Luke Callinan

Luke Callinan

Luke Callinan is a Left Republican from south County Roscommon, Ireland. His main interests are Irish literature and history.

The struggle to decolonise the mind: Frantz Fanon and his Irish translator, Constance Farrington
Saturday, 15 January 2022 13:34

The struggle to decolonise the mind: Frantz Fanon and his Irish translator, Constance Farrington

Published in Cultural Commentary

Luke Callinan sketches the life of Constance Farrington (see image above), translator of Fanon's Wretched of the Earth

Last month marked 70 years since the passing of psychiatrist, political radical, Marxist and philosopher of the Algerian Revolution, Frantz Fanon, at the young age of 36. He was born in 1925 on Martinique, a French colony from 1653.

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Fanon left his home in 1943 at the age of 18 to join the Free French Forces which had been established by the French government-in-exile during the Second World War to fight fascism. After the war, he studied medicine and psychiatry in Lyon, France. Having qualified as a psychiatrist in 1951, Fanon completed a psychiatric residency during which he wrote his first book, Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), an analysis of the deeply destructive psychological implications of the colonial subjugation of black people. He contextualises this analysis with the realities of his own life, writing in the Introduction:

 The attitudes that I propose to describe are real. I have encountered them innumerable times. Among students, among workers, among the pimps of Pigalle or Marseille, I have been able to isolate the same components of aggressiveness and passivity.

Fanon’s most influential work, however, came in 1961 with the publication of Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth), its title taking inspiration from the first verse of “The Internationale” written by Eugène Pottier, a member of the Paris Commune. The Wretched of the Earth presents a psychological analysis and critique of the savagery and violence of colonialism on the individual, the community and the nation. It discusses the deeply traumatic impact of this brutality but also the necessity of violent resistance: “decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon”. He furthermore reflects on the collective decolonisation of communities and individuals, “the opportunity to return to the people during the struggle for freedom”.

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This analysis is very much rooted in Fanon’s experiences in Algeria where he initially worked in the psychiatry department of a hospital during the Algerian revolution, treating both Algerians and French soldiers as well as more broadly observing the effects of colonial violence on the human psyche. He subsequently worked with the Algerian liberation movement, Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and in 1960 was appointed ambassador to Ghana by Algeria’s FLN-led provisional government. That same year, however, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and spent his last year of life writing The Wretched of the Earth. He died in December 1961 in the United States undergoing medical treatment.

The Irish translator

Although Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is well known as a psychological analysis of the dehumanizing effects of colonization, there is little known or written about the Irish woman who translated it to English.

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Constance Farrington (née Conner) was translator of the only English version of this work in circulation until 2004, when Richard Philcox produced a version for Grove Press. Her translation, published by Présence Africaine in 1963, was also the first English edition of any Fanon publication. The little we do know about Constance comes from an interview with her about the translation, published in the Irish Press (September 1963), a short article in the Irish Times one month later (October 1963), a memoir written by her first husband Brian Farrington, and ongoing research being carried out by Dr. Kathryn Batchelor of University College London (UCL) into both the life of Constance and her translation of Fanon’s seminal work. Until the publication of her former husband’s memoir (A Rich Soup with additional material, 2010: Linden Publishing), the only information available on Constance suggested that she was English and a member of the British Communist Party. Neither claim holds up to scrutiny.

Constance Conner was from a protestant family in Cork. When just 9 years old, her mother died at the family home in Tyrone. Her father Willie – a Church of Ireland clergyman and Trinity graduate – later married Jemima, a former parishioner of his from Drumquin in County Tyrone. By the time Constance was attending college, she was living with them in a house at Mounttown Lower, Dún Laoghaire, County Dublin, while studying Modern History and Political Science at Trinity College Dublin. She subsequently worked in the university library for five years.

In his memoir, Brian provides valuable information on Constance’s life, how she came to translate the text as well as her political leanings. He recalls that he got to know her:

because I had joined the University dramatic society (…) She was three years older than me and, when we met, she had just got a brilliant first-class degree in history. She had never received the gold medal that her starred first should have earned her, through, I think, the inefficiency, or, more likely, the sexist prejudice, of one of her history professors, and was angry about this.

Constance married Brian Farrington in January 1953 when she was 31 years old. Having put a lot of work in to qualify as a librarian, she was less than pleased at having to give up her job after marriage, particularly when she discovered that the qualification would not be accepted in France, where she and Brian moved due to his finding employment as a teacher with the British Institute in Paris.

