Monday, November 28, 2016

Hero or tyrant? The truth might be in between

As the evening wore on, and my friend’s mother became more emotional, I noticed the tears well up in her eyes.

She came over and hugged me. She said she wished we could stay the night, but that was impossible.

The Communist Party official down the road would already be suspicious about the taxi which had arrived a good four hours ago.                                                    
Maybe Fidel knew when it was time to go

He’d probably be wondering why two Irish guys had pulled up in a taxi so far out from the centre of town, in this nondescript street of all streets at this particular time.  
There would be too much trouble, she said. It was probably time to go.

It had been a beautiful, emotional evening. Her beloved son had become a good friend of mine back in Galway and it had been amazing to bring her a fist-full of dollars and some good news about her grandchildren so far from home.

We had hired a trusted taxi-driver to take us to the far-off suburb, because our Spanish was not strong enough for us to undertake a four hour conversation.

Plus, she needed to be careful. I had secured the driver’s number before I even left Ireland.

Her son’s name had been blackened in Cuba.

He had jumped off a plane at Shannon, while on a flight to Moscow, in order to build a new life for his young family. We were the first visitors from Galway, his new home, in the five years since he was granted political asylum. No wonder she hugged us so intently, that she didn’t want to let us go.

Later in the trip, I visited the museum which featured a photo of her late husband, a war hero at the Bay of Pigs. He had died so young, defending his beloved Cuba, in the aborted and ill-fated US invasion which followed the revolution in 1959.

It was 1999, 40 years after the revolution. I both loved Cuba and felt profoundly saddened by the experience of visiting this wonderful island nation, full of dancers, merriment, and laughter in the Caribbean sun.

I’m not at all an expert, but there were clearly good and bad points about the Government at the time.

"Two island nations in the same sea
of struggle and hope" - O'Reilly St
It’s impossible to generalise about a country after just a few weeks of travelling around, but my overwhelming feeling at the end of the trip was that most Cubans felt stifled – they wanted an escape or a whole new way of life for their country.

And yet they respected how their Government had stood up to the might and hostility of Uncle Sam.

In O’Reilly Street, in the heart of Old Havana, we delighted in discovering the plaque which commemorated how our two island people swam in the same sea of struggle and hope. The plaque was put up a few years earlier by a trade union activist from Galway.

What a wonderful plaque to stand under before downing a few rums in the nearby bar which used to be frequented by Ernest Hemingway.

Cuba was a fascinating place in 1999. It was clear that the people were extremely well educated and the health service was one of the best in the world.

But we kept getting upset by the little inconveniences which seemed to make life such a struggle for ordinary people.

Such as Paula, fluent in five languages, who worked at the telephone exchange. Introduced to us by a mutual friend from Mayo, she was a wonderful guide during our time in the capital city.

She brought us to her home, where we were struck by the poverty, but also the generosity and friendliness of her family. We were also struck by how much admiration her father, and the older generation in general, had for Fidel Castro and the revolution.

People of his generation remembered life before Castro and they used to argue like mad that life under Fidel was so much better than under the old Batista regime, when Cuba just seemed to be a playground for rich Americans.

On the night of Paula’s birthday, in old Havana, we offered to take her out to enjoy a night of traditional Cuban music. Paula’s night was ruined, and I could see the pain in her eyes, when she was pulled up by a policeman and accused of prostitution.

Hanging out with foreigners was frowned upon and, when I protested that she was our interpreter and friend, I was escorted politely and firmly across the road. She received a sanction just for walking down the street with two Irish guys.

A few months later, she received another sanction for hanging out with my sister and a gang of Irish girls. The harsh reprimand by the policeman left her in tears. Paula’s only dream was to escape the island, and she achieved that when she managed to make it to the USA some years later.

I remember the ‘dollar’ shops being full of supplies, while there was next to nothing in the Cuban stores.

The local currency seemed worthless and, quite a few times, we met teachers and academics who wanted to become taxi-drivers – because they’d have more access to dollars.
A beautiful beach near Trinidad, Cuba, in 1999

In Santiago, in the south, I remember a frenzied attack in a dark, crowded nightclub by people who considered us to be loaded just because we were foreigners and had enough money to travel. Compared to all the local clubbers, we were rich and privileged.

