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In the shadow of Trumpxit

                                         Trumpxit: The way forward

 

So here we are. Brexit has split the one model we had which wasn’t about selfish Nationalism. And a man who is probably a narcissist is in the White house with a set of promises to set America and the world with it back with policies more divisive than any after 1945 with all the consequences that entails. And worse could be on its way – The EU is on the way to destruction, quite possibly, if not inevitably. Not to mention the gigantic extended pandemonium if the Middle east and rising issues in Japan, China and India. Its been a hell of a Trump win hangover. And Ireland is not immune to all this.

So I’ve made a decision.

We can choose to bury ourselves in the well of ‘OH DEAR GOD!’ We can vent, and get angry and fall into unbelievable despair at such a set of decisions voters made. I couldn’t blame anybody for feeling that way. Because so do I.

Most articles I have seen simply vent themselves in endless anger and despair at the contradictions and obvious stupidities behind this campaign and its ultimate outcome, emblem of the rising nationalism which is stalking our world. For many, it seems like up is down and black is white.

But I’m afraid I’m going to have to go a different route with this one. Now I’m going to make no friends with this article. But sadly these things must be said. There have been reasons why we have failed to curb the slow return to Nationalism we are all seeing.

Those who opposed the Nationalists (myself included) took the easy way out. We shamed people for supporting Trump. And to a lesser extent, Brexit. Taking the lazy, easy way of sarcasm, parody and satire, rather than convincing or at least engaging people both emotionally and intellectually that their way was the best way for humanity, or at least not some polar opposite which had to be opposed at all costs. However these tactics don’t work – shaming somebody does not work, no matter how worthy we may feel they are of this. Niccolo Machiavelli argued that robbing a person of their honour was one route toward rebellion.

Let me explain. In a way, the tactics of Trump/Radical Islamists/Brexiteers and more liberal or centrist groups in our society share one thing: They vent their anger more and more in a downward circle of mutual animosities and personal grudges increased to violent proportions. Rather than truly explaining their arguments, both sides have occupied such a different mental world that the same exact statements can mean something completely different to two separate people.

Now none of this is to ignore the very real attempts that have been made by the centre-left to be more inclusive. But they’re not getting their message across.

We have to examine a whole new set of soundbytes. A vastly more inclusive rhetoric.

Obviously I can smugly say that the showmanship, soundbytes, and nonsense behind every four-year circus known as an election is a problem. In an election where the best weapon people could think of with Trump was to dredge up a 12-year-old video of him having a personal conversation (however onerous), doesn’t this tell us that the political system itself has some problems? Is the spectre of Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage battering each other with loudspeakers on the Thames not telling us that standards have slipped?

The sheer bipolar ignorance of Trump’s electorate to the basic human impact (ranging from trauma to long-term PTSD ) of slut-shaming or banning Gay marriage to the basic impact his anti-global warming,  pro-oil policies will have boils my blood. Every time I’ve heard ISIS justify sex slavery, (I’m not comparing the two, but they are part of the same world trend) every time I’ve heard Trump talk about ‘Nasty women,’ every time I’ve heard Farage going on about ‘breaking points’ whilst ignoring the fact that Britain’s elites and employers are the ones who have failed the British public and are merely using divide-and-rule tactics reminiscent of the Union and the Raj– not immigrants, or whatever else, and every time the older generation use the ‘challenging the establishment’ language of the 1960s for a return to the 1930s over the futures of their children makes me seethe with rage. But unfortunately, we don’t have a choice. We have to go back into the reasons behind which we hold these ideals – we have to Re-explain why LGBT marriage, Women’s rights and etc. is a pro for society, as frustrating as this is. Because we really don’t have a choice.

Delivering a message badly, however correct the message is, is still not a very efficient persuasive mechanism. On an emotional level, few white men will be convinced by venting  arguments like ‘Trumps a scumbag woman hater and anyone who supports him represents a hard core of white males who have been forced to share power for once in their relatively privileged lives.’ These arguments may well have a good deal of merit to them. But they are obviously not convincing the voters. And they tend to lump people into one group, which is not always fair. People’s specific concerns about issues ranging from women’s rights to racial integration etc. are usually on a spectrum, with views often quite diverse from issue to issue. just because people might support one or two aspects of Trump’s policies does not mean they supported them all. Yet as a general rule, many of the forces who were behind Hillary ranging used responsive language which only contributed to this bipolarity. Saying someone is ‘Islamophobic’ with one breath then saying ‘lets come together’ without systematically dealing with people’s underlying grievances -many of which may only really be one or two issues, but not ‘against’ women’s rights or the Islamic faith per se –  is not going to convince anybody.

Bear in mind that quite a few women – a majority of white women – and at least some Latinos voted for Trump, despite the shaming tactics used by the Democrats. Not everybody shares the same vision of the sexes or of racial integration Hillary Clinton does. Many simply used the vaunted guerilla voting tactics.

I remember reading one article in the leadup to the election about the men who have been ‘left behind.’ Males who see themselves as Alphas (no matter how problematic the term/concept is) are not going to be convinced by patronising arguments that put them in such a corner. Many of the less educated will vote or take action more as a subconsciously inspired ‘Fuck the left’ protest rather than anything systematically or objectively thought out. Most don’t have time to do anything else.

As with Trump, basic questions like ‘Well, shouldn’t men or whatever group have a forum where they can discuss their innermost thoughts without being judged for it?’ have not really been answered. I want to emphasise this is not a Trojan horse for all those attitudes which can often be associated with and may well lead to any number of crimes against women including rape, domestic violence and wider problems like job discrimination, etc. But political and social-sexual realities are what they are. Getting the attitudes out in the open and slowly working through Which ones and Why they are destructive is probably going to be a hell of a lot more helpful than simply lambasting random individuals every time they come out with something.  Obviously, education can slowly work to change the truly harmful attitudes, but shaming people who hold on to specific attitudes (rather than actions) helps nobody and contributes nothing except a feedback loop of more anger and frustration.

The pro-Europe campaign was lethargic at best, and used the same negative tactics the other side used. But they offered little hope and a lot of responsive, retrogressive thinking rather than anything inspirational-we all know this of course. They fought with a pig, got dirty and lost. They often dismissed their concerns as ‘Racist’ as ‘Economic madness,’ etc. So the other side, naturally, responded by hanging on even closer to their views, however unreasonable they sometimes were. The liberals so often took the lazy, easy way out rather than sitting down and talking with them or speaking to their specific concerns quietly and calmly.