In France, Brian and Constance found accommodation in a “commune of left-wing people” at Châtenay-Malabry in the south-western suburbs of Paris that came to be known as La Cité Nouvelle. Brian remembers that the “only absolute rule for the acceptance by the Cité was that you had to agree with the general aims of the French Communist Party.”

The mix of people who co-habited with the Farringtons in Châtenay, as well as the very nature of communal living, undoubtedly had an impact on the politics and worldview of Brian and Constance. They resided with journalists, bus drivers, musicians, students, painters, electricians, builders and more, who all contributed to the couple’s strong left-wing convictions, Brian noting that nothing changed in his “estimation of the truth or validity of Marx’s analysis of society”.

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The Algerian War of Independence was brought into sharp focus for Constance and her family when she met a Frenchwoman named Micheline Pouteau who had come to live in Châtenay during the late 1950s. Micheline was involved with a left-wing underground network in France established by Francis Jeanson, the biographer of Jean-Paul Sartre, another member of the group. These activists were very critical of the French Communist Party’s weak position on Algeria and made the decision to actively assist the FLN in their resistance to French colonialism. Constance, while on a visit to Micheline who was incarcerated in La Petite Roquettei on the north side of Paris, provided her with a bunch of nylon stockings that helped Micheline and five other comrades flee the prison to freedom and over the border to Belgium.

Constance later became friendly with a French political personality, historian and journalist Charles-André Julien, to whom she gave English lessons. Julien had lived in Algeria with his family as a teenager and it was he who arranged for Constance to translate Les Damnés de la Terre by Frantz Fanon.

Patrick Lagan’s reported interview with Constance, published in the Irish Press on 16th September 1963, gives us a sense of her understanding of the conflict in Algeria from an Irish perspective:

Constance told me, she found as she read and translated this book, a sense of the familiar about it – the resemblance between Algerian freedom struggle and the Irish. Not only while the war was going on – with paras standing in for Tans – but afterwards; the outbreak of violence and civil strike sparked off by the necessary violence of the revolution itself.

The article also notes that while Constance had not been to Algeria, she “has seen the French colons, the ‘pieds noirs’ who have come to live there, seen what effect of brutally opposing emergent Algeria has had on them.”

Constance and Brian later divorced, and both remarried. Constance married a mutual friend, André Ramillon, or “Ram” for short, a primary school teacher from a small village near Orléans in France, about 100km from Châtenay. Ram had been an active participant in the French resistance against Fascism and a Communist Party member for most of his life. Brian married Olivia McMahon, a colleague from the Institute, born in France to parents from County Clare in Ireland. Both couples remained close friends, often going on holidays together to Ireland.

Coincidentally, Brian and Constance divorced at a court in Edinburgh on the same day as Edinburgh City Council erected a plaque at James Connolly’s birthplace in Cowgate, at the suggestion of the Connolly Association. Both attended the ceremony, which included performances by a brass band that had been sent over for the occasion by the Dublin Transport and General Workers Union. Brian took a photograph that day of Seán Redmond, former Secretary of the Connolly Association and brother of the late Tom Redmond, a lifelong Communist who passed away in Dublin just over six years ago.

Constance went on to teach English in one of the Grandes Écoles, l’École Centrale near Châtenay and in the 1980s received a doctorate for her research in to Paschal Grousset, a native of Corsica who had been an active member of the 1871 Paris Commune and who visited Ireland as a journalist during the summer 1886. Following his visit, Grousset published the notes he had compiled in Ireland simultaneously in English and French versions under the pseudonym Philippe Daryl (Ireland’s Disease: Notes and Impressions, 1887). In 1986, Blackstaff Press re-published this book on the centenary of Grousset’s visit under the title Ireland’s Disease: The English in Ireland and included a substantial introduction by “Constance Ramillon Conner”.

There remain gaps in our understanding of Constance’s life and work. Her son Paddy has outlined some of the political activism in which she was involved including campaigning for the left-wing Republican political party Clann na Poblachta in Dublin during the late 1940s, involvement in the 1965 protests in Paris against the escalation of the Vietnam War and membership of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) Trade Union. However, we don’t know what contact she had, if any, with other translators or writers of decolonial and postcolonial literature such as the poet and author Aimé Césaire from Martinique, a former secondary school teacher of Fanon who, in 1950, penned Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism); French-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi who passed away in 2020 at the age of 99; or translator Howard Greenfeld who produced an English version of Memmi’s Portrait du colonisé, précédé par Portrait du colonisateur (The Colonizer and the Colonized) in 1965 just two years after Constance’s work had appeared. It is unclear where precisely she was born or when she passed away, although we do know that she outlived her husband Ram who died in 1995, and that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in her final years.

