Léirmheasanna (Reviews)

Negationists Ahoy!

Seán O'Callaghan

Seán O’Callaghan

So that tired old spy/informer/traitor of yore, Seán O’Callaghan, is back peddling his same tired old “analyses” of political and military events in Ireland. Or more specifically the bit of Ireland still occupied by our neighbours over yonder (and with himself at the centre of the story as always). It’s hard to know what to say about O’Callaghan that hasn’t been said before. I suppose it tells us more about the Negationist generation of Irish and British writers, apologists for all of Britain’s history on our island nation, that one of their most recognisable “sources” is an acknowledged fantasist and narcissist of legendary standing. Oh yes, one can’t help but feel sorry for the man. He has destroyed his life by allowing himself to become the political plaything of ideological others. However, couldn’t he just retire peacefully into obscurity and give up the fame-game instead of being trotted out every few months to entertain the prejudices of various obscure Unionist and British nationalist “think-tanks” and organisations? Or is the cheese and cracker circuit in London all that he has left? A few more gullible or willing fools to fool, a few more inexperienced journos to win over with a lop-sided smile and a twinkle in those sad eyes? It was ever thus…

Meanwhile over in the Irish Times historian Diarmaid Ferriter gets mightily annoyed with fellow historian John Regan for calling out the ideologically-driven philosophy of historians like, er, Diarmaid Ferriter. In fact the pugnacious Diarmaid goes a wee bit OTT so outraged is he. The whole article (given plenty of room by the IT, one notes) fairly rips into Regan and anyone who dares to question the bona fides of the Irish academic classes when it comes to examining the tortured history of Britain’s colonial rule in Ireland. That he has to do so by metaphorically standing on his head to make his arguments appear the right way up says it all. Ah, nothing like an orthodoxy scorned or an establishment challenged.

Viva la revolución!

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Gabriel Rosenstock, Margadh Na Míol In Valparaíso

Margadh na Míol in Valparaíso

Would I be right in suggesting that Gabriel Rosenstock and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill are probably the two greatest living Irish poets? There are many contenders for that title but when looks at the breadth of their works it is hard to imagine a more deserving rival than those two doyens of Ireland’s literary scene. Sometimes I prefer Rosenstock, sometimes Ní Dhomhnaill, each appealing to my particular moods or where I am in life (in fact at the moment I am sick as the proverbial madra but that is an aside).Of course the Anglophone media don’t rate either very highly and for one reason and one reason only: they write in Irish not English. So while the late Séamus Heaney will be rightfully eulogised those who express their art through our island nation’s indigenous tongue will forever be placed at the back of the literary bus. Indeed both receive greater respect and admiration outside of their own country than they have ever done at home. So this is interesting, from Mícheál Ó hAodha in the Irish Times:

“It is common knowledge that Gabriel Rosenstock belongs to the Innti generation of poets, that generation that coalesced around UCC in the early-1970s and who sparked the smouldering embers of a hitherto rural-based Irish language idiom and culture into life, a culture that was like an old dead woman whom a former lover can’t bear to rest his eyes upon in the wake-house. The Irish language was battered and bogged down and had nothing urban or hip about it.

But the Innti generation of Ní Dhomhnaill, Davitt, Rosenstock, Ó Muirthile and co. came along and put a fire beneath it. Like the “Burnings Limbs”(or the “Géaga tré Thine” (2006) – (a title of one of Rosenstock’s poetry collections) and inspired and energized by the tearing down of old barriers and repressions on the broader stage of the world – the burgeoning civil rights movements of Northern Ireland and the USA, the Paris upheavals, the struggles for minority rights among peoples, languages and cultures – the Innti generation created a new and transgressive language, a language of challenge and rebellion, both political and social.

This is all common knowledge. It is well-known amongst the literary cognoscenti of Ireland. Or is it?! The reality is that the Irish language including Irish language poetry is so marginal to this country’s literary circles in the apparently “multicultural” Ireland of today, so peripheral still, that no-one is quite sure what space it occupies – if any.

What might not be so well-known outside to those outside the small world of Irish-language literature is that Gabriel Rosenstock, of the aforementioned Innti generation continued (and continues) writing. This bilingual volume Margadh na Míol in Valparaíso/The Flea Market in Valparaíso (Cló Iar-Chonnacht) is a very comprehensive collection of his “New and Selected Poems” as translated by Paddy Bushe…

Rosenstock and his fellow Irish-language poets are constantly breaking new ground and became interlocutors with the wider poetic worlds of Eastern Europe, the US and Asia long before many of their more staid European contemporaries did. Why is this?

… it is not because they have that ancient “sense of place” that so fascinated the Irish poets of old; it is that the language is their home-place rather than any geographical locale.

This brings with it an enormous freedom. And yet Irish-language poets such as Rosenstock are still an essential element and link in the Gaelic literary tradition. They haven’t abandoned the responsibility that goes with the oldest role of the poet in Irish culture – to act as a balm when people are hurt or damaged by the violence of this world, to celebrate profound sadness and ecstasy or to reflect more deeply on the nature of life and the world.”

Cultus Obscuram – Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze

Ron Ely in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze 1975

Ron Ely in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, 1975

The old cliché “…so bad it’s good” springs to mind when one watches the 1975 cinematic release “Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze”. Based upon the eponymous 1930s’ pulp magazine character primarily written by Lester Dent the film was intended to be the first in a series of purposefully old-fashioned adventure movies by legendary Sci-Fi entertainment producer George Pal that would cash in on the then box office popularity of nostalgia-themed dramas like the Sting (1973) or Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Unfortunately Pal’s release was missing the production values or high-profile casts of its rivals and was inevitably destined to be nothing more than an also-ran. It features an impossibly blue-eyed if charisma-free Ron Ely (formerly the star of the US television show “Tarzan”) surrounded by various well-known and not so well-known TV and B-movie actors of the 1970s hamming it up in fine old style. Given a script that unintentionally careers back and forth between the comic and the camp with the odd flair of the not-so-dramatic or not-so-thrilling the resulting hyperactive acting offers no surprises. Perhaps what is surprising though, especially given the cinematic heritage of George Pal (the man behind 1953’s “The War of the Worlds” and the 1960 Oscar-winning “The Time Machine”), is the mediocre special effects, including the use of almost wilfully fake-looking matte paintings and visuals. They really are poor, more at home in a cheap 1970s’ TV series than a mainstream Hollywood production. Shot in the tame and overly familiar landscapes of southern California or in poorly finished sets that look like rejects from an episode of “Columbo” even the appearance of a dangerous-looking fuselage-free helicopter does little to up the on-screen “wow” factor.

