Same-Sex Marriage Referendum: 82 Days Out

The SSM referendum can still easily be lost, because of the realities of referendum campaigns. Polls that have been thus far released are deceptive, for a lot of reasons.

Red C have broken down the results of their latest polling on the issue pretty well, and the numbers are stark when you look beyond the initial results. 77% say they either support the proposed change strongly or a little bit more loosely. The core is around 59%, which is still a very strong amount of the electorate.

But when you look at the results generated by some additional questions, you start to realise how quickly all of this could unravel. On a question about the possibility of gay couples adopting, asked to those who had already expressed support for SSM generally, a troubling 29% stated that they had reservations. On another question, 33% stated that they had general reservations about the idea of SSM. These are the kind of statistical results that should start alarm bells ringing for the “Yes” camp. A third of that “Yes” vote isn’t solid.

The long and short of it then, is that the actual core vote for SSM approval is actually less than 50% as it stands, and the more loose “Yes” vote is all that’s putting it over the top. And that portion of the affirmative are the ones expressing reservations about parts of SSM, and the possibility of gay couples adopting children. How much of the Ronan Mullen school of panic spreading do you think it is going to take to turn those people against the idea, under the dreadfully convincing banner of ‘If you’re not sure, vote “No”’?

And then there are the other problems, namely that opinion polling for things like this – that is, referendums – tend to not be quite as reliable as other polls, as the government has found to its cost on several occasions already. The earliest polls for the Seanad referendum gave the “Yes” position a hearty lead, but this was then eaten away by a bulging proportion of “Don’t Know’s”, who rapidly became “Not bothered to vote”. Same story for the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum in 2011, where polling showed the “Yes” side with a sizable advantage only days before the vote. Now, months before the vote and before the “Yes” and “No” campaigns have gone into full swing, is a time when a large portion of the Irish electorate has yet to actually reach a firm opinion on the matter, and may just be giving their proposed assent without really having much conviction in the statement.

A month out, when the debates and the door knocking and the posters are all in full force, is when you’ll start to see polls that are a bit closer to how things will actually turn out. And that time is when people are going to become susceptible to the tactics of the “No” crowd, whether it is just misinformation or scaremongering. That large amount of “Yes” voters will shrink because of that, just as they will shrink because of government unpopularity or the lackadaisical approach to be taken by Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, who will not be going out of their way to give the government parties a win in an election year, the greater good be damned.

What is there to be done about this? A waking up to the fact that the campaign will not be an easy one for those more committed to the “Yes” side, and a preparation for the effort to come. The arguments need to be honed now, the strategies of approach need to be worked on. It’s not enough to throw a few insults the Iona Institute’s way on Twitter. It’s not enough to preach to the choir. Because it will be all too easy for that movement to be caught unprepared in the weeks ahead of the vote, as the polls start to change and momentum starts to shift. The undecided’s – the true undecided’s, who will include so many of those who claim to be ready to vote “Yes” today  – will need convincing. And that’s a harder job for the “Yes” camp.

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Review: Shaun The Sheep Movie

Shaun The Sheep Movie



Sheep in the big city is the idea for Aardman’s latest.

Aardman have never made a film I didn’t like, and the pinnacle of their work, Chicken Run, remains one of my most beloved animated films ever (and it is Chicken Run! Wallace and Gromit was the stepping stone to branching out!). There is something innately charming and intriguing about the claymation process, the difficulty involved in it and the precision it requires, that just lifts full scale film productions involving the technique to a higher level. Aardman have consistently achieved this, and made some great films around the process as well. But, I have to say that I was almost entirely ignorant of Shaun The Sheep – I had to be reminded that he originated in a Wallace and Gromit film – having never watched any of the TV show. I was hesitant to give what appeared to be a mostly kid-focused movie a shot, with Aardman’s previous work having a slightly more grown up feel to them in large parts, at least it seemed to me in comparison to the promotional material for Shaun The Sheep. But, thanks to the urging of my girlfriend, who routinely demonstrates a knack for finding decent films I might otherwise not have watched, I did go along and see it.

Shaun (Justin Fletcher), bored of the humdrum existence that he lives on the farm with the rest of the flock, inadvertently sets in motion a train of events that lead to the Farmer (John Sparks) becoming lost and amnesiac in the “Big City”. Setting out to find him with the flock and dog Bitzer (Sparks again), Shaun must both locate his owner and avoid being corralled by the villainous animal catcher Trumper (Omid Djalili).

I think that something like Shaun The Sheep really does have the ability to appeal to everyone. It’s harmless, understandable comedy in animated form, featuring a cavorting sheep and his madcap adventures. Young or old can appreciate the kind of thing that is on offer here, Aardman’s typically diverse production quality, which manages to create time for frolics, even while throwing in enough motif’s, references and deeper issues that are bound to keep the older crowd going as well.

In terms of what is actually going on in the movie, Shaun The Sheep is formulaic to the extreme, and I mean that in the sense of what you always tend to see whenever a popular TV show decides to make the leap from small to big screen. The cast of characters is uprooted and has to go to a new location, with lots of new challenges to overcome, an antagonistic character of almost comical motivation is introduced to give the plot something to focus on, a few heartfelt moments to reinforce a message of love/peace/family/home etc are inserted, a few contemporary songs (the Foo Fighters’ inclusion here was a bit out of place I felt) and the status quo is re-established by the conclusion. If you’re looking for a plot that is whipsmart and engaging, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Shaun The Sheep isn’t taking any kind of risk with its structure, which adheres to what already exists.

The Aardman team is so accomplished and comfortable with claymation that it should come as no surprise really that Shaun The Sheep is another fantastic piece of work in that regard, and it goes doubly so considering that all of the emoting and such has to be performed by that side of things. In every furrowed brow and worried face, done with such subtly and skill, Aardman pulls it off yet again. And they take all of that work on those fantastic characters and put them into another world that has been created with panache and care, be it the farm or be it the “Big City”. Those worlds come to a life in a visually explosive way, with every set-piece – restaurant, prison or hairdresser – beautifully realised and fully formed, with a myriad of little details to add to the authenticity. In motion and in still sets, Aardman still has the goods.

It helps that the movie contains a fun, over the top bad guy.

It helps that the movie contains a fun, over the top bad guy.

More importantly, Shaun The Sheep is still a fun film. It won’t engage you or be as memorable as Chicken Run, The Pirates or Wallace and Gromit, but it offers a decent 90 minutes of entertainment, which makes full use of the format and the claymation process. And it has that unique hook that other Aardman productions do not have: the appeal of being a silent film. And unlike the over-rated sort of neo-silent film, like The Artist, Shaun The Sheep actually feels like it is better off as a silent film, the characters only making guttural noises or growls to express themselves, if they choose to at all.

