Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

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China and Sri Lanka Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 9 2017.


Colman's Column3

China and Sri Lanka Part One


Padraig Colman

Donald Trump seems to be determined to annoy as many people as he can. He has made a good start on antagonising China.  The appointment of Peter Navarro, who has forged a career out of condemning China, to the newly- created National Trade Council does not bode well.  Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, published a book called: Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action.


This seems like a good time to examine Sri Lanka’s relationship with the PCR (People’s Republic of China). February 7 was the 60th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between this island nation  and China.

Ancient History

Professor KM de Silva, in his monumental History of Sri Lanka, describes how this island punched above its weight in ancient times. Sri Lanka, despite its diminutive size, belonged to the big league along with the ancient hydraulic civilisations such as China.


The economic potential of the Anuradhapura region was increased by proximity to the Mahaweli River. Mahasena’s Minneriya tank, plus many smaller tanks and irrigation systems built between the fourth and ninth centuries, helped sustain a considerable local population as well as producing a substantial agricultural surplus for export. The port of Gokanna (Trincomalee) played a part in the development of commercial relations with China and South-East Asia which enhanced the economic potential of the region.

Sri Lanka’s strategic position on the sea route between China and the west meant that from the early days of the Christian era there would have been trade between the island and China which would have been bolstered by religious affinity. However, up until the eleventh century the cohesion that comes from strong diplomatic and political ties was lacking.

The Buddhist connection helped to forge links between the two countries. There is evidence that Sinhalese nuns went to China in the fifth century and helped in the ordination of women there. In 411 AD, the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hsien visited the island and stayed for two years.


However, contacts with Chinese Buddhism were occasional and tenuous.

During the Polonnaruva Kingdom, Sri Lanka was a vital link in the great trade routes between east and west. The unity imposed on the Muslim world by the Caliphs and the peace imposed on China during the T’ang and Sung dynasties allowed trade between China and the Persian Gulf to flourish. Sri Lanka’s geographical position helped it to benefit from this.

In the early fifteenth century, under the Ming dynasty, seven powerful fleets from China visited the ports of the Indian Ocean demanding tribute and obedience to the Chinese Emperor. The Muslim explorer Zheng He (often known as Cheng-ho) was a Hui court eunuch and fleet admiral during the early Ming dynasty. On Zheng He’s, first visit to Sri Lanka in 1405, his objective was to take back the tooth relic from Kandy. In 1284, Kublai Khan had sent a similarly unsuccessful mission for the same purpose. Zheng went back to China disappointed but also aggrieved and he returned five years later to capture the Sinhalese king, Vira Alakesvara, his queen and several notables and took them as prisoners to China. The king was eventually released but his humiliation meant that he could not recover his throne. In 1411, the Chinese emperor sent a nominee to the Sinhalese throne but he was swiftly eliminated by Parakramabahu who began a reign of 55 years.

Relations with Communist China

Fast forward to the Communist Revolution – Ceylon was among the first countries to recognize the   PRC. Ceylon and the People’s Republic of China accorded each other diplomatic recognition in January 1950.

In 1952, Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when Ceylon faced a world shortage of rice.


The country entered independence saddled with a colonial plantation economy which was susceptible to fluctuations in world conditions. The country faced a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in export prices after the end of the Korean War and the price of natural rubber declined by 36%. The Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 further consolidated a cordial relationship with China. The agreement gave the newly-independent Ceylon a large market for its rubber in China, and China supplied China with low-cost rice. This agreement was entered into at a time when China was victim of trade embargoes which cut off imports of strategic materials including rubber.

After SWRD Bandaranaike became prime minister in April 1956, the two countries established full diplomatic relations on 7th February 1957 and set up embassies. A number of bi-lateral agreements strengthened political, economic, trade and cultural bonds. Ceylon/Sri Lanka supported the PRC’s “One China” policy, which Trump is now undermining, and efforts to give the UN’s China seat to the PRC. The USA did not establish diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979; Japan in 1972; UK in 1972 and France in 1964.


Mao Zedong died on September 9 1976. September 18, the day of Mao’s last rites in Peking, was also declared a day of national mourning and a public holiday in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government declared an eight-day period of mourning to coincide with observances in China. A condolence book was opened by the Chinese embassy.

Mrs Bandaranaike and China



The premiership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike further consolidated the gratitude of the PRC towards Sri Lanka. Her commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement provided the country with a great deal of international support and respect. She said: “Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today. This attitude is completely different from that of washing our hands of these matters, which was perhaps the idea behind the classical theory of neutralism. That was non-involvement — remaining in splendid isolation.”

The world’s first woman prime minister fully understood the importance for Sri Lanka of good relations with both India and China. She had close personal friendships in both countries and was distressed when the Sino-Indian war broke out in 1962. The Chinese Government were feeling somewhat victimised and expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries were functioning as judges rather than mediators. Mrs Bandaranaike’s mediation efforts were helped by her husband’s and her own history of support for the PRC and her close personal friendship with Chou En-lai.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike paid her first official visit to China in 1962, and made further visits in 1972 and 1977. China was isolated at this time and did not regain its UN seat until 1971. The Chinese government appreciated Mrs Bandaranaike’s visits and she forged close personal connections with the Chinese leadership. At her request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka from China on loan.

Chinese aid, which was on more favourable terms than aid from other countries, started during Mrs Bandaranaike’s premiership. She personally supervised the plans and construction of the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall). Built between 1970 and 1973, the convention center was a gift from the PRC in memory of her husband SRWD Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon from 1956 to 1959.


JR and China

Although he led Sri Lanka into a closer relationship with the west, President JR Jayewardene visited China in May 1984. During JR’s rule the USA was Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier and China accounted for only 30%. In the 80s, India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s evolving relationship with the US, Pakistan, China, as well as Israel. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, JN Dixit, cited JR’s foreign policy as the primary reason for Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.




Premadasa was president of Sri Lanka at the time of India’s disastrous military intervention in 1987. India’s actions, the imposition of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and the 13th Amendment and the forced merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as well as the invasion by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, drove Premadasa towards China. As prime minister, he had visited China in 1979 and received a warm welcome. By the late 1980s China had become Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier, accounting for 58% of all weapons imports, providing warplanes, artillery and tanks. Premadasa invited a senior Chinese political leader to his party-political events and China played a big part in his economic policy.

Gun Control Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 28 2016.

Colman's Column3

There has been a great deal of smugness in Europe about the epidemic of mass slaughter in the US. The recent shootings in Munich remind us that such things to do not only happen in the US. Recent horrors in Europe did not depend on assault weapons – the weapon in Nice was a truck, in Munich an axe bought from a hardware store. The Munich shooter, Ali David Sonboly, used a Glock automatic.

However, just because mass slaughter can be achieved by mentally disturbed people without assault weapons, that is no argument for allowing mentally disturbed people to have access to firearms. Mass shootings are not unknown in the UK but they are so rare that they cause shock and outrage and usually lead to a tightening of gun control.


On 19 August 1987, in Hungerford Berkshire, Michael Ryan shot 16 people dead, including his own mother, using a handgun and two semi-automatic rifles, before committing suicide. Shortly after midday on 19 August, Ryan approached Susan Godfrey, who was picnicking in Savernake Forest. He marched her away from her two young children and shot her 13 times in the back. During Ryan’s rampage, a police officer died and many people were injured. 15 other people were also shot but survived.

No firm motive for the killings has ever been established.  Dr John Hamilton of Broadmoor Hospital and Dr Jim Higgins, a consultant forensic psychiatrist for Mersey Regional Health Authority, both thought Ryan was schizophrenic and psychotic. Hamilton stated: “Ryan was most likely to be suffering from acute schizophrenia. He might have had a reason for doing what he did, but it was likely to be bizarre and peculiar to him.”

The police saw no reason to deny Ryan his firearms certificates in spite of the fact that many people described him as odd. Everyone who knew him thought he was a fantasist who told stories about a non-existent military career. Ryan did labouring work dressed in combat fatigues and was obsessed with guns. He carried his guns in his car and took pot shots at road signs. Given a job clearing footpaths in the town, Ryan would turn up carrying his rifle.

After the massacre, there was an immediate demand for a tightening of the law controlling the possession of guns. “The existing legislation is wholly inadequate …” said the General Secretary of the Police Superintendents’ Association. “There are too many guns in circulation and a lot of people who have guns clearly should not be in possession of them.” The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was passed in the wake of the massacre. The Act bans the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and restricts the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges (in magazine plus the breech).

At the time of the massacre, Ryan legally owned a Zabala shotgun, a Browning shotgun, a Beretta 92FS semi-automatic 9 mm pistol, CZ ORSO semi-automatic .32-caliber pistol, Bernardelli .22-caliber pistol, a Type 56 7.62×39mm semi-automatic, aM1 carbine .30 (7.62×33mm) semi-automatic rifle (a rare “Underwood” model).

Why would a school caretaker need such weapons?



On Wednesday 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, aged 43, drove his van to Dunblane Primary School near Stirling, in Scotland. He cut the telephone cables around the school  and made his way to the gymnasium carrying four legally held handguns — two 9mm Browning HP pistols and two Smith & Wesson M19 .357 Magnum revolvers. He was also carrying 743 cartridges of ammunition.

Why would a shopkeeper need such weapons? Why would the authorities grant him a licence to have any weapons at all?

He shot dead sixteen five-year-old children and one teacher before killing himself.

Hamilton seems to have been a paedophile. There had been complaints to police regarding Hamilton’s behaviour towards the young boys who attended the youth clubs he ran. Claims had been made of his having taken photographs of semi-naked boys. He claimed in letters that malicious rumours about him led to the failure of his shop business in 1993. In the 1980s, George Robertson, a  Labour MP, (later General Secretary of NATO and Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, of Islay in Argyll and Bute) who lived in Dunblane, had complained to the local Conservative MP Michael Forsyth about Hamilton’s boys’ club, which Robertson’s son had attended. Robertson acted as a spokesman for the victims’ families. He was also a key figure in the campaign that led to the ban on handguns in Great Britain.

