Review: Bleach, Hondros, The Titan




Fun fact: Ichigo means “strawberry” or “number one” depending on how its written. Thanks Ash!

Ichigo (Sota Fukushi) is a wise-cracking teenager, who just so happens to be able to see ghosts. When his supernatural talent draws the attention of a katana wielding demon fighter (Hana Sugisaki), Ichigo is initiated into the world of soul reapers, soon finding himself in the middle of some very strange goings on.

Like my previous forays into live-action adaptations of anime, I had very little prior knowledge or experience of Bleach, bar what my more up-to-date girlfriend was able to tell me (which mostly left me confused). And, just as with Death Note and FullMetal Alchemist, I found myself muddled and bewildered by what I was presented with.

The live-action version of Bleach seems tailor made for people who have already read all the manga and watched all of the TV: for those who already know the difference between a “soul reaper” and a “quincy” and don’t really need the characters to explain it all that clearly. You’ve read the first 500 issues right? No? Oh dear.

If you’re one of us other people, Bleach is the kind of film that is strangely able to keep your attention, but only in the sort of way the remains of a car crash do. You’ll rubber neck at the weird but inventive looking “hollows” or the outragedly over the top action scenes or the Melrose Place-esque teenagers (all ten years too old to pass). And those hairstyles! Bleach has a vision for what it wants to be visually, without a doubt, it’s just in the areas of script and characterisation that it is lacking. Supernatural monsters rip through city centres in a Michael Bay fashion, whirlwinds of Lovecraftian tentacles meet laser bows and the main character frequently leaves his seemingly dead body behind to join the proceedings. Director Shinsuke Sato has made such adaptations his bread and butter, and he is certainly able to craft something visually engaging.

The films’ actual plot is a goofy, almost endearingly stupid, thing, replete with chosen ones, noble sacrifices, unexpected allies and lots of never-say-die attitude. The characters are thread-bare high school stereotypes – the rogue, the ditz, the loner, the quiet guy – and the villains are straight out of Kingdom Hearts (or I suppose that it is the other way around). It’s hard to take anything seriously, even Ichigo’s guilt over his mother’s death – the prologue set-up of this harsh memory as traditionally dramatic as Bleach ever really gets – and the shallowness on display may well be a consequence of Sato’s workload, this being the first of two live-action manga/anime adaptations he’s coming up with this year.

In a way Bleach was at its most interesting before the giant swords and super-powers came up, when Ichigo was just a guy who could see lost souls and was sort of inclined to help them out a bit. That seems like a set-up with some promise for actual story-telling, and not the noise that Bleach subsequently came out with. Indeed, the ghost-talking isn’t even really a plot point afterwards, and the less said about the neutering of the Rukia character – with Bleach having a serious dearth of decent female principals – the better.

In the end, Bleach is, at best, a harmless bit of forgettable fun, made by a team and cast that don’t really seem all that bothered, with digital production pulling the most weight. Not recommended (unless you already know everything about this property).




This is Liberia

Chris Hondros spent over a decade taking some of the most vivid war photographs ever put to film, before being killed in the Libyan Civil War. In this film, documentarian Greg Campbell attempts to capture the story of Hondros, through his friends, his experiences, and his photographs.

A young Liberian, after hitting a target with an RPG round, lifts his weapon into the air and literally jumps for joy. Chris Hondros’ now iconic photograph forms the centrepiece of the documentary that bears his name and says something very important about both the subject and the taker. In the subject, we saw war as an event where terrible destruction is mixed with almost frightful elevation; in the taker we see a man willing to go so close to the greatest danger as to be labelled reckless, even idiotic.

Perhaps because of his untimely death, Hondros’ life and fate resonate even more, but even with the knowledge of how the story ends it’s hard not to be impressed by him, from Liberia to Libya. All that we have left of him, aside from his photography, is the talking head footage that showcases a man of extraordinary empathy, with an uncanny knack of not letting the many terrible things happening all around him affect him to any kind of significant degree (at least not on the surface).

Those that Hondros left behind paint a three-dimensional picture of a man perhaps too obsessed with getting the shot, a man who risked death in Iraq or travelled to Kosovo two more times than his own family were aware of. Yet that recklessness was matched by a seemingly boundless compassion to the subjects of his photographs, who Hondros went above and beyond in trying to help. The Liberian with the RPG launcher got an education and a chance for a better future as a result of Hondros, and that wasn’t the end of it.

The meat and bones of Campbell’s study is a subtle examination into the state of modern war, where traditional perceptions have eroded and just who the enemy is is harder than ever to ascertain. IEDs and child soldiers do not make for comfortable moral quandaries, and the film’s devotion of a significant amount of time to a victim of an American atrocity in Iraq is interesting, one of the few times it breaks away decisively from its main interest, though not for too long.

Campbell is not too interested in critiquing Hondros all that much, beyond some basic inferences that the photographer was, perhaps, a bit too much of a loner for his own good. Instead, Campbell focuses much of his attention on creating an impression of a cadre of photojournalists, of whom Hondros was simply the best, who dedicate their lives to being present at events the rest of us only get to experience second hand through their eye and machinery. “There’s no way to do it at a distance” Hondros muses early on. For the rest of us who don’t want to get that close, Hondros’ service to journalism and photography are to be admired, as is Campbell’s feature length dedication. Recommended.

The Titan




In the not-too-distant future, Lt Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington) volunteers for an ambitious military project headed by Professor Collingwood (Tom Wilkenson), that aims to avoid extinction for the species by escaping a ruined Earth in favour of Saturn’s moon Titan. In order to do this, humanity must be fundamentally altered at the genetic level to survive the new environment, but such change comes with a terrible cost.

The Titan is standard bargain bucket sci-fi fare, only notable for its occasional delusions of grandeur. We all know those kinds of films, the ones that have a pretence of having depth and a larger point to make, and maybe the people making them actually think they are, but in reality they are just not reaching that level. The Titan, from little known German director Lennart Ruff (and with Arash “Grace of Monaco” Amel as its scriptwriter), is one of those, that tries to tell a sci-fi story about what it means to be human when everything about your humanity is outwardly changing but comes across so predictable and tired that it’s hard to stay invested.

Operating on a show-string if the basic details like lighting and set design are to be considered, The Titan plods along for its 97 minute running time, feeling significantly longer. Scenes come and go, with a sense that you’re just trudging through a narrative that is also ready being split at the seams to fill feature length time. The general premise lacks any kind of resonance since the Earth we do see doesn’t seem all that unpleasant (we have to take the Professor’s word that half of humanity is about to starve to death). It’s also never rightfully explained why the huge expense of sending a few people to Titan is better than trying to save the Earth (or why the actual trip to Titan is barely mentioned). The attempt to humanise things by focusing on the relationship between Janssen and his wife (Taylor Schilling) doesn’t work either because it’s just too pedestrian and dull.

It doesn’t help that the cast is in neutral for most of this. Worthington I have never really rated, he being an actor who catapulted into relevance due to Avatar, a film where he was out-acted by the CGI scenery. Wilkinson looks like he has somewhere else to be. Schilling is the best of a mediocre lot, and even then it’s just the fretful military spouse architype, just with gene-spliced monsters mixed in to give her something to really be angsty about. Compare to, say, Orbiter 9, which did a much better job of presenting characters and a fractured world that they inhabited.

It takes a bit too long for said monsters to show up, and The Titan would have been a damn sight more entertaining if it had simply been as it was partially marketed, a sci-fi body horror where the military has to deal with an experiment gone wrong. That comprises only the back end of the film, not even its entire third act: much of the rest is given over to maudlin remembrances and soap opera-esque moping. Netflix seems to like taking a punt of these properties, probably because they are cheap and suck in the sci-fi subscribers, but this deserves to stay in the bargain bin. Not recommended.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures and Netflix).

