Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Henry McDonald's "Colours: Ireland from Bombs to Boom": Book Review

This brisk narrative combines the personal with the political, the cultural with the musical. Its Belfast-born author moves through the colorful fair of football, punk, walls, migration, sex, affluence, corruption, and the persistent British presence in today's Ireland. As with other journalists from the Irish urban North, he shares a republican past, if not a present affiliation with them or those he labels as "my former co-religionists."

Eamonn McCann's radicalism, Anthony McIntyre's incarceration, Malachi O'Doherty's broadcasts along the "sectarian interfaces": with his province's peers from the same generation that rose along with the Troubles, McDonald combines in his similarly semi-autobiographical coverage a survey of current leftist perspectives from a jaundiced eye cocked at liberal pieties-- whether recited by Sinn Féin or its once more conventional peers at Stormont and in the Dáil. Frankly, he's had enough of the march along with the collective parade. Like McCann, McIntyre, and O'Doherty, McDonald now articulates the individual dissenter's truer witness amidst Irish pluralism that no longer hoists the tricolor over Four Green Fields. One Field's now left to fend for itself, with the Good Friday agreement of the majority of all concerned, it's argued, at least for now.

"Politically, I no longer have a home to go to; all my colours have merged into an indistinguishable blur. Iraq has finished off my alignment to the broad left in Ireland." (243) Yet, he's about ten-to-fifteen years younger than his peers. He's grown up with the Troubles already having erupted by the time of his birth, and he stands apart from their early eruption, growing up within them rather than helping them explode. He's shifted from the extreme-left stance of McCann, and drifts nearer McIntyre's acerbic analysis of the republican establishment's end-game and O'Doherty's philosophical perspective of an Ireland drained of its pious fanaticism.

While now weary of the bad-Yank good-terrorist posturing that defines the "irrational left" with whom McDonald grew up-- in a communist-socialist family and as an activist among what was left after the Official IRA (from whom the Provos first split) itself broke into Workers Party, IRSP-INLA-IPLA factions, and then the Democratic Left-- McDonald brings a rare perspective to a mass-market book. It's a popular publication about the far-left-- beyond the usual focus on the Provisional IRA- Sinn Féin majority that's taken up so much attention the past forty years.

As an historian of the UVF and the INLA, McDonald carries credibility when he castigates his former comrades too beholden to reflexive anti=American posturing to recognize their betrayal of true leftist ideals when it comes to supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East and Third World. The difference between McDonald and the three colleagues I mentioned earlier? While the tale starts rousingly with his family's giving OIRA hero Joe McCann a safe house, and their immersion into the Marxist contingents that battled with and against the Provos, McDonald concentrates early on how the sectarian divides worked their way into entertainment and pop culture badges of acceptance or transcendence. McDonald matured (to a degree) in the 1970s onwards as youngster rabidly following, given Catholic demographic shifts into North Belfast, Cliftonville FC, as one of the city's three "Protestant teams" inheriting a sudden republican fanbase in the post-60s era.

He then shifts into the Terri Hooley-helmed "Alternative Ulster" punk scene of the late 70s. Along with the Harp Bar, McDonald shows how teens had to traverse, whether from his homebase in the Catholic district of The Markets into the football terraces or the record shop and punk clubs, a dangerous terrain where each street and every hue brandished, a band's button and a team's scarves, showed your true colors, even to the point of fatally marking you when the Shankill Butchers sought out Catholics. The brief period of calm for the city's punks by the early 80s faded as the H-Block protests and the alliance of many skinheads with the racist extreme-right forced young people to again pledge allegiance to familiar tribal gods. From these, ever since, in Joycean fashion, McDonald tries to flee "family, religion and nation."

His own youthful embrace of his clan's first love for Red Russia brought him into the GDR to praise, so he expected, its socialist paradise. He contrasts his disillusionment over Eastern promises with the persistence of his home city's "peace walls" and investigates the continued preference of many in Belfast to choose their own to remain among, as in the Holy Cross school protests in 2001. Exacerbated now by immigration from China, Eastern Europe, and Africa, sectarian discrimination in once-Protestant bastions appears, from his 2004 vantage point, not to be diminishing.

