Ireland’s Wars: Emancipation And Tithes

It was in the 1830’s that the agrarian unrest in Ireland, characterised by the emergence of the Ribbonmen movement, really exploded into something much more dangerous than the occasional harassment of an unjust landlord. It was a time in Ireland of great legal change that inevitably created the impetus for more to be sought, and this, in combination with old fashioned authoritarian over-reaction, produced the conditions for a new kind of conflict.

Much of it all went back to the historical behemoth that is Daniel O’Connell, arguably the most famous Irishman never to have a military career of any kind, leaving aside some brief and altogether un-noteworthy volunteer service in the 1790’s. Indeed, O’Connell had little time for violent attempts at political change, condemning the United Irishmen and men like Robert Emmett vigorously, as he studied the law and became an accomplished barrister. O’Connell foresaw that his fellow Irish Catholics would have more success if they sought change in their status via political means. To that end, he founded the Catholic Association in 1823 to campaign for Catholic emancipation, the defining political issue of the period in Great Britain. So worried were the establishment by the Association that they essentially attempted to ban it in 1825 with the “Unlawful Societies Act”, which also, coincidentally, targeted the Orange Order, the Protestant society that had rapidly grown out of control, and could no longer be tolerated by the more conservative members of the Ascendency.

After raising a great deal of money, dealing with a great many legal challenges and being elected to a Parliament he could not legally sit in without abandoning his faith, O’Connell won out. The British government, then led by the Irish-born Duke of Wellington, agreed that Catholic emancipation was not only inevitable, but a necessity, in order to forestall the possibility of another Catholic rebellion in Ireland, which would surely occur if O’Connell’s group continued to be held up at every turn. In 1829, legislation essentially repealed all that was left of the old Penal Laws, allowing Catholics to hold high offices and to sit in Parliament without disregarding their faith. At the same time of course, the requirements for voting – to own land of a certain value – went up, drastically reducing the voting power of Irish Catholics. It was the middle class that benefitted most, and not those scrapping a living off the land.

For them, recourse to the Ribbonmen remained one of the only options they had for redress against landlords and others who were denying them fair rents or fixity of tenure, and some manner of protection in the face of food shortages whenever famine hit: a bad one, for the pre-1845 days, arrived in the summer of 1830, causing food riots in places like Limerick and Leitrim. By the 1820’s the Ribbonmen had started to change somewhat though, becoming a more overtly political grouping, even if they were as scattered and inconsistent as ever. More like the Defenders of old, the Ribbonman name now began to be associated with a firmer rivalry with the Orange Order.

Catholic emancipation came as a shock and a blow for organisation like the Orange Order, who still remembered 1798 vividly and feared that granting the Catholic majority more power would lead to a loss of their own. The reaction was a violent one. The, by now, traditional celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, “the Twelfth” parades, were banned in Belfast in 1829 due to their inherent linking with the Orange Order, whose extreme actions and often violent sectarianism had made them unpopular in the very circles they had once found many members. The result was rioting and bloodshed from the Protestant class, that rapidly spread outside of Belfast and Antrim, into neighbouring Tyrone and Armagh. At least 20 people were killed before the nascent police authorities were able to enforce order.

The following year, the cycle of violence surrounding the 12th of July continued, now as the Orange Order began to more openly clash with those identified as “Ribbonmen”. Catholics would impede parades, or be targeted by them in their marching routes, and violence became inevitable, after which a wave of reprisals was the likeliest result. Home burnings became common in the period. The mostly Catholic village of Marghery, in County Armagh, was almost entirely destroyed by fire in 1830, set by Orange Order members angered after their marching drums were destroyed by Ribbonmen.

A booming population made up mostly of a Catholic underclass, the constant threat of famine, clashes with sectarian societies and political disenfranchisement: all of the conditions were there for the kind of rebellion that had started in 1798. It merely needed the right spark, and things could get rapidly out of control in Ireland.

And a major source of kindling was the tithe system. Those working the land in Ireland had a legal obligation to pay a tax, known as a tithe, to the Protestant Church of Ireland, regardless of their own religious affiliation (which was, of course, nearly entirely Catholic). The tithe system was long standing but ever hated: over 10% of the value of certain produce was required to go to the Church of Ireland, a crippling obligation for many farmers, who were often paying money or crops to absentee clerics.

All the while what little government support for the Catholic religion that existed was being eroded, such as with the discontinuation of the “Maynooth grant”, whereby a yearly stipend was paid for the upkeep of a Catholic seminary in the town of Maynooth, County Kildare. Catholic priests forced to live on voluntary contributions from the poor, while their Protestant counterparts enjoyed both government backing and a tax system to their benefit, did not find it hard to become agitators for change.

Inspired by the success of O’Connell’s political campaigning, a movement to oppose tithes began to form, which was to be non-violent in nature, essentially a mass non-payment that would force the authorities to recognise the injustice and impracticality of the tithe system. But sparks can come from unlikely sources: the tithe war was a result of one such spark.