And the harsh reality is this: not all right-wingers concerns (gulp!) are irrelevant or intellectually unsupportable. Some – probably most – may well be. Some, possibly most are manufactured through the media, rumour food-chains and simple regurgitated prejudice which takes on new forms, or they are disproportional, taken (often wildly) out of context, or they are a response to changing social circumstances, or perceived changes. But ignoring them, or using sarcasm, however good it may feel for one audience, rarely wins anybody in the other audience over. It causes more polarisation.

Democracy is not about one group consistently outvoting another group and then expecting them and their concerns to conveniently just go away. As lecturing as this sounds, it ideally should lead to a consensus being built as time goes by. But increasingly, we see elections and referendums about victory or defeat.

To make things worse, so many of the issues which people argue about are very poorly understood. And yes, I include myself in that category. Coupled with that, as I’ve said, there were many people who were concerned with specific issues rather than necessarily being concerned with everything to do with that issue.

Take the Cologne attacks, which have been a banner for many Right-wingers about Muslim populations entering Europe: ‘Look what they’re doing to our women! It’s the tanned/Black man at it again with his insatiable primal lusts! (c. 1885 Victorian racism, thankyou!)’ Immediately this was responded with by cries of ‘Islamophobia!’ while Al Jazeera spent more time talking about the potential impact on refugees than anything else. Far fewer people on either side cared about the victims of these assaults. Few people actually cared about engaging with the other sides concerns in a balanced, academic or intellectual way. Nobody wanted to take criticism maturely, because it would damage their sense of identity. And everybody was instantly polarised, or seen to be on polar opposites of this debate if they showed any concern as to these attacks, whether they noted the effects on the victims or the potential backwash on Migrants. So what I’m about to say is not about taking one side or another. Its about getting to some establishable facts and coming up with some proactive solution to a specific issue which can justifiably be seen as a problem but shouldn’t be seen as a extendable to a whole population or as an excuse for bigotry.

Is there serious problems with women being groped/molested in all societies? Yes. Does it seem to be an especial problem in Islamic societies? Possibly – statistics appear to indicate it is pretty prevalent in Egypt, and everything I saw when I visited there indicated the same thing. And I must say everything I’ve researched on Al Azhar, or Islamists ranging from Zakir Naik to Yusuf al Qaradawi (I call him Yusuf Q) as well as many media forms in Egypt and elsewhere indicates a pretty permissive environment where many religious and social institutions look the other way. (Not ignoring obvious culturally similar bodies and attitudes in the West.) But is there an actual causal link between that and what happened on New Years night? We’ve all heard of the rape/grope game ‘Taharrush’ by now, but nobody seemed bothered examining those underlying issues or devising systematic social stats on how Muslim men – Economic immigrants or refugees, the latter of which were not mostly responsible for Cologne – integrate into western cultures and to what extent they respect local sexual norms. People are throwing polarising accusations around, but with not a lot of data to back up either sides arguments, leaving the public with a mass of dimly understood social trends in a time of upheaval or at least perceived upheaval, where tough decisions need to be made. The dark night of lack of information is where negativity and ultimately violence thrives. Any findings, no matter how onerous, would not convince me we should shut our doors forever to Muslim immigration and, separately, refugees. It might not change people’s stance either. But they might at least lead to a more nuanced discussion where everybodies concerns are discussed and hopefully dealt with.  (Incidently, I think this combined with Trump should be a wakeup call to the attitudes which underly rape and grope cultures wherever they come from – and we can’t single any group out on this one. Obviously the vaunted Educational programmes with basics like respect and consent can help – but not ones which cause males to feel ashamed about their sexuality or in other cases their culture either.)

Another way of discussing this could be to admit that certain cultures probably do have proportionally worse problems than others (the data doesn’t necessarily back this up on this matter so far, just stating it as one possibility). For instance, one doesn’t need Einsteinian insights to realise that Ireland has a serious problem with alcoholism. As a man who likes a good pint myself (serious weakness for the wheat beers here) I think this is something I can admit to as a special cultural problem we have. So perhaps Islamophobia or groping are special cultural problems here as well. Those issues of course cannot be hijacked by one side or another to demonise anybody.

I personally think that analysing the emotional bonds, the very core of people’s feeling responses to some arguments is one way of doing this. Obviously Hillary’s advisors will have examined this in great detail. But its also clear they failed. Hillary, the ‘Stay’ campaign, etc, failed to connect with voters. Secularists and other centrists (be they Islamists or no) have evidently failed to stop violence breaking out – granted, a different set of circumstances, but I don’t think they were that different. Both Hillary and the Middle Eastern secularists (legacy of revolutions long past relevance) were using clearly outdated methods which failed to connect with the wider populace.

Emotion, empathy, and above all patience is key. Coupled with a relentless search for the facts as backed up by systematic, balanced research. Let’s hope that this current wave of 1930s-style nationalism, of Salafism, of basic human Otherism subsides. And whether it does or does not. Lets learn the right lessons from this debacle – before something is done we cannot fix.

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Brexit: the price of the Nation

Brexit is looking likely. A great institution founded on hope for a better tomorrow is foundering. But it just needed time to improve.

To begin, the old argument for the EU may be tired, but it is still true: Nationalism is bad for the species. The 20th century gave us Two World Wars. Wars which saw men made beasts as they scrabbled, bloodied or gased or both over muddy fields and clawed over razor wire to bayonet enemies they had never met who more likely than not would shoot them before they got anywhere near doing so. Wars which saw the slaughter of innocent men, women and children in dirty gas chambers to be harvested into fertiliser. There is the illusion that if the EU breaks apart that somehow Europe will not return to its former state of neo-barbarism. I think this is wishful thinking. We face many pressures – the great implosion of the Islamic resurgence, which sees no sign of abating, resurgent Russian nationalism, and of course, the grand rise of right-wing individuals like Donald Trump in the US, and a variety of dubious right-wing parties across the EU, to say nothing of India with its new BJP Hindu-power government and Pakistan, and potential conflict further afield between China, Japan, and the Koreas. This is not the time for disunity.

The idea of renewed national conflict in Europe, or world instability to the point of nuclear conflict may seem ridiculous. But ridiculous, unthinkable things have happened many times to figures in world history who assumed the status quo was always going to remain. For instance, think about the four years of trench warfare in the First World War. This had previously been unthinkable to a generation who had grown up in the shadow of 19th-century diplomacy and rapid infantry warfare, (after all, most 19th century wars had been relatively brief and localised, like the Crimean wars, the Italian war of independence, etc.) hence the ‘over-by-Christmas’ myth. A single assassination, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand upturned all that. Witness 9-11. Only a few minor individuals whom nobody had heard of, with minimal funding, were able to penetrate the US defensive net and play havoc. Is it so far-fetched to believe that if a single leader got to relatively unrestricted power in just a single country in the right ideological or international environment (North Korea, quite possibly Pakistan), circumvented whatever controls were in place and decided to carry out his own messianic goals, he (lets face it, it will probably be a he) could play havoc and set a chain of events that would end only in skullheaps and charred cities?