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies | Tagged , , , , ,

Aras 18: Sean Gallagher’s Answers To My Ten Questions

My questions for Irish Presidential candidates went out to candidates a few weeks ago now, and we finally have a response, with the office of Sean Gallagher sending me his answers the other day. Printed below are Gallagher’s comments, in bold, with my own notes written afterwards in italics.

-Would you ever refuse a dissolution of the Dail if a sitting Taoiseach, having suffered a “loss of supply”, requested it?

If the Taoiseach has the support of the majority of the members of the Dáil, and he or she advises the President to dissolve the Dáil, the President must do so. If the Taoiseach does not have the support of the majority of the members of the Dáil, the President may refuse to dissolve the Dáil. The circumstances in which such a situation might arise would have to be examined very carefully and therefore it is impossible to say at this point, whether I would or would not, were I to be elected President.

NFB: I suppose this is a fair answer, though you would hope for something a bit more concrete. 

-Would you ever refuse to sign a piece of legislation put to you, if deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court?

If the Supreme Court holds that a Bill is unconstitutional, then as President I could not sign it into law, however if I were to refer a Bill to the supreme court and the Supreme Court deems it compatible with the constitution then the constitutionality of that legislation cannot be challenged subsequently.

NFB: Fair enough, but the point of the question was to ask what kind of issues of conscience would prevent a President from signing something (and therefore resigning).

-Would you be willing to call for an “ordinary referendum” over a piece of legislation in the event of a suitable petition being presented for the same?

An ordinary referendum i.e, one that does not relate to amending Bunreacht na hÉireann can take place if and when the President receives a joint petition from both houses of the Oireachtas, that is, the Dáil and the Seanad. The petition must be passed by the majority of the members of the Seanad and one-third of the members of the Dáil. If and when the President receives the petition, they must consult the Council of State. If the President decides that the Bill contains a proposal of such national importance that the will of the people should be found out, the President will refuse to sign the Bill until a referendum has been held.

 NFB: I’m not sure this is really an answer, it’s just explaining the power in question.

-Would you ever have an issue with exercise of the Presidential power of pardon?

The President has the right of pardon and the power to commute sentences, but only on the advice of the Government; I believe this power has only been exercised on five occasions (1940, 1943, 1992, 2015 and 2018). As with all matters, if elected, were this to be presented to me it would require very careful consideration and the contemplation of the advice of the Government. 

NFB: Alrighty, nothing objectionable here.

-Would you be willing to criticise a sitting government in public?

No, I am very conscious of the role of the President and the constraints placed on it and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to criticise a sitting government. I would however use the Office of the Presidency to set a tone, to inspire discussion and to shine a light on the concerns of the people.

NFB: Hmm. Nothing stops a President criticising a government, and I’m unsatisfied with this response.

-Who would you appoint to the Council of State?

I have not thought about that at present. I have a mountain to climb and my thoughts are on the campaign. I would however, seek to have as inclusive a council of state as possible.

NFB: Fair.

-Would you ever put a time limit on the Seanad for consideration of a piece of legislation if requested by the Dail?

It would not be a matter for the President to involve him or herself in the day-to-day running of Seanad Éireann.

  NFB: Well, constitutionally it might well be a matter for the President. Is Gallagher just saying he won’t use the power, or is he unaware of it?

-Would you ever make an address to the Oireachtas or the nation, and if so on what subject?

Should the need or circumstance arise, following advice from my Council of State, I would make an address to the Oireachtas. I believe these instances to be quite seldom in the past, however it is a good opportunity available to the President and one I would most certainly make use of.

NFB: Not exactly big on the details, but OK.

-Would you commit to a pay/expenses cap for yourself and Presidential staff?

I absolutely am in favour of making the Office of President more transparent and I have previously indicated my support for bringing the office under the Freedom of Information Act. I have previously stated, I will continue with the standard of a reduced wage as set out by Mary McAleese.

NFB: Fairly clear cut.

-Would you, if elected for the first time, plan to seek a second term?

No, as I have stated publicly, I would not seek a second term.

NFB: No mistaking this.

Gallagher is the only candidate to actually give an answer to my questions (as noted before, the office of Joan Freeman acknowledged my message, but only that), so I would be lying if I said my appreciation for him hadn’t gone up a little bit as a result. Still a week for the others to make a similar impression.

Posted in Ireland, Politics, Presidential Election 2018 | Tagged , , ,

Aras 18: Pat Kenny’s Debate

Thursday’s second televised debate was a humdinger…if we’re talking length. This time joined by President Michael D. Higgins and Sean Gallagher, the six went at it once again, on the heels of a fresh opinion poll that continues to indicate that the incumbent will be re-elected with little fuss. My thoughts per candidate:

Peter Casey

Opening statement doubled down on his earlier attacks on the travelling community, for some bizarre reason. Would run again. When asked directly about traveller comments, he decided to praise Ireland as a melting pot with some French-like sentiment about rejecting special status for ethnic groups. Treading water by contrasting the issue with Dublin homelessness, then needlessly attacked Higgins on the issue. Absent for a fair bit after that. Acknowledged the President’s limited ability to impact Ireland tangibly regards homelessness. In favour of water charges. Jumped on the question regards the President’s salary to criticise Higgins. Would think long and hard about dissolving a Dail. Great. Claimed he had brought companies to Ireland from the US. OK. Claims the problems with rural Ireland motivated his candidacy.

Overall, rightfully dragged over the coals for the tenor of his traveller comments, then, as you can tell by the brevity of the above when compared to others, stayed fairly quiet. He’s done nothing, in my eyes, to change the perception that he is simply not Presidential material. 6 of 6.

Gavin Duffy

Opening statement: he speaks Irish, funny how that came up. No barriers to what we can achieve (with the constitution, right Gavin?). One term promise. Reserved criticism of Casey’s traveller comments. Took a while to jump back again, and that was to criticise Higgins’s one term back out, ineffectually. On the idea of being the “posh boy” of the campaign (a bait of a term by Kenny), he sounded well in defending his past actions and calling attention to Higgins signing in of hunt-related law that doesn’t get anywhere near as much focus. Has a tendency to try and praise other candidates too much, sounding patronising in the process. Tied homelessness to the sale of AIB, didn’t really answer the question. In favour of water charges. Thinks the salary is too high. Piled on with the others on expenses. Denied any political leaning. Didn’t say he believes he can win, only “contribute”.

Overall, like before, seems to be a nothing candidate heading towards the exit line well below the speed limit. He seems unable to really stand out, and one of the last contributions indicated he already knows the race is run. 5 of 6.

Senator Joan Freeman

Opening statement dubbed Higgins the “government candidate”, then unexpectedly went on the attack against him. One term promise. Suitably describes the traveller discussion of “feeding the beast” of ethnic hatred. Sounded good on the topic. Went after Higgins and Gallagher strong for ducking debates, and then again for Higgins bogus claim of being an Independent (he really isn’t). On her 8th amendment opposition, she deflected well enough, though I was surprised to learn that she didn’t really campaign (hiding something ahead of the Presidential run?). Took offence at Duffy’s praise as an attempt at ”rescuing” which honestly, while I don’t deny its an issue in these debates, I felt was an exaggeration here. Nodded at supporting charities as a way to help with homelessness. Opposed water charges. Would accept the full salary, but plans to use it to “recognise volunteers”. Denied she had any baggage coming with her (presumably a reference to Iona), and deflected from the Des Walsh loan. Deflected a question on the pointlessness of the election.