That makes Shaun The Sheep a production that has to work a bit harder to pull everything together, but with a solid bedrock of experience in TV, the production team are clearly not all that bothered. And the result, where physical comedy, subtle movements to express emotion and the right musical cues are executed, is a really fantastic silent production, full of slapstick and ridiculousness, in all of the right measures.

Basing itself around that narrative of Shaun looking for the Farmer, Shaun The Sheep takes the opportunity to move seamlessly into the kind of sketch comedy compilation that a lot of comedy films like to mould themselves into recently (I remember 2013’s The Heat managing this very well). Individual scenes serve as individual moments for specific silliness and rampant stupidity, set-pieces that mean that the production team don’t have to be concerned with keeping the plot contained and strung together. The flock of sheep trying to blend in at the restaurant, The Farmer turning into a celebrity hairstylist and Trumper’s repeated exaggerations of his task all work really well, providing giggles in place of any kind of more serious plot.

Trumper himself, somehow “voiced” by brilliant comedian Omid Djalili, is a great creation. It’s an easy thing to go for, an animal catcher, but Trumper is so jumped up, obnoxious and full of himself, that you have no problem going along with him as a sort of jobsworth style bad guy, who thinks he’s James Bond even as he grossly oversteps his authority. It helps that his level of delusion transcends into the realm of the creepy, as he mistakes a disguised couple of sheep as an attractive women for him to leer over.

Trumper is at the heart of perhaps the film’s best set-piece, everything revolving around the dog pound/animal shelter, which rapidly turns into a parody/satire of films as diverse as The Great Escape and Silence of the Lambs. Even with something as simple as a rather deranged looking dog continually staring at the heroes (which featured a great mid-credits postscript) works well as a recurring joke.

There really isn’t all that much else to say about the substance of Shaun The Sheep. It’s very innocent, almost vaudevillian comedy, with a very British twang to it as well, more Wallace and Gromit than anything else Aardman has come up with. Shaun The Sheep, in its tone, style and look, calls back to classic British comedy from decades past, utilising the latest cinematic techniques to reinvigorate very old and well worn ideas. In the process, it also manages to touch on a number of wildly different issues: rural life versus urban, the vapidness of sudden celebrity, getting old with dignity, and making sure to leave time to enjoy the simple things in life.

While Shaun The Sheep won’t be the best remembered of Aardman’s work, and part of you might well feel like you are simply watching an extended version of an episode of the TV show. You can’t really do anything about that I suppose, the Wallace and Gromit movie had some of the same issues. But Shaun The Sheep has its laughs, has its great moments of visual and physical comedy, and has that great production work from Aardman, which could almost be described as worth the cost of entry alone. There will be no great lasting impression made here, but Shaun The Sheep is more than capable of providing a decent and well-enjoyed 90 minutes of entertainment. Recommended.

That end credits song though....ugh.

That end credits song though….ugh.

(All images are copyright of StudioCanal).

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Ireland’s Wars: Newtownbutler

On the same day that the Mountjoy shattered the boom that was blocking the way to Londonderry, the town of Enniskillen had its own reasons to celebrate. Having beaten back the repeated but fairly paltry efforts of the Jacobites to land a blow on their town, they now welcomed back a deputation of the town that had met with General Kirke to the north, and had returned replete with guns, powder and a few lent officers to bolster significantly the threat posed by the militia, the “Enniskilliners” that had been remarkably successful thus far in the war.

And the arms were needed. Justin McCarthy, recently made the Viscount Mountcashel, had been appointed by James II as the man who would finally bring Enniskillen to heel. Having been in the army since a young age, and having held a few political positions of importance in Munster, Mountcashel was considered a capable enough individual by James, despite his apparently significant short sightedness. Given the command of roughly 3’500 men along with a number of artillery pieces, Mountcashel was expected to defeat the Enniskillen militia, besiege the town, and take it without too much fuss. Despite the forces he had to hand, it was still a tall order for Mountcashel: most of the men he had, recruited from his own lands in Munster, were barely trained and not adequately supplied. They had also never faced proper combat before, unlike the enemy they were meant to engage.

On the day that Londonderry was relieved Enniskillen received their much needed resupply, the 28th of July, Mountcashel had advanced as far as Belturbet, within striking distance of Enniskillen itself. He did not stay there long, advancing further to effect a second siege of Crom Castle, one of Enniskillen’s most far reaching outposts, which Galmoy had previously failed to take.  The commander of the garrison there begged for relief from Enniskillen, as had been sent before.

But the situation was now a bit different. The force of Patrick Sarsfield was garrisoned in Sligo, and could move to attack the town without opposition should the militia march out in force to Crom. Governor Hamilton was laid up sick, and command of the militia had passed to a Colonel William Wolseley, one of the borrowed officers of Kirke. He bolstered his own units with reinforcements from Ballyshannon, who were eager to engage the Jacobite foe, but could not be denied that the Enniskilliners were in acute danger of becoming overstretched.

O the 29th of July Wolseley received intelligence that Mountcashel was abandoning the siege of Crom, having already taken too many casualties in the pursuit of its capture. Instead, the Jacobite commander was swinging north to the castle at Lisnaskea, around ten kilometres from Crom and 15 kilometres south-east of Enniskillen. The move is a bit of an odd one in retrospect, as the castle there was in a terrible state of repair, and wasn’t fit to be garrisoned. It was certainly an easier target than Crom though. Wary of Mountcashel’s movements Wolseley sent a mobile force of dragoons and light infantry racing towards Lisnaskea.

This force, under a Colonel Berry, reached Lisnaskea on the 30th, long before Mountcashel got close to the place, more evidence of the way that the Enniskilliners were able to use their superior mobility to hamper the enemy’s plans. Lisnaskea was indeed a ruin, and Berry did not even bother trying to occupy it. The next morning, he advanced part way south, towards the enemy, retreating when he came within sight of the Jacobite army. The 3’500 men serving under Mountcashel easily outnumbered Berry’s Williamites, and the cavalry commander was obliged to fall back, sending out warnings to Wolseley as he did so.

Berry kept retreating, back towards Lisnaskea, keeping Lough Erne to his left, before reaching a defendable point, when the road narrowed and was surrounded by treacherous bogland. There, Berry organised a successful ambush of the Jacobite vanguard, which retreated in disorder following a brief exchange of gunfire. Berry’s cavalry were able to cut down a good few of the enemy in this rout, punctuating the start of the larger engagement with a credible Williamite success.