From a toe-curlingly awful supervillain who laughs manically at his own deviousness to ethnic stereotypes that span the range of mildly to deeply offensive there is much to be amazed by in Doc Savage. Perhaps the worse offender is a brutal (and I do mean brutal) Scottish accent borne by a stocky would-be assassin. Just about the only thing of real interest is an early appearance of the actress Pamela Hensley who went on to play the sultry alien princess Ardala in the SF television series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”. However with all that said Doc Savage is so gloriously silly that one can’t but help at times enjoying it. The fact that those who produced and starred in it obviously thought they were making what could have been a proto-Indiana Jones makes it all the more fun (in an admittedly cruel way). Bare chests (lots of that), dodgy accents, egregious stereotypes, hokey special effects, ratty-looking studio sets… what’s not to enjoy?

Pamela Hensley and Ron Ely in Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze 1975

Pamela Hensley and Ron Ely in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, 1975

Even A Fanboy Has His Limits

Speak no fanspeak, see no fanspeak, hear no fanspeak

Is it just me or is there now a dearth of thoughtful and well-informed websites and blogs on the genre worlds of Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature? Oh yes, the banner-heavy, paragraph-light sites that focus on the latest Marvel or DC movie franchises are in plentiful supply. However most of these flash-happy affairs have as much substance as a stick of candy floss; and are just as forgettable. When it comes to in-depth reviews, essays and analyses by people who know what they are talking about – and who aren’t afraid to break the taboos of fannish devotion – one is left clicking through page after page in search of something with a bit of intelligence and insight (who knew that Monster & Critics was still in existence? And by god is it awful). One longs for the likes of the Cimmerian, the now defunct US-based website devoted to Robert E. Howard, where people of real talent wrote with eloquence and wit on the works of Howard, J.R.R Tolkien and others. Ironically in some cases where good online venues did exist to examine or debate such matters their supposed “improvements” have actually managed to ruin them. Britain’s SF Crow’s Nest springs to mind (that is if you can actually find the current website via a Google search. Talk about SEO unfriendly. Not to mention the dubious honour of creating an internet site that actually looks worse than its pleasingly old school predecessor). Websites specifically focusing on the old reliables, books, comics and graphic novels, have now succumbed to the cult of infotainment-style soundbite-reporting on the latest rumour about the latest superhero flick. It is all so mind-numbingly inconsequential.

Is this the dreaded future of the internet that the critics warned us about? The sinking into the mire of collective mediocrity? How has fandom come to this?

The Randomers

I’ve been asked to highlight a recently released independent Irish movie, “The Randomers”, the fourth feature-length film from writer-director Graham Jones. The free-to-view drama focuses on a love affair sparked by the actions of a young woman living on the west coast of Ireland who places an advertisement seeking a man for a relationship “without speaking”. What follows is their meeting and time together as they travel in wordless companionship through urban and rural landscapes, visual and musical cues setting the tone of each scene. Though the verdant counties of Galway and Mayo have never looked better it is the near mute actions and reactions of the two lead actors, Sarah Jane Murphy and Joseph Lydan, that give the movie its strength. Their looks, their body language, their silences-within-silences say it all. “The Randomers” is an unexpectedly engaging endeavour, beautifully shot and produced, and shows what is possible on even the most limited of budgets when creativity, imagination and talent are given a free hand.

Fight The Power! An Interview With The Authors

Fight The Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples by Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson

Fight The Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples by Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson (Íomhá: Seven Stories Press 2013)

In the 18th and 19th centuries one of the more popular forms of protest against authoritarian governments or regimes was through the publication of satirical illustrations or short picture stories frequently created with both literate and semi-literate audiences in mind. Using familiar or reoccurring images, symbols and caricatures political dissent or contrary opinions could be disseminated far and wide, the readers understanding and appreciating the visual cues presented to them. From the revolutionary struggles in France and North America to industrial unrest in England and Germany artists and cartoonists offered partisan commentary to the masses. By the latter half of the 1800s many of the larger newspaper or magazine titles in Europe and the United States maintained small teams of artists on their staff, some illustrating contemporary news events while others specialised in grotesque caricatures that appealed to notions of national or class chauvinism.

With the development of photography and later film the field of political cartooning was gradually narrowed to the role of comedic-satire and ephemeral “cartoons of the day”. However the emergence of the liberal and at times anarchic “counterculture” of the 1960s and ‘70s gave birth to a new genre of “underground comics” some of which were activist-inspired publications presented in a seemingly non-political form that proved attractive to rebellious youth. Since that era overtly radical comics have not disappeared entirely though they have largely remained in the domain of the “small press”. Occasional ventures by mainstream publishers have proved problematic, more often than not the contrarian views being subsumed by traditional story-telling techniques or sacrificed for commercial gain (notable early examples in Europe are the late 1980s’ British comics “Crisis” and “Deadline“). In most cases political messages were safely hidden behind a non-political front, a misdirection created by the use of familiar genre tropes such as “super-heroes”.