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

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Serenity: Thoughts On “Better Days”

“Better Days” was the second major comic release under the Serenity banner. Set at some point in the TV series, seemingly pre “Trash” at any rate, the story involves the crew scoring super big on a job, and how they react to this unexpected financial success. Rather than pick a few specific points, I’d thought I’d spend this post talking about some thoughts that occurred to me as a re-read the story.

I wrote before, on one of my posts on “War Stories”, that fiction is generally the art of creating characters and seeing what happens to them when they must deal with conflict, be it physical, mental or interpersonal. “Better Days” is a spin on this concept, and asks the question, how would characters react to a sudden influx of good fortune? How does a test of character work when the test itself is success instead of more traditional conflict?

You can go through the list of fantasies that make up part of “Better Days”’ make-up, and get a keen insight into the minds and motivations of many characters. The first isn’t even anything to do with the haul of money, but Inara’s thoughts as she engages in her trade with an Alliance officer. Rather than think of her clients, ahem, “skills” at that moment, she pictures herself with Mal in the same scenario, a hitherto unseen indication of her attraction to Mal which, in the show, did not really manifest itself in sexual terms. But Inara is as human as anyone else in the Firefly/Serenity world, and as liable to engage in lustful daydreams as anyone else. That these thoughts are coming the middle of her chose profession is more interesting, a sign that her attraction to Mal has started to spill over from being an infatuated fascination to something much more serious.

Jayne thinks only of power and prestige, laying out a ridiculous scenario where he captains his own ship, complete with impressive uniform, submissive female crewmembers and a fearsome reputation among the Alliance. The crew rightly treats the idea as a joke, but IT says something important about Jayne, and his desire for respect greater than that which he enjoys purely through his physical strength. In essence, he wants what Mal has, but hasn’t the emotional maturity to enunciate that desire in anything but a childish way. Later still, his efforts to gain the skills necessary to “engage” a companion point both to a man desperate to be higher class than he is and a man trying very hard to be Mal, who already has the attentions of a companion.

Wash’s dream is more down to earth and admirable, and speaks to already existing traits of his: a desire to avoid danger, to get his wife away from the command of one Malcolm Reynolds and to live peacefully. So, a cruise ship of respectable business, a wife in a slinky dress and a baby to raise. Wash’s ambitions are probably the most sympathetic, and also stand in stark contrast to the lack of desires elaborated upon by his wife, whose shady past serves as her primary addition to “Better Days”.

Book’s single page picture of him as a crime lord, surrounded by scantily clad women, serves as both a moment of comedy, and as a nod to his suspect past. “A Shepherd’s Tale” was yet to come, and questions remained over Book’s status before he arrived on board Serenity. A glimpse of the kind of man Book might have been in a past life is a both a nod to the audience and their own theories, as well as a respectful bit of satire. In the end, Book has little part to play in “Better Days”.

Kaylee’s ideal life is a mixture of the defining aspects of her character throughout both Firefly and Serenity. In terms of being the ships uber-talented engineer, she wants a business that matches the enormity of that talent. In terms of being the beating heart of the ship’s ideals of family, she wants to run it with her father, mentioned as a struggling mechanic in “Out Of Gas”. In terms of her repeated frustration with Mal’s devil-may-care attitude to ship maintenance, she playfully imagines having an excess of compression coils. And, of course, as the love interest of Simon, she imagines romance, flowers and, well, consummation. And unlike Inara’s vision, Kaylee imagines her and Simon in an arrangement traditionally less romantic and more…passionate. Everything we know and love about Kaylee – her natural talent, her optimism, her sexual liberation – is there to see.

It might also be worth commenting on how many of these daydreams have a sexual dimension. Inara, Jayne, Kaylee, Book in a joking manner and even Wash with his procreation elements, all points to a crew that have sex on the brain. One wonders if some of the interpersonal problems on-board Serenity would be sorted if everyone could just get laid more often.

Simon, with his constant focus on his sister, envisions a world where they are free from pursuit and free to make the most of their talents, helping people and making a difference. Interestingly, Kaylee doesn’t get a look in. Simon’s ideal is an overly-optimistic thing, very far away from the reality that the Tam’s inhabit, even if they happen to be rich, and speaks to his naivety and inexperience with the harsher elements of the ‘verse.

And River, well, River is crazy, her dreams reflecting that with its Alice In Wonderland-esque surreality.

Lastly, of course, is Mal. We never actually see what he wants out of his life. His initial answer is a dismissive joking reference to sexual depravities, and his dodging of the question is obvious. In the end, his desire out of life, even when rich, is as simple as it has always been: having a ship, having a crew, and having the freedom of the sky to enjoy it all with, a goal he will pursue even if it actually damages the financial success of everyone else. It’s debatable whether the closing moments of “Better Days” paint Mal in a good light – Inara herself can’t seem to decide whether they are selfish or sweet – but they do stay true to the picture of the man who first bought his Firefly with the express aim of simply getting ahead of the Alliance’s reach and being free.

In the end, the crew don’t get the opportunity to enjoy much of the sudden wealth, aside from a vacation to a sunny resort, and so we never get to see what kind of reaction they would have to success long term. But in their dreams and aspirations, we do see important things about them.