But Berry still could not contemplate taking on the main Jacobite force, which continued to advance upon him. Before noon though, Wolseley had arrived, leading a somewhat ragged force of militia from Enniskillen, who had marched in such haste that there was a clear paucity of provisions. As such, the newly assembled Williamite force could only engage the enemy now, or retreat back the way they came: with a more eve state of affairs numerically, Wolseley decided to force the matter. Sending forward a vanguard consisting of many a quarter of his army, and with the rest advancing behind, he moved south-east towards Mountcashel. They had decided to risk leaving Enniskillen open to a potential attack from Sligo: in the end, no attack came from this direction

Mountcashel had just reached the small village of Newtownbutler and had sent his own vanguard forward at speed, to seize some of the high ground between his position and the enemy. This done, the Jacobites awaited the movement of the opposition, who were forced to contemplate an attack, uphill, though bogland. Berry led this attack, taking his horse down the road through the centre, while units of foot went right and left through the bog. The Jacobites only inflicted a short smattering of fire on the enemy before retreating, from a position where they might easily have beaten the Williamites back wholesale. Instead, Berry was forced to rein his own troops in from a madcap pursuit of a seemingly beaten enemy, afraid that an ambush awaited on the other side of the hill.

The Jacobites now turned back, moving south past Newtownbutler, leaving the village burning in their wake. The Williamites pursued through the remnants of the village. The chase did not continue for too long, as Mountcashel turned and made his stand around a mile south, on another hill overlooking bogland, this time his full strength arraigned, with cavalry up high and the infantry nearer to the base. The Jacobite cannon was carefully arranged so that they could sweep the road that went straight down the middle of the field.

The Williamites advanced in much the same order as they had before, with Berry’s cavalry moving down the road in the centre, while wings of infantry navigated the bogland on either side. But now they were advancing against much greater opposition, which poured fire down the hill and made the advance a much dicier prospect.

The cavalry could make little headway in the face of the cannon fire down the road, and so the fight was left to the infantry. Advancing at first slowly through the bog, they resisted the onslaught of fire from the Jacobite infantry long enough to reach firmer ground, from which they dashed forward and engaged the enemy in a wild melee. The Jacobites were forced back, and the cannon that had been guarding the road was captured.

Berry saw his chance and charged down the road. At this moment, the battle was decided when the Jacobite cavalry on the top of the hill turned and rode away south, leaving the battlefield at speed. Speculation exists that, in the heat of the skirmish, a misheard order caused the cavalry to turn about and ride off when Mountcashel actually wanted them to come to the assistance of the right flank. Either way, the cavalry left the field.

The sight of this caused what elements of the Jacobite infantry that were still holding some kind of shape to break apart and flee southwards as well. The rout was a bloody affair for Mountcashel’s force, with the pursuing Williamite cavalry and infantry having an easy time picking off the individuals and small bands of men who were trying to escape. Many of them were trapped by the waters of the Erne, either forced to face the pursuing Williamites or drown in an attempt to cross it. The Jacobite cavalry was mostly able to escape, but the infantry were nearly all killed or captured. The losses are not recorded with any great accuracy, but the majority of Mountcashel’s army was destroyed: it is likely at least 2’000 men died at Newtownbutler, or left as prisoners of the enemy. The Williamite loses were comparatively low.

One of the prisoners was Mountcashel himself, who had refused to flee the field when the rest of his army was doing so. Concealing himself and a few others until the majority of the Williamite army had moved on in their pursuit of the routing Jacobites, he launched a sudden desperate attack on the rearguard that had been left to watch the captured cannon. Mountcashel was shot for his trouble, but was taken into custody and survived, with one account describing his motivations as somewhat suicidal, not wanting to bear the shame of the defeat. He spent the next five months at Enniskillen, before managing to escape.

His command at Newtownbutler had been a disaster. Leading ill-trained and badly armed troops, he had been outdone by opposing militia several times, culminating in a damp squib of a defence in the final engagement. It is almost difficult to describe Newtownbutler as a battle, save for the large casualties in its aftermath. The Jacobite’s again demonstrated their poor cohesion and will in the face of an enemy advance, and Mountcashel had been  unable to rally his disintegrating army. On the other side, the Williamites pressed their attack with purpose, and gained another remarkable victory.

The effects of the battle were immediate. Sarsfield and his force withdrew into Sligo, no longer able to provide a threat in being now that his was the only Jacobite unit in the area. His time for greater fame would come. In line with the Jacobite defeat at the Siege of Londonderry, Newtownbutler essentially ended any pretensions that King James had of conquering Ulster, with nearly all of his forces, save for a few garrisons that soon found themselves beleaguered, now left outside the northern province, the majority encamped around Dundalk.

The War of the Two King’s had reached a transition point. Up to now, nearly all of the major offensive moves had been taken by the Jacobites in pursuit of conquering Ulster. But the tables had decidedly turned: the Williamites were the undisputed masters of Ulster, poised to take the offensive themselves thanks to the incoming reinforcements from England. Only two weeks after Newtownbutler, William’s chosen man to lead his armies in Ireland would be arriving.

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

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The NFB Reading List: Night Watch


Night Watch – Terry Pratchett (2002)

In the course of trying to capture a deranged killer, Watch Commander Sam Vimes is magically transported thirty years into the past, to the day when he witnessed a violent changeover of power in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Forced to step into the role of his old mentor John Keel in order to guide his younger self, Vimes finds himself once more in the centre of the “Glorious Revolution of the 25th of May”.

This isn’t the first fantastical choice for this series – see Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers – but it is one that I have been thinking about adding for a while. The works of Pratchett’s Discworld series are the kind of books that don’t immediately seem like they would belong here, but amid all of the frivolity, dry wit and wink, wink, nudge, nudge style writing and humour that Pratchett has come to specialise in, his books, especially those from the back end of his immense career, have tended to carry very deep and very serious messages. The power of individual actions in Going Postal, the magical strength of belief in Hogfather, the twisted hypocrisy of racism in Thud! And, here, the all too frequent emptiness of revolutions and regime change, in one of the most poignant and sombre parts of the larger Discworld canon. Remarkably insightful and beautifully written, Night Watch is still, for me, the pinnacle of Pratchett’s writing.

It wasn’t the first time that Pratchett had approached the topic of war – 1997’s Jingo is probably his must full on attempt at tackling the issue – but I feel like Night Watch is a much more effective approach to the idea of political violence. Moving beyond the gallows humour, the sub-plots involving assassins, the hunt for the serial killer and the many and varied cameos that litter the narrative, Night Watch has a lot to say about revolutions, why they happen, who performs them, and what you can actually expect to get out of them.

There is certainly something depressingly cynical about Pratchett’s ringing judgement on revolutions: “Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.” Some might well say that it is too cynical and, in fact, too simple a declaration to be made on the topic. But, for me, it rings somewhat true, from my own study of history and my own grasp of what is going on in the world today. Even in my country, much of the discussion about the upcoming centenary of the Easter Rising is about how the “vision” of the rebels has been perverted or obstructed by those that came after, or how the wholesale dumping of Fianna Fail in favour of Fine Gael and Labour in 2011 – what some dubbed a “democratic revolution”, somewhat grandiosely – has failed to really alter the fabric of modern politics in any tangible sense. Revolutions occur, but things do not change all that much really. Real change is something that happens more slowly.