Overall, a reserved performance big on deflecting difficult questions. A few decent moment here and there. Rated high more for a lack of problems than anything inspiring. 3 of 6.

Sean Gallagher

Opening statement claims he’ll be a working President, not a ceremonial one, before trying the Presidency to job growth. All while. Speaking. Like. This. Yeesh. One term promise. Brought up his own work with travellers rather well. Sounded good on the topic, and when he directly called Casey a racist. On “tweetgate”, he denied having any entitlement, and suitably criticised Higgins for the change between then and now on the debate issue. Admitted, like Casey, that there is little the President can do about housing. On homelessness, went straight after the President for the hotel issue, but didn’t really answer the question. Didn’t hear the answer on water charges. Deflected the wage question to bring up expenses. Denied he had any current political leaning, then bizarrely turned it onto emigrant voting. Answered strong on his role in north/south economic bodies. Brought up the expense of leafletting as something he has campaigned on.

Overall, actually decent enough once he got going. He was able to get beyond the ridiculousness of his RTE pitch and sound a bit more substantive on things, and didn’t really slip up on anything. A decent’s night work. 2 of 6.

President Michael D. Higgins

Opening statement claims he wants a “real republic”, think that’s an old Labour line. Sounded a lot better here, authoritative and confident, than he has recently. Did he spend Monday prepping for Wednesday? Has some facts and figures on traveller disadvantage to back up his general condemnation of Casey. Dealt with Casey’s first direct attack, in opinions on halting sites, with ease. On missing debates, he failed to give an adequate excuse for his absence at Monday’s hustings (again). On the one term promise in 2011, he states simply that he changed his mind on the basis of public opinion, which is fair, it’s just taken him a long time to enunciate that clearly. On addressing the Oireachtas, he talked about addressing the EU Parliament (without needing government approval), before Ni Riada tried to shout over him. Claimed to have raised the issue of homelessness with the Taoiseach repeatedly. Weaselled out of a question on water charges by claiming he wasn’t entitled to answer as President. Spare me. Would accept any salary the government suggests. On expenses, he criticised Casey for his repeatedly stupid charges – the first real negative action from the President – but then went back to deflecting the request that he publish expenses now. On the Belfast plane trip he claims he was advised for security reasons to do so. Hmm. Got a bit worked up about it, which is strange to see, calling Casey’s claims a “fantasy list”, but was controlled enough. Denied there was any irregularities. Denied his Labour history affected him as President.

Overall, he made an impact in a debate I largely expected him to hang back from. Dealt with Casey very well, and defended his record well, but all while showcasing his excellent ability to waffle and deflect. But of all the candidates, he did what he came to do the very best, and that was to maintain his perception as a good President. 1 of 6.

Liath Ni Riada, MEP

Opening statement: “cosy consensus”. Drink! She wants to be remembered as a President that challenged tradition. Fair enough. One term promise. Brought up the Carrickmines fire as an example of traveller disadvantage. Sounded good on the topic. Criticised Gallagher for avoiding debates and the seven-year absence, not sure it helped her. Took credit for calling an election, then went after Higgins way too strong for Labour’s sins in government. Her constant refrain on addressing the Oireachtas is starting to sound rather tiresome if I’m being honest. For the first time in the campaign she got asked about her opinions on the IRA and Defence Force deaths at their hands. Kenny was rather blunt and over-bearing on the topic, so her measured response about reconciliation and focusing on the peace process sounded good. On homelessness went back to attacking the government (and Higgins), then again to addressing the Oireachtas. Getting boring now. Opposed water charges. Wants half the salary. On accusations of detaching herself from Sinn Fein for the campaign, she simply claimed she wanted to be inclusive. Uh huh. States simply that the election is a required democratic exercise.

Overall, she had to deal with a hostile moderator, but mostly did OK on that score. But on everything else she was lacklustre, harping on Preisdneital powers she seems to not fully understand, and then with the same old criticism of government with nothing offered in return. 4 of 6.

No banana skins for Higgins, and that’s the big thing. If anything he comes out of this debate looking better than he did beforehand. Of the others, Gallagher and Freeman looked good, with the remaining three, especially Casey trailing behind. We all know this contest is all but done and dusted, but I’m still somewhat surprised to see so many obvious races run with more than a week to go.

Coming up tomorrow, an actual response to my Presidential questions.

Posted in Ireland, Politics, Presidential Election 2018 | Tagged , ,

Aras 18: Claire Byrne Live Debate

I have read some commentators say that this is among the worst political campaigns they have seen in Irish history, and while that may be a tad overblown as a sentiment, in truth it isn’t really that far off. The lacklustre nature of the challengers, an incumbent whose lead seems so commanding as to make the actual voting pointless, and debates that have, shall we say, failed to inspire, it all adds up. Ahead and after the debate on Claire Byrne Live (that aired Monday 15th October for those reading back), I wanted to offer a few more thoughts about the candidates. Again, on alphabetical order:

Peter Casey is a real sort of “hiding to nowhere” candidate, and I am ever more receptive to the conspiracy theory touted that he is a secret attack dog for other candidates. On the face of it, Casey seems to have something worth saying, about the diaspora especially, but it’s all hidden behind an outer wall of unusual hostility. On the radio debate on Saturday afternoon, Casey had some good points to make about Higgins’ time in the office, on topics like the use of a jet to fly to Belfast or the gradual reduction in Presidential appearances. But he can’t help but be nasty when he goes for the jugular, bringing Higgins’ age up in a manner that is, simply put, unpresidential. Going negative and mean does not get votes in these contests, especially when the target is someone as overtly popular as Higgins. Casey perhaps things he can channel a bit of Trump even if such a comparison would be anathema to him. That doesn’t fly in Ireland, not at this level.

Gavin Duffy is the Gay Mitchell of this election, insofar as his candidacy is something you almost struggle to remember. He’s just an empty shell of a candidate, with his platform amounting to little more than a plethora of bland slogans that seem better suited to a motivational seminar than an election for head of state. I have no kind of read on what kind of President Duffy wants to be, what he will represent or what he wants to do, just a big old nothing. Like Mitchell, he seems to be running in first gear since the moment the thing started, assured of a nomination but with no idea of how to go beyond that. I can’t think of anything notable or worthwhile that Duffy has said in this election, bar his repeated and laughable assertion that he can have any kind of meaningful impact on the Brexit outcome that would differentiate himself from others. That ain’t fooling many.

Senator Joan Freeman is the Mary Davis of this election, with her candidacy already looking sunk and the candidate sounding like she regrets even getting involved. Her constant mentioning of Pieta House has become a parrot call of irrelevancy, and on Saturday she was strangely ineffectual, happy to stay quiet for large stretches and giving odd answers when called upon directly, not least when she stated bluntly that she wasn’t qualified to answer a question on Presidential referrals to the Supreme Court. The Des Walsh loan controversy indicates someone with a serious lack of judgement, and she’s been unable to get beyond the idea of her being anything other than the mental health candidate. There isn’t anything wrong with staking a claim to an issue – everyone else has, bar Higgins really – but there is something very repetitive about Freeman’s. She shows decreasing amounts of energy, and she looks well beaten already.

There is, perhaps, no worse criticism I can lay at the feet of Sean Gallagher than the simple observation that he appears to be yesterday’s man. Still obviously holding on to some bitterness from the way 2011 fell out, his campaign has been one of Duffy-esque blandness and atrociously ill-considered messages, that sound like satirical attempts at poetry. There may be something to the idea that Gallagher feels entitled to the Presidency, or at least to a candidacy taken seriously without much effort, but he simply doesn’t. His lack of appearance over the last seven years, his patronising comments on issues like the Irish language, his efforts to put himself on a par with Higgins by refusing debates, it all speaks to a man with skewed self-perception. Desperate to appeal to everyone and terrified of offending anyone, Gallagher will end up a distant second if he’s lucky. Then we’ll probably never see him again.