The Cullen Inquiry into the Dunblane massacre recommended that the government introduce tighter controls on handgun ownership and consider whether an outright ban on private ownership would be in the public interest. There was a great deal of public and media pressure to totally ban private gun ownership. The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee agreed with the need for restrictions on gun ownership but ruled that a handgun ban was not appropriate.

In response to this public debate, the Major government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned all cartridge ammunition handguns with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons in England, Scotland and Wales. Following the 1997 General Election, the Blair government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning the remaining .22 cartridge handguns in England, Scotland and Wales.


On 2 June 2010 a lone gunman, taxi driver Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria, in north west England. The first killings were of people Bird had a personal grudge against, starting with his twin brother and moving on to the family solicitor and then rival taxi drivers. He then drove through several local towns, firing apparently at random, and calling a majority of the victims over to his taxi before shooting them, many of them in the face. After Bird killed himself, police confirmed that two weapons (a double-barrelled shotgun and a .22-calibre rifle with a scope and silencer) had been used by the suspect in the attacks and that thirty different crime scenes were being investigated.

Bird had held a shotgun certificate since 1974 and had renewed it several times, most recently in 2005, and had held a firearms certificate for a rifle from 2007 onward.

How did the firearms legislation allow a taxi driver to have these licences? Why would he need guns?

Gun Crime in the UK

Less than three per cent of firearms offences in the UK result in a serious or fatal injury. For 2011/12, police in England and Wales recorded 541 offences as homicide, of which 42 (eight per cent) involved the use of firearms — a rate of 0.1 illegal gun deaths per 100,000 of population. The number of homicides per year committed with firearms in England and Wales in the ten years to 2011/12, averaged 56 per year. During the same period, there were three fatal shootings of police officers in England and Wales, and 154 non-fatal shootings, an average of 15.4 per year. Britain has some of the strictest gun regulations in the world. As of the middle of last year, there were 1.8 million licensed guns of all kinds in the country, according a report by the UK government. The UK’s population is just under 65 million.

Britain is proud of its record on gun control but why should there be 1.8 million licensed guns in the country? I can never get my head around why ordinary people should be allowed to have guns at all. The three cases described above show that severely disturbed people were allowed to legally possess firearms when they had no need of them.

A small group, known as the Gun Control Network, was founded after Dunblane. Bereaved families and their friends also initiated a campaign named the Snowdrop Petition to ban private gun ownership. The petition achieved 705,000 signatures and was supported by some newspapers, including the Sunday Mail, whose petition to ban handguns had raised 428,279 signatures within five weeks of the massacre.

The UK legislation that was passed had bipartisan support. Even after the killing of Jo Cox MP, political rivals came together in their grief and shock. One cannot imagine Obama and Trump getting together after a shooting the way Cameron and Corbyn did. This is not because British politicians are necessarily morally superior to their US counterparts. I would argue that British legislation is morally superior on this particular issue.

Next week – the right to bear arms.


Gun Control – a Comparison

Leytonstone is a station on the Central line, the line which runs roughly west to east through central London and into the north-eastern suburbs. On December 5 2015, a man stabbed three people at the station before police subdued him with a stun gun and made an arrest. The man was reported to be shouting Muslim slogans and “This is for Syria”. Someone called out: “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv! You’re no Muslim, bruv! You ain’t no Muslim!”

The Metropolitan Police were very quick to describe this as a “terrorist incident”. The Somali-born knifeman had images of Fusilier Rigby (beheaded by a Nigerian Muslim) and British Islamic State executioner Jihadi John on his phone, along with material linked to ISIS.

It later transpired that the assailant, Muhiddin Mire, aged 30, had a history of severe mental illness. He was sectioned in 2006 during an episode “when, essentially he lost touch with reality”. His name was not on any database of suspects or known extremists, and he was not believed to have been exploited by any known terrorist group or individual. After Mire was convicted of attempted murder and incarcerated in Broadmoor high-security mental health facility, Commander Dean Haydon, head of counter-terrorism for Scotland Yard, said: “I would not class it as a terrorist incident now.”

Mire was experiencing paranoid delusions a month before the attack and  his GP referred him to his local community mental health services. He had missed an appointment with a community mental health team four days before the incident on 5 December. Mire’s family had also become concerned about his mental health and tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to return to Somalia, having failed to persuade the health authorities toplace him in a secure institution.

Mire targeted Lyle Zimmerman at random after travelling on the same tube carriage. On video footage, Mire was seen turning Zimmerman over, kicking him six times to the head and chest, and sawing at his throat with a breadknife. Louise McGuinness said in a statement that when she shouted at Mire to stop he turned to her and said: “This is for telling me to stop,” and kicked Zimmerman harder. It seems that his attack on Zimmerman was in emulation of the beheading of Lee Rigby.

Zimmerman, who sustained three large lacerations to his neck that exposed his trachea, testified at Mire’s trial in May 2016, where he said he felt his attacker was “a crazy person, a mentally ill person.”

Prosecutor Jonathan Rees QC had told jurors Mire’s mental health problems were not a defence that excused  his intention to kill Mr Zimmerman. Mr Rees also argued Mire had shown interest in ISIS and Islamic extremism before his “relapse” and his decision to give up his job as a taxi driver. The prosecutor said: “He is sympathetic to those who are choosing to pursue jihad against  non-Muslims. It can be no coincidence that he carried out the attack three days after parliament had voted to extend the bombing campaign against ISIS to territory in Syria. The evidence clearly establishes that the motive underpinning this attack was that bombing campaign in Syria. That was at the very forefront at his mind.”

After the jury delivered its verdict, Judge Richard Marks QC, praised those who remained at the station to warn others while Mire carried out his attack. He said: “There are members of the public who showed remarkable courage and good heartedness who became involved in this case.” He praised the “public spiritedness of the people who rushed in to help on the day of the attack”.

Those public-spirited people  did not run away and called the police and filmed the attack providing helpful evidence. The police arrived fairly promptly, tasered the assailant and protected him from an angry mob as they took him into custody.

Nobody died.

So here we have a seriously mentally ill person who has become further deranged by Islamist propaganda, He is arrested, put on trial and sentenced. The attack was horrific for those involved, particularly Lyle Zimmerman but nobody died because the only weapon Mire had to hand was a fragile bread knife.

In Orlando, a seriously mentally ill person who had become further deranged by Islamist propaganda, a bi-polar wife-beater with repressed homosexual tendencies, kills 49 innocent people and is then killed himself. Omar Mateen could not be stopped by his victims because he was armed, not with a fragile bread knife, but with an AR-15-type assault rifle, which he would only have needed to reload once during his killing spree due to the weapon’s large magazine size. In the state of Florida, anyone over the age of 18 can buy an AR-15 as no state permit is required. AR15s are owned by around 3.7 million American households. The National Rifle Association has defended the mass sale of assault rifles, insisting they are useful for wild hunting and “home defence.” Why would a family need such a weapon for self-defence? It is not a gun suitable for hunting. Its main function is mass slaughter. The AR15 has become the weapon of choice for mass killers in the US.


I was astounded by the utter fatuity of a comment on Facebook. Someone commented in fit of juvenile snarkiness: “OK – it’s the gun’s fault”. The NRA is always trotting out the cliché, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. Amend that to, “People with guns kill people, so don’t let madmen get their hands on AR15s.”


Easter 1916

April 24 2016


There has been a great deal written about the centenary of the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916. Many events commemorated the Rising on Easter Monday March 27 2016. However, because Easter is a moveable feast, the insurrection actually took place on April 24 1916. I am going to use that as an excuse to draw together some of my thoughts about the Rising.


England’s Difficulty


The aim of the 1916 Rising was to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Irish Republic while the United Kingdom was occupied with World War I. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”. Joseph Plunkett travelled to Germany in April 1915 to join Roger Casement to seek help from the German government. They also met the German Ambassador in Washington to seek German support for Irish independence. Plunkett and Casement presented a plan which involved a German expeditionary force landing on the west coast of Ireland. That plan did not work out, although Casement brought guns into Ireland from Germany.

The Rising had no popular support. As the rebel prisoners were marched away under arrest, they were attacked by working-class women, who pelted them with rotten vegetables and emptied chamber pots over them. Many of these were “separation women” – recipients of separation allowance as wives of Irishmen serving in the British Army.


In his eyewitness account, The Insurrection in Dublin, James Stephens (poet, novelist and short story writer) wrote: “Most of the female opinion I heard was not alone unfavourable, but actively and viciously hostile to the rising. This was noticeable among the best-dressed classes of our population; the worst dressed, indeed the female dregs of Dublin life, expressed a like antagonism, and almost in similar language. The view expressed was ‘I hope every man of them will be shot’.”

The Rising began on Easter Monday, 1916, and lasted for six days. Only about 1,600 rebels turned out in Dublin, with activity in the rest of the country mainly limited to parading. There were isolated actions in other parts of Ireland, but the orders for a general uprising were countermanded by Eoin McNeill, Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers. He had no role in the planning of the Rising, which was carried out by IRB infiltrators. When McNeill found out that Patrick Pearse had duped him he placed a last minute news advertisement advising Volunteers not to take part. McNeill was supported by Bulmer Hobson and The O’Rahilly but O’Rahilly joined in the rebellion and was killed in action.


