The milkman delivers


(c) Faber & Faber


Milkman, the novel written by Belfast author Anna Burns that won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction late last year, might more accurately be called Milkmen because it has two characters bearing that name.


One is a 41-year-old married man and a member of a paramilitary organisation.  We don’t learn why he’s nicknamed ‘milkman’, but it’s a moniker that inspires fear.  He starts making unwelcome intrusions into the life of the book’s 18-year-old female narrator.  One day he stops alongside her in his van and offers her a ride while she’s walking on the street – or more accurately, walking and reading, for when she’s out and about she invariably has a book open in her hand.  (It’s normally a book from the 19th century or earlier because, as she makes clear, she’s not a fan of modern times.)  “You’re one of the who’s-it girls, aren’t you?” he says.  “So-and-so was your father, wasn’t he?  Your brothers, thingy, thingy, thingy and thingy, used to play in the hurley team, didn’t they?  Hop in.  I’ll give you a lift.”  Disconcerted by his knowledge of her and her family, the narrator declines the offer. 


Then he appears and jogs alongside her while she’s taking a typically strenuous run through her city’s ‘parks & reservoirs’ area.  “He slowed the run right down…” she observes, “until we were walking…  He had no interest in running.  All that running along the reservoirs where I had not ever seen him running had never been about running.  All that running, I knew, was about me.”  Spooked, she resolves afterwards to run in the company of a male relative, ‘third brother-in-law’, who’s temperamental (“a mad exerciser, a mad street fighter, a basic all-round mad person”) but dependable, in the hope that his presence will keep the milkman away.


And then he surprises her after an eventful evening downtown.  She’s just attended an adult French class whose teacher is less interested in teaching the students French than in teaching them that the sky contains more than one colour, blue, by making them properly watch the sunset for the first time: “My poor deprived class… the sky that seems to be out there can be any colour that there is.”  Then, on her way home, she discovers the head of a cat that’s been blown off by a bomb explosion, decides to take it somewhere where she can bury it and wraps it in handkerchiefs.  Standing up with this grisly burden, she discovers the milkman beside her: “Now he was inches from me, and I from him, with only those hankies, and their dark, dead contents, acting as a buffer in between.”


Though he doesn’t attempt to molest or even touch her, and he doesn’t proposition her, the milkman has clearly taken an uncommon interest in her.  And the narrator, we have realised by now, is somewhat uncommon herself.       


The milkman’s unwelcome and sinister attention has severe consequences.  The narrator inhabits a community that sees itself as under siege by the state, that doesn’t recognise the state’s army, police, courts or hospitals,  and that allows itself to be administered by the ‘renouncers of the state’, i.e. the paramilitaries of whom the milkman is a member.  The result is an isolated society of neurosis and paranoia, whose members are continually at pains to say and be seen to do the right thing at the right time, and not to say or be seen to do the wrong thing at the wrong time; to know who they’re talking to and who’s listening to them; to sense what other people are thinking and keep their own thoughts to themselves; to keep up appearances, go with the flow, not draw attention to themselves, and so on.  In this pressure cooker of a place, gossip spreads as quickly as bush-fire through tinder-dry Outback, and when the narrator and the milkman are spotted together tongues start wagging madly. 


The fragile equilibrium that exists between the narrator – already seen as something of an oddball – and her relatives and neighbours is shattered as her supposed affair with the middle-aged, married and murderous milkman provokes disgust, scorn, fear and envy.  Her outraged mother – ‘ma’ – lectures her: “You’ll regret it, daughter, finding yourself ensnared in the underbelly of all that alluring, mind-altering, unruly paramilitary nightlife.  It’s not what it seems.  It’s on the run.  It’s war.  It’s killing people.  It’s being killed…  I’m telling you, it’ll end badly.  You’ll hit the ground with a bump if he doesn’t take you to death first with him.”   


Ironically, it’s the book’s second milkman, a real one whose job is to deliver milk, who helps turn things around.  Not only is he unafraid to stand up to the renouncers when he thinks they’re in the wrong, but he tries to extend help and comfort to members of the community who need it – often those who’ve lost loved ones in the conflict between the forces and renouncers of the state.  (With the narrator, his good deed is to take the cat’s head off her hands and give it a decent burial himself.)  Ironically, the real milkman’s compassion goes unrecognised and unappreciated by the community as a whole who, in contradiction of his kindly nature, have nicknamed him ‘the man who doesn’t love anybody’.  He does, however, prove to be the catalyst that finally helps repair things between the narrator and her family.  Though not before he’s involved in a case of mistaken identity by the state forces who’re out to assassinate the other milkman.


(c) The Irish Times


As you’ll gather from the above synopsis, Milkman is an eccentric book.  However, from the moment that it secured the 2018 Man Booker Prize, ‘difficult’ is the word that people have been levelling at it.  London’s Evening Standard acclaimed it as ‘a fine and remarkably original literary achievement’, but then quietly damned it in the next breath by asking, “…how many who buy it will read all the way through?”  Even Kwame Anthony Appiah, head of 2018’s Man Booker judges, sounded slightly apologetic about giving it the prize: “I spend my time reading articles in the Journal of Philosophy so by my standards this is not too hard.”  Well, I can only reply with an un-literary ‘bollocks to that’.  I didn’t find Milkman pretentious or unduly challenging.  Far from it. 


Eyebrows have been raised by Anna Burns’ Kafka-esque policy of not giving anyone or anything in the book a proper name or label.  But it’s obviously set in Belfast during the 1970s period of the Troubles – Burns grew up in the North Belfast district of Ardoyne – and the various factions prowling around are obviously the IRA, the British Army, the RUC, etc.  Meanwhile, the fact that none of the characters have proper names, and are referred to instead by simple family-appellations, like ma, second brother-in-law and wee sisters, or by capitalised and un-capitalised nicknames, like chef, Somebody McSomebody and Mr and Mrs International, doesn’t impede the reader’s comprehension or enjoyment at all.  (I assume that by not attaching proper names, Burns is satirising the extreme care with which folk in Northern Ireland during the Troubles took in choosing and announcing names – names that sounded too Protestant or too Catholic could get you into trouble in the wrong place and / or among the wrong people.)


What might also be off-putting to potential readers is the book being, essentially, 350 pages of internal monologue.  External events are filtered heavily through the thought processes of the central character.  But the narrational voice describing the bizarre goings-on, protocols, customs and rituals that the political circumstances have engendered in the neighbourhood is consistently droll and frequently hilarious.  It’s particularly (if blackly) funny when talking about the misfits that the situation has inevitably produced.  Certain folk have lost their marbles or become recklessly anarchic, so that ‘normal’ members of the community call them the ‘beyond-the-pale’ people – like tablets girl, a sad and deranged soul who wanders around slipping poisons into people’s drinks; and nuclear boy, a youth convinced that Armageddon is coming courtesy of a war between the USA and USSR; and the issues women, a septet of ladies who hold regular meetings in a garden shed and who, to the local paramilitaries’ discomfort, have resolved to impose a feminist solution on the conflict. 


I’ll admit there were occasional patches where the narrational voice got a little too introspective and I had to apply some willpower to get through a few pages.  Not that the main character is dull, but in terms of being interesting, she can’t compete with the details of the weird landscape around her.


The humour is what I liked most about Milkman.  It’s a novel about the Northern Irish Troubles that manages to be funny, something that can’t be said of other novels about the subject that I’ve read over the years, such as Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983) or Eoin McNamee’s Resurrection Man (1994).  From the period I spent living there, I’ve always remembered Northern Ireland as a very humorous place, even if the humour was often a defence mechanism against the horrors that were occurring at the same time.  And I also liked Milkman because, despite the ordeal it puts its heroine through, it’s ultimately an optimistic and transcendental work.  As the wildly-philosophical French teacher implores: “Implement a choice…  Come out from those places.  You never know… the moment of the fulcrum, the pivot, the turnaround, the instant when the meaning of it all will appear.”  Perhaps it does appear, fleetingly, at the end.