So it is still relatively unusual to see an avowedly political graphic novel being issued, one that wears its heart on its cover (so to speak), which in some ways harks back to an earlier era of instructive pamphleteering. “Fight The Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples” is a collection of illustrated potted histories from across the last two centuries of political and social struggle in Europe, the United States and Africa. Written and edited by long-standing comic-creators Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson with artwork by Hunt Emerson, John Spelling, and Adam Pasion the book ranges in time from early 19th century England and the Luddite movement to the contemporary United States and the Occupy protests of the early 21st century. Each era and the events within it are given several pages of an overview, some more detailed than others. The chapter titled “Irish Rebellions (1791-1922)” is the most sparse in some ways since it tries to cover the furthest ground while others are more successful by focusing on one point in history. However though the quality of the artwork can sometimes be uneven all of the stories are of interest especially those that highlight some of the more unusual – and largely forgotten – events in the struggle for social equality (the unprecedented Boston Police Strike of 1919 and the 1934 The Battle of Toledo spring to mind).

The-Luddittes-and-Swing-Riots,-1811-1832

The Luddittes and Swing Riots, 1811-1832 (Íomhá: Seven Stories Press 2013)

An Sionnach Fionn has been lucky enough to secure a Q&A with authors Seán Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson.

ASF: Can you tell us a little about your background and that of the other members of the team behind “Fight The Power! A Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples”? What prompted you and your collaborators to produce such an avowedly political work at this time and why in the format of a graphic novel?

Seán: I’m a professional comic book writer born in Scotland (from an Irish family), who now lives in Japan. I’ve had more than a dozen books published with a variety of US, UK and Japanese publishers. I write both ‘western’ style graphic novels, such as adaptations of classical novels, and manga style books with Japanese and Chinese artists. I’m currently writing books for big Japanese publisher Kodansha, being the only Scottish writer to do so (or indeed the UK or Ireland – but I don’t mind a few more of you coming over! Dozo yoroshiku…). I’m also  the editor of the critically acclaimed collection “AX:alternative manga” (one of Publishers Weekly’s “Best ten books of 2010″). I often do comic books that are different from the normal superhero/fantasy brands, working with a variety of “non-comic book” organisations in the process. My main influences remain British and American creators – such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Eddie Campbell and Harvey Pekar.

The other folk involved in the book are Benjamin Dickson, my co-writer, who I’ve invited to answer some of these questions too. The artists are Hunt Emerson, who is yer actual “living legend” of UK underground comics since the ’70s. A real pleasure to be working with him, especially since I first read his stuff when I was 13 years old! John Spelling is an excellent artist living in Devon, and Adam Pasion is from the US, but a guy I got to know here in Japan. The cover art was by an Australian, Eva Schlunke working in tandem with left wing cartoonish, Polyp. A good team!

Benjamin: It was Seán’s idea initially, so I’ll let him answer that one!  But in terms of why a graphic novel, we’re both comic writers, it’s our chosen medium as creators, and being active in the comics scene is also how we know each other. So we never really considered doing it in any other medium – but to answer your question more directly, comics as a medium are inherently good at communicating complex ideas in ways that are easy to access and understand.  If the purpose of this book was to introduce the layman to the subject of protest and its historical importance in the shaping of society, the graphic novel is a good format to work in!

Seán: Initially, the idea for this book first came to me as a parody of the history series by Winston Churchill (A History of the English Speaking Peoples). Instead of “great leaders” and battles, I thought why not do one about ordinary people’s struggle? Calling it “A visual history of protest amongst the English speaking peoples” occurred to me as a joke at first, then I thought, “Actually, that could be good.” Obviously it’s visual because it has illustrations. I decided to keep the “English speaking peoples” aspect, to give the book some focus and because that already encompasses a lot. But we intend to do a volume 2 that looks at popular rebellion in the wider world.

Why a graphic novel? Because it can – there is still a very silly outmoded idea that comics are just for kids. That is wrong and always has been. So, us doing this Fight the Power book as a comic book is just one more little example of how comics can be used to do sophisticated stories and take on culture and history, etc. In fact, there’s a case to be made for saying that comic books can do this type of thing better than normal text books. Because the interplay between the visual aspect and the textual helps to bring these kinds of complicated issues to life. The text can remain complex while the visual aspect makes it easier to take in, and the combination is apparently more memorable than text alone.

ASF: The book ranges through a history of political agitation across the globe, from industrial unrest in 19th century Britain to the Occupy Movement in 21st century United States. How were the subjects chosen?

Benjamin: There were so many subjects that we could have looked at that it really became a matter of what we couldn’t afford to leave out rather than what we wanted to include.  We started with the Luddites because that happened around the time of the industrial revolution, which is when the modern world, and modern Britain in particular, as we know it was born.  Before then it’s quite hard to connect society as it was back then to society today, so it seemed a good place to start.  Then we just threw a whole load of suggestions into an online Google document, argued and bartered over who was going to write what, and pretty much went from there.  We tried to include a broad range of stuff, ideally not covering more than one protest per decade/era.  But we didn’t really have a specific agenda over what to include.

ASF: Were there any subjects that were proposed but excluded? Were there any additional ones that you wished to see included?

Benjamin: Yes, lots!  The Miners’ Strike, Bloody Sunday, Cable Street… We could easily have tripled the size of the book without ever expanding our remit, but we had to have a cut-off somewhere.  It’s a shame that many stories weren’t included, but then the idea of the book was to serve as both an introduction to protest, and as a demonstration that political change usually comes from the ground upwards – 14 examples was enough to show that I think.

ASF: The book is published by Seven Stories Press, an independent publishing house in New York, and is now available for purchase from Amazon amongst others retailers. Was it difficult to secure publication and distribution of the collection?

Seán: Not difficult to get publication, as this is about my 17th book published so far, so I have a good track record. Seven Stories (and the UK publisher, New Internationalist) have a pretty good distribution system too. The main problem is sales. Even nowadays, with all the higher level of appreciation of graphic novels, these kind of mature books don’t sell much. Not that selling a lot and making tons of dosh is the aim. Few people in comic books achieve that! But we do need to sell a decent, medium, amount – for two reasons: to help us creators pay the bills and to encourage the publishers to continue doing this type of graphic novel. If, in 5 years time, the many good publishers now doing great comic books, have got to cut back because there is simply not enough sales, then we will soon see this recent comics renaissance fall back into the dark ages. These publishers operate in a capitalist world where sales are the bottom line. That is a very bad state of affairs, and yet another example of how capitalism is a barrier to creativity (despite pretending that is helps it). I have written an article about how in an anarchist system (that I favour), comics books would prosper much more than now. But, for the time being, what we need is for folks to go out and buy interesting graphic novels. For the sales to be good enough to keep things moving ahead nicely – so we can all keep on making good comic books.