President Michael D. Higgins is coasting along, and that’s all he really has to do. Every time Higgins is asked an awkward question – on Presidential expenses, on his decision to seek a second term, on that Castro eulogy, on staff turnover – he has failed to give a satisfactory answer, but it doesn’t seem to matter: more often than not, the person asking the question is easily painted as a bully, and the President deflects with an appropriate amount of waffle. This is far from Higgins’ first rodeo, and it shows. His huge lead means the others have to go after him in some fashion, and at times on Saturday it was almost like five on one. But all he had to do is take on that slightly wounded tone when responding, then morph into lecturer mode when actual issues of constitutionality come up. His decision to dodge debates is flat out disgraceful, but it isn’t bad strategy from an electoral stand point: he can just let the others destroy themselves, and stroll to a first count victory.

Last but not least is Liadh Ni Riada, MEP. There’s always been a sense that her candidacy is a publicity exercise for a political party with an eye on other elections, and it’s a fair point. Ni Riada is very good at sticking to the Sinn Fein line, and has cornered Irish unity as her “thing”. But, like every Sinn Fein candidate going, there is a serious lack of substance, like every time she takes the opportunity to have a swipe at the government and offer precious little in return. In terms of misunderstanding the powers of the President, Ni Riada takes the cake, with her attempts to come across as charmingly defiant looking more like annoyingly ignorant. Attempting to explain constitutional powers to President Higgins on Saturday was a remarkably poor move (I did like her answer on dismissing an Oireachtas though), and while she has been able to move past it in the last week, we cannot forget his unsatisfactory answer to the HPV vaccine queries, wherein she appears to be trying to have her cake and eat it too. Her poll numbers are disappointing for a party candidate, and this gambit may not work out for Sinn Fein as well as they had hoped.

After The Debate

Higgins did not appear – for no clear reason other than trying to gain political advantage – and Gallagher followed through with his position of refusing to appear if the President did not. “Contempt”, “disrespect”, “entitlement”, “indefensible” were all words used to describe the situation by other candidates, and they are all correct. When Casey started by criticising Higgins, Byrne cut him off quick enough, stating simply that they couldn’t talk about it if he wasn’t there. Which, of course, is the point. Not sure what Gallagher is up to by copying. RTE and Claire Byrne should also not be offering themselves as mouthpieces for any candidate not willing to show up to defend himself, regardless of what is being said. If he’s unhappy about Casey talking about his dogs, no matter how stupid it is, he can be there himself. Anyway, on each present candidate:

Casey: Went on the attack quick, and then was ignored for close to fifteen minutes by the moderator. His comments on gender equality came off rather patronising. His favourite part of the constitution: NATO? Sounded awfully arrogant when discussing his finances, and then he was interrupted by someone shouting from the crowd, apparently failed joke candidate Norma Burke. Closing statement largely the same as his RTE pitch.

Duffy: He’ll have a more effective Presidency apparently, but beyond saying words like “dynamic” a lot, he doesn’t seem to want to offer specifics. His favourite part of the constitution? He doesn’t have one. Nice namedrop of Sean T. O’Kelly’s visit to America. Wouldn’t wear a poppy on Armistice Day, which was brave to say with the room against him. Closing statement went after Higgins, and while that was due, it won’t help him. Seemed at pains to look Presidential, but not in any kind of convincing way.

Freeman: Real deflated at the start, but in a way that was sort of OK in comparison to some of the other candidates who seemed to want a fight to kick off at times. Her favourite part of the constitution: The Presidential Oath? Good points to make on financial imbalance between incumbents and challengers, though it doesn’t excuse her Herbalife connection. Responded well to Ni Riada’s very unbecoming swipe. Sick burn to President Higgins near the conclusion. A better closing statement than I expected too.

Ni Riada: Went back to the Saturday debate thing of addressing the Oireachtas, a topic she has latched onto but does not appear to understand fully. While others were tripping over themselves to namedrop people for their Council of State, she was refreshingly honest in saying she didn’t have any names yet. Her favourite part of the constitution: Neutrality? Actually somewhat courageous of her to state she would wear a poppy on Armistice Day, something that would enrage sections of her party. Came off bad when having a snipe at Freeman. Closing statement salvaged it a tad.

Not one of these four have a hope of unseating Higgins. I suppose I appreciated Freeman the most, despite her lack of enthusiasm at times, she grew into the debate and looked strong at the conclusion. However, it is fair to say that she wasn’t challenged too much. After her I would say Ni Riada, then Duffy and bringing up a very distant rear would be Casey.

The next debate is Wednesday, when President Higgins and Sean Gallagher will lower themselves to actually appearing before the people. Until then.

Posted in Ireland, Politics, Presidential Election 2018 | Tagged , , , , , ,

The Hobbit, Chapter-By-Chapter: The Last Stage

And so, the end. “The Last Stage” rounds off the story in concise fashion, as Bilbo undertakes the second half of his journey home, and Tolkien draws his narrative to a close. The conclusion of The Hobbit seems positively tiny compared to the behemoth of an extended epilogue The Lord Of The Rings gets, and this chapter will maintain a cozy, down-to-earth happy feel in every other sentence.

The chapter opens with the arrival of Bilbo and Gandalf, and gives the narrator one of his last chances for verbal fun: “…where stood the Last (or the First) Homely House.” The mood is relaxed, as things always seem to be in Imladris, and in keeping with the established elvish mystique, a certain sameness is evident: “Bilbo heard the elves still singing in the trees, as if they had not stopped since he left“. Dragons may fall, Kingdoms may be re-claimed, gold may be secured, but the elves are always going to be here. Or so it seems. The long defeat that will be central to the treatment of the race in The Lord Of The Rings is a while off yet.

The elves of Rivendell sum up this feeling in a song similar to that which Bilbo heard in “A Short Rest“. It’s an interesting piece that bears some going into. They start by rejoicing over the death of Smaug with child-like glee:

The dragon is withered, 
His bones are now crumbled; 
His armour is shivered, 
His splendour is humbled!

Before giving voice to the reality that, for all the drama, they are still here and things haven’t really changed all that much:

Though sword shall be rusted, 
And throne and crown perish 
With strength that men trusted 
And wealth that they cherish,

Here grass is still growing, 
And leaves are yet swinging, 
The white water flowing, 
And elves are yet singing

They then turn their song into a rejection of wealth, noting the dwarven kind very directly, in favor of the free bounties of nature, in a section that you would imagine speaks very well to Bilbo:

The stars are far brighter 
Than gems without measure, 
The moon is far whiter 
Than silver in treasure; 

The fire is more shining 
On hearth in the gloaming 
Than gold won by mining, 
So why go a-roaming?

They close with a warm-hearted greeting and welcome to Bilbo and Gandalf:

O! Whither so laden, 
So sad and so dreary? 
Here elf and elf-maiden 
Now welcome the weary…

The most meat in the chapter comes from the next section, where Gandalf gives an outline of his missing time between the conclusion of “Queer Lodgings” and his sudden re-appearance in “A Thief In The Night“. Why Bilbo is only hearing this now, after spending months on the road with just Gandalf and Beorn for company, is not elaborated upon, but anyway, it isn’t all that long a recitation.

What Gandalf does outline is tantalising in its own right, a brief summation of what seems like a quest to match what Bilbo has been through:

It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the south of Mirkwood. 

