The Scrap, by Gene Kerrigan


The Scrap is an account of the 1916 Rebellion. Like many other fine accounts, such as Charles Townshend’s, it draws heavily on the archives of the Irish Bureau of Military History, which years after the Irish War of Independence gathered the oral testimony of the survivors. But where other accounts seek to tell the story of the overall battle, Kerrigan’s focus is on a relatively small group of participants, principally the members of F Company of the Irish Volunteers.

This perspective reminded me of Cornelius Ryan’s frontline account of D-Day, The Longest Day. The result is a hugely rich work, which offers, at least to me, a whole array of new detail and insights on the fighting. For example I never knew that Oscar Traynor, a future commander of the Dublin Brigade of the IRA, had been professional goalkeeper for Belfast Celtic. Or that Arthur Shields, the actor who was a regular member of John Ford’s company perhaps most famously playing the Church of Ireland vicar in The Quiet Man, was a veteran of the 1916 Rising. Or that the rebels had made radio broadcasts from O’Connell “Sacksville” Street to announce the Irish Republic to the world.

John Wayne, John Ford, and Arthur Shields on the set of The Quiet Man

In the midst of this there is further important detail on aspects of the fighting including initial clashes in the north of the city around Fairview, at the City Hall, and a worm’s eye view of the desperate fighting around Henry Street in the final hours of the Rebellion. The book also throws interesting light on the actions and decisions of the leaders during the Rising, particular Pearse, Connolly and McDermott.

Kerrigan does not shy away from the horrors of the battle either. In one disturbing passage a medic examines the head of an injured child in the darkness, accidentally running his fingers across her mouth and feeling her teeth. When a light is brought he finds that he has actually run his hand across a gaping wound in the dying child’s head.

Gene Kerrigan is a legendary journalist and makes no attempt to dress this book up as academic history: there are no footnotes, for example. He is also an exceptionally gifted writer and this is a remarkable and arresting contribution to the literature on the1916 Rebellion, giving a strong sense not just of what happened, but what it was like to be there.

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Barbarians at the Gate: reflections on the European Union at the abyss

Many years ago I watched a documentary about the life and work of the campaigning American journalist I F Stone. Stone was for his whole life a fighter for justice and a fierce critic of the excesses of his own government, such as its encroachment on civil liberties, its systemic racism, and its illegal invasion of Vietnam.

And yet, when asked towards the end of the film what his overall judgement of his country was, Stone said something I found striking: he said, in effect, that he regarded the American Republic as one of the great flowerings of civilisation, comparable to Athens in the Golden Age.

I F Stone

It was a carefully chosen analogy: Stone was also a classical scholar and author of The Death of Socrates. The Athens he contemplated would have been a warts-and-all one, constructed on the injustice of slavery and the subjugation of women, and party, on much too frequent occasion, to war crimes and mob-rule.

And yet in the midst of all this there were new ideas emerging in philosophy, science and the arts, and new politics, in one of the first human stirrings of democracy.

The United States’s bears similar scars to ancient Athens, it’s history marked by slavery and appalling racial prejudice, and by illegal war from Mexico and Nicaragua, to Vietnam and Iraq. But it is also the nation of Abraham Lincoln and Bobby Kennedy, of Harriet Tubman, Martin King and Dorothy Day. It was the country which in the 19th Century showed that democracy was a robust and viable system even in the face of dreadful civil war, and which has produced, like Athens, some of the greatest achievements of the age in science and art.

If it has a rival in the 21st century then I would argue it is the much younger European Union. Like the United States and Athens before it, and every human institution or undertaking before or since, Europe is a flawed, human project. In recent years we have seen one of its most abject failings in its fragmented and often craven efforts to establish a coherent and effective humanitarian policy in response to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

And yet: the European Union represents as vital a political project as the United States. It too represents one of the great flowerings of human civilisation. It is an effort by democratic nations to work together on matters of common interest underpinned by the the principles of human rights, democracy and rule of law. That is a project that is rare in human history and rare in the contemporary world. It is also something that is essential to face the political, environmental, humanitarian and human rights challenges of this fragile and interconnected world. So, for all its flaws, this is a project that is worth fighting for, not running away from in search of some mythic past.

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Jo Cox

As Jo Cox noted in her maiden speech to Parliament, migration, including the free movement of EU citizens amongst our member states, has immeasurably enhanced the communities and societies that have benefited from it, through a vibrant diversity in food, music and arts as well as business and commerce.

But this cosmopolitan vision of Europe is anathema to some who instead cling to the same nasty rhetoric that was once used to justify colonialism, but which now is put in the service of a poisonous xenophobic populism. This seeks to convince the electorate that the EU and migrants are to blame for social ills that have been the result of domestic policies and failures in government, sometimes perpetrated by the very people scapegoating others

History shows us that such rhetoric can open an abyss, which the UK descended into on the streets of Birstall on 16th June. The assertions which followed rapidly from those pedalling intolerance that the brutal assassination of Jo Cox had nothing to do with them still ring hollow.