ASF: Who are you hoping to reach with “Fight The Power!”?

Benjamin: Personally I’m hoping to reach people who aren’t involved in protest movements, who maybe thought Occupy was a little pointless or who think protest doesn’t really change anything.  I see little point in preaching to the converted, though this book should provide plenty of information for people who do think protest is important.  In terms of age, I would say it’s aimed at an audience from teenagers upwards, though there is no sex or swearing in the book (apart from the word “tits”!) so you could certainly show it to a younger child if you wanted to.

ASF: Tariq Ali, the well-known Pakistani-British author, journalist and activist has written an introduction for the book. How did you secure such an impressive recommendation?

Seán: Basically I just asked him. I find that if you simply ask, and the idea is good, that you get a decent response much of the time. Or I suppose if the figure involved can see that you have a past record of doing other such good stuff, they think it’s worth getting involved. As it goes, my previous “social issues” type book, “Parecomic“, has an introduction by Noam Chomsky. That was his first official connection with a comic book, and he had previously been rather dismissive of them. So perhaps Tariq noted that. To be rather shallow about it, the first thing that impressed me about Tariq is that he influenced John Lennon and the Rolling Stones song “Street fighting man”. It’s hard to top that, in my books!

ASF: I know that some promotional appearances are planned for “Fight The Power!” in the UK. Have you any plans to promote it elsewhere, including Ireland?

Benjamin: It’s a little difficult for Seán as he lives in Japan, but I’d love to come to Ireland!  I’ve never actually been, but if someone invites me then I’ll come…

Seán: Coming from an Irish family I’ve been to Ireland many times, of course, though I was born in Scotland. Bit hard for me to pop over, as Ben says, living in Japan now. But since there is a chapter in the book on Irish popular movements I want to do some promotion of it in Ireland. We look at United Irishmen of the 1790s, the “monster meetings” of Daniel O’Connell, the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s, Parnell in the 1880s and right up until the establishment of the Irish Free State. There is also a chapter which looks at the “Bloody Friday” protests in Glasgow in 1919 and how that was an important stage in the development of a far more socialist inclined Scotland. So, we’re doing some promotion in Scotland too.

ASF: On a personal note, being a Scottish writer and editor living and working in Japan, what are your views on the forthcoming independence referendum in Scotland? Are you eligible to vote?

Seán: I’m not eligible, because I live in Japan now. But that’s fair enough, the residence rule is ok. Emotionally, I think I’ll be happy if the vote is a yes. But I’m not keen on narrow nationalism, I’m an internationalist! In practical matters what is important is the chance for Scotland to become a progressive left wing country, since most Scots in the last 50 years or more, seem to favour that. If Independence can help that then I’m for it. And, if that is successful – we would have to make sure we don’t balls it up – then the model would hopefully have a good influence on the region in general.

“Fight The Power!” is available directly from the publishers,  Seven Stories Press in the United States and New Internationalist in Britain, or can be purchased on Amazon. You can follow the authors on Twitter at @boychild23 (Seán) and @Beniswriting (Benjamin).

The-Trial-of-Nelson-Mandela,-1964

The Trial of Nelson Mandela, 1964 (Íomhá: Seven Stories Press 2013)

A Stranger In Olondria By Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

I don’t get much time to read works of fiction these days which somewhat pains me since some books have been a more faithful companion through life’s myriad rises and falls than many an erstwhile friend or partner. However reading a vivid opening paragraph like this makes me want to return to my former page-turning ways:

“I knew nothing of the splendour of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbour City, whose lights and colours spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.  I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents.  I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea.  Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart; it is the light the local people call “the breath of angels” and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs.  Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom.  But of all this I knew nothing.  I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.”

So begins Sofia Samatar’s novel “A Stranger in Olondria” and if it reminds one of the writing found in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series or Jack Vance at his most florid that is no bad thing. There is an excellent review of the book by Abigail Nussbaum with a recommendation that has inspired me to make a purchase.

To Phone Or Not To Phone

Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (Íomhá: CNET)

I’m normally one of those fevered device-swapping, early-adopting geeks eager to get his or her hands on the next tech device before the present one has barely accrued a layer of dust or a film of fingerprints. However my current mobile phone has served me an unprecedented 3 years simply because I selected a near future-proof model that promised to last more than an end of quarter, in this case the one-time flagship HTC Desire HD. Up to recently it provided everything that I needed from a smartphone, which is now 90% WiFi-related (email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, Wikipedia, various newspaper and magazine apps, etc.). I rarely use the phone as a phone these days, that is for voice calls or text messaging. In fact I’ve probably hit the Alarm button more often than I’ve hit the Call button in the last year. I suspect that for many users phones are now more about multi-media consumption and expression as well as practical utilization (clock, weather forecasts, calendar, etc.) than audio communication.

However my tech-venerable device is beginning to show its age. The Desire’s screen is really too small and too pixel-poor for comfortable web or video use, the processor struggles to cope with more demanding tasks, frozen-browsing or crashed apps are common and I think the time may have come to lay it to rest (or rather root it with a newer version of Android and pass it on to a younger sibling).

So I’m now researching for a new smartphone, one hopefully capable of lasting another two or three years. At the moment I’m leaning towards phablet territory, the boundary between phone and tablet, with both the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the smaller LG G2 looking good. However the Samsung is ridiculously overvalued (the price of a good laptop or even better desktop) and while the LG is somewhat cheaper without any noticeable lessening in quality it is still on the high side. Aside from the cost what puts me off both is the custom skins plastered by the respective makers over the base Android user interface. As most tech-savvy users know pure Android free of vendor dabbling is the preferred option since many phones with older flavours of Google’s operating system will be excluded from newer versions by the phone makers after one or two upgrades (hence the DIY industry of rooting or freeing up phones from proprietary systems).