In a nuclear world, nationalism is not something the species can afford. Obviously old issues like Germany V. France are unlikely to reoccur. But nationalisms have a way of generating new conflicts that never existed before. Look at the rise of German nationalism itself: this was a relatively new problem in 1871. Its victory over the French in that year created an ongoing feud with France, in this case over Alsace-Lorraine and more general national pride (read self-image and ego) which only concluded with a 50 million bodycount.

Given the right environment, like in today’s Middle East, these problems can simmer for years, even decades, but then boil over unexpectedly, like the Arab spring or, again, 1914.

A world with 200 nation states (many of which like Pakistan and India are diametrically opposed to one another) and an increasing number of Nuclear weapons (or at least an increasing number of states which possess these glorified suicide boxes) is not a world where Nuclear war may happen. It will happen. It is merely a matter of time and unlucky combinations of circumstances. Time and again, from the Cuban missile crisis to the more recent Kargil war between India and Pakistan, Nuclear war has been at times narrowly dodged. But this cannot go on forever. It is only a matter of time until a chain of events comes along which causes the rise of the bomb.

The only way to lessen and eliminate this threat is by submerging our feelings of ‘otherism.’ And the best way to do this is by creating institutions like the EU which regard us all, at least theoretically, as equals, no matter our race, religion, ideology, gender, sexual orientation, etc. The EU is a safety break on nationalism – a damper on the darker devils in our nature. That exclusivist ‘us-versus-them’ idea which always boils beneath the surface of any human interaction, anywhere, anytime, from sex, to religion, to politics, to race, to geography to any unnumerable combination of these factors, and many, too many to count.

If Britain votes to leave, then at worst case scenario that may mean one sad, bitter thing – we could not live together. The EU couldn’t allay Britain’s fears about mass immigration, or about being overwrought. And Britain just wasn’t willing to cooperate. The idea that we as a species – as a race – could live together, has failed. This leaves us with the option of going back to the old 1940s model of the nation station, perennially unstable, perennially on the edge of an abyss of barbarism.

For years the British media has covered the EU with relentlessly negative and at times utterly unreasonable viciousness. And that coverage is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Is the idea of cooperating with neighbours so utterly abhorrent that there can be no future except as divorced, mutually acrimonious nations, with no hope of unity? Rhetorics of hatred – against immigrants, minorities (homosexuals, different racial/religious groups, whatever) can start leading people into making decisions, rather than just being used by politicians or elites for their own ends or as diversionary tactics for larger social problems, as in Britain. In many cases, many of the issues British people were concerned about were not ‘make-or-break.’ But as time went on the public rhetoric deployed amidst an increasingly nationalistic environment has made many people vote leave, when in reality they never wanted that originally.

There is one thing all can agree on: Britain’s time in the sun has faded. It is a great country, which continues to punch above its weight in areas as diverse as technology to reality TV. But its power is soft, not military. All those advantages which marked Britain off as a one-eyed chicklet in the blind’s kingdom ranging from its legal system, to the industrial revolution are being either copied or overrawed: India and China now both have relentlessly growing economies which make them able to overaw basically smaller countries. Whatever long-term future Britain has on its own, it is hard to see it as being anything but a return to its pre-1492 levels of power: a limited power of some note, but nothing special, much like Portugal and Spain. All this ignores the obvious room-elephant that Britain’s economy will take a savage hit should it leave the European Union, one its already pressured people (especially younger people, who are being systematically screwed out of wages and jobs by the older generation of Britons) can ill-afford.

In the meantime, a disunited Europe will only encourage those very undemocratic, ideologically-driven, violent forces in the world we fear, ranging from Salafi Saudi-sponsored Islamists to Russian Nationalists to keep pushing. Imagining that Britain will somehow be ‘safe’ in a networked, modern world linked together by modern transportation and mass communication outside of the EU is untrue.

Brexit could very well spawn additional chain-of-events problems which would be unthinkable right now. When it comes down to it, a big war like the Second World War could only pose a small threat to species survival. That is not the case anymore. The spectre of cities wrecked, civilisations destroyed may seem utterly fanciful – if you take the short view and ignore historical precedents, like the breakup of the (mostly ineffectual) League of Nations which helped presage the start of World War 2.

At days end, Nation states are imaginary constructs. They are a complex concatenation of coalescent culture, imagined family ties (for instance the grand-motherly figure of the queen and the rest of the royal family, – around which a vast merchandising industry has grown, or the constant presentation of the Obama family) and media. They are also the result of bureaucracies expanding from premodern kingdoms that conquered areas which often had no real commonalities previously, education into the idea of ‘we’re all one against outsiders’ which helped wed these areas to a common myth and simple geography. Nationalism is the ultimate expression of our sense of the ‘other,’ no matter how many social, political, economic, or legal structures are grown around it. It was originally all about war between one group of people and another. And simply shedding this basic function has never happened.

No matter how hard it is to hear, no matter how much people love their nations, their culture and customs, their people and places, this is not something we should be motivated to die for. Britain is not a ‘natural’ thing any more so than the EU is.  A ‘British’ government has no necessary motivation to do what is right for its people any more so than the EU might. And love of country is no excuse for hate of an Other.

‘Britain’ has only come about through the efforts of centralising kings and governments over the 1200 years – small in the 140,000-200,000 years of Human history.  Britain is no more eternal than any other nation state is, and it will one day fade to being forgotten, just as all other nations (my home nation of Ireland included) and religions (Thor worship anyone?) will.

When we feel that resources are scarce or that our sense of identity is under threat, we tend to lock ranks with whomever we feel is the most familiar, most trustworthy group we can reach out to. The recession has helped cause this, as have lowering wages and the general pressures on the middle classes (perceived or otherwise) across the Western world. So has a widespread mistrust of authority figures around the West.

As an Irish citizen, I can honestly say that I have usually had just as much in common with or far more so than a person of the same social background from Germany, the Netherlands, the USA or Canada than I would have with, say, a farmer out in rural Cavan. The lives of people across the continent are growing more similar, not more diverse. Even accepting that we have cultural differences, the fact is that ‘Britain’ has had constant cultural contact with the continent through trade, people moving back and forth, and now the media.

I have never quite understood the argument that ‘We should look after our own first.’ What does that mean? Do others simply have less value as human beings than ‘Our own?’ What do ‘British values’ mean exactly anyway, and how are they different from Europe’s?

