in the cinemas, theatres and music halls for a period at least, although the difficulties experienced by the ever-growing and ever-popular entertainments industry wouldn’t have to wait too long before trouble reared its head once again.

The Main Event: The 1925 Lockout

It was 1925 which proved to be a watershed year in the rumbling disputes between cinema and theatre workers and musicians on one side and their management on the other. This time the dispute was being led by the musicians, rather than the other staff. According to a report in the Irish Times the Musicians’ Union demanded a new agreement for wages and conditions, which it was felt, had the potential to lead to a serious dispute. The musicians demanded a pay increase of 25% along with double-time pay for all Bank holidays, and a fortnight’s paid holiday. It also sought the right to refuse playing on Sundays, Good Fridays and Christmas, unless the show was open by permission of the authorities, and in which case they demanded double-time for playing.[xiv] In June, the Irish Independent ran a piece on the demands of the musicians with the headline “Grave Theatre Crisis”.

The Irish Independent describes the seemingly inevitable dispute as a "grave crisis"
The Irish Independent describes the seemingly inevitable dispute as a “grave crisis”

According to one theatre manager interviewed for the article, musicians in the theatre orchestras of Dublin had big wages during the day and could not claim to have a living wage. By July, with no apparent agreement reached on these new terms looked for by the musicians, the newspaper was reporting that the musicians were “out” and the TCA were offering to engage musicians on the old terms if they were willing to take that pay in order, the management insisted to prevent inconvenience to the public.[xv] The same day that saw this story run, there was an ad placed elsewhere in the Irish Times by the musicians’ union’s secretary HJ Leeming. Leeming’s ad sought to rectify that a 25% increase in salary had not in fact been asked for, but rather an increase by that degree in minimum rates of pay and that the management use union-only musicians instead of hiring foreign musicians. It also insists that the situation was the fault of the TCA, since they jumped the gun by locking out the musicians before there was a conciliation board arranged by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce.[xvi]

The Irish Independent is certain this will be a long, drawn-out affair
The Irish Independent was certain this would be a long, drawn-out affair

The employers, for their part, we busily engaged in hiring non-union musicians and it was ‘anticipated that the managers would have no difficulty in getting full orchestras after a short time.’[xvii] Likewise the Irish Independent ran a story with the headline “Amusement as Usual” assuring readers that the shows would go on. [xviii]Some 250 or so musicians were involved in the dispute, and after the first week, the picketing of the musicians appeared to have had little impact as managers reported that their business had been unimpaired and the improvised orchestras were described as “working satisfactorily”. One band who were engaged from England to play the Theatre Royal, the Frank E Lubin’s band, returned by night mail boat when they learned of the dispute. The band’s leader explained that as members of a similar union in England they didn’t wish to cross the picket line. According to the newspaper report, AT Cullen, President of the musicians’ union, thanked Lubin’s band for “their manly action.”[xix] In another show of support, the Irish Dance Bands’ Association agreed to co-operate with the musicians’ struggle in the cinemas and theatres. There was almost no popular support for the dispute it seems, or very little. People continued to attend the cinemas and theatres.

As the month of July wore on, and positions became entrenched there seemed less and less hope of a conciliation board being arranged for a discussion of terms. One theatre manager interviewed by the Irish Independent felt that many of the musicians had no grievance and felt that the terms of the old agreement, given the apparent depressed state of the economy was a fair one.[xx] Indeed for that newspaper, the musicians strike was just one among many in what it called the “city of strikes”, before detailing the “latest menace” of hotel and catering workers about to begin a dispute with the Hotel, Restaurant and Caterers’ Association.[xxi] Pickets outside of the theatres continued, and marches through the street by a band of fifty took place, while they also played at the East Pier in Kingstown and another band played a garden party at Shankill.[xxii] HJ Leeming continued to write to the Irish Times insisting that the dispute had been misrepresented generally in the press, insisting that this was not a strike action but a lockout by employers, and that they were willing and waiting to engage with the management to work out a deal at a conciliation board but they had not yet heard from either the secretary of the department in government or from the managements’ association.[xxiii] The strike would last right into August, with the Irish Times reporting its collapse in the middle of the month, and the comprehensive defeat of the musicians in their hopes of improved pay, conditions and use of union musicians.