The full Sammy




Generations from now – if, of course, there are generations from now – historians will look back at early-21st-century Britain and wonder how a reasonably powerful and respected country, with a reputation for stability and civility, could become embroiled in a crisis as ridiculous, demeaning and potentially ruinous as Brexit.  Moreover, they will wonder how the British people allowed Brexit, and the attendant prospect of becoming an international laughing stock, xenophobic backwater and  economic disaster zone, to be foisted upon them by a crew of crooks, clowns, chancers and cretins.


And wow – what a crew!  There’s businessman and political donor Aaron Banks, whose insurance company and the political organisation he helps fund, Leave.EU, have just been fined £120,000 for data protection breaches by the Information Commissioner’s Office.  Leave.EU is also being investigated by the National Crimes Agency over alleged illegal donations.  There’s Nigel Farage, Donald Trump’s court jester and brown-noser in chief across the pond and an enthusiast for Nazi-style anti-immigration posters during the referendum campaign.  There’s Michael Gove, a man whose intellectual reasoning is based on the premise that you mustn’t listen to experts.  There’s Boris Johnson, a human and political catastrophe.  And there’s Jacob Rees Mogg, apparently the result of an experiment in splicing together DNA from a Victorian undertaker, a praying mantis and Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist (1839). 


And let’s not forget the Democratic Unionist Party – the Northern Irish party consisting largely of dimwits whose political education stopped at the year 1690 and / or bible-thumpers who believe that the reason why there are no dinosaurs around today is because they were too big to get on board Noah’s Ark.   Thanks to a fluke result in the last general election the DUP holds the balance of power in Westminster and is, if anything, even more dementedly in favour of Brexit than the gallery of rogues described above.  As I wrote in a previous blog post, the DUP would “saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British”; and the thought of post-Brexit Northern Ireland going down the proverbial swanny is fine with them so long as it’s part of Britain going down the swanny.  (Though the DUP’s obsession with being British doesn’t extend to it wanting Northern Ireland to have British-style laws permitting abortion and same-sex marriage.) 


Anyway, it was no surprise when last week when Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, finally lost patience with this shower of Brexiting nincompoops and tweeted: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan about how to carry it out safely.”


Tusk’s comment provoked angry reactions from the usual Brexiting suspects, who claimed that Tusk had wished Britain itself in hell.  He hadn’t, of course.  He’d made no insinuation that the British people belonged in hell or that even the 17.4 million Britons who’d voted for Brexit belonged there.  He’d merely insinuated that the likes of Banks, Farage, Gove and co who’d orchestrated the Brexit campaign and got the result they’d wanted without a thought to the consequences deserved to be in a lake of fire, getting red-hot pokers shoved up their arses.  Which is harsh, but understandable.




Leading the outrage against Donald Tusk’s tweet was the DUP MP and former Mayor of Belfast Sammy Wilson, who called Tusk a ‘devilish, trident-wielding euro maniac’ and said on social media: “Donald Tusk once again shows his contempt for the 17.4 million people who voted to escape the corruption of the EU and seek the paradise of a free and prosperous Kingdom.  This devilish euro maniac is doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound by the chains of EU bureaucracy and control…  All he will do is stiffen the resolve of those who have exercised their choice to be free of Tusk and his trident wielding cabal.” 


The vivid religious imagery in Wilson’s comments – devils, tridents – was in keeping with a tradition among DUP politicians whereby the EU is associated with the forces of darkness of Christian theology.  The DUP’s founder, the late Reverend Ian Paisley, liked to identify the multi-state EU, or the European Economic Community as it was back in his day, as the multi-headed beast forecast to rise out of the sea in the Book of Revelation.  Mind you, Paisley’s antipathy to the EEC / EU didn’t stop him from becoming a Member of the European Parliament and drawing a hefty salary from Brussels.


My first reaction to Wilson’s diatribe was to think it a bit rich of a DUP member to accuse anyone else of corruption.  The party is led by Arlene Foster, responsible for the infamous Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while she ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  Officially supposed to encourage people to change from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems, it was in fact a way for DUP-voting farmers to install such heating systems in empty sheds and outhouses and then claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent, a scam that ended up costing taxpayers in the region of £400 million.  Then there were the accusations of impropriety aimed at former DUP leader and former First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson and his missus Iris, whose multiple incomes have resulted in them being nicknamed ‘the Swish Family Robinson’; and at Ian Paisley Jr, the MP for North Antrim, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  And there was a £435,000 donation to the DUP from the dodgy anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council which, rumours say, may have originated in Saudi Arabia or India.  In 2016, the DUP spent £282,000 of this on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper not actually published in Northern Ireland.


(c) The Belfast Telegraph


Incidentally, even by the DUP’s standards, Wilson is what you’d euphemistically describe as a ‘colourful’ character.  1994 saw him condoning a recommendation by a Protestant paramilitary organisation that Northern Ireland be subjected to ethnic cleansing to create a wholly Protestant (and wholly Roman Catholic-free) province.  And 1996 saw him embroiled in a different sort of stushie when the Sunday World newspaper published photos of him and his ex-girlfriend romping nakedly during a holiday in France – which was a tad hypocritical of Wilson seeing as he’d opposed allowing nude bathing at municipal swimming pools in Belfast.  The Reverend Ian Paisley, usually known for an uncompromising stance on public morals, was strangely forgiving in this case and said: “What a man does in his private life, whether I agree with it or not, is a matter entirely for himself and, in final accountability, for his maker.”  Meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph opined that it wouldn’t have published the photos, partly because “they would have been inappropriate for this newspaper (which has traditionally been read by all members of the family, including the young).”  Quite right, Belfast Telegraph – you wouldn’t want youngsters to be traumatised for the rest of their lives by seeing graphic pictures of Sammy Wilson in the buff.


Thanks to some astounding, mind-melting anti-logic of which the DUP is always capable, Wilson, a denier of man-made climate change, became Environment Minister at the Northern Irish Assembly from 2008 to 2009.  During his tenure, he blocked a government advertising campaign designed to encourage people to cut their energy consumption and reduce C02 emissions.  He also described climate activists as a ‘hysterical pseudo-religion’ and claimed, “The tactic used by the ‘green gang is to label anyone who dares disagree with their view of climate change as some kind of nutcase who denies scientific fact.”  Well, as 97% of actively-publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming in the past century is highly likely because of human activities, I guess we can indeed label Wilson as a nutcase who denies scientific fact. 


And before Brexit fervour put a new wind in his sails, Wilson found time to denounce the allowing of breast-feeding in the House of Commons, a practice he described as ‘voyeuristic’.  (In Wilson’s world-view, it’s obvious that bare boobs during naked holiday romps = good,but bare boobs for feeding hungry babies = bad.)


As an atheist, a non-believer in God, heaven and hell, I find Tusk’s comments amusing – even if the context of Brexit in which they were made is depressing and tragic.  I suppose, though, they touched a nerve in Sammy Wilson because as a DUP member he sees himself as a staunch Christian; and he sees hell, a place to which godless sinners (like atheists, EU officials, Roman Catholics, environmentalists, homosexuals, etc.) are destined to go, as a place where he definitely won’t be going.  I have to say, though, that if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire universe, and to create a system of after-lives to which the souls of all the universe’s inhabitants migrate following their physical demises, I would expect Him, or Her, or It, to be a wee bit more intellectual and broader-minded and more empathetic than His / Her / Its worshippers in the DUP. 