As an Irishman, I love my country. I love the land most of all. I love the trees, mountains and streams, the lash of the waves against its shores and the wind as it clears the heather. I am proud of institutions like secular democracy, hewn together over generations uncounted and setbacks, blood and wars endured and compromises reached. But none of this gives us a right to an army. Love of one’s country is not an excuse for hatred of an Other. No matter how much one disagree with their viewpoints.

England itself has a long history of devising social institutions which were revolutionary for its time – a parliament independent of the absolute monarchy for instance, the first step in the slow march to democracy and miles ahead of most of the other ramshackle ‘divine right’ cowboy notions floating around Europe at the time. But these institutions took time. Britain had to fight a savage civil war which ended in the King minus a head before parliament finally stood supreme. Then it teetered near dictatorship under Cromwell, thereafter the monarchy was restored for a while (under the famous Dutch ruler William of Orange – proof positive that Britain has had foreign oversight and influence before), with the parliament gradually gaining more power as the 18th century teetered on. Then into the 19th century more power was given to wider sections of the populace till ultimately modern democracy took hold in the 20th. So it was hardly a straight line of improvement. It took a lot of trial and error – much worse than anything that has happened in the EU’s history, no matter the apocalyptic media-driver doom and gloom.

The EU was to be a new model – on which other groups such as ASEAN were to be based. Ultimately, it is a prototype on which unity of the human race is possible. It is one of the very few political organisations between states based on mutual agreement. It isn’t a tributary arrangement. It is not a state hammered together by brute force, marriage at the sword, plantations, supposed treaties giving some outsider land when he/she has no such right, aggrandizement masquerading as religion, supposed ‘civilizing,’ ‘True faith’ or ‘democratizing’ missions, blood massacres or threat of same. It is neither an Empire, a Caliphate nor Kingdom, with monuments wrapped in models of captured enemy cannon, spears or skulls. It is the accumulated political knowledge of our species that wars don’t work. It is a model of cooperation, of resolving our differences peacefully. Of a democratic and humanistic, altruistic way of looking at the other. Also it is a new model, one relatively untried before, just like British parliamentary democracy was. And because of this, naturally, it has its flaws. Flaws which need to be rectified, granted. And it does have an image problem. But given time, these can be resolved. And we can look forward to a brighter, more peaceful future, where cooperation and compromise are the ways that conflicts are resolved and wars between nations may one day in the far hopeful future long past our grandchildren’s generation may become a past thing.

There may come a bitter time when sacrificing a bit of independence for future survival may have seemed the saner choice, for Britain, Europe and the World.

‘Mad and mischievous’: the 1916 rising in the minutes from the township archives

Please find enclosed the link to the 1916 project, entitled ‘Mad and mischievous: the 1916 rising in the minutes from the former township archives.’ http://www.dlrcoco.ie/files/1916/
Many thanks to the team out in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown county council for making this possible.

Please find my piece below, enjoy!:

Mad and Mischievous: The 1916 rising in the Minutes from the Township archives

These are an online selection of minutes (abbreviated recordings of meetings) from the different local government bodies in the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown area in 1916. They included the Blackrock urban district Council, the Dalkey urban district Council, the Killiney and Ballybrack urban district Council and the Kingstown Urban district Council (now Dun Laoghaire). Prior to the rising, the Urban district councils fulfilled many of the same functions as Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council do today. They dealt with water supplies, sanitation, school attendance, libraries, construction, finances, pensions, as well as the relatively new electric lighting which was being installed across the district. 1
Major concerns included Belgian refugees fleeing the First World War, and especially which ‘class’ of refugee would be housed in the upper-class areas in these minutes.2 They also dealt with legal issues, with the Blackrock councillors avoiding litigation from the local gas company by agreeing to pay a certain rate per annum for 2,000 hours lighting and maintenance for a minimum number of 250 lamps.3 Other issues included requests for the local boys school to play in the People’s park, Dun Laoghaire4, reports about water consumption,5 local housing,6 and so on. The setting of the poor rates (taxes for relieving the deprived) and the urban rates was very important, as well as payments to various groups including Teachers with records meticulously kept and published.7 Other issues included an offensive smell near Booterstown railway station and William Butler the park keeper applying for leave on account of a scalded foot.8
The fact that there were serious issues of social deprivation in these areas is often ignored in the minutes. There was a letter from the under-secretary about children engaged in street trading under the employment of children act 1903. In Killiney they argued that the act was not enforceable in the area, whilst in Dalkey it was stated ‘there were no children employed in street trading in the district’ which seems grounded more in wishful thinking than reality.9

Politics and the leadup to the rising

The Councillors were seriously involved in the big issues of the time. Blackrock County Council for instance read out a letter endorsing a speech by the nationalist Sir John Redmond of the Irish Parliamentary Party about the passage of the Home Rule bill. This legislation gave Ireland the right to self-government (but not independence as the 1916 leaders wanted) once the war with Germany was over. 10
Blackrock was at this time dominated by the Home rule party. The latest elections had been held on 25th January 1916. A Councillor JP McCabe was nominated as Chairman having narrowly beaten off several other contenders.11
The unionists in the Blackrock councillors were led by the redoubtable Lady Dockrell. Margaret Dockrell was also a powerful anti-war activist, and was unusual for the time in being a woman engaged in politics.12 In this period, the nationalists were consistently able to outvote the unionists in Blackrock, yet Dockrell was still able to voice constant opposition to McCabe at almost every turn.13
The most important issue facing all these local bodies was the war. By 1916, the First World War had been grinding on for two years, and it is clear that this was a society under stress.
There were serious personnel shortages, while the Blackrock councillors arranged the issue of ‘certificates of honour’ to people who had served on the front lines. It should not be forgotten that in 1914-1916 many Irishmen were fighting in the British army, often to serve the interests of Home rule.14 There was the grim task of sending out condolences to the loved ones lost in the fighting.15 One such vote of condolence was issued to the Town clerk of Dalkey town Council, who was probably the very man writing the minutes, who had lost his brother in France.16
In the lead up to the rising, there was clearly a good deal of tension, at least in Blackrock. There was disgust at the appointment of a Mr. JH Cambell, a unionist, as attorney general for Ireland over the head of Mr. James O’Conner. This was regarded as ‘perpetuating the worst days of Tory ascendency.’ They believed this attempt ’must be met by active organisation on the part of nationalists…’17
A few weeks before the rising, one Judge Kinny had been saying from the bench that Dublin was ‘seething with sedition’. The Blackrock councillors resolved ‘this council would like to learn from Judge Kinny where and when he denounced the sedition which was openly preached in the north of Ireland by Mr. James Campbell MP.’ They later tried to delete this passage after Kinny was proven correct by the rising, but the chairman refused.18