A few years after the 1925 lockout, as the talkies made their way to Dublin, some in the Irish press were sceptical, quoting great silent film star Charlie Chaplin as saying “I can say anything I want to say by a gesture”; the intermission imposed by Dublin’s unionised cinema musicians was itself a gesture that said loudly as any of Chaplin’s movements, fair wages, good working conditions and the right to union membership while at work were worth fighting for.


[i] See the appendices of Chambers, Ciara, Ireland in the Newsreels, Dublin: Irish Academic Press 2011 for a fairly comprehensive list of newsreels produced about Ireland and to get some sense of how much of this material was sport related

[ii] Rockett, Kevin and Rockett, Emer, Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows in Ireland, 1786-1909, Dublin: Four Courts Press 2011, pp. 169-216; On the suppression of Donnybrook see Ó’Maitiú, Séamas, The Humours of Donnybrook: Dublin’s Famous Fair and its Suppression,  Dublin: Irish Academic Press 1995

[iii] Rockett and Rockett, Magic Lantern, Panorama and Moving Picture Shows, p. 205

[iv] See Selenick, Laurence, “Politics as Entertainment: Victorian Music Hall Songs”, Victorian Studies, Vol. 19 No. 2 December 1975, pp. 149-180. For some good general reading on music hall see also Bratton, JS (ed.), Music Hall: Performance & Style, Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1986 and Bailey, Peter (ed.), Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, Milton Keynes: Open University Press 1986; Vicinus, Martha, The Industrial Muse: A Study of nineteenth century working-class literature, London: Croom Helm 1974 and most recently Maloney, Paul, Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850-1914, Manchester: Manchester University Press 2003. Little is written on music halls in Ireland except for Watters, Eugene, and Murtagh, Matthew, Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall, 1879-97, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan 1975 and McDowell, Jim, Beyond the Footlights: A History of Belfast Music Halls and Early Theatre, Dublin: The History Press Ireland 2007

[v] Herr, Christina, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986, pp.189-221

[vi] Rockett, Kevin and Rockett, Emer, Film Exhibition and Distribution in Ireland, 1909-2010,  Dublin: Four Courts Press 2011, p.42; See also Daly, Mary, Dublin: The Deposed Capital, a Social and Economic History, 1860-1914, Cork: Cork University Press 1984

[vii] Rockett and Rockett, Film Exhibition, pp.41-47

[viii] Irish Times, 29 July 1921

[ix] Irish Times, 15 May 1922

[x] Irish Times, 6 June 1923; 12 June 1923; 28 June 1923

[xi] Sunday Independent, 17 June 1923

[xii]  Sunday Independent, 17 June 1923; Freemans Journal, 18 June 1923

[xiii] Sunday Independent, 1 July 1923

[xiv] Irish Times, 21 May 1925

[xv] Irish Times, 6 July 1925

[xvi] Irish Times, 6 July 1925

[xvii] Irish Times, 7 July 1925

[xviii] Irish Independent, 7 July 1925

[xix] Irish Times, 14 July 1925

[xx] Irish Independent, 9 July 1925

[xxi] Irish Independent, 20 July 1925; to judge by the pages of the Voice of Labour during the summer months of 1925 this other dispute centred largely on staff in the Metropole.