A lucid and powerful translation

Regardless of these questions, the lasting contribution of this Irish woman to the continuing struggle for emancipation of the wretched of the earth is certainly her translation of Fanon’s masterpiece, making it accessible to the English-speaking world. It was read, for example, by republican prisoners in the cages of Long Kesh outside Belfast such as Bobby Sands, who died on Hunger Strike in 1981, and particularly influenced the intellectual debate among republicans and socialists during the post-1981 phase of conflict, evidenced by the many references to Fanon in An Phoblacht/Republican News over this period. Her translation is lucid and powerful and has arguably been a significant stepping stone in the thinking of other great proponents of the need for decolonisation, politically and psychologically, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Tomás Mac Síomóin.

Fanon’s grasp on the psychological effects of colonialism as well as the need to decolonise is presented well, as this extract shows:

The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. Perhaps we haven't sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native's brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.

This struggle to decolonise the mind that Fanon refers to is one that applies universally to colonised peoples: the enormous effort necessary to rid the psyche of the effects of colonisation that continue to deform and debilitate, unless challenged, for a long time after the political end of such occupation. Constance Farrington understood how relevant this was to Ireland and beyond.

Black 47
Wednesday, 12 September 2018 17:21

Black 47

Published in Films

Luke Callinan reviews Black 47, a film which reminds us of the brutal and inhuman nature of colonisation.

Lance Daly’s Black 47, which was released in September 2018, is the first feature-length film dealing directly with the catastrophic events of 1845-1849 in Ireland that became known subsequently as “The Famine”. It is an adaption of the much lesser-known short movie An Ranger (2008) directed by P.J. Dillon in which a Connemara man named Myles returns home in 1854 after serving abroad in the British Army for 21 years. He arrives home to a community that has been ravaged by starvation, fever, executions, murder and emigration. Myles finds pigs grazing in his family home which has been vacated and has had its thatched roof removed. The dialogue of An Ranger is completely in Irish with English language subtitles, reflecting the linguistic reality of Connemara during the mid-19th century.

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In Black 47 we are presented with the dour and stern figure of Máirtín Ó Fiannaidhe (played by Australian actor James Frecheville) who has served for many years with an infantry regiment of the British Army known as the “Connacht Rangers”, and returns to his native Connemara with the intention of travelling on from there to America. We later learn that he had gone absent without leave from the British Army in Afghanistan and was branded a deserter. There is an historical inaccuracy here in that the Connacht Rangers were deployed in the West Indies, not Afghanistan, at this time. Ó Fiannaidhe arrives home in 1847 while Ireland remains in the throes of a famine to discover that his brother had been executed because he attacked an officer who had come to evict his family from their home, and that his mother had later perished of hunger.

Máirtín’s sister-in-law Ellie (Sarah Greene) had been raising her three children alone after the death of her husband. The soldier is deeply affected by the searing poverty and destitution that now blights his community, and appears physically moved by the circumstances in which his late brother’s family now live. Shortly after his arrival, he witnesses the authorities attempting to forcefully evict Ellie and her children from their home and intervenes in an effort to save them as they do not understand the orders being barked at them in English. He even offers to the attacking party that he will pay any outstanding debts the family owe.

Máirtín speaks both English and Irish so tries to explain the situation in Irish to Ellie who is distressed and confused by the events but he is immediately tackled to the ground and arrested. As the authorities begin to break in the roof of Ellie’s home, her young son bursts out of the front door and stabs one of the attacking police officers in the neck. He is promptly fired upon by several surrounding police officers and shot dead. Ellie, who is severely distraught by the violent death of her son, is turfed out on the road along with her two other children, while Máirtín is arrested and brought back to the barracks. In a daring and bloody encounter, Máirtín manages to escape from custody and returns to Ellie’s house, to find her lifeless body huddled together with her youngest child in the corner of the now roofless home, having perished in the freezing cold conditions without food or shelter.

It is at this point that Máirtín’s plans to emigrate are put on hold and he begins a one-man campaign to seek revenge for the deaths of his family.