The Seven


Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards has a new book just out – The Seven. This refers to the seven men who made up the Military Council of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. Following the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers in 1912, whose purpose was to resist Home Rule for Ireland, by force if necessary, the IRB were behind the initiative which eventually led to the inauguration of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913. The IRB intended to use the Volunteers to seek a republic, recruiting high-ranking Volunteers into the IRB, such as Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and Thomas MacDonagh. These men, together with veteran Fenian Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Eamonn Ceannt and James Connolly of the Irish Citizen Army, constituted the Military Committee. It was just these seven who decided to wage war on the British Empire. On the morning of Easter Sunday 1916, they met in Dublin’s Liberty Hall. By noon, they had printed and issued the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which they declared themselves to be the provisional government of an entity that claimed the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman, even though the people had not been consulted.

Patrick Pearse was a poet and playwright who founded schools to which the Gaelicist intelligentsia sent their offspring to be raised in the high tradition of mythical hero Cuchulainn and to learn the Irish language: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”. Pearse developed an unhealthy obsession with blood sacrifice.  “I care not though I were to live but one day and one night, if only my fame and my deeds live after me”.


Though not obviously a fighter, Pearse was enthused by the sight of armed Ulster loyalists and wanted to emulate them: “we might make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people: but bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing”. He developed a messianic and sacrificial notion that his cause was, through a symbolic loss of life, comparable with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Pearse expressed an ecstatic view of the energising force of the sacrifice of death in the First World War. He frequently celebrated the beauty of boys dying bravely in their prime, before the shoddy compromises of adult life corrupted them.  Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote: ““It would be frequently remarked of Pearse that he had no understanding of the mundane day-to-day concerns that precluded others from showing the same fanatical dedication to his successive causes: he lived and died for a people that did not exist.”

James Connolly was more hard-headed, a socialist and trade unionist who responded thus to an article by Pearse: “We do not think that the old heart of the earth needs to be warmed with the red wine of millions of lives. We think that anyone who does is a blithering idiot”.

Nevertheless, Connolly did sacrifice himself. The rising was planned as a “blood sacrifice” for a society that had become apathetic. There were disagreements among the rebels. Eoin McNeill wished to proceed only on a basis of realistic hope of success rather than staking everything on a gesture of moral revivalism. He thought the blood- sacrifice option intellectually flaccid. Many, however, like 18-year-old medical student, Ernie O’Malley, who had no previous record of nationalist involvement, were strangely stirred by Pearse’s peculiar theology of insurrection. O’Malley became a key organizer and leader in the later guerrilla war as well as one of its most prominent literary chroniclers.


Martyrdom and Separatism


Four years ago, I posted an article on Groundviews, a Sri Lankan website, in which I explored the theme of martyrdom in the militant separatism of Irish rebels at the beginning of the 20th century and of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) from the 1970s.


The article got 5,000 hits and 115 comments. There was a heated debate, some comments were stimulating, others silly.


I posted the article again on Facebook recently to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising. One commenter on Facebook said that she could not see the point of the article. I told her that it had been addressed to a Sri Lankan audience and was warning of the dangers of Sri Lankan Tamils elevating Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran to the status of a martyr for the cause of Tami nationalism. She responded that my article was “intellectually flawed” because it did not deal with the “800 years of oppression” that preceded the 1916 Rising.


She presumed to know that her long-dead Irish grandfather would take pity on me for my lack of respect for those who “Fought against subjugation of brutal British rule for centuries”. Professor Liam Kennedy has coined an acronym to cover this kind of thinking – MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever).


Imperial Oppression


My critic chastised me for not mentioning Cromwell, the Famine and Irish slaves in the West Indies. I have written on all of those subjects elsewhere. It should not be forgotten that Irishmen were also slave traders and overseers. The Scots were the main force in turning Ceylon into a tea monoculture but Irishmen played a role too, backed up by Irish nuns and priest. Thousands of Irish men were loyal servants of the army of the British Empire.


How oppressed was Ireland in 1916? The leader of the Home Rule party in the Westminster parliament, John Redmond, in a speech of 1915, claimed that by 1900 the struggle over land was effectively won. Many historians since have claimed conditions were improving in Ireland by 1916. The writer Sean O’Faolain (born John Whelan, his father served the Empire as a policeman), who had made bombs for the revolution, later wrote that by 1916, the historical grievances justifying armed violence, had become a “purely emotional impulse”.


Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, states: “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.


As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.


Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth and funded by the British goverment. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.


The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.

Another economist, David McWilliams, wrote recently, “sometimes we get dewy-eyed about the reality of the Irish state”. McWilliams claims that in 1913, Ireland was one of the richest countries in Europe, with income per head matching that of Sweden, Norway and Finland. 75 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. McWilliams asserts: “The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together”. During the Famine, Irish carpenters and fitters earned about 90% of what their English counterparts did. In the decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages. Wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers rose rapidly after the Famine. The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to the local farmers. The Irish stock market doubled in the late Victorian era. Large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir.

Although it was a hotbed of rebel activity, Cork did well out of the British Empire. I spent many happy childhood times in Cobh, County Cork. I walked through a public park called The Battery to get to a beach. In 1962, I sat reading Ulysses at White Point and looked across the bay to see imposing 18th century buildings. Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour was a major British naval base and defence against Napoleon. Cork exported salted beef, pork and butter to the West Indies and fed the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and, later, during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork.


Collateral Damage


On the 96th anniversary of the Rising someone commented in the Irish Times: “This tragic and misguided terrorist action started off with the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed policeman. No amount of rationalization can transform that first murder into an act of heroism and the misleading euphemism of the War of Independence for the subsequent terrorist campaign is dishonest and a travesty of the reality of those years. The warped so-called principles embraced by the terrorists of those times continue to be adhered to by the likes of the Real IRA. “


By the time Pearse surrendered after six days, only 64 rebels had been killed. In the World War, 25,000 Irishmen died fighting as members of the British Army. After the Easter Rising, the British Army reported casualties of 116 dead, 368 wounded and nine missing. Sixteen policemen died, and 29 were wounded. Rebel and civilian casualties were 318 dead and 2,217 wounded. The Volunteers and ICA recorded 64 killed in action, but otherwise Irish casualties were not divided into rebels and civilians. All 16 police fatalities and 22 of the British soldiers killed were Irishmen. The majority of the casualties, both killed and wounded, were civilians. Details of the 30 children who were killed can be found here:


British and rebels shot civilians deliberately on occasion when they refused to obey orders such as to stop at checkpoints. There were at least two instances of British troops killing civilians out of revenge or frustration, at Portobello Barracks, where six were shot and North King Street, where 15 were killed. Most of the civilians killed were victims of indirect fire from artillery, heavy machine guns and incendiary shells. The British seem to have caused most non-combatant deaths. One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, “They regarded, not unreasonably, everyone they saw as an enemy, and fired at anything that moved”.




One young Sri Lankan who commented on my Groundviews article confidently stated that all the Irish hated the English. Because of the close proximity of the two countries, because their histories are intertwined, because most Irish people have family living in England, the relationship is bound to be more complex than that. John Horgan noted that “the Irish mass audience for TV has never found it difficult to combine a deeply rooted and at times visceral republicanism with a deep fascination with the activities of the House of Windsor”. The residents of the Irish Republic are avid followers of Coronation Street and East Enders and readers of the Sun and the Daily Mirror.


Look at the backgrounds of some who have claimed to speak for the Irish to the extent that they thought they had the right to kill the Irish for their own good.


Rosamond Jacob visited England on many occasions and wrote contemptuously about everything from the landscape to the faces of people on the street. Desmond Coffey told his girlfriend Cesca Trench that the revolution was necessary so that it would be possible “to hate the English comfortably from a position in which they can’t look d-d superior and smile”. Mabel Fitzgerald wrote to her former employer, George Bernard Shaw that she was bringing up her son to speak Irish and to adopt “the sound traditional hatred of England and all her ways”. Shaw responded: “You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of”. He said she should be telling her son “that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past. Shaw scoffed at the fantasy of seeking “authenticity in rural life and hoping that the uncorrupted values of the Irish peasantry would rub off on them”. He warned Mabel that her son would probably rebel against her: “Nothing educates a man like the desire to free himself by proving that everything his parents say is wrong”.


Many of the most active Republicans were born outside Ireland. Tom Clarke was born in the Isle of Wight and spent his childhood in South Africa where his father was a British soldier.


James Connolly was born in Scotland and spent the first part of his life in Edinburgh. He served in the British Army.


Liam Mellows was born in Lancashire.


Margaret Skinnider was a sniper and the only woman wounded in the action at Easter 1916. She was mentioned three times for bravery in the dispatches sent to the Dublin GPO. She was born in Coatbridge, Scotland.



Many of those involved in the Rising did indeed revel in hatred of the English and of the British Empire. Many of them hated the English because they were English themselves and Anglophobia was part of a romantic rebellion against their own privileged backgrounds, against families which had long been pillars of the British Empire.


Robert Erskine Childers, son of British Orientalist scholar Robert Caesar Childers, was born in Mayfair, London. He grew up steeped in the most irreconcilable sort of Unionism.  He was educated at Haileybury, the elite public school for future army officers and colonial administrators, whose distinguished alumni include prime minister Clement Attlee and the bard of Empire, Rudyard Kipling. Childers was quite well known in England after his success with a spy novel, The Riddle of the Sands, which showed the Royal Navy in a good light, Erskine was initially a steadfast believer in the British Empire and fought in the Boer War but later came to identify himself closely with the country of Ireland, albeit at that stage from the comfortable viewpoint of the Protestant Ascendancy.


Childers did some gun running for the rebels on his yacht the Asgard. He became a nationalist so intemperate and fanatically obsessed that his opposition to compromise is sometimes blamed for bringing about the Irish Civil War. He survived the Easter Rising because he was in London. Childers was later secretary-general of the Irish delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty but was vehemently opposed to the final agreement. He fought on the losing side in the Civil War. The author Frank O’Connor was involved with Childers and wrote that he was ostracised by the anti-treaty forces and referred to as “That bloody Englishman”. Childers was executed by his former comrades in the Free State government. Churchill said of Childers: “No man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavoured to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being, activated by a deadly and malignant hatred for the land of his birth.”


