The Irish Front – Republican Congress in London

IrishFront

 

The Irish diaspora has a long history of involvement in radical politics in Britain. Their contribution to the labour movement in the form of the Chartists, producing leading lights such as Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien; the matchmakers strike in 1888 in East London; the London dockers strike of 1889; the influence of James Connolly and Jim Larkin; and the first Labour Minister for Health in the minority government of 1924 being the Irish-born John Wheatley; is well-established. The Irish have also formed their own branches of home-grown organisations in Britain, such as the IRB, the Gaelic League, and the IRA. I have recently started a postdoc at the Irish Centre for the Histories of Labour and Class at NUI Galway which examines the impact Irish independence had on the British working-class in the period 1922-1945. Part of this explores the life and politics of the Irish working-class diaspora in Britain at the time. In the Ireland of this time, arguably one of the most important, and certainly one of the most debated radical organisations to be formed (and fall-apart) was Republican Congress.

Congress was formed as a left-wing split from the IRA in 1934. For a number of years, the left within the IRA, led by Peadar O’Donnell, Frank Ryan, and George Gilmore amongst others, had attempted to reform the organisation in a leftward direction, convinced that the gun alone would not achieve the Republic. The IRA, they believed, needed to take-up social issues, engaged alongside the workers and small farmers in their day-to-day struggles to convince them of the relevance of the fight for the Republic that would bring an improvement to their lives. The IRA had made overtures in this direction with the formation of the socialist-republican Saor Éire in 1931, but the ensuing ‘red scare’ put paid to that venture. After a number of subsequent failed attempts of reform by the left, which culminated in a vote at the 1934 Army Convention, O’Donnell and the others walked out. A conference held in Athlone, County Westmeath on the weekend of 7-8 April issued a manifesto proclaiming the creation of Republican Congress with the call ‘We believe that a Republic of a united Ireland will never be achieved except through a struggle which uproots Capitalism on its way.’[1] The momentum behind Republican Congress grew throughout the summer of 1934. Strong branches were created in Achill, Leitrim, Kilkenny, Dublin and Waterford.[2] Congress engaged in many social campaigns to improve the lives of working-class people in Ireland, such as through the creation of the Tenants Leagues to fight for improvements in housing for the slum-dwellers of Dublin. Congress held its inaugural conference at Rathmines town hall from 29-30 September 1934, where, as is well known, it split. First-hand accounts are available from George Gilmore and Patrick Byrne here and here. Despite this, Congress continued to campaign until the end of the decade, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 giving it a new lease of life.

Congress did not just organise in Ireland however, but also had a branch among the Irish diaspora in London. This included many talented individuals who would later go to fight and die in Spain such as Charlie Donnelly, Michael Kelly, and Tommy Patten. The Republican Congress in London even produced its own newspaper, Irish Front. I have been able to locate one copy of this dated 11 May 1935, Issue 5 of Vol 1, which is reproduced here. My apologies for the poor quality, it is a copy of a copy of a copy. From the issue I have found, Irish Front, although poorly-produced, provided a well-informed left analysis of Irish and British issues for the Irish diaspora. Its notices also give a tantalizing glimpse into the political activities of the Irish diaspora in Britain. The London branch of Congress would later fuse with other small organisations in 1938 to create the Connolly Association, an organisation which continues to this day and whose most famous member was the historian C. Desmond Greaves, author of a number of important works on twentieth-century Irish socialist and republican history, including The Life and Times of James Connolly (1961). Irish Front is an important publication in the history of labour and republican radicalism among the Irish in twentieth-century Britain. I appeal to anyone who may know of any other copies that are available, regardless of whether these be in a library or among your personal papers, in whatever quality, to please get in touch with me at

david DOT convery AT nuigalway DOT ie

Thank you, your help is much appreciated!

[1] George Gilmore, The Irish Republican Congress (Cork: The Cork Workers’ Club, 1978), p. 30.

[2] Patrick Byrne, The Irish Republican Congress Revisited (London: Connolly Publications Ltd, 1994), pp. 21-22.

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Oral History in Ireland: A Status Update

OHNILast weekend (12-13 Sept.) I attended the second conference of the Oral History Network of Ireland, held in Kilkenny. Founded in 2010, OHNI has held a number of events to bring together oral history practitioners and to further develop the field across the nation. One of the unique characteristics of this conference, and indeed of the network, is the encouragement of participation by those working outside third-level education. Though I did hear one complaint that it still feels dominated by academics, it is much less so than most events of this type. The workshops, sessions, and discussions over the course of two days covered a wide range of topics and themes including ethics, interviewing, communities, digital media, heritage, and history (the full programme and abstracts are available here). Lots could be said about all of these, but I will briefly touch on issues of community and access that I heard raised at multiple points during the weekend.