“Ere long now,” Gandalf was saying, “the Forest will grow somewhat more wholesome. The North will be freed from that horror for many long years, I hope.”

It will be for The Lord Of The Rings to flesh all of this out, wherein Tolkien will do a little bit of ret-conning. The “great council of the white wizards” will become the “White Council“, and it won’t be a wizard-only affair. Still, you kind of wish you could have seen what is described a bit more up-front: a team of super-powered magic users going up against the universe’s latest personification of evil? Yes please. As stated before, the Necromancer seemed primed to be one of The Hobbit’s main antagonists, but as it is he remains a distant mysterious figure, a “whisper of a nameless fear“.

But alas, that is not this journey, though Tolkien does indulge himself when he engages in something that comes close to sequel set-up, as Gandalf considers the fate of the Necromancer with Elrond:

Yet I wish he were banished from the world!” 

“It would be well indeed,” said Elrond; “but I fear that will not come about in this age of the world, or for many after.”

Elrond happens to be wrong, but he’s not the only person who feels Sauron isn’t the kind of threat to be ended forever just yet.

Even Bilbo, longing for home, can’t keep up with all of the story-telling: “When the tale of their journeyings was told, there were other tales, and yet more tales, tales of long ago, and tales of new things, and tales of no time at all, till Bilbo’s head fell forward on his chest…“. He awakens to another song from the elves, this one with a very optimistic, almost victorious tinge, delighting in the natural beauty around Rivendell:

Dance all ye joyful, now dance all together! 
Soft is the grass, and let foot be like feather! 
The river is silver, the shadows are fleeting; 
Merry is May-time, and merry our meeting

This section of the text emphasizes more the power of Rivendell as a place for rest and healing, something that may not become clearly apparent until later stories, when Bilbo winds up there as a permanent resident. Bilbo hasn’t undergone Frodo’s hurts of course, but there are some parallels. It would be a hard soul that could face the darkness of the goblin caves or the horror of the spider colony, or the sheer terror of Smaug’s insidious presence, and not be affected, and that’s before we talk about the carnage of the final battle before the gates of Erebor. The stress of such things finds salve in Imladris: “A little sleep does a great cure in the house of Elrond…Weariness fell from him soon in that house…“. Of course, Tolkien can’t help himself here either, indulging in some humour with the elves:

Well, Merry People!” said Bilbo looking out. “What time by the moon is this? Your lullaby would waken a drunken goblin! Yet I thank you.” 

“And your snores would waken a stone dragon — yet we thank you,” they answered with laughter.

Of course this is not where Bilbo is destined to be, not yet. Heading on the last section of the journey, and having treated Elrond as he had Thranduil, “…giving him such small gifst as he would accept…“, Bilbo and Gandalf turn for the Shire. In so doing they very literally leave behind the lands of faerie and myth, and face into a harder reality:

Even as they left the valley the sky darkened in the West before them, and wind and rain came up to meet them.”

Bilbo and Gandalf turn almost maudlin in this moment, perhaps with a tinge of regret that their own story is coming to an end:

…our back is to legends and we are coming home. I suppose this is the first taste of it.”

“There is a long road yet,” said Gandalf. 

“But it is the last road,” said Bilbo.”

Jeez, it’s all a bit depressing. The next section of the chapter amounts to a re-tread of the paths travelled in “Roast Mutton” and “A Short Rest”, including the Ford of Bruinen and the area where they encountered the trolls. There’s a strange pensiveness in the air here – “This was much as it had been before, except that the company was smaller, and more silent…” – but there are also “no trolls” as the author straightforwardly notes. The buried gold from the troll horde is uncovered here, which Bilbo generously agrees to split with Gandalf (the wizard, perhaps, having an inkling for what’s to come in Hobbiton). Bilbo is perhaps influenced by the tale of Gandalf’s exploits against the Necromancer when he says “I daresay you can find a use for it“. Gandalf may be influenced by the same when he replies “Indeed I can!“. The only ones not pleased by this arrangement of mutual respect are the poor ponies who have to carry it all (though Bilbo and Gandalf do them the favour of walking most of the distance). The Hobbit lacks The Lord Of The Rings‘ respect for pack animals – No Bill here, and no Sam to moon over him – but we can forgive this perhaps, a sacrifice to keep the tone light-hearted.

We really are coming to the end of the line, or maybe we should say the circle, as Bilbo is noted as having the use of that singular beacon of civilised society: a pocket-handkerchief. But if the point of this chapter is to bring Bilbo and then the reader back into the real countryside surrounds of the Shire, there is still change evident, even in the handkerchief, a lordly “red silk” affair that Bilbo was granted by the elves.

That sense of sameness mixed with change is showcased vividly by the legendarium’s first look at one of its – perhaps the most – famous tunes, “The Road Goes Over On“, though it isn’t quite the edition we will become more familiar with. It serves as a sort-of recap of the things Bilbo has seen or done, and we can well imagine it being sung partly as a lament for adventures past:

Roads go ever ever on, 
Over rock and under tree, 
By caves where never sun has shone, 
By streams that never find the sea

We can see references here to the trek over the Misty Mountains, the fortress of Thranduil beneath Mirkwood’s trees, the darkness of Gollum’s cave and the river that runs into the Long Lake.

Over snow by winter sown, 
And through the merry flowers of June, 
Over grass and over stone, 
And under mountains in the moon

This sections nods at the winter lay-over in Beorn’s home turning into a more pleasant journey as they move westwards, as well as the events of “On The Doorstep” regards the moon-writing on the mountain.

Roads go ever ever on 
Under cloud and under star, 
Yet feet that wandering have gone 
Turn at last to home afar

This is a fairly obvious reference to Bilbo himself, now coming to the end of his journey. This verse strikes an optimistic tone of being able to come home again, and contrasts again with Frodo’s trauma at the conclusion of Tolkien’s follow-up.

Eyes that fire and sword have seen 
And horror in the halls of stone 
Look at last on meadows green 
And trees and hills they long have known

Finally, Bilbo hints at his own trauma, having faced dragons and battle. Referring to “Inside Information” as an encounter with “horror in the halls of stone” is noteworthy, but Bilbo is already looking past that, to more familiar and certain terrain. Still, too much has happened for Bilbo to remain as he was. The hobbit that got so fussy about the party of dwarves turning up at his door was not the kind of person who would come up with such a song, and even Gandalf is surprised by the extroverted demonstration of it:

My dear Bilbo!” he said. “Something is the matter with you! You are not
the hobbit that you were

The very final end of the adventure becomes one of almost slapstick comedy, as Bilbo stumbles into the hilarious situation of being present at the posthumous auctioning off of his effects, the hobbit having been declared dead. Bolting from your home and running off without telling anyone might not have been the wisest course as it turned out.

There’s lot to enjoy in this section: Bilbo’s shock at this turn of events being emphasised by his horror at people not wiping their feet (the Baggins side is firmly at the wheel now), the auctioneers being “Messrs Grubb, Grubb and Burrowes” perhaps indicating Tolkien’s opinion of the profession; items of Bilbo’s being sold for literal songs, the image of his villainous Sackville-Baggins cousins measuring rooms for a now postponed residence, and the begrudgery of some lookers-on: “In short Bilbo was “Presumed Dead”, and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.”

This rather remarkable homecoming has some basis in previous stories, and the concept of an adventurer being declared legally dead only to surprise people at home by turning up alive can be found in works of fiction as diverse as Lord Tennyson and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. It’s a great way to make an outsider by the sheer amount of time they have been a way from their traditional environment, enough that their once-neighbors and friends now consider them as no longer existent. It also says something a bit about the Shire and its society, which must have been somewhat scandalised by the idea of one of its tentpoles running off with a party of dwarves and wizards.

