Jonas Liston sees important statements about Ireland’s present crisis in these examinations of it’s past.
Both North and South Ireland have been at the sharp end of capitalism’s current crisis, with all sections of its ruling class arguing for, and delivering neo-liberal austerity on a massive scale. The picture is often grim, with institutionalized sectarianism and anti-migrant and Islamophobic rhetoric still very much alive. However, amongst this climate there are growing signs of defiance and hostility to the status quo, with small-scale strike, protests and successes such as the election of 13 radical left candidates in the recent local council elections. This lays the context for a new film, socialist director Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, and Quietly, a new play by Owen Cafferty showing in London.
Set in 1930s Ireland, Jimmy’s Hall is a tale of Communist James Gralton, his comrades and the spirit and defence of their famous Connolly-Pearse Hall; a centre of politics and culture. The film is set in the middle of a post-colonial Ireland struggling with the problems of development, partition and a bourgeoisie trying to legitimize its control in a period crippled by the global economic crash of the late 1920s, but also the consequences of the struggle for Irish independence and the brutal civil war that followed. It also reflects a political landscape defined by a growing polarization of Irish society, with a disorganized IRA that vacillates between its political objectives and an on-and-off relationship with the Catholic church, and a growing right-wing movement embodied by the Army Comrades Association (Blueshirts) who mobilised behind the church and sections of the ruling class against the small left that existed, and the forces of the IRA that refused to accept the nominally independence-giving, pro-partition treaty of 1921. It is in this context, that Jimmy Gralton reopens his comrade’s old hall and passes the cultural and political legacy down to a younger generation, despite the violent resistance of the church, the local establishment and the Blueshirts.
“They have two legs like everyone else as well”
Throughout the film jazz, is used as an expression of the liberation that comes through dancing, and the excitement of music from another culture. But jazz is also clearly identified as a culture of the oppressed, highlighting the similarities between the black struggle against racism in the USA and the struggle for Irish liberation. Both were struggles against the ills of capitalism and two components of James Gralton’s long political journey and evolution, as he steers between deportation to the USA and organizing in his homeland. The former always a consequence of the latter.
This willingness to explore and identify with another culture acts as just one other aspect that separates out Gralton and his gang from the (very well-played) reactionary priests’ scaremongering at the thought of “pelvis-thrusting” and long nights “keeping each other warm”. A mockingly humorous sentiment which exposes the ridiculousness of the forces of right and the pillars of their ideas, as well as making the tragedy of the film’s situation bearable for the characters.
Making a point?
Central to Loach’s film is a critique of society as it currently exists. Images of economic crisis, depression and the increasing polarization of society (similar to today) are constantly posed. Two images that really stand out are the parallels made with tenant’s struggles against their landlords and the hall as the film’s central focus, as a space for young working-class people to live, be free, think and organize as they wish. Ken Loach, as an initiator of the Left Unity project, and a tireless left-wing activist who has contributed much to the movement, is being blunt here. The left needs to be involved in the rebuilding of working-class organization in our workplaces yes, but also in working-class communities, on our estates, in defence of public services, and this should be seen as part and parcel of being what capitalism has increasingly eroded since the Second World War; a sense of collective solidarity and working-class infrastructure, from which to develop class consciousness and potentially strengthen our position when we engage in struggles.
Despite the tragic ending of this film, it is another brilliant portrayal of class struggle, saturated with geeky left-wing references and intense and insightful political dialogue. Overall, as someone who considers Loach’s Land and Freedom and The Wind that shakes the Barley as films that immensely contributed to my own radicalization, this film is excellent and quite possibly his best film yet and I highly recommend it. Whatever you do though, don’t see it at the Ritzy Picture House cinema whilst the workers are out on strike. Loach supports their struggle and you need to too.
