Wednesday 22 February 2012

Sean MacBride

Ireland’s people of destiny tend to come in waves usually propelled by some great event or person.

Charles Stewart Parnell’s Home Rule Party was stacked with giants such as John Dillon, Timothy Healy and Michael Davitt, while the battle for independence served up a veritable constellation of outstanding individuals from James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and Countess Markievicz to Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and Eamonn DeValera.

The pickings have been few of late, though it would be hard to ignore the disparate troika of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, John Hume and Gerry Adams from the Northern conflict.

Oddly enough – and purely a dispassionate observation - all those mentioned benefited from a British education and lived in times or circumstances not dominated by the Catholic Church – hardly a ringing endorsement for the Irish republic.

Then there are those like Sean MacBride who seem to have fallen just short of their potential – at least on the national stage.

His pedigree was impeccable with parents the like of Easter Rising martyr, Major John MacBride, and Maud Gonne, muse and heart-scald to William Butler Yeats.

Born 1904 in Paris Sean spent his first fourteen years in France. In fact, because of his parents’ seismic marital problems he was not initially taught English, his mother reasoning that should the good major kidnap the boy they would be unable to converse.

A British firing squad rendered that problem moot; still, Sean MacBride always spoke with a pronounced French accent that caused no little consternation among his rural Irish followers.

In the eyes of his mother MacBride was always destined for greatness. Madam Gonne (less courteously known around Dublin as Maud “Half-Gone”), along with such tutors as Yeats and Ezra Pound, demanded much from the boy and treated him as an equal.

At seven he served mass for Pope Pius X. Barely ten he ably debated Pádraig Pearse and within a year was helping his mother care for injured soldiers on the Western Front.

Small wonder that he became a full member of the IRA and was throwing bombs at British patrols at age fifteen. By the time truce was declared in 1921, MacBride – still only seventeen - was renowned for his charisma, fearlessness, and ability to procure military supplies in Europe.

He was summoned to London by Michael Collins to act as his bodyguard during the Treaty negotiations. Like many he was flummoxed by Eamonn DeValera’s refusal to attend.

MacBride greatly admired Collins but felt there was far too much drinking going on amongst the Sinn Fein/IRA contingent in London.

As Collins’ emissary he took the boat-train to Dublin every Friday and was back in London for Monday morning with DeValera’s instructions. He always felt that had the negotiators returned to Dublin on weekends Ireland would have been spared a civil war.

MacBride took the Republican side in the split. Captured, he shared a cell with Rory O’Connor and was about to be shot along with the IRA Chief of Staff but was reprieved at the last moment.

The execution without trial by the Free State government of 78 Republican prisoners led him to an uncompromising belief in due process and would later inspire him to help create Amnesty International. He was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for mobilizing “the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice.”

Before then however he founded the radical Clann na Poblachta party and in 1948 was appointed Minister of External Affairs in the first coalition government; unfortunately he aligned himself with Archbishop McQuaid against his colleague Dr. Noel Browne in the Mother and Child Health controversy that led to the collapse of the coalition in 1951.

That disaster scuttled his ambition of ever becoming Taoiseach, a post for which he felt he was indubitably suited.

He is best known in the US for his championship of the MacBride Principles that finally helped sweep away religious discrimination in the Northern Ireland workforce.

Yet, despite all his accolades and achievements, Sean MacBride’s final portraits seem tinged with sadness. Despite an epic and colorful life Maud Gonne’s son never quite achieved his anointed destiny and Ireland is the poorer for it.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Individual Versus Community

The Republican primary debates have been an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the soul of America or, some might argue, the lack thereof.

The topsy-turvy nature of the race demonstrates that democracy is alive; though, with the unbridled spending now allowed by Political Action Committees, it may be less than kicking.

And yet it wasn’t until President Obama’s State of the Union speech coincided with the debates in Florida that we were able to clearly identify the two contrasting fountainheads of American political life – the individual and community.

For sure, one can’t survive without the other but the degree of emphasis placed on either defines an era and its people.

The Gaelic clan system favored community and both saved and nourished the Irish when they landed on the often hostile shores of North America.

Forget about the melting pot! The Irish clung together in their neighborhoods, voted for their own and within a couple of generations were running the great cities of the Eastern seaboard.

Eventually they left for the suburbs, loosened their ironclad Democratic affiliation and began to take sides in the great battle between individual and community that’s been fought since the birth of this republic.

The real problem in the US right now is not that we differ on the proper balance between the individual and community but that we are unable to conduct a dialogue on the matter.

We have allowed ourselves to be railroaded by political partisanship. For me, the alarm bells sounded with the refusal of both parties to deal with the suggestions made by the Bowles-Simpson National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility Reform.

God knows the committee’s report was far from perfect but it could have served as a platform for debate.

It would have meant Republicans swallowing increased taxes, reduced defense spending, and the possibility of legislative success for President Obama. Democrats, for their part, would have had to antagonize unions by cutting both the federal workforce along with entitlements, and raising the Social Security retirement age.