So it was easy to see why people condemned Cuba as a Communist dictatorship, where freedom of speech was frowned upon, in the 1990s.

But I was also struck by the fact that the extreme poverty so evident in other Latin American countries was not evident on the streets of Havana, Trinidad, Santa Clara, or Santiago. The glaring inequality I’d later see in places like the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, or Panama simply didn’t exist here.

There was great joy, too. A night out in a bar could become a wonderful celebration of music and the Cubans taught us Irish lads how to party. The live music was out of this world.

They might not have been free to travel, but they seemed to have great knowledge about the wider world and were very enlightening to talk to once they gained your confidence away from prying eyes on the streets.

But the oppression was stifling, too. Residents of Havana used to refer to policemen as “Palestinos”, because they came from rural provinces and therefore were a people without a home.

It was impossible for a local to travel from one end of the country to another without a special permit, which meant that we were far too aware of our own privilege as white foreigners touring their beautiful island by taxi and train.

I felt like a cheat when somebody showed me how to convert my dollars into pesos, enabling us to take advantage of even lower prices than the ‘normal’ tourists.

In Trinidad, it was disconcerting to be propositioned by beautiful young girls who were desperate for dollars. We could fool ourselves that they were interested in our Irish charms, but there was a palpable desperation for hard currency at that time.

Cubans loved rum, sex, and music but, while Americans were banned from travelling, we noted a thriving ‘sex tourism’ industry among Canadian men who had flown over for some winter sun.

This was just after the ‘special period’ when the collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba vulnerable and impoverished.

A political mural in Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel's Funeral
is set to take place.
The US embargo was 40 years old at this stage and it was clear to us that it was having a huge negative impact on ordinary people, most of whom remained defiant in the face of US imperialism.

Florida, of course, was only 90 miles up the coast and the island was under intense scrutiny and pressure from the US Government at the time.

From speaking to ordinary people, it was clear that Fidel Castro was no hero to the younger generation. That status was reserved for Che Guevara, who wasn’t given the chance to grow old when he was executed by a US-backed death squad in Bolivia.

And yet we admired Fidel’s strength of character and resilience in the face of such hostility from his giant neighbour. A lot of people loved him, even if many of the younger ones could see no future on the island.

So this morning, listening to Senator Ronan Mullen, on the radio I was pretty sickened to hear the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, being condemned for sending condolences upon the death of Fidel Castro.

Let’s not forget that most of the hardship endured by the Cuban people was as a result of the US economic embargo.

Or that the biggest prison camp on the island, at Guantanamo Bay, was in a militarized zone controlled and run by the Americans.

Or that the CIA made over 600 attempts to murder a leader who had a huge popular mandate when he first came to power.

Amazing how the people who are so concerned about human rights in Cuba now had nothing to say when prisoners were being renditioned illegally through Shannon Airport for internment without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

Will the newspapers who screamed “Death of a tyrant” this weekend use the same language when George W. Bush and Tony Blair eventually depart this planet?

Because those two leaders caused far more hardship, and took far more innocent lives, than the man who led Cuba in the midst of such hostility for so many years.

My own personal – and extremely limited – experience of life under Fidel Castro was profoundly sad and yet it was clear that members of the older generation, in particular, had huge admiration for their leader.

Fidel was neither a demon nor a hero. The truth, of course, was somewhere in between.

But I don’t need to hear an Irish Senator, who has no real mandate from the people, tell me that the President of my own country has no right to mourn the passing of a man who stood up to US imperialism for almost 60 years.

Because of him, the crass consumerism so evident across poor Caribbean holiday destinations does not exist yet in Cuba.

The island has a rich cultural history and is all the better for the absence of McDonald's and Burger King on every street corner.

Without the US-led embargo, life would have been so much more tolerable for the wonderful people we met back in 1999.

In the wake of the Apple Tax fiasco and the use of Shannon Airport as a ‘warport’, perhaps he could even teach our leaders a thing or two about how a small island nation can stand up for itself when faced with a global superpower.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland.

Follow Ciaran on Twitter,

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The biggest challenge facing us all

A friend of mine sent me a link to a feature-length documentary over the
Of all the contentious issues President-elect Trump stands for,
climate change denial might be the most troubling of them all
weekend and, after watching it last night, I have to confess I’m shocked that I hadn’t heard more about it or engaged in more of a debate about its contents.