Childers shook the hand of every man in the firing squad and asked his 16-year-old son to seek out everyone who had signed his death warrant and to shake them by the hand. I met that son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, in 1974 when he was visiting Cobh as President of Ireland. He had also been born and educated in England and had a distinctive upper class English accent.

Countess Markievicz was a member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. She was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London. During the Rising, Lieutenant Markievicz supervised the setting-up of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen’s Green, wounding a British sniper. In prison, she was the only one of seventy women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex.”


Yeats’s muse, Maud Gonne, was a fervent Irish nationalist despite being born near Farnham in Surrey, England, the eldest daughter of Captain Thomas Gonne of the17th Lancers, whose own ancestors hailed from Caithness in Scotland.


Cesca Chenevix Trench was born into an Anglo-Irish Protestant Unionist family and grew up in a vicarage in Kent. The family contributed much service to the British Empire and Anthony Chenevix-Trent was headmaster of Eton in the 1960s. Cesca changed her name to Sadhbh Trinseach.


The Hon Albinia Lucy Brodrick came from an English Protestant aristocratic family which had been at the forefront of British rule in Ireland since the 17th century and were pillars of the British Empire worldwide. The family colonised the part of Ireland in which I lived. Albinia’s brother, St John Brodrick, 1st Earl of Midleton was, in the words of one biographer, “consistent in his low opinion of the Irish [and] he held imperialist views that warmly embraced much of the jingoism associated with social Darwinism”. Albinia initially shared these views but following regular visits to her father’s estate in County Cork, she began to educate herself about Ireland and developed an interest in the Gaelic Revival. She was a staunch supporter of the Rising and joined both Cumann na mBan and Sinn Féin. She changed her name to Gobnait Ní Bhruadair.


Percy Frederick Beazley at the age 23 in Bootle wrote in his diary: “Shall I be despised? Shall I live a poor weak puny life- I who have the strength and will and a fire within me which will not rest”. He fervently idealised Ireland as a result his childhood holidays. “I shall wake up the Gael, appeal to him, trust in him”. He changed his name to Piaras Béaslaí.


Roger Casement was born in Dublin but served the British Empire as a consul in its diplomatic service and received a knighthood. His father, Captain Roger Casement, served in the (The King’s Own) Regiment of Dragoons. The family lived in England in genteel poverty. Roger’s mother died when he was nine. They returned to Ireland to County Antrim to live near paternal relatives. When Casement was 13 years old his father died, having ended his days in Ballymena dependent on the charity of relatives.


Cathal Brugha (Charles Burgess) was born in Ireland but the family came from Yorkshire. Patrick Pearse’s father was born in Birmingham.


Michael Collins’s chief intelligence officer, W J Brennan-Whitmore, was born in Wexford but his name worked against him. Tom Clarke despised Brennan-Whitmore, saying “never trust a hyphenated Irishman”. He joined Sinn Fein in 1910, was active in the Irish Volunteers in North Wexford and fought at North Earl Street in the 1916 Rising. He has been written out of Irish history possibly because he contributed to several ultra nationalist anti-Semitic journals. He was a prolific correspondent writing regular diatribes against the European Union in the Irish Catholic press.


The Provisional IRA leader in the 1970s, Sean Mac Stíofáin (who was baptized John Stephenson in Leytonstone, England, as a Catholic, despite the fact that neither of his parents was Catholic). His Irish was spoken with a Cockney accent. The leader of the Official IRA, Cathal Goulding, was particularly scathing about “that English Irishman”. “Sean’s problem is that he spends all his time going around trying to prove to everybody that he’s as Irish as they are, and in the IRA he had to show that he was more violent than the rest. “


A Motley Crew

The British reaction to the Rising was extreme and incompetent and made martyrs of those who had previously been regarded as clowns. As WB Yeats wrote in his poem “Easter 1916”:


Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn


Yeats and his friends had mocked the rebels but the Rising and the British reaction to it changed everything. Yeats had particular reason to loathe one of those executed, John MacBride  – “a drunken, vainglorious lout” – who had married and mistreated the poet’s muse Maude Gonne.  A “terrible beauty” was “born” during Holy Week, which marks the occasion of Christ’s sacrifice. The Easter Rising is both crucifixion and resurrection.


We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

A middle class background is often glossed over. Sighle Humphreys and her O’Rahilly cousins went to exclusive private schools, lived in huge houses with servants and fleets of cars. The Plunketts moved between a series of large houses with many servants and were wealthy from rental income. MacSwiney’s wife Muriel was a Murphy and wealthy from the family’s brewing of the nectar that is Murphy’s stout.


Many of the revolutionaries came, like Bulmer Hobson and Ernest Blythe, from wealthy Ulster unionist families. The Gifford sisters came from a strict unionist background from Dublin’s upper middle class. Grace  married Joseph Plunkett,  Muriel married Thomas MacDonagh. Both men were executed for their part in the Rising. Kevin O’Shiel and Eimar O’Duffy were brought up in wealthy Catholic homes and were radicalised at exclusive boarding schools in England as were Mary MacSwiney, Maire Comerford and Muriel Murphy. These people reacted against their privileged backgrounds and seized on advanced nationalism and Irish-Ireland values as Roy Foster puts it, “part of general rebellion, partly fuelled by a sense of guilt and compensation”.

bulmer hobson

Bulmer Hobson

Many of those involved in the Easter Rising had advanced views. People ran away together to found communist communes in Donegal. The lesbianism of many key figures went unconcealed. Roger Casement was a homosexual as was Eoin O’Duffy, who went on to lead the fascist Blueshirts. Rosamond Jacob (Róisín Nic Sheamuis)   was an enthusiast for Freud’s writing. Although many of these middle class revolutionaries were bent on self-transformation, the Irish revolution moved from artistic, social and sexual experimentation to repressive conservatism.


Theatre of War


The Rising had been called a revolution of poets but playwrights and actors were more prominent. Even James Connolly had written plays about the 1867 Fenian Rising for the drama group of the Irish Citizen Army. The theatre was an influence on developing nationalism. Martin Esslin wrote that the theatre is where a nation “thinks in front of itself”. Yeats stated that in the theatre the mob becomes the people”. The Abbey Theatre with Yeats and Lady Gregory put on plays about Ireland’s mythical past and allegorical plays which carried a contemporary message about English domination corrupting Ireland. Arthur Griffith was put off by Lady Gregory’s Ascendancy hauteur (her husband was Governor of Ceylon) but recognised that these plays chimed with Sinn Fein’s call for psychological as well as political autonomy. Roy Foster describes the Abbey Theatre as the “Established Church” with networks of overlapping little theatre companies making up “dissident congregations”. One of these groups was the Theatre of Ireland – its best playwright was Padraic Colum. Patrick Pearse’s brother Willie started the Leinster Stage Society. Their productions did not impress the critic from the Irish Times. He noted that the plays tended to concern “our old friends the fairies, who seem to have fallen on evil days since the introduction of railway trains”. Foster describes the atmosphere of the theatrical world of Dublin as “incestuous and mutually critical”.


More than one commentator has noted that the Easter Rising seemed choreographed as if theatre had taken to the streets. When the insurrection broke out several people mistook it for street theatre. Constance Markievicz was asked by passers-by at Liberty Hall if she was rehearsing a play for children.


Did the Revolution Improve Social Justice?


Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.


However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.


There were undoubtedly social injustices in the Ireland of 1916 (as there were in England). Horace Plunkett of the Cooperative movement produced statistics to show the extent of urban poverty. The death rate for Ireland in 1917 was 16.8 per 1,000 of the population compared to 14.4 for England and Wales. In Ireland there were 2.2 deaths per 1,000 from TB; in England and Wales it was 1.62.Todd Andrews, veteran Irish republican born in 1901, wrote in his autobiography Dublin Made Me about the bleak existence of those at the “bottom of the heap”. “Even those who had regular work were seldom above the poverty line and very many were below it…when I was child, every mother of young children lived in constant dread and sometimes real terror of sickness”.


I remember when Cork was dirt poor. Ancient black-shawled women, like one might see in Greece, Sicily or Portugal, moved like shadows in the warrens of alleyways that climbed the steep streets. Beggars sat on St Patrick’s Bridge. However, this was long after the Imperial oppressor had been ejected.


Apart from those around James Connolly, not many of those who fomented the 1916 Rising were much concerned about social conditions. The writings of Pearse are concerned with a more spiritual Ireland. Likewise, Standish O’Grady used the legendary figure of Cuchulainn “to galvanise the weakened generations of Ireland into an awareness of their heroic masculinity”.

My father, Jeremiah O’Leary, was still in the womb of Hannah Noonan O’Leary when the rebels took over the GPO. He was born on 29 June 1916, two months after the Rising. Economic circumstances forced him to go to England to find work when he was  in his twenties. His younger brother joined him. My father joined the British Army when the Second World War broke out. Independence precipitated a massive flight of people from Ireland. In the 1950s, 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. The Irish-born population there peaked at over 700,000 in 1971.


Pensions Fit for Heroes?


In his book A Nation not a Rabble Diarmaid Ferriter has unearthed some interesting material from what does not seem an exciting source – MSPC (Military Service Pensions Collection). “The archive reveals so much about the revolution’s afterlife”. Ferriter notes that there is a huge gulf between the numbers of applications and awards made. Those affected by the events of Easter Week were in drastic financial circumstances and “it is clear that civil war politics intruded in some of the decisions that were made”. One cannot but suspect that simple bureaucratic bloody-mindedness and parsimonious penny-pinching were behind the obstructive behavior of the assessors.   Even James Connolly’s family and Joseph Plunkett’s widow were subjected to delays and humiliations.


