Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.


The barriers to working-class writers: Review of The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices
Saturday, 11 September 2021 08:40

The barriers to working-class writers: Review of The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices

Published in Life Writing

Jenny Farrell reviews The 32: An Anthology of Irish Working-Class Voices, edited by Paul McVeigh 

Working-class writing is coming to the fore in Ireland. “The 32” follows the publications of two anthologies of working people’s writing, “The Children of the Nation” and “From the Plough to the Stars” (Culture Matters, 2019, 2020).

All three anthologies stand out in the literary landscape for being just that: anthologies. Much as the publications of individual working-class writers must be admired for breaking through the class barriers in the publishing industry, these anthologies together give a strong sense of the voice of a class speaking; the strength that arises from standing together, a fact to which The Irish Times and the Independent, in their reviews, are oblivious.

One of the statements this book makes, and some of its contributors attempt to answer, is how to define the working class. The texts printed within its covers agree on some of the basic aspects: above all, it means to be poor. It certainly means to be scorned by those who represent the establishment and dominate education, culture, politics, the media. They reinforce their preconceived, ill-informed notions of the working class by all means at their disposal. Erin Lindsay observes: “Whether it’s in film, music, or conversations overheard on the street, the idea of being working-class is contorted and presented back to us without our presence in its creation.” This motivates taking charge of one’s own narrative, a theme that recurs throughout the collection.

This is an issue of key relevance to publications such as The 32 and the Culture Matters anthologies. These anthologies undertake the epic task of removing class barriers and creating a more democratic and grassroots publishing culture, indeed focusing on the class that is generally excluded.

Censorship by RTE

By way of example, Alan O’Brien, working-class writer and contributor to the  Culture Matters anthologies, submitted his radio play “Snow Falls and So Do We” to RTE, based on the true event of a woman dying of hypothermia in a Ballymun flat. O’Brien won the P.J. O’Connor Award for Best New Radio Drama but encountered significant opposition from RTE when they were to broadcast his play. O’Brien was told his lines were crude and that the portrayal of the Gardaí was unacceptable. A significant and inappropriate change in the narrative was suggested whereby Joanne, rather than disliking the Garda known as "miniature hero", actually fancies him, and wants him to take her out of this hellhole.

This smacked more of make-believe Hollywood that the reality of Ballymun. O’Brien’s statement that the people of Ballymun have a very different experience of the Irish Constabulary was sneered at. He rejected the changes to his script, explaining his reasons. But RTE made them anyway and many more, without further consultation. Most significantly,  they changed the ending of a working-class woman dying as a result of social depravation, metaphorically (and actually) freezing to death. Working-class tragedies are not allowed. The establishment will only accept its own interpretation, and rewrite history accordingly.

So, not only are working-class people excluded from mainstream cultural consumption, they are also prevented by the media – including the publishing industry –  from expressing artistically their experience of the world. By recognising this class barrier and attempting to tackle it, these anthologies of working-class writing are blazing a new trail. However, unless other cultural workers, institutions, trade unions and universities acknowledge this deficit with a view to redressing it, they will remain a drop in the ocean.

Kevin Barry writing in “The Gaatch” points to where establishment prejudice invariably leads:

On Thursday mornings I attended the sittings of Limerick District Court. I did the courts for a couple of years, and I can’t remember ever hearing a working-class defendant’s word taken over the word of a guard. You could predict with high accuracy the forthcoming judgements from the look of the defendant taking to the witness stand. If he or she had a working-class kind of gaatch to them – as we’d say in Limerick, meaning that they carried themselves in a certain way, dressed in a certain way, spoke in a certain way – they would very likely be found guilty. 

Being presumed guilty because of belonging to the dispossessed, is reiterated in Rosaleen McDonagh’s experience as one of the Travelling community:

Five o’ clock in the morning the sound of police sirens. Bursting into the caravan, looking for stolen goods, tax and insurance, drugs, firearms. They pull my brothers and my father out of bed. Trousers and boots, no shirt. Made to stand in the middle of the site alongside thirty or forty other men and boys of various ages. … Nothing was found; all tax and insurance related to our vehicles were in date.

And so, the importance of speech, dress, address, and school, appear time and again in these texts. The greatest part of these are memoirs, or ‘faction’. Poverty looms large, and a sense of deliberate exclusion from mainstream lifestyle pervades. Class barriers are seen and cited all the way, and education is viewed as a way out. Many of the authors describe the difficulty of pursuing a writing career. 

Therefore, it is unsurprising that an overall impression forms that in order to live a better life, you need to get out of the working-class trap. The disadvantages seem to outweigh any positives. And yet, Erin Lindsay states in complete contradiction to the received mainstream view:

Growing up, my house was full of conversations and debates about history, philosophy, politics, life, ethics, love – they taught me everything I know.

And Dermot Bolger says – with Gorky – that working life is a university:

It was a last valuable lesson I learned in the only university I ever attended before commencing my journey as a writer.

Class consciousness, pride and solidarity

Working-class writing is as old as the working class itself, arising with the Industrial Revolution, landless peasants before that, much of this in the oral tradition. Within class society, the working class is to a large extent indeed cheated out of fair pay, cheated out of education and opportunities. The introduction to “From the Plough to the Stars” presents a Marxist definition: 

Our understanding of ‘working class’ are those people who sell their labour power and share only marginally in the fruits of their labour. They create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. This includes the urban and rural proletariat, small farmers as a peripheral group, as well as the rising number of people in precarious employment, the homeless and the unemployed.

In some of the texts in “The 32”, you find a sense of solidarity and pride in class, the sense that surely poverty and lack of education is not the ultimate and eternal definition of working class – that there is a potential that will allow this class to challenge the society that keeps it on the poverty line. This strength, this process of liberation, is a hallmark of Maxim Gorky’s working-class writing. It envisages a society where there is little difference in income and living standard between the skilled industrial workers, farmers and professionals. In this (socialist) society being working-class does not spell poverty, poor education and neglect by society. It is entirely possible to be a working-class intellectual, and it was in the USSR and other socialist countries that working-class history and art first became the subject of academic research. It is thus ignorant and damaging to be told that having achieved a university education, or working in the arts, means one is no longer working-class.

The texts in this book focus on the here and now in Ireland, the lived experience of the authors, ranging from the 1950s through to 2020. Paul McVeigh, has achieved a good balance of contributions from the Republic of Ireland as well as the North. Here, the sectarian prejudice against the Catholic population adds significantly to social inequality, as several contributors attest. And when we refer to bigotry and discrimination it is to welcomed that a member of the travelling community, Rosaleen McDonagh, as well as a representative of the queer community, Marc Gregg, are given the opportunity to add their voices.