Much of that really comes with a certain disconnect between those who claim to fight on behalf of “the people” and the actual people themselves. Revolutionaries are a mixed bunch – “Some had been ordinary people who’d had enough. Some were young people with no money who objected to the fact that the world was run by old people who were rich. Some were in it to get girls” – but they have to be driven by the ideological core, the dreamers who want to build a new world, the Padraig Pearse’s and the Tom Clarke’s. But then the problem arises. Because, as Pratchett so eloquently puts it:

“People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.”

You can imagine Pearse’s thoughts as part of Dublin’s more loyalist population heckled him and his men as they were led away from the burning ruin of Dublin’s city centre, or any pick of numerous more left-wing politicians in the new free Irish nation, constantly given the electoral version of two fingers to any kind of genuinely progressive or transformative program, in favour of governments constantly led by the centre option of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. The idea of a population that actually distrusts “cleverness” is one that I feel many Irish will recognise.

But this is supposed to be about war I suppose. In the course of the book, based largely off Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in terms of direct inspiration, Vimes inadvertently finds himself leading the revolution he was largely a bystander too in his youth, one that balloons out from a small scale attempt to institute law and order in a corner of the city, into controlling nearly a quarter of it. The action however, as we learn through Vimes’ own thoughts on the matter, is largely irrelevant: the revolutionaries are determined to replace “Lord Winder” with a figure called “Snapcase”, a man who will, inevitably, end up worse than his predecessor in terms of tyrnanical behaviour. Vimes, with his knowledge of the next 30 years, is well aware of this, but finds himself willing to lead his little part of the revolution, not out of any grand ambitions of political change, but more out of a sense of duty to the people around him: both to the “coppers” he wants to teach, like his younger self, and the normal people that it is his job to protect. In that, he perhaps embodies some of the best aspects of the modern day peacekeeper, stepping between two warring factions and just trying to make sure that the body count is kept as low as possible.

Near the books conclusion, Vimes, having returned to the present day, has a conversation with the present leader, the frighteningly effective Lord Vetinari. Vetinari is one of the few people who knows about Vimes’ time travelling adventure, and their final exchange is one fraught with bitterness on the side of Vimes, to the suggestion that a monument should be erected to the memory of the men who died for “The People’s Republic of Treacle Mine Road”. Vimes is furious at the simplicity of Vetinari’s suggestion and tells him so: ”They did the job they didn’t have to do, and they died doing it, and you can’t give them anything. Do you understand? They fought for those who’d been abandoned, they fought for one another, and they were betrayed. Men like them always are. What good would a statue be? It’d just inspire new fools to believe they’re going to be heroes. They wouldn’t want that. Just let them be. Forever.”

The rant speaks to me, again because of a connection I can draw to Irish history. Many in this country are satisfied with a simplistic and overly romantic view of the men and women involved in 1916 and beyond, seeing in their actions something to be venerated and idealised. “The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things, and they must be appeased, whatever the cost”, a quotation from Pearse that has often stuck out on my mind. I can argue that such thinking is flawed and dangerous: that it can and has led to subsequent violent behaviour in the face of democratic will, that has changed little except a death count. Perhaps, as Vimes suggests, we should just let our past revolutionaries lie in terms of what we believe they can inspire us to do.

So, what did Night Watch teach me about war? It taught me that political rebellions and violent revolutionary struggle is something that is easily manipulated into a grand heroic event, but that this very manipulation distorts some of the more sordid reality: the dead on the barricades, betrayed ideals and a messy aftermath where the old boss and the new boss are really not all that different. You can see it in Ireland, you can see it with France, you can see it with the Arab Spring, you can see it everywhere. The quest for self-determination can certainly succeed, but we should be both mindful and critical of the tangible results from such fruition. And, we should always remember the nameless dead who gave their lives for such a cause, many doing so not for the eventual end result, but for a far more perfect world than we can believe will ever have a chance to exist. As Vimes thinks when his younger self asks why men would cry when singing an apparently cheerful battle song, “They were remembering who they were not singing it with…You’ll learn. I know you will.”

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Same-Sex Marriage Referendum: 89 Days Out

I’m not sure how much I will be writing about the same sex marriage referendum between now and the likely polling date of the 22nd of May. I’ve made my thoughts on “SSM” plain before in this post, where the brevity of my rebuttals to the standard points against SSM were a firm indication of the kind of respect I have for them. It would not take me too long to repeat those points, and I may attempt some elaboration in the future, close to the actual poll (and for the much less divisive amendment on Presidential matters likely to occur on the same day).

But I do feel like I should write something. The debate and narrative surrounding the SSM vote is already changing from “Landslide Yes likely” to  a much more close state of affairs, something bound to happen in a country where the need for “balance” (and, if we’re being honest, a media who prefer to orchestrate tighter contests) allows any kind of slim minority the chance to expound their flawed views, frighten people and generally blather on about all sort of nonsense with words like “child’s wellbeing”, “natural” and “protecting the family”. We’ll have to put up with a lot of the likes of Ronan Mullen on our TV screens and radio speakers, trying desperately to convince us that 2015 is still too early a year to be considering equality for the LGBT community, because children and family, and procreation and blah, blah, blah. If I was to spend my days rebutting this sort of stuff, I would run out of both free time and original words very quickly.

But I still feel like I should write something, be involved, try and change some minds or convince some of the apathetic. I fear for this amendment tot the constitution, that it will go the same as the Seanad and Oireachtas Committees votes, just like the Children’s Referendum was nearly thrown away. This government has a lousy track record with these votes, even when they don’t have any kind of firm political opposition to deal with. They take the wrong approach (how much ground was lost with all the talk of how much the Seanad cost?), they don’t try hard enough to either convince voters or get the vote out (how few cared about that children’s vote or the Seanad?) and they generally just appear to sit at home and hope everything turns out OK, Labour especially.

And this is likely enough to be an election year as well, and you can well imagine that there are plenty of Fine Gael TD’s who might not be too gung ho about promoting this constitutional change to their conservative constituents. They may help to scupper this change. They may have far more interest in the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election being held on the same day (probably). I feel like I should be writing something, on at least a semi-regular basis, if only to add a little bit to the movement. I’m not a member of a political party, and I won’t be knocking on doors. But if I have even a small audience, here and on social media, I feel like I have to use that. If you follow.

I believe in this amendment, in a way that I have not really believed in much of this governments proposed changes to the constitution. But I also believe that it can all so easily be thrown away, and I can think of few things that would make me more disgusted in a political sense than if the wilful apathy of sections of the electorate combined with a sluggish approach from the government conspired to insure its failure.

Case in point: the likely referendum date, Friday the 22nd of May. This might be one of the only issues that could get the 18-25 bracket out voting in greater numbers than you can usually rely on them for, and yet the government is happy to hold the vote during the time when many college students will be having exams. I suppose this bracket has given the government little cause to think they might actually bother to vote – we all know people that age who wouldn’t go next door to vote, regardless of their opinions on the issue – but there is no need to make the process even harder. That’s the government’s problem. But it can be worked around.