There was no doubt about the bravery of Margaret Skinnider or of the seriousness of her wounds. She was wounded while she was in command of a squad of five men trying to cut British lines in Harcourt Street. She suffered a bullet wound near the spine and another in her right arm where a bullet had ploughed through the flesh upwards and had blown away the flesh connecting the arm and shoulder. None of this mattered to the Board which adjudicated that Skinnider was ineligible simply because she was a woman. Her wound was not a wound because she was a woman. “It would be illogical… to include female sex under ‘wounded members’…Section 3, which applies to this case, uses the words ‘any person’ as referable only to the male sex…The definition of ‘wound’ in Section16 only contemplates the masculine gender”. Skinnider was informed that her claim was not admissible because the Army Pensions Act “is only applicable to soldiers as generally understood in the masculine sense”. She appealed but had to wait 13 years before she got a wound pension.


William Maher’s file covers twenty years of frustration and no pension at the end of it. Ferriter comments: “The reason for the department’s stalling was an obvious desire to prevent payment of money legitimately due to pensioners”. The Army Finance Officer was given a definite steer which Ferriter interprets as “a cynical move that sought to make savings from the hoped-for ignorance of those affected, and the probability that many of them would not have the means to pursue legal action”.



Kevin O’Higgins asserted in the Dáil in March 1923: “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”. De Valera wrote to Mary MacSwiney: “Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, or even a bishop, rather than the leader of a revolution”. John Banville described de Valera’s Ireland as “a demilitarized totalitarian state in which the lives of its citizens were to be controlled not by a system of coercive force and secret policing but by a kind of applied spiritual paralysis maintained by an unofficial federation between, the Catholic clergy, the judiciary, the civil service and politicians”.


Countess Markievicz boldly stated “the Catholic church is one of the greatest influences for evil in the world” and found it “incomprehensible how any sane person of any intelligence could be a Catholic”. In spite of this, her revolution established a state which was dominated by the regressive and reactionary ideas of the Irish Catholic church. The economy was ruined and the state even begrudged paying pensions to those who were wounded in the fight for freedom. Some met a worse fate and were executed by former comrades. The material questions around which republicans had organised, including trade union militancy, land seizures and the establishment of soviets, became embarrassing for the national leadership. As historian Tom Garvin put it: “whenever social protest began seriously to threaten the interest of men of substance, republicanism ostentatiously dissociated itself from agitation”.


Diarmaid Ferriter wrote: “The revolution did ‘change the relationship between one class of Irishman and another’, not through the creation of a new socialist regime, but through the existence of a hierarchy of benefit”. He quotes Francis Stuart, “we fought to stop Ireland falling into the hands of publicans and shopkeepers”. That seems to be  a fail.


Declan Kiberd suggested that the work of Samuel Beckett reflected the failure of the revolution; its rhetoric had been merely aspirational without a grand inclusive programme for Irish development. Beckett saw Irish society as pastiche with no overall purpose and responded by putting futility and despair on stage for people to laugh at.


The Rising Today


The Rising failed and was followed by a war of independence and a bitter civil war. Although de Valera fought against the treaty partly because of partition, anyone fighting for a united Ireland during De Valera’s long reign was likely to be interned or executed. A republic was not declared until 1949. Ireland is still divided. One might ask whether the violence and suffering of the war of independence and the civil war were worth it.


The Republic of Ireland had a general election on February 26 2016 in which the two parties which developed out of the civil war reached a stalemate and Sinn Fein increased its seats. Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) was the anti-treaty party of De Valera.  Fine  Gael  was  the  pro-treaty party  of  Cosgrave,  Collins  and  the  Free  State  government.  De  Valera  fought  against  the  treaty because  it  left  Ireland  divided,  part  of  the  Commonwealth  and  owing  allegiance  to  the  Crown. Ireland is still divided and its freedom of action is restricted by the European Central Bank.


As I write, (24 April 2016, one hundred years to the day after the Easter Rising) the Republic of Ireland is without a government.



Martyring Innocents


Someone commented on my Groundviews article: “The IRA and the LTTE had to make the best of whatever resources they had. People, be they majorities or minorities will rise up when they can no longer put up with the oppression that they have to face. The French Revolution, Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution were inevitable due to the oppression that people had to face.”


The same commenter wrote about “the struggle for freedom – to preserve one’s culture at any cost… There is such a thing as a ‘national consciousness’ in which the abuses of the past are not forgotten but remain vibrant and alive in the form of a collective memory. It is to this category that the ‘martyrs’ belong. They are not remembered for going on hunger strikes or surrendering at the very end – which your article makes a mockery of – but for the stand they take against injustice. Many of them are revolutionaries. None are afraid to die, which is where the hero-worship comes into play. Whether or not you agree with their cause is irrelevant; the mark that they leave on the collective consciousness of a people or nation is indelible.”


He continued: “there are many who are willing to live on their knees, but then there are the few who would rather die on their feet then live on their knees be it for a united Ireland or for a separate state called Tamil Eelam…don’t forget that William Wallace or Prabhakaran did not wake up one fine day and decide that they must fight the British or the Sinhala armed forces. It was the many years of oppression that their people had to undergo which made them take up arms against their oppressors.”


We need to unpack lethal clichés like these. Where do you draw the line between national consciousness and delusional, dangerous myth-making? The commenter’s knowledge about William Wallace seems to rely solely on Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart which had no foundation in historical fact. Print the legend!


Is it a good thing to keep alive the abuses of the past in order to continue the bloodshed? Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of the kind of thing France needed to forget in order to be a nation.


The Easter Rising of 1916 was not a simple case of a minority being oppressed by a majority. The rebels were ethnically and religiously part of the majority population. The enemy was the imperial power which had colonised Ireland for 800 years. The rebels were a minority in that they had no popular support. I am asking if it was legitimate for them to take it upon themselves to opt for violence in the name of the Irish people as a whole when the Irish people as a whole took no interest in the matter. This happened 100 years ago but has resonance today because a small band of people are still engaged in a bombing campaign with no mandate from the Irish people for a cause that hardly anyone cares about. Innocent people will continue to be killed.


Seamus Heaney wrote:


History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.


So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.


Seamus Heaney The Cure at Troy


Enough of martyrs. Enough of revenge. Let us hope a further shore is reachable, in Sri Lanka and Ireland.



I consulted the following books for this essay.


The Big Fellow                                                            Frank O’Connor                       1937

Michael Collins                                               Rex Taylor                               1958

The Black and Tans                                         Richard Bennett                      1959

The Easter Rebellion                                       Max Caulfield                                     1963

Ireland’s Civil War                                          Calton Younger                       1968

The Secret Army                                             J Bowyer Bell                          1970

Roger Casement                                             Brian Inglis                              1973

Patrick Pearse: The Triumph of Failure          Ruth Dudley Edwards              1977

Modern Ireland 1600-1972                            RF Foster                                 1988

Paddy and Mr Punch                                       RF Foster                                 1993

The Transformation of Ireland 1900-2000     Diarmaid Ferriter                   2004

Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion                     Charles Townshend                 2005

Terror in Ireland 1916-1923                           David Fitzpatrick (Ed)              2012

Rebels: Voices from the Easter Rising                        Fearghal McGarry                  2012

Myth and the Irish State                                 John Regan                              2013

The Seven                                                        Ruth Dudley Edwards              2016

Unhappy the Land                                           Liam Kennedy                         2016

A Nation and not a Rabble                              Diarmaid Ferriter                   2016

Churchill and Ireland                                      Paul Bew                                 2016

Vivid Faces                                                      RF Foster                                 2016

James Connolly                                               Sean O’Callaghan                   2016


Noise about Silence

This article appeared in the August 2011 edition of Living magazine.



There has been a lot of noise about silence, a lot of words expended.

For example, Sara Maitland wrote a lot of words about silence.  Before writing A Book of Silence, published in 2008, she spent silent time in silent places – on Skye in the Hebrides; in the Sinai Desert; in forests and mountains; in a flotation tank; in monasteries and libraries. Then she did a lot of talking to promote the book.

I used to live in Lewisham and even without rioters it was noisy. As well as the usual car and burglar alarms, there were police helicopters flying low in the small hours of most mornings. Skulks (that is the collective noun apparently) of foxes used to sun themselves on the surrounding  lawns and at night forage in dustbins and set about reproduction. The nocturnal screaming of ravished vixens was indescribable.

Later we lived  in sparsely  populated rural Ireland and became  used to a certain level of quietness.  Meditation was relatively easy in our little cottage surrounded by fields.  I first visited Sri Lanka in 2001 and spent  twelve days in a meditation centre, practising the art of “noble silence”. Sri Lanka was a bit of a shock to the senses, especially hearing.

I wrote a poem about it at the time.

The Silence Within

A bhikkhu sneezes. Anicca. Bless you.

Inside the meditation hall, buttocks squirm,

Noses sniffle, throats tickle and phlegm.

Geckos squeak. Outside, temples and mosques

Decibel their faithful to prayer. Sirens police the roads.

Helicopters take the air highway to the war.

Semtex gouges rock from the earth. Rifles shoot wild boar.

A demon hectors on my left shoulder, mocking

My ambition of equanimity.

One can hope for quietness but  it’s all relative. In 1952 at  the Maverick Hall  in Woodstock,  New York State, the penultimate piece of a piano recital by the young piano virtuoso David Tudor  was John Cage’s latest “composition”, 4’33”. Tudor shut the piano and sat still. The wind rustled in the maples and rain could be heard falling on the roof.

The American Catholic monk, Thomas Merton wrote: “I make monastic silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators” . The more accepted theory behind the practice of monastic silence is that it is a means to access the deity, to develop self-knowledge and to live more harmoniously.

Jenny Diski found it difficult to live harmoniously with her neighbours because of their Led Zeppelin albums. She also discovered that she suffered from tinnitus and found that there is a medical condition known as hyperacusis  – an inability to tolerate everyday sounds. Many sounds that were previously perceived as  normal can be painful, annoying, seem amplified, or irritating.