Perhaps it got lost in the furore over the election of Donald Trump, the concerns over his racism, his xenophobia, his sexism, and how he pandered to hatreds and fears; because the whole world was in shock for days or weeks, the film didn’t get the attention it deserved.

But, given that this has been the hottest year on record, it was probably the most important film released anywhere across the world in 2016.

The stark message behind ‘Before The Flood’ concerns man’s propensity for self-destruction. UN Ambassador and Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio takes a harrowing look at how climate change is set to render the planet uninhabitable for our children and grandchildren.

What an awful legacy that would be from a species which has already caused the extinction of many species and decimated ecosystems across the planet over a couple of hundred years.

The film, produced by National Geographic, has been released free of charge in order to raise awareness and yet, because of the hysteria over Trump’s election, it didn’t get anything like the attention it deserved.

Here in Ireland, we love to talk about the weather. We can have four seasons in one day. But climate change . . . that’s another issue. It’s such a massive threat to all our futures, such a huge issue, that few of us want to sit down and talk about reducing our carbon footprints or eliminating our use of fossil-fuels.

We can see the effects of climate change every day. Our winters are colder – ironically, an impact of climate change in this particular part of the world – and we no longer seem to enjoy the hot and sunny summers which were at least an occasional part of life a few years ago.

Most of us drive to work and school, and then wonder why we are stuck in traffic jams. We burn coal, oil, and wood to increase CO2 emissions and we have seen a huge increase in extreme weather patterns, including flooding, over the past half-decade.

People laughed at Teresa Mannion’s almost hysterical RTE report from Salthill this time last year, but the reality is we never used to have such extreme weather patterns before.

One of the most striking things about ‘Before The Flood’ was the way in which scientists who warned about climate change were consistently ridiculed by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News.

Because of the fossil-fuel industries, there is a consistent campaign to denigrate those who raise concerns about global warming.
Teresa Mannion's memorable weather report for RTE last year

Trump ridiculed the same scientists during the US Presidential Election campaign and, now that he’s about to take power, he poses a real danger to the entire future of the planet.

The environment? Who cares! He’s going to restore jobs in the places where coal plants closed down and people are in despair. Climate change? A myth. There’s even a clip in the film which shows Trump complaining about the cold on the campaign trail.

“It’s supposed to be 70 degrees today, it’s freezing. Where is global warming?” laughs Trump, ignorantly making a mockery of the scientists who believe human behaviour poses a threat to the future of the planet.

Is climate change real? Of course it is. It’s evident in the unprecedented flooding in places like South Galway in recent years, where nothing like this ever happened before.

It’s evident in Asian cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Bangkok, where merely breathing in the city air can cause damage to your lungs.

The polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate

It’s evident in Greenland, where hundreds of cubic kilometres of ice no longer exist – they have fallen into the sea, where rising levels will eventually threaten places like Galway, Cork, or Miami.

It’s evident at coral reefs all across the planet. Ask any experienced scuba diver and they will tell you that the reefs are dying at an alarming rate. In the last 30 years, 50% of all coral has been lost. To suggest this is not due to human behaviour is simply absurd.

A friend of mine who worked at a dive centre in Asia for more than ten years says it’s too upsetting for him to return to familiar old dive sites, because so much healthy coral has disappeared.

The future of the entire scuba diving industry on the beautiful Thai island where I worked as a divemaster six years ago is now under threat because of plans to build a coal plant nearby on the mainland.

Tourism on Koh Lanta would be unthinkable without the dive industry which draws people back every year.                                                                              
An underwater protest against the proposed
coal plant for Krabi, Thailand

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the most spectacular places on earth, will not be around in a decade or two because of human behaviour.

There is no doubt that there are other major issues we need to deal with – homelessness, joblessness, inequality, and a deficient health service among them here in Ireland – but climate change is surely the biggest issue facing us all.

So what do we do?

We allow huge companies with an interest in fossil-fuels to spread misinformation because it suits their agenda not to pass legislation which could deal with the problem.

We elect a man who doesn’t believe in global warming to the highest office in the world because he says he will create more jobs and “make America great again”.