However there may be some hope with Google’s own Nexus 5 smartphone on the horizon, a device that might well be a variation of the LG G2. Up to now I’ve been no fan of the Nexus range, the greatest value of which is the low prices they sell for. However if the Nexus 5 matched or surpassed the G2 (and it certainly will in relation to the UI) and it came at the same cheapish, bare-boned profit margin for Google, then I might be tempted.

There is a veritable internet swarm of websites and blogs out there dedicated to smartphones, particularly on the Android side of things, but I’d strongly recommend Android Beat which regularly does a nice collation of various reviews for particular devices.

Tower Of Strength, The Mission

One of my favourite songs from the early 1990s is The Mission’s “Tower of Strength”, a drum and guitar heavy rock anthem from the British band that showed off Wayne Hussey’s vocal talents at their best. If not entirely typical of the group’s output it was very typical of the effect “dance music” was having on harder-edged fare during the period (compare the 1993 hit “The Witch” by the Cult, where contemporary influences are obvious). Perhaps this is not surprising given that the song was actually a 1994 remix and re-release by Hussey and the musician-producer Youth (Martin Glover) of an eight minute long original from the 1988 album “Children”. As well as the radio edit several lengthy mixes were produced, both authorised and otherwise, most of which were published in the “Tower of Strength, Limited Edition Mixes CD” (1994). One of these was the early “Bombay Mix” by Mark Stent, a variant on the original. The other was the more chilled-out “Zen Acoustic Mix” by Youth which has retained its popularity down through the years. I thought, for the night that’s in it, I’d present both below for those heading out (as in “out out!”) and those like myself staying in.

Enjoy! (And yes, I was/am a Goth – sort of…)

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit And An Sionnach Fionn

J.R.R. Tolkien in his study with a map of Middle-earth

J.R.R. Tolkien in his study with a map of Middle-earth

The 2013 issue of Tolkien Studies, an academic journal dedicated to the works of the English Fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien, includes a few references to An Sionnach Fionn and the discussion we had with Michael Everson, the publisher of An Hobad or the Irish language version of The Hobbit. Check it out on the “Book Reviews” section in Voume X, pages 199-213 (thanks to the ever eagle-eyed Méabh in Nua-Eabhrac for the tip).

Cultus Obscuram – Knightriders

Knightriders, the 1981 film by George A. Romero. Never heard of it? The very definition of a cult movie!

Knightriders, the 1981 film by George A. Romero. Never heard of it? The very definition of a cult movie!

In the oft-played Geek game of “Cultus Obscuram” I’ve yet to be beaten, whether it is in the arena of movies, TV programmes, books or comics. Undoubtedly my winning hand when it comes to contesting a knowledge of cult films is the truly obscure 1981 George A. Romero effort “Knightriders” (note the plural) notable for its leading and only star, a young and frequently stripped-to-the-waste Ed Harris, and the acting appearances of Horror author Stephen King and his wife Tabitha (the former sporting some rather odd-looking facial hair). Hailing from the era when Home VHS was starting to drive the growth of the newish phenomenon of Fandom, the story itself is an overly self-referential Arthurian tale in modern dress, with motorbikes for horses and misfits for knights. This is delivered via the medium of the most inanimate acting and bum-squeezingly awful dialogue you are likely to see outside of a fan-made Star Wars movie.

However its very awfulness does lend it a quaint charm of its own, the portentous mystical musings are fun (and quotable), you can play spot the 1980s’ B-movie actor or actress, and some fans actually see it as a sort of template for life. Which is the very definition of a cult film.

Find your inner adolescent Geek and enjoy.

The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190 – A Proper HTPC

The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190 Mini-PC and HTPC

The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190 Mini-PC and HTPC

While many consumers have bought into the commercial push for so-called Smart TVs the majority of the products on the Irish market are far from smart (yet). Very few have true internet browsers at the level of Chrome or Internet Explorer and most are limited to dedicated applications for specific services such as YouTube and Facebook which curtails their usability. Additionally some of the better known apps on Smart TVs supplied by manufactures for sale in Ireland can’t even be accessed from this country (the most prominent being the BBC’s iPlayer).

Anyone who has used a so-called Connected TV will know how lacklustre the performances can be and how many websites can confuse or crash the onboard browser (that’s when you can persuade the television to communicate with your wireless router in the first place). Even the addition via the TV’s USB port – if supplied – of one of a growing number of cheap Android dongles for “Google TV” (not actual but known off-handedly as such) adds little of value. In fact such an “upgrade” can cause a whole new set of problems of its own. In a similar vein connecting external devices, such as a portable hard drive, can be an onerous task whether by USB or HDMI cables. It is hardly surprising then that consumer research has proven that the majority of Smart TV purchasers do not have their televisions actually connected to the internet (which somewhat defeats the purpose of buying the sets in the first place).

A long-standing market solution to these issues (which actually pre-dates the development of Smart TV technology) is a Home Theatre Personal Computer or HTPC. Basically imagine a small computer connected to your TV with all the functionality of its bigger cousins but largely used for the purposes of multi-media entertainment. This is certainly the route I took when I decided to purchase a good off-the-shelf HTPC that combined a decent sized HDD (hard disc drive), an optical drive for playing DVDs/Blu-rays, a HDMI output to hook up to a Hi-Definition TV and a wireless internet connection for browsing. I say “off-the-shelf” since there is a considerable home market in people building their own from sourced parts though this can carry some pitfalls of its own. After much research I settled on the Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190, choosing the 1TB HDD version with the rather low-powered Intel Core i3 processor, a DVD/Blu-ray combo drive and a wireless multimedia remote.