It seems to me that what Sara Maitland is writing about is not silence, which is unattainable, but solitude. One reviewer  of A Book of Silence commented, “One unmentioned side effect of silence, on Maitland at least, seems to be solipsism.” Maitland’s craving for partial isolation raises significant questions as to the nature of silence and relationships. Monastic silence and monastic solitude might be liberating but could also cause derangement and hallucinations. Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in  A Time to Keep Silence: “I had asked for quiet and solitude and peace, and here it was; all I had to do now was to write. But an hour passed, and nothing happened. …So much silence and sobriety! The place assumed the character of an enormous tomb, a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant.”

Visitors from Colombo to our mountain retreat  remark on the meditative calm. However, it is certainly not as silent as the tomb. Sometimes I find Colombo quieter.  Mother Nature is a noisy old whore.  As I write this,  hornbills are cackling derisively, squirrels are noisily complaining about the attentions of the dogs, monkeys are fighting over guavas, parrots are just scolding for the fun of it.

There is no such thing as silence.

Sri Lanka as One Nation

This article appeared in the June 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest) under my real name of Michael O’Leary. The strapline was: “Will Sri Lanka be able to forget its past and fashion a new entity that subsumes history, culture and ethnicity? muses Michael O’Leary.”


In Ireland, nationalist rebels fought to unite the north-east with the rest of the island. In Sri Lanka, nationalist rebels fight to separate the north-east from the rest of the island. ‘Nationalism’ became a common concept in the mid-19th century. Today, most people live in multi-ethnic independent nation-states. Eric Hobsbawm defined a nation-state as “a territory, preferably coherent and demarcated by frontier lines from its neighbours, within which all citizens – without exception – come under the exclusive rule of the territorial government and the rules under which it operates”‘


Benedict Anderson wrote: “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny'”. Nations “loom out of an immemorial past” and “glide into a limitless future”. Kemal Atatürk – founding a modem secular nation – co-opted the Hittites and Sumerians into the project. Ernest Gellner asserted: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness- it invents nations where they do not exist.”  Paul Ignotus wrote about Hungary: “A nation is born when a few people decide that it should be.” It has been said that the literary renaissance in Dublin, which helped to forge the Irish national consciousness, probably came about because five or six people happened to be neighbours and cordially hated one another.


Sri Lankan nationalists such as AE Goonesinha were stimulated by accounts of Parnell, Davitt and the Irish freedom movement, and closely followed Irish events in the late 19th and early 20th century. Ratmalana Sri Dharmarama Thero and Ananda Coomaraswamy wrote of an ancient, highly-developed Lankan civilisation. Modern-day Sri Lankans might echo Adamantios Koraes’s 1803 remarks about his contemporary Greeks’ relation to their classical ancestors. He said: “We must either try to become again worthy of this name, or we must not bear it'”. Anagarika Dharmapala wistfully dreamed of a dazzling past: “We must wake from our slumber … We were a great people'” Ponnambalam Arunachalam wrote in his diary: “Thought much of the unhappy conditions of our country and what a glorious thing it would be for Ceylon to emulate and excel her great past.”


Historical symbols are selectively reinterpreted to create a myth of historical continuity, including a community of common ancestry and destiny. Anderson uses the term ‘imagined communities’. He describes how Indonesia, a vast polyglot multi-ethnic accumulation of 3,000 islands under the colonial rule of the Dutch, imagined itself into a nation.


A very different nation is Switzerland, a country of three (or should that be four?) languages which was, until recently, poor and backward. The Swiss Confederation was supposed to have been founded 700 years ago. In fact, the Swiss nation only came about in 1891.


How did these very different agglomerations imagine themselves into nations?

EM Forster wrote: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”” Orson Welles had a similar attitude: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask: ‘What’s for lunch?”


A country is an aggregation of rocks, soil, plants, animals and humans existing under certain climatic conditions in a geographical location. Can the result of a succession of such accidents inspire love? Nations can inspire profoundly self-sacrificing love –Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.  Anderson said: “Dying for one’s country -which usually one does not choose – assumes a moral grandeur which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association or, perhaps, even Amnesty International cannot rival … for these are all bodies one can join or leave at easy will.”


Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud exchanged letters on this topic. Freud believed that the human psyche is motivated on one side by erotic instincts that seek to “preserve and unite” and on the other by destructive instincts that seek to “kill and destroy”. Politics embodies an aspiration to promote identification and love, alongside permission to foster aggressiveness. It is unfortunate that love of country often has to entail hatred of something else.


Peace has descended on the north of Ireland and the south has been blessed with wealth. Those who sought peace have been marginalised and those who cynically destroyed power sharing and devolution now share power in a devolved statelet, advising other countries – like Sri Lanka – how to achieve peace. After some 30 years and 3 000 deaths, Paisley and McGuinness are now a double act as lovable as Laurel and Hardy. The IRA s bombs failed to achieve a united Ireland. It was the EU that brought peace, because republicans and loyalists could join together in cross-border pan-European institutions without ‘surrendering’ to the institutions of the old enemy’.


As the old imperial blocs disintegrated, regions and aspirant nations voluntarily subsumed themselves in other blocs. Could Sri Lanka strengthen its unitary sovereignty and economy by subsuming its disparate parts in a larger Asian association?


Ernest Renan wrote that nationhood requires forgetting many things. He cited the massacre of the Huguenots on St Bartholomew’s Day as a symbol of what France needed to forget in order to be a nation. Will Sri Lanka be able to forget and fashion an entity combining all cultural histories as successfully as its cricket team?

Democracy Moves in Peculiar Ways

Colman's Column3This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday September 1 2015.



Jobs for the Losers

For several days last week, Ceylon Today was carrying a banner headline stating that SB Dissanayake was a “serious contender” for the post of Leader of the Opposition. “Hang on, I said”, to myself (I often talk to myself as it’s the best way to guarantee an intelligent conversation) “was SB not one of those recidivist old lags the voters rejected in the cleansing of the Augean stables that occurred on August 17?” “Yes, indeed he was”, I answered myself, “but he is back in parliament as one of those names on the UPFA National List”.

National List

I try manfully to explain the nature of Sri Lankan democracy to my foreign readers (both of them) but it is not easy. What is the National List? A National List MP is an unelected Member of Parliament who is appointed by a political party or an independent group to the Parliament of Sri Lanka. The number of national list MPs allocated to a contending party or an independent group depends on the proportion to their share of the national vote. 29 national list MPs are appointed.

University Constituencies

One looks in vain to other countries for exact parallels but one might compare the concept to the old University seats in the UK. University constituencies originated in Scotland, where the representatives of the ancient universities of Scotland sat in the unicameral Estates of Parliament. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne in 1603, and became James I of England, the system was adopted by the Parliament of England. The system was continued in the Parliament of Great Britain (from 1707 to 1800) and the United Kingdom Parliament, until 1950. The University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford were therefore given two seats each from 1603. The voters were the graduates of the university, whether they were resident or not, who had the vote for their University in addition to any other vote that they might have. Note that the members representing Oxford and Cambridge Universities were not appointed like National List members – they were voted into the Commons. Although the members for the university Constituencies were usually Conservatives, in the later years, Independent candidates began to win many of the seats. In 1948, the Labour government abolished the university constituencies, with effect from the dissolution of Parliament in 1950.

Intellectuals Making a Contribution to the Legislature

The Members for the university constituencies included many famous names: Pitt the Younger and Palmerston both served as MPs for Cambridge University, and Peel and Gladstone served as MPs for Oxford University. In his last years Ramsay MacDonald was MP for Combined Scottish Universities after losing his seat in the 1935 general election.

The idea of University seats was similar to the idea behind the Sri Lanka National List – to have intellectuals, who were not necessarily up for what Alan Watkins called the “rough old trade” of politics, to contribute their wisdom to the national legislature.

One scans in vain the list of University MPs to find many names that have resonance today. One that I recall is AP Herbert. Sir Alan Herbert was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford, gaining a First-Class Honours Degree in Jurisprudence. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1919, but never practised. Herbert served in the Royal Naval Division during the First World War and was mentioned in dispatches after Gallipoli. During the Second World War he combined his parliamentary duties with service in the Royal Navy on patrol boats in the Thames as Petty Officer Herbert. When he was knighted in 1945, The Times noted “his individual niche in the parliamentary temple as the doughty vindicator of the private member’s rights, including not least the right to legislate.”

Throughout his career Herbert lobbied for reform of several laws that he felt to be out-dated, including those on divorce and obscenity. He began contributing humorous articles to Punch in 1910 and used satire to get across his reform agenda. He wrote a series of stories about a persistent litigant, Albert Haddock, called Misleading Cases. The BBC adapted them for television in the late 60s and early 70s. These fictions were Herbert’s vehicles for his law-reform work and carried cogent legal points and are sometimes quoted in real-life judicial decisions  and academic research. Herbert also wrote eight novels and 15 plays, – the comedy Bless the Bride (1947) ran for two-and-a-quarter years in London.  PG Wodehouse wrote: “I want to see an A. P. Herbert on every street corner”.

Intellectuals in the Irish Upper House

Today there are no university constituencies in the Republic of Ireland’s lower house of parliament, Dáil Éireann, but there are two university constituencies represented in Seanad Éireann, the Irish upper house. Unlike Dáil Éireann, the Seanad is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members chosen by various methods. Its powers are much weaker than those of the Dáil and it cannot veto bills, only delay and seek to improve them. The two university electorates consist of the graduates of University of Dublin (Trinity College) and the National University of Ireland who are Irish citizens, regardless of where they are resident. Each is a three-seat constituency elected under the Single Transferable Vote and the election is conducted by postal ballot. Some politicians have called for university representation to be abolished, on the ground that it is unacceptable that possession of a degree should confer special electoral rights.