Jo Cox understood that the European Union, with all its human flaws and imperfections as well as its enormous potential and aspiration, was worth fighting for. But in the final days of this awful, bloody UK referendum campaign the fate of the UK and the EU itself still seems to hang in the balance.

Ultimately I believe that the decency that Jo Cox embodied will be what is asserted by the electorate on the 23rd June, while those directly and indirectly responsible for her death will be the ones consigned to the dustbin of history.

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, by Kate Summerscale

Sometime during the weekend of 6/7 June 1895 Robert Coombes killed his mother with a hunting knife he had purchased a few days earlier. His mother’s body was not discovered for another 10 days. When it was finally found it was still in the bed where she had died and in an advanced state of decomposition. During that time Robert and his younger brother Nattie had stayed in the same house and amused themselves by, among other things, excursions to the cricket in the Oval.

The case was a sensation of the day and provided an opportunity for all sorts to give vent to the moral decline of society and the delinquency of youth.

There was no doubt about Robert’s guilt, but the jury baulked at sending a child to the gallows, so found him instead guilty but insane. He was sent to Broadmoor for the criminally insane and spent 14 years there, in, perhaps surprisingly, a progressive and rehabilitative environment. Robert was finally released into a Salvation Army community where he worked as a tailor, a skill he had learned in Broadmoor.

Eventually he emigrated to Australia and with the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the Australian Army and served with distinction throughout the war, in particular as a stretcher-bearer in the bloody fighting of Gallipoli.

Kate Summerscale’s book is a remarkable thing: it is part biography of Robert, part social and military history. At its heart though it is a story of redemption, of how a disturbed boy became a quietly extraordinary man. It is a compelling and moving story, elegantly written by a writer with a genuine feeling for her story and her subject.

Muhammed Ali

When We Were Kings, by Leon Gast
The Ghosts of Manila: The Fateful Blood Feud Between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, by Mark Kram
The Tao of Muhammed Ali, by Davis Miller 

img_0912My first proper memory of Muhammed Ali was waking up to the news of his victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974. I watched the BBC Sports film of the fight the next evening. It was  awe-inspiring.

This fight is the principle subject of Leon Gast’s electrifying documentary When We Were Kings. The bloody, thieving, murderous dictator of Zaire, Mobuto, had decided that the world heavyweight title fight would help put Zaire on the world stage. Gast’s movie is an account of the extraordinary circus that resulted. It intercuts documentary and news footage from the time with illuminating interviews with, among others,  George Plimpton and Norman Mailer, on the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fight, and on the phenomenal fight itself.

When We Were Kings is a great introduction to Ali, both as a cultural and political figure and as a boxer. His victory is beautifully explained as one not just of his technical fighting skills, but of his strategic thinking skills.

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Rope-a-dope

Years later George Foreman described the devastation of having been beaten by someone so “braggadocio”. This is but a hint of the darkness that is frequently ignored in discussions of Ali. This comes much more to the fore in the Ghosts of Manila, an account of the rivalry between Ali and the great Joe Frazier. Frazier had been a supporter of Ali in the wilderness years when Ali had been stripped of his licence to box because of his courageous refusal to fight in Vietnam: “I ain’t got not quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me nigger!” he said by way of explanation.

However this was no protection to Frazier from Ali’s often cruel and lacerating invective. Frazier came to detest Ali and their brutal fight in Manila in 1975 has become a thing of legend.

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Manila

Both fighters inflicted incredible damage on each other in dreadful heat, displaying incredible levels of endurance and courage just to keep up with each other. However by Kram’s account Frazier had effectively won the fight by rendering Ali unable to take the ring for the 15th and final round. All Frazier needed to do was to stand up. Then his manager, without consulting Frazier, threw in the towel, appalled at the damage that Frazier himself had already sustained in the fight. Frazier never forgave his manager and this extraordinary stroke of luck for Ali became a fundamental element in his legend.

But brutal fights such as Manila and the necessity to fight on almost to middle age that resulted from the loss of his license in his peak years, took their toll on Ali’s body and resulted in the Parkinson’s Disease that afflicted his final years. Davis Miller had met Ali at the peak of his career but became friends with him in these years. The Tao of Mohammed Ali is about a number of things including this friendship, writing, boxing, and perhaps most poignantly about Miller’s relationship with his own father. It is a fine and moving book that describes beautifully what Ali meant to ordinary fans, millions of who are today bereft at the news of his death.

The world is a duller, smaller place with Ali gone. But in many ways it is a better one in part because of what he did and what he stood up for. We will never see his like again.

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Ali delivers the coup de grace on Foreman (Plimpton and Mailer look on – bottom right)