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Review: Ghostbusters

Ghostbusters

Trailer

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2016 presents…

Beyond any of the bullshit that has so unfortunately surrounded this film – and to claim that it has had nothing to do with the all-female leading cast is a terrible mix of childishness and wilful ignorance, and I won’t go into it much more than that – Ghostbusters 2016 is a film that seems tailor made for me. We are in an era of nostalgia driven reboots, when studios look to the past – especially the 80’s and early 90’s – for projects to make in the 2010’s, betting on the interest of kids of that era now adults today, who want to indulge their memories, and maybe will drag their own kids along for the ride too. It’s a business model that bore, and still bears, a great deal of fruit for the Transformers franchise that started it, and looks like it will continue for some time to come.

And I am one of those people because I loved Ghostbusters. It was an early obsession for the younger version of myself, who could often be seen, post-viewing, running around his house catching ghosts, trap and all. But years pass and obsessions fade – not least because of that awful sequel – and viewing the original Ghostbusters nowadays I am struck by how it doesn’t quite hold up in my eyes, and may not be quite as deserving of the mass adulation it receives from the “community”. That same community has been happy to take part in and propagate a vicious sexism-induced war of words over Paul Feig’s reboot, that I have happily refused to take part in up to now. So, does Ghostbusters 2016 live up to 1984? Or is it as bad as some are gleefully hoping it will be?

Having once been a firm believer in ghosts, Dr Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), now seeking tenure at Columbia, tries to get her former friend and research partner Dr Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) to take down the book they co-authored on the paranormal. Gilbert finds Yates still investigating the existence of ghosts, now with slightly unhinged engineering genius Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and Erin is soon drawn back into the search for otherworldy phenomena. Along with New York history expert/metro booth operator Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the group sets themselves up as professional ghost control, and soon find themselves trying to avert an apocalyptic scenario.

A few minutes into Ghostbusters, I was worried. Zach Woods’ stilted jokes to a tour group wondering through an old spooky mansion landed horribly and were timed with all of the panache of a beached whale, before a rather pedestrian horror sequence took us to the theme tune. I was settled in for what would have been the first Paul Feig film I’ve disliked.

But then, mercifully, happily, Ghostbusters started to find its feet, and within a half hour I was all in, along for the ride. Ghostbusters has its problems, but a trainwreck it ain’t, thankfully. Once it gets beyond that shaky start – that might even have been deliberately placed – it gets into things properly, and soon has all of the humour and warmth that you would associate with both Feig and his long time collaborators in actors and writers.

For a film of this stature to have its four main cast members be women is a big deal, publicity stunt or no, but it’s rather extraordinary how Ghostbusters actually deals with it, which is hardly at all. The four women start their own company, combat paranormal menaces and are called upon to save the world from a demonic cataclysm, and do it all without much time at all being spent on the fact that it is a group of women doing this: the male characters rarely comment on it save for a few jokes here and there (some of which land, some of which don’t) and Feig seems more concerned about letting his cast do their thing than making any kind of overt socio-political point. But maybe that is the point: that much like, say, how Peter Dinklage’s size was never mentioned in Days Of Future Past, that the reality of four women combating ghosts instead of four men is something that we don’t need to spend a whole lot of time on. No love plot, no weeping, no damsels in distress.

The film does spend a bit of time addressing the faux controversy over its casting, dropping some scorn on Youtube commenters and generally criticising the kind of naysayer who enjoys tearing down others work while offering nothing of their own (please check out the wonderful military history articles on NFB!). Bill Murray’s extended cameo is all about that, he playing a James Randi-esque sceptic who spends his scene mocking the Ghostbusters’ very existence. But aside from this – and frankly, I think this film deserves the chance to hit back a little bit, considering – the film is more concerned with rebooting the franchise and seeing what it can do with the premise, while inserting a modern flavour.

There are obviously some limitations in story and character terms. The bulk of characterisation goes to Wiig and McCarthy, two former friends riven apart by their respective paths, now brought back together. The two patch up their differences very quickly, but their relationship provides the story with a solid bedrock of friendship that is more suitably female in emotional terms than the very “lad” kind of story that the original had. It helps that this half of the lead four are as solid and dependable as always, Wiig as more of the straight woman, and McCarthy as her frequent foil.

But though her character is fairly one note for most of the film, it’s actually the little known, up to now, McKinnon, who steals the show as the Ghostbusters’ quartermaster, a playful mix of Venkman and Egon, who sets the lab on fire while dancing and then proceeds to bust out ever more colourful and complex pieces of ghost wrangling machinery. Jones may be a bit of a sassy stereotype, but does find her niche here, the layman, like Ernie Hudson, needed to keep the other three just a little bit grounded. Aside from them, the film is mostly concerned with comedic set-pieces and brief glances in its supporting cast: Hemsworth excels as the dopey receptionist, Charles Dance looks stern for a scene or two and Garcia does the Mayor thing.

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The film’s visual style deserves none of the scorn it has received. 