Such are the legal wranglings in the otherwise lackadaisical Shire that Bilbo isn’t even admitted to be alive for “quite a long time“, his re-appearence described as “much more than a nine days wonder” a phrase that finds its origin in Shakespearean actor William Kemp dancing a Morris jig between London and Norwich in Nine days in 1600. Poor Bilbo is obliged to actually buy back many of his own possessions, a situation that reflects rather badly on the Shire if you think about it, and the grudge with the Sackville-Bagginses is set in stone, a plot thread not to be resolved until “The  Scouring Of The Shire“. I suppose hobbits aren’t all easy-going and sunshine, and have that countryside trait of ingrained stubbornness too.

In all of this extraordinary circumstance, the one person missing is Gandalf, who apparently accompanied Bilbo nearly all the way back to his front-door, but then vanishes from the next part of the narrative. You can only imagine what the auctioneers would have said about the tall, vaguely unnerving wizard at Bilbo’s side as he tried to stop his silver spoons from being robbed.

From here, we move rapidly into an epilogue for Bilbo. At first, it seems a little underwhelming, as the narrator outlines how Bilbo has lost more than just his auctioned off possessions: “…he had lost his reputation…he was no longer quite respectable“. For someone like Bilbo, this sort of social opinion could be perceived as quite serious. The Shire might be an agrarian utopia of some sort, but it’s still conservative, a place where straying outside the bounds of social convention is grounds for a sort-of shunning. Sort of.

But Bilbo has come too far and seen too much – he “had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way” – to be unduly troubled by it all, even if the narrator expresses a small bit of disapproval himself: “I am sorry to say he did not mind“. Bilbo hangs up his sword, his coat of mail and luxuriates in the sound of a boiling kettle as he had so often imagined on his journey, but he is changed: more open perhaps, more liable to enjoy his life and to speak freely. He is “queer” according to the “elders” of the Shire, but he has some admirers, not least “his nieces and nephews on the Took side“, yet another dangling thread that will be pulled firmly by the time of The Lord Of The Rings. Some go as far as to pity “poor old Baggins“, but he has found a more worthwhile fulfilling existence than many hobbits. The text turns to traditional language to describe this – “…he remained very happy to the end of his days” – while also leaving room for some additional possibilities – “…and those were extraordinarily long“. In the end, the negative crowd are just the butt of another joke, for our last mention of that most precious possession of Bilbo’s: “His magic ring he kept a great secret, for he chiefly used it when unpleasant callers came.”

The last part of the last chapter is for an epilogue. As Bilbo sits and writes his memoirs – “There and Back Again, a Hobbits Holiday“, one of Tolkien’s original titles for his work – he is surprised by Gandalf and Balin, dropping in without an appointment just as Bilbo had insisted they do.

This final interaction starts with a fairly obvious note on the success for all parties, both in terms of gold and largesse:  “If Balin noticed that Mr. Baggins’ waistcoat was more extensive (and had real gold buttons), Bilbo also noticed that Balin’ s beard was several inches longer, and his jewelled belt was of great magnificence.”

The topic of conversation is, naturally enough, the fate of both Dale and Erebor. And, in keeping with the optimistic tone, things are going rather well. Bard has become a great Lord of men and made the former desolation into a land of milk and honey, and even Lake-town has been rebuilt and prospers. But not everybody joins Bard, as Smaug has one more victim to take:

The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation  in the Waste, deserted by his companions.”

The Master was never a very sympathetic character, being a politicking manipulator at every moment, but this sorry fate may still surprise a reader. In the battle between Bard’s lineage and cynicism and the Master’s insidiousness and populism, it is Bard that has won out. The Master becomes the only fatal victim of the sickness that previously affected Thorin and, to a lesser extent, Bilbo.

Balin notes that the new Master, “of a wiser kind“, has begun to attract myths of his own:  “They are making songs which say that in his day the rivers run with gold.” Bilbo is quick to counter that the old prophecies, elaborated upon in “A Warm Welcome” have thus come true, in a roundabout fashion.

This leads into the last bit of the text, and perhaps we can consider it Tolkien’s closing statement as well. Gandalf good-naturedly admonishes Bilbo for any disbelief in the old prophecies, since he himself “had a hand in bringing them about“, before offering something akin to his words to Frodo in “The Shadow Of The Past“:

You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!

In other words, Bilbo should not discount the possibility of a higher power being involved in his adventures, at least in some capacity. In this, you’d imagine Gandalf is zeroing in on the discovery of the Ring, that blind groping in the dark of a goblin tunnel that led Bilbo to his greatest treasure. As Gandalf will tell Frodo later, in more serious circumstances:

It was the strangest event in the whole history of the Ring so far: Bilbo’s arrival just at that time, and putting his hand on it, blindly, in the dark…Behind that there was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that maybe an encouraging thought.”

For Bilbo, such philosophical arguments are beyond him at the present time. He’s been there and back again, and has little need, at the present time, for more adventures, to potentially be another game piece in a grand cosmic battle between good and evil. In the end, Bilbo is happy to be “a little fellow in a wide world“, content with the comforts of home and hearth:

Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.”

“The Last Stage” has the unenviable task of wrapping up The Hobbit, in a way that concludes the narrative effectively while pleasing the reader. And, while it is truncated at a times and a little all over the place with the tone it is trying to strike, I think that it succeeds.

Bilbo’s main adventure has already come to an end, and Tolkien wants to hit a few key items in what amounts to a fleshed out epilogue, in line with the previous chapter. These are a believable, yet truncated, account of Bilbo’s journey home, some brief set-up for stories to comes, and an examination of how Bilbo has changed as a character. The first is accomplished fairly easily, with “The Last Stage” amounting in that respect to a clip show of some past adventures. The second is also dealt with in rapid fashion, with brief nods to the Necromancer, Bilbo’s fondness for Rivendell, his newfound “queer” status in the Shire and his many nieces and nephews that remain fond of him.

It’s the third that is the most important of course, a summary argument for how Bilbo has embraced his Took side (but not too much). Bilbo returns to the Shire, in a physical sense, very different from how he left, relatively laden with treasure, carrying a sword and mail shirt, and with the blessings of men, elves and dwarves upon him. And on the inside, he’s changed too. He no longer gives as much care for the idea of being respectable or of conforming to society’s demands. He has a freedom that other hobbits don’t have, one granted to him by exotic experiences in the far east, and that’s as big a reward as any chest of treasure.

I will not drag things out much further with any lengthy closing remarks, now that we have reached the end of The Hobbit. I do adore this book, and always have since my first reading of it nearly two decades ago, and many readings have come since.  Doing this sort of analysis necessitates a different kind of reading, and sometimes that can result in a change of perception. But not here, not really, unless “I like it even more now” counts. The Hobbit remains one of the iconic works of fantasy literature, standing well besides ever its more illustrious successor, and is likely to remain in that position for a very long time.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in Books, Reviews, The Hobbit | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Aras 18: RTE’s Presidential Pitches

We are now a few weeks into an election campaign that is, to put it mildly, all rather dull. Nothing has occurred or been said that seems to indicate anything other than a resounding victory for the incumbent, with the only real question, at this stage, being  whether Michael D. Higgins will be elected on a first count or not.

The questions I sent to all candidates two weeks ago have gone largely unanswered, save Senator Joan Freeman’s office, a member of which politely informed me she would bring my message to the Senator’s attention. From everyone else, nothing. I am not so arrogant as to assume someone running for national office would have a large amount of time to answer e-mails from prospective constituents, but I must admit my surprise and disappointment that not one candidate, assistant or intern could bother with a even somewhat substantive reply.