For those caught in that trap, and unable to be in their own constituency, there are two options, all outlined here. The first is just to change your constituency, which can be done at any time, requiring a form to be filled out, witnessed by a guard, etc. Having gone through the process myself, I can state plainly that is not a great chore and it is a myth that the registering of electors has a set end date – go through the process at any time, and you’;; be updated in the pre-poll supplementary register.

The other option is postal voting, which can be signed up for via your local authority. Postal voting gives you the option to mail your vote before the actual polling day, and requires that you sign up for the process at least 22 working days before the vote itself.

I think it is fair to say that I have gone through varying approaches when it comes to encouraging voter participation, generally linked to the latest major voting patterns. I have no idea whether pleading, lecturing, positivity or negativity gets the best results. At the moment, after the last referendum and its shockingly low participation level, I’m inclined to take a sterner tone: go and register to vote if this issue actually matters to you. Don’t take it for granted, spare me the self-indulgent whining about disillusionment with the process, stop making excuses. The options to make this democratic liberty easier for you are all there. On the day that this vote takes place, I don’t want to hear “bad weather” or “the ballot was confusing” or “Exams” or any other explanation for why people decided that the fight for equality in Ireland wasn’t worth their time or effort, before or on the day of the vote. Just get it sorted. Because if the day comes that this amendment is rejected, God forbid, you don’t want to wonder if maybe you should have tried a bit harder. This is one of the major civil rights issues of our day and I really, really, really want you to be involved.

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Review: Selma



Can Selma and David Oyelowo be as good as they say?

Can Selma and David Oyelowo be as good as they say?

Biopics are the new Gods of Oscar bait. This year alone we have seen Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking and Chris Kyle given the big film treatment, their deeds and glories emblazoned in films that seem tailor made to try and attract the attention of award committees and glitzy parties. And into that increasingly familiar looking dogfight of lives portrayed onscreen comes Ava DuVernay’s Selma, hoping, perhaps, to follow the same trail that the similarly themed 12 Years A Slave blazed last year. But biopics can be tricky, all too often falling into a glorification trap where the main focus receives (sometimes literally) a standing ovation with little depth in the approach. Selma must tackle a true giant of the 20th century in one of the most pivotal moments of his life and the movement he led. Was Duvernay capable of avoiding the familiar path of the biopic, and forge something much more worthwhile?

Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo), seeking the right time and place to push the civil rights movement into the national consciousness once more, finds his opportunity in the bitterly segregated state of Alabama, where bigoted Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) oversees a culture of unrelentingly hostile racism. There, black citizens struggle to gain the basic right to vote, unhelped by a prevaricating Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House. Battling private doubts about his crusade, spied on by the FBI and with his marriage to Correta (Carmen Ejogo) crumbling, King launches into a struggle of nonviolent protests and marching, hoping to bring the eyes of the world down on the town of Selma.

Selma sucks you into its world right from the off, the film opening with a close up shot of Oyelowo’s face, as he practises a speech he is soon to recite while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a startlingly beginning, but one that fits: Selma, while about the civil rights movement at this critical time, is all about Martin Luther King. And this is to be a proper biopic, warts and all. In these opening moments, we see two conflicting sides of King clearly: the great orator of popular remembrance, and also a man very much uncomfortable in his current situation and how he is perceived. That the film opens with him accepting such a prestigious prize is also a very effective mood setter: many other films would have had a moment like this at its conclusion, setting up that standing ovation I mentioned above. Instead, Selma starts off from this point, with the Nobel Prize little more than an unwanted accoutrement to King, who fears how he may look, living “high on the hog”.

His wife, Coretta, is there to soothe him, but there already are the strains of a union reaching a breaking point. It’s rare that an opening scene is crafted so effectively, both in introducing characters, introducing relationship dynamics, and setting up some of the most crucial themes. And DuVernay doesn’t stop there, as a litany of powerful moments pass by in the opening minutes. After King’s introduction, the tranquillity and normality of a number of young black schoolgirls discussing hair styles and beauty tips is shattered by a sudden and terrible explosion, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. Like so much of the racist violence in the film, it’s a sudden and brutal thing, which seems so unnatural to us, even in the world depicted.

But the racial problems of America’s southern states, not least the Alabama of cruelly and unabashedly racist George Wallace, go behind the overtly bloody acts of casual violence. Just as effective is the sight of Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper trying to register to vote, only to be forced to jump through some verbal hoops, in a test she cannot possible succeed. She faces this humiliation and open denial of her rights with both stoicism and pained reality etched on her face: she expected nothing different.

And that speaks to the central quest of King and his followers. It isn’t so much for the intangible concept of freedom, or even for the vote. The word King uses again and again is “dignity”. The black citizens of America want to be treated like human beings, to not be forced to bow down in a humiliating manner on every issue, to not be asked to wait by their President, to not have to accept the most demeaning kind of treatment. I mentioned, repeatedly, in my review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave that it was the dehumanisation practised by slave-owners towards their “property” that was one of the most galling and stomach churning things. While Selma doesn’t have the same level of physical abuse that 12 Years A Slave had, that same feeling is still there, in every insult, in every right gladly denied, in every brush-off, and in every manner in which a white ascendency attempts to treat the black underclass with indignity.

DuVernay’s film gets inside you with that image and brings out those emotions of dread, fear, disgust and sorrow, which must accompany such a story. The ugliness of racism in America during this time is on full show, never unbelievable and never too soft, and one of Selma’s great strengths is the manner in which it portrays and brings to life this ugliness. It’s an infection on every level, be it the crude bigotry of elected sheriffs on the streets or the sanctimonious dismissals of the highest of the land.

But this is also a biopic. The atmosphere is set brilliantly from the off, but it needs that central character and journey to keep the whole affair grounded. Just as in the opening scene, King’s activities are shown through two diverging paths. On the one hand, we have King the legend: the great speechmaker, the great civil rights leader. We are swept up with the watching audience when he gives his monumental speeches, we sympathise with his struggles and doubts. Supporters and marchers are beaten and killed, and we feel that sense of being torn in two on how to proceed. But always, King is the leader, the negotiator, the peacemaker, the driver of all that transpires. That journey is properly told, bringing to life the man we are familiar with from the newsreels and the echoes of his most famous words.

But the other path is, perhaps, the more enthralling one. Here is simply King the man: the neglectful husband, the absent father, the philanderer. In his home, King is a weak and powerless individual, whose life is dominated by the campaign and whose actions towards his family veer over a line of disgrace. The back and forth between King and Coretta is one of Selma’s strongest points, a vivid look at a marriage that cannot possible take the strain of what King has to live up to in public. DuVernay  is to be highly commended for taking so much time to show this deeply flawed side of Martin Luther King, and to allow Ejogo to be the star of these moments as much as Oyelowo. Selma manages to deliver a portrait of King at this time in his life, that acknowledges both his strengths and his flaws, and to reconcile the two with each other. Great men can have bad sides, but that need not take away from their momentous deeds. Seeing this side of King, and the relationship with his wife, helps us to form a broader picture of the man and what drove him, and how his personal life was subordinate to his public one.

