Monday, December 29, 2008

The fourth siege of Waterford

The ancient Irish city of Waterford has seen and survived four major sieges in the last millennium. Each siege left its mark on the city and on the course of Irish history. The first siege in 1170 raised by “Strongbow” the Earl of Pembroke, hastened the beginning of English rule in Ireland. Barely two years later King Henry II would arrive in the city to claim the land for the crown of England and seek obeisance from all the Irish kings and bishops. The second (and only unsuccessful) siege occurred in 1495 when forces led by the Earl of Desmond attempted to foist Perkin Warbeck on the people as the pretender to the English throne. The resistance of Waterford earned it the motto “urbs intacta manet” ("remains the untaken city") from another grateful King Henry, the seventh. The third and longest siege was during Cromwell’s Irish reign of terror. For almost a year, his armies isolated the city and thousands died of starvation and disease before General Ireton accepted its exhausted surrender in August 1650.

The fourth and final siege came in the warm summer of 1922. While the weather may have been glorious, this was a mean and tragic time for Ireland as it cut itself to pieces in a murderous civil war. The new Free State government besieged Waterford in its campaign to defeat the rebels in the aftermath of the divisive treaty with Lloyd George’s government in Westminster. The odds were stacked. The Free State army had modern artillery and the support of the powerful organs of the church, the press and the captains of Irish industry. However, the defenders did have military expertise as the majority of the IRA’s officers supported the anti-Treaty forces. It was the south of Ireland which bore the brunt of the conflict and Waterford’s turn began on 18 July.

A West Waterford man named Pax Whelan led the Anti-Treaty forces in the city. They were poorly organised and content to wait for the attack. No attempt was made to secure the heights above the city north of the river. Anti-Treaty forces were instructed to operate independently in their own areas leading to slipshod communication and there was no overall plan. By contrast, the Free State side was much better prepared. It was led by former American cavalry officer Colonel John T. Prout assisted by two local men Paddy Paul and James McGrath. Paul was a gunnery officer in WW1 and then joined the IRA as brigadier of East Waterford. Paul and his enemy Whelan had worked together during the War of Independence and the pair led the only attack on British forces in Waterford: the unsuccessful ambush at Pickardstown near Tramore in January 1921.

But at the end of that war, Paddy Paul opted for the Free State side. The new government in Dublin struggled to enforce its authority and on 22 May 1922 they sent Paul with orders to take command of Waterford and secure the barracks. On arrival in town, he was arrested by anti-Treaty forces. Paul was injured in the arrest but later managed to escape from the Infirmary Hospital dressed as a nun. He fled back to Dublin to plot the re-capture of Waterford.

By 18 July he was back on top of Mount Misery overlooking the attack of his native city. It would not be easy. All approach roads were mined. The rebels were reinforced by volunteers from Cork and Kerry and had seized the barracks and fortified Ballybricken jail. They set up outposts in shops and hotels along the quay, the post office and Reginald’s Tower. They also opened the spans on the road and rail bridges across the Suir. They outnumbered their opponents with 700 defenders in the city facing 550 Free State troops, many of whom had served in the British army. But the Free Staters had power on their side: two artillery pieces including an 18 pounder placed over the railway station and one lighter calibre piece. The 18 pounder was initially hamstrung as it faced rapid fire from the quays and a sniper on Ballybricken hill but would eventually prove to be a devastating difference.

All businesses in the city closed down except for the Tramore railway which operated continuously through the four days of the siege. Most townsfolk took advantage of the sunny weather to evacuate to the seaside until the fall of the city. At 6:45pm on Tuesday 18 July the attack began in brilliant sunshine. Paul’s first shell landed near his own home near Brewery House in Newgate St. His mother was working in the kitchen and narrowly avoided injury. But the majority of shells found their mark landing in Barrack St or near Ballybricken jail.

The guns blazed away for four or five hours of firing on the first night. The eerie silence was shattered again at 6am the following morning as the guns opened up in excellent visibility. There were many direct hits on the barracks and the jail on top of the hill. Whelan moved his sharpshooters to Bilberry cliffs west of the quay and they managed to keep the attackers pinned down. The defenders inflicted heavy casualties from accurate machine gun fire from the post office on the quay with garrisons under the command of Ballybricken chemist Pierce Power. But the shelling continued all day.

During a lull in the fire, Prout moved his major artillery piece onto the bridge but was prevented from using it by persistent gunfire from across the river. Prout had to come up with an alternative plan. The following night 150 men led by Captain Ned O’Brien moved down the Rosslare railway to Giles Quay under the cover of darkness. O’Brien’s day job was a journalist for the Waterford News but now he was making the news not reporting it (he would later be killed on patrol in the city). His forces commandeered boats moored at the quay and rowed to the opposite shore. They encountered no resistance and suddenly the back door to the city was wide open.

At Newtown school, they encountered a motorised Anti-Treaty patrol. The attackers quickly captured the car and locked the occupants in the boot. They bypassed a rebel garrison in the park and found a prominent local Unionist known as “Lame” Dobbyn. Dobbyn was anxious to see the Republicans defeated and he gave the intruders the key of the Country Club on the strategic corner of the Mall and the Quay opposite Reginald’s Tower. The men entered