The questions I posited have gone mostly unasked by the media, and the candidates themselves do not seem eager to offer their positions, instead preferring the familiar platitudes. Perhaps this will change once the debates get going (and if our First Citizen deigns to show up), and we will have something of more substance to judge the candidates on.

In the meantime, RTE gave all six the opportunity for a one minute video pitch to the nation last weekend, and I wanted to offer a few thoughts on what they said. In alphabetical order:

Peter Casey

It takes Peter Casey 33 seconds to actually say something that you would describe as an actual message to the electorate, as opposed to a formless speech where he checks off basic information about himself, that is rather immaterial to the matter at hand. In the rest, Casey hammers down hard on the idea of him being some manner of diaspora candidate, but even that is ridiculously vague, with the candidate describing his platform as “using technology to enable us to connect with our loved ones overseas in a meaningful way”. Why is this the platform of a man running for President? He mentions nothing about his own beliefs, the powers of the Presidency or anything else. Poor.

Gavin Duffy

Mr Duffy wants to mentor, motivate and mobilise you and your family, in an opening sentence that seems something better suited to a personal trainer advertisement than someone running for the Presidency. From there, he moves onto what has apparently become his key issue to repeat, namely Brexit and how he will be better placed than other candidates to…do something about it. Maybe. Duffy takes the proverbial when namedropping trade issues as something the next President should be concerned with, and only comes back to reality when mentioning the importance of future diplomatic relations with the UK. Why he should be involved in them is something he did not answer. Bland.

Senator Joan Freeman

My fun game for this election is seeing, like Mary Davis and the Special Olympics in 2011, how long it takes Senator Freeman to mention Pieta House in every interview, debate or other public appearance she makes. It was 44 seconds here. While I wouldn’t begrudge Freeman the right to expound upon her proudest achievements, the 20th time she repeats herself it gets a bit tired. She attempts to frame this pitch as a job application, but fails to expand on why the President of Ireland needs “grit” as a quality, or why she really stands out from the pack. One-note and lacking substance, Freeman’s candidacy already looks sunk. Unexceptional.

Sean Gallagher

Oh boy, this patronising piece of claptrap. It took four seconds for Sean Gallagher to make me snort in derision, as he nods at Italia 90, Riverdance and the GAA in a manner that makes him sound more like a shop assistant at Carrolls than a man running for President. In what sounds like a terrible attempt at poetry, Gallagher waffles on for nearly the entire time he has about how grand Ireland and the Irish are, how Ireland can be great in the future, before deigning to mention he thinks he could be first citizen in the country. Absolutely nothing of anything even approaching substance. Terrible.

President Michael D. Higgins

The fact that the President is the only candidate who clearly needs to read from notes is immediately off-putting. Describing this election as being about “the future of our people” is also a bit much. Aside from that, Higgins is predictably vague, but in a manner that sounds better than the others, using words like “community” as a positive touchstone, and stealing Casey and Duffy’s thunder with unsubtle nods to Brexit and the diaspora. In the end, he devotes little of his limited time to defending his first term record or offering reasons why he deserves another. Unimpressive.

Liadh Ni Riada, MEP

The only candidate with the cupla focal, but as with most politicians, just enough to seem like she’s proper Irish, but not enough to scare the majority off. She’s the only candidate to actually mention a Presidential power as something she would invoke – the power to address the Oireachtas – but she fails to adequately explain why that avenue would be better than any other to tongue-lash legislators on homelessness. She hilariously claims that her Presidency would start the conversation on a United Ireland – because we’ve never talked about that before – and in the end it’s the usual Sinn Fein pitch: critical of others and little to offer in exchange. Predictable.

Perhaps I should be less critical, since there is only so much a candidate can say in 60 seconds. But I feel that this is a bad crop of candidates and no mistake. Watching these six pitches, I couldn’t help but wonder where the surprise seventh candidate was, the one who would be specific, substantial, varied. But they don’t exist, not in this race. Higgins is going to walk this as it stands, and I don’t think the other five will get 50% between them. At some point in the next two weeks I will offer some additional thoughts as they occur, and maybe have a word or two on the debates, and will not forget the little noted referendum that is also taking place.

Posted in Ireland, Politics, Presidential Election 2018, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Ireland’s Wars: COIN In The Nine Years War

As with so much of Ireland’s military history, the Nine Years War was an insurgency war for the most part. Save for the handful of bigger engagements and the sieges that took place (mostly by the English side), the war was one fought by small, mobile groups of troops that carried out ambushes and raids, activities that were routinely opposed by similarly small, mobile groups of troops. Both sides attempted to win over and utilise the local population as much as they could, and it was this avenue of attack that proved most useful to ending the war in the north and in Munster.

Insurgency was the Irish way of war. Men like Hugh O’Neill changed that a bit, but the Irish “kerns”, or “wood-kerns” as the guerrilla element were often dubbed due to their propensity for hiding in forested areas, were still the primary arm of any Gaelic force when taking on the English. The English military was typically more numerous and experienced in any engagement, as well as using more gunpowder weapons and cannon. Since the Irish were reliant on an infantry group that was only lightly armoured (if at all) carrying basic melee or missile weapons and frequently lacking cavalry support, it was only natural that they should turn to guerrilla and insurgency tactics. O’Neill put actual recognisable armies in the field frequently, but so much of the fighting in Ireland during the conflict was not fought on traditional battlefields.

Faced with an enemy, unlike the French, Spanish or Dutch, who would disappear when an engagement was sought, would focus entirely on hitting smaller units and supply lines via ambush, and were incredibly hard to track down, the English were forced to develop a form of counter-insurgency (COIN). The frequent turnover of English commanders and officers meant that this was a difficult effort, as new leaders would routinely fall back on traditional means of fighting wars – that is, big armies marching into the enemy heartland and looking for a battle – only to fall victim to the Irish tactics yet again. The famous Leinster warlord Art McMurragh twice outwitted huge English armies under Richard II using such tactics and the Earldom of Desmond had fought several rebellions using the same methods in the not too distant past.

Counter-insurgency of this period (and this war in particular) has many differences to what we recognise as the COIN of today. Perhaps the most important was that this was not an insurgency designed to stabilise the area followed by a withdrawal of military force. This was a COIN war meant to be a conquest, not a pacification. It was not being fought in a foreign land, not according to the English anyway. It was an internal/domestic COIN campaign, not an expeditionary one. The English were not sending a large amount of troops to Ireland just to withdraw them all when things died down.

We can note several different policies/factors that formed the English COIN practise. This was not a doctrine of course, as no formal set of rules for the practise were ever set down, but just how the effort panned out generally. These factors were the control and occasional destruction of local foodstuffs, – the “devastation” or “feed fight” – the construction, maintenance and control of roads as the key method for gathering intelligence and moving armies quickly, the construction, defence and adequate use of forts to extend English control wherever they were located, the appropriate use of natives as members of the army as well as for intelligence purposes and the longevity of good commanders.

In combination, these things formed the English COIN method in Ireland during the Nine Years War, a campaign that eventually ended in not only the complete destruction of the rebels, but the destruction of the Gaelic way of life.

The policy of “devastation” was probably the most brutal aspect of the Nine Years War, and many rebellions before it, but it is important to analyse it for what it was, and to recognise the departure that it represented. The English in Ireland would often take crops and herds in areas they were campaigning in, but most times it was a simple case of feeding the army – nothing personal, you could say. Civilians were targeted for such plunder, but it was a matter of keeping the armed forces of the crown going, as opposed to the punishment of the civilian population. The Irish, rebel and loyalist, would do plenty of this too, with the cattle raid a long-standing aspect of military life.

