Monday, December 31, 2007

Trabant Alive and Well in Limerick

Its not often that a parked car in Limerick makes me stop and look again. However this vehicle achieved that rarity, and prompted me to at long last get to grips with the complexities of the camera embedded for some reason, (probably for occasions such as this I suppose) in my mobile phone. The photo remained embedded within the memory of the phone, until I worked out how to get it out, and that involved emailing it to myself. Oh how things have moved on since the days of the humble Trabbi, with its two stroke engine and its minimalist interior comforts. I undertook a trip from Berlin to a far away destination in the DDR in a Trabant, and I was struck throughout that it was unlikely to afford any significant protection in the event of a collision of even the most minor sort. Thankfully this did not occur, although the lady driving this vehicle at one point did seem to be hell-bent on sending us both on to the big politburo in the sky, when she raced to overtake an NVA (National Volks Armie) lorry on what I recall was a sort of pontoon bridge.Meanwhile, a large soviet made lorry bore down with relentless and undoubtedly utterly unstoppable speed in the lane we were now occupying for what seemed an aeon. The two-stroke engine of the Trabbi reached a screaming pitch of insane hysteria, and we just swerved in front of the NVA lorry in a split second before we were splattered on the huge radiator of the oncoming Russian lorry. Now that Trabant's first cousin seems to be living in Limerick here in Ireland, and is apparently much loved by its student owner for its extreme fuel economy, although the noise of its engine is still something of a shock. Astonishingly the owner did not know,where the car came from, so I started to tell the astonishing story behind her remarkable little car...'once upon a time a long long time ago in a country now almost forgotten, under a socio-economic system now replaced by capitalism....'
Happy New Year to you all, peace, health, and prosperity to all for 2008.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Greetings from Ireland....

The photographs on this post are of a ruined early Christian church in Kerry in Ireland, and are reproduced here to show the beauty of such places at this time of year, and perhaps allow some exiles from Ireland to glimpse their homeland, and to be reassured that not all that makes it so special has gone . They are also chosen deliberately to take us for a short moment away from the frenetic bustle of shopping malls and high streets, it is in such places you can regain a serenity that should also be part of this time of year. And it really is upon us again this festive season called Christmas.
Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.In the 4th century AD , Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, the Christian hierarchy of the time named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be the birth date of Jesus’ Christ.

Now the festive period has returned somewhat to its saturnalian origins, except that now what is worshipped is consumption and excess. The purpose of this post is not however to cast a scrooge-like bucket of cold water on what for so many people, for whatever reason, is a special time of year. So I hope that all the readers of this weblog have a Happy Christmas, and a healthy and peaceful 2008. I hope that these images from rural Kerry evoke some sense of the timelessness, tranquility, and quiet remembrance of times, people and places, which was traditionally part of this special time of year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Columbia Three- Jail Journal

I have just completed reading 'Columbia Jail Journal' by James Monaghan, the most senior member of the group of Irish Republican's, whose detention in Columbia led them to be dubbed the 'Columbia Three', more details of the case are to be found on
I must say that this book is an impressive account, Monaghan delivers a precise and well written book covering the full story of the groups travails in the Columbian prison system. His account is devoid of cliché and is very human in the way that he observes the behaviour of his captors, and fellow prisoners. He observes perhaps surprisingly that there were good and bad characters to be found amongst all the various prisoners they encountered, not all of their FARC/ELN comrades are portrayed as heroes nor are all the right-wing paramilitaries they had to share their imprisonment with cast, as villains. Though in reference to the latter it is made clear by Jim Monaghan, that given the right circumstances and direct orders, then these guys would have had very few qualms about cutting the three Irishmen's throats. It is evident too that it was in no small part their collective discipline and good humour that got the men through their ordeal, and of course in this context the support and contact they received from friends and comrades both abroad and in Columbia itself were crucial to maintaining their morale. There are lighter moments, too, in this fascinating account, as James Monaghan struggles with his lack of Spanish and tries to avoid the attentions of a homicidal fellow inmate, while Martin McCauley bargains all around him for cigarettes and matches. Although found not guilty on the charges of training FARC rebels, and released, an appeal by the prosecution saw them sentenced in December 2004 to 17 years in jail. Meanwhile, however, they had gone into hiding, and by August 2005 they had made their way back to Ireland.
Another impressive aspect of this book is the care which with the author takes in explaining the byzantine complexities of the Columbian political situation, its peace process and its progress or lack of progress, was clearly integral to their own fate. The deep understanding of the political situation in Columbia displayed by the author certainly added a depth to the account which was enlightening. The direct and blatant involvement of the USA in the political and judicial process in Columbia was even to this reader a total surprise. I had of course fully understood that the USA would be influential in the background, but the extent of its overt power in this and other central American states astonished me. This was perhaps most amply illustrated when, the initial forensic tests, which proved utterly flawed, were actually undertaken on the men and their possessions by an operative from the US embassy in Bogota. What other country in the world would have its embassy staff so directly involved in the investigative functions of another state?
The account is also greatly enhanced by Monaghan's own line drawings of various people and places they encountered throughout their time in Columbia. Its a good read and a story that needed telling, and I am delighted that Jim was in a position to create this account for posterity. It is clear that on a number of occasions these men could easily have been 'disappeared' as so many others have in the Columbian conflict. The high profile that their case attracted, and the subsequent attention of Irish people and other progressives throughout the world,was in all likelihood the crucial factor in ensuring that they lived to tell the tale.