Regrettably, no Irish language texts are included. This would have paid necessary tribute to the long tradition of working-class writing as Gaeilge in Ireland. The exclusion of this tradition by the publishing industry is shameful and needs to be challenged by those who have taken up the pen to put an end to social injustice. This can only be achieved by the whole of the working class standing together.

Along with “The Children of the Nation” and “From the Plough to the Stars”, “The 32” presents a differentiated image of what it means to be working-class in Ireland today. These three anthologies will be followed by a fourth publication, “Land of the Ever Young”, a beautifully illustrated book of working people’s writing for children, in November of this year.

From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 17:55

From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left

Published in Life Writing

Jenny Farrell reviews Mick O’Reilly's From Lucifer to Lazarus: A Life on the Left (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2019)

At the end of From Lucifer to Lazarus, Mick O’Reilly raises a question many working-class authors ask themselves when writing about their lives: “whether it is worthwhile telling the story of my life and not the story of the thousands of other people I worked with and fought employers for over the years. I am sure many of them have a similar story to mine, but workers like us rarely go to print – our stories are usually told by others.”

Douglas Stuart, Scottish working-class winner of the 2020 Man Booker prize, puts it similarly: 

I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.

Although both authors differ in many respects, they put their finger on something that is very relevant. Mick O’Reilly, born in the Liberties in 1946 and reared in Ballyfermot, communist and trade union leader, writes about his experiences as a highly class-conscious person in the Irish trade union struggle. Douglas Stuart on the other hand was born into the Glasgow working class thirty years later, in 1976. Stuart’s book describes growing up in 1980s Glasgow, a city devastated by Thatcherite deindustrialisation. It is a book about his childhood. Communism and trade unionism do not feature in it. And yet the same question, a similar realisation, is common to both books. 

Mick O’Reilly’s autobiographical book is a fascinating read for anybody interested in Irish left-wing trade unionism. It is a toolbox for trade unionists, a history book, a political declaration of a worldview by one who dedicated his life to the furtherment of the working-class cause, the liberation of humankind. 

The author describes growing up in Dublin, not finishing primary school, and first experiences on the shop floor. He takes the reader on a journey through time, as the young O’Reilly becomes involved with the trade union movement and how he progresses to becoming a trade unionist, indeed a trade union leader over time. It is fascinating the impact the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Easter Rising had on the young O’Reilly, on a short holiday from England, in shaping his Irish identity and motivating his return to Dublin and precarious employment. A number of other factors contributed, among them a 1966 performance of Seán O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars” in Birmingham, which sealed O’Reilly’s decision: “This isn’t where I belong. If I’m going to make a contribution to this Marxist movement, I’d better do it in my own home place.” After that, his biography is firmly tied to Ireland, in the Republic, as well as the six counties, its political and labour movement. 

Factory life in Ireland and Britain was O’Reilly’s university in politics and trade union struggle, kicking off properly with his job in car assembly plants, the training ground for the future trade union leader in the early 1970s. It was here that he joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders. He joined the Communist Party in 1967 and became very active in the Dublin housing action committee. He was centrally involved in setting up he Connolly Youth Movement, took part in the campaigns against the EEC, and negotiated protection for car workers. He writes about fighting for pay rises, supporting victimised colleagues, as well as taking political strike action in response to Bloody Sunday. 

O’Reilly speaks openly about the difficulties within the labour movement, the many conflicts and struggles. A major event in his life was his sacking and reinstatement as officer of the ATGWU, now UNITE. O’Reilly had been appointed to the post of regional secretary in Ireland. He was the first official from the Republic. And this happened against the wishes of Bill Morris (now Lord Morris) and Margaret Prosser (now Baroness). Their opposition constituted gross interference in the Irish region, which had been largely independent of the British section of the union. However, as O’Reilly remarks, “I ran the union from a rank-and-file perspective,” and that was clearly unacceptable.

This was not the only serious disappointment. The betrayal of the working class by a treacherous trade union leadership, resulting in the anti-worker legislation of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, is also an important topic in the book.

He writes about various greater and lesser role models along the way, and his life-long involvement with the communist movement. This is the kind of historical insight one will find hard to discover in history bookthat are written by historians who lack a working-class understanding. As O’Reilly states when he described what eventually encouraged him to write the book:

I was interested in trying to capture people’s memories and the collective consciousness of the time because when I read what was going on in the media and listened to reports on the radio and online, I was, and still am, convinced that it’s the Irish middle class, talking to the Irish middle class about the Irish middle class. I rarely hear working-class voices and the stories of their lives, which are largely ignored.

Working-class lives, be it as factual account, or as faction, need to be published and read. These are the stories that matter, and that give working-class readers a sense of belonging.

Shuggie Bain and working-class writing
Tuesday, 24 August 2021 09:44

Shuggie Bain and working-class writing

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell review Douglas Stuart's new novel

Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Booker prize for his debut novel Shuggie Bain, set in his home town of Glasgow in the 1980s. Like many working-class writers, Stuart found himself doubting the value of his story:

I used to ask myself, ‘What right do I have to write this?’ Shuggie Bain is about a voice from the margins that doesn’t get heard often. … Working-class voices are still struggling for representation in a middle-class industry.

The bulk of the novel relates the experience of growing up at a time when Thatcherite policies devastated Scotland’s industries, with a stark rise in unemployment. The once thriving Scottish steel, car, shipbuilding, mining and engineering industries were destroyed, along with the communities that worked in them.

‘No. No more school. We need the money.’ ‘Aye. The state of the day’s world ye’ll be supporting any man ye do get.’ The women all had men at home. Men rotting into the settee for want of decent work.

Few women work either. They buy items they cannot afford from the Freemans catalogue and find themselves ever deeper in debt, with large families and the:

…..last holiday most of them had seen was a stay on the Stobhill maternity ward.

Nan applied the pressure like she had a thousand times and went about collecting money from all the women and marking it in their books. It would be an eternity to pay off a pair of children’s school trousers or a set of bathroom towels. Five pounds a month would take years to pay off when the interest was added on top. It felt like they were renting their lives. The catalogue opened to a new page, and the women started fighting over who wanted what.

The novel portrays this working-class experience through the eyes of Shuggie, growing up with an alcoholic mother, Agnes.

The reader is introduced to the working-class circle around Agnes. Her father had been a labourer:

These were hands that had loaded grain trucks for twenty years, hands that had laid pungent tarmacadam, hands that had killed Italians in North Africa. He was one of the few who returned – there were many sons from Glasgow, from Inverness and Edinburgh, who had sacrificed and would never be coming home.

