The Belfast slums are scary, reminding
me more than a little like parts of Los Angeles. The buildings are huge
public housing projects which are falling apart. There is trash everywhere
and groups of young men hanging out on the corner somewhat aimlessly.
There is graffiti everywhere and it is not ambivalent: giant mural size
paintings glorifying "freedom fighters" with black stocking masks over
their faces with rifles holding proud military poses! I walked by a police
station and it resembled a fort. It was on a deserted, burned out block
and an armored car with soldiers inside pointing their weapons out of
small port holes entered the heavily fortified 20 foot tall gates as
I walked by. It was a scene straight from a "Mad Max/Road Warrior" movie
in some post-nuclear apocalyptic battleground. The soldiers drive around
for awhile and then get out and patrol, weapons constantly at the ready.
The ground upon which they walk is the full extent of their authority,
however, as the extremist groups run these areas. I never felt personally
threatened walking these areas but I never felt relaxed either. On a
bus back to my Youth Hostel, in a supposedly peaceful area and off my
guard, I passed a house with police in front with a perimeter guard of
vigilant combat soldiers.
British soldiers manning a temporary peaceline
between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in West Belfast.
Obviously, the extremists have lost their
sense of perspective as well as their humanity. In the name of the "struggle" (they
see themselves as "soldiers" at war), anything is permissible
and limits are arbitrary. The IRA has "kneecapped" (shot persons
in the knees) thousands of their own for "disciplinary" reasons;
the Belfast doctors are internationally known experts in reconstructive
knee surgery. I arrived in Belfast intrigued and left disgusted.
I truly hope nothing like this ever comes to the States. Rank tribalism,
the near absolute victory of the passions over reason!
In fact, it is merely the same kind of
culture of violence as I have seen in parts of Los Angeles. Yeah,
exactly the same thing - young men getting off on violence, and then
growing into the role as mature adults and knowing nothing else.
People skilled in murder who can hardly write their names or read
the newspaper. Killers of innocent and not-so-innocent people who
plant bombs and wear masks who were unable to rise above their violent
pasts. No matter how some people try to glamorize the political struggles
here, this holds true. The IRA has covered all of Ireland with disgrace
and I am so glad my ancestors left this island for more propitious
regions in North America!
And yet, like in Los Angeles, I have
no doubt there are plenty of decent if terrified people both on the
Catholic and Protestant sides in Belfast who are powerless to stop
the violence and simply try to get by the best they can - even in
the middle of this Godawful mess!
I will not soon forget my walk through
the slums of Belfast.
British soldier on patrol hides behind fence.
31 August 1991
I spent a mellow and enjoyable day in
Dublin. I find Dublin as delightful and uplifting as I found Belfast
depressing. And this is funny considering Belfast is technically
a more "modern" city, due probably to the British taxpayer. Dublin
is not an ascetically pretty city. It lacks direction and seems to
have been erected somewhat haphazardly. Compared to London, Dublin
is nothing. But there is energy and virility here.
As opposed to the North, the Irish here
relish their Irishness. The renaissance of the Irish culture under
Yeats and others still blooms. There is activity, Gaelic language,
crowds, different peoples - the hustle and bustle of freedom. Ireland
is a poor country and this fact is much in evidence. Many times I
was approached by almost destitute children begging. Everything is
a bit older and dirtier than in the UK, but remarkably I don't mind
in the least. It is the exuberance of this "writers' city," one can
still feel the strength of individual thought as the different trends
on display in stores and on persons are plethora. No matter
what the economic reality, one gets the impression of a free country
living out its life vibrantly looking to the future, rooted in a
shared national past.
The streets are packed with young people.
Some of them are couples in love, some are religious, some "punkers," some
skateboarders. They are all in their little cliques and this somewhat
disorganized menagerie smacks of individual initiative; let a hundred
different manners of thought flourish and let the competition of
ideas follow! Subjugating a population to some approved dogma induces
intellectual laziness and spiritual dullness. Freedom is often obnoxious
and messy but it stretches the mind and raises the level of thought
and self-respecting individualism.