We drive to work or school, when it would be just as easy to walk or cycle, or jet off to holiday destinations for a week because flying is no longer a luxury for ordinary people.

We burn fossil-fuels in huge plants, to such an extent that horrible smog is now a normal part of life in some cities and people have to wear face masks every time they go outside.

There are no easy solutions, and change has to start at a micro level, but what’s really frightening is the way in which people like Trump and Fox News presenters can dismiss alarming scientific evidence so readily.

Already, before he has even taken office, Trump has announced that all climate change research conducted by NASA will be eliminated, because he wants to crackdown on “politicized science”.

At the moment, NASAs network of satellites provide a huge wealth of information about global warning.

Trump seems to suggest that scientists who are concerned about the sustainability of our planet have a political agenda, as though the corporations which rely on fossil-fuels for profits do not.
How many unjust wars have we seen being fought over oil?

And how many people have stood up and cried ‘halt’ when rainforests across the planet were being destroyed?

There is long-established evidence that burning fossil fuels and cutting down the rainforests causes the release of heat-trapping gases, raising temperatures across the planet.

Pollution is a huge problem in cities across the globe
The US has been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in history and now developing nations like India feel they have the right to catch up . . . they want electricity, heat, and all the trappings of 21st century life which those of us who live in Europe or North America already enjoy.

Trump’s election has clearly posed a threat to Muslims, illegal immigrants, Mexicans, and women in the US.

But, given he once said that climate change was a “hoax”, it could have a terrible impact on every living create across the globe. There has never been a bigger threat to the future of life as we know it.

How ironic that the man who railed against lobbyists and corporate interest groups during the US election campaign could speed up the destruction of the entire planet because he’s willing to pander to those very same lobbyists and interest groups.

It’s a scary time for us all.

Check out the feature-length documentary from National Geographic and the UN,

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. 

Find Ciaran on Twitter, @ciarantierney

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Cockroaches? How easy it is to forget

If UK newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins had been a New York socialite in the 1840s, she might have referred to the Irish as ‘cockroaches’.

Imagine the sight of them, thousands upon thousands arriving at Ellis Island on the ‘coffin ships’, many of them without a word of English or a dime to begin their new lives in the new world.

About 100 ships full of impoverished, desperate people left my home city, Galway, over a three year period between 1847 and 1850.

Most of the passengers were ill-equipped for the long Atlantic crossing or the massive changes they could expect when they completed the voyage.                            
Katie Hopkins: refers to migrants as 'cockroaches',
brought to Ireland to defend Trump's racist views

But they had little choice, they were escaping the Great Famine. It didn’t matter that the British Empire had driven them to starvation or that they were escaping gross injustice – they were seen almost as the dregs of humanity by some people in New York City at the time.

As they poured into Irish ghettoes such as Hell’s Kitchen and Woodlawn, they didn’t care too much about what the ‘natives’ – all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants themselves – thought of them.

They were just glad to have survived.

They were the equivalent of Syrians and Iraqis today; escaping war, poverty, and famine to fulfil the very human need of finding some sort of a decent life for themselves and their children.

The problem with calling people ‘cockroaches’ – as the UK columnist did so offensively earlier this year – is that they then become dehumanised.

It’s easier to hate people when you don’t see them as human beings any more. It's easier to justify attacking them on buses or trains, because people who do so are emboldened by "celebrity" racists like Hopkins.

It doesn’t matter that Ms Hopkins’ own country, the UK, has played a huge part in the misery which engulfed those same migrants.

The Famine Memorial Park in Galway
It’s fine for her British Army heroes to bomb civilians to smithereens in cities and towns thousands of miles from home, but not for those civilians – fleeing in terror – to turn up on makeshift boats crying out for help on our shores.

When Celia Griffin, a little six year old girl from Connemara, died of starvation in 1847 there were thousands of people all across Ireland desperately trying to put the money together to set sail for the Americas.

Many of them died on the ‘coffin ships’ before they got to the other side as they didn’t have enough food for the voyage.

Just like the Syrian and Iraqi migrants today,

Irish people would have given their last dollar to traffickers in the hope of finding a new life – and some hope – at the end of a distressing boat journey.

In Galway, it took us a century and a half to erect a memorial to Celia - and all the Great Famine victims - because nobody wanted a reminder of such a distressing time in our history.