Despite their common lot, the working people are shown to be divided along denominational lines – Catholic and Protestant, with the same prejudices as across the Irish Sea. Agnes’ first husband and father of her older children was a Catholic working man, whom she leaves for the sexier Eugene Bain, a Protestant hackney driver and father of Shuggie. This second husband moves the family out of his in-laws’ council flat and into an equally deprived mining community, before abandoning them. Part of the reason for this is Agnes’ drinking.

The reader gets the close-up view through young Shuggie’s eyes of his mother’s complete unravelling and the suffering it brings to her children. His older siblings initially help protect their mother but ultimately realise that they cannot save her. Her condition thwarts her children’s potential through Shuggie’s schooling and Leek’s artistic talent.

Despite an interlude of hope with the help of the AA, a job, and her children at school and happy, this does not last. Alcoholism and its effect on people and communities is explored in detail from the perspective of a loving and protective child, who observes all the secrecies, shame and suicidal self-hate that it brings. Agnes is not alone – either with this ravaging illness, nor in terms of support offered to her by people close to her. The addiction, it seems, is endemic in this community and an expression of its own destruction.

Douglas Stuart knows intimately what he writes about. His mother struggled with alcoholism and died when the author was sixteen. And while what we read is fiction, it is deeply informed by Stuart’s own childhood. He comes from “a long and proud tradition of slaters and joiners and tradespeople.” He takes pride in his class and says that despite an absence of books in his childhood and youth, “it didn’t make us any less caring, any less empathetic.” Stuart writes this into the book. There is a very strong sense of solidarity and community. By writing this story, he shows that this community is an important subject of literature and art.

James Kelman

In its 52-year history, Stuart is the second Scottish writer to be awarded the prize. The only other Scot to win it, James Kelman, also a working-class writer, programmatically writes in the idiom of his people. The novel that controversially won him the Booker Prize, was “How Late it Was, How Late”. This is a stream-of-consciousness narration of an unemployed alcoholic Glaswegian, in and out of jail, battered and blinded, disregarded by society, and yet somehow a resilient survivor.

For Stuart, Kelman’s Booker win was seminal. It showed him that the Glasgow vernacular had a rightful place in literature, that literature was not the preserve of the middle and upper classes, but must be owned by the working class as one way of telling its story. He says:

It changed everything in literature for me. Not only was it about working-class people, it was written in a broad Scots dialect. That’s how people around me talked, but you rarely see that in literature, rarely see it celebrated. It was an affirming moment for me.

While neither Kelman’s nor Stuart’s novels indicate characters and ways of combatting the outrageous economic and cultural deprivation of the Scottish working class, they nevertheless describe this class with insight and regard, indeed love, as a class that is entitled to their equal share in the nation’s wealth.

Shuggie Bain is published by Grove Press, New York, 2020

Walter Scott and the historical novel
Monday, 26 July 2021 12:45

Walter Scott and the historical novel

Published in Fiction

On his 250th anniversary, Jenny Farrell writes about Walter Scott and his historical novels, uncovering themes of class conflict, ethnic and nationalist struggles, and how the personal experiences of his characters link with broader historical upheavals

History is vanishing from school curricula, and historical awareness is being deliberately erased. Novels in historical setting portray characters as unhistorical, no different to 21st century people, transporting a sense that people never develop, that society cannot and will not change. Such misrepresentation of the historical process fuels the sense that the world cannot be understood and any effort to change it for the better of humankind is ultimately futile. The history of literature shows that another kind of historical novel is possible, one that shows history as upheaval and people themselves as historical.

Walter Scott and the Historical Novel

 Walter Scott was admired by his contemporaries Goethe, Pushkin and Balzac, and celebrated by Lukács as the founder of the historical novel. He was born in Edinburgh 250 years ago on 15 August 1771. Born into the upper middle class, his family preserved a sense of tradition from one of the great Scottish clans, including folk heritage. Like Robert Burns, Scott grew up with the songs and legends of Scotland. He collected them and reflected them in his own work. This cultural awareness was accompanied by a deep sense of national identity.

Scott read European literature of popular, patriotic spirit fluently and was familiar with the English realistic novel. He studied Scottish law and took a lively interest in the historical relations between Scotland and England. In 1797 he married Charlotte Carpenter of French royalist stock. Scott was a landowner and staunch Tory – yet his work goes beyond this.

Scott’s interest in Scottish border ballads led to his collection Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03), in which he endeavoured to restore orally corrupted versions to their original wording. This publication made Scott known to a wide audience. His epic poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), was followed by further lyrical romances. During these years Scott led a very active literary and social life. At the same time, he was deputy sheriff of Selkirkshire from 1799 and clerk of the court in Edinburgh from 1806, as well as part-owner of a printing press and later publishing house, which he saved from bankruptcy. Personal financial crises increasingly impacted on the course of his career and his writing became determined by the need to pay off debts. His estate in Abbotsford, furnished with many antiquarian objects, also consumed vast sums.

In 1813 Scott rediscovered the unfinished manuscript of a novel he had begun in 1805, which he rapidly finished in the early summer of 1814. This novel Waverley, about the Jacobite uprising of 1745, was enthusiastically received. Like all of Scott’s novels written before 1827, Waverley was published anonymously.

A born storyteller and master of dialogue in both Scots dialect and aristocratic etiquette, he was able to portray sensitively the whole range of Scottish society, from beggars and farm labourers to the bourgeoisie, the professions and the landowning aristocracy. Scott’s sensitivity to ordinary people was a new orientation. He convincingly portrayed outlandish highlanders as well as the political and religious conflicts that shook Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Scott’s masterpieces include Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and his most popular novel, Ivanhoe (1819).

Unfortunately, the haste with which he wrote his later books affected Scott’s health, as well as his writing. In 1827 his authorship of the Waverley novels became known. In 1831 his health deteriorated badly and he died on 21 September 1832.

Scott’s Times

Scott lived and wrote in an era of enormous upheaval – revolutions in France and North America, uprisings in Haiti and Ireland, the Napoleonic wars, the expansion of the British Empire and its domination of the seas, the slave trade, the uprooting of large sections of Britain’s peasantry through enclosure for the purpose of sheep farming, increasing capitalist “rationalisation” of the countryside, and large-scale highland clearances and evictions.


The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution consolidated the power of the bourgeoisie and the first political organisations of the working class emerged. Such density of dramatic events suddenly made the course of history, the progression from one society to another, directly tangible. History unfolded before everyone’s eyes and, it seemed, could be influenced. This is the shifting ground on which Scott’s historical novels are set.

In addition, literary production in Scotland and Ireland flourished. Here, on the colonial edges, questions of history and cultural identity, colonialism and anti-colonialism sharply crystallised. This begins in Ireland with Swift and his magnificent writings against British colonial power from the perspective of the Irish people as early as the 1720s. In Scott’s time, the Irish people speak in their idiom in Maria Edgeworth’s novels.