Stripped of all the jargon the Q190 is basically a mini-PC, roughly the size of fat hardback novel, that can sit horizontally on a shelf or vertically in a supplied stand (it also comes with a small metal bracket that can be fitted to the back of a TV or a wall, complete with screws, to hide it completely). The 1TB drive gives lots of space for video and image files though some of that space is taken up by the rather hoggish operating system, the infamous Windows 8. Otherwise extraneous software is kept to a minimum with not even the usual Microsoft sample pictures or videos to take up valuable memory (which of course is a good thing). A bundled trial version of Microsoft Office and a few other bits and pieces are added for those who intend to use the Q190 as a replacement desktop though these can can be easily deleted.

Techies might prefer to replace the Win8 OS with a somewhat more frugal version of Linux, XBMC or some other operating system to free up even more space. As it is Win8 takes some getting used to and I’m not sure it suits the intended purpose of the Q190 (but that is a general criticism of Win8 on all non-touch screen machines). That said the handheld remote is quite good once you get used to it. It combines a battery-operated, backlit, mini-mouse/keyboard and makes navigation around the machine fairly easy (AA batteries are supplied and the blue-coloured wireless dongle for the remote is safely housed in the battery-compartment – remove it and place in a free USB slot on the machine before switching on). However for long-term or detailed use a dedicated full-size wireless keyboard and mouse might be preferred by some. I should note that you will need some sort of keyboard and mouse to set up and use the machine. In all other respects it is still simply a PC. So purchasing the wireless remote with the Q190 is probably the best option for most users.

I was pleased to discover that the remote can be set up under the Windows’ Irish keyboard option meaning the síneadh fada can be employed whether you are using the English or Irish versions of Win8.

The actual set-up itself of the Q190 was rather easy: a standard HDMI cable from the PC to the TV followed by some 20 minutes of entering the usual location details, user profiles, passwords, updates and restarts (most of the Windows’ updates needed to be done manually). No big surprises so far though there was an issue with the Date/Time but that was an easy fix. Connecting to the internet was painless too though I’d recommend downloading Chrome to replace Internet Explorer if you purchase the machine. As some might have guessed with a Core i3 processor this is not the fastest device in the world. There is a slight delay in some tasks such as opening or starting programmes that might frustrate power-users.

As for usability the image and sound quality from video files on the machine is fine (including playing 1080 HD video files – I’ve downloaded MPC-HC x64, a good video/audio players). DVD/Blu-ray playback is good too. I might well be investing in a surround sound system to complement both. Attaching additional drives was hassle-free, with no problems reading from a 64GB flash drive and a 1TB external hard drive connected via the back and front USB ports (the latter hidden behind a door), and a 1GB memory card. Streaming from the internet was good too with no issues watching webplayers from TG4 or RTÉ. I haven’t installed TOR or similar yet but I doubt there will be any problems watching foreign web services like the BBC’s iPlayer.

My only criticism, Win8 aside (which might be a matter of personal preference for some), is the slightly noisy fan. I had hoped for quieter but it’s not too bad and in most conditions, watching a video file or Blu-ray, it’s ok. There are various 3rd-party programmes to alleviate the issue that I will probably check out.

All in all this is an excellent machine, a true space-saving mini-PC that works very well indeed as a means of providing an internet connection to my HDTV or providing video and audio playback from local files on its large hard drive or disc-player. The wireless remote is actually quite clever, once you get used to it, and is certainly adequate for casual use. I purchased my Q190 from Amazon where it is slightly cheaper than from Lenovo’s own webstore, though as always with Amazon the euro-conversion is far too high.

If you’re in the market for a HPTC or thinking of upgrading your old HD television to a Smart TV I’d certainly recommend the Q190.

Scottish Mythology And Folklore

Lia Fáil, Teamhair na Rí, An Mhí, Éire (Íomhá: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh, 2008)

Lia Fáil, Teamhair na Rí, An Mhí, Éire (Íomhá: Séamas Ó Sionnaigh, 2008)

Some of the most popular (and visited) pages on An Sionnach Fionn are dedicated to the core elements of the Seanchas or indigenous mythology and folklore of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. I have several lengthy articles discussing the likes of the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóraigh (not to mention the Lucharacháin or Leprechauns). However a number of Scottish friends and readers have taken me to task for not examining in closer detail some of the more unique aspects of the Scottish tradition. They have also levelled (some gentle) criticism at me for not providing enough names and titles as Gàidhlig (in Scottish or Scottish Gaelic). In my defence the shortage of Scottish language names is largely due to the lack of an agreed spelling in Modern Scottish for many characters or groups from the indigenous literatures of the Gaelic peoples. So one naturally defaults to Modern Irish spelling, which I admit is somewhat unfair. I certainly hope to remedy this failing in the near future (time permitting).

However until then I can recommend no better place to start one’s study of Scottish mythology and folklore than Tairis, the website of Seren who describes herself as (in her own words) “…a Gaelic Reconstructionist Polytheist”. Okay. While that description might appeal to some of you to others it will be positively off-putting. It certainly was to me, hard-headed atheist that I am, when I first came across the site many years ago. However I – and you – could not be more wrong. Tairis is clearly based upon years of scholarly study into the known or surmised beliefs of the Celtic and Gaelic-speaking peoples. The academic foundations of the site are obvious and it contains some of the best (and most accessible) summaries of modern Celtic studies on the web. More importantly it does it all with a definite Scottish focus that should satisfy most of my Gaelic cousins o’er the sea. Related to the site is a regularly updated personal blog filled with lots of useful cultural notes and engaging speculations on all things historical from Scotland, Ireland and beyond.

Both come recommended.

Meanwhile I hope all of you are celebrating Lá Bealtaine (which of course began yesterday at sunset) in suitable fashion. For my sins I’m working, otherwise I would be joining you.

By the by, and related to this, is it not time that the four great festival days of the indigenous Irish calendar were designated national holidays in Ireland instead of the colonial hangover of the utterly meaningless bank holidays’ system?