Devastation was something else. This was the deliberate destruction of crops, herds, farms and anything else that could have been used by the rebels to sustain themselves in any form, for the purpose of hurting those rebels. This was targeting the civilian population with gusto, removing them and their support from the equation, so that the rebels could not function effectively, lacking food, local intelligence and other supports. It was population centric COIN with a brutal edge. The devastation policies in Munster and Ulster were the final daggers in both regions especially the one in the north, which caused a famine to affect the area for a time.

Roads, well-maintained ones anyway, were few and far between in Ireland at the time, making each one even more valuable to the war effort. Roads were far more than just a means of reliable transportation in a land dominated by forests, mountains and bogs. They were avenues of communication. In this age, it took over ten days for the death of Elizabeth I in London – perhaps the most major news you could possibly hear on any day inside her Kingdom – to become widely known on the eastern shore of Ireland. In war, units had to be ordered around, garrisons had to checked upon, enemy movements had to be reported. Communication for any army was haphazard at best. As such, control of roads and their correct utilisation could provide the decisive edge in war, and especially in a COIN war, where intelligence on the location and movement of insurgent forces had to be quick if it was going to be effective.

Throughout my narrative, I have mentioned the construction, defence and taking of numerous forts, most notably those on the Blackwater River. Forts served many purposes. They were far more than just military outposts, though that was an important function in and of itself. More important than that though, they were ways to increase English power over the land, without an army. Forts served as local centres of control, increasing reach. Forts’ garrisons did not just guard against the enemy, they governed the local area, taking in tax and produce with which to feed the army at large. Forts allowed the English a degree of civilian control, more than wood-kerne’s could do. Their garrisons could remain within a short distance of crucial produce in order to protect both it and the people who grew it.

Such displays of power could turn locals to the English side, perhaps better than devastation policies. This is rudimentary hearts and minds, which has nothing to do with getting the target population to like you, but to get them to throw their lot in with you out of a sense of self-preservation and self-interest. If the English could demonstrate control, protection and “presence”, then local Irish would side with them over the rebels. This may explain why Hugh O’Neill went after the Blackwater Fort as vigorously as he did, it being on the borders of his own territory. Forts also served obvious military needs, securing vital positions – like the Moyry Pass – but had their downsides. Many forts had to go long periods without resupply and were easily contained and besieged if the rebels had a committed enough force to do so.

Natives who could be persuaded to remain loyal to the crown, for whatever reason, could be utilised in two key ways. The first was simply as troops. Irish kerns and other soldiers made up a huge proportion of the English army in Ireland. While some had a tendency to desert at crucial moments – a large part of Henry Bagenal’s army at the Yellow Ford appears to have switched sides when the battle turned against the English – and many lacked the backbone of more experience English troops, they were still a major part of the war effort.

The other way, perhaps the more useful way, was as intelligence. The use of native peasants and lower classes as outlets for information is probably as population-centric as the COIN effort in Ireland became, but it yielded results as it would throughout history. Finding out where wood-kern bands were hiding, where they were planning to strike, where leaders were situating themselves, these were all things carried out with the support of local informants. In both Wicklow and Munster, cutting off the head of a local rebellions’ leadership precipitated its total collapse, and local intelligence was crucial in getting to that point. In such a COIN campaign, good intelligence could be far more valuable than thousands of troops. Using natives for information was of far greater value than using them as scouts of pathfinders, as they are often assumed to have been reduced to.

Irish soldiers, more and more made up the “rank and file” element of the English army, the basic infantry troops designed to skirmish with and then chase a defeated enemy. They were the back-up and force multiplier for the more specialised English troops, the musket and pikemen who made up the elite core of Mountjoy’s army. Kerns were light and mobile, carrying no great amount of armour and equipment, and they had an advantage in being more used to the varied terrain in Ireland than their English counterparts.

In getting native Irish leaders and families on their side, the English benefitted from some savvy dealings in the policy popularly known as “surrender and regrant”. When the English granted land to an Irish clan leader who had submitted, it tended to be a bit larger than the land he could expect under the Irish system of tanistry and “survival of the fittest”. Such a system naturally endeared the Irish nobles to the English, but it came with a price. No complete trust or favour would be lavished on an Irish lord until he had demonstrated his loyalty by combating Irish rebels disloyal to the crown. This “blood evidence” fluctuated according to the times, with Elizabeth generally more forgiving than insistent upon it, but it was still a system that helped guarantee subservience and acceptance of the English leadership.

It was recognised, even by contemporary chroniclers, that a constant turnover of commanders and political leadership had a detrimental effect on any effort. Through the course of the Nine Years War the head position in Ireland – the Lord Deputy – went through five holders, along with a few temporary stand-ins and numerous changes to regional commands. Such a policy might have been necessary on occasion– Essex could hardly have been said to have needed more time – but damaged any potential relationship with the Irish. There was no time for the locals to get to know a commander, to judge his trustworthiness, to grow any form of respect for his position, if they could be reasonably sure that there would be a completely new face with new policies within a few years. Mountjoy would become the longest serving English commander of the war, and the results speak for themselves.

The COIN campaign conducted by George Carew in Munster following his appointment in 1601 can be instructive. He inherited a somewhat difficult position, with his (small number of) forces confined to select castles and walled towns, and with guerrilla bands under James FitzThomas FitzGerald – the Sugan Earl – in control of large amounts of territory. Carew tackled the problem in numerous ways, focusing on his strengths and plentiful resources. He largely refused to seek out James and his forces for engagement, knowing that such a search would be fruitless and self-defeating. Instead, he focused on what siegework he could get away with, whittling away at the forts and castles that the rebels held, while utilising his monetary resources and power of appointment to woo the less hardcore rebels back to the English side. His offers and backstage bribery worked incredibly well, bringing in a large number of rebels, and almost leading to the capture of the Sugan Earl in 1600. Select examples of some castles being captured and their garrisons slaughtered inspired many others to give in without a fight. More than that, Carew practised good COIN, utilising what intelligence he was able to gather to hit wood-kern’s before they could carry out their own operations, making sure that he always had the element of surprise on his side. Mixed in with a little bit of “devastation” policies, Carew quickly caused the previously strong Munster rebellion to collapse completely, effectively ending it as a contest by 1601.

The lessons to take from COIN in the Nine Years War, in terms of usefulness to the COIN operations of today, are few beyond generalities. Moral and legal considerations make the “feed fight” option abhorrent to many. New aspects of warfare in the sea and the air, new communication outlets, have rendered roads to a lesser importance in terms of intelligence. Forts, or any kind of garrison system, would have mixed results in most COIN campaigns, depending on the specific situation.

On top of all that is the shift in COIN as a method of simply defeating insurgents to a form of war designed to shield the local population and win their support. “Hearts and minds” and all that. Lord Mountjoy was not so concerned with winning the outward support of the native Irish population, but of simply stopping them from enabling rebellions to be borne and to flourish.

Mountjoy’s closing thoughts on Ireland, recorded after his final departure, echo the bare traces of a counter-insurgency doctrine. His recommendations for Ireland was for more of everything generally: more forts, more roads, more bridges, to “bridle” the land and ease the way for any future military expedition that would have to fight in Ireland. He recognised the important things that would have to be controlled and improved if England ever found itself fighting another insurgency war in Ireland. The Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921 was not so different to the Nine Years War in many respects, and the factors of forts (garrisons/barracks), roads and bridges, their control and dominance of a region, were important aspects of that conflict as well, over 300 years later.

With that, we have come to the end of the line on the Nine Years War, now updated. We’ll take a short break ahead of a resumption of the series at a further point down the widening road of history, in which time I will be writing a but on upcoming Irish votes.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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