The King marriage is the well crafted heart of Selma.

The King marriage is the well crafted heart of Selma.

But Selma is not just about Martin Luther King, it is also about the men and women of the larger movement. None of them can come close to Oyelowo in screentime, but we do get some decent portraits nonetheless. Chief among them are people like Wendell Pierce’s Hosea Williams, or Stephen James as student organiser John Lewis. Just as DuVernay is willing to show good and bad sides of the main focus, so is she willing to show good and bad sides of the larger movement, its divides, its delays, its bitter debates about how to proceed and the doubts that come into many lines of thinking. Seeing this entity grow and evolve through the attempted marches from Selma to Montgomery is truly captivating. It’s helped by a brief one scene appearance of Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, the other side of the civil rights coin, the road not followed, which in turn leads to one of the best scenes between King and Coretta, sniping at each other over the more radical civil rights figure while King is behind bars.

Selma also takes frequent asides to look at “LBJ” and the administration position on everything that is happening. Much has been written about Selma’s depiction of Johnson and his relationship with King, which borders on adversarial. It seems as if DuVernay has chosen to make Johnson slightly more opposed to King and his movement than he was in reality, but in truth I did not find Wilkinson’s portrayal of the President to be all that unsympathetic. Johnson is depicted merely as a realistic politician, summed up by his declaration to King at one point that, while King has one big issue, Johnson must deal with “ a hundred and one”. He does set J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker in a great single-scene performance) on the civil rights movement with abandon but never does Johnson express an obvious opposition to increased civil rights, and he flat out insults George Wallace in one memorable scene, essentially warning that he will find himself on the wrong side of history. As such, the criticism of Selma on this score strikes me as many critics looking for things to complain about (and there are plenty of biopics about white people that do not get the same treatment, it cannot fail to be noticed).

Selma is a light enough film, and takes its time when it comes to depictions of the actual marches, including the aborted “night march”. There’s a slow boil escalation of tension, but in truth the last act of Selma might also be its worst, as the film becomes more than a little clunky by the realist depiction of the events in question. One cannot help but feel that a more seamless and engaging film might have consolidated three of the marches into two, and cut down on some of the more needless scenes towards the conclusion. It doesn’t leave a lasting mark on Selma, but the first two acts of the film had a decent flow, that was strangled by most of the last 40 minutes or so. The build to a cathartic and dramatic ending is one to be endured, but it is worth it to get there in the end, like any righteous movement.

DuVernay does tremendously well with the female characters at her disposal. Here is a moving and realistic look at a wife under pressure, living in the shadow of her famous and beloved husband, and dealing with all of the negativity that comes of that. Coretta is portrayed as a creature of immense patience and grace, doing what is expected of her even as she questions whether her relationship with King is worth holding on to. It’s a different era, when a separation might not have been fully possible, and there so much else to consider. Ejogo’s Coretta is a woman properly depicted as weighing all of those things, even as she finds herself sucked into supporting the movement more proactively. But even then it all comes back to her beleaguered marriage, she and King bitterly disagreeing over her meeting with a seemingly sympathetic Malcolm X. Coretta is more than just the woman keeping things afloat at home while King goes about his Herculean labours. She has agency, different shades to her character and a certain poise that makes her extremely memorable. Oprah Winfrey’s Annie Lee Cooper is the other main female player, in an evocative but unassuming role. Winfrey has precious few actual lines, but makes a big impact whenever she is actually on screen, from her painfully reserved rendition of the American constitution’s preamble when she tries to register as a voter, to her more loud and angry explosion outside the Selma courthouse. While the female characters of Selma do not get actively involved in the main plot to the same extent as the male characters, they still are a very decent example of how to portray women in films of this type.

For a film such as this, it is a requirement that the central role be acted to the utmost. Oyelowo is the man given that task, and he performs it to the very best of his ability. Simply put, for the two+ hours that Selma extends too, Oyelowo becomes Martin Luther King, body and soul. His every expression and utterance is like looking at contemporary footage, and he perfectly captures everything that made the man so memorable. This is clear in no better form than when he imitates King’s powerful oratory. Aided by incredible strong scriptwork, Oyelowo builds up the power of his words bit by bit, stringing the audience along, moving to a crescendo of emotional declarations and heart swelling affirmations, like a conductor with an orchestra. It is here, in these moments, that you really come to understand just how messianic a figure King was.

But it is in other ways that Oyelowo succeeds too. Just as the film chooses to go down two paths in regards to King, so does Oyelowo’s performance. At home, with Coretta, his King is a more reserved, contrite, and ultimately frustrated figure, one trapped between the disapproval of his spouse and the expectations that await outside his front door. Here he struggles to form the right words, words that come so easily to him elsewhere, save when he is forced to confront the grieving relatives of those shot down for his cause. In both depicting the popular image and the private reality, Oyelowo gives us one of the most tremendous performances of the biopic genre, easily the best depiction of King onscreen, and surely one of the stand-out piece of work you are likely to see this year.

In that, he has to be matched by Ejogo. She’s soft spoken, reserved, bitter and just waiting to explode. The role of Coretta requires a lot, and a lot to be done quietly. Ejogo succeeds, in a performance that frequently matches the power of Oyelowo, even as it clashes off of him. She has to make us believe that Coretta was a woman who would come back to King despite his failures as a husband and a father, a person who could see the good in him beyond the movement. I think she pulls it off, and rather well too.

The rest of the cast are firmly in the supporting camp, but I don’t have a bad word to say about anyone. James, Pierce and Common are the pick of the movement players, playing the apostles of King but all given the chance to show themselves as full of agency of their own. Winfrey, following up on her great turn in The Butler, plays Cooper with aplomb, an obvious quiet anger in her that explodes vividly outside of the Selma courthouse. Wilkinson is great as LBJ, showcasing perfectly a three dimensional US President, struggling to reconcile his support for King’s ambitions with political realities. Tim Roth, with Micahel Papajohn and Stan Houston behind him as some of Alabama’s racist law enforcers, is measured and buyable as the grotesquely bigoted George Wallace, easily made the villain of the piece. Special mention should also be given to Henry G. Sanders, playing a grieving grandfather of Jimmy Lee Johnson, a young man murdered by police during the night march, whose scene in a morgue with a near speechless King is one of the most heart wrenching of the film.