Rob Perks bravely gave both a workshop and a keynote address on Friday afternoon. The former, ‘Archiving oral history recordings’, drew extensively on his work as lead curator of Oral History at the British Library and summarized workflow processes and best practices. After a short break for the wine reception, Rob was back for his keynote, ‘The development of community oral history in the UK: reflecting on the issues and challenges’. It took a broad view of the discipline, beginning with nineteenth-century social investigators, dialect studies, and folklore, and moving on to George Ewart Evans and the BBC Radio Ballads in the post-Second World War period. The main part of his address focused on two waves of community oral history in the UK: the 1970s to ‘80s and from the 1990s on. The first was characterized by local activist groups and publications and through this many of the current generation of oral historians, including Rob himself, immersed themselves in the field. The second wave has been characterized by the availability of Heritage Lottery funding as well as broadening definitions of ‘community’. These trends raise questions and issues that apply beyond the UK context:

  • ‘Celebratory impulse’[1]: Who or what is the community? Asking this question involves taking risks, but is necessary to delve beneath the surface.
  • ‘Shared authority’[2]: This is definitely a laudable goal, but is it achievable?
  • Avoiding ‘one source history’: How can we compare and contrast oral testimony with other forms of primary sources and place local history in a wider context?
  • Re-use of community oral history for purposes not initially foreseen: What documentation is kept? Who has control over the sources? Who will have access?

Overall the trend in the UK has been from community oral history to oral histories of elites, whereas US work has primarily followed the opposite trajectory, but these questions can apply to all projects in different types of ‘communities’.

The issue of who or what constitutes a community also arose in the discussion at the end of the panel ‘working-class communities, trade unions, and politics’ (with presentations from Mary Muldowney, Liam Cullinane, and John Gibbons). How are communities constituted – by geographical area, by the way in which their members speak of them, or by exclusion? Oral histories of working-class communities often focus on social networks, mutual assistance, and a sense of solidarity, and while the reality of these attributes is undoubted, panel attendees also highlighted the existence of people in the same geographical proximity or industry who either chose to separate themselves or were deliberately excluded. The former case included families who felt they had dropped in social status and wanted to maintain an outward ‘respectability’, and the latter case included strikebreakers. In addition, the study of an urban working-class neighbourhood in the 1930s, for example, might include those who had since geographically or economically moved out of that community. But while these types of people should be part of the historical narrative, their experiences can prove difficult to capture, because they themselves may decline to be interviewed and others within the community may avoid mentioning or questioning these divisions.[3]

Presentations in the final panel of the conference ‘the place of oral history in the Irish heritage landscape’ addressed two main issues: funding and the place of oral history within definitions (legal and otherwise) of heritage in Ireland. The latter arguably influences the ability to gain the former. However, overall the panel seemed based on the assumptions that oral histories are collected by local community groups tied to distinct geographical areas that therefore fall under the remit of a county council heritage officer. This evidenced a general failure to acknowledge, reflect on, or respond to the broader definitions of community raised by Rob Perks and others during the course of the conference. What if an oral history project centres on a community at a national or international level? My own work extends across the Irish diaspora, so where does it fit? If funding is seen as coming primarily from local sources, this severely limits projects with a broader scope.

The final point I would like to make relates to preservation and access: one commentator at the end of the panel suggested that OHNI might ensure that individuals or groups applying for or receiving funding adhere to standards and best practices. The network also has a role to play in ensuring that policies exist for archiving and access at local and national level. In a 1997 report on oral archives historian Diarmaid Ferriter wrote that ‘haphazard, incomplete and inconsistent are the words that spring to mind concerning attitudes and practices relating to the collection and preservation of oral archival material’ in Ireland.[4] Sadly, this remains the case, as no national institution has taken on a role in collecting or disseminating oral sources equivalent to that of the British Library in the UK. OHNI lists as one of its key objectives, ‘to be actively involved in archiving initiatives by promoting best practice and long term sustainability of voice archives’, but much remains to be done in this area. I have high hopes for the future!

 

[1] Linda Shopes, ‘Oral History and the Study of Communities: Problems, Paradoxes, and Possibilities’, Journal of American History, vol.89, no.2 (Sept. 2002), pp.588-98.

[2] Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (SUNY Press, 1990).

[3] An earlier conference panel suggested some possible remedies: Ultan Cowley discussed a group who feel excluded from Ireland – Irishmen who spent their lives working as navvies in England – and the problematic relationship they have with their homeland; while the GAA Oral History Project focused primarily on those who maintained involvement in the organization, Alan Noonan tackled its darker side in examining an event in the 1950s that had a bitter and alienating effect for many local players involved.

[4] Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Oral Archives in Ireland: A Preliminary Report’, Irish Economic & Social History, vol.25 (1998), p.91.

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A Deathly Business: Thompson’s Funeral Home, 1874-1929

Last week, you may recall, I took a look at the consumption of alcohol at funerals based on the recent digitisation of records from Thompson’s funeral directors in Waterford. This week, I’ve returned to the same sources, to consider a few more things which emerge from the records, which offer all kinds of insights into the business of undertaking from the late nineteenth century and on into the twentieth.

As well as the many more straightforward entries into the books of the business over the course of almost sixty years, many other entries that form part of the digitised collection stand out.

In that period, before the motor car was common, hearses were typically pulled by horses and the records reveal something to us about these. For instance, entries in the books that run from 1874 to the early 1900s, we see that Thompson’s bought a good number of horses. In April 1892, for instance, the business bought a bay horse from a Mrs. Murphy for £20 even, while in 1893, they bought a brown horse from a Mr. Knox of Bakehouse Lane for the considerably more pricey sum of £30. [1] Horses were a vital part of the business, and had to be kept healthy. Thus in one set of records we find recipes for various ailments afflicting horses, like this one “for soars [sic] or galds on horses also Greece in heels” from 1905:

1 pennyworth of ground Alum

1 pennyworth of Sulphur

1/2 Pint of Vinegar

add a small quantity of warm water and then put in a bottle

Or this one, from the same time on worms in horses:

get some Guilea from the country

and grind it up in the oats

it will kill all the worms

There’s also a rather more involved recipe for treating mange:

6d worth tincture of iodine

3d soft soap

4d Black Sulphur

I dram Arnicker (spirits)

This is just once facet of the day to day running of the business which emerges from the books. Among the most fascinating elements of these records is that it shows that more than simply catering to the needs of individuals who were bereaved and had dead to bury, who went to Thompson’s in  a personal capacity,  Thompson’s were also involved in collecting and burying the dead from a variety of institutions including the District Lunatic Asylum (“A Silum” as it appears in some of the very earliest records), The Little Sisters of the Poor, The Poor Law Union, and Waterford’s Prison. [2]

Going through the records and seeing the many nameless in the books who belonged to institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor makes for difficult reading, but shows something of the way in which the destitute were treated in Irish society, given over to charity, the only ones who would in death, see they were buried in something approaching respectable circumstances. Over two remarkable pages, at the beginning of the books that cover the period 1910-1918, almost seventy entries of paid funerals come from the Little Sisters of the Poor. [3]

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Part of the books which show the number of burials performed on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor. Click to enlarge.

Equally distressing when you delve into the books is the number of “small coffins” or “very small coffins” which are required by various families to bury children who did not live long. In no instance was I able to find a case where the child themselves was named, but usually the entries followed the form of “for Mrs. x’s child”. Unlike the burials of adults, there was no extensive list of hearses, broughams, sidecars, or drink. These were quiet, sad, heart-rending affairs which to judge by their frequency in these books, were indeed very common. Indeed, one set of figures looking at mortality rates in Ireland across the twentieth century indicates that around 1 in 13 or 14 children born died soon afterwards in the 1920s and 1930s, when these digitised records end. [4]

Thompson’s business though wasn’t solely undertaking to bury the dead, as in the case of their individual customers, or organisations like the Poor Law Union or the Little Sisters. Their business for instance with the prison service in Waterford was mainly to do with the transport of prisoners. In one of the books now available online, there are terms of an agreement with the prison set out, including the price of fares for different jobs which reads as follows:

Contract for Horsing Vans And Supplying Cars to H.M. Prison Waterford from April 1st 1909 to 31st March 1910.

No. 1) Horsing Van when requires from Prison to Courthouse and Vice Versa at per day 15/-
No. 2 ) Horsing Van when required between Prison Railway Station at per double journey viz. from Prison to Station in the morning & from Station to Prison in the evening 6/-

3) Horsing Van for any one run viz. between Prison & Station or between Station & Prison 4/- 3/-

4)Inside or Outside Cars when required from Prison to Rly. Station or Steamers or vice versa at per journey from and to Prison 1/3

5) Inside or Outside cars when required from Prison to COurthouse, Workhouse or Asylum at per double journey viz. come to the Prison when ordered go to any of the above places and return to Prison 1/9

6) Rate per single journey between Prison & the above mentioned places not returning again to the Prison 1/3

Date this 19th day of March ’09

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson's cars for the Prison Service.

An image of the above mentioned price list for the use of Thompson’s cars for the Prison Service. Click to englarge.

Thompson’s contract with the Waterford Poor Law Union about the price of coffins is also present in the records. For the Union, Thompson’s provided three sizes of coffin, as follows in 1907:

Adult coffins 4/3

middle size 2/6

small size 1/6

This small tidbit about their coffin prices for the Poor Law Union are made all the more interesting by the recording of their competitor’s prices, which are given as follows:

Whittle’s prices

4/3

1/9

1/5

Whittle’s offered cheaper on the middle and small coffins, but both businesses offered the same for adults to the Union. Incidentally, both firms appear to have helped each other frequently, charging each other for the use of spare horses, broughams and the like, presumably when one or the other was short of these things but had more than one funeral a day. This is one small glance at the more business oriented side of undertaking, and is invaluable in showing us how such things as the Poor Law, charities, and the prison system operated locally and on a day-to-day scale in either transporting or burying those in their care.

We’ve already seen the highly pragmatic inclusion in these records of a variety of recipes for looking after the horses which were so central to the running of the business, but the books contain recipes relating to human ailment too.  Take for example this entry on “Mugworth” [sic] :

Boil a handful in two qrts of beer

then leave Mistletoe simmer for one

hour strain bottle & Cork.

Dose:- Half a cupfull every

morning. if full dose proves too

difficult to take reduce it to a quarter

cup Morning and Night.

Or this one on Mistletoe:

1/2 lb of Mistletoe boiled in two

quarts of Water. leave simmer

until the liquid is reduced to about

a quart. Mix 1.2 pt. of common black

Treacle with it. liquid to be strained

before Treacle is added.

Dose:- Wineglass full every

morning fasting

“Mugworth is useful in

female irregularities.”

Equal quantities of Pennyroyal

and Southernwood added to it increases

its value.

Mistletoe – Useful in Hysteria, Epilepsy, St Vitus dance

and other nervous complaints, also used

as a tonic especially for the heart:-

These are but a few of the many recipes from the books, more of which I’ll be sure to post in time. For now though, this brief examination of these wonderful records, which are available for anyone to view truly do provide a unique insight into what was and remains one of the most intriguing aspects of social history.


 

[1] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1874-1892

[2] These are scattered throughout all four sets of the funeral books which have been digitised.