The time constraints in regards characterisation also causes Ghostbusters 2016 to have another thing in common with the rest of the franchise, which is a rather lame villain, played by SNL alum Neil Casey, an otherwise unexceptional creep who wants to bring about the rest of the world. Casey can’t do all that much to enliven otherwise bog standard “I’m angry at the world so will now destroy it” material, and is largely superseded by others as the film goes on.

It is like and yet unlike 1984. The basic narrative structure remains largely the same in regards the transition from lovable losers to professional ghost hunters to city savers. The film is chock full of references to the original, with only the still mostly retired Rick Moranis absent from the significant cameo list (Harold Ramis even finds a way in) and sometimes seems a bit too reverent, such as in a scene where the group discover the iconic logo, or in how the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man manages to find a way into the story. The eagle-eyed will spot a few jokes aped straight from Ramis too, such as when McCarthy and McKinnon back away from an experimental new device, just as Ramis and Murray did in the elevator in the original.

But there is more than enough of the modern variety in here. The necessary camaraderie between the four leads evolves well, unlike the already existing state of affairs in 1984, and it is quite important that you can’t really transcribe the new four onto the old four with any ease. The comedy, from the pen of both Feig and The Heat co-writer Katie Dippold, is of a slightly different hue, more in line, of course, with Feig’s previous efforts like Bridesmaids or Spy, a mixture of the physical (though a careful limit is found on the “Fat people falling over” stuff), the verbal insults and the plain ridiculous (like Chris Hemsworth’s farcical receptionist). The jokes are often a hair away from being cutaway in nature: the aforementioned receptionist is a repeated cipher, butting in occasionally to do something comically stupid that has no relevance to the main plot.

A mid-credit Easter egg featuring a possessed “Thriller”-esque dance sequence was surely meant to be included in the film at some stage, but was cut for time, and is an indication of the kind of direction change the production team was going for. Some will surely find such a style grating, and it isn’t like the original in large stretches. But it is Feig being Feig, and Ghostbusters 2016 trying to be its own beast. In the end, the film will surly make you laugh if you are capable of getting into it: easily my favourite exchange was Wiig’s Erin urging New York’s political supremo “Don’t be like the Mayor from Jaws!” to which Andy Garcia replies resolutely “No one compares me to the Jaws mayor!”

And, as a modern action comedy, Ghostbusters has plenty of action, far more than the original. It’s here that the films much discussed visual style comes into play the most, and I found the designs for the ghosts, with this garish neon blue and green colour palette, simply fascinating, if obviously overused by the conclusion. At least it all looks interesting. Feig’s already proved he can do action properly, in Spy, and does the same here, with the finale set-piece and a nice superhero-esque multi-person free for all, women against ghost, with lots of fancy gadgets and well implemented CGI. But the hero shots are spilling over the pan by the end, as we get moment after moment of the titular busters igniting their proton packs all at once.

In the end, much like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy, this is a film that I enjoyed thoroughly. Feig can’t do anything wrong in my eyes, especially when he teams up with the comedic talents of McCarthy and Wiig, or the writing talents of Dippold. This isn’t your eighties Ghostbusters, though it spends a bit too much time trying to legitimise itself by taking elements from it. I won’t say that it is a better or worse film, because it seems unfair to draw too much of a comparison. But it lives up the name, for sure, with some excellent performances, great writing, nice action scenes and a new version of a very overplayed theme song that actually made me like it again. More than anything though, this is a film that puts women front and centre in a major Hollywood franchise, and succeeds while doing it. For that, it is to be applauded, and defended if needs be. Recommended.

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Du do du do du du. Dud do do do dooo.

(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: John Devereux’s Irish Legion

The 19th century was one of Irishmen fighting in armies outside of Ireland, most often in the service of Britain, as far afield as India and New Zealand, but also in other armies. We will spend more time than we have ever spent in the next while in the New World, and we will begin in South America, a continent wracked with conflicts over the independence of colonies dominated for centuries by Spain.

In the 1810’s, the iconic figure of South American politics and warfare was Simon Bolivar. A “creole” from Venezuela, he had been influenced during some of his early years in Europe by the spirit of the Enlightenment, and took Spain’s difficulties during the Napoleonic Wars as the perfect time to help launch a struggle through the north and east of South America, seeking to transfer authority from Spain to conservative elements within the colonies themselves. His efforts would eventually bear fruit in the form of six new independent nations, though the effort took over 13 years. During this period of warfare, Bolivar’s struggle attracted the attention of numerous outsiders, from Europe and beyond, seeking to be a part of this grand romantically depicted struggle.

And among them were plenty of Irish. Aside from a number of Irish individuals who served as high ranking officers on Bolivar’s staff – the beginnings of an Irish military diaspora in South America that would be surprisingly far reaching – there was also an infamous case of an Irish assembled legion of troops, recruited towards the end of the 1810’s to cross the Atlantic and serve Bolivar’s revolutionary struggle.

This “Irish Legion” was the brainchild of a strange figure called John Devereux. Born in Wexford in 1778, Devereux claimed to have taken part in the 1798 rebellion in a leading role. It is possible he was involved – as a young man in Wexford, he would have had every opportunity to join one of the rebel armies that sprang up that summer – but it is extremely unlikely he ever had command role, that was never commented upon by anybody else in the region. But that didn’t stop Devereux claiming he had, in a long letter addressed to the United Provinces of New Granada, Bolivar’s revolutionary state.