Hmmm. I do believe I feel a campaign coming on…

Truth Is The First Casualty Of War

Cecil O'Donovan, age 18, and his brother Aidan, age 14, murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary, 20.02.1921

Cecil O’Donovan, age 18, and his brother Aidan, age 14, murdered by the Royal Irish Constabulary, 20.02.1921

Last Monday I watched the second part of TV3’s drama-documentary series, “In the Name of the Republic”, where once again Eunan O’Halpin claimed to offer an analysis of the alleged actions of the Irish Republican Army during the Revolution of 1916-1923. Despite a few days of thinking it over and trying to see some historical value in the whole exercise it is hard to escape the impression that the programme (like the one before it) was anything other than some weirdly anachronistic anti-Irish Republican propaganda film. If fact it could have come straight from the film archives of the British Imperial War Museum, stamped 1921.

Stripped of the shallow pretence of balance it was obvious that the documentary makers had set out to “prove” that the men and women who fought to defend Irish democracy at the start of the 20th century were simply “terrorists” and “murderers” lacking in any sort of electoral mandate or support. In fact, going further, the programme all but justified British colonial rule in Ireland by taking the point of view of the country’s British paramilitary police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British judicial system, the British Occupation Forces and individual members of the Irish population who actively supported or collaborated with British rule.

I suppose if the Revisionist fringe of academia in the southern United States can produce books and movies to “prove” that the Confederacy was actually a paragon of democracy and morality with hundreds of thousands of happy-go-lucky slaves then why not a “reform” of Colonial Ireland? What is it that the Neo-Confederates in the United States now demand as the proper title of the internecine conflict that scarred the nation during the mid-1800s? It’s no longer the American Civil War, it’s now the War Between the States. Or should that be the War of Northern Aggression?

So what’s next for our own Irish Revisionist tendency? Will the Irish War of Independence become the War of Irish Aggression? Some Neo-Unionists in Ireland are already half-way there with their favoured meme of the moment: the Irish Terror. Not as in the Irish being terrorized by their then colonial rulers from Britain.  Oh no. It’s the other way around. The Irish terrorized the British – and the Irish terrorized the Irish. Or so they would have us believe. And sure, if the facts of history don’t fit that interpretation don’t worry, they will be ignored or replaced with some home-made ones of their own. It worked before. Just ask Peter Hart.

Perhaps I should leave it to others to offer a more studied opinion of the televised theatrics of the TV3 documentary? Professor John Borgonovo has his say in the Irish Examiner:

“In the first episode, viewers met an aged Co Laois man who related his boyhood encounter with a neighbouring farmer, who claimed he had dug up a body while ploughing his field, one of three corpses supposedly buried there by the IRA.

Series host Prof Eunan O’Halpin (of Trinity College Dublin) told the audience his research had uncovered two civilians abducted by the Tipperary IRA and “never seen again”. The rest of the episode attempted to prove his theory that they were interred in this Laois field.

At considerable expense, a team of forensic archaeologists dug up the fine pasture, before informing O’Halpin that no corpses could be located. Meanwhile, O’Halpin travelled to Dublin to request the release of Department of Justice files relating to his two missing men.

The episode concluded with O’Halpin opening the sealed files, only to learn that both had survived the conflict. They were never killed by the IRA, much less secretly buried in Laois. The obvious lesson here is: Finish your research before you rent the JCB.

Undeterred, in the second episode, O’Halpin moves to more fertile ground in Cork City and Knockraha, a village a few miles east of Cork. In recent years, the area has attracted considerable speculation about the killing of alleged informers, especially Protestants.

Much interest stems from Gerard Murphy’s 2011 book, The Year of Disappearances, which received overwhelmingly negative reviews from historians concerned by his over-reliance on folklore and supposition. Murphy’s unlikely theories of covert revolutionary activity in Cork included the IRA’s unrecorded killing of up to 30 Freemasons in the spring of 1922, and the drowning of Protestant schoolchildren by IRA intelligence agent Josephine Brown.

The absence of such dramatic events in contemporary and later records (civilian, military, governmental, and religious) leads me to conclude that they did not occur. I was surprised, therefore, by the sight of Murphy relating additional theories for In the Name of the Republic.”

Surprise is one way of putting it. But then birds of a feather an’ all that.

Meanwhile historian John Dorney, who’s truly excellent website The Irish Story has gone to great lengths to present a dispassionate and fair evaluation of the revolutionary period, examines the issue of the 200 “murders” Eunan O’Halpin alleges were carried out by the Irish Republican Army:

“Immediately this set alarm bells ringing. In 2012, O’Halpin published the first results of his and Daithí Ó Corráin’s research, which revealed that the IRA in the War of Independence, was responsible for 281 of the 898 civilian fatalities, with British forces being responsible for 381. A further 236 deaths could not be confidently attributed to any party (the IRA, loyalist, rioters, undercover Crown forces).

This brings up two questions – first of all, where did all the extra ‘disappeared’ victims come from? There was no effort made in the programme to verify this figure of 200 secret killings by the IRA. Secondly, given that state forces actually killed more civilians, why was this not given greater prominence in the programme?

Even worse was the programme quoting the Royal Irish Constabulary as an impartial witness to events. An RIC DI was quoted saying,  ‘People are afraid to be associated with the forces of the crown’, by an IRA – ‘system of universal terrorism’, and called for the ‘extermination of these bandits’. What else would a party to a counter insurgency campaign say?

In the second part, looking at County Cork, it was alleged that the IRA Cork Number 1 Brigade, which covered north Cork and the city, abducted and killed up to 90 victims and secretly buried them on the farm of one Martin Corry.

Corry claimed in his IRA pension that 27 bodies were buried on his farm and in a bog (now forest) called Knockraha. In recordings in the 1970s he claimed that there were ’60 even’. The problem with this testimony is that there does not seem to have been 60, 90 or even 30 victims missing that could fit into the alleged mass graves. Corry for instance told local historian Jim Fitzgerald that 17 ‘Camerons’ (of the Highland Cameron regiment) were buried there. In fact, John Borgonovo tells us, the regiment had only 3 men missing in its time in Cork.