[xxii] Irish Times, 22 July 1925; 27 July 1925

[xxiii] Irish Times, 22 July 1925

Teddy Boy “Terrorists” & Mod Invasions: Youth sub-culture in Waterford, 1950-1985

One of the most remarkable books of Irish social history to appear in the past twelve months is Where Were You? by Garry O’Neill, a superb photographic record of youth culture and street style in our capital, Dublin, from 1950 to 2000. The various subcultures the book represents from Teddy Boys through to mods, rockers, punks and skinheads and beyond weren’t exclusively Dublin-centric developments. Although largely imports and imitations of both American and English youth subcultures, all of these were adopted by Irish teenagers and twenty-somethings, as a means of collective and individual expression of difference from their parents. These subcultures were very often also linked to violent and social criminal behaviour. Here, I’m going to take a brief look at some of those in Waterford from the 1950s to the middle of the 1980s.

The Teddy Boy, and Girl, emerged in post-war Britain, a subculture that appropriated Edwardian dress  (hence the shortening to Ted/Teddy) and subverted it through their associations with American Rock ‘n’ Roll and cemented their mythical status as troublemakers through the Blackboard Jungle and Notting Hill riots of respectively, 1956 and 1958. The style of the Teds was imported into Ireland in the same period, and caused panic akin to that in the British press.

The film in particular, so emblematic now of the Teds, was indeed popular in Waterford – being showed at regular intervals in The Coliseum (originally opened as a skating rink in 1910) cinema on Adelphi Quay from 1956-1958, but there seemed to be no desire to imitate the famed riots of their British counterparts among the youth of the south-east. One group of self-styled Teddy Boys in Waterford though in 1956 found themselves up in court for breaking and entering into various city premises and generally terrorising people on the streets; despite pleas of clemency from one of their mothers, one boy, McCarthy, was sentenced to two months in jail. The headline of the report was sensational, calling them Teddy Boy Terrorists:

teddy boys


Teddy Boys were most often referred to in Waterford in relation to more positive stories of youths – with local dignitaries and the clergy happy to be able to provide examples contrary to the behaviour of the Teddy Boys. But soon the Teddy Boys gave way to other emerging youth sub cultures in the early 1960s. Again taking their lead from their British counterparts, the mods and rockers of Ireland attracted the opprobrium of Ireland’s clerical class, as this stern warning from the Bishop of Ossory indicates:

Ossory Warning

Such fear-mongering was largely misplaced and indicative of a failure to understand that even in Ireland, now in the televisual age, would be open to much wider and disparate cultural influences, especially among the young. An article in the Munster Express of June 26, 1965 readily acknowledges this, if lamenting its impact on the fortunes of Irish language and culture by saying that ‘now we have more than Anglicisation: we now have world-wide Americanisation.” The journalist goes on to write, half-aghast, that “we hear so much about ‘Mods’ and ‘Squares’ that one cannot help wondering how certain sections of the community will be described next.” An article in the same newspaper in 1967 reporting a talk given by Frank Hall suggests that the Irish youth are becoming increasingly odd, and worse, unmanly, suggesting we institute mandatory military service in order to inculcate “general manliness and normal behaviour”, after all, he notes “there are no Beatniks or Mods in the defence forces.” But mods were such a part of Irish life by this time that Jacobs biscuits even did an ad for their Club Milk that saw bankers, mums, and Gardai, as well as too-cool-for-school mods doing the “Club Milk Kick!”

The mods gave way to various other youth subcultures in the 1970s, notably skinheads and a little later punks. There was a strong skinhead contingent in Waterford who became associated with the Waterford Football Club and who along with their Shamrock Rovers counter-parts caused serious trouble at games throughout the period:

A clipping from a Waterford FC match in 1973 that ended in a nil all draw.
A clipping from a Waterford FC match in 1973 that ended in a nil all draw poking fun at its skinhead following.