While England in the 18th century is preparing for the Industrial Revolution, politically it is already a post-revolutionary country, following the bourgeois English Revolution in the 1640s.

The emergence of the historical novel

As Georg Lukács argues convincingly in The Historical Novel, this genre emerges with Scott at this time. There had been novels with historical themes in the 17th and 18th centuries, but their characters and plots were taken from the time of the authors, who did not yet grasp their own epoch as historical. Scott’s novels introduce a new sense of history to the English realist novel tradition.

While Scott neither creates psychologically profound individuals nor reaches the level of the emerging bourgeois novel, he vividly embodies for the first time historical-social types. His main characters’ conflicts give artistic expression to social crises. The task of the protagonists is to find neutral ground on which the opponents can coexist. The main characters are usually tied to both camps. Pointing out a middle path is typical of Scott’s novels, and this is how his political conservatism is expressed.

For Scott, outstanding historical figures are representatives of a movement that encompasses large sections of the people. This passionate character unites various sides of this movement and embodies the aspirations of the people. Through Scott’s plot, readers understand how the crisis arose, how the division of the nation came about. It is against this background that the historical hero appears. The broad panorama of social struggles illuminates, as Lukács writes, how a particular time produces an heroic person, whose task it becomes to solve historically specific problems. These leaders, directly linked to the people, often overshadow the main characters. Historical authenticity is achieved through condensed dramatic events and the collision of opposites.

By interweaving personal fates of people with historical upheavals, Scott’s narrative is never abstract. Ruptures run between generations, between friends and affect them deeply in their personal lives. Scott’s great strength lies in the credible narration of human relationships in the context of their historical age.

Class struggles in feudal times – Ivanhoe

With Ivanhoe, Scott reaches far back into history. The novel is set around 1194, when the Norman Richard the Lionheart, King of England, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, returns to England from his various adventures in the Crusades and from prisons in Austria and Germany. The Anglo-Saxon Ivanhoe, loyal knight in Richard’s army, also appears in England in disguise.

The central historical conflict of the novel is between the Anglo-Saxons of England and the Norman conquerors. The people are largely Anglo-Saxon, the feudal upper class are Norman. Parts of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, deprived of political and material power, still retain some aristocratic privileges and form the ideological and political centre of Anglo-Saxon national resistance to the Normans. Yet Scott shows how parts of the Anglo-Saxon nobility sink into apathy, while others await the opportunity to reach a compromise with the more moderate sections of the Norman nobility, which Richard the Lionheart represents.


When Ivanhoe, the title character and also a supporter of this compromise, disappears from the novel’s plot for some time and is overshadowed by secondary characters, this formal structure illuminates the historical-political reference to an absent compromise. The characters who overshadow Ivanhoe include his father, the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Cedric, unflinchingly insisting on anti-Norman positions, who even disinherits Ivanhoe because of his allegiance to Richard’s army, as well as his serfs, Gurth and Wamba.

Above all, however, this includes the leader of the armed resistance against Norman rule, the legendary Robin Hood. The true heroism with which the historical antagonisms are contested comes, with few exceptions, from “below”.

The folk figures are depicted with great vitality and nuance, while the antagonists tend to be stereotypes with little development. But neither does Ivanhoe change. Isaac the Jew is also stereotyped, although the same cannot be said of his daughter Rebecca, who captures the reader’s heart. Letters to Scott complained that Ivanhoe does not marry Rebecca at the end, but the comparatively pale Anglo-Saxon Rowenta. The author rejected such an ending as historically indefensible.

Scott proves himself here once again to be a defender of the middle road. The future belongs to Ivanhoe, knight in the service of the moderate Norman Richard the Lionheart and son of the anti-Norman Anglo-Saxon Cedric. His marriage to Rowenta points to this middle ground.

Scott, in depicting historical conflict in the lives of the people, shows the energies ignited in the people by such crises. Consciously or unconsciously, as Georg Lukács notes, the experience of the French Revolution is in the background.

The defeat of clan-based society – Rob Roy

Published in 1817, this novel is, along with Ivanhoe, among Scott’s most famous. Written in 1816, practically 100 years after the events it describes – the first Jacobite uprising of 1715 – the aim of the Jacobite uprisings was to restore the Catholic Stuart dynasty and Scottish independence. At the same time, Scott sketches the Gaelic-speaking Highland Scots as still living in clans, especially in the character of Rob Roy MacGregor. In this character, Scott creates a genuine folk hero with a passionate humanity that lends heroic traits to this clan society. Rob Roy is nevertheless an individualised character, initially in disguise, a constant presence and also a benchmark of heroism in this novel. Not only is he a centre of passion in the novel, his language is deeply poetic. In this way the reader experiences the failure of the rising and the defeat of clan society as a tragic event.

rob roy

Typically for Scott, Rob Roy is not the novel’s main character. That is the narrator Frank Osbaldistone, son of a London merchant who refuses to join his father’s successful business and is sent to live with his uncle in Northumberland, on the border with Scotland. Instead of him, cousin Rashleigh enters the business. When the latter steals money and disappears with it to Scotland, Frank follows him and so meets MacGregor.

This English narrator takes the neutral place, the common ground – Osbaldistone’s family lives on the Scottish border. At the end of the plot he marries his Catholic cousin, Diana Vernon, who is closely associated with the Jacobins, thereby achieving the union between Presbyterians and Catholics envisaged by Scott. Vernon is a confident woman as is the indomitable Helen MacGregor. Both are highly intelligent people who are in complete command of their scenes.

It is also important that Scott writes his extensive dialogue scenes in Scots dialect. This establishes a bond between characters and Scottish readers. Before him Robert Burns had also written in the vernacular. To this day, this dialect establishes identification with ordinary Scots, as underlined by the two Scottish Man Booker prize winners (James Kelman and Douglas Stuart). Scott even ventures into Gaelic, translating these short expressions for the reader. Scott’s numerous annotations are culturally and historically enlightening.

Class and ethnic conflict – The Heart of Midlothian

The novel following Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, is set over 20 years later, in 1736/37. Midlothian is an historic county with Edinburgh as its capital; the Heart of Midlothian, however, is its prison. The novel opens with the Porteous riots. Porteous, Captain of the City Watch ordered his men to bloodily suppress a riot during a public execution in the Grassmarket in Edinburgh in April 1736. He was lynched by the angry crowd for killing innocent civilians.