Sent in 1815, Devereux claimed to be a “member of one of the most noble and ancient Catholic families” whose efforts in 1798 were undone by the “treachery” of Protestants. He explained that he had spent the intervening years in the United States as an exile, but was now compelled by feelings of solidarity to offer his services in the cause of New Granada. He suggested that he could be useful in recruiting men from the British Empire to form a foreign legion to fight in South America, that he himself would lead.

Deluded, a con-man, or a genuine military supremo in the making, Devereux’s offer was enticing enough that Bolivar and the other revolutionaries in New Granada were willing to take him up on it. But between agreeing to this arrangement and getting back to Europe, it would be over four years before Devereux was able to make good on his grandiose promises. In 1819, he was able to scrounge up a legion that consisted of roughly 1’700 men from Britain and Ireland. There were many opportunities for finding such men: some had spent literally decades fighting in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, only to now find themselves without a profession in the aftermath of Waterloo. But Devereux had little care in selecting good soldiers, and may have been more motivated by the selling of commissions.

Slowly, on many different hired transports, these men made their way across the Atlantic, with barely any semblance of military training or equipment, recruited as much for the promise of financial reward and adventure as for any enthusiastic zeal for Bolivar’s cause. Devereux, wearing a flashy sword and a grand uniform, stayed at home, continuing to recruit.

Unfortunately for the soldiers, they arrived in South America at a time when the war they had been recruited for was actually entering its endgame, the Spanish armies reduced, cut off from supply lines and increasingly demoralised. Much like the British during the American War of Independence, the Spanish were unable to keep up a consistent challenge to revolutionaries in South America due to the inherent problems of keeping such a challenge supplied across the Atlantic. And, unlike the British, the Spanish also had to deal with the aftermath of a lengthy and devastating war on their own territory at the same time, courtesy of Napoleon.

So, when Devereux’s Irish Legion gradually unloaded onto the isle of Margarita, off the coast of modern day Venezuela, they were no longer as welcome as their commander thought they would be. Bolivar and others had gone off the idea of expensive and questionable foreign mercenaries aiding in a war effort they were doing just fine with.

Conditions on Margarita were poor. Disease, so deadly to European visitors unused to the humidity of the Caribbean, was rampant, a situation exacerbated by the terrible quality of available drinking water. Lack of pay, lack of anything to do for long periods of time, disrespect from those they had come to fight for: soon, desertion was rampant, and when Devereux’s Legion finally was sent into battle, in the Spring of 1820, they numbered little more than 600.

That battle would be Riohacha, a Spanish controlled port that is in present day Columbia, over 800 km’s west of Margarita. The operation, meant as little more than a distraction for the Spanish, was a calamitous affair. The locals fled the port at the first sign of the arriving ships, allowing the Irish to seize Riohacha without any fighting. But, after marching into the interior, the troops turned rebellious themselves, beset by mosquitos, dirty water and guerrilla attacks from the natives. Returning to Riohacha, most took the opportunity to desert on merchant vessels that offered to take them to Jamaica or beyond. Before they left, some rioted, burning a significant portion of the town. Devereux’s Irish Legion melted away.

The entire affair spoke poorly of much vaunted Irish martial courage, with the memory of the Riohacha display living long in the minds of men like Bolivar, despite the continued and often exemplery service by individual Irishmen in the same cause. Back home, the news from New Granada caused embarrassment and consternation, with Devereux soon forced to leave Britain to escape angry creditors.

He himself only arrived after his legion had left Margarita, where he was received with all of the pomp and splendour usually reserved for more successful ambassadors or generals. Remaining in Bolivar’s military for several years up to the end of the war, Devereux later served as a diplomat of sorts for Columbia in northern Europe, before spending time in a Venetian jail. Returning to the United States afterwards, he lived on a Venezuelan pension, and later died back in London, remaining as somewhat of an enigma.

The entire affair is one that has largely remained unknown in Irish history, an embarrassing sideshow in a period when the British Empire was ascendant and Irish military skill was part and parcel of this. Few, on either side of the Atlantic, really wanted to remember the events of Riohacha. But, if we are to look at the story of the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy or the Inniskilling infantry at Waterloo, we must also acknowledge the not so proud moments, when Irishmen were duped into serving in a war they would have been better off ignoring.

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

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Serenity: “My Own Kind Of Freedom”

A few years ago Steven Brust, a noted fantasy author, wrote a Firefly novel he called “My Own Kind Of Freedom”.

The book, a bare 168 pages long, was apparently written “on spec”, that is, without any kind of deal being agreed with anyone in advance. Brust, a fan of the show and its characters, just sat down and started writing it one day, without initial expectations that it would ever get published. Plans did apparently get made with publishers and Universal Pictures to get the story in stores as an official tie-in novel, but were then shelved for whatever reason. Brust’s work was unused and not likely to ever be in a commercial sense, so in 2008 he decided to make it freely available online.