But it was in the wake of the post-punk new wave and the Mod revival led by bands like The Jam, that Waterford would see panic on the scale of the early Teddy Boy scares in the 1950s. Indeed, it was in the 1980s that what was a Mod revival for the UK, was probably the real flowering of Mod culture in Ireland, and this was strong in Dublin, Cork and Waterford especially. Tramore, the seaside town in County Waterford that we’ve seen in the past play host to motor car races, was in the early 1980s a popular rallying point for mods and scooter enthusiasts. Perhaps fearing that this would lead to an Irish version of the battle of Brighton beach, captured evocatively in the 1979 film Quadrophenia the local newspapers led with a bold headline. The Munster Express was certainly raising the alarm with this notice in June of 1983:

Mod Invasion

There appears to have been little enough to have worried about, and tellingly, the paper the following week steadfastly insisted that it was not whipping up a storm of controversy, but their ‘Invasion’ headline was based upon a reliable local Garda source. There had been a major rally in 1982, and there was certainly a crowd in 1983, but whatever the Munster Express had been expecting to happen that Whit weekend didn’t seem to!

Issue 3 of Mod revival fanzine 'Who Are You' featuring Tramore
Issue 3 of Mod revival fanzine ‘Who Are You’ featuring Tramore. Source: irishjack80s.web.com
A girl looks on at Mod revivalists in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com
A girl looks on at Mod revivalists in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com
Mod revivalists line up along the Prom in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com
Mod revivalists line up along the Prom in Tramore in 1982. Source: irishjacks80s.web.com

 

Version: Music and History

Back when I was doing my undergraduate, for my final year dissertation class I was in a group looking at aspects of Irish Diaspora history. My own project was on the impact of Irish emigration on American folk music. In particular, I was concerned with pre-Great Famine migration from Ireland to the United States – by and large this meant Ulster Protestant migration to the Appalachian region. The links between English, Scottish and Irish ballad traditions and those of the Appalachian regions are well-established, although at the time it was revelatory for my historical knowledge – the transformation of music across time and landscape was truly incredible. Ever since then, in the tutorials I give to first year students of twentieth century Irish history, I ask them in one class to examine two separate political traditions in Ireland by examining the texts of the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic; As well as that  I get them to consider representations of these opposing political viewpoints via song. Continue reading “Version: Music and History”

The Art of History

Irish poet William Wall’s recent collection Ghost Estate (2011), begins with a poem called ‘Figures of Speech’. The poem is a response to Theodor Adorno’s Prisms (1955), where Adorno wrote that ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’. To which Wall’s poem responds:

after Abu Ghraib he says

for others it was Auschwitz

what can I say

art is in the unimaginable

& nevertheless necessary…[1]

The necessity of art in troubling times is as true after Auschwitz as it is after Abu Ghraib, or during the the worldwide recession in which people and their lives are sacrificed to the demands of the market, to the ideology of austerity. If as Wall writes ‘art is in the unimaginable/& nevertheless necessary’ then where does the art of history fall? Is it too in the unimaginable? Is it that art also happens to reside in the unimaginable, but the unimaginable does not have sole claim to what constitutes art?

Opening his chapter on the place of classical music in Hitler’s Third Reich in The Rest is Noise (2009),music critic Alex Ross writes that ‘in the wake of Hitler, classical music suffered not only incalculable physical losses…but a deeper loss of moral authority’. He notes that afterwards ‘classical music acquired a sinister aura in popular culture. Hollywood, which once had made musicians the fragile heroes of prestige pieces, began to give them a sadistic mien.’ Worse, he notes ‘by the 1970s the juxtaposition of “great music” and barbarism had become a cinematic cliché…now when any self-respecting Hollywood archcriminal sets out to enslave mankind, he listens to a little classical music to get in the mood.’[2] Such damage to the popular image of classical music is one deeply lamented by Ross, a writer whose collected essays Listen to This are a paean to his attempt at synthesising his knowledge of classical music with his experience of contemporary, popular music in order that others can derive the same pleasure, and participate in both musical worlds.