Set in a modern Belfast pub, Owen Cafferty’s Quietly is the portrayal of the genuine human suffering that emerged from the so-called Troubles. The tale of two 16-year olds, now considerably older; one a working-class Catholic who lost his dad to a Unionist bombing; the other, an ex-UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) militant that threw the bomb that killed the former’s father. As their long drink-fuelled conversation unravels, an unequivocal condemnation emerges of the so-called Troubles, but whatever the writer’s intentions, it is clearly not one where both sides can be equated. UVF terror, the marches of 20,000 unionists screaming “Fenian bastards”, and the dire conditions that led many into the armed struggle are images that are thrown up throughout this production. Despite the lack of political dialogue, this also has the effect of showing the oppressive injustices inflicted upon the Catholic minority, but also interestingly, deconstructing the Unionist identity and the myths that surround it.
Peace for whom?
The conversation between the two is intense, insulting, and very personal. The dialogue is saturated in the characters own guilt, as well as finger pointing at those they hold responsible for their later paths in life. It is clear throughout the production that the Catholic character is (rightly) doing much more of the blaming, and it is largely his anger and frustration which teases out the politics and hardships behind the characters and the events that define them. Towards the end of the play, however, there seems to be a growing understanding between the two and an acknowledgement that they both grew up in a messy environment, did bad things, have paid the consequences and should call it quits and go their own way. In the play this is portrayed as a positive resolution, and sitting in the audience, watching them reluctantly shake hands, it is easier for us to see it as positive too.
Upon reflection, however, this ending shows exactly what is wrong with the way society is run in the north of Ireland. As much as the peace process was a cry from working-class people to move away from the armed struggle, it has brought very little peace. Catholic and protestant workers are encouraged to do exactly what the play’s end suggested; do their own thing. Except in reality, this isn’t a natural phenomenon based on religious difference, but a process actively encouraged by ruling ideology, institutionalised sectarianism, the stoking up of communal tensions by rotten racist politicians. There is growing frustration, despair and anger fuelled by an austerity project that depends on protestants joining Orange marches and castigating Catholics, rather than the two uniting against the employer, but also against the existing racist state that rests on the exploitation of the majority and the targeted oppression of the minority.
Who’s to blame?
When this production felt like it was getting too intense, the play’s third character, a Polish barman, brought relief. In the earlier scenes, he and the Catholic character would indulge in banter about why on earth he migrated to Ireland, the football game they’re watching and his poor pint-pouring skills. Although he was largely uninvolved in the discussions between the two main characters, the Polish character often leapt into the play to scream at the football match or to make some sort of light-hearted joke. However, this seemingly secondary character is actually the most damning indictment of capitalist society in the north of Ireland. The play is set whilst Poland is playing Northern Ireland in the qualifications for the World Cup. The barman worries that the people leaving Northern Ireland’s home game might turn to inflict violence against the bar and himself and he is right. Once the other two characters have departed, the play ends on racist, anti-Polish chants outside his bar, with objects being thrown at his windows. This is obviously the fallout from the football game, but crucially, is also the fallout from the capitalist crisis and the anti-migrant rhetoric of leading politicians across Ireland, and the world.
Despite the questionable way that sectarianism is dealt with at the end of the play, this closing scene is testament to the fact that not all is peaceful in the north of Ireland. Migrants, both Muslims and Eastern Europeans, should be defended from the racists and bigots at all costs. There is a direct parallel between the scapegoating of migrants witnessed in this production and the sort of outrageous racist comments that Northern Irish First Minister, Peter Robinson recently came out with, leading to an Asian man being attacked in the streets of Belfast. People in the north are organizing, demonstrating and rallying in defence of Muslims and this dimension of the play highlights why it is crucial to do the same with migrants.
Loach’s film and Cafferty’s play, respectively show the spirit and necessity for revolt. Let those struggles follow in the tradition once chillingly evoked by a 7 year old Caroline Quigley:
“Steady on your aim with the petrol bomb,
Don’t throw it son, till the peelers come.
I am the Bogside man.”
Jimmy’s Hall is playing at cinemas nationwide now. Quietly is playing at the Soho Theatre, London, until 22nd June, with tickets still available.