DuVernay, with Bradford Young on cinematography, has crafted a really well put together film on the visual front. Young has a reputation for preferring a hands off approach when it comes to lighting, and it shows here. No ostentatious colours or typical sixties sheen, more greys and blacks and visceral looking landscapes. Selma is a film marked the darkness of asphalt roads and drab school interiors, with more intimate scenes, like those between King and his wife, shrouded in an oppressive darkness. The first shot lays out King in a portrait style, and the DuVernay/Young team are quick to focus the camera up on Oyelowo for much of the rest of the film, allowing the performance to come through wonderfully. This is exemplified in no better arena than any moment when King gives one of his famous speeches, as the camera flits back and forth between his commanding presence and the enraptured audience watching him.

The controversy over "LBJ" in Selma is largely overblown.

The controversy over “LBJ” in Selma is largely overblown.

But there are lots of other nice touches when it comes to the visual direction. Inside his own home, King is a stranger, as his wife must find common items like rubbish bags for him, even as they talk of grander things, Coretta holding them out to Martin from across the room. Confederate symbols are everywhere when it comes to the racism of the south, a clear and appropriate connection drawn with the sins of the past being ignored and even celebrated, in the future. Wallace and his, ahem, confederates are sometimes portrayed with slightly skewed “Dutch” angles as well, to further show them and their philosophy as warped. The FBI’s surveillance of King and his followers is typed up on screen in jarringly impersonal phraseology, a direct and brilliant contrast with the actual human events they are taking about.

And when it comes to the really important moments, namely the marches, the visual work of Selma is also a success. Things start small, outside the courthouse, and then confused and chaotic with the night march. But when the civil rights movement heads towards Montgomery, DuVernay is sure to show a visual build-up of power, like a rocket readying for takeoff, with every succeeding march. First they take over a sidewalk, then half of the road, then the entire street: the movement can’t be stopped, and dignity is near. Towards the conclusion, skilfully blending the line between fact and fiction, DuVernay introduces actual archival footage of the march to Montgomery, as if to remind the audience that the story they are seeing is real, and dealt with real human lives.

Paul Webb’s script (though DuVernay apparently co-wrote the film, going uncredited due to some strange contractual issue) is immensely strong and powerful, capturing the distinctive voices of the people involved, and giving the cast all of the help that they need to make these characters come to life. The wordplay is real and full of humanity, in both good and bad parts. King’s speeches are a double triumph of screenwriting, both in the emotional effect they will have on an audience, and in the fact that they had to be re-written from what King actually said due to copyright issues. One cannot help but be swept up in the furore as King declares that the injustice they face is intolerable: “That means protest! That means march! That means disturb the peace! That means jail! That means risk! That is hard!…We will not wait any longer! Give us the vote! We’re not asking, we’re demanding! Give us the vote!”

But in quieter moments, the script also shines. King and Coretta’s confrontation on his infidelities is couched in suitably subtle words: she does not ask if he has cheated, but if he “loves” any of the women he has been unfaithful with, a much more deep-feeling question, and King awkwardly has to pause and think about it. When the two bicker over Malcolm X, King is the one slinging hurtful words, claiming that Coretta has become enamoured of the more radical man, words that a hard stare instantly make him regret. But the good scriptwork moves beyond those two such as LBJ viciously lets loose and asks George Wallace “Are you trying to shit me, Governor Wallace? Are you trying to fuck your president?” There are even moments when some dark levity can enter proceedings. As the first march tires to get past the Edmund Pettus bridge, Hosea Williams, staring ominously at the Alabama River underneath, asks John Lewis, “Can you swim?” Even there though, the script is quick to get back to the point, as Lewis points out that he grew up with no swimming pool available to him because of his skin colour.

Lastly on that point, the script simply soars in combination with the performance of the cast. It is impossible I think for someone to watch the conclusion, of King and the movement’s victorious moment outside the State Capitol in Alabama, and not be moved by the savage denunciation of class warfare in America, and the “lie” that is perpetrated through it: “When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because you shall reap what you saw. When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because no lie can live forever.”

Jason Moran’s debut score is fairly understated for the most part, to the extent that you probably won’t even remember any of it after the credits of rolled. The actual music choices are a bit better, with some uniquely chosen contemporary tracks, a mix of jazz and soul, to add the right flavour to the atmosphere. Much attention, and award nominations, have been garnered by John Legend and Common’s “Glory”, a credits track that mixes a Gospel feel in its chorus with more modern hip-hop in its verses, with references to present day events like the Ferguson riots and protests. It’s a decent track, and its message of the events in Selma tying into modern day equivalents is an important one to make. In fact, it actually provides just the right note to end your experience on, lest you think that the victory for civil rights at Montgomery was the end of all the trouble. After all, John Legend’s line is “One day, when the war is won, we will be sure”. I find it rare enough for films to actually pull that off with their credit music, an under-appreciated auditory aspect of film.

Selma ends on a mixed note (and listen, if you’re worried about spoilers, you didn’t do enough history in school). King succeeds in his nominal goal – the sight of LBJ parroting the “We shall overcome” maxim is a quaint mixture of moving and awkward – and even manages to effect a partial repair of his marriage. But problems remain: King is open about his acceptance of death, a scenario that is painfully likely to come for him much sooner rather than later, as it proved. Even in the midst of a standard “What happened after” text crawl for numerous characters, DuVernay stows the triumphalism, noting the fate of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights marcher murdered by KKK members just hours after King’s “How long, Not long” speech that forms Selma’s conclusion.

But you can’t help but be engrossed by that very speech, which invokes the eternal spirit of optimism that the civil rights movement lives upon, having gotten as far as the very gates of power in George Wallace’s Alabama. King, and Selma, closes by repeating the first verse and chorus of the “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” (“Mine eyes have seen the glory…”), a Civil War song that might cause the audience to think of Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln.

That was another, very different and distant, side of the civil rights struggle, one concerned almost entirely with white men deciding the fates of blacks. Selma, in the story it tells, forms a worthy contrast to that film, as a depiction of the African-American community coming together to strive for greater rights on their own power, nearly a hundred years after Lincoln’s efforts propelled the journey. Too many films and other media go down the “white savoir” route when it comes to the topic of race relations – even 12 Years A Slave, which might have been better served altering parts of the historical reality when it came to its ending – but Selma is a breath of fresh air in that respect, a film that puts black men, women and children at the forefront.

It’s brilliantly written, entrancingly shot and directed, features good music and provides a showcase for one of the best performances of a real-life figure, well, ever. Oyelowo makes Selma so much of what it is, and even though the rest of the cast is similarly stellar, they all sort of pale in comparison to the triumphant portrayal of King, which is worth the price of admission alone. Captivating, emotional, cathartic and important, Selma is biopic of the highest calibre, and the kind of film that will live long in the ages. Fully recommended.

A wonderful film.

A wonderful film.

(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox and StudioCanal).

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Ireland’s Wars: Bantry Bay

In this series we may have become accustomed to dealing with land based combat between Irish and English (or English backed) armies. But today we’re going to swing away from that, to the other side of the country from where the War of the Two Kings was raging at its hottest, to look at a naval battle fought between ships of England and France, connected strongly to the conflict in Ireland, but also one part of a growing conflagration that was soon to draw in several major European powers.