And if you were that awesomely powerful, universe-building supreme being up in heaven, and after Sammy Wilson had expired in the mortal world, would you really want to spend the rest of eternity there listening to him jabbering away about devilish trident-wielding euro maniacs and green pseudo-religions and voyeuristic boobs?  No.  You’d probably politely ask him to pack his bags and take himself to the other place.







Like so many other things in the Anglo-Saxon world recently, the First World War and the way we remember it seem to have been subsumed into a culture war between left and right.  Therefore, if you decide not to wear a poppy, or decide to wear a white one rather than a red one, or voice distaste for the masses of poppy-related tat on sale in late October and early November – like a 75cm x 50cm poppy tea towel (“handy in any kitchen, as well as looking gorgeous”), or a giant glass poppy-shaped bird-feeder, or a cotton / polyester poppy onesie – or even question the political decisions that sent so many young men marching off to their deaths between 1914 and 1918, you risk having a baying mob chase you on social media and accuse you of being an unpatriotic, nay traitorous, dis-respecter of the fallen.  See the abuse that Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, has received on Twitter today for pointing out the uncomfortable fact that half the men serving in the British Army during World War One weren’t actually allowed to vote.


Well, with today the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War on November 11th, 1918, it’s time for me to stick my head above the parapet and say that I’ve felt uneasy about the more ostentatious ways that the war’s centenary has been marked in the UK these last four years: starting in 2014 with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw a huge crimson torrent of nearly 900,000 poppies (each representing a fallen soldier from Britain and its then-colonies) filling the moat at the Tower of London; and ending now with the Shrouds of the Somme, whereby 72,000 shrouded figurines (symbolising the soldiers from Britain and the colonies who died at the Battle of the Somme and were never given a proper burial) have been laid out at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.  Both displays seem to turn commemoration of the war into something that’s part massive art installation and part transitory tourist attraction; which, despite the best intentions in the world, doesn’t convey what was surely its most important feature for the people involved in it, its absolute bloody hellishness.  I wonder what World War One veterans themselves would have made of these showy centennial commemorations – but of course, we can’t know that because the very last of them passed away in 2011.


Indeed, a few days ago, the journalist Ian Jack wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian entitled Conceptual Art Can Never Capture the Tragedy of the Great War, which mirrors my feelings.  The comments thread below the online version of the feature predictably has Jack being berated by a baying mob for his lack of patriotism, for treading “a fine line between risible and insulting” and being a “privileged liberal smughole.”  But Jack simply observes that he finds the old, traditional means of remembering the fallen — the monuments, statues, plaques, services and ceremonies that were established after World War One — more moving and more informative.


I agree.  At least those things were largely erected or initiated by the generation who’d been there.  No doubt there was a fair amount of spin added by the establishment, mindful of what’d happened in Russia in 1917, worried about the thousands of demobilised soldiers who’d come back expecting but not finding the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Lloyd George, and desperate to channel those men’s energies towards something patriotic and away from something revolutionary.  But still, for me, those monuments and rituals have always had a sad, sombre authenticity that strikes an appropriate chord.


When I was a kid, I had a paradoxical relationship with the First World War.  On one hand, I was born into a Protestant community in Northern Ireland, over whose shared sense of heritage the Great War and especially the Battle of the Somme loomed incredibly large.  (During the first day of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was the only UK division to achieve its objectives, overcoming a sizable chunk of the German line; but by the end of its second day, 5500 men in the division were dead, injured or missing.)  Yet despite the yearly gathering on Remembrance Sunday at the big commemorative plaque in the local church, and like a lot of a little boys in the 1970s, it was actually World War Two that filled my imagination, thanks to the countless movies and series about it shown on TV and the slew of World War Two-themed comics on sale every week at the newsagent’s.


I only properly became acquainted with World War One in the mid-1970s when the BBC repeated its legendary 26-episode documentary The Great War (originally made in 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start), narrated by Michael Redgrave and with music by Wilfred Josephs.  The BBC aired it on Sunday afternoons.  As a result, staid, God-fearing, not-much-happening Northern Irish Sundays got indelibly linked in my mind with melancholy, black-and-white film footage of the trenches.


It wasn’t until much later that I realised how the war’s tragic influence had seeped across the decades into, or almost into, my own memories.  For instance, a few old spinsters, well into their 70s by then, lived in lonely seclusion around our village, and only years after did it occur to me that they’d never married because the war had culled so many young men from their generation that there’d been nobody left for them to marry.  Meanwhile, my Dad would recall how, up till the 1960s, there’d been a World War One veteran living in the village who’d been shell-shocked and had never recovered from it.  The village still had a functioning railway station then and, supposedly, every morning the poor man would visit it, march along the platform and salute the guards on the trains – believing from their uniforms that they were army officers.


And it wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to Ireland with my Dad and finally visited Ballyconnell Parish Church in County Cavan, on whose wall is a Roll of Honour commemorating the local men who served in uniform during the two world wars.  The names of two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Walter, are recorded there for World War One.  Both of them survived it.



In 1977, my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where World War One was less loaded with historical significance on a collective level; but was still remembered poignantly on a local level because it’d reaped a dreadful harvest among the populations of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages.  Peebles, the town nearest our new home, had an impressive cenotaph commemorating the fallen, which had been unveiled in a ceremony in 1922 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of the war.


(The Edinburgh-born Haig was massively popular at the time and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.  Which seems hard to credit now, given that historical revisionism in the form of, say, Alan Clark’s 1961 historical volume The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth has made us less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent with such posthumous nicknames as ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode of Blackadder, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”)


Less fancy than the cenotaph in Peebles was the small statue of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance, that’d served as the war memorial in the nearby village of Walkerburn since 1920.  The statue made the news in 1998 when it went missing, presumably stolen to be melted down for its metal.  As a result, Peebles’ Beltane Studios were commissioned to make a similar (but bigger) statue as a replacement.  Then, after the new statue had been installed, the old one was retrieved by the police, still intact, and returned to Walkerburn – so that now it has two war memorials.  The original was placed in a different location, opposite the town’s old mill building.  During World War One, Walkerburn lost a higher percentage of its men on the battlefield than any other settlement in Scotland.  So it certainly deserves its two war memorials.


My favourite memorial, however, is the one pictured at the top of this entry: the one commemorating the men of the picturesque Slitrig Valley a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick, which also stands near the entrance of a former military camp.  It indicates how even the remotest, most tranquil-looking communities couldn’t escape the baleful reach of the war.  And for me that still has more impact than floods of ceramic poppies or plains of shrouded figurines.


The absolute (Secretary of) State of this


© The Belfast Telegraph


At certain eras in history, for certain sections of humanity, there were places to which you really didn’t want to go – places whose very name filled you with dread.


For members of the British underworld in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was Sydney Cove, Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Van Diemen’s Land and the other brutal penal colonies that’d been established in Australia, to which you could be transported if you were convicted of anything worse than pinching five shillings-worth of goods.  For criminals in the Second French Empire between 1852 and 1953, the place that was synonymous with hell was another penal colony, the pitiless one at Cayenne, or Devil’s Island as it was better known.  And for German soldiers in the Wehrmacht during World War II, there were surely frequent nightmares about the prospect of being sent to the freezing and carnage-filled Russian Front.


Meanwhile, for members of the British government over the past half-century, the equivalent of the worst penal colony devised by the British or French Empires, or of the Russian Front, is surely Northern Ireland.