As such, My Own Kind Of Freedom is fan-fiction, more or less, just written by an author with more experience and respect than your average fan-fiction writer (and I will get to Firefly’s fan-fiction masses in time). Aside from the little noted and little read novelisation of Serenity, it is the closest thing you will get to a book set in Firefly’s universe that approaches any kind of legitimacy.

The story is nothing to get all that excited about, and indeed treads over ground that Whedon and company had already well-trod. Set just after “Those Left Behind”, the crew get a job transporting lumber to Hera, site of Serenity Valley, where Mal encounters some troubling issues from his past, getting drawn in to an Alliance investigation into the local leading light, accused of slavery and all manner of nasty dealings. In the middle of that, a dispute with Jayne leads to the big man leaving the ship in a huff.

And, I am very sorry to say, it has never really wowed me, not the first time I read it in 2008, and not when I re-read it just recently. One of the reasons that was possible was the book’s length, and My Own Kind Of Freedom is the sort of story you can well-imagine as a ratty, thin paperback housed in a dark corner of a bookstore’s second hand section, next to the legions of Star Wars and Star Trek novels. My Own Kind Of Freedom comes off, in the few scant hours it takes to complete it, more as a pitch for an episode of the TV show, maybe a two-parter, than anything else. Everything is done in a rush, a fact that might explain the frenetic way that Brust jumps between POV’s, like George R.R Martin on steroids, as if he thinks the reader’s attention span cannot last more than a few pages of one character.

That’s a shame because Brust actually could write these characters fairly well when he wanted to. Internal monologues of Wash, thinking about his love of flying, and River, thinking about, well, anything, are particular treats. The back and forth is decent when it comes, Brust taking advantages of the reduced character list (no Book or Inara here) to focus primarily on Mal/Zoe, Zoe/Wash and Simon/River in terms of dialogue pairings.

But no amount of decent wordplay between characters will save a dull story, and that’s what My Own Kind Of Freedom really is. The plot really seems to pivot on a twist that only the most brain-dead won’t see coming a mile away, especially after a very clumsily inserted and written flashback chapter early on, that all but spells it out for you. The resulting narrative has a bit of a weird feeling to it as a result, taking on the form of a chore, as the reader just sort of goes along with it until we get to said “twist”, so we can get onto the serious business afterwards.

Where Brust does try to make things a bit interesting is in the creation of a sympathetic, even heroic, Alliance character, sort of like an intelligence agency version of the Sheriff from “The Train Job”, a good man trying to do the very best that he can within the Alliance system, even as he acknowledges its myriad of faults. ”Kit” is pretty fascinating in that regard then, but even he can’t really save My Own Kind Of Freedom’s from its flaws, and more than once you’ll probably find yourself rolling your eyes at the omnipresence of him and other characters, who are always able to figure out what someone else is thinking at any particular moment, thus draining many scenes of a necessary tension (Burst writes Jayne especially as way too smart at moments). Maybe it could be best put by stating that sometimes, the kind of internal thought process, open dialogue and other interactions in My Own Kind Of Freedom read like stuff that the writer expects to see people say on-screen, and don’t work as well in the form of the written word.

The book skims along, with the action jumping from character to character and place to place so fast that you never really have a chance to revel in details. And so pressed is Burst to tie in his story to other elements of Firefly/Serenity – Mal’s loneliness after Inara’s departure, Simon and Kaylee’s still paused relationship, River’s flying skills, etc – that you start to feel at points that the writer would have been better served crafting something completely new – post-Serenity perhaps – than being hung up on all of these details. Connected to this is the feeling that often comes with such works, created to be placed in the middle of existing visual fiction, that we are simply watching things move slowly towards a resumption of the status quo.

Ultimately My Own Kind Of Freedom feels like a first draft. It needed refining, it needed enlarging, and then it probably needed editing. You can’t really criticise Brust too much for all of that of course, this was a project he could not justify spending too much time on: writers need to eat, so they need to write things that get them paid. There are the hints of a better story in here, but in the end it seems like a fan-fiction project that evolved to a slightly higher level, and little more. And there are better efforts at Firefly stories in the realm of fanfiction out there, believe me. One day soon, I’ll talk about them a bit.

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Review: Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence

Trailer

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A great combination, or a turgid duo?

Two Kevin Hart films in a row, that’s a first. In terms of “in” for the comedy genre, be it stand-up or on the big-screen, there are few who can really match him right now. Fresh off the success of sudden franchise Ride Along with Ice Cube, Hart has turned around and basically kept to the same concept to a large extent, only this time with Dwayne Johnson in the role of large comic foil. On a week with a shortage of truly stand-out releases (sorry, David Yates, The Legend Of Tarzan seems like more of a rental, honestly), it seemed like proper Saturday night fare. But was Central Intelligence the formulaic summer comedy it seemed to be, or something a bit worthier of note than that?