One can find many distinguished writers and intellectuals on a list of former senators, including many who have had an influence in global politics: Mary Robinson, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Mary MacAleese, Garrett Fitzgerald, Lord Longford, Oliver St John Gogarty, George Moore, Brian Friel, and WB Yeats.

One would have to look very hard into the history of National Lists to find anyone of the moral standing of Mary Robinson or the intellectual clout of Yeats or Friel. The original intention of the National List was to allow a voice in the legislature for professionals, academics who did not have the networks and resources of professional politicians. Rajiva Wijesinha was a good example of what the National List should have been about. Whether one agrees with his views or not, he tirelessly analysed the micro aspects as well as the macro of what was needed for good governance in this country. Few would complain about Lakshman Kadirgamar being given a seat. Harsha de Silva brought his economic expertise to the benefit of the legislature without having to go to the hustings (although he has now successfully done so). On the other hand, CBK, who is being deferred to on many issues by the current prime minister, appointed Mervyn Silva to the National List after he finished last in Colombo with 2,236 votes. What did he contribute to the quality of debate in the legislature by squeezing a monk’s testicles?

Nevertheless, data on parliamentary activity collected between May 2012 and August 2013 showed that on average, national list MPs contributed 25 per cent more in terms of net productive time in parliament than elected MPs. There were four national list MPs amongst the top 22 contributors (top 10%) in parliament. These were (in order): Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP), A.H.M Azwer (UPFA), Harsha de Silva (UNP) and Eran Wickramaratne (UNP). There were also four National List MPs amongst the bottom 10 per cent. The average contribution of an Opposition National List MP was double that of a government National List MP.

Whatever about their performance, is it morally right that 29 members get a seat  in Parliament without being democratically elected? Many of those now coming into parliament and getting ministerial jobs were decisively rejected by the voters.




Phoenix – A Book of Poems by Anupama Godakanda Reviewed by Padraig Colman

A version of this article appeared in the Sunday Island on August 30 2015.


This is not a long book, only 94 ages, and the poems are short, the longest covering four pages, but some big themes are handled. The poems deal with colonialism, post-colonialism, race, Sri Lanka as home, Sinhalese mythology and culture, a child’s perception of the world, feminism, ageing, the classical ancient world of mythology, and, as the collection’s title suggests, regeneration. I suspect that the poet’s heart is closest to the more personal themes: the ill-fitting self, the battle of the sexes, delivering love, unsatisfactory relationships.

The Ill-Fitting Self

The poet indicates in her preface that, like Yeats, she is interested in the concept of The Mask. “As a social creature I am compelled to wear as many masks as possible and even go so far as to hide my own self from myself- for my own good it is said”. In ‘Faces’ the poet ponders on what face to wear today- “or dare I go naked for a change?”

In ‘Dreams and Hopes’, even hopes are delusions and disguises:

Camouflages they are

That dress poorly

The nothingness at my core.


In ‘A Closer Fit’ she writes


My skin does not fit right

An imposter in clothes,

Borrowed, begged, or stolen…


In shame when among those

With tailor-made skins, just right,

The way they hang, chameleon-like.



Wading our way through

A quagmire of the postcolonial slush

Sucking it up to the White Sahib

In absentia.


That comes from a poem called ‘Let Me Cast the First Stone’ which vividly encapsulates the fate of someone oppressed because she is a woman as well as because she is the subject of a colonial power.


They wanted to truss her up in alien dress,

To have her boned and hooped,

Her tongue and knees

Bent to their will.


‘Amalbiso’ takes an old story and makes it new.


Foxes are licking their chops

Blood-spattered from a fresh kill upriver

Yet, greedy for another gorging

The screech you hear is the vultures,

Heralding a brand new age.


The conclusion is nicely done and brings us back to the concept of post-colonialism.


The wolves, the foxes, the vultures and the leeches

Keep waiting for their fill of the kill

Prowling, circling, sniffing, growling

For the hyena to cackle its command from across the Atlantic.


As we in Sri Lanka wonder what changes the US wants to impose on us, this is very timely.




In the poem called ‘Home’, the poet challenges the image of her homeland, Sri Lanka, that has been concocted to entice tourists. She does remember


Smiles like sunshine

Kindness like rain,

Occasional, true,

Nevertheless, real,

Soothing my heart

And bathing my spirit

In their regenerative pools.


Nevertheless, the brutal reality of Sri Lanka’s history and present must not be ignored. As I write this, I have just been reading about the horrors of the torture chamber at Batalanda.


Here, in this island

With its soil soaked

In blood – weight for weight-

Yours and mine,

Its air pierced

With cries of pain and of rage.


In spite of all that, the “mongrel” poet calls Sri Lanka home.




In the poem called ‘Feminism’, the poet asks


Are we there yet?


The implicit answer seems to be negative.


They said we were oppressed,

Hoodwinked and exploited, hegemonically.

So we left the warmth

Of our hearth-fire;

Un-clunged the clinging arms

And marched (do not ask how or where to)-

All in the name of liberty.


Much of what we have read in the other poems in the collection might suggest that the answer is “no” to the question.


Are we in better charge

Of those violated orifices, tears and sweat,

At least hegemonically?




‘Bleeding Dead’ depends on what in the Metaphysical poets was called a “conceit’-  an extended metaphor with a complex logic. The conceit in this poem does not quite work for me.  Time is seen as a bomb ticking away as we age toward death.  Then it becomes non-operational but rises out of its own ashes only to blow itself up.


The theme of regeneration is more successfully dealt with in ‘Choices,


I like a phoenix, need to burn

To be born again, free,

So that your fire

Could set me on fire,

For us to burn,

To be free, togetherness.



In ‘To Love’ “One being” arose “phoenix-like” from an “inferno of white passion”.  Here regeneration depends on human relationships. These are not always easy. In many of the poems, love is cruel thing. As the old Boudleaux Bryant song has it, “Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars”.



Unsatisfactory relationships

Truth and lies are mentioned many times in the poems, often in the context of the power games of sexual relationships. In ‘138 ¾’ she wants to believe her lover, despite his “honey-poisoned tongue(s”) because she is “hooked, enthralled, enslaved” and in turn (she hopes) bind and enslave him. However,

Is this enough for a lifetime-

Lying and hoping?

Hoping and lying?


Love can be a battlefield. In ‘The Craving’ the couple


Bleed and pant

And then prop each other up

Sitting back to back

On the battlefield

And lick each other’s wounds clean.




This would have been a better book with more rigorous editing. There are too many stale received phrases. Nevertheless, the poet often shows that she is capable of following Ezra Pound’s command “make it new” and creates strikingly original images. Pound was asking the artist to see everyday objects afresh and to question the basic assumptions of our lives, and art’s relation to them.


For a foreign reader like myself (and one might hope that this poet could gain an international audience) a glossary explaining some things about Sinhalese culture would be helpful. Amalbiso has many striking images and the theme is clear. However, just speaking for myself I would like to know more about the story of Amalbiso than I can find on Google.




A little about Anupama’s life:  She is the eldest of three girls, but she was raised by her paternal grandparents. “It’s my grandfather who had the greatest influence on my life, I think. I’m a lot like him, people say. Middleclass by upbringing but working class if you check my bank balance. I’m a Sinhala Buddhist and I take pride in that.”   She reads other poets for pleasure and inspiration: Keats, Yeats, Frost, Shakespeare, the Brontes, Dickinson, and Plath. She likes Sinhala poetry, too.


I will leave it to Anupama Godakanda to sum up what she is about.  In her preface she writes: “A declaration of war. Words are the chosen weapon in the ongoing battle waged by myself against me which is not really me. And rarely does myself emerge victorious from these many skirmishes. However, these defeats, instead of crushing myself down, are often the very stuff that set me on fire so that I could turn to ashes once again and emerge from my pyre a little closer to myself”.


My Secret Corbyn Court.

I have been contributing a weekly column to the Sri Lankan English-language daily newspaper Ceylon Today since January 1 2014. Their circulation is small and they only pay me Rupees 3,000 per article (about GBP 14). This is a hobby rather than a career or source of wealth and influence.


My most recent article was prompted by the abysmal level of debate during the still on-going parliamentary election campaign in Sri Lanka. I was particularly exercised by the abusive response given to my friend  Professor Rajiva Wijesinha for his thoughtful contributions to discussion of good governance. I did not have much interest in Jeremy Corbyn, but I thought some discussion by me of his supporters’ reaction to John Mann MP would be of interest to a Sri Lankan readership.


There was only one comment on the print edition of the article. That was from Rajiva himself who commended my efforts.


I then posted the article on my blog. There was only one comment on that.


I shared the blog version on my Facebook Timeline. There was no comment at all on that.


Other people shared my FB post on FB. I think Janey Preger was the first. She thought the article was ‘excellent’ but not all of her friends agreed.


A significant volume of comments only ensued when Raymond Gorman shared it. Most reactions were personally hostile to me. One called me ‘a feckin eejit’. Another posted a link to an article about foreign paedophiles in Sri Lanka which seemed to be intended as a slur on my character. Raymond, decent man that he is, removed it. The general drift of comment seemed based on the assumption that I was a Daily Mail-reading Tory. I have never voted Tory in my life. The last time I voted was to contribute to the Labour landslide of 1997. I have not lived in the UK since 1998. I have no intention of returning but if I do, I have little doubt that I will be voting Labour.


I have never bought the Daily Mail in my life and have only read it online. The only time I bought the Telegraph was when I was stuck in Ashton-under-Lyne during the Thorpe trial and no Guardian was available despite the proximity of Manchester. The Torygraph was particularly strong on salacious court cases. I have rarely read the Times in my entire life and since Murdoch took it over, it has seemed worse that the Sun.  I started reading the Guardian when I was 12. I have never bought the Spectator. I started reading the New Statesman when I was 15. During the 70s and 80s I was an avid reader of Socialist Worker and Searchlight and went on Anti-Nazi League marches and attended Rock Against Racism festivals.