Political satirists have long been aware of this.  A 1984 episode of the BBC political comedy Yes, Minister had the British Prime Minister resigning and two ruthless politicians competing to take over as PM.  Both men threatened hapless minister Jim Hacker that they’d make him Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if they ended up winning and he hadn’t publicly backed their campaigns.  A generation later, a 2012 episode of a more abrasive TV satire, The Thick of It, showed slow-witted politician Ben Swain responding warily when he was offered the job of Foreign Secretary: “And you mean Foreign Secretary?  That isn’t code for Northern Ireland?  I’m not f**king going there.”


The position of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came into being in 1972, when the old Northern Irish government at Stormont was suspended following the start of the long period of bloodshed and mayhem that became known as the Troubles, and when direct rule was imposed from London.  The first holder of the post was Conservative MP Willie Whitelaw, who set the template for many secretaries of state to come.  He was stiff and crusty, looked like he’d be more at home wearing tweeds and trudging around a grouse moor, and seemed perplexed that the half-dozen local Catholic and Protestant terrorist organisations and the mob of unruly local politicians wouldn’t play by Queensberry Rules.


Whitelaw wouldn’t be the first Secretary of State to look ill-at-ease in a province where though the two native communities were at each other’s throats, they had one thing in common, which was that they both hated his guts.  Nationalist Catholics saw him and his successors as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to oppress them and keep them imprisoned in the United Kingdom.  Unionist Protestants saw them as stuck-up, patronising, untrustworthy English bastards who’d come to betray them and abandon them to a united Ireland.




Actually, I recall seeing, when I was a wee boy in Northern Ireland and just after Whitelaw’s appointment, satirical posters pasted everywhere depicting him as a grim-faced Wild West sheriff stalking nervously into an unsavoury-looking establishment called The Dead-End Saloon.  However, unlike many of his successors, Whitelaw’s political career didn’t come to a dead-end after Northern Ireland.  He served as British Home Secretary from 1979 to 1983 and became a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, who once said of him gruesomely, “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie.”


I also remember from my boyhood some political satire involving another 1970s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – the Labour Party MP Roy Mason, who served there during James Callaghan’s three-year tenure as Prime Minister.  The Belfast Telegraph featured a cartoon caricaturing him as Henry II while the Reverend Ian Paisley loomed behind him caricatured as Thomas Beckett.  Mason lamented, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  However, unlike Thomas Beckett, who was murdered by knights soon after Henry II made this plea, Paisley lived until 2014 and made life a misery for a further 14 secretaries of state.


After the Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher, Northern Ireland had as its Secretary of State the luckless Jim Prior.  Prior was a leading member of the ‘wets’ – the moderates – in the Conservative Party and when he dared to question his boss’s economic policies, his fate was sealed.  Empress Thatcher had him banished to Devil’s Island.


I also remember – for the wrong reasons – Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the early 1990s.  One day in 1992, an IRA bomb slaughtered seven construction workers.  That evening, Brooke appeared on Raidió Teilifis Éireann’s chat show The Late Late Show and unwisely allowed its host, the twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer Gay Byrne, to talk him into singing Oh My Darling Clementine live on air.  And with that, Brooke’s political credibility was gone.  To quote the song: ‘lost and gone forever / Dreadful sorry, Clementine.’


When Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street and 1998’s Good Friday Agreement was on the cards, Northern Ireland finally got a Secretary of State of some substance: Mo Mowlam, also the first woman in the role.  The down-to-earth and bluntly-spoken Mowlam helped to knock heads together in the run-up to the agreement, although she earned herself the displeasure of the Protestant politicians and was eventually side-lined by Blair.  When Bill Clinton flew in to grab a piece of the glory, she grumbled to him that her role had become that of ‘tea lady’.




The Good Friday Agreement paved the way for the Northern Ireland Assembly, which came into being while Peter Mandelson was the province’s Secretary of State.  An operator best described as an oil-slick in a suit, Mandelson had been a key ally and advisor of Tony Blair but he’d fallen from grace thanks to a scandal involving a dodgy home loan.  To rehabilitate himself, he had to do the political equivalent of donning sackcloth and ashes and beating himself with a scourge, which meant taking the Northern Ireland portfolio.  I imagine that Mandelson, a gay man, had his patience stretched to the limit by having to deal with Ian Paisley, who in 1977 had launched the infamous Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign.


With the Assembly up and running and its members responsible for the province’s governance, Mandelson’s successors as Northern Irish Secretary of State had less to do.  However, the Assembly collapsed early in 2017 because of a spat between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein and since then London has had to administer things again.  The Secretary of State on whose watch this happened was James Brokenshire, who surely had the most appropriate surname of anyone ever to take on the job: broken shire.


Brokenshire stood down at the start of this year for health reasons – not, as you might expect, mental health reasons, but because he needed to have an operation on his lung.  And this brings me to his replacement, the current Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley.


Last week Bradley hit the headlines when she confessed in an interview that she accepted the Northern Irish brief whilst having a knowledge of Northern Irish politics that was less than encyclopaedic.  “I freely admit that when I started this job, I didn’t understand some of the deep-seated and deep-rooted issues that there are in Northern Ireland.  I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought… people who are Nationalists don’t vote for Unionist parties and vice-versa.  So, the parties fight for the election within their own community.  Actually, the Unionist parties fight the elections against each other in Unionist communities and Nationalists in Nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.”


Oh, come on.  Bradley was born in 1970, which means she grew up in a Britain where the Northern Irish Troubles raged continually in the background – and sometimes in the foreground, for the IRA also set off bombs in England, including the Brighton one in 1984 that killed five members of Bradley’s Conservative Party and nearly took out Margaret Thatcher.  And she makes a living as a politician.  You’d expect her to be aware of political arrangements in the UK’s four corners and have some inkling who the Alliance Party, DUP, Official Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein and their supporters are.  Especially as her party has been propped up in government by ten MPs from Ian Paisley’s old outfit the DUP (in return for a 1.5 billion-pound bribe) since the 2017 general election.


Are we really to believe she flew to Belfast to become Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ignorant of such facts as most Protestant households don’t have framed, signed photographs of Martin McGuinness sitting on their mantelpieces and Roman Catholic support for Arlene Foster’s DUP is somewhat on the scant side?


© The Irish Examiner


Then again, Bradley’s ignorance is no worse than that displayed by many members of the Conservative Party these days, especially Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.  These are people whose attitudes towards the post-Brexit condition of the Northern Ireland / Republic of Ireland border – all squiggly, wriggly 310 miles of it, crossing towns, farms, fields and loughs and crossed itself by more than 200 public roads – suggest I.Q.s that are at basement-level.  They proclaim that the border isn’t important enough to worry about, or it can be policed the way it was back in the days of the Troubles (and what happy days those were), or – Boris Johnson’s opinion – all the immigration and customs issues on the border arising from Brexit can be solved with technology.  Maybe Johnson is proposing using drones.   Or maybe he’s thinking about using toy airplanes with cameras fixed to them that can be piloted by leprechauns.  He’s probably heard that there are still a few leprechauns on the go in Ireland.  And what jolly little fellows they are too.


The selection of Karen Bradley to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must have been because she sings from the same hymnbook as many of her fellow Tories.  And that’s a hymnbook from the Church of Stupid.


Northern irony


From Graham YES Linehan /


At last – the Republic of Ireland has shed its last vestiges of patriarchal backwardness.  Today it qualifies as a properly modern society whose female citizens are allowed their say over what goes on in their bodies.  By a two-thirds majority, the southern Irish electorate has voted to repeal the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution that outlawed abortion.  The government will now hopefully start legislating to permit abortion in the Irish health service during the first dozen weeks of pregnancy – with the period extended to 24 weeks in extreme circumstances.