As Arnold Kettle has noted, Scott unfolds a large social spectrum here, ranging from the urban underworld to the Queen. At the centre is Jeanie Deans, from a rural, puritan background who speaks in Lowland Scots. This young peasant woman is perhaps Scott’s greatest female character. Her unmarried sister Effie is accused of infanticide. Merely keeping a pregnancy secret was punishable by death under Scottish law at the time. Forced to conceal the birth to protect her father, Effie insists that she has not harmed the new-born.  Despite great empathy for her sister’s fate, Jeanie’s puritan conscience forbids her to commit perjury that could save her sister. This is simply historically true and not modernised. Effie is sentenced to death and the penniless Jeanie sets off for London to seek a pardon from the Queen.

the heart of midlothian 12

The trial is the central event, revealing clashing values and worlds, the conflict between David Dean’s old rural world and the world of the modern money centred city. Jeanie’s struggle to save her sister reveals her deep humanity and courage. It shows that in crisis situations a heroism can burst forth in ordinary people that is not visible in everyday life and of which people themselves are often not even aware. She proves what strength and heroism there is in the people when the situation calls for it, as it happens time and again in history. Scott brings history to life with such a portrayal of human resilience in a specific historical situation.

Scott’s hallmark is depicting personal experience as part of history. Readers encounter an outraged people in the Porteous Riots. Scott conveys the genuine conflict between the people and the guards, as well as the bitter hostility of the Scots towards the English state. The events clearly involve more than seduction and rescue.

The second half of the novel is less successful, as Scott depicts the world not from the peasants’ point of view, but from that of the romanticised landowner, precluding realism. Parallel to the central conflict between city and country runs that between Scotland and England. Scott’s Edinburgh is not a random setting, but a Scottish city in a concrete historical situation.

Scott’s characters are never outside their time. He reflects the complex relationship between personal and social forces in a person’s life. With his portrayal of historically specific circumstances and the vitality of his ordinary people, Scott prepares the ground for Dickens. Dickens, who came from the impoverished petty bourgeoisie, would a little later make the ordinary people of London the heroes and heroines of his novels.

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020
Friday, 09 July 2021 08:55

Look! It's a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews a new book on the fight to write by women writers in Ireland

And perhaps, before literature dies, there will come a day when no one notices an author’s gender or race but says only ‘I have just read an astonishing, unforgettable book by a fantastic human writer.’ I plan to live to see this.

So writes Mary Dorcey in the newly published Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne ed., Arlen House 2021). Does her statement contradict the book’s purpose? I think not. Rather, it reaches into a time beyond the experiences described here, into a future when such full equality of gender, race and class is achieved that they no longer spell marginalisation and exclusion from the cultural mainstream.

The twenty-one poets, fiction writers, playwrights in this book tell how they became the writers they are. They come from the whole island of Ireland, they author in both Irish and English, and they were born into a range of social backgrounds.

Most of the women were born in the 1950s and benefited from the abolition of secondary school fees. This dilution of class educational privilege was significant. The writers grew up in a society that oppressed women on many levels, intersecting with class background, resulting in a far-reaching and profound lack of self-belief.

“Nothing in my childhood suggested I might become a writer… I expected that one day I would grow up and become a shop assistant or hairdresser” writes Celia de Fréine. Educators ignored women writers, and society banned books by any progressive author, female or male.

The writers collected here describe their personal trajectories to becoming the authors they are today, how they learnt about women writers in the past and how they each individually broke into the world of literature, despite continuing societal prejudice. Catherine Dunne relates a 2015 experience where “novelist Catherine Nichols, disappointed at the silence from agents that greeted her latest manuscript, decided to send it out under a (male) pseudonym.” She received a very different response – similar to the experience of the Bröntes, over 150 years ago.  

This book is important. It sheds light on the history of Irish women writers, and the personal stories related in the book represent a much greater circle. It also highlights areas of continuing failures by the cultural establishment towards them. And it celebrates people like Jessie Lendennie and Eavan Boland who played a crucial role in encouraging women to take on the fight and write. It will be a long road before we reach the classless society anticipated by Mary Dorcey. Books like this are steps along the way.

The book will be launched online on July 15th at 7pm, see here.

Friday, 18 June 2021 10:11


Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Unlike a pentagon, an apeirogon has an infinite number of sides, or aspects. The title of Colum McCann’s 2020 novel gives the reader an indication of the innumerable facets that form this novel. And yet at its core is the single, undisputed fact that the state of Israel is guilty of sustained human rights abuses, against the people of Palestine.

McCann tells the true story of Palestinian Bassam Aramin and Israeli Rami Elhanan, and their daughters: Abir Aramin killed by a rubber bullet in 2007, aged 10 and Smadar Elhanan killed by suicide bombers in 1997, aged 13. Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan met through the organization Combatants for Peace, who state:

Our ultimate goal is to end the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders; two states living side by side in peace and cooperation or any other just solution agreed upon in negotiations.

The novel’s structure is unusual, in some ways resembling the workings of a restless mind. It seems to ‘jump’ from one thought to the next, the new idea prompted by an aspect of the previous one. Some of these ‘tangents’ can be tenuous and fleeting, others form key aspects of the complex woven fabric that is this novel.

This narrative style allows McCann to create a network of connections that spans the globe in terms of places and also in history. Everything is somehow connected. Human rights abuses form a pattern which include the Middle East. Rubber bullets were first used by the British in Northern Ireland, killing children there. And the use of deadly explosives is explored in many contexts, including the U.S.’s dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The mind, when it has to take in an enormity, cannot constantly dwell on it. In order to take in a tragedy, the mind keeps returning to the fact, with breaks, circling it, slowly grasping it over an expanse of time. In the same way, the narrative never loses sight of the killings of Abir Aramin and Smadar Elhanan. Each time we return to them, new aspects are added, their stories and those of their families etched more and more clearly.

The novel is structured like the Arabian Nights, counting 500 sections ascending in order and 500 descending – with a section entitled 1001 in the middle. A great number of these fragmented sections are devoted to migratory birds, which seem to form part of the web that holds the global and yet local story together.

The personal is set in a larger political context. Neither strand of the novel loses sight of the other. To give a small example, McCann turns to his homeland Ireland, and to the conflicted north of the island in particular, to draw parallels. Here, the descendants of the Elizabethan settlers, the unionists, fly Israeli flags, while the community that might be forgiven to feel occupied by a colonizer, identifies with the Palestinians:

In the 1980s the greatest sale of Israeli flags — outside of Israel itself — was in Northern Ireland, where the Loyalists flew them in defiance of Irish Republicans who had adopted the Palestinian flag: whole housing estates shrouded in either blue and white, or black, red, white and green.