Having once been destined for greatness in high school, Calvin Joyner (Hart) finds himself unhappy and unfulfilled twenty years later, trapped in a job he dislikes and with a struggling marriage. Enter “Bob Stone” (Johnson), once the constantly humiliated overweight kid in Joyner’s school, now a chiselled CIA operative out to stop terrorists from getting their hands on top secret material. Though Stone is clearly a bit unhinged, Joyner finds himself sucked into his audacious mission to defeat the bad guys and save the free world.

There’s little of real substance to say about a film like this. It does, if you will pardon the cliché, exactly what it says on the tin, with little more and little less. You expect a 90-minute comedy with two of cinema’s current leading lights, and that’s what you get.

Hart is basically playing the same character that he has been playing in everything for a while now – this sort of pent-up straight man, who plays normal down to earth guy only to unleash a manic comedic energy at critical moments – and even a brief glance at a stand-up routine of his after the showing confirmed for me that his range is severely limited. But he isn’t required to do all that much in Central Intelligence, other than to give Johnson someone to play off of: and that he does, in spades.

It’s Johnson who is the stand-out here. He’s a bizarrely under-rated actor in my opinion, and no more so than in the comedy genre, where his presence, his timing and his enthusiasm for material that might otherwise flounder, help to make the difference, and stop Central Intelligence from being a joyless flop. His “Bob Stone”, a clueless naïve muscleman who happens to be able to defeat numerous goons all at once, plays really well with Hart’s restrained accountant, and much of the humour in Central Intelligence is simply that: seeing the ordinary guy dealing with the extraordinary behemoth who smashes his way into his life.

The script, from director Rawson Marshall Thurber, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, does the necessaries without ever threatening to turn into the kind of wordplay that would make Central Intelligence iconic (Thurber’s best effort as a writer/director, Dodgeball, seems like a distant memory watching this). Again, it’s nearly all in the reactions of Hart to Johnson’s buffoonery: his violent outbursts, his rapid tidying of messy situations, or his creepy endearments. Upon telling Hart that he looks “sexy as dick”, the deadpan response – “You don’t look a man in the eyes and say something like that” – is a fairly good summation of what Central Intelligence has to offer, but on occasion there are more carefully formulated moments, like when Johnson, whose truly massive body dominates the screen, explains carefully that it is the result of spending six hours in the gym every day for twenty years, as if it is the easiest thing in the world.

But of course it’s all so formulaic and uninspired. This is the kind of film, so regular now that four or five of them are made every summer, that is making its money as easily as it can, without the kind of effort that could produce a Bridesmaids, The Hangover or 22 Jump Street. The celebrity cameos are plentiful – Jason Bateman and Thomas Kretschmann being the most notable, without spoiling anything – and the jokes trip along (a sequence featuring marriage counselling is fantastic) but you’ve been here before, and after the laughs have come to an end, you might be left wondering if there wasn’t a better way to spend your time.

Damn, that sounds bad. But it’s just a thought I’m having now, as I often do a few days after the event. It would help Central Intelligence a lot if it had something deeper to work on, but aside from a brief foray into the effect that your teenage years in education can have on your life decades after – the crux of the story being about people who can’t let go of who they used to be, whether they “peaked” in high school like Hart, was everybody’s favourite target like Johnson or was an unrepentant asshole like Batman’s character – the film can’t claim to have any real depth. It serves as the bare backbone to support some middling action scenes and some alright laughs.

It’s predictable, but has a serviceable comedy combination at its heart. It’s uninspired, but capable of eliciting chuckles. It’s the summer popcorn comedy, in a 90-minute nutshell. If interested in a briefly experienced and quickly forgotten comedic production, then I recommend it.

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It’s alright.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: Ribbonmen

We move now into the 19th century proper, a period of vast political and social change in Ireland. In terms of military history, the 19th century is an understudied and undernoticed era, especially the time between Robert Emmett’s rebellion and the beginnings of the Great Famine. Much like Mountjoy’s Peace after the Nine Years War or the Long Peace of the 18th century, large scale uprisings and regular military clashes ceased to occur in Ireland, and wouldn’t until the Irish revolutionary period of 1916-1923.

But some violence, be it politically, economically or religiously motivated, did occur, and smaller scale rebellions were plotted and enacted. I’ll be covering all, or most, of them as we move forward, but it is fair to say that the military history of Ireland itself, in the 19th century, is hardly fallow land.

But there is a much wider focus that I can, and will, take, in the form of both Irish involvements in the British armed forces, in a variety of wars and colonials campaigns, and Irish involvement in other armies and other conflicts, like the independence movements in South America, either side of the American Civil War, or even the Italian Wars of Independence, in defence of the Papal States. As we move forward, I’ll jump back and forth between events in Ireland and events abroad, but a word of explanation now is merited: I can’t possibly cover every event of military significance that involved Ireland or the Irish. As before, I prioritise the events surrounding Irish military units over Irish individuals, and use my own discretion when it comes to the picking and choosing of violent clashes: not every secret society donnybrook or British campaign in the Empire deserves attention. All that being said, let’s get into it.