Columbia Jail Journal is available in most good book shops, further details are to be found on the Brandon Books webpage

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bon Secours - "Good Help to those in Need"

I have'nt contributed a posting to the site in the past 12 days and the reason was that I fell victim to a relatively minor but nevertheless utterly debilitating health malfunction. We take our usual state of rude good health as pretty much a given, but when things go wrong its then that you realise just how essential excellent health care is. I am fortunate in that in my position a health policy provides me with access to that very precious commodity, outstanding medical care. How I wish that the standard of care extended in the hospitals of the Bon Secours foundation was attained in all the hospitals of the world.
I also became rather intrigued by the origins of this unique hospitalling order of catholic nuns which has now evolved into a large health foundation, still it must be said based upon all that is best in the Christian tradition, namely reflecting the fact that one of Christ's practical activities on earth was to heal the sick, ergo the duty of Christians today is to be concerned with this very same project fundamental to all our well beings regardless of creed colour or social status. But there lies the problem, not all can avail of this sort of health care due to social disadvantage and that surely is an evil.
The origins of this unique order lay in the years just after the French Revolution, a handful of young women began to nurse the sick and dying. The twelve young women stayed in the sick person’s home day and night, demonstrating the healing presence of God through their compassionate care.
They chose one of the group as their leader – Josephine Potel- - and in January 1824 were professed in the Church of St Sulpice. The word spread. People began to hear about the spirituality of the tiny group, and about the ‘good care’ (‘bon secours’) they offered to rich and poor alike. Other young women joined them. Even Josephine Potel’s death in her early twenties did not deflect the group from their mission. Led by her successor, Angelique Geay, the Congregation spread throughout France, driven by a belief that their foundation had been an act of compassion and that they must continue to show that compassion in action.The work and spirituality of the early Bon Secours Sisters attracted the attention of an ex-patriate Irishwoman, Catherine O’Farrell, who persuaded them to come to Ireland.In 1861, the first foundation outside of France was made in Dublin, when four sisters came to the city to care for the sick and dying in their homes. From Dublin, the sisters expanded their work to Cork, Belfast, Tralee and Galway. A decade later, Bon Secours had set up in London and another ten years later were working in Baltimore, USA. By 1900, healthcare was changing and Bon Secours changed with it. Care of the sick was moving from the homes of patients to hospitals, and so Bon Secours began to set up hospitals, together with nursing homes for elderly patients.In 1966, when Bishop Lucey of Cork and Ross asked Bon Secours to take part in the Cork Diocesan Mission in Peru, four Irish sisters opened a mission in Trujillo, a coastal Peruvian city. They faced a grim and complex challenge. Because no hospitals served the poor, diseases went untreated and many – particularly the young and the old – died each year as a direct result. Because vital operations were not provided for children, deformity was widespread.The Sisters developed a wide range of community health programmes, operating both in medical clinics and in the homes of the poor. But they widened their scope to respond to community need, teaching, taking care of and educating people with mental disabilities. To help improve the quality of life, they undertook home economics and pastoral care, becoming deeply involved in the life of the local community. Today, thirty eight Peruvian sisters, together with five Irish sisters, continue the work initiated in the sixties.
I was a direct beneficiary of that organisations mission, and it has led me to consider that whatever the source of the motivation, religion, or altruism, or ideology, there is a deep seated desire in humanity to assist one another, there are of course other traits present in humanity, destructive and evil inclinations. I still hope that a world can emerge one day, when the commitment to 'Good help to those in need' as expressed by orders such as the Bon Secours becomes the paramount value in all societies, that is what I still consider to be the fundamental concept underlying socialism, since selfless dedication to the needs of the unwell is not provided for within the parameters set on society by capitalist values and the pure exigencies of the market system . Whether the motivation towards doing good unto our fellow human beings is derived from religion, philosophy or politics, it is most likely to flourish in societies which reflect that the core values of human existence does not have to be greed and consumption. As Nick Lowe put it so well in the song Elvis Costello performed an exemplary version of , " Whats so funny about Peace, Love, and Understanding"?..... Quite.