I am informed that Jim Fitzgerald himself estimates that between Corry’s farm and Knockraha there may be 15 bodies buried. The figure of 90 secret deaths comes from Gerard Murphy, whose book, the Year of the Disappearances, was rightly savaged here on the Irish Story by Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc for presenting supposition as evidence.

But there was no evidence presented for scores of disappeared civilians. Nor for tendentious talk about the Cork IRA’s campaign of ‘extortion’ and ‘torture’. The casual viewer would never have guessed that the IRA represented a political movement with overwhelming electoral support in the elections of 1918 and 1920.

…this was a bafflingly biased programme. It presented and inflated all the bad things the IRA did, shorn of context while proposing a thesis of hundreds of disappeared which was never even remotely proved.

So why the sensational anti-republican tone of ‘In the Name of the Republic’?

There is nothing to be gained by treating nationalist history as a sacred cow but nothing either by making radical claims unsupported by evidence.”

But that begs the question, is there nothing to be gained by the falsification of Irish history as it relates to the War of Independence? Or are there in fact real political gains to be made by inflicting untold damage on the Irish people’s understanding of their own history? Are we seeing in Ireland a larger “culture war”, as has been witnessed in the United States, over the nation’s past, present and future? A war played out in the pages of our national newspapers every week, and on our radios and TVs? The United States has Glenn Beck or Fox News. We have Kevin Myers or the Sunday Independent. In the struggle between Progressives and Regressives in Ireland the Irish Revolution represents the greatest loss of status and influence for the latter. Is it any wonder that they wish to contest it, even in retrospect?

And what about Ireland’s British-owned television channel TV3? Some more analysis and dramatic re-enactments of supposed events from world history in a series of exciting new TV programmes? Perhaps the “truth” about Anne Frank? Or a sympathetic examination of the Lost Cause? But after the farce of the last two weeks will anyone be watching?

In The Name Of History

Mutilated remains of Harry Loughnane Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army tortured to death by the Royal Irish Constabulary 1920

The mutilated remains of Harry Loughnane, age 22, Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army, tortured to death alongside his older brother Patrick, age 29, by the Royal Irish Constabulary or RIC, Britain’s loathed colonial police force in Ireland, 1920

I’ve just finished watching a history-documentary (and I use that term advisedly) on Ireland’s British-owned private television channel, TV3, called “In The Name of the Republic”. Presented by Eunan O’Halpin it set out to investigate the alleged “disappearance” of some 200 Irish people during the Irish Revolution, supposedly executed by the Irish Republican Army as part of its struggle against the British Occupation Forces from 1918-1923. Beginning with an archaeological dig searching for the corpses of three men found shot dead in 1921/22 by a local “eccentric” farmer the program goes on in drama-documentary style to present a case for the mass and indiscriminate murder by the IRA during Ireland’s War of Independence of countless innocent civilians (who may or may not have been British spies or informers, officers of the feared British paramilitary police, the Royal Irish Constabulary or RIC, or soldiers of the British Army).

Of course the archaeological dig failed to uncover any evidence of any murdered men (spies or otherwise), despite the fact that the program makers offered us some identities for two of the three supposed victims, complete with dramatic reconstructions of their capture and deaths. However (and quite bizarrely) at the end of the program we were told that the two suggested victims actually survived the conflict completely unharmed.

Not only do we not have the bodies of the “murdered” we don’t even have any suggestions for who was “murdered”. In fact we don’t have any evidence that any “murders” happened in the first place! What we do have is a supposed drama-documentary from the Peter Hart school of Irish history, with a hefty dollop of Gerard Murphy (of which more here).

By the by, if any historians are looking for murder victims from the Irish Revolution with, you know, real actual identities and, hey, actually physical remains, here they are. The photographs above and below are of Patrick and Harry Loughnane, aged 29 and 22, both Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, detained, tortured and murdered by members of the RIC’s Auxiliary Division in November 1920. From Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc’s article that featured on The Irish Story in 2012:

“The Loughnane brothers were arrested in daylight at their family home at Shanaglish, Co. Galway on the 26th November 1920. Their partially burned and mutilated bodies were discovered in a pond near Ardrahan on 5th December that year. The two brothers had been tied to the back of an R.I.C. lorry and forced to run behind it until they collapsed from exhaustion and were dragged along the road. Both of Pat’s wrists, legs and arms were broken. His skull was fractured and there were diamond shaped wounds, resembling the cap badge worn by the RIC Auxiliaries, carved into his torso. Harry’s body was missing two fingers; his right arm was broken and nearly severed from his body. Nothing was left of Harry’s face except for his chin and lips. A doctor who examined the Loughnane’s bodies stated that the cause of death was “laceration of the skull and the brain.” The attached photographs of the brothers’ bodies at the time of their discovery show some of the horrific injuries they suffered. The same month that the Loughnane brothers were killed, members of the RIC in Galway also killed a pregnant woman and a Catholic priest.”

Mutilated body of Patrick Loughnane Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army tortured to death by the Royal Irish Constabulary 1920

The mutilated body of Patrick Loughnane, age 29, Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army, tortured to death alongside his younger brother Harry, age 22, by the Royal Irish Constabulary, Britain’s feared colonial police force in Ireland, 1920

If I might also add, all that archive film shown in the “documentary” of supposed victims of violence by the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence, including men, women and children made homeless sitting in ditches at the side of the road? They were actually from a contemporary newsreel showing Irish civilians hiding in the fields of north County Dublin following the Sack of Balbriggan. That is the burning of the small Irish coastal village of Balbriggan by the British Occupation Forces in 1920.

Irish refugees hiding in the countryside following the Sack of Balbriggan

Irish refugees hiding in the countryside following the Sack of Balbriggan, the destruction by the British Occupation Forces of the small village of Balbriggan during the War of Independence, Ireland, 1920

A column of Irish refugees fleeing the ruins of their homes following the Sack of Balbriggan

A column of Irish refugees fleeing the ruins of their homes following the Sack of Balbriggan by the British Occupation Forces during the Irish War of Independence, Ireland, 1920