With that, the Irish Republic has severed the final link with those old, dishonourable days when the Catholic Church, with the acquiescence of politicians from Eamon de Valera downwards, ruled the roost; when grey, sanctimonious and often twisted old men drew up and enforced the rules about what was and wasn’t socially acceptable.  Back then, obviously, there was not much expectation of Irish women to be anything other than dutiful wives and mothers.


Meanwhile, the church’s abhorrence of abortion led to scandals and tragedies like those of Savita Halappanavar and ‘Miss D’; and, generally, to a hypocritical situation where pious society turned a blind eye to thousands of pregnant women being forced to cross the Irish Sea and get abortions in Britain.


This and other recent events mean that soon the only chunk of the British and Irish islands still subject to oppressive anti-abortion laws will be Northern Ireland – which, despite being part of the United Kingdom, never came under Britain’s 1967 abortion act.  Funnily enough, politicians representing the province’s Protestant majority haven’t shown any interest in adopting the act even though, in every other respect, they never stop shouting about how ‘British’ they are.


Coming from the place myself, I have to say that I don’t see much prospect of the situation in Northern Ireland changing soon.  That’s not only because of the high quota of dribbling religious-extremist basket-cases living there (like this one and this one).  It’s also to do with Theresa May’s pathetic dependence on 10 hard-line Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party MPs for the survival of her minority government.  They might be obnoxious, but she won’t do anything to upset them.


The irony now is that uncompromising Catholics in the Irish Republic who’re aghast at this weekend’s referendum result and at the vote to legalise same-sex marriage three years ago would probably feel much more comfortable living in Northern Ireland. (Same-sex marriage is still a no-no up north, by the way.)  Yet the laws governing social mores there have been fashioned by an uncompromising Protestantism that, in the past, largely defined itself by how anti-Catholic it was.  Traditionally, they loathed one another, but nowadays extremist northern Protestants and extremist southern Catholics are practically on the same wavelength.  Who’d have thought it?


St Paddy power


From © Dan Sheridan / INPHO


Today is March 17th and the day that commemorates Ireland’s national saint, St Patrick.  Among other feats, St Patrick is credited with popularising the shamrock as Ireland’s national symbol by using its three leaves to explain the Holy Trinity, with turning his walking stick into a tree during a visit to Aspatria in England’s Lake District, with punishing the heathen Welsh king Vereticus by changing him into a wolf, and with casting all the snakes out of Ireland.  Though to be honest, old Patrick missed a trick in not casting all the politicians out of it at the same time.


St Patrick’s Day is, of course, enthusiastically celebrated by Irish people and by the Irish diaspora the world over.  This is no more so than in Irish-American strongholds like Boston, where from all accounts they demonstrate their passion for St Patrick and all things Irish by dyeing the rivers green, dyeing the Guinness green, dyeing their hair green and probably injecting green dye into their own eyeballs so that their eyes glow green too.


Personally, I don’t normally take the celebration of St Patrick’s Day to such extremes – though I may make an exception today if the Irish rugby team win their final Six Nations Championship game against England, which kicks off at 2:45 GMT.  Ireland have so far disposed of France, Italy, Wales and Scotland and have already won the championship on points, but if they can beat England today they’ll also win the Grand Slam – an honour they’ve achieved only twice before in rugby history, in 1948 and 2009.  I know I’m tempting fate by writing this, but to win the Grand Slam on St Patrick’s Day, and against England, would be really something.


So Happy St Paddy’s Day – and let’s hope this afternoon Ireland’s rugby players can make this the happiest St Paddy’s Day ever.


You’ve been DUPed




The most memorable joke cracked by the late British funnyman and game-show host Bob Monkhouse was this one: “People used to laugh when I told them one day I’d become a famous comedian.  Well, they’re not laughing now.”


I’m sure many commentators living north and south of the Irish border are saying something similar now that Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations with the European Union have ended up stuck between a rock and a hard place.  The rock is the Republic of Ireland’s aversion to the creation of a ‘hard border’ between it and Northern Ireland and its demand for both parts of the island to have ‘regulatory alignment’ (i.e. Northern Ireland quietly remaining in the EU’s customs union and single market).  The hard place is the insistence by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, on whose ten Westminster MPs May’s minority Conservative government depends for support and survival, that Northern Ireland gets treated no differently from the rest of the United Kingdom during Brexit (i.e. if the UK quits the customs union and single market, Northern Ireland does too).


In other words: “Brexiters used to laugh when I told them the Irish border would be a massive problem if the UK voted to leave the EU.  Well, they’re not laughing now.”


Their attitude in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 2016 wasn’t so much one of laughter, though, as one of sheer disinterest and ignorance.  It depressed me that on the morning of June 24th, just after the vote’s result was announced, the BBC showed a panel of British politicians taking questions from an audience.  An Irishman in the audience raised the border issue and was rudely and almost roundly ignored.  (The only panel-member to acknowledge his concerns was, significantly, Alex Salmond.)


Not that the British political or media establishments have shown any lessening in their ignorance of things Irish since then.  For instance, a recent editorial in The Sun advised Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to ‘shut his gob’ about Brexit; and right-wing politicians and commentators have generally talked about the Irish Republic so high-handedly you’d think they believed it was still one of Britain’s colonial possessions.  All this is despite the Republic of Ireland, as one of the remaining 27 members of the EU, having a veto over any deal between the EU and the departing UK that it sees as damaging to its interests.


Mind you, if you really want to soil yourself and experience all-out, full-frontal ignorance among the players in this fiasco, you should check out the Democratic Unionist Party.  The DUP includes among its ranks such God-bothering, science-disdaining eejits as Thomas Buchanan, a campaigner for the teaching of creationism in schools who rejects evolution as a “peddled lie” because, he reckons, “the world was spoken into existence in six days by His power”.  Then there’s Sammy Wilson, who maintains that climate change isn’t happening and has denounced the Paris Agreement as “window dressing for climate chancers”.  It’s mind-melting that Wilson was once Northern Irish Environment Minister.  And let’s not forget Trevor Clarke, who until very recently believed that HIV affected gay people only.  With IQs at near-subterranean levels, it’s unsurprising that the DUP is able to hold conflicting views without seeing any illogicality in holding them.  Most notably, it chants endlessly about Northern Ireland being exactly the same as the rest of the UK, for example, whilst insisting that Northern Irish law continues to ban abortion and same-sex marriage, both of which are legal in the rest of the UK.


© The Independent

© Belfast Telegraph


And low IQs might explain why, for a fiercely Christian outfit, it seems to have a lot of difficulty interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ, which I thought were explicit in stating that Christ’s followers should not behave like corrupt, shifty, greedy, hypocritical tossers.  For instance, there was the ultra-dodgy Renewable Heat Incentive, or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, which was introduced in 2012 while the party’s leader and one-time Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster ran Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.  Ostensibly, this encouraged people to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems.  In reality, it meant unscrupulous farmers – many of them no doubt DUP voters – could set up biomass heating systems in empty cowsheds and still claim back £1.60 for every £1 they spent.  The scheme’s believed to have cost taxpayers some £400 million.  And then there was a £425,000 donation to the DUP from the shady anti-Scottish-independence organisation the Constitutional Research Council, rumoured to have really originated in Saudi Arabia, India or even Putin’s Russia.  In 2016, £282,000 of this was spent by the DUP on a ‘Vote Leave’ advertisement in a newspaper that wasn’t even published in Northern Ireland.