[3] See Thompson’s Funeral Books, 1910-1918 under “L”

[4] These figures are based on the following working paper: http://www.ucd.ie/geary/static/publications/workingpapers/gearywp200943.pdf

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Filed under Death, Irish History, Labour History, Nineteenth Century, Social History, Twentieth Century, Uncategorized

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.

In Finnegan’s Wake, Tim Finnegan, laid out and all his friends assembled when:

Mickey Maloney ducked his head when a bucket of whiskey flew at him
It missed, and falling on the bed, the liquor scattered over Tim
Bedad he revives, see how he rises, Timothy rising from the bed
Saying “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, t’underin’ Jaysus, do ye think I’m dead?”

Meanwhile one sorry soul from Cork’s Poor Law Union went through this unfortunate experience:

A man died in the Union by the name of McNabb
They washed him, they laid him outside on a slab
And after O’Connor his measurements did take
His wife took him home for a bloody fine wake

 

Well, about twelve o’clock and the beer it was high
The corpse he sits up and says he with a sigh
“I can’t get to heaven, they won’t let me up
‘Till I bring them a quart of Johnny Jump-Up

While both songs present something of a comical vision of the wake, nevertheless, underlying this humour both songs manage to get to the heart of something important in how the Irish did, and still do, wake the dead before burying them. The wake, and the drinking often done at them, was a central part of the experience, it seems, from some sources. As Noel Hughes, one of those interviewed by Kevin C. Kearns for his book Dublin Tenement Life, had it:

“And everyone would come. You got people who came that didn’t know them. If they heard there’s a good drink they’d come and have a drink. Didn’t know them but they’d know they were going to get a couple of bottles of stout.” [1]

As well as these fabled songs, and the oral testimonies like those collected by Kearns, with the availability of a new source online, from Thompson’s funeral home, of their records from the 1870s right into the early twentieth century we can learn something more again about the practices of death, dying and drinking in early Ireland, and specifically early twentieth century Waterford.

Entries from 1910 for instance show us that drink was an important element of the arrangements made by many people. In the case of the death of Mrs. McTigue from Roanmore, as well as the elm coffin, the hearse, horses, broughams, and habit to cover her face, the account book of Thompson’s notes an order for two dozen stout at the price of five shillings. [2] A few pages down it is noted in the details of the arrangements for the death of Catherine Barry, also of Roanmore, that as well as the hearse, broughams and other more typical expenses of the funeral, there was to be supplied by Thompson’s five dozen stout (at a cost of 12s 6d), two dozen and four minerals (3s 8d), a bottle of whiskey (3s 6d) and a bottle of wine at two shillings. [3]This specificity wasn’t always present with some entries noting simply the addition of “drink” which was sometimes as much as £1 16s or figures such as 17s 6d, as was the case in the death of John O’Brien of Buttermilk Lane in 1915. [4]

When Nicholas Quinlan of Green’s Lane was to be buried later that same year, no expense was to be spared with a “best oak coffin” and driver to Ballybricken at £10. In addition, there was ordered four bottles of wine costing 3s each, with another two bottles of wine prices at 2s each, and finally, a dozen bottles of Bass ale. [5]

In the new year, when Patrick Sutton, who had been resident with the Little Sisters of the Poor, passed away and was to be buried by Thompson’s, part of the funeral expenses included the rather more modest half pint of whiskey (1s 8d), a bottle of “stout and rum” priced at sixpence and further three bottles of stout at a cost of ten and a halfpence. [6]

As with the kind of coffin in which people were buried, so too the kind of drink bought as part of the funeral arrangements said something of the people’s social standing, as the last two examples illustrate most effectively.

As well as buying drink to lubricate those waking the bodies, one woman, Pauline Jones, relates in the film Barrack Street, so-called “crying women” could be bought to attend a wake to cry for the deceased, getting four women for 6d. Jones reckoned that “they’d be half drunk, anyway…” and when asked about what prayers they said, Pauline suggests that “they probably did, made up prayers of their own if I know them, I can imagine….”, she finishes by saying that “the louder they cried and the further they were heard, it was a good wake.” [7]

Such business of course, and such open policy as to who attended wakes as indicated by the testimony of Noel Hughes above, could often lead to trouble, and even legal action. One such example from Waterford in the early part of the twentieth century comes from a court case reported in the paper between John Breen of Bridge Street, and Thomas Dunphy a blacksmith from Ballybricken, a son-in-law of the deceased, and Jane Flynn, the niece of a late Captain James Harpur. Breen was seeking the return of a sum of money, £2 4s 6d, for goods bought by Dunphy and Flynn as part of the wake for Captain Harpur. However, Jane Flynn insisted that all of the money used and spent was not for the benefit of Harpur’s wake but for Dunphy and his friends, including three dozen bottles of stout. The court found in favour Breen and the cost of paying fell to his niece, the damage between the family members was not, of course, recorded. [8]

Drink, then, was a vital and sometimes controversial part of the waking of bodies in Waterford in the early twentieth century. This isn’t the only thing which comes through from the records of Thompson’s funeral directors about the nature of death and burial in early twentieth century Ireland, so keep an eye out here for more in the coming weeks.

 


 

[1] Kevin C. Kearns, Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History, Dublin: Gill and MacMillan 1994, p.200

[2] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, June 12 1910

[3] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, June 23 1910

[4] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, April 19 1915

[5] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, December 23 1915

[6] Thompson Funeral Books, 1910-1918, January 6 1916

[7] Mark Power (dir.), Barrack Street, 2013, see 20:36 to 21:08 in particular.