One of the most striking aspects of Black 47 is the arguably unprecedented level of Irish language used by main actors in a popular feature-length film. All spoken dialogue between native Irish characters in the film is through the medium of Irish, and in one scene Máirtín and Ellie recite songs to the young children in Irish. There are even a handful of greetings, blessings and commonly-used idioms in Irish that are not subtitled such as when Ellie, addressing a neighbour, says “Bailigh leat!” (“Be off!). This usage of the Irish language in a major film, while logical in the setting of 1840s Connemara, is a remarkable departure for Irish cinematography. The dialect and linguistic fluency of Máirtín Jaimsie’s language as Ignatius in An Ranger helps the audience place the scene and adds to its authenticity. While this same fluency of speech is not matched by any main character in Black 47, the script and pronunciation of Irish is nonetheless impressive.

The most profound line is uttered by the film’s ‘hero’ Máirtín Ó Fiannaidhe when he confronts a judge who has just sentenced a man to penal servitude in Van Diemen's Land (now known as Tasmania). During the trial the defendent, pleading his innocence in Irish, is reprimanded by the judge who states “Irish is not the language of this court” and proceeds to convict him on the basis that his refusal to engage with the court in English is evidence enough of his guilt. Ó Fiannaidhe is waiting for the judge in his office as he returns from the court sitting and when the judge orders him to leave, Ó Fiannaidhe snaps “Ní hé Béarla teanga na cúirte seo” (“English is not the language of this court”). When in court, the judge – who regularly sentences young men and women for execution, penal servitude and incarceration – possesses the arrogant demeanor typical of those who implement British colonial “justice”. Outside the protection of the courtroom, however, he is powerless and exposed when he meets face-to-face with a member of the community for which he ruthlessly dispenses “justice”, and is left pleading for mercy. This line by Ó Fiannaidhe embodies a universal expression of anti-colonial sentiment that could be employed by figures of resistance in colonised nations anywhere in the world. In his classic text The Wretched of the Earth, written at the height of the Algerian war, Frantz Fanon gives expression to this:

The violence which has ruled over the ordering of the colonial world, which has ceaselessly drummed the rhythm for the destruction of native social forms and broken up without reserve the systems of reference of the economy, the customs of dress and external life, that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters. To wreck the colonial world is henceforward a mental picture of action which is very clear, very east to understand and which may be assumed by each one of the individuals which constitute the colonized people.”

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Liam O’Flaherty’s 1937 novel Famine set in the fictionally named Black Valley addresses the situation in plain terms:

To be afflicted with hunger was considered, in the world of the rich, a crime which placed sufferers outside the bounds of humanity. They were to be pursued by the servants of the rich, thrown in to jail, or bayoneted, or hanged.

In a particularly revealing scene, Lord Kilmichael, the land-owning representative of the British aristocracy makes clear his desire for the day when the sight of a Gael in Ireland would be as rare as a native American in Manhattan. The sentiment contained in this statement indicates the tacit support of Kilmichael and the landlord class generally for a policy of cultural genocide against native Irish people similar to that carried out against the native Americans.

Private Hobson is a young British Army soldier who accompanies Hannah (Hugo Weaving) – the man who had been sent to capture Ó Fiannaidhe but who also happens to be an old army comrade of his – and the pretentious officer Pope, on their trip west to track down Ó Fiannaidhe . He is a committed member of this party but becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the starving and fever-stricken tenants that appear at the house of Lord Kilmichael, their landlord, while Kilmichael hoards copious amounts of grain that is being prepared for transport to England. It is not insignificant that Hobson speaks with a North-West English accent, a region marked by deep levels of poverty relative to the rest of England as well as a concentration of Irish economic emigrants.

If there was to be a significant criticism of the film it would be the lack of collective resistance by the community. Ó Fiannaidhe at times comes across as a mythical figure with an inhuman ability to single-handedly take on several soldiers and/or policemen at any one time. We do not see any significant interaction or collaboration between Ó Fiannaidhe and the broader community, which is portrayed as broken and helpless, incapable of anything other than mocking and clownish behaviour. It contrasts sharply with the scene in O’Flaherty’s Famine where a gang of starving peasants carry out the premediated murder of land agent Jocelyn Chadwick who had collected the rent on behalf of absentee English landlord Mark Thompson.

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Black 47 is a film that is well worth watching. It tackles one of the most traumatic periods of Irish history in the last 200 years without overly engaging in romantic notions of an Ireland that is servile in the face of oppression and that willingly submits to a policy described by O’Flaherty as “peace at any price” which inevitably creates “a disillusioned, disheartened, disorganised people” that are left at “the mercy of a tyrannical government”. It furthermore opens the door to new understandings and interpretations of our past while also serving as an important reminder of the brutal and inhuman nature of colonisation. To its credit, it succeeds in doing this in a profoundly universal manner.