The most hilarious instance of DUP sleaze and sinfulness, though, was the 2009 scandal involving Iris Robinson – senior DUP figure, wife of Arlene Foster’s predecessor as party leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, and well-known denouncer of homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ – who had an extramarital affair with a lad young enough to be her grandson and also illegally procured some £50,000 to help him with a business project.  While Iris obliterated the seventh and eighth commandments, hubby Peter was content to line his pockets with hefty political salaries, allowances and alleged fixer-fees in direct contravention of what Matthew chapter 19, verses 16-26 said about camels, eyes of needles, rich men and heaven.  No wonder the pair of them have been dubbed the Swish Family Robinson.


© The Week UK

© Daily Mirror


From all accounts, Theresa May, the Republic of Ireland government and the EU were close to agreement yesterday on ‘regulatory alignment’ between the northern and southern parts of Ireland when Arlene Foster and the DUP scuppered it.  The deal would have helped to cushion the massive economic blow that Brexit looks certain to inflict on Northern Ireland.  (And the DUP is aware of this threat – soon after the 2016 referendum, and having championed a leave vote, the DUP saw no shame in sending Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Michelle McIlveen, scuttling off to Brussels to beg for continued EU support for Northern Irish farmers.)  And at best, it could have given the Northern Irish economy a real boost – imagine how attractive the place might have looked to investors as a corner of the UK that was still in the EU’s customs union and single market.  But as I’ve said, the DUP refused to countenance anything that’d make it different from the rest of the UK (apart from having medieval anti-abortion and anti-same-sex-marriage laws, obviously).  And among its members and supporters are plenty of red-white-and-blue nutters who’d saw off their own legs and strangle their own grandmothers if they thought it’d make them more British.


Ironically, I think this is hastening the very thing that the DUP abhors, which is the prospect of a united Ireland.  Although demographics are changing in Northern Ireland, with Roman Catholics looking set to soon outnumber Protestants, it seemed to me there was a large, mainly middle-class section of the Catholic community who were reasonably relaxed about staying part of the UK so long as Northern Ireland remained politically and economically stable and they had the safeguards guaranteed by 1998’s Good Friday agreement.  However, with the impending shitstorm of Brexit, I suspect many of those moderate Catholics will now swing towards supporting union with the south.  (When people asked me, I used to tell them I didn’t expect to see a united Ireland in my lifetime.  Now I’m starting to wonder.)


Amusingly, in the short term, if this spat continues between Theresa May and the DUP and the latter withdraws its support for the former, May’s government could collapse – resulting in yet another general election and the possibility that Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next UK prime minister.  And it’s well known how old lefty Jeremy was, in the past, good friends with some people from Northern Ireland who definitely aren’t on Arlene Foster’s Christmas card list.


© Belfast Telegraph


Meanwhile, I sympathise with the many folk in the UK who, thanks to this crisis, have finally discovered that their country’s post-Brexit future depends on the whims of a political party from Northern Ireland whose asininity, venality and zealotry is truly of Trumpian levels.  Happy days.


Lucifer over Larne, Lurgan and Lisbellaw


© Cork University Press


When I was eight years old, I lived in a tiny village near the border between Counties Tyrone and Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.  Thinking back, I suspect that when my neighbours saw me they’d whisper, “Look – there’s the most gullible child in the village.”


No doubt they thought I was gullible because I readily believed any old guff people told me, especially in relation to things that, scientifically speaking, didn’t exist – i.e. manifestations of the supernatural.


I was a sucker for ghost stories.  For instance, an uncle once told me about the Cooneen Ghost – a tale involving a local family who supposedly were tormented by poltergeist-type knockings on the doors and windows of their house.  Horribly, when they tried to escape the entity by emigrating to North America, it travelled with them.  The phantom knockings continued in their cabin on board the ship and then at their house in the New World.  After hearing that, I lived in dread of similar knockings starting on the doors and windows of our house.  God help us, I thought, we’d never be rid of the thing.




I also believed that fairies were real because a girl in my primary-school class had assured me that one day her mother had been in the family’s stick-house (Northern Irish for ‘wood-shed’) when she’d heard crying sounds coming from a block of wood.  Presumably these were made by a fairy whose home was in the tree that’d been chopped down for the timber.


I even believed in banshees because an older boy spun me a yarn about how, one night long ago, his father had heard a hideous screeching noise out in the darkness; and soon afterwards, someone well-known to his father had died unexpectedly.


So you can imagine my alarm one day when a couple of my primary-school classmates started talking about devil worshippers being active not only in Northern Ireland, but in the town of Enniskillen a few miles along the road from us.  They talked about a family in Enniskillen who were rumoured to draw all the curtains in their house as soon as it got dark and then spend the night performing black-magic rituals.  They described the carcasses of freshly-sacrificed goats that’d been discovered beside the river in Enniskillen with their hearts removed.  Most alarmingly, they related how a child, about our age, had been abducted by devil worshippers and later been found dead and cut into pieces.  I swallowed every word of this.  I took it as gospel truth.


Talking of the gospel, I’ll say in my defence that I belonged to a fairly religious community of Northern Irish Protestants.  We were a paradox – on one hand, priding ourselves on being rational and not superstitious, unlike those silly Roman Catholics who believed in saints and visions and rosary beads; but on the other hand believing everything that was said to have happened in the Bible because it was the Word of God.  And since the Bible said the devil existed – he did exist.  Our local clergyman confirmed this.  I remember him telling us sternly during a Sunday sermon that if you believed in the existence of God, you had to believe in the existence of the devil too.


So if the devil was real, surely it followed that evil people who worshipped him by slaughtering humans and animals were also real?


© Hammer Films


In the decades since, I’ve often wondered how my primary-school classmates got hold of those grisly stories about devil worship in early-1970s Northern Ireland.  Well, I’ve finally found the answer.  I recently read Black Magic and Bogeymen, a 2014 book by Richard Jenkins, Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield and a one-time undergraduate at Queen’s University in Belfast.  This investigates a “wave of rumours about black magic, Satanism, animal sacrifice and child abduction” that “swept across the north of Ireland in late 1973 and early 1974.”


According to Jenkins, “(b)etween 5th August and mid-December 1973, sixty-five items about witchcraft and black magic appeared in the mainstream press north and south of the Irish border: news reports, features, editorials, letters to the editor, church reports, and what appeared to be religious announcements…  Most of the reporting concerned the east of the province: Belfast and counties Antrim, Armagh and Down…  The reports peaked between mid-October and the third week in November, clustering around Hallowe’en.”


At their height, these reports seemed to reflect genuine panic in parts of Northern Ireland – adults concerned that their children might be kidnapped and sacrificed, and children generally scared witless.  (I was one of them.)  Predictably, as Jenkins observes, children were also among the worst culprits for spreading the rumours.  They “seem to have actively elaborated or invented stories about bad people doing bad things” and were “likely to have contributed to the meagre ‘tangible evidence’ of supposed witchcraft and black magic practices.”


Jenkins explores the many factors likely to have fostered these stories of devil worship, black magic and ‘witchcraft’.  (My apologies to any Wiccans or other practitioners of white or pagan magic reading this, but to 1970s Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, witchcraft was devil worship and vice-versa, end of.)  He describes the heightened interest in the occult in Western culture at the time, signified by such things as the sensational black-magic novels of Dennis Wheatley and high-profile movies like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973).  He devotes a chapter too to “the supernatural lore that was part of the enchanted world-views that could be encountered in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s” and no doubt made some people believe the rumours more readily – supernatural lore that includes not just the ghosts, fairies and banshees that so worried my eight-year-old self, but also traditions of faith and folk healing and a great enthusiasm for celebrating Hallowe’en.


