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Should Belfast be twinned with Transylvania?

March 17, 2009

Over on Organized Rage Mick Hall has drawn attention to the media’s handling of the recent dissident Irish republican attacks on British soldiers and police, highlighting in particular the dangers of media speculation. On the whole though, despite some hysterical headlines most comment and analysis has been rather nuanced, although in some quarters old habits die hard. On the 10th March, Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell offered his own perspective on the republican dissidents, picturing them rising from the dead; half vampire, half Frankenstein’s monster.

10.03.09: Steve Bell on the attacks by the Real IRA

This sort of generic representation of political violence in Ireland, associating it with horror, has a long history and one that has done little to cast any light upon the causes of the conflict. Sir John Tenniel’s Punch cartoons stand in this tradition, depicting the Irish as an assortment of Frankensteins, vampires and Calibans.

The Irish Frankenstein

Historically this depiction of the Irish as monsters has been used to explain the apparent intractability of the conflict. If the Irish are simply monstrous and predisposed to violence then the British are absolved of any responsibility for the conflict.

Explaining away the troubles as a horror story has not been confined to cartoons. Carol Reed’s classic Odd Man Out (1944) represented the city of Belfast itself as a predatory monster; a claustrophobic warren of starkly illuminated narrow streets, allies and wasteland. The film’s chiaroscuro lighting, ominous shadows and grotesque Expressionist sets recalled the seminal horror of films like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and F. W Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). In Reed’s film, Johnny McQueen, a fatally wounded IRA volunteer, is destroyed by his own propensity for violence but his fate was surely linked to the distorted and disturbing urban environment in which he was ensnared.

Examples like this from film and literature have drawn strong criticism and rightly so, for interpreting the troubles as a struggle between the primordial forces of darkness and light gives the impression that the problem is as eternal as it is intractable. However it is one thing for others to take such a generic and simplistic approach to the troubles but loyalists and republicans have also utilised horror’s imagery and conventions.

When masked loyalists burst into a crowded Greysteel bar on Halloween night in 1993 shouting ‘trick or treat’ before indiscriminately spraying the interior with gunfire, they showed how horror can be an integral part of the loyalist arsenal. Indeed, loyalist killers once seemed to positively revel in a reputation for monstrousness. As the Independent‘s Michael McKittrick wrote at the time of the massacre in Greysteel, ‘one of the most striking features of loyalist terrorists: that for sheer hot-blooded, vengeful savagery they can often leave the IRA standing. The IRA uses murder as a cold blooded and clinically calculated means to a political end; loyalist assassins often leave the unmistakable impression that they are men who enjoy their work’. Republican violence has been easier to rationalise in political terms compared  to that of loyalists, who at the height of the troubles often seemed indiscriminate and unconscionable. But it would be a mistake to conclude that their violence was mindless. The savagery of loyalist attacks was a message to republicans telling them that any atrocity the IRA could countenance and execute, loyalists would surpass in terms of ruthlessness and barbarity.

In that cycle of sectarian assassinations there were awful precedents. None were more shocking than the Shankill Butchers whose preference for torturing their victims with knives, meat cleavers and axes before murdering them by-passed all the usual practices of political assassination. Rather the ritualistic element of their crimes bore all the hallmarks of human sacrifice. It was hardly surprising then that the Shankill Butchers provided the pretext for Northern Ireland’s first horror film, Marc Evans’ Resurrection Man (1998).

Resurrection Man is one of the most troubling and intriguing cinematic representations of the troubles. On the surface it is a tale of urban gangsters but a closer look reveals its debt to the vampire film and slasher flick. Its loyalist killer, Victor Kelly, conducts a reign of terror by night, prowling Belfast’s streets for victims to slash and slaughter. The film shares more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s Psycho, surely the granddaddy of all slashers. Victor, like Norman Bates has oedipal issues and a preference for knife attacks. He disposes of one victim in the appropriately named Tombe Street bath house, a gargantuan recreation of Psycho‘s notorious shower scene, with its pipes, porcelain and blood stained shower curtains. But Victor is as much the Prince of Darkness as Norman Bates-type. His vampyric persona is alluded to in his sexualised lust for blood, the nocturnal hours he keeps, his swarthy good looks and sexual ambiguity.

Resurrection Man twins Belfast with Transylvania and it casts loyalism in the starring role of the city’s undead. Predictably loyalist politicians were outraged at this chilling depiction on film but the gable walls of Protestant housing estates suggested that others were sanguine about their association with horror. A popular wall mural in working class Protestant areas at the time was striking for it resemblance to Marc Evans’ film in its depiction of loyalism as a revived corpse. Derry’s Bond Street still has such a mural of a cadaver dressed in a traditional red army tunic signifying Britain’s imperial past. It charges across a battle-scared and apocalyptic wasteland clutching a tattered Union flag in one hand and a sword dripping blood in the other. In the background the iconography of Irish nationalism in the shape of the Free Derry wall is burning. In the foreground a fallen Irish patriot, indicated by a green tunic, lies prostrate at the feet of the resurrected imperial cadaver. This is loyalism’s own ‘resurrection man’. It is an horrific image that serves as a warning to opponents of loyalism’s apocalyptic potential.