[8] Munster Express, January 11 1908

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De-industrialization, heritage, and the recession: Waterford, 2009-2014

Reading Alex Niven’s  Folk Opposition this week, I was engaged particularly by the passages that looked at what Nivens titled ‘Oppositional geography’ where he discusses in the book the remaking of the Newcastle/Gateshead docklands during the years of New Labour and the building of new bridges like The Millenium, Newcastle’s sixth bridge, The Baltic art gallery, and the concert venue, The Sage. All of it, after the positivity of the early Blairite years passed, the recession hit, Newcastle in Niven’s view, ended up with little more than a “cosmetic growth” bereft of a meaningful “social or economic infrastructure”, something which “which was certainly not one of the legacies of cultural regeneration”.[1] This struck a particular chord with me when thinking of Waterford and its fortunes since the beginning of the recession. My knowledge of Waterford history has grown thanks to my PhD research, in the very period when Waterford seems to have very little else to look to for comfort. It’s hurlers haven’t delivered on so much promise, its football club is low down in the League of Ireland First Division, each sport in the city left harking back to what was and what might have been. Like Newcastle, and plenty of other parts of England and the rest of Britain, Waterford is a city whose identity has had to shift as manufacturing (and shipping before it) declined.

With the exception of a handful of projects, the city centre in Waterford was until the recession relatively untouched during the Tiger. Among the changes to the city’s landscape – its physical but also social and cultural geography – was the fairly nebulous concept of the “John Street Village”, that saw most of the city’s nightlife being squashed into one unmanageable area that deprived the rest of the city centre of passing footfall once the shops closed, and the pedestrianisation of what became John Roberts Square. Another contentious development in the early 1990s was that of City Square, built on Arundel Square and which while incorporating some of the city walls found during the development of the shopping centre, still more could have been done to excavate the area. John Roberts Square were both reasonably successful ventures excepting the lack of licensed premises in that part of the city thanks to the afformentioned village, which amounted to little more than a poor mans attempt at Temple Bar minus the culture. Other changes included the building of the Millenium Plaza, which has been quite successful especially on those occasions when Waterford has been host to the Tall Ships Festival, once prior to the recession and once since. Not unlike what Nivens had to say of England’s north-east, many of these changes to the city during the Tiger merely papered over the cracks off the effects of de-industrialization and regional neglect, the true effects of which did not begin to be felt until 2009.

Back in 2009, the first and most visible sign that the recession had come to Waterford was the closing up of the Waterford Crystal factory. I remember the day distinctly: it was late in January and I had just got off the bus from Cork, it was an aptly grim day, and my mother told me that the factory was to close and that the workers had locked themselves in when security came to shut the doors to begin the process of receivership. It was the first sit-in, an occupation of a workplace, that I had ever seen, and was to set a precedent for the coming years in Ireland, and in Waterford.

As well as the site of the factory, this huge tranche of land directly across my street was also home to the Waterford Crystal visitor centre. All through my childhood and especially in summer, coach upon coach with visitors from near and far (it was a perennial lazy school tour/day-out choice too, I remember three such visits!) could be seen entering the factory and the visitor centre to take the tours. Now all of that would stop. In the past number of months, work was begun to demolish the plant for a new redevelopment of the site. In the same period, a major transformation of a moribund part of Waterford began, and the new House of Waterford Crystal, a brand new visitor centre and showroom was opened in the old ESB building on the quay. This same area, now the Viking Triangle [2], being based around a section of the original Viking settlement of the city and centering in particular on Reginald’s Tower, the Bishop’s Palace and the new Chorister’s Hall, each in turn telling a different aspect of the city’s history, inviting you to enjoy 1000 years of history in 1000 footsteps. I should state that each of the three museums are wonderful and display brilliantly many aspects of the city’s history – from our Viking beginnings through our ecclesiastical history when Waterford was described by some as Parva Roma (little Rome) through our Georgian history and on to the history of the city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries from pig-buyer’s strikes to the Royal Showband. These are all wonderful and important additions to the cultural and the social life of the city. Yet, the clash between heritage and history, the contradictions that are wrapped up in a city which anyone will tell you is economically on its knees and can turn only to its past for answers, is striking.

Image

Demolition of Waterford Crystal begins. Source: http://www.rte.ie

In recent times, Waterford has seen yet more sit-ins and actions from workers in Europrice, The Park Inn, and as part of the campaign run nationally by Elvery’s to retain their jobs. Job losses have been felt in TalkTalk and Honeywell and plenty of other places as well. Work is scarce in Waterford, and each time I’m home, and a little more of the Glass factory is knocked down, and the site cleared, it acts as a reminder that for all the regeneration around The Mall and the Viking Triangle, heritage – so important, and so vital to any city that has as proud a one as Waterford – can not alone save a city. Waterford Crystal may well indeed have had a “unique place in industrial history for its blending of mass production and high art” but today it is both a part of Waterford’s growing heritage industry and a pile of rubble across my street.[3] Important though it is to understand and celebrate that history and heritage, it is worth taking note of Niven’s conclusions about the north-east of England, and to ensure that the strides made by the new developments in the city celebrating its past, don’t become mere window dressing over a deeper problem.