Ross’ work displays a sound knowledge of why history matters – of why the affairs of state, of such big history, has such apparent consequence on the human experience – be that the experience of a Hollywood film, or as it was for those Ross recounts in Theresienstadt, for whom the experience of music was a consolation at a time when their human experience was beyond the bounds of true empathy of other humans, who had hitherto not experienced the same displacement, physical discomfort and pain of the concentration camps.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of EP Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963, the debate about what history is for – how it is to be written – indeed, who history is for, is as important now as it was then. For Thompson, of course, history and that particular history which he wrote was about one thing primarily more than any other:

                I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.[3]

Just like Ross feels about classical music, that it is accessible for everyone – it is just finding their point of access, so too for Thompson everyone deserves to be rescued from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ – everyone has a past, and everyone should have and should be able to access their history. Around the same time as these words of Thompson’s were in the bookshops, John Lukacs argues in The Future of History (2011) that a discernible appetite for history, hitherto unseen, presented itself. He notes the explosion of local historical groups, the development of the popular historical magazine since the early 1960s and the almost simultaneous shrinking of history as taught in second-level (high school and secondary school). He notes too in this period a rise in the interest in the United States in the Holocaust, something which Lukacs puts down to not just ‘curiosity about this and that in the recent past’ for him instead it indicates an ‘appetite for encountering some things and some people who were real.’[4]

Lukacs’ real people are, I feel, the same people who Thompson sought to rescue from the unformed, cruel and forgetful mess of the past. One aspect of that reality which historians engage with is people’s remnants: that which they leave behind – frequently, and for much of the past, that then consists of words, of paper of one kind or another. Lukacs makes the point when discussing the ‘re-cognition’ of history as literature that as well as the sources directly pertaining to their subject matter they ‘must read and know what to read – a knowledge and interest and, yes, an appetite that will not only enrich their minds but guide and inspire their writing.’[5] To writer Ian Sansom ‘everything that matters to us happens on paper. Without paper, we are nothing. We are born, and issued with a birth certificate. We collect more of these certificates at school, and yet another when we marry, and another when we divorce, and buy a house, and when we die.’ According to Sansom ‘we are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin. Everything we are is paper: it is the ground of activity, the partner to all our enterprises, the key to our understanding of the past. How do we know the past? Only through paper and all its records…’[6] Intriguingly, Alberto Manguel throughout his splendid meditation on the library acknowledges that were a visitor from the past to arrive on earth now he would see among other things ‘huge commercial temples in which books are sold by their thousands’, ‘libraries with readers milling about in the stacks as they have done for centuries’. Manguel notes, despite seeing ‘a host of readers: on park benches, in the subways, on buses and trams and trains, in apartments and houses, everywhere’ the visitor would be wrong to suppose ours was a literate society. Why?

According to Manguel ‘our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading – once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive – is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good.’ Manguel is certain that his hypothetical visitor would soon realise that today in our society ‘reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room.’[7] In the same chapter though Manguel writes that those things we can find in a library ‘histories, chronologies, almanacs’ each of them offer us the illusion of progress, even though, over and over again, we are given proof that there is no such thing’.[8] Here Manguel echoes Lukacs who wrote emphatically that ‘history does not repeat itself.’ More importantly, Lukacs follows this with ‘nor do the motives and conditions and purposes of historical knowledge.’[9] In this way we must recognise that the reasons why we want to reach back through time and engage with the paper versions of ourselves that Ian Sansom points to, must necessarily change, even if like Manguel suggests, at the same time, those things deposited in the library (real or imagined), give the appearance of sameness.

Tony Judt, a man whose existence in words and on paper became ever more important as his body was trapped in a collapsing version of itself, and authored his Memory Chalet, nevertheless felt it vital to state in conversation with Timothy Snyder that ‘I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory’. For Judt, ‘to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes. It could take the form of ‘theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. Such mnemonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective.’ He felt ultimately that ‘those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies…in either event they cannot substitute for history.’[10] So history as a discipline has its, very necessary, place.