The rising

When the rising occurred, the effects seem to have been mixed. No mention was made of the rising in any of the council’s minute books initially. It is likely this was because the councillors (many of whom were unionists) were simply unsure about the outcome of the rising and did not know about the consequences if they took a stand.19 British troops landed in Dun Laoghaire and proceeded down the road through Blackrock to the battle of Mount street bridge, but none of this is mentioned. The Blackrock councillor’s chambers were used as a post office, presumably thanks to the disruption caused by the General post office/GPO by the rebels.20
In the Kingstown minutes, there is two pages left mysteriously blank, followed by the special meeting of 28th April.21 The councillors urgently requested the newly arrived general Sir John Maxwell to send on food and supplies to the local traders. They thanked a Mr. A.V. Urborwick, one of the s, for his help in placing the ‘S.S. Dun Leary’ at the councillor’s disposal so they could ship food from Liverpool.22
Only 5 councillors turned up for this meeting, and a similar pattern was repeated in Blackrock, where martial law played havoc with their schedule, though by the 8th May most councillors were back at their posts.23 The Dalkey and Killiney/Ballybrack councils seem to have been less disrupted by the rising, with meetings taking place on the 26th and 27th respectively.24
By 29th April, the rising had been crushed, but it would be weeks or months before things returned to normality, which would be crucial in a change in public opinion about Ireland’s place in the British empire.

A change in opinion?

On 8th May 1916, the nationalist Blackrock councillors made a statement ‘The Blackrock urban district Council desire to express our heartfelt reprobation of the mad and mischievous revolt which has taken place in our midst, and which has unfortunately caused it much loss of life and such disaster and destruction to our beautiful city, and which has imperilled the best prospects of our country.‘ They supported the nationalist John Redmond, who was largely against the rising.25
5 individuals voted for the resolution including the Chairman Mccabe, with Lady Dockrell and three others voting against it, (presumably because of the endorsement of their political rival Redmond) while Councillors JP Sexton and Garvey abstained, and Councillor Foy left the meeting. All this suggests there was serious debate going on about how to react to the rising and many were undecided.26
In Dun Laoghaire it was only on the 1st June that they finally issued a statement condemning the rising.27 It reads: ‘…this council deplores the awful sacrifice of human life… To the relatives and friends of all who have been killed both civilians and soldiers during this dreadful time, this council tenders its most heartfelt sympathy and condolence, and prays that in this their time of sorrow and all may be comforted… to bear the cross with patience and resignation to Gods holy will.’ 28
They were roundly thanked for this by the Prime minister, General Sir John Maxwell (commander in chief of his majesties armed forces Ireland) the war office, while others wrote back to Mr. Vaughan the chairman thanking them and saying ‘We shall all pray that the horrors of Easter week may never be repeated.’29
Yet it is clear that the mood over in the Blackrock council at least changed in the next few weeks. Their language became more anti-British, thanks partly to the muddled Imperial response to the rising. At the same time that same muddled response was leading to a crucial change in public opinion about Ireland’s place in the empire in other parts of the country. The councillors were angered by the arrest and detention of local men by British forces after the rising. On the 27th May they put forward a motion demanding ‘an immediate examination of the evidence’ for the arrest of three men from Blackrock. Chairman McCabe was concerned about the ‘Hardships of innocent men’, and sent this request on to John C. Redmond.30 They later protested against continuance of martial law and ‘we call for its immediate withdrawal,’ despite strong opposition from Dockrell.31
On the 19th June McCabe proposed ‘we condemn the attempt to re-establish castle as a coercive regime in Ireland.’ There was another very close vote, which McCabe only just about won.32 There does not seem to have been anything like this shift outside Blackrock in the other councils. It is not known if McCabe represents a fundamental ground-level shift in public opinion in Blackrock along with the rest of Ireland. It must be stated that Dockrell’s unionists ultimately regained control of Blackrock around war’s end, so things were clearly in flux.33

Conclusion

The minutes do not tell us anything we don’t already know. But they confirm what we do, and they give us a ground-level insight into the effects of these tumultuous days on the people and on the local government of the time, which after all, kept the country functioning. They leave us with many tantalising questions: What did individuals think about the rising? How does this all fit into the larger happenings of 1916? And when did they start changing their minds about Ireland’s place in the Empire? All this needs further research.

Bibliography:

BUDC / Blackrock Urban District Council minute book (16th September 1914- 5 December 1917, Dublin.)
Connaught Telegraph, 15 April 1916
Dalkey Urban District Council minute book, (4 November 1908-13th June 1924, Dublin.)
K&BUDC/ Killiney and Ballybrack Urban district Council minutes (21st October 1912 – 1st November 1922 Dublin)
KUDC/ Kingstown Urban District Council minute book, (9 April 1914 – 15th June 1917 Dublin)
The Anglo-Celt, 29 January, 1916, p. 9.
The Freemans Journal, 29 May 1916.
Yeates, Padraig, ‘the War against the war,’ Irish times 22 October 2014, http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/the-war-against-the-war-1.1950918 , accessed 09/01/2016.

New Year’s Message To Westerners and Muslims

   We’ve had a bad year. From the endless war in Syria and Iraq to the horror of the Paris attacks, humanity would seem to be a nation at odds. So this is my word. Based on the whole torrid mess that is Islamic-Western relations I have one thing to say: please, please don’t get angry. No matter how many ghastly attacks we witness, no matter what horrific stories we hear, how many parents weep and how often the stories are told and retold via the media, I want you all to try one thing: hold the middle ground.

Terrorist attacks like these will happen again. And again. And the West will make mistakes, or at best decisions which will lead to far more Muslim deaths than any terrorist ever caused. Again and again most likely. This is not an easy reality for either Westerners or Muslims to face. It is one of the greatest tasks and constant banes any person or people may face to control ones anger, and respond in a proportional, constructive way, especially when one feels one has been wronged, time and again. But remember that as horrendous as Bataclan was, at the end of the day the actual threat from terrorism is minimal. A sense of perspective and proportion is essential.

So this is our societies’ challenge. The ultimate challenge of a pluralist, democratic society is incorporating many, many different ideas, even ones some may find repugnant, backwards, decadent, or alien. Of holding together when exceptions – and they are largely exceptions – like this occur. Pluralism does not mean selling out one’s own values. Nor does it mean simply handing power to somebody else. We cannot afford more failure in this system either in its internal policies or its international practices, for the consequences of our anger would be worse than what caused the anger in the first place.

The nightmare scenario is the savagery cycle continuing. The West gets lured into invading country after country without end, destroying the administration, government and bonds which hold these fragile states together, replacing them with nothing but anarchy which groups similar to Daesh will fill.