 

[1] Alex Niven, Folk Opposition, Alresford: Zero Books, p.44

[2] See the report on the Viking Triangle here:http://www.waterfordcity.ie/documents/notices/Viking%20Triangle.pdf%5B

3] Brian F. Havel, Maestro of Crystal: The Story of Miroslav Havel and His Role in Waterford Crystal, Dublin: Currach Press 2005, p.270. See also Eleanor Flegg, “Tradition in Transition”, Irish Arts Review, Spring 2014: http://www.irishartsreview.com/tradition-in-transition/

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Prague: Silence, History and the Magical City

Before I ever started visiting Prague with regularity, the city was increasingly on my radar thanks to the writing of Tony Judt. I began reading Tony Judt when one of my sisters bought me his monumental Postwar for Christmas a number of years ago and through friends I discovered more of Judt’s work just as his illness seemed to have finally conquered him. His final few works which include The Memory ChaletIll Fares The Land and his conversation with Timothy Snyder, Thinking The Twentieth Century, all give special mention to the Czech Republic and to Prague and to the famed Prague Spring of 1968. Since I began reading this work, a change in personal circumstances has meant that I now visit Prague on a regular basis and over the course of my accumulated visits, I have learned incrementally more and more about the city, about the Czech lands and their history. I have toyed with the idea of writing something about this oft-written-about city previously for The Dustbin, but for the first time, and following my most recent visit, I feel I finally have something to offer up, something like a coherent thought about the place…

 

“It is as if we conjure the dead and they speak only

Through our own damned trumpets, through our damned medium:”[1]

 

These lines of Jack Spicer’s from his poem Imaginary Elegies sum up for me the job of the historian, and the care we need to take when we conjure the dead through our damned medium: our damned medium being history. A poetic expression of EP Thompson’s famed rallying call to rescue people from the condescension of posterity, it also acknowledges that when historian’s conjure up the dead, in whatever fashion, they make noise again where there has since been silence.

Like many European capitals, the sheer wealth and depth of the history that courses through the streets of Prague can be overwhelming for the visitor – from the remarkable architectural heritage to be found at places like Vysehrad, St. Vitus’ Cathedral, the Charles Bridge and the Waldstein Palace to the seemingly endless public statuary that reminds one constantly through works that are sometimes simple and other times monumental in every sense, of the long deep history which the streets of the city have had to bear from Hussite Revolution to Fascist invasion and much more besides. In that respect, Prague can like so many great cities, seem to be drowning in its own history and the competition moreover of each of these different facets of the city’s history to interest and intrigue the thousands upon thousands of tourists wending their way through Old Town past the sellers of knick-knacks and tack. But as with all cityscapes which are teeming with the weight of so much history, pulling you in different directions and through centuries as you turn from one street to the next, crossing one set of tram tracks at the end of a square to turn on to another, there is also the presence of how silent those pasts can actually be, despite this noisome melange.

What turned my mind to the notion of silence was a number of exhibitions I viewed on my most recent trip to Prague. At the DOX, the contemporary art gallery, there were three particular exhibits that upon reflection had something vital to say about history and silence. The three exhibitions of which I am thinking are the poster as propaganda, 1914-2014, an exhibit of various samizdat publications and finally an exhibition of the Chinese photographer Liu Xia. Reflecting on all three of these exhibitions as I saw them together under the one roof, the theme of silence (especially imposed silence), especially strong in Liu Xia’s work, struck me as equally important to the other two exhibits as well.

The enforced silence of Liu Xia, under house arrest since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, is a silence that must no doubt resonate deeply and strongly in Prague, a city where silence under the Nazi and Communist regimes was a part of everyday life. With every visit to the city, you become more and more acutely aware of all that has passed on its streets and squares. The different exhibitions that I saw at the DOX each taught me something important about how to understand the history of the Czech Republic and its capital.

The first exhibition on the poster as propaganda tool was a fascinating sweeping history of the twentieth century in central Europe first but gradually widened out to consider other global struggles and revolutions, the onset of globalization, the war on terror and the recent crisis of late capitalism. What struck me as particularly interesting was the periodization of the exhibition. Periodization is a vexed issue at the best of times for historians but the lay out of this exhibition was particularly interesting in terms of the periodization that was employed. Some standard periods were employed such as 1918-1939, but it was towards the post Second World War era that things got interesting in this regard. There was no periodization from 1945-1968, as one might have thought given the shift that was caused by the Prague Spring and its aftermath, or from 1968 to 1989 and the Velvet Revolution – instead the exhibition went with the far broader brush stroke of 1945-1989. Perhaps this was to indicate the wider battle between both sides in the Cold War. Yet, for the Czech people that broader period is probably best understood in terms of the Soviet takeover in 1948 until the Prague Spring in 1968 and from the subsequent “normalization” period that followed until the emergence of Charter 77 and then the Velvet Revolution. The silencing of these two distinctive periods in Czech history meant that the exhibition was to be understood by those who saw it in this much grander narrative, but robbed the viewer of the nuance that a more atomized periodization would have provided.[2]

One of the more striking posters displayed was a Czech poster imploring people not to forget Lidice, a town carpet bombed out of existence by the Nazis in retribution for the assassination of Reinhard Heidrich. Film footage of the town’s destruction was powerful but so too is the knowledge that all official records of the town were destroyed by the Nazis in an attempt to eradicate, to silence, this place out of history. This was a violent kind of censorship, an important theme that carried over elsewhere in the gallery and in particular in the exhibition of Liu Xia’s photography.