Obviously, something that casts a huge shadow over Jenkins’ subject matter is the Northern Irish Troubles.  In their fourth year when the rumours began, the Troubles had already claimed an appalling toll – 467 people killed in 1972 alone.  Jenkins discusses how “social conflicts may be symbolised and re-worked in supernatural imagery and stories, not least in threats such as witchcraft and fears of spiritual jeopardy”.  The Troubles figured in the rumours in more tangible ways too, for example, through tales of teenagers getting embroiled in the occult after “trying to contact the souls of those killed in the Troubles, using Ouija boards or other methods.”


Jenkins attributes considerable blame for the scare to the province’s local newspapers, which generally reported the stories with ‘very modest facts’ that were ‘inflated and misrepresented’, ‘framed with unconnected material’ and ‘ornamented by apparently authoritative, if somewhat imprecise, anonymous information.’  Admittedly, those newspapers were under massive pressure.  A few years earlier their main stories had been about ‘livestock sales’ and ‘the Women’s Institute’ but now they were regularly covering ‘intimidation, murder and mayhem.’  Thus, standards weren’t high among their beleaguered journalists.


© Carrickfergus Advertiser


Fascinatingly, another possible culprit identified is the British Army, which depending on your political viewpoint was then in the province as protectors or oppressors, peacekeepers or occupiers.  Jenkins provides evidence suggesting the army was happy to stir the pot of black-magic rumours.   It conducted ‘black propaganda’ operations promoting the belief that, yes, diabolical things were going on and religious and / or superstitious Northern Irish parents should keep their offspring off the streets at night.  On those streets, they were actually unlikely to tangle with devil worshippers; but they could tangle with paramilitaries or the security forces.


Jenkins prints an interview conducted in 1993 with the legendary Intelligence officer and ‘psychological warfare’ expert Colin Wallace, who claims he and his men went around Northern Irish properties mocking them up with magic circles, esoteric symbols, blood, bones, candles and inverted crosses to make it look like unspeakable rituals had taken place in them.


Tragically, one element in the stories was real – the child who, my classmates had told me, had been ‘cut to pieces’.  Jenkins devotes a chapter to the murder of ten-year-old Brian McDermott.  Brian was reported missing from his home in east Belfast at the start of September 1973 and his remains, ‘burned, mutilated and partially dismembered’, were discovered in the River Lagan a week later.  Although the police dismissed the idea that the murder was the result of some occult ritual, Jenkins notes how “a ‘black magic’ interpretation of the murder of Brian McDermott became an established tale of the Northern Irish Troubles.”  Officially the crime remains unsolved, though in 1989 the journalist Martin Dillon claimed that British Army Intelligence suspected the murderer as being John McKeague (himself killed in 1982), one of the conflict’s most notorious and feared loyalist terrorists.


Richard Jenkins conducts his investigations with academic thoroughness, analysing certain stories and rumours from different perspectives as he goes through the various actors in the drama – the Troubles, religion, superstitious belief, the media, the army, etc.  His approach is exhaustive and may seem exhausting to the casual reader.  However, I found Black Magic and Bogeymen fascinating – well, I was there at the time – and it’s surely the last word on the subject.


Returning to my own experience, I recall being asked in December 1973 if I wanted to go to the Christmas pantomime being held at Enniskillen High School and telling my parents flatly that no, I didn’t, because Enniskillen was full of witches and devil worshippers.  My Dad went ballistic at me for believing such a ‘pack o’ nonsense’ and then demanded to know who’d told me those stories.  I gave him the names of my guilty classmates.  “More fool you,” he raged, “for listenin’ to them slabberin’ eejits!”  And that was that.  I stopped worrying and agreed to go to the pantomime.  That brief, angry burst of rationality from my Dad cured me of my fears.


Surprisingly, decades later, I remember my Dad – who originally hailed from Country Cavan in the Irish Republic – having a whiskey with an old Irish friend.  The pair of them started talking about their childhood in the Irish countryside and how, once the sun went down, their family members would tell ghost stories.


“I’m not kiddin’!” marvelled my Dad.  “After dark, ye’d be too terrified to step outside the house!”


“I think,” said his friend, “that was why they told us them stories.”


Which proves I wasn’t the first member of the family to be troubled by tales of ghosts, fairies, banshees, black magic and bogeymen.


© Hammer Films


Putting the gay into the Gaeltacht




Well, that was great.  With world events at the moment so generally grim that you almost feel afraid to peek into a newspaper or channel-surf anywhere near a TV news channel for fear that you’ll become suicidally depressed – thanks to the activities of Islamic State, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, Marine Le Pen and Katie Hopkins – the revelation that the citizens of the Republic of Ireland have voted by an almost two-thirds-to-one-third majority to legalise gay marriage has been wonderful.


Yes, amid all the bad news coming relentlessly from elsewhere in the world, the Irish gay-marriage referendum result has felt as welcome as…  Well, probably as welcome as the sight of that dove carrying a ‘pluckt-off’ olive leaf felt to Noah in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 8, Verse 11 — signifying that the topmost branches of the trees had at last begun to poke above the Biblical floodwater.  In this modern-day deluge of bad shit, it’s heartening that some twigs of human decency are still able to poke up into view, above it all.


Bear in mind that this has occurred in a country that decriminalised ‘homosexual acts’ only 22 years ago.  Back in the early 1990s, of course, the Roman Catholic Church still wielded a degree of power and influence there.  But now that church is seen as a discredited, hypocritical, child-abusing carcass – and the good folk of the Irish Republic have just well-and-truly stomped on it.


A few reactionary types aren’t happy about the result – though oddly enough, these were the same voices who’d lamented that legislation for gay marriage had been passed in other countries without the public being given a chance to vote on it.  For instance, in the Spectator, sour social conservative Melanie McDonagh has been lamenting about the ‘groupthink’ and ‘one-sidedness’ of the Irish gay-marriage debate: “There’s a creepily imitative quality to the liberal consensus – as though the colonial mind-set has morphed through clericalism to a self-congratulatory adolescence, perpetually in revolt against the vanished authority of the church.”  That’s right, Melanie.  The outcome of the vote had nothing to do with people wanting to show compassion, and fairness, and empathy, and respect for other people who happened to differ from them in their sexual orientation.  Rather, it was to do with people behaving like stupid teenagers and wanting to wave their middle-finger at some nasty old kiddie-fiddling priests.


The result, of course, focuses attention on Northern Ireland, which is now the last major area of the British Isles to oppose the legalisation of gay marriage.  I must admit to having a depressing feeling that hell will freeze over well before the bigots in the Democratic Unionist Party, who are a major component of the Northern Irish government, follow the example of southern Ireland.  Their attitude is only slightly less extreme than that of my current bête noir Susan-Anne White, the looney-tunes evangelical-Christian pontificator who a few weeks ago ran for Parliament in my old constituency in Northern Ireland.  Yesterday, she raved on her blog that “(t)he homosexual lobby are coming for Northern Ireland and intend to force sodomite ‘marriage’ on our Province…  We will resist this madness, God helping us.”


Oh Susan-Anne.  You are a demented old bat.


Incidentally, just a few weeks ago, the European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association rated Scotland as being the best country in the world for offering legal protection to gay people.  (I know that, strictly speaking, Scotland doesn’t qualify as being a country.  But because it has its own autonomous system of law, it does in legal terms.)  So there’s another large part of the Celtic world that can congratulate itself on its gay friendliness.  It’s mind-blowing that just a couple of generations ago the Republic of Ireland and Scotland probably seemed two of the last places that a gay person would want to live in, thanks to their being dominated by two particularly unappealing, intolerant and life-denying brands of Christianity, severe Catholicism and severe Calvinism.