Our own countries would also be hurt by that outcome. It would result in a ceaseless cycle of ignorance begetting fear begetting hate begetting violence. Imagine societies that are simply ghettoes: communities based on crude identity, on people who only know themselves in opposition to somebody else. Northern Ireland is a mild example; Rwanda is the logical conclusion. The failure to peacefully handle the conflict with Islam now would lead to wider failures and to a precedent we know all too well: how many more social problems would have to be solved by ghettoisation? What of differing ethnicities, religions or sexual orientations? How many of these issues would have to be solved by the quick fix solutions of restrictive laws, like Europe in the 1930s? This is not a civilisation I would recognise, nor are they societies with values I would choose to hold. With millions of refugees on the move we must not allow the negativity in our natures to prevail. It is too late to disengage from the Middle East. While we have a very real responsibility, as westerners, for having created many of the problems which those in the East now face, from Sykes-picot to Iraq in 2003.

We must ask ourselves. As minorities from Yazidis to Christians huddle in their few remaining holdouts across the Middle East, as Sunnis find themselves caught between barrel bombs and beheading, as Shias find their very existence called into question. As Westerners with the cries of Bataclan in our ears we find ourselves caught at the same crossroads we faced in 2001; which was clearly not handled well. And we see the results of the overreaction to 9/11: countless families stranded in tents, people scared even to walk the streets of Europe’s largest capitals, and the slow destruction of the bonds that hold our multi-ethnic societies together. So we must ask ourselves:

Are we a compassionate society or not? Are we a loving people or not? Can we see the other as ourselves? Can we not see terrorist attacks in proportion to the wider conflicts in the Middle East, which we have partly created. In these times of tribulation our true values come out.

I know it is so very easy to let anger be our response to things which are so very threatening, so very damaging.

But no matter what happens, lets break the cycle. Hold the middle ground. Look to a future where this is just a distant memory. Let’s use this New Year to better ourselves. The year we ignore the voices seeking vengeance and look to the voices seeking answers, tough answers, to think outside our own civilisation and look at our own actions. Talking – informed and balanced, proportional and honest – is one way of doing this. Daesh will be defeated. But only a holistic solution will work long term. Violence and anger need not be the answer.

New Talk: Isis, the Caliphate and History

Talk

ISIS, the Caliphate, and History

Swords library, Monday 21st September, 6.30 PM.
ph: 018905894

Ronan Stewart, MA Cambridge


Black flag

    Massive changes sweep the Middle East as the group known as ISIS tries to resurrect an ancient empire, called the Caliphate. So what was the Caliphate? Where did it come from? And what effect does the idea of this ancient civilisation have on the present? This talk looks into the story of how the Caliphate rose to power in 632 CE/AD and separates fact from fiction. We will explore how good or bad the Caliphate actually was, some of the highs and lows of its 1300-year history, the  myths and reality of the Caliphate and how the concept of the Caliphate illustrates modern debates like women’s rights
and minorities in the Middle East.

Cartoons, Terrorist attacks and Criticism

Cartoons, Terrorist attacks, and Criticism

The Charlie Hebdo attacks shocked the world. Soon, we witnessed the spectacle of global leaders flocking to Paris amidst nationwide protests and mourning. And there were soon copycat attacks in Denmark and in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, which ISIS claims responsibility for. The old argument of free speech versus blasphemy is in full swing again as we argue over whether one can satirise religious figures like the Prophet Muhammad in cartoons or not. But now we have allowed emotions to cool, we can examine this rationally in the hope that something is learnt from these events. One central issue here is criticism. The willingness to exchange balanced criticism is a basic part of a world of ideas where we freely examine and debate each other’s concepts of how society should be organised and run. Human societies constantly evolve, taking on new ideas in law, commerce, trade and so on, while discarding or modifying old ones.
All across the world right now, the Islamic resurgence (aẗ-ẗajdid l-ʾIslāmiyyah) is rising. It is social movement which proposes social, economic and legal systems which are closer in line with an Islamic ideal. Islamo-vangelists like Zakir Naik are siring a generation of Dawah-speakers (proselytizers) who spread this message. This is often heavily influenced by hard-nosed Salafism, which is in turn funded by varied backers in the oil-rich Gulf states. They have targeted the West for years, though with questionable results. And there is a fatal flaw in this mode of proselytism. Simply expecting the rest of the world to accept Islam as a superior socioeconomic, political and personal system on the one hand and being unwilling to accept examination of that faith’s founder on the other is a flawed argumentative strategy.
Personally, I find outright ridicule distasteful and needlessly insulting. Simply going out of one’s way to anger a group, any group, is foolish. But systematic, results-based and representative analysis of all socioeconomic systems must be done, for the sake of the people who will live under those systems. And political Islam must be objectively scrutinised as well. Simply ‘leaving Muhammad out’ from any analysis of the Islamic system places a serious hamstring on any proper investigation.
Most Muslims do not necessarily see it that way of course. First of course is the very real love and adulation with which they regard Muhammad. Driven by rote-memorised education and a sense of religious/communal fervour, many Muslims find it impossible to see him as anything but a paragon of all virtue. Similarly, many Westerners would look up to Napoleon, the American founding fathers, Stephen Dushan, Jesus and a variety of other figures with varying levels of admiration and at times reverence, whatever the historical realities.
Religious and national ‘Hot points’ and historical figures are invoked or used for many different reasons in specific times and circumstances in history. The violent reaction to defamation in the Muslim world is not that different from the response of early 20th century nationalists to anything even remotely besmirching their country. The current obsession with Muhammad is due to relatively short-term historical dynamics, not because of something which makes ‘Islam’ innately violent or the West especially peaceful for all time.
Muslims indirectly express their very real anger and powerlessness over issues like the repeated Western invasions of their countries through the defamation argument. Many won’t, or can’t, admit when they’ve been wounded or hurt in some way – as in Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir, etc. So they lash out and try to gain limited control over limited issues, often in the most seemingly ridiculous ways.
Compounding this, for many Muslims, free speech is seen as a club to bash them with. For centuries orientalist critiques of the Muslim world flourished, portraying them as backward, woman-hating, violent savages. This critique was at times used to justify the colonisation and brutal exploitation of their lands, and later invasions of Iraq. For instance, during the Second gulf war the Bush regime used the banner of female liberation to help justify their invasion, even though they actively discriminated against women’s groups in their own country and ultimately brought disaster to Iraqi feminist organisations thanks to gross mismanagement. Up till recently, from many Muslims viewpoint, the ‘Free speech’ they have seen in the West is a speech which is streamlined to suit occidental interests and ideas, with the airtime given to their views minimal.
The defamation debate is part of a larger Muslim identity debate as well. And identity debates are usually emotional because they come to the core of how we see ourselves. And nobody likes being the underdog. Looking at it from their perspective, if the power which dominated us tried taking away the one remaining cornerstone of our individuality, how would we react? In retrospect, arguing about a man who has been dust for 1300 years makes a great deal of sense.
But we should not forget that the ‘defamation’ argument is a handy totem which dubious local leaders like ISIS use to rally Muslims to their banner. It helps suppress viable debates which undermine their power and diverts attention away from the larger issue of an examination of the Islamic system. And none of this justifies slaying people in cold blood.
So finally, the defamation debate is an identity issue, a temporary issue created by politics and the poor image of the Western media and domination by the West of the Muslim world among others. In my view, insult should be avoided whenever possible. But basic analysis cannot. Islamists use Muhammad as the example of a ‘perfect person’ for their proposed socioeconomic system. Any debate between Westerners and Islamic Dawah proselytizers over the future socioeconomic system we want will inevitably be drawn back to Muhammad in some way. If Islamists expect anyone to give the ‘Islamic system’ a serious assessment, there needs to be a thorough, honest analysis based on the original sources of Islam and their results, to decide whether there is any real example there applicable to today. Just like Western figures and history – like colonisation – must be criticised and examined honestly. Finally we need to do this in a calm way, free of intellectual restraint but not respect.