Judt is sceptical of the commemoration of the Holocaust in so far as it has become the moral yardstick by which all other acts are compared – to which almost all pale, thus excusing their execution. Judt’s feelings on the difference between memory and history are echoed a little closer to home by Irish historian Tom Dunne, whose Rebellions show a deep ambivalence at a situation in which not just history but even memory are warped for political ends that are, however well-meaning, nonetheless misplaced. Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis in his lectures that eventually formed The Landscape of History (2004) feels that history as such is about gaining ‘historical consciousness’ because it is something that ‘helps us to establish human identity.’ In the end, for Gaddis at least, it is ‘part of what it means to grow up.’[11] Growing up of course, begets growing old which begets death. But if history too is about exceptions, then those who in the now-fabled phrasing are ‘not left grow old’, are those from whom learning to grow up, grow old and die is most important. That there is a right way to do so. We must reach back to those who, dead because of times passing, have also ceased to age and are entombed for us really in their paper selves that they have left behind – those records that Sansom points to in our quest to become paper. The trouble with history of course, and the writing of it, is that it necessarily depends on paper – for its construction in both senses: with no records (no paper) there could be no history and with no paper (nowhere to record and arrange the record) there could no recording of history. The form which history takes is almost by necessity a narrative one; because of the shape of our books, the form we have given to our paper, we move from one leaf to the next in our histories, expecting continuity, however artificial that fluidity is because of the imposed structure on the mass (and mess) of historical sources from which the story is drawn.

History is also, like literature and music, incomplete and open to constant and continuous revision – it is never finished, never (so far as we can see) able to finish. New sound can be struck always by an instrument, new poems written, new characters placed in new worlds in novels; Anymore than our quest, so ably described by Greg Milner in Perfecting Sound Forever, to find the best means of recording our music and lodging it has never ended while shifting from the wax cylinder to the mp3, in some sense they are all just forms of paper – a record in the most literal sense. What after all was Alan Lomax doing throughout the United States and the many other countries to which he made field trips recording sound (almost always imperfect – almost always perfectly real) but putting on the paper of music (wax discs and magnetic tapes) those people and their songs – oftentimes their songs as history – who otherwise might have been lost to the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ that so exercised Thompson.[12] So too, will the art of history never cease, there will always be those explorers of the past who will with pen and ink (or with processor and screen) continue to record in lost fields and places those whose voices remain, however thinly, somewhere in our past, asking to be let sing their song.

For philosopher Peter Singer, it was by way of his grandfather David Oppenheim’s letters that he could rescue just his grandfather and grandmothers lives from that condescending posterity – that he could recount for all the world to share in Pushing Time Away an account of his grandfathers life in Jewish Vienna that in some small way counteracts the horrors met by Oppenheim in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp whose story looms large over all that was despicable about the Third Reich. Theresienstadt, the model camp, full of artists and Europe’s middle class Jews – was paraded in front of the world for its rich cultural life and comfort – it was used as a propaganda site for the Red Cross to show how good the concentration camps were. For Peter Singer’s grandparents, it was to provide a grave, and for many more, despite the music and books, there was no ultimate consolation. Manguel tells us the story of the library in Block 31, ‘the family camp’ at Auschwitz, where all the usual rigours of library life were maintained, of which he writes ‘it is almost impossible to imagine that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life could still continue… this persistence adds to both the wonder and the horror: that in such nightmarish circumstances that men and women would still read about Hugo’s Jean Valjean and Tolstoy’s Natasha, would fill request cards and pay fines for late returns….reading and its rituals became acts of resistance.’[13]

In like fashion, Olivier Messiaen’s composition of Quatour pour la fin du temps, was a resistance of recording the time in which it was written, its context. Helped, according to Ross, by guards at Stalag VIII-A where he was a PoW, in composing the piece it was first performed at the camp on January 15, 1941 and the piece, with its strong religious tones was according to Ross an expression of Messiaen ‘responded to the mechanized insanity of the Second World War by offering up the purest, simplest sounds he could find.’[14] Messiaen’s resistance was, like the readers maintaining the rituals of the library in Auschwitz or the artists and intellectuals like Peter Singer’s grandfather in Theresienstadt, a small one, but the best one – continuing to create, continuing to refuse to be lost to history’s condescending posterity; by the simple act of staying alive and continuing the rituals of living they all demanded recording, on and through paper, by history.