So, all you Irish and Scottish folk out there, forget about such rabble-rousing appeals to your patriotism as Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996) or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).  If you really want to feel some nationalistic pride in yourselves, bask in the accolades you’re currently getting for showing a bit of decency towards your fellow human beings in the gay and lesbian communities.  That’s a true reason to be proud to be a Celt.


God wants your vote


(c) The Belfast Telegraph


The 2015 UK general election – voting takes place tomorrow and then it’s all over, thankfully – has, even by the usual standards of British general elections, been a depressing experience.  The current generation of mainstream party leaders, surely, are more blatant in their peddling of empty, meaningless platitudes, obfuscations and evasions than any generation of leaders that’ve gone before them.  And they’ve been aided and abetted in making this election campaign as disillusioning and unappetising to voters as is humanly possible by an idiotic national press.  Owned by half-a-dozen millionaire / billionaire tax-dodging Europhobic right-wing dingbats, the majority of Britain’s big newspapers have stuck unrelentingly to a simple formula – malign Ed Miliband and the Labour Party as far as you can go without ending up in the law-courts in England, and do the same to Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party in Scotland.


Actually, I thought that Ed Miliband wasn’t having that bad a campaign, despite everything – I even found myself warming to him during the leadership debates – but then he went and ruined everything.  As a publicity stunt, he unveiled an eight-foot-high limestone plinth with six Labour Party promises carved on it.  Carved in stone – get it?  Cue a million cruel jokes about Ed fashioning his own tombstone, about Ed sinking like a stone, about Ed’s plinth not having planning permission, etc.  It’s the sort of blunder you’d expect to see only in an episode of Armando Iannucci’s political sitcom The Thick of It.


At least, I thought, there’s one consolation amid all this.  Despite its ludicrousness and its sneaking underlying dishonesty, British politics at least doesn’t have the God factor to deal with.  It isn’t beset by the mentality that you get in the USA wherein certain politicians on the right have no compunctions about mixing their brand of cretinous hanging-and-shooting-and-nuking politics with God, Christianity and the Bible.


A good (or bad) example of this is former House of Representatives member and general all-round extreme-right Republican gob-shite Michele Bachmann, who has been recently predicting that the Rapture is about to happen, as a result of Barack Obama’s policies towards Iran and his espousal of same-sex marriage.  That’s the Rapture in the Biblical sense, i.e. the claim that prior to the Second Coming true Christian believers will be raised into the clouds whilst hell breaks out on earth below.  Not the Rapture who were a rather funky indie rock band from New York.


Yes, there seemed some consolation for me in the fact that you don’t get that bollocks in British politics.  However, I then stumbled across, in the online edition of the Belfast Telegraph, an article about Susan-Anne White.  Ms White is standing as an independent candidate in tomorrow’s election in the West Tyrone constituency of Northern Ireland and her campaign promises are ones you’d more expect to see carved in stone than Ed Miliband’s promises.  They’d be promises carved on two tablets of stone brought down by Moses, after he’d conferred with God on top of Mount Sinai.  That’s if God is really as much of a wrathful, blustering bigot as some people like to think He is.


Among the things in Ms White’s manifesto are opposition to the 1967 Abortion Act being extended to Northern Ireland; the banning of ‘amoral’ sex education from schools and the reintroduction of corporal punishment into them; the raising of the age of consent to 18; the banning of ‘gay pride parades’; opposition to ‘the LGBT agenda’ and the ‘redefinition of marriage’ and the upholding of ‘Biblical man / woman marriage’; the abolition of the Equality Commission Northern Ireland and the Human Rights Commission Northern Ireland; withdrawal from ‘money-wasting and decadent Europe’; opposition to the ‘Islamisation’ of Britain and the building of mosques; and restoration of the death penalty.


(c) The Huffington Post


Ms White is also an ardent opponent of ‘the global warming fanatics and their pseudo-science’.  I assume such objectionable pseudo-science also includes practices like zoology, geology, astronomy and palaeontology – or as they’re sometimes known, science – that dispute the fact that God created the universe and everything in it during six very busy days about 6000 years ago, which Ms White and all other good, sensible people know is true because it says so in Genesis.  That’s Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.  Not Genesis, the rather boring progressive rock band from the 1970s.


Talking of which, the Belfast Telegraph article stated that Ms White wanted to ban rock music for being vulgar and promoting ‘sexual anarchy’, although she has since denied this in her blog (  Her main reason for disliking rock music, she claims, is because it’s bad for your ears.


As well as ‘global warming fanatics’, Ms White is also severely down on feminists.  She regards feminism, in fact, as being “responsible for many of the social ills we see all around us.”  This includes the dire state of the economy, because “they destroyed the whole concept of the family wage with the father as the bread-winner and the stay-at-home mother.  They make women feel they have to be out in the workforce.”


Well, it’s a free country and I believe people have the right to believe any old claptrap they want as long as they don’t try to force it down other people’s throats – although I suspect this is what Ms White would be doing if she ever became MP for West Tyrone.  (Even in Northern Ireland, the chances of this happening are thankfully very slim.)  However, if she’s so hell-bent on opposing women leaving their homes and venturing out into the workforce, what on earth is she doing trying to win employment as West Tyrone’s elected representative in Westminster?  Shouldn’t she be at home, vacuuming the carpets, washing the dishes, making the tea, etc., while her husband goes out and wins the bread?  Tsk, tsk, Ms White.  At least practise what you preach.


What I find particularly amusing / worrying is that Susan-Anne White comes from the County Tyrone village of Trillick, which is just three miles along the road from where I used to live in Northern Ireland.  (In fact, my home was in the same parish as Trillick.)  From what I remember of the area, there lived there a couple of gentlemen who, while they were very conscientious about showing their faces in church every Sunday, were also a little bit, shall we say, amorous with the ladies.  Maybe that’s why Ms White is also advocating making adultery ‘a punishable offence’.  Aye, good luck with that one.


The Belfast Telegraph article is followed by a thread full of comments poking fun at Ms White and her barmy views.  It’s sobering to think, though, that some of those views are not far removed from those of Northern Ireland’s Free Presbyterian Church and its political wing, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), both of which, once upon a time, were headed by the Reverend Ian Paisley – a pulpit-thumping demagogue, close exposure to whom would do more damage to your ears than any amount of rock music.


For example, Iris Robinson, the former DUP Member of Parliament and former DUP Northern Irish Health Minister, famously described homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ that was worse than abusing children and called for gay people to receive psychiatric counselling.  (However, Iris parted company from Susan-Anne White’s opinions when it came to committing adultery; because in the late noughties, very famously indeed, she had an extra-marital affair with a lad of 19, who was about a third of her age.  This was much to the embarrassment of her husband, Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson, and much to the amusement of nearly everyone else in Northern Ireland.)


Mind you, though she shares some opinions with them, Ms White is not above offering the DUP criticism.  On her blog, for example, I saw her having a go at Fiona Paisley, daughter-in-law of the late Reverend Ian Paisley and wife of his imaginatively-named son, Ian Paisley Junior.  She’d been dismayed to see Fiona tweeting photographs taken of herself while she worked out in her local Crossfit gym.  “However, as women are 40-50% weaker than men (generally speaking) women should not be lifting weights at all,” said a disapproving Ms White, “and Fiona Paisley is at risk of serious injury if she continues to place such unnatural and unnecessary strain on her body.”


Anyway, in the event of a hung parliament, which on Friday morning seems a likely outcome of this general election, David Cameron will no doubt go scuttling off to see Susan-Ann White’s fellow religious nut-jobs in the DUP about securing their support in a new right-wing coalition.  Yes, having such people in positions of power in an administration of the United Kingdom as a whole – now that’s a prospect far more depressing than the election itself.