Some FB friends with connections to British journalism suggested that my article should gain a wider audience and I should pitch it to the Times or the Telegraph. I demurred on the grounds that my article said nothing original. An article in the Daily Mail, which I had not read when I wrote my article, covers the same ground as me, and more. Living, as I do, up a mountain in the poorest province in Sri Lanka, I do not have the resources to function as an investigative journalist. I am an elderly gent who enjoys writing and, in his anecdotage, likes to share his experiences and thoughts with a defenceless readership.


The only value I could add to the Corbyn story was that from 1994 to 1997 I worked on child protection for the Department of Health. During that time, the Islington care homes scandal was a hot topic and DoH officials at many levels of seniority were very frustrated at the lack of co-operation from officials at the London Borough of Islington. The council leader was Margaret Hodge. I never met her but I knew her husband Henry Hodge. I thought he was a lovely man and was very fond of him. I did not meet Jeremy Corbyn at any time but I did deal with correspondence from him at various government departments. I read the voluminous files on the Islington scandal and my recollection leads me to support what John Mann MP says about Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to react pro-actively to the allegations of horrendous child abuse.


When I said to Michael Paine: “I know what I know. You vote for whoever you think best”. He seemed to think that I was morally reprehensible. He threw Thomas More at me- the fictional Robert Bolt saint and man of principle rather than the  real -life bigoted psychopath who enjoyed watching heretics sizzle and pop. Paine placed this in context by saying he was not in favour of secret courts. Neither am I. Apparently, because I said that I believed Mann’s allegations because I had seen documentary evidence( that I could not now produce)  placed me in the same league as the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China, Iran and the Tudors. This is insanely disproportionate. I can only repeat that my “evidence” is not necessary to the case presented about Corbyn’s lack of action. The issue has been in the public domain for a long time. This is not just conspiracy theorists. Social worker Liz Davies’s testimony is believable even though it has recently been reported in the Daily Mail.


Back to the Sri Lankan election: President Sirisena has said, People should use their intelligence, knowledge of what happened in the past when casting their vote”. If Jeremy Corbyn has what it takes to be prime minister of the UK, my humble article should not be a bother to him.  Former Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa hopes to become prime minister after this general election. He said about complaints of heckling and hooting at meetings that democratic politics is not for the faint-hearted: “It is part of the package and one should be able to withstand such pressure and such eventualities in politics. I have been booed and even stoned at political rallies in the past but I braved those incidents. If one was scared of facing such situations, one should leave politics”.

Etc Etc Amen Part One of a review





This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday April 19 2015.


Howard Male described his first novel as: “An airport novel with ideas above its station. A literary novel that’s having too much fun for its own good.”

 male plus cat

“We have the skeleton of a philosophy but, as you know, it’s primarily a philosophy committed to its lack of commitment to the very ideas it puts forward”.

So says Barney Merrick in Howard Male’s novel Etc Etc Amen. The novel  is stimulating and entertaining on a number of levels. Male says: “It’s a love story, a hate story, a murder mystery, a suicide mystery, a conspiracy thriller, a satire on organised religion, it’s not sci fi, it’s not horror, it’s not a rock novel – despite the fact it has elements of all those genres.”


My own interpretation is that the novel’s main thrust is as a satire on religion but it also provides a wry picture of the rock music business. I think I also detect a satire on the parasitic nature of journalism in general as well as rock journalism in particular.

There is a strong element of the page-turning thriller- I received a few surprising jolts as I was reading so I must take care not to emit any spoilers. There is also a vivid evocation of Marrakech, which brought back happy memories for me.

Male’s main creation in the book is rock god Zachary Bekele, who founds a non-religion (which becomes a cult) called KUU (The Knowing Unknowable Universe). The bible of this non-faith is The KUU Hypothesis. The St Paul of KUU is erstwhile rock journalist Paul Coleridge. The novel is structured upon extracts from The KUU Hypothesis, selections from The Life and Death of Zachary B by Paul Coleridge, a narrative written  in London 2005 about the 1970s, and accounts of a visit to Marrakech in February 2007 by a female journalist, August, and a photographer, Damian.  They are investigating a series of deaths of KUU followers and are awaiting an interview with the cult’s Leader Who Is Not a Leader

Zachary’s Story

Rock journalist Paul Coleridge is assigned to interview Zachary Bekele who is a 70s glam rock star.  We piece together Zac’s biography from extracts from Paul Coleridge’s memoir and from the visit of August and Damian to Marrakech. Zac’s father, Girma Bekele, had made a fortune selling stolen icons from Ethiopian monasteries. His dodgy reputation adds further intrigue to Zac’s persona.

Paul gets an early warning about Zac’s character when the star plays table football in an unsportsmanlike manner  and then  reneges on the promised interview. Paul has to work up the Man of Mystery angle to meet his deadline. Paul begins to feel that his articles have played a significant role in promoting Zac’s success. Between 1972 and 1975, he was one of only two journalists to whom Zac would talk.  Zac seeks Paul’s opinion about new tracks, but will not accept anything but praise.

Coleridge recalls Zachary’s early performances in the 70s: “vocally, he was part Scott Walker and part Marvin Gaye”. He was an intellectual as well as a rocker; he told an interviewer, “CS Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis were guiding lights.” He acknowledges his English roots – he was born in Chelmsford and loves the Kinks and the Stones- but his father was from Ethiopia. “We’re about soul music from Saturn. Vibes from Venus”. There is something of Bowie and Bolan about Zachary B.  Memories of seeing Arthur Brown perform as the God of Hell Fire in a blazing helmet came back to me as I was reading.


Nick Valentine, Zac’s manager says: “Don’t let all that peace and love bullshit fool you. He needs fame even more than he needs money”. Zac develops delusions of grandeur. As well as the attentions of the usual kind of groupies, he also has a stalker who hoards his cigarette butts like religious relics.

When Punk came along in 1976, or so the received wisdom goes, it was a rebellion against pretentious “progressive” rock. In fact, Johnny Rotten often talks about his respect for artists like my former neighbour Peter Hammill of the “progressive” band Van der Graaf Generator.  As long ago as 1977 Lydon  said: “Peter Hammill’s great. A true original. I’ve just liked him for years. If you listen to him, his solo albums, I’m damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer. The credit he deserves, just has not been given to him. I love all his stuff”.


Zac is not ready for punk. Changing musical tastes make him redundant and a spectacular at Trafalgar Square intended to resurrect his career instead finishes it off.  Zac’s solipsism makes him deaf and blind to the discomfort and displeasure of the audience and the other musicians. “Since Trafalgar, in the eyes of the public, he’d come to represent the more farcical, cartoon-like aspects of the rock world: he’d become lumped in with Gary Glitter rather than David Bowie, and it must have hurt like hell”. He succumbs to the degenerate rock lifestyle of groupies and drugs. “During 1975 and 1976, Zac’s coke and cocaine habit gathered further momentum”. Paul and Zac’s wife Jody bond as they both become sidelined.


Glam Rock

This novel deals, in part, with the early pre-punk 1970s that gave birth to a strange phenomenon known as Glam Rock. I lived through that era and survived to tell the tale. Glam Rock did not appeal to me but I can appreciate Male’s respect for the more talented practitioners, such as Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Roxy Music and their rougher US equivalents, the New York Dolls. Even the better acts toyed  with androgyny and sexual ambiguity – “gods dressed as goddesses”. Lower class versions hit the charts with other people’s songs but were mainly ludicrous bandwagon jumpers – “mutton dressed as lamb Second Division”.  Zac describes them as “builders dressed as princesses with their stubble and acne-pocked jaw lines making a mockery of their meticulously glossed lips”.


Rock and Religion

I recall seeing live performances by the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Brown wore outlandish costumes (although he sometimes stripped naked) and a flaming helmet as he declaimed: “I am the god of hell fire!” The record was produced by Kit Lambert and Pete Townshend and issued by The Who’s Track Records label. It sold over a million. Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer was in Brown’s band when I saw them. Brown was also notable for the extreme make-up he wore onstage, which would later be reflected in the stage acts of Alice Cooper, (there is a character in Male’s novel called Alice Cooper- she is female) and Kiss. Brown’s behaviour was so outrageous he was even  kicked off a Jimi Hendrix tour. Brown is still performing 50 years later.

Townshend himself has had spiritual moments. Since the late-’60s, Townshend has been a disciple of Indian mystic Meher Baba “I heard the voice of God. In an instant, in a very ordinary place at an unexceptional time, I yearned for some connection with a higher power. This was a singular, momentous epiphany – a call to the heart. “Jimmy Page spoke about: “that fusion of magick and music… alchemical process.” Dylan flirted with born-again Christianity and then explored his Jewishness. Later he said: “Here’s the thing with me and the religious thing. This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music”. Alice Cooper himself (Vincent Furnier) says: “It doesn’t matter how many drugs I take, I’m not fulfilled. This isn’t satisfying. There’s a spiritual hunger going on. Everybody feels it. If you don’t feel it now, you will. Trust me. You will…Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s the real rebellion.”  Male mentions John Lennon’s notorious comments: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right, and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

More on KUU theology next week.


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Numéro Cinq

A warm place on a cruel web

United States Hypocrisy

A critical analysis of the American empire's high-minded rhetoric, and the ways in which it continually fails to square with reality.

Website of Kate Armstrong

I wrote 'The Storyteller' (Holland House, 2016). I'm writing my next novel.

The Broken Elbow

A View of the World from New York and Belfast (Public PGP Key: 210D6F47)

The lovely wibbly wobbly old lady

Views on life, the universe and everything...from a middle aged perspective