The time after the final end of the United Irishmen in Ireland was one loaded with political, social, economic and religious tension. The Union of Great Britain and Ireland was still a new thing, and movements to repeal this union and undo anti-Catholic legislation were already getting underway, led by established political figures like Henry Gratten and later by Irish historical behemoths like Daniel O’Donnell, whose Catholic Association would be founded in 1823. The wars on the continent against France would be ongoing until 1815, sucking in a large amount of Irish soldiers and sailors. A succession of poor potato and grain harvests – often forgotten due to the scale of the later Great Famine – left the questions of land, tenant rights and evictions as prominent issues. And the continued dominance of the Protestant Ascendency, along with the existence of institutions like the blatantly sectarian Orange Order, maintained the religious divide in Ireland, at nearly every level of society.

It is the issue of land and tenants that concerns us today. As previously discussed, secret societies of farmers and labourers, who acted collectively in order to protect what they saw as their personal rights and liberties when it came to the ownership and tilling of land, had existed in Ireland for some time, in groups like the Whiteboys and Defenders, and had been countered by largely Protestant organisations like the Peep ‘o Day Boys. While the defeat of the Irish peasantry in 1798 – including elements of the now defunct Defenders – had temporarily left the Irish Catholic farming underclass browbeaten and subdued, the state of affairs in Ireland, with so much power nominally in the hands of landlords, meant that further agrarian “outrages” were inevitable.

In the years towards and just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a new series of secret societies began to emerge, that became known as “Ribbonmen”, due to their common identifying mark of a green ribbon tucked into a front pocket. “Ribbonism” was much like earlier agrarian secret societies in many ways, but found much of its driving force in the farm labourer class as opposed to the farm owner or tenant.

The period of 1813-1845 was a tough time for this section of society. The work was hard, and constantly in danger from blight and bad weather. The pay was meagre, keeping labourers essentially trapped at the low end of the economic scale. The gradual movement from crop to cattle farming was reducing the required workforce on many farms. The price of grain was prone to immense fluctuation depending on other factors, and when it went up, landlords often cut back drastically on those in their employ, or acted with cruel efficiency in dumping tenants who could not afford previously agreed rents.

Lacking the kind of union system we know today, and with the law of the land largely favouring landlords in both word and action, groups like the Ribbonmen stepped in to defend tenant and labourer rights, and to fight back against perceived corruption in landlords. Common throughout Ireland, but particularly in Ulster and the midlands, the Ribbonmen were a truly new breed of secret society to those that had come in the past, and a progenitor of more to come in the 19th century: not for them the often disorganised and largely criminal brawl with rival groups that had characterised the actions of the Defenders. No, the Ribbonmen were more calculating and more careful, rightly wary of official retaliation.

Utilising public meeting days, like fairs and other similar events, to organise their efforts, the Ribbonmen operated as much against the tenant farmer as the landlord, who was often of the absentee variety anyway. Attacks, carried out against homes at night, were based on perceived violations of a code: the offence could be something as general as raising a rent to an unfair level, or something more specific, like the hiring of cheaper labourers from a neighbouring county. The Ribbonmen saw themselves as justified entity, bringing a natural righteousness when the actual law failed, and were remarkably successful in places, where the threat of a visit from them in the dead of night, bringing pitchforks, pikes and torches to bare, was enough to keep landlords and renting farmers in line.

There would be no stand-out leader figures in the Ribbonmen, and it is a testament to their lack of large-scale uprisings or sustained campaigns that they little feature in Irish songs or folk memory, in comparison to earlier groups. The Ribbonmen were not, for the most part, politically, or even religiously motivated, though they were almost entirely Catholic. They were, instead, simply part and parcel of rural life for a time, a means for the underrepresented to strike back and protect their ability to earn a living.

But they did face retaliation themselves at times, and other moments of opposition. In 1814 the first version of Irish police, that would eventually become the Royal Irish Constabulary, was created by Robert Peel’s Peace Preservation Act, to take over from the yeoman and militia units that had formerly helped upkeep law and order, but who had demonstrated such stark deficiencies in general competence and discipline during the United Irishman rebellion. These new forces, initially organised provincially, would see their first serious tests going up against the Ribbonmen, and in attempting to quell violence between the same and other groups. Over a hundred of the burgeoning RIC would be killed in the years before the famine, and hundreds more wounded, by societies like the Ribbonmen.

Despite the Ribbonmen’s efforts to localise their activities purely against their preferred targets, clashes with entities like the Orange Order were practically inevitable. An early incident in July 1813, before the Ribbonmen truly became a recognised phenomenon, is a good example. In the town of Garvagh, a small urban area in County Derry, a group commonly recognised afterwards as “Ribbonmen” attacked a pub that was a known meeting place of the Orange Order. The pre-warned Orangemen fired a few musket shots and killed a few Ribbonmen, who subsequently dispersed. The incident, somewhat exaggerated as “The Battle of Garvagh” in Protestant song, led to no convictions for anyone involved but stands as an early instance of sectarian-based violence involving the Ribbonmen, who otherwise did not engage in such actions.

Until, that is, later in the 19th century, when sustained combat between Ribbonmen and the Orange Order erupted. But that’s a story for another day, and another war: the recurring issue of the Irish tithe system.

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

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