New talk coming up

Talk
The early Caliphate and Issues of History

Swords library, 7th July, 6.30
Ronan Stewart, MA Cambridge

The word ‘Caliphate’ keeps getting thrown around these days as massive changes sweep the Middle East. So what was the Caliphate? Where did it come from? And what effect does the idea of this ancient civilization have on the present? This talk looks into the story of how the Caliphate rose to power in 632 CE and separates fact from fiction. We will explore how effective the Caliphate was, some of the highs and lows of its 1300-year history, and how
the concept of the Caliphate illustrates the modern world.

Ronan’s Rants: A short history of same-sex marriage and myths of history

Same sex marriage, Religion and Myths of History

We are coming up to a vote on marriage equality which is going to shape how Irish society functions for decades to come. It may well seem a foregone conclusion. But some of the basic issues of history surrounding this debate need to be clarified. One of the arguments which comes up over and over is that marriage is being ‘redefined’ and represents a complete break with the past. In this conception of history, heterosexual, romantic monogamous marriage always existed, and we are straying away from that. But did it always exist?
Marriage has been redefined at multiple points in history. Slaves, the poor, interracial and other couples could not legally wed in various periods until legislation did away with these different rules. Indeed, the sort of affection and ‘love’ people might find in modern marriages was not always a given. Many attitudes of the pre-modern world advocated discipline within a marriage. Plutarch regarded it as ‘disgraceful’ to kiss one’s wife in public, while later Christian theologians were against intimacy between husband and wife as it weakened their devotion to god. Many marriages of this era had more to do with socioeconomic advancement and alliances than with love.
Same sex marriage of sorts –either formal or more informally – have existed at many times in history: Some Roman Emperors like Hadrian probably enjoyed same sex marriages, while ladies amongst the Igbo people of Nigeria had ‘female husbands’. The Chinese, Indians, as well as Mesopotamian and possibly ancient Egyptian monarchs (astounding when one thinks of the attitudes existing in those regions now.) also practised forms of same-sex marriages and/or relationships. There have even been claims that the early Christian church itself was in practice tolerant of same sex marriage, at least early on. Only in the late Roman and Byzantine Empire was same-sex marriage outlawed, while the medieval period saw its total stigmatisation, though these arguments are quite contentious.
But this is not to advertise some wishy-washy version of an LGBT-tolerant past utopia which we should follow to the letter today either. Merely that history is a lot more complicated (and, at times, alien) than either side might care to admit. Precedent is not always the best thing to work off of. Basic studies of historical texts, and anthropological examination of tribal groups worldwide show a wide number of possible outcomes a society might choose to take. The truth was, marriage and the family as an institution has varied based on geography and period in history, and as alluded to above, at times it was thoroughly ghastly by today’s standards.
Many heterosexual marriages in medieval Western Europe were arranged almost from birth, as they are in modern South Asia. Concubinage has been quite acceptable for large sections of the world’s inhabitants for long periods, (slaveowning Southern American states, Europe, The Medieval Islamic Caliphates, post-Columbus South America, etc. –) along with more general polygamy, (China, The Islamic world, etc.) polyandry, (pre-Islamic Mecca) incest (Egypt) and varying other combinations of relationships like 19th-century common-law marriage. It was only in the late 19th century that the more modern idea of romantic love reached the majority of the population, and then only in America and Europe.
Pre-marital sex was very common in ancient Ireland, while Homosexuality probably wasn’t that seriously discriminated against even when the contemporary law tracts bothered to mention it. The structure of the family itself changed repeatedly, from nuclear to extended families and back again, depending on a host of social factors.
It seems to be a basic human psychological impulse to see the past as a decay away from a prior golden age. But in most cases this is not in line with reality. And marriage is no exception. The idea of a primordial, ‘since time immemorial’ ‘natural’ type of monogamous heterosexual romantic marriage is simply not in line with basic historical, anthropological or human facts, even in the most conservative of societies, no matter their self-image.
Anyway, Religions need to adapt themselves to the times they live in. They perform sterling services, especially when ostensibly ‘secular’ (bearing in mind that we are talking in incredibly loose terms) society/government basically fails to provide basic services – for instance the excellent work of brother Kevin down in the Capuchin day centre, which provides meals and medical care for Dublin’s (shamefully) growing homeless population.
They act as the brakes when societies want to take a leap too far – that’s good, if, say, people want to make a massive and (as it turned out for most countries) bad social transformation like Communism without properly examining it in the first place. But the brake system itself cannot determine everything a society does, especially when the evidence generally does not support the dire consequences many same sex marriage opponents maintain.
Any set of rules which is applied to different groups of people must have clear, logical, and evidence-based reasons. This is not to ignore that some feel real concern over the impact of same-sex marriage on children and free speech amongst other things. These issues are for a different article.
The issue that I am concerned with is that I don’t think that many or at least some of the arguments against same sex marriage come down to evidence. They come down to emotion, and the usual combination of ‘Whoaaahh there’ that accompanies any social change, as well as insecurity and a quiet, bizaare sense of ‘infection’ by an ‘other’, if I can put this in very crude terms. The Bible and many Catholic teachings are frequently being used for – or inspiring – this.
But religions have changed their minds many times in history. For instance, priests used not to be celibate, Popes like Leo IX led troops in battle, while in the centuries after his death, the works of Galileo Galilei noting that the Earth moved around the sun were slowly acknowledged, and slavery was both permissible to the early church and later opposed by it.
Change in and of itself is not something always to be feared, or necessarily that unusual in the Christian tradition. This is not altering a core institution unnaturally due to the long-spun argument of political over-correctness. Rather, this is the standard process of the malleable tradition of marriage which has undergone a constant process of redefinition based on current data about what satisfies happiness, equanimity and welfare for all people.