McCann has been accused of mystifying “the colonisation of Palestine as a ‘complicated conflict’ between two equal sides”. However, McCann never appeases the Israeli state, indeed one might easily suggest the opposite. Here is an example:

Mordechai Vanunu, a nuclear technician whose job it was to produce lithium-6 in the Dimona nuclear plant in the Negev, was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for divulging details of Israel’s weapons program. Vanunu smuggled a 35mm camera into Machon 2 and took fifty-nine photographs despite signing a secrecy agreement years earlier. He divulged the details first to a church group in Australia where he fled. Later, in London, where he went to publish the information, he was seduced in a honey-trap operation by a Mossad agent. He met the female agent again in Rome where he was overpowered, drugged, kidnapped, bound to a stretcher, driven by motorboat out to a spy ship, bundled into a cabin. He was interrogated by Mossad agents, whisked back to Israel to a secret prison run by the Shin Bet. Nearly twelve of his years in prison were spent in solitary confinement.


Cheryl Hanin Bentov—the honeypot who lured Vanunu to his capture—became a real estate agent in Alaqua, Florida, specializing in gated communities and waterfront properties.

Whose side the U.S. State is on in the Middle East conflict is apparent in several episodes, for example when Bassam Aramin insists on an inquiry into the death of his daughter (having had to pay for an autopsy himself) and the judge, who defied all efforts to prevent this, travels to the site of the attack and finds:

The court is of the opinion. We have come to the decision. We have weighed the varied testimonies. Abir Aramin was a resident of the Jerusalem municipality. We have decided. The responsibility of the State of Israel. It has been determined.

While There had been no criminal charges, no official admission of guilt”, it is nevertheless considered a “landmark” judgement.

Following this:

Several newspaper articles were published in Israel and the United States deploring the judge’s decision in the aftermath of the Aramin case. No civil proceedings should ever be allowed in such a military situation, they said. The criminal courts had already indicated that there was a lack of sufficient evidence. Why should the State have to shoulder the burden? It had been pointed out in court that it was possible that the child had been hit by a rock thrown by rioters and, even if she had been struck by a stray rubber bullet, an unlikely scenario, the Commander had testified that they were under relentless attack. The legal decision could, in the future, endanger the lives of Israeli soldiers forced to make crucial split-second decisions in the interests of security. If made to hesitate, they could endanger not only themselves but their fellow soldiers and indeed citizens. Furthermore, and most alarming, Bassam Aramin was a convicted terrorist. He had spent seven years in prison for a series of hand grenade attacks. He belonged to the Fatah faction, which he continued to support. One million shekels would, no doubt, go a long way towards another terrorist venture and who could know what he was planning now

And when Bassam Aramin visits US Senator John Kerry in his office, there is a recognition that…..

The American rifle. The American jeep. The American training. The American tear gas. The American dollar

…is central to Israeli state violence.

McCann does not paint a black-and-white picture. The parents of Smadar Elhanan do not side with their state. Her father, Rami, has developed this position over time, while her mother Nurit, openly supports Palestinians and frequently receives abuse and death threats.

Abir Aramin’s father, Bassam, was incarcerated aged 17 for seven years, for throwing stones. He comes from a tradition of struggle against the occupation. McCann never leaves any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. Near the end, McCann returns to his title-giving word once more:

From the Greek, apeiron: to be boundless, to be endless. Alongside the Indo-European root of per: to try, to risk.

McCann takes risks. One of these is selling the movie rights to Steven Spielberg, who has famously stated:

from my earliest youth, I have been an ardent defender of Israel [...] And because I am proud of being Jewish, I am worried by the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in the world. [...] If it became necessary, I would be prepared to die for the USA and for Israel.

One wonders how many sides will be left of McCann’s Apeirogon – five, or six? In the context of the recent escalation of violence  in the Middle East and Ireland’s condemnation of Israel’s de-facto annexation policy, Apeirogon by Colum McCann is worth reading more than ever.

Albrecht Dürer – Champion of the Peasants
Saturday, 15 May 2021 13:23

Albrecht Dürer – Champion of the Peasants

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell writes about Albrecht Dürer, who made art in supported of the democratic movements of his time

Albrecht Dürer was born 550 years ago, on 21 May 1471, during the Renaissance, a time of upheaval that rang in the early modern age. With improved production methods, industry and trade grew rapidly, bringing with it more money and the strengthening of a new middle class. Modern science developed, age-old truths were called into doubt, and working people began to challenge their appointed places in the social, political and religious hierarchies. It was a time, among other things, when many peasants protested, arose and demanded to be treated as equals.

The Reformation in Germany was an expression of these social changes in the early 16th century. The rising bourgeoisie in the countries north of the Alps, especially Germany, felt the need to break with the papacy. The opposition forces did not yet possess the economic and political power that would have enabled them to subjugate the papacy to their own interests, as in Italy. The Reformation movement began with Wyclif in England, continued with Hus in Bohemia and culminated in Germany. Popular social opposition became part of it. Social forces in religious guise fought the Hussite wars in Bohemia.

In Germany, a differentiation within the forces that had initiated the Reformation soon became apparent. When the upper middle-class patricians realised that the Reformation meant a complete break from Rome, and that there were elements within this movement that aspired beyond bourgeois class society, they returned to the bosom of the papacy.

As Engels describes in “The Peasant War in Germany”, Luther became afraid when he realised the socially explosive effect his challenge to Rome’s hierarchy had on the peasants, who understood this to legitimise aspirations to change their own lot. So his theological reforms did not question class divisions.

Thomas Müntzer became the leader of the popular opposition. He led the Peasant War, which challenged the old social order, while Luther along with the bourgeoisie turned against the revolutionary peasants, preventing the unification of all oppositional forces, thereby setting back major social change by centuries. The peasants and their urban plebeian allies were defeated and Müntzer was imprisoned and beheaded.

The influence of the working classes on German art of the Reformation period is frequently underestimated. It survives in numerous pamphlet woodcuts from the early 16th century, but above all in many prints by Dürer and his circle. Dürer's influence can be seen in the work of Grünewald, Riemenschneider, Jörg Ratgeb and many other artists, and infuses German art of the Reformation period with a haunting popular appeal.

Albrecht Dürer’s genius so dominated the art of the early bourgeois revolution in Germany that it has been called the Dürer epoch. He was born in Nuremberg as the son of a goldsmith, studied for three years in the workshop of Michael Wolgemut, spent four journeyman years in Basel, Strasbourg and other places, and finally settled in Nuremberg. Twice he crossed the Alps to Italy, first in 1495, the second time in 1505/06, each time spending an extended period in Venice. A third journey took him to see the Netherlands in 1520/21, where he made many important acquaintances.