Republicanism on the other hand has its own resurrection men that lie in the unquiet graves of the ‘fenian dead’. It was Patrick Pearse who established the rather macabre terms for nation building in his funeral panegyric to O’Donovan Rossa in 1915: ‘Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriotic men and women spring nations’. Pearse sought to make the nationalist cause congruent with Christ’s sacrifice but grafting a political project to a religious discourse of martyrdom had terrible consequences. It bound succeeding generations to the past. The sacred memory of dead patriots legitimised contemporary distress and sacrifice, locking subsequent republicans into a recurring narrative of suffering and martyrdom.

The ten men who died on hunger strike in the H-Block at Long Kesh in 1981 evoked republicanism’s sacrificial heritage but their starvation was more than an act of martyrdom. It employed body horror as a tactic in a political struggle. Body horror is the presentation of the human form in a state of decay or dissolution. The sight of emaciated men, their sallow features and wasting limbs, may have inspired awe among the republican faithful but their sacrifice is just as likely to have drawn bewilderment and revulsion from others. The point of the hunger strike is of course to confront others, in particular the enemy, with the appalling lengths that republicans would go to in the pursuit of political objectives. As Terence McSwinney, who died on hunger strike in 1920, remarked, ‘It is not who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.’

The republican martyr’s glorification of suffering distinguishes him from the loyalist resurrection man of Derry’s Bond Street wall mural. The republican is passive while loyalism’s imperial cadaver is aggressive and apocalyptic. Nevertheless both present the same horrific aspect of decay and fatality, both have the potential to descend into death-cults.

Marx wrote that, ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’. Nowhere have those dead generations weighed more heavily than in Ireland. Whether at the Dublin GPO or the Somme, the sacrifice of forebears has imbued republicanism and loyalism with a religiosity that discourages any critical inspection of their politics. To question the underling tenets of loyalism and republicanism is to speak ill of the dead. Little wonder then that political struggle in Northern Ireland is too often ugly and misshapen; martyrdom and apocalypse seem political ends in themselves. The problem with Steve Bell’s cartoon and the generic assumptions that lie behind it is that such simplistic interpretations of political violence function as a bias against understanding. But it is also the case that some organisations in Ireland seem happy to discourage any serious attempt to engage with or understand their threadbare politics.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2009 9:08 pm

    I have a strange feeling at the back of my mind that the mural in Derry’s Bond St has more to do with a Heavy Metal album cover than Marc Evans film. Not being a HM fan myself I can’t quite place it, but I’m sure I’ve seen a version of that skeleton with a sword before in another context. If I’m right, this would give a link to the cartoon violence of the likes of Ozzy Osbourne (or whoever) as much as the chilling reality of the Troubles.

    I’m not arguing against your interpretation, just wondering if there can be more than one set of linkages to be read from any given piece of representation.

    • rabelaiscwebsite permalink*
      March 19, 2009 8:41 am

      Indeed, Charlie, the mural is inspired by Iron Maiden and not the Marc Evans film. What I think is interesting is the coincidence of this equally abject imagery. You have to see it in the context of certain expressions of loyalism that seemed to revel in their pariah status. For instance, during a particularly low period the predominantly loyalist supporters of the Northern Ireland football team used to chant ‘Nobody loves us, we don’t care’, adopted from the Millwall chorus. This found more concrete political expression in Peter Robinson’s response to David Trimble’s Nobel Peace Prize. The DUP deputy (as he was at that stage) accused Trimble of being awarded for his treachery. ‘Better to be scorned by the world’, he said. It seems that at certain times and among certain loyalist groups, abjection and pariah status have been adopted as badges of principled defiance. Yet these are changed times. Northern Ireland football fans sing the more self-effacing ‘We’re not Brazil we’re Northern Ireland’ and are renowned now for their good humour. The wall murals in loyalist areas are beginning to change – images of Belfast’s industrial past, famous Protestant writers, former American presidents commemorated for the Ulster-Scots heritage and David Healy scoring the winning goal against England. Peter Robinson is First Minister, in government with Sinn Fein (surely his Peace Prize is in the post). ‘Resurrection politics’ are still in fashion. The designation of the Belfast Agreement as the Good Friday Agreement is no accident (and lets not forget the Easter Rising). So in a sense the politics of dissident Republicans (and loyalists) operate as a sort of dark Other to Northern Ireland’s recent re-birth.

  2. March 20, 2009 11:02 am

    Does Neil Lennon think Northern Ireland football fans are ‘renowned for their good humour’?(http://www.channel4.com/news/articles/sports/political+football+neil+lennon/882547

    But I take your wider point about the post GFA changes and partial ‘re-birth’ of the place, coupled with the potential for another cultural repertoire to drag either camp back to the days of the Troubles.

    Staying on purely cultural matters, I would hope that someone, somewhere on the unionist/loyalist side is now thinking very carefully about how they are going to mark the 100th anniversary of 1916. The concatenation of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme has all the potential to bring out the old tribal gods. Surely some set of commemorative cultural events can be designed to minimise this?

  3. rabelaiscwebsite permalink*
    March 20, 2009 2:26 pm

    Know what you mean with regards to Neil Lennon’s experience.

    Commemoration of the past here is always a thorny issue and the museums tended towards a policy of quietism on anything specifically to do with the political history of Ireland up until the 1990s when the Ulster Museum put on a commemoration for the tercentenary of the Battle of the Boyne. That was followed by a major exhibition on the bicentenary of the United Irish uprising. Both exhibitions where careful to meet the ideological needs of the ‘official’ present. And I suspect that something similar will happen for 1916. Perhaps some sort of joint exhibition in the interests of balanced sectarianism.

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