The Irish are poets, lovers, and somewhat
pathetic in a lovable way. They are poor and not especially rational
in the cold-blooded English manner. They are writers - religious
enthusiasts. No politicians here talk about the high unemployment
or GNP numbers or GATT negotiations. They talk about morality: contraception,
divorce, abortion, sex, public morality.
The Catholic Church is especially strong
here. I think this both good and bad. Good in that it provides a
certain moral warmth. Many people here support the vague idea of
a fully Irish Ireland (ie. UK out of the North) yet still hate the
IRA out of a simple moral response to their tactics, which is commendable.
Yet Catholicism here is sort of fanatical and there is a strong sense
of guilt, sin - hell, itself. They subordinate a degree of sovereignty
to blind obedience to the edicts of the Church, and their views about
sex are clearly antiquated, at least among the old. Divorce is illegal,
as is abortion - one can only buy contraceptives in pharmacies with
a subscription! Yet there seems to be a conflict with the young on
these matters and who knows, perhaps Ireland has a sexual revolution
in their future? I hope so.
There is a frank pro-Americanism here.
I do not know if massive immigration is the reason, or tourism or
investment. There are American movies and flags everywhere. American
food, American icons (Tom Cruise even) everywhere. I heard today
that "all Irish want to be Americans and all Americans want to be
Irish." I don't agree with that but there is a definite love affair.
Socialists protesting foreign investment notwithstanding.
There is an anti-English sentiment here
leftover from the days of colonialism and Cromwell. At the tourist
office I was told lodging were hard to come by because of an "Irish
football" tournament in Dublin at the time. I asked if this was like
soccer and was told somewhat testily, "NO! Soccer is English!" I
am of Irish descent and my parents can remember relatives who spoke
with an Irish accent. But I was offended by the anti-Englishness!
As an American, I feel historically closer to England than to Ireland.
Great Britain has been a close geopolitical ally of the United States
during my lifetime and British and American soldiers have fought
and died often together. I guess I am a thoroughly assimilated American.
I look at the English treatment of Ireland as reprehensible but ancient
history, and at the least an obscure chapter in the larger story
of the Empire of Greater Britannia. Or the world for that matter.
In global terms, Ireland definitely is a backwater both politically
But one cannot help loving the Irish
for their fire. The Irish are drinkers, fighters, writers. They are
always in a passion: a fit of Dostoyevskian guilt or redemption,
in a murderous rage or romantic swoon. They produce poems and songs
and theater and almost no industry. They are poor and somewhat helpless
but proud and dignified. The poverty is plain to see and I have stumbled
upon some nasty fist fights flowing out of pubs. But there is a warmth
and glow to this city!
1 September 1991
Freedom. Is there anything more important?
Freedom in its many incarnations: political, emotional, financial,
Perhaps one must view freedom from its
opposite - slavery. Enslaved to a tyrant, enslaved to a debt, enslaved
to a lover. In the absence of freedom there is frustration, anger,
and a general cramping of the spirit.
I used to think, relative to the rest
of the world, people convicted of heinous crimes had it easy here
in the U.S. Free meals, clothes, etc. Basically, they live a pain
free life (at least, no extraordinary abuse from the authorities),
except for the fact they cannot leave the prison. It is a long way
off from the gulag or a Turkish prison. They live in a brutal and
sadistic environment, but they are, of course, no stranger to this
and adapt to the exigencies of respect, intimidation and retaliation.
But on a higher level they have lost their freedom. Your life is
dictated: you are told when to sleep, when to eat, shower, etc. What
could be worse? - I would almost rather suffer corporal punishment.
To live locked up in a cage like an animal, there is nothing worse,
except perhaps hunger, that is more demeaning.
To be a free man. To walk where and when
one wants. To be free to speak and think as you wish. In the hierarchy
of needs, freedom is a pretty high-level concept. No man cares about "freedom" if
he is starving. If he is starving, he wants food. Period. But then
we arrive at the Faustian dilemma. To "sell your soul" for a material
gain is to one day bitterly rue the "loss of your soul." For example,
there is a relative lack of dire poverty in Castro's Cuba compared
to the rest of Central America and this is due in part to the dictatorial
powers ascribed to the Communist Party and the external aid of the
Soviet Union. But one is not free to let the mind wander or to develop
any though or activity which challenges the official party line.