This remarkable portrait, created during the journey to the Netherlands, is based on an actual encounter and not Dürer's imagination. The drawing shows the artist's great interest in people who came to Europe because of growing international trade, which of course included the slave trade. The woman depicted here is Catherine, a 20-year-old servant of the Portuguese commercial agent João Brandão, who administered the Portuguese spice monopoly in Antwerp. Dürer was his guest when he travelled to Antwerp in 1521. It is likely that Brandão acquired this African woman through his trade connections. Her name suggests that she had converted to Christianity.

Dürer's obvious interest here is in the individual person. His deep humanism infuses her portrait with the same dignity he affords the peasants he depicts. Dürer was the first German artist to capture the peasants’ self-confidence that had been stirring since the late 15th century. He was the first to portray peasants as aesthetic subjects. Through Dürer, depictions of peasants appear in the revolutionary pamphlets of the time.


This wonderful copper engraving shows three armed peasants in serious conversation. They are clearly intelligent and dignified people. One of these rebellious peasants carries a rapier, another has a knife in his pocket and spurs on his shoes. The third figure reaches into his waistcoat, from which he might produce a leaflet.

Dürer also set an example during the Peasant War. When Luther turned against the peasants and became the princes’ vassal, Dürer took a stand against him. Luther advised that the princes slaughter the rebellious peasants. Dürer, on the other hand, professed his support for the rebellious peasant army with his Peasants’ Monument.

In 1525, in the third book of his “Unterweisung der Messung” (Instruction in Measurement), as a model for the proportioning of a monument, he included a woodcut that championed the cause of the peasants.


The column shows livestock, household and agricultural equipment from a peasant holding, now the booty of the conquerors. Instead of the victorious conqueror crowning the pillar, there is a peasant, pierced by a sword. We see him in the posture of Christ at rest, the slain peasant as the true follower of Christ. The Peasant War was just over, and siding with the revolutionary peasants was far from safe.

Many artists suffered persecution. Matthias Grünewald took part in seditious acts, had to flee from Aschaffenburg to Frankfurt, and died as a persecuted person in Halle. Jörg Ratgeb’s main work, the Herrenberg Altar painted in 1518/19, is inspired by a passionate and rebellious spirit. In it, he portrays the representatives of the church as fat, arrogant executioners. Ratgeb joined the peasants and became a military advisor. Following the defeat of the peasant army, he was publicly quartered in the marketplace of Pforzheim in 1526.

Tilman Riemenschneider was a leading sculptor of the late Gothic period. In 1525 he was 60 years old, a respected citizen of Würzburg and a member of the council, and was arrested, expelled from the council, and tortured. He ceased all artistic activity after this. In the last years of his life, Dürer turned away from art to more scientific preoccupations and died at the age of 57 on 6 April 1528. He remained close to the common people in his thoughts and actions. He sided with the democratic movement and fought for it with the weapons of his art.

The greatest artists of that time in Germany stood with the people.

Writings and Particulars: New Website from Alan O'Brien
Monday, 03 May 2021 13:33

Writings and Particulars: New Website from Alan O'Brien

Published in Life Writing

We are delighted to announce the opening of the official website for J.A. O'Brien, writer, journeyman bricklayer, journalist and socialist republican, very much of the James Connolly strand.

The website has links to his personal blog and is also where his memoir, "Against the Wind: memoir of a dissident Dubliner," can be purchased.

Further to this there is a link to the Audio-Book version of "Against the Wind" that itself is a treat, being narrated naturally and colourfully by Gary Furlong.

Finally, there is a section on the blog for discussion about aspects of the book or any other questions about his other writing.

Prokofiev and Peter and the Wolf
Thursday, 22 April 2021 07:27

Prokofiev and Peter and the Wolf

Published in Music

Jenny Farrell introduces Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, one of the most famous pieces of music for children ever written

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev is among the great composers of the 20th century. He was born 130 years ago, on 23rd April 1891 in Sontsovka in the Ukraine, into a rural family. Village life, with its peasant songs, left a permanent impression on him. His musical mother arranged trips to the opera in Moscow when he was a child. Prokofiev’s subsequent ten years of study (1904-1914) at the Petersburg Conservatory, under Rimsky-Korsakov among others, were a time of great artistic growth.

When the Tsar was overthrown in 1917, Prokofiev understood a new dawn had broken and he wrote a vast quantity of new music. In the summer of 1917, he joined the Council of Workers in the Arts, a significant organisation in Russia’s left-wing artistic struggle. Stranded for nine months in the Caucasus due to the civil war, he could only return to Petrograd in early 1918. Believing that music was not to the forefront of the Council’s activities, Prokofiev obtained official sanction to undertake a concert tour abroad.

From 1918, he began touring the USA and Europe as a pianist and conductor and stayed out of the country longer than originally intended, largely due to the blockade of the USSR. He stayed in  the US for almost two years and returned there on several occasions for concert tours. In France, Prokofiev came into close contact with avant-garde musical developments, an interest he had had from early on. He had already performed pieces by Schönberg in Russia. Prokofiev’s musical talent developed rapidly. He studied the works of Stravinsky, particularly the early ballets, but maintained a critical attitude toward his countryman’s innovations, with whom he had a strained personal relationship. From 1922, Prokofiev spent over a year and a half in Ettal, Bavaria, before returning to Paris. In Germany, Prokofiev married the Spanish-born singer Carolina Codina, whom he had met in the US and with whom he went on to have two sons.

Prokofiev toured the USSR several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In 1936 he finally returned to his homeland with his family, where he became active in the Composers’ Union. Having met writer and translator Mira Mendelson in 1938, he left Carolina in 1941 and married Mira in 1948. Carolina Codina was arrested for ‘espionage’ shortly after this, sentenced to 20 years in labour camps and released in 1956. Yuri Andropov facilitated her departure from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Prokofiev was attracted by the work of modernist Russian poets, by the paintings of the Russian followers of Cézanne and Picasso, the theatrical ideas of Meyerhold. In 1914, Prokofiev had met the great ballet impresario Diaghilev, who became his mentor for the next decade and a half. All these influences impacted on Prokofiev’s compositions while he lived abroad. Yet, Prokofiev had not lost touch with the music of his homeland and his ties to it had never been severed. This return home resulted his composing in numerous masterpieces.

Peter and the Wolf

One of these, the most famous of all, is Peter and the Wolf. Natalya Sats, then director of the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children, had commissioned this piece to introduce children to some of the instruments of the orchestra, and classical music. Prokofiev had met Sats while taking his sons to her theatre in 1936. Prokofiev wrote a draft for the piano in a few days, finishing the orchestration 9 days later, on 24 April. The piece was performed to great acclaim, with Sats narrating, at the Pioneer Palace in Moscow. Prokofiev later said: “In Russia today there is a great emphasis on the musical education of children. One of my orchestral pieces (Peter and the Wolf) was an experiment. Children get an impression of several instruments of the orchestra just by hearing the piece performed.”