Their stories, brought out in these books, ostensibly none of them really about history as such, is testament to the importance of understanding history as primarily participatory. Just like Thompson thought people were present at the making of their own history, so too were these people ensuring by engaging with a world forbidden to them, by resisting, that they would leave their marks on paper – in the form of love letters to their wives, in their prayers, and musical notation – and by transforming themselves into paper they ensured their survival, and the books which have been borne of their paper, ensuring their part and place in history, in the ultimate library, greater even than the one imagined by Borges. History no more ends than Francis Fukayama might like to think it does, nor is it necessarily the case, as John Gray notes of Fukayama’s thinking, that history is ‘a process with a built-in goal.’[15] Of Fukayama’s ‘end of history’, Judt said that the historian must be able to ‘take such such tidy nonsense and make a mess of it.’[16] It is difficult not agree with this assertion, neat readings of history such as Fukayama’s, though twenty years old now and widely discredited are still popularly considered to carry weight, why Gray termed one chapter of Black Mass ‘Utopia Enters the Mainstream’. In a Europe, and an Ireland, in which economic recession and the concept of austerity is beginning to create pain such as it is for thousands and millions of Europeans from Greece, to Spain, Portugal, Italy to Ireland, the notion that any one system, any one socio-economic political ideology is the inevitable outcome of messy historical process is at best naive, at worst a sinister and intentional misunderstanding and misreading not just of historical process but also the historian’s art – the history we write.

So where does that leave the art of history – the product of the historians labours? It is, like the best arts, a participatory art – a ritualistic, necessary artform – ultimately, it becomes a responsibility: a responsibility to participate, to create it, to write it. For Tony Judt, as well as responsibility to coherence, the historian has another responsibility; he said ‘we are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest.’[17] It has never been more important that the historian be a public figure, making messy the neat summations of others. In the words of Tom Dunne ‘the role of the historian should be to inform rather than to inspire, to be true to the sources that survive, to tell what actually happened rather than to cloud them over with dreams of what did not. State commemoration may stimulate historical inquiry, but it should not determine it.’[18] The poetic resistance to prevailing conditions offered by Irish writers like William Wall and the challenge offered to history to resist the situation where in the words of London-based poet, Sean Bonney

history is those who sit

inside their prepared vocab,

the comfortable ones,

the executioner, especially,

never utters an articulate sound,

quietly gets on with his work.[19]

is an important one. It is as important as the strains in Messiaen’s final movement of his Quatour, as the late stamps on the books in the library of Auschwitz’s ‘family camp’, as the strains of the blues collected in a church by Alan Lomax. Like all art, it is forever a resistance: to wilful ignorance, to tyranny of all kinds, to accepting that which we know to be unacceptable. For it to be otherwise would be unimaginable.


[1] William Wall, Ghost Estate, Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2011, 11

[2] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, London: Harper Perennial, 2009, 334-335

[3] EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963

[4] John Lukacs, The Future of History, London: Yale University Press, 2011, 61-69

[5] Lukacs, The Future of History, 94

[6] Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy, London: Fourth Estate, 2012, xix

[7] Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, London: Yale University Press,  2006, 223-224

[8] Manguel, The Library at Night, 232

[9] Lukacs, The Future of History, 66

[10] Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: William Heinemann, 2012, 277-278

[11] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 147

[12] For a good biography of Lomax and his mission see John Szwed, The Man Who Recorded the World, London: Random House, 2012

[13] Manguel, The Library at Night, 242

[14] Ross, The Rest is Noise, 390-391

[15] John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalypse, Religion and the Death of Utopia, London: Penguin, 2008, 105

[16] Judt with Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 270

[17] Judt with Synder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 268

[18] Tom Dunne, Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798, Dublin: TheLilliput Press, 2010

[19] Sean Bonney, The Commons, London: Openned Press 2011, 21