No man can keep his self-respect if he feels that he is unable to
make up his own mind or follow his spirit where it takes him. And
a jailed man can only hate his jailer.
The recent Soviet coup attempt dramatized
exactly what the world had to lose with the revival of Soviet totalitarianism.
It is best highlighted by who were elated by the coup: Cuba, Iraq,
North Korea, Libya. The failure of the coup must indeed herald the
end of totalitarianism and spy government everywhere. Or at least
I will dare to hope so.
We in the West have won the Cold War.
But what does that mean? I do not think this really means "capitalism" had
defeated "socialism." Although pervasive socialism has been shown
to be impractical at the macro-level, capitalism can only be a part
of the cure. The issue really turns on the issue of pluralism. I
think of the West and its freedom and the images of energy and chaos
come to mind. A thousand different schools of thought and a culture
which is full of color and diversity! I look at all the various factions
in the United States and many of them repulse me, or worse. The black
and white extremists, with their militancy and hate, the feminists
and their knee-jerk reaction against all things male and masculine,
and the radical homosexuals and their in-your-face sexuality - how
exhausting! But I am fully committed to a state and society which
is big enough to contain all of this. When I listen to fundamentalist
Christian activists, all I usually feel is anger and frustration.
But while I would not want them as dinner guests, I wish them well
and believe in an America which has a place for them. Friction between
ideologies and moralities is the American way, and this creates dissension
and acrimonious debate. In the long run, this only adds up to a stronger
union. That is if they can get past their differences and observe
Soviet strength was hollow, as their
ideology was bankrupted and the people only mouthed the religious
incantations of Marxist-Leninism. There was no thriving culture of
thought. There is desperation, fear, and a dulled peace. The chaos
of the West is contentious and threatening, but as Jefferson said, "The
tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood
of patriots and tyrants. It is their natural manure." - although,
I do not see bloodshed as a desirable result of public debate or
give-and-take interaction. Like Le Carre, I wonder if "the right
people lost the Cold War and the wrong people won it."
I went out pub hopping yesterday. There
was a "hurling" game today here (hurling: a combination of
field hockey and football) and the fans were everywhere with their
colors. Pubs, here like in England, are smoky and filled with gregarious
good cheer. There are large numbers of older men. It is very social
with many couples and a lack of the hard lonely atmosphere that many
American bars exude. I went to many pubs and read Yeats while drinking
Guiness beer (yuck!). The highlight must have been in the pub across
from Yeat's Abbey Theater. I tried to feel his spirit by reading
his poetry so close to the theater which he worked so hard on and
which was dear to his heart.
The pubs of Ireland are full of friendly and smiling people.
September 2, 1991
I find myself today at Rossalere Harbor
awaiting transit to Le Havre, France. The trip is 22 hours and should
prove tiring. I am continually oppressed by the smells of body odor
and cigarette smoke.
I almost wish that I could spend more
time in Ireland. The Irish are friendly and warm hearted. There is
a simple kindness no strings attached that is rarely seen in the
States. Perhaps this is the answer to the riddle of why Americans
want to be Irish and vice versa: the Americans wish to have the warm
sense of community of the Irish while the Irish want to be "rich" like
the Americans. It sounds to me like wishful thinking on both sides
coupled with misconceptions about how life is elsewhere. People see
what they want to see - me included, I am sure!
I think now I understand the position
of expatriates who live overseas yet write about their native land
with so much passion. It is difficult to generalize about a place
as big as the United States, but I have been thinking much about
home here in the relatively removed setting of Europe. I see well
clothed and well groomed persons walking through corridors of corporate
glass feeling both exhausted and unrewarded by their bosses and asking
themselves, "Is this it?" Marketing reports, spreadsheets,
ultra-competitiveness, and the bottom line alone do not confer meaning
and happiness in life. I personally know many people who give 100%
at work only to return home at night to Nothing. Weekends are the
worst, relieved only by the coming of Monday and more work. Everything
in pragmatic America is value: how you can benefit someone with your
skills or time, and what you can market that people will buy. Our
holy places are the efficient and productive office, overflowing
with the frenetic energy of success and the icon of the West: the
computer, our indispensable partner in taming a slippery fate.