Unsurprisingly, neither side had the stomach for confronting their bases with a presidential election in the offing.

But it’s the sheer inability to even have a discussion that’s frightening. Depending on one’s political point of view, society has little other function but to deliver profit - or the US is fast becoming a European style welfare state.

All that being said, whether you favor the Tea Party, the Occupy Wall Street Movement - or curse the day you heard of both - there is an important question that begs asking: does our present corporate system bear any responsibility to the nation’s citizens?

In other words, if more bucks are to be made overseas is that where US factories should be built?

Apple claims that it set up its manufacturing plants in China because there are not enough trained engineers available in the US. If that’s the case then why shouldn’t Apple spend some of its vast profits paying for US citizens to attain engineering degrees?

To balance that form of community-minded thinking, I have a friend – an unabashed member of the 1% - who feels that young people should be encouraged to save and invest for their own medical care and retirement, that they would do a far better job than any government.

By the way, this citizen is by no means heartless and feels that the government should operate welfare programs for the poor and those unable to look after themselves.

However, he considers the mere idea of Apple having any responsibility to the American public to be Soviet claptrap.

And yet with social mobility at its most static in generations and financial inequality growing by the minute the current national balance between the individual and community is obviously off-kilter.

When full employment returns – as it will someday – lower paid service jobs will have replaced many manufacturing and white-collar positions leading to increased social tension and inequity.

Isn’t it about time we stepped back and took a look at the forest rather than bumping our heads off partisan trees; we might discover a way out of the morass we are surely heading into.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

The perils of digitalia

What do you think of Facebook? Does it light your candle? On the one hand you’ll never be lonely again – at least digitally? On the other, you could end up with so many friends a little solitary in Sing-Sing might seem enticing.

I, myself, have way more than 10,000 amigos between Black 47, Celtic Crush, and sundry other pursuits – for all the good it does me. I even have “pirate” sites where mysterious benefactors cavalierly bestow my friendship to every Tom, Dick and Harry.

And yet I can’t say I feel the least bit more loved, cherished or understood; in fact, I would hide in doorways from many digital friends were I lucky enough to see them coming.

My first experience with social digitalia was Myspace - once the hottest thing since fried bread, now akin to admitting you once wore bellbottoms.

My record company of the time figured it was time for me to “digitally reach out” and a young eager executive hooked me up. To my amazed delight Andrea Corr was the first person to solicit my friendship.

For some years previous I had harbored a secret desire to be transferred from Black 47 to The Corrs in exchange for the good-looking brother. I could add a little edge to the sisters and Black 47 would acquire a handsome, non-political Irishman. Not to mention I would end up lip to lip on the microphone with the gorgeous Andrea.

The young eager executive however soon burst this romantic notion by tartly noting that Andrea more than likely didn’t know me from a hole in the wall – that her flirty approach was all the doing of her digital marketing manager.

Such is life in the fast lane! Still, I liked MySpace. You could choose a wide variety of friends and feature16 of them on your page. At one point I had James Connolly, Michael Collins and The Blessed Virgin as my top three; though, I worried about claiming familiarity with Jesus’ mom for fear she’d run into my own mother in heaven and complain about the cheek of me.

I’m glad Facebook doesn’t have a spot for one’s 16 favorite people – think of the bruised feelings. In fact this whole brave new world of communication is fraught with peril and pitfalls.

An agent told me he once lost his most valued client, gaining grey hairs into the bargain, by hitting “reply all” when giving his honest assessment of the sanity and sexual preferences of said client.

My own problems have more to do with the ubiquitous cell-phone. What a godsend though to babblers whose most frequent inquiry/demand/accusation appears to be – “where are you?”

Now lest you are unaware, New York City’s violent lunatics have one trait in common – they either talk to themselves or some higher being. Unfortunately, with so much inane cell phone chatter it’s hard to identify the real deal anymore.

One such character was conversing with Jesus in Lower Manhattan recently though I mistakenly assumed that he was just another deluded yuppie given to swearing through some invisible wireless device. I should have noticed that he reverently cocked both eye and ear while deciphering the Good Lord’s reply.

Without missing a beat in his tête-à-tête with the Almighty he unleashed a left hook that would have sent John Duddy running for the hills. As it whistled past the tip of my nose he yelled, “Hallelujah!” in a cackle not unlike Ron Paul celebrating the demise of the Fed. Luckily his fist’s trajectory through thin air threw him off balance and I was able to beat a tactical retreat.

Had I been digitally sensitive I would have immediately alerted my more than 10,000 friends about my brush with eternity. Instead, relief and the need of comforting sent me scurrying to the nearest pub where I breathlessly related my tale to the sympathetic bartender who backed up my pint with a much-appreciated shot of Black Bushmills.

Now that’s what I call a real friend. Yes, indeed, the bird in the hand is worth the more than10,000 in the digital bush!