Eclipses that changed history, My magazine articles for Astronomy Ireland.

Eclipses that changed history
The battle of the Halys river: an eclipse brings
warring people to peace.
Sometimes ancient people could interpret positive things out of what were for them unexplained phenomena. According to the famed Greek historian Herodutus, around the late 7th to early 6th century BC a band of Scythian nomads had ended up as mercenaries in the court of the Median King Cyaxeres, who had just conquered modern day Iraq. Seeing them as potential trainers for his army of horse-archers, he used the Scythians to train some of his youths in the use of the horse and bow. The Scythians also employed themselves in hunting and bringing home game to the King. But they were unsuccessful one day. Cyaxeres, who was as short-tempered as he was angry insulted them, upbraiding them for their failure. The Scythians in turn fumed over this. As a form of revenge, they decided to chop up one of the Median youths they were training, and served him to the King as game. The King, none the wiser, proceeded to eat the flesh of one of his own men.
The Scythians fled to Alyattes, the King of Lydia in modern day Turkey, who took them in and refused to hand them over to a vengeful Cyaxeres who had realised what happened. The Median King, ever the hot-head, responded by going to war with the Lydians for the next five years. The two sides inflicted and suffered many defeats on one another, though the fighting seems to have been indecisive. In the sixth year, the two nations armies met again at the river Halys, though by now neither side was that pushed about the war since it was evident the whole thing had stalemated.
As the battle got going, suddenly the day went dark and the sun was covered in an apparent Solar eclipse. The Medians and Lydians, seeing this, were both anxious to make peace, presumably worrying about divine intervention.
Peace was made in the standard traditional way with the Kings forming a marriage alliance and by cutting their respective arms and sucking each other’s blood.
Herodotus tells us that a Greek, Thales the Milesian had predicted the Eclipse. Thales was also among the first philosophers to discuss the possibility of non-mythological causes for natural phenomena – in other words, he helped underpin the development of scientific method.
This is very significant because this is one of the first accounts of a solar eclipse being predicted in advance, though the precise methods which Thales used are unknown. It is possible he borrowed his methods from the Chaldeans or Babylonians, and probably only knew the year, not the exact date it would fall on, partly because of issues with trying to sync it with the Greek calendar. There is some dispute over the exact solar eclipse Herodotus was referring to. Many historians and scientists have suggested that this was the solar eclipses of 21 September 581 or 16 March 581, or was possibly even a lunar eclipse, though 28 May 585 BC seems to be the most precise time.
Ultimately, Alyattes died and was replaced by his son, Croesus, who soon went to war with the Persian Empire who had replaced the Medes.
This time, Thales the Milesian accompanied Croesus on his campaign to the Halys river, and even helped his army cross it. But he could not help Croesus being defeated when Cyrus the Persian leader took him by surprise next spring. He barely avoided being burnt alive, saying to the sympathetic Persian leader:
‘In peace, Sons bury their Fathers, in war Fathers bury their Sons’.
It was up to subsequent generations to relearn this lesson over and over.
Eclipse 2: Lawrence of Arabia
We all know Lawrence of Arabia from David Lean’s famous 1962 film. A famed historical figure, Lawrence helped organise the rebellion of some of the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire during World War 1. And one such lunar eclipse played a role in the decisive campaign by Lawrence of Arabia around Aqaba, in July 1917.
Lawrence had just helped organise an epic 180-mile trek across the Nefud desert. After this, he had linked up with the feared Auda ibu Tayi, leader of the Howeitat clan, who as legend had it had been married 28 times, wounded thirteen times, slain 75 men with his own hand and did not even bother counting Turks.
Then they set off to attack Aqaba from the landward side. They had had to balance off countless blood feuds of their own troops, bribe local tribes to avoid being harassed, and fight a major battle at the end of this.
They ambushed a Turkish resupply column in a major battle at Abu al Lasan nearby, then marched on to Aqaba, which would cut off the Turks supply lines to Medina and enable them to bring in crucial weapons supplies. But on the way they came across a Turkish military post at a place called Kethira. This post commanded the entire valley nearby – it was a strong place which would be very costly in men to take, but they had to pass through it to get to Aqaba. Lawrence’s troops were low on supplies, and this comes through in his personal account of the events, Seven Pillars of wisdom. Worse, there was a full moon for the next few nights. Convincing the booty-obsessed fractious nomadic Bedouin to fight for any unified purpose for any length of time was always difficult. Getting them to assault a heavily fortified position in the middle of a bright full moon which would make them visible was nigh on impossible. Yet Lawrence noted something in his diary. A total Lunar eclipse was due on the 4th-5th of July 1917. This was a partial ‘Reddened’ eclipse, or ‘Bloodred’ moon.
The Turks were superstitiously banging on pots and firing into the air to ‘Rescue the threatened satellite’ according to Lawrence. Sure enough, Auda’s men overran the encampment without any losses.
The town of Aqaba fell a few days later to much fanfare. He crossed the Sinai desert all the way to Cairo and showed up in British military headquarters, causing a sensation. Lawrence helped the British and Arabs drive the Ottomans out of the rest of the levant by the end of the war.
So why did the Turks react this way, even in the 20th century? Ottoman astronomy had fallen behind its European counterpart centuries before this and had mostly stagnated, though knowledge of Occidental science was slowly spreading. However astrology was alive and well in the empire. The (frequently snobby) European travellers accounts often reported that the Turks could be quite superstitious, with some even believing that eclipses of the moon were caused by a ‘great dragon’ in the Earth’s crust. This was probably the feared Jawzahr of Middle Eastern legend which periodically swallowed the sun or moon much like its Chinese counterpart. It also required prompt banging on drums and pots to scare away. Bearing in mind the psychological state of the isolated Ottoman garrison after a costly defeat by the Arabs this seems the most likely explanation. So superstition had cost yet another people another battle.
Lawrence’s role in the capture of Aqaba is probably seriously exaggerated, and the Eclipse story must be understood in the context of a greater series of embellished facts which grew up around him as the decades went on. Lawrence wanted the western powers to honour their agreements with the Arab people and respect their territorial boundaries, but he was ignored, eventually dying in a motorcycle accident in May 1935. Future generations are sorry he was not listened to.