But beneath the trappings of power and
prestige there exists a sense of hollowness and despair. "Fun" is
not something you can buy. In the hustle and bustle of success and
100 mile per hour lives full of hassles and hurries, we become slaves
to our concerns and our humanity is unacknowledged. I think most
people would be satisfied with less in the sense that they could
enjoy life more if they were not so overextended. I think Americans
are tired of "low intensity conflicts" and petty nationalist
hatreds in obscure backlands that are as inextricable and impenetrable
as they are irrational and distant. Americans are exhausted: tired
of "empire" and the demands and responsibilities it brings,
tired of the idiocy of "-isms" and "-ions," and mass
movements and the juggling job and family and of being cynically
manipulated and lied to by the politicians. The future seems to auger
a return to the inner life á la Walden Pond. It is a time of pessimism
and resignation in terms of what can be done politically. Bitter
and intractable problems eat at the fabric of American life.
Americans have been suspicious (rightfully,
to my mind) of politics since day one and our vision of government
is more about freedom from than about anything else. Its whole architecture
conspires against concentrated power and it is conspicuously lacking
in the ambitious and aggressive desire to attain some utopia or ultimate "truth" in
government. It is moderate and practical, with a healthy suspicion
of itself. One often hears from persons with some political item
for sale, "The Greek definition of an 'idiot' is someone who does
not concern himself in politics," as if the Greeks were ultimately
enviable in their political intercourse. In reality, they were always
at each other's throats. They loved to endlessly argue about what
is wrong and what is right, what it means to be pious, what is Truth,
etc. but they were singularly unable to live in social harmony. Plato
was good at turning out abstract theory on which is the ideal government,
but his brief and feckless record in actually dealing in the civic
affairs of man was pathetically inept. There seems to be a natural
incompatibility between political theory and praxis, as if one cannot
be talented in both. As John Adams himself said around the birth
of the American nation: "Remember, democracy never lasts long.
It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy
yet that did not commit suicide."
"To the barricades?" - fools!,
that was the mistake of the baby boomers and the 1960's. The public
forum is such an absurd cacophony of shrill shouts that one cannot
find peace enough to think clearly. Is it any surprise that the youth
of today are apathetic and reject the macropolitic? The mood of American
youth today: "Perhaps I will join a neighborhood environmental
group and plant some trees where I may actually be able to do some
good." The sophist's Quixotic search for the ultimate truth is
a fool's errand that has nothing to do with helping actual people
here on this earth during their lifetime. We are told that the private
is the concern of the public. I would counter that the whole history
of the fratricidal 20th century is a testament to the rape of the
private. People should slow down and really figure out what they
believe in and live their lives accordingly. People should remain
unmoved by what they are told is the "right" or the "correct." Man
holds nothing so dear to him as the independence and integrity of
his own thought and it is precisely this that has been so violated
by "true believers" with a social agenda, whether they be
Nazis or Islamic mullahs or Soviet or Chinese commisars. There needs
to be an affirmation of the sovereignty of the individual.
Questions: Is it any wonder that no beautiful
flowers will bloom in the embittered soil of America? I look at the
rise of fundamentalism whether it be religious, political, or ecological
and I wonder why they don't name it for what it really is: fanatacism! Among
the public blood lettings in the United States why do we not see
that compassion and reconciliation are the very things we kill? As
if any kind of justice or forgiveness could be found in such a bitter
environs? And how did we let our worst (Jesse Helms and the militant
gay performance artists, minority activists and religious conservatives)
set the agenda anyhow? - no, I will stop the finger pointing and
whining, it has become an epidemic in the United States enough already.