This segues into more news from Dublin regarding the capital's struggles with multiculturalism and immigration. McDonald limns the three major communities making Dublin a more colorful city, and while his sympathies are as expected firmly on the side of inevitable globalization made local, he does nod to the claims that many asylum seekers coming in to the Irish Republic (often across the Northern border) are often advancing their claims on less than straightforward grounds for honest admission. This contentious issue will likely rouse complex reactions from any reader that transcend facile slogans or pat feedback. McDonald does present the cases of many well-intentioned and sincerely motivated immigrants in this chapter.

Naturally, reading this book five years on, I wondered if it was to be prescient regarding the current economic downturn that defanged the Celtic Tiger, robust and rowdy still when McDonald wrote it. After a chapter on the secularization by sexualization of his homeland, he explores the massive influx of EU capital into the Irish capital. He's great on the social and actual costs of reunification of the North with the rest of Ireland. He reminds us that the NI Catholic birth rate is actually declining with secularization, affluence, and contraception, as well as more families disenchanted with trusting the Church, given its plummeting reputation.

He shows that while the "rational left" spearheaded the cultural changes that undermined the Church, the state may be another matter. The 1990s prepared the way for the current decade's influx of polyglot immigrants, spending sprees, and inflated real estate. But, people in the Republic, no less than in the North, rejected finally a republican, unified, socialist government. They jumpstarted the Tiger and the boom, but McDonald's far-left comrades unwittingly created not a socialist worker's vanguard, but "conditions in which globalised consumer capitalism could thrive." (180)

As for those in the North who waited for a republican dawn, McDonald finds their forecasts windy. A triumvirate in "Sicily without the sun" from druglord gangsters high on EU trading markets and Third World labor, a white-collar "golden circle" in the scandal-ridden Irish political establishment, and the "paramilitary empire" that both loyalist and republican factions lord over by smuggling, extortion, kickbacks, intimidation, and violence persists. "As long as the good times roll on, there is little chance of the Irish underworld rising up to intersect with the surface world above. A downturn in Irish economic fortunes, however, a recession on the scale of the early to mid-1980s, would create the circumstances for one of the three underworld forces, Sinn Féin and the IRA, to build an electoral base that could threaten the very existence of the two states on this island." (207)

Along with this estimation-- and I thought of his evocation of the IRA murder of Jean McConville in a haunting pairing with the subsequent killing of Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robberies soon after this book appeared as a hint of McDonald's expectations-- we see in the last chapter that the British are not going away, you know. He reminds us of the many residents in Ireland born in Britain, many with one parent from there and one from Ireland, and of the generally ineradicable love-hate relationship that many so-called nationalists have with England. His anecdote of the rabid republicans sporting the ubiquitous ManU gear proves his point.

It's a fast-paced book. I caught a few slips: "Eamon" McCann has a matching extra "n" for his first name; the jibe "Tiocfaidh Armani" (again showing the kind of audience this author knows needs no translation of this bilingual pun) alternatively gets massacred in its transcription into a word no nearer Italian than its Irish form. And, "Terry" Hooley usually has that first named spelled with not a "y" but an "i" ending it, to confuse reporters more. While interviewees are credited, the list of books appended often does not find them cited in the text preceding.

It's difficult to pinpoint the audience, unless it's a reader already in touch with the vagaries of early punk, paramilitary feuds, republican splits, leftist mantras, and Irish League football. But, such an audience will welcome a book that perhaps assumes too much intimacy with the many places where the Northern-spawned political animal mates with the Republic's (not necessarily the republican) beasts in a chainstore, mercury-lit, heavily indebted, and sexually if not quite politically liberated contemporary Irish setting.

(P.S. I also reviewed Anthony McIntyre's "Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism" and Malachi O'Doherty's "I Was a Teenage Catholic" on my blog and on both British and American Amazon recently, where this review appeared today.)

1 comment:

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