Prokofiev himself wrote the story, which is narrated by a speaker. First, the narrator introduces the characters with their musical motifs. In the course of the story, the narrator explains what is happening. If you know which instrument belongs to which animal, the music speaks for itself.

All the people and animals in the story are played on different instruments:

Peter is represented by strings (including violins, violas and cellos), sweet, clear sound. Their light, high sound describes Peter as a happy and outgoing boy.

The confident, forceful hunters are played by the timpani and trumpets, with the timpani and bass drum beats enacting rifle shots.

The bird is characterised by the flute, fluttery, happy chirping.

The slightly nasal sound of the oboe suggests the quacking, waddling duck.

The soft, warm sound of the clarinet evokes the velvety, elegant and sneaky cat.

No instrument is better suited to the slow grandfather, than the dark, thick low register of the bassoon.

The wolf is conjured by three French horns. He is dangerous and lives in the forest; the French horn with its large and deep sound suggests this perfectly.

Peter w

Peter who lives with his grandfather on the edge of a forest, understands the language of the cat, the bird and the duck. The animals are his friends. One day, the wolf emerges from the forest and devours the duck in one gulp. Peter devises a plan to catch the wolf with the help of the bird.

We hear about Peter’s love for animals, grandfather’s worries, about birds arguing whether they should swim or fly, about the cat’s unsuccessful pursuit of the bird, about the arrival of the wicked wolf, and finally, how the bird and Peter catch the wolf, and everybody’s triumphal procession to the zoo.

The story begins on morning is calm and sunny, upward moving leaps in the melody, Peter’s strings play a happy tune, there are upward leaps, the flutes (bird) trill. When the birds argue, the mood becomes louder and discordant, with a back and forth between the instruments. As the wolf appears, chases, and catches the duck, the mood conveyed by the music becomes alarming, threatening, the rhythm becomes faster and the oboe (duck) climbing in pitch with anxiety, discord ends in loud alarm. Following this crisis, Peter, and the bird attempt to catch the wolf with a lasso. The mood becomes anxious, a sense of breath being held as the music descends in pitch. Soft strings pause before the brass blares loudly. When the wolf is caught, it is taken to the zoo in a jubilant procession with all involved. The mood is happy and we hear trills, fast arpeggios on clarinet, strings, flutes and there is a sense of happy skipping.

This musical fairy tale is an example of socialist realism. It features a ‘group of heroes’, not an individual one. Peter and the bird need one another to defeat the wolf. Humanity and nature live in harmony. This is underscored musically. It is profoundly humanist: the adversary, the wolf, is not killed but put out of dangerous action and made available for educational purposes. There is an optimistic ending in that the wicked wolf is defeated but also that the duck seems to have survived in the wolf’s stomach. And all this is expressed in the music: The group hero idea while the wolf is captured, as well as in the tutti of all the themes in the procession to the zoo. And the duck’s survival in sounding a very muted duck theme at the end – from the wolf’s belly, as it were.


It is a happy ending indeed, celebrating friendship, courage and co-operation in the defeat of danger and evil.

Even if the haunting melodies seem simple at first glance, they are not. The musical story is vividly and beautifully interwoven, in word and sound, action and musical gesture, including many masterful tone paintings. Listeners learn that music can tell its own story, once you understand that themes can represent characters that are repeated initially until you get to know them. They then develop into variations. They can interact, they can struggle, they can harmonise. This wonderful introduction to understanding classical music is not didactic and it is not just for children. It is thoroughly memorable and enjoyable.

“Peter and the Wolf” remains Sergei Prokofiev’s best-known composition to this day.

Easter 1916 and Maeve Cavanagh, 'poetess of the revolution'
Saturday, 03 April 2021 16:31

Easter 1916 and Maeve Cavanagh, 'poetess of the revolution'

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell introduces Maeve Cavanagh and presents one of her poems

Last Easter, we published some poems written by three leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. They were Pádraig Pearse, who wrote the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, and his comrades and signatories Thomas MacDonagh and James Plunkett, accessing through their verse their revolutionary aspirations. All three were executed following the defeat of the rebellion.

Among the rebels were a significant number of women, who were not executed, including some poets. This Easter, I wish to introduce one of these, Maeve Cavanagh, who had been a member and secretary for some years of Cumman na mBán, the Gaelic League, and Connolly's Irish Citizen Army. She was also involved in the cultural and educational activities held in Liberty Hall.
Part of Maeve Cavanagh’s aspiration was to make the ordinary working people of Dublin more politically aware. For example, she spent considerable effort trying to dissuade men from joining the British Army in the first world war. In her 1914 poetry collection Sheaves of Revolt, she describes the brutality and horror of war and its aftermath:

So hurry up and take the ‘bob’
The Butcher cannot wait,
The German guns are talking,
At a most terrific rate.
And if you should crawl back,
Minus arm or minus leg,
You’ll get leave to roam your city
To sell matches – or to beg.

Maeve’s brother Ernest was a cartoon artist whose anti-war work featured in Irish Worker, Fianna and Irish Freedom. Ernest, who worked at the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), was shot dead by British troops on the steps of Liberty Hall during the Rising.

Maeve Cavanagh herself was much involved in the preparations for the Rising and was well acquainted with James Connolly. Connolly called her “the poetess of the revolution” and published one of her poems in The Workers’ Republic. She also wrote a play about the Rising, “The Test: a play of 1916” and was active in trying to secure a reprieve for Roger Casement. All these, alongside her eye-witness accounts of the uprising, are now held in the National Library of Ireland. Her poetry, unfortunately, does not feature in the Irish public's literary consciousness.

Eastertide, 1916

by Maeve Cavanagh

The warring nations mazéd heard
The slogan cry of Eire ring,
And they who in her fain hope shared
Exultant watched her gallant spring-
The wolf-dog stood at bay once more,
And heard unmoved the Lion’s roar.

The hours were told - her time had come -
At noontide on an April day,
She bore the Truth - and Lie struck dumb
In all her glorious, deathless way.
Ere to his couch the sun sank down
Her flag flew over Dublin town.

And Connaught o’er broad Shannon ‘s tide,
Her noble challenge swiftly sends,
True as of yore from Slaney’s side
Brave Wexford’s thrilling answer wends -
And history stoops to write to-day
The fairest page she’ll pen for aye.

What tho our fairest, dearest fall?
We shall not grudge the awful price
To-day we stand in freedom’s hall,
And Freely make our sacrifice.
We’ve seen our Goddess face to face
All times cannot this hour efface.

Written on the hoisting of the Irish Republican Flag over the G.P.O. - Dublin, 24/4/1916

Page 2 of 8