As Pasternak, that tragic genius who
lived in times much more acerbic and dangerous than ours, said half
a century ago at the violent dawn of the Soviet epoch: "Mood is
more important than plot, and contemplation of such problems as poetry
and music is more important than ordinary events...political events
play a lesser role in determining the role of human lives than does
art; coincidences serve to demonstrate the inevitability of fate
as well as the meaning of life and the mystery of death." Revolutionary
Soviet Russia with her social psychosis was too brutal and violent
a place for the gentle and percipient Pasternak. In the fanaticism of
his age one did not have the option to remain indifferent. His complex
and difficult verse was considered at best irrelevant by the hard
and dogma-driven revolutionaries who believed that if only you killed
enough people in the name of a cause everything would turn out OK.
September 2, 1991
I have enjoyed European cities for their
simple streets crowded with ordinary people out to enjoy the presence
of their neighbors with classical music being played by amateurs
on the peripheries and magicians plying their trade in the centers.
Clean parks and wide terraces devoid of traffic. The American mall
may be more efficient but it is much less enjoyable.
The Irish are impoverished, it is true.
And my American side which values people in terms of what they have
accomplished and their material accouterments was ashamed of the
Irish and the children begging in the streets. To my Americanism,
if you are not financially successful, or at least secure, you are
simply not a serious person. In America, poverty in a land of plenty
is seen as evidence of indolence and moral dubiousness. "Why are
you poor in a country with so much opportunity?" "Why aren't you
out getting yours?" In poorer countries like Ireland, poverty is
seen as a misfortune but no shame.
Where in America can one enjoy lively
conversation and simple good cheer such as that which is experienced
in the pubs of Dublin? In the U.S., kindness towards one another
is most often seen initially as a cynical approach to get something
(money) from us. It is true, the Irish are something of a childish,
irresponsible, and undisciplined people. But there is a color and
fullness to their lives which is indicative of a more gentle, kind,
and human life than we Americans live. Sure they are most generous
and alive when drunk. And most assuredly they have more children
than they can afford to reasonably support - but the city of Dublin
is alive with the laughter and play of the young.
September 3, 1991
I am an Irish-American, many generations
removed from my Irish immigrant ancestors. I have always denigrated
my Irishness, preferring to play up my minority Germaness as more
profitable and respectable in this world which respects wealth, power,
and efficiency while it tramples the poor and the weak. But I saw
in the faces of the Dubliners my mother's father and my father's
mother: a red-faced man with a wide nose, an Irish cap, and a ready
smile and a woman always wearing a tent like dress and possessing
a stern and unforgiving morality. I feel that I understand them better
and judge them less knowing of Ireland and how it influenced them
so much more than it did me, a fully-assimilated American. People
in the United States would ask me about my heritage, "Are you Irish,
German, English, or Scotch?" I would tell them I was American.
But my parents always spoke about Ireland
with a special love. For my part, I always thought this patent foolishness.
The Irish influence on our lives was nil. We lived in California
for Christ's sake! I never met one relative who spoke with a brogue.
We never ever listened to Irish music or anything like that in our
house. The only Irishness in our family life was perhaps a biological
disposition towards alcoholism. Exasperated, I would tell my parents: "What
the hell does Ireland have to do with our lives? It is a poor and
small country whose fortunes don't have much to do with those of
the United States - much less our family!" But I think about
my great-grandfather Dennis Harris Sullivan who worked as a gardener
in the castle of an English aristocrat in County Kerry in the tiny
village of Kenmare and who in 1919 left Ireland for the United States
never to return at the age of 17. I attempt to understand the great-uncle
I never met who still spoke with an Irish brogue even as he served
as a Captain of Police in Cleveland, Ohio. I can sense his decent
Irish love of life and despair in misfortune and how it made him
a good cop. And I honor this heritage and hope that I may live up
I respect my Irish past even as the circumstances
of my own current life give me much more of an affinity for the English.
My great-grandfather might have been a gardener in someone else's
castle, but I come of age an educated free man from the most powerful
country on the earth.
I am on the boat trip across the English
Channel from Ireland to France and it is a full 24 hour trip. We
are far out at sea now and the gentle pitching and swaying motion
of the vessel on the waves is not unpleasant. I am watching the ocean
pass by while drinking an Irish "black label" beer which tastes
oh, so much better than American beer, and hey, life could be worse!