It was left to the late Mark Kennedy, who passed away last month, to remind us that we should never forget this harrowing period in our shared history.

In London at that time, the equivalents of Ms Hopkins had a great time mocking the starving Irish in their ‘witty’ cartoons.

In 2016, according to Ms Hopkins, migrants who flee war and persecution don't matter.

"Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches," she wrote in April. "They might look a bit "Bob Geldof's Ethiopia circa 1984", but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors."

And, according to national broadcaster RTE, there is nothing wrong with giving a platform to a person with vile, racist views on national television on a Friday night.

Hence, the decision to invite her onto the flagging ‘Late Late Show’ last weekend.

It didn’t matter that the invitation led to a flood of complaints in advance, or that her appalling views were going to be challenged. Presumably, what really mattered was that the increased ratings brought about by the controversy boosted the profile of a jaded show. She got people talking.                                                  
US President-elect Donald Trump: people are now trying
to justify some of his racist comments during the campaign

But does it matter?

Does it matter that the people Ms Hopkins referred to as ‘cockroaches’ are fleeing war and terror which her own country, the UK, is partially responsible for?

Of course it matters.

She was flown into Dublin from London to justify the racist views of a man who has just been elected President of the United States.

All week, people have been attempting to justify the indefensible from Donald Trump.

They have been wildly back-tracking and looking for glimmers of hope after an extraordinary campaign built on ignorance, hatred, and fear.

Is it wrong that the leader of a nation which was built on immigration can refer to Mexicans as rapists? What, all 122 million of them?

It’s wrong that illegal immigration is blamed for the troubles of a nation which has yet to face up to all the suffering it has caused to Native Americans. The United States of America were built on stolen land and the slave trade.

It’s incredible that the views of a man who boasted about groping and abusing women, because his wealth and fame allowed him to do so, can be defended so virulently by anyone.

Or that the national broadcaster would give a licence to someone who boasts of having racist views to do so.

It’s frightening that such a man can call from all Muslims to be banned from his country. There are 1.6 billion Muslims all across the planet and most of them, just like the rest of us, are trying to get on with happy, peaceful lives.

People seem to have forgotten already that this kind of abhorrent language was used to describe Jewish people in 1930s Germany.

It’s frightening that a man who can mock the disabled in front of millions of television viewers can be considered a suitable candidate for ‘leader of the free world’.

It’s scary that, in a nation which has a huge problem with gun crime, Trump is completely opposed to gun control.

It’s even more frightening that Donald Trump can dismiss the threat of climate change, surely the biggest issue facing humanity in 2016.

There is no doubt that Trump tapped into huge levels of anger towards the political establishment in America. That’s understandable.

What’s not understandable is how someone who can dehumanise so many people (Mexicans, women, Muslims, the disabled) can have racist or bigoted views uncontested.

Cartoonist Richard Chapman sums up Europe and America's
current attitude to migrants fleeing wars and persecution.
It was shameful that RTE chose last week, of all weeks, to invite a woman who sees no problem with describing human beings as ‘cockroaches’ onto its main weekend chat show.

Who cares about bad taste, spreading hatred, or fear-mongering? As long as the ratings are up, the national broadcaster seems happy to allow someone spread ignorance and racial intolerance.

Do we really learn from the past?

It’s a good job there wasn’t a ‘Late Late Show’ – or a Katie Hopkins – when Celia Griffin was dying of starvation in 1847.

Because imagine how horrified Irish people would have been if someone described a little six year old girl who died at the side of a road as nothing more than a cockroach.

Why not hire a ghost blogger?

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

If only the red poppy honoured all lost lives

In the cold, eerie courtyard where each of the 1916 rebel leaders was killed at dawn by a British Army firing squad, our excellent tour guide Ben spoke with clear emotion in his voice this week as he told us about the execution of James Connolly.

At the end of our wonderful, hour-long tour of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin’s western suburbs, where so many Irish rebels had been held, he pointed to the lonely cross which marks the spot where Connolly had faced the British soldiers for the final time.

Standing in Kilmainham Gaol, where 14 of the Easter Rising
leaders were held before being executed at dawn
Our guide told us that Connolly, due to the extent of the injuries he sustained in the ill-fated rising, was unable to walk to the courtyard.

The Scottish-born son of Irish emigrants was carried from a hospital bed and tied to a chair before facing his executioners.            

A doctor said that he probably only had a day or two to live, before Connolly had his last rites administered and a final visit by his grief-stricken wife.

"I will say a prayer for all men who do their duty according to their lights,” he said, when asked to pray for the British Army soldiers who were about to execute him.

Although our guide must lead dozens of tours of the historic prison each week, he was clearly moved by the stories of the men and women who gave up their lives for Irish freedom throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As word began to filter out, news of the executions of 14 rebel leaders at Kilmainham caused uproar across Ireland and Irish-America in 1916 – and even some controversy in Britain, then in the midst of the First World War. 

The rebels, previously seen as traitors by many Irish families who had sons fighting for the British Army in Europe at that time, became martyrs for Irish freedom. The surge in support for independence as a result of their deaths changed the course of Irish history.

There has been a surge in interest in Ireland’s troubled history in recent months as a result of the 1916 centenary.

Standing in that prison courtyard this week, where all of the guided tours have been sold out due to the Halloween holidays, it was hard to imagine that any Irish person would be asked to wear a poppy to honor the British Army troops who shot the rebel leaders one-by-one.

Footballer James McClean is criticised every year for
refusing to wear a poppy to commemorate British soldiers
It is ridiculous to think that professional soccer player James McClean, who grew up in the Bogside in Derry, manages to attract controversy every year because of his unwillingness to wear the ubiquitous poppy to honor British troops on his club football jersey.

The British Army shot 14 innocent civilians dead in the neighbourhood where he grew up in January 1972 and, presumably, McClean feels that he would be letting his own community down if he wore the poppy to honour the army dead.

He chose to play for the Republic of Ireland, rather than Northern Ireland, because of the political turmoil and sectarianism his community experienced during ‘The Troubles’. 

Families in the Creggan and the Bogside spent almost 40 years campaigning for justice for their loved-ones, until they finally received an apology from then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2010.

In their particular communities, the notion of honouring the British Army dead still seems absurd.

"People say I am being disrespectful but don’t ask why I choose not to wear it,” said McClean this week. "If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I'd wear it without a problem.

"I would wear it every day of the year if that was the thing but it doesn't, it stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in. Because of the history where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that."

The English Premier League is now one of the most cosmopolitan soccer competitions in the world. Yet there is outrage on social media if players from Argentina, Colombia, Ireland, or wherever, decide not to wear a poppy to remember people who died in a war which took place a century ago.

Until relatively recently, the wearing of the poppy on Remembrance Day (November 11) used to be optional.

Now it’s impossible to switch on a chat show or current affairs programme on British TV for a period of about a month without noticing that every single presenter and guest seems to be obliged to wear one.

This year, we have a new scandal because FIFA – world football’s governing body – is preventing players from England and Scotland from wearing the poppy during a World Cup qualifier in London on November 11.

The cross marks the spot in the yard where James Connolly,
tied to a chair, was executed by a British Army firing squad
FIFA prohibit the use of political, religious or commercial messages on team shirts and FIFA’S ban has been called “utterly outrageous” by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. 

On Friday, FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against the Irish football body, the FAI, for including a 1916 anniversary logo on the Republic of Ireland team’s jerseys for a ‘friendly’ against Switzerland back in March.

FIFA were accused of double standards after being alerted to the Irish jerseys by a disgruntled British Member of Parliament, Damian Collins.

Time was when the whole point of Remembrance Day was to honor the British Army servicemen and women who died in World War One in quiet contemplation.

Now any public figure, such as McClean, who dares not to wear a poppy can expect abuse from the British tabloids and vilification by fans on social media. 

If you are a member of the large Muslim, Irish, or Asian communities in Britain, these can be an uncomfortable few weeks.

A presenter or guest on TV really sticks out if he or she dares not to wear a poppy for Rememberance Day. The poppies seem to be everywhere, on the trains, the buses, in the parks, at places of work. 

If you don’t wear the poppy, you risk standing out from the crowd at work and even being a target for abuse now that racists seem to be emboldened by the Brexit vote in the UK.

But, if you do, can an Irish person really be comfortable in honoring the people who died on just one side in World War One?

Especially now while their sacrifice is still being used by political leaders to justify current wars involving the British Army, in far-off lands. 

The poppy has become a British nationalist symbol, rather than a way of remembering so many ordinary people who lost their lives in a terrible war.

If people really want to honor their war dead, they should provide better support for veterans instead of forcing the likes of the Royal British Legion to write begging letters to support “our boys” who were injured in battles in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. 

The US and UK continue to maim and kill civilians in Syria
and Iraq a century on from the horrors of World War One
They should ask why the British Army continues to occupy, bomb children, or start new wars in countries so far from home a century after the horrors of World War One.

Not engage in bickering over whether James McClean, or the English and Scottish teams, should wear the poppy, as all the bickering shows how far Poppy Day has drifted away from its original meaning.

If Rememberance Day involved honouring those who died in all wars, and trying to stop future wars from occurring, then people would have no issue about supporting it by wearing the red poppies on both sides of the Irish Sea.

But if the poppy only honors the members of a colonial army, who caused so much suffering in so many lands, then no wonder its symbolism remains clouded in controversy.  

All of the bickering only shows that the red poppy has been hijacked by British nationalists over the past few years, to the extent that many people feel very uncomfortable about wearing it.

Instead of the red poppy, it is possible to wear a white poppy to remember ALL victims of war:

A shorter version of this blog post was published as an opinion piece by Irish Central on Monday:

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Lessons learned from a local legend

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The Buzzcocks played a storming set at the Roisin Dubh on Thursday night. The place was packed, it was great to see a full house for a visit by veteran punk rockers to a Galway venue, and there was a real sense of nostalgia in the air.

But there was one face missing from the crowd. I kept glancing over to the top corner, to the left side of the stage, where I expected to see a man in a trademark hat, festooned in badges, wearing a trench coat, bopping around. He always seemed to be in that corner for a gig like this, immersing himself in the music, seemingly without a care in the world.
On top of the world: Mark Kennedy
climbing Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo
When you met Mark Kennedy at a punk or metal concert in the Roisin Dubh or Sally Long’s, he would never cease to inspire.

He showed people much younger than him that it’s possible to have a great time without alcohol and that you should never feel too old to lose yourself for an hour in punk, ska, or metal mayhem.

For me, Mark – who passed away last week – was an admirable figure. He was cranky and cantankerous, but he got things done, enjoyed a good laugh, and had a heart of gold.

I used to think I was one of the oldest rockers in Galway when I’d join the wonderful lunacy at a concert by the likes of Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar and then I’d see Mark, 30 years my senior, going absolutely mental over in the corner to their guitar-driven fury.

If ever a man disproved the theory that Irish people tend to become boring or conservative or lose their sense of adventure once they pass 40, it was the late Mark Kennedy.
He taught me (and many others) some really valuable lessons for life.

Here are just a few of them . . .

You can turn your life around: When I first met Mark, he was homeless and drinking every day on the streets of Galway. He used to bed down for the night in shop doorways or down behind the railway station and his situation was all the more tragic because I knew he had a family and an amazing story to tell.

Not many Galwaymen earned a living writing for the stars in Hollywood in the 1960s and not many Hollywood writers would have survived a few winters on the streets in my wet and windy native city.

I had managed to secure a job as a reporter on the local ‘paper in 1992 and regularly met Mark and his colleague, Niall Rivers, as they made a documentary in which they chronicled how the homeless were being marginalised in favour of big business in our native city. They called the video ‘Clear the Streets’.

They weren’t the most professional film-makers, but they highlighted a side of Galway which never made it into the tourist brochures. They gave voices to people who were seen as nothing more than an inconvenience by the ‘powers that be’ in the city.

Homelessness in Galway, November 2016
Mark and Niall were before their time in recognising how ordinary people were of little importance compared to profit in the minds of many businesses and those who ran local government at the time.

After five years of living on the streets, Mark was a wreck. And then, one night, he had an epiphany. Finding himself alone next to St Nicholas’ Cathedral, he put down a bottle of tonic wine and swore he would never drink again.

He completely turned his life around, becoming a campaigner for the elderly, the homeless, and emigrants in Ireland.

In an interview with me last year, he recalled putting down his final bottle of Buckfast at Church Lane in 1992, the horrible depression which followed over the next two years; and the slow process of putting his life back together, and finding a home.

“I never made the mistake of isolating myself. I knew I had to get up and go out and walk and meet people. Be around people. It’s the kindness and goodness of people who, even if you have lost faith in yourself, they haven’t lost faith in you,” he said.

For those of us lucky enough to know Mark in more recent years – and the demons he had dealt with in the 1990s – it was uplifting to see how comfortable and happy he was in his Renmore home. He used to thank God every day that he had a lovely, warm home.

“The little kindnesses you get from people more than make up for sleeping in a doorway and shivering your nuts off and ending up in the hospital,” he told me. “Killing yourself with drink is not actually an adequate response to a hypocritical society.”

You can rage against the machine: Why lose your sense of idealism just because you get older? If you protest against injustice when you are 17, why shouldn’t you when you are 70?

Mark shared my sense of anger at the injustice and inequality which is at the heart of Irish society. Instead of trying to kill himself with booze, he grew old brilliantly – fighting for the right of pensioners to serve on juries, highlighting the appalling level of homelessness in Galway, and getting a reluctant city to build a fitting memorial to those who lost their lives in the Great Famine.

When Mark found out that people aged over 65 were not allowed to serve on juries, he had the balls to ask why and to start a nationwide campaign. When old people marched for greater recognition across the country in 2008, it was fitting that Mark was one of the leading lights for campaign group Age Action.

He loved black humour, too, such as when one of the “ould stock” – as he used to refer to older Galwegians – gave him a right good telling off after being disgusted by a call-up for jury duty. The old fellow told Mark he should have left well enough alone.

If anything, the homelessness situation in Ireland in 2016 is far worse than when he made ‘Clear The Streets’ in 1992.

Mark and Niall Rivers predicted the bank ‘bailout’, the logical conclusion of a capitalist system in which ordinary people became mere fodder for a tiny elite. Once he sobered up, and got a decent place to live, Mark became a force for good in his native city. He has left a lasting legacy in the form of the wonderful Celia Griffin Memorial Park, which opened in 2012.

Celia, a six year old girl from the Claddagh, died in the Great Famine. Many Galway people would prefer to forget this awful period in their county’s history, but Mark shone a light on issues others just wanted to ignore.

He reminded us that so many people from our region set sail for the Americas in the ‘Coffin Ships’ in the 1840s, when they barely had enough money for the passage to America and knew they’d never be able to come home.

He knew all about the pain of forced emigration, because he had been an emigrant himself when Galway offered no opportunities to a young man from working-class Bohermore in the 1950s. On his travels in the UK and USA, he met many impoverished Irish people who had been scarred by their childhoods back home.

The Celia Griffin Memorial Park in Salthill:
Mark's wonderful legacy to his native city
Why should you act your age? In Galway, people tend to become very sensible once they pass a certain age. If you loved heavy metal as a youngster, you are supposed to eventually learn to sit at home and leave all the fun of a live gig to the young ones. Not Mark Kennedy, though.

He didn’t care too much about what anyone thought of him. If he wanted to go to a punk or a metal gig, he didn’t care if he was the oldest person in the pub or club. His love of metal in particular meant that he had a wonderful circle of younger friends from attending gigs at venues such as Sally Long’s and the Roisin Dubh.

Sometimes we can forget that life is for living. Mark, who conquered the demon drink after five years on the streets of Galway, showed us how you can never be too old to have a good time. He also showed it’s possible to go out and have fun without alcohol, which can seem almost impossible in Ireland at times.

He loved gathering friends around him and his birthday became a wonderful annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, the holiest (and most spiritual) place in the West of Ireland, over the past nine years.
If Mark could touch the sky from the top of the mountain until he was well into his 70s, he appreciated the pilgrimage all the more because he had reached rock bottom at a different stage in his life.

“I had five winters on the streets of Galway. I knew that if I had another winter I was dead. There was no question about it, but I came to see that, in a way, I had to be in a place where I had nothing left to lose.”

May he Rest in Peace.

Reaching the stars at the holiest place in the West of Ireland

Thanks to William Geraghty of Galway Video News for filming my interview with the late Mark Kennedy.

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