The photographs being exhibited were disturbing in their sense of claustrophobia, but perhaps the most disturbing element of the entire exhibit was the room containing the last filmed footage of Liu Xia since she was under house arrest. In this video too, silence was a powerful thing. The video was taken by two friends of the photographer who made a daring, and successful, attempt to enter the photographers home, they breathlessly rush to the top of the stairs and then as viewers we see Liu Xia whisper, quite silently, messages into one of her two friends ears before both decide it would be better and safer to leave of their own volition. This coupled with the photographs give extra meaning to the exhibitions title “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia”.[3] In the video we see the silence of secrecy between friends, another important theme in recent Czech history and something which informed the movement that produced the various samizdat publications that were the life’s blood of many artists and writers who were not a part of the official culture of normalization – writers like Bohumil Hrabal or Vaclav Havel. The particular samizdat publication which was the focus of the DOX exhibit was Pražská imaginace (Prague imagination). [4]

Here again in the samizdat publication we see a kind of silence that was brought on by the effects of normalization – the retreat from public life into the private world and what Tony Judt has described as “pro forma political conformism”.[5] It was in this private rather than public world that samizdat publications circulated. The weird state of difference between one’s public face and private opinion has recently been examined by Paulina Bren who asked “what then was ‘normal’ about normalization? That nothing, and yet everything, was normal was hinted at by ordinary citizens’ own adoption of the term…”[6] In such a world, and again as Bren notes, in a world where whats passes for normal is a state in which there is nothing happening, then the silent, covert writing, publication and reading of samizdat work becomes an important whisper in an otherwise silent society. It was in precisely this context which Czech action art emerged. As Pavlina Morganova has recently written of early Czech action art, its function was as “a public performance and an attempt to penetrate the routine lives of other people.”[7] In other words, an attempt to break the silence, the stillness, imposed by communism and particularly its normalized form after 1968.

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source: http://www.artlist.cz/?id=1222

Vladimír Havlík, Experimental Flower, 1981. Source: http://www.artlist.cz/?id=1222

So in the magical city of Kakfa, the Golem, of Kepler, there were disruptions of the everyday with the hanging of empty frames on streets to create fleeting images, cobblestones were replaced by flowers, and Czech artists interrupted the silence of normalization by actions and activity that was often collective. Magic was returned in fleeting moments that only some may have seen, and they may have been amused, bemused, or cheered by these noisy moments that have left no physical traces today, but whose power is not silent, or silenced. Such are the moments that make history.

 

[1] Jack Spicer, “Imaginary Elegies, I-IV”, in Allen, Donald M., The New American Poetry, 1945-1960, Berkely: Univesity of California Press [1999 edn.], p.143

[2] Jaroslav Anděl (curator),“The Poster in the Clash of Ideologies, 1914-2014”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague, 14 February-19 May 2014.

[3] Liu Xia, “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” (exhibition), DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition runs from 28 February-9 June 2014.

[4]Jiří Hůla (curator), “Pražská imaginace, 1985-2005”, DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague. Exhibition officially ran from 6 March-20 April 2014.

[5] Judt, Tony and Snyder, Timothy, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: Wiliam Heinemann 2012, p.234

[6] Bren, Paulina, The Greengrocer and His TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2010, p.3

[7] Morganova, Pavlina, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Karolinum Press 2014, p.49

 

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Robert Mallet: A Dubliner in Basilicata

My recently-completed PhD thesis focused on the Italian city of Matera which is located in the remote and relatively unknown region of Basilicata. During a field trip to Matera back in 2011, a local academic informed me that another Irish person had previously studied this sparsely populated and mountainous part of southern Italy. In February 1858 Robert Mallet, a civil engineer from Dublin, spent a week documenting the earthquake which had devastated parts of Campania and Basilicata (then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies which encompassed the southern half of mainland Italy as well as Sicily) on 16 December 1857 and resulted in the loss of an estimated 11,000 lives. This fragment of information piqued my interest and I decided to find out more about Mallet and the research that he had carried out in southern Italy.

 

Robert Mallet (1810–1881)

Robert Mallet (1810–1881)

 

Robert Mallet is widely considered the father of seismology. He was born in Capel Street on 3 June 1810. His father was the proprietor of the Victory Foundry which worked on many of the major structural projects carried out in Ireland during the first half of the nineteenth century, including bridges, railways, and even the iron gates of Trinity College. Mallet studied chemistry and engineering at Trinity and was made a member of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) at the age of 22. In the mid-1840s he gave a number of papers on earthquakes at the RIA in which he applied his knowledge of physics and mechanics to gauge how energy moved through sand and rock. To augment this theoretical work, Mallet carried out a series of controlled underground explosions on Killiney Beach and Dalkey Island in an attempt to measure the impact of shock waves. The results of this research were collected in a series of reports produced in the early 1850s in which Mallet coined the terms seismology and epicentre.[1]

The lack of seismic activity in Ireland and Britain, however, restricted Mallet’s ability to develop his theories further. The 1857 earthquake in southern Italy provided him with the perfect opportunity to carry out field work into the potentially devastating effects of shockwaves. The Times first reported details of the Naples earthquake on 24 December 1857 and soon after Mallet began planning his research trip to survey the damage that had been caused. By the first week of January 1858 he had secured research funding from the Geological Society of London as well as Dublin’s Royal Geological Society. Mallet left London on 27 January and travelled to Naples via Paris and Marseille. Thanks to reference letters from the British Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Royal Society, Mallet was granted permission to travel to Basilicata and procured a number of assistants to aid his research, including an interpreter who spoke the region’s various local dialects. Mallet spent just over one week travelling 500 kilometres by mule to a number of the hilltop towns that had been devastated by the earthquake, many of which were 1,500 metres above sea level. He returned to Naples on 24 February before travelling to Rome in March 1858 and then on to London a month after that.