Louis XIV, le Roi-Soliel, was the King of France at the time. A Catholic and a huge believer in the absolute rule of monarchs, Louis was a natural ally of the deposed James II. He was also an enemy of his successor, William of Orange, in the Netherlands, where numerous conflicts would be fought involving France during the reign of Louis. When James fled England during the “Glorious Revolution”, it was to France that he went, there to find sympathy and support from the French King. The War of the Two Kings in Ireland would be swept up into the larger War of the Grand Alliance, a nine year conflict that raged throughout north-western Europe from 1688 to 1697. The Grand Alliance would be an allied effort of various European powers arraigned against France, and the combat in Ireland was one of the earliest clashes in this larger war.

In France, James gathered together his small expeditionary force, that which landed in Kinsale on the 12th of March 1689. It was a small mix of Irish, English and French troops, with Louis allowing a large number of this small army’s officer corps to be, essentially, borrowed Frenchmen, people like Pointis and de Rosen. But this army was not an all-conquering force. It had food and arms to sustain itself for a short while, but brought no extras with which to harry the Williamite enemy or to arm the large amount of militia that had sprang up in Ireland. James, destitute of a support base in England, was reliant on support from France, especially when it came to basic war material like guns, powder, cannon and food to keep his soldiers going, not to mention money to keep them paid (and happy). As we have already seen, the lack of things severely curtailed Jacobite efforts at the Siege of Londonderry, or in the attempts to stifle the holdouts of Enniskillen.

The English knew that James was going to need a stream of supplies to be sent from France in order to maintain his war effort, and were determined to try and stem the flow if they could. The new commander of England’s navies was Arthur Herbert, soon to be the Earl of Torrington. He had been cashiered out of the service by James for refusing to vote for the repeal of the Test Act, and had been intimately involved in the plan to invite William over to England to take the throne. His reward was his raising to the position of command he now held, but he had little time to celebrate, taking to sea soon after his appointment, in April of 1689. The Royal Navy had been absent when James made his crossing, but were determined that any further ships from France would not have such an easy time of reaching Ireland.

Herbert had 19 ships at his command, less than he would have liked, with some left docked back in England due to mutineering sailors dissatisfied with withheld pay. Patrolling in and around the Cork coastline, Herbert’s mission was to discourage and, if possible, intercept French vessels that were on their way to Ireland to resupply James II.

That challenge would come soon enough. Sailing from Brest in May, a fleet of French ships under Francois Louis de Rousselet, the Marquis of Châteaux-Renault, made for the County Cork coast. It was a larger gathering of ships than the English had, with over 20 third and fourth rate vessels, a couple of frigates, numerous fire ships, as well as the transport vessels that were carrying the actual supplies that James desperately needed. While the climax of the age of sail was still some way off, the opposing fleets still contained many big ships, the largest carrying over 60 guns. The largest English vessel, the Pendennis, had 70 guns, while Chateaux-Renault’s own flagship, the Ardent, had 66.

Châteaux-Renault was well warned of the English adversary facing him. Though he outnumbered his enemy, the presence of the English fleet meant that a normal docking operation and unloading at Kinsale would be out of the question, and an actual engagement could still be overly dangerous to his own fleet (coincidently, Herbert was one of the early proponents of the “fleet-in-being” concept, that a fleets very existence, even if it never left port, could be enough to severely impact the movements of the enemy). Instead, as the French fleet approached the Irish coast, they swung west, taking anchor in Bantry Bay on the 10th of May. Bantry Bay is marked by a long and deep inlet, bordered on the north by the Beara Peninsula and by Sheep’s Head Peninsula to the south. In good weather, the Bay can provide decent sanctuary for ships because of the depths there, as well as several natural harbours, but in military terms, any fleet venturing into it carries the risk of being trapped behind a bottleneck.

Châteaux-Renault evidently had little fear of such a scenario, perhaps positing that his superior numbers would give him the advantage if he had to break out. On the 11th of May, he commenced unloading the men and supplies he had brought, but was watchful for any interference. It wasn’t long before it came, Admiral Hebert’s fleet following the French into the bay. He had caught sight of Châteaux-Renault’s fleet some time before and shadowed it to the present location, having come to rest outside Bantry Bay the night before.

Châteaux-Renault continued his unloading while setting up his largest ships for a defence. A fairly standard naval battle erupted between the two fleets at first, the ships laid out in parallel lines, blazing away at each other with cannon. After a time of this sort of combat, Châteaux-Renault pressed his advantage of holding the “weather gage”, that is, being upwind of the enemy vessels, and thus better able to manoeuvre.

With the weather gage, Châteaux-Renault unanchored his ship and drove at the English, forcing Herbert to withdraw his fleet out of the bay and into the open ocean. More importantly, the Royal Navy was sent hurtling back from the supply ships that were still offloading their cargo. Out in the Atlantic, a confusing and pell-mell engagement continued, for up to four hours. Herbert was unable to gain the advantage of the wind, while Châteaux-Renault, with much of his offensive options back in the Bay protecting the rest of the fleet, was unable (or unwilling) to press the attack too far.

Late in the afternoon, Châteaux-Renault choose to break off from the engagement, in order to return to the Bay and offer greater protection to the rest of the fleet. Herbert, having taken the worst of the fight and with many casualties, was unable to pursue. The French were able to finish their unloading, and then sailed away, Châteaux-Renault making for Brest. Herbert, many of his ships in a bad state of repair following the battle, made for the Scilly Isles and Spithead.

The result of the battle however, was more even than it appeared. The Royal Navy had taken a beating that would require over two months of repair for its ships, during which time the coast of Ireland was left largely unpatrolled. But it had survived the encounter, with no actual ships lost. Châteaux-Renault, much to the dismay of some of his subordinates, failed to do any real lasting damage to the enemy navy, withdrawing from the battle before he could completely gut it in a manner that could have been labelled decisive. That being said, he did succeed in his primary mission of getting the men, money and supplies he had been tasked with transporting safely ashore. Bantry Bay is a unique little moment in the military history of Ireland, even if popular remembrance of the battle, in Ireland and in the nations that contested it, has largely faded away.

There was plenty of regret to be had for the French in the long term, with the Williamite naval presence in Irish seas soon to swell to over 50 ships, from both England and the Netherlands. It would be some time before the French dared to take on this fleet the way it had at Bantry Bay, and the results of this can be seen almost immediately. In the north, the English efforts to relieve Londonderry by sea went almost entirely unchallenged by any Jacobite sea power, when even just a portion of Châteaux-Renault’s fleet could have driven Kirke away.

France was now fully engaged with England, the War of the Grand Alliance building up and up even as Londonderry fell under siege. James could rely upon French support for now, but if he wanted to regain his throne he was going to have do some fighting himself. His Jacobite troops in Ireland would soon face another huge test in Ulster.

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