 

Mallet Basilicata

(Image from Ferrari and McConnell)

 

Mallet’s research was published in two volumes in 1862 under the title The Great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857: the first principles of observational seismology.[2] These reports included detailed maps and illustrations as well as a number monoscopic and stereoscopic photographs. Mallet’s work became an important reference for the study of seismic activity in the English-speaking world. His methods for examining seismic activity, however, were viewed as outdated by the 1880s after John Milne’s development of the horizontal pendulum seismograph. Although Mallet has been reappraised in recent years as a pioneer in the scientific study of earthquakes, the importance of his two volume report in terms of social and urban history has largely been overlooked. Alongside the detailed scientific analysis that Mallet provided in his 700-page report, are his descriptions of the towns that the 1857 earthquake had devastated, coupled with the testimonies of local officials and clergy that he consulted – albeit filtered through an upper-class Anglo-Irish lens.[3]

Mallet’s theories and calculations concerning the earthquake’s epicentre are interrupted at various points throughout the text with details of his journey across the mountain trails of Campania and Basilicata, the hospitality he received from local people, and evocative descriptions of the destruction that the 1857 earthquake caused. The most striking example of the latter point is Mallet’s account of the town of Polla in Campania:

Months of bombardment would not have produced the destruction, that the awful shudder of five seconds involved, when thirteen hundred houses fell together with deafening crash, and overwhelmed the two thousand of their sleeping inmates, and with clouds of suffocating dust, choked the cries of horror and anguish, that rose from the startled and often wounded survivors. In three different directions, conflagration soon added its terrors to the scene, and beamed up, a flickering and ominous light, into that dreadful night of cold and wailing, throughout the lingering hours of which, in helpless agony, they listened to the passionate entreaties for relief, the dying sobs, of relatives and friends entombed around them, and dreaded for them, more than for themselves, the recurrence of other shocks. The cold gray light of winter’s dawn, obscure with smoke and dust, revealed hundreds bruised or with broken limbs without a roof to shelter them, many without a garment to cover them. It required some hours’ familiarity with such scenes, before the mind assumed sufficient composure and capability of abstracting the attention, to pursue the immediate objects of my inquiry.[4]

In addition to the richness of detail that Mallet’s text offers, there are the photographs which he commissioned. Over 156 photos were taken by two French photographers, Alphonse Bernoud and Grellier, which are today housed in the Royal Society’s archive in London. One hundred and twenty of these photos are stereoscopic images, a technique which Bernoud pioneered, and 36 are monoscopic.[5] These visual texts are believed to be amongst the first photographic images of earthquake damage ever taken. More importantly they provide the earliest photographic record of the numerous towns in Campania and Basilicata that Mallet visited, many of which have since been rebuilt or suffered further destruction in subsequent earthquakes.

 

1200px-Mallet_pertosa

Pertosa [earthquake damage], 1857-1858

Robert Mallet’s report on the 1857 earthquake and the photographs that he commissioned provide a fragmentary snapshot of a part of southern Italy that would experience many further upheavals in the coming decades. Mallet travelled to the Italian peninsula at a time of social and political upheaval. The short-lived 1848 Revolutions had swept across western and central Europe ten years earlier and had seen a failed unification attempt in Italy. Just two years after Mallet’s journey to Basilicata, Giuseppe Garibaldi would lead the Expedition of the Thousand to wrestle Sicily from Bourbon control before the process of Italian unification was completed with the capture of Rome in 1870. After 1860, however, the towns in southern Italy that Robert Mallet had visited were once again the setting for death and destruction. The introduction of conscription, the loss of land rights, and economic hardship following Italian unification caused social unrest amongst the predominately rural population and resulted in the rise of brigandage. The Piedmontese Moderates who oversaw the establishment of the fledgling Italian state reacted to brigand violence and civil unrest with brutally repressive measures. Over two-fifths of the Italian army was deployed to southern Italy in a conflict which lasted over a decade and led to more deaths than the various Italian wars of unification.[6]

 

[1] For a biography of Mallet and a detailed account of his 1858 research trip to Italy see Graziano Ferrari and Anita McConnell, ‘Robert Mallet and the ‘Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, January 2005 vol. 59 no. 1, pp. 45-64.

[2] Facsimile copies of Mallet’s book are available online: http://archive.org/stream/greatneapolitan01britgoog#page/n16/mode/2up; http://www.archive.org/stream/greatneapolitan00britgoog#page/n5/mode/2up

[3] Mallet’s sense of cultural and social superiority compared to the local residents that he interviewed comes to the fore when speaking to a Padre Mancini in the town of Pertosa in Campania: ‘He [Padre Mancini] was a man of much more that the average information and intelligence of his class, but conversed in no modern language except Italian, which was strongly provincial, and I found it difficult to follow him.’ Robert Mallet, The Great Neapolitan earthquake of 1857: the first principles of observational seismology. Volume I, Chapman and Hall, London, 1862, p. 274.

[4] Mallet, pp. 292-293

[5] Ferrari and McConnell, pp. 58-60

[6] John Dickie, ‘A World at War: the Italian Army and Brigandage 1860-1870’, History Workshop, No. 33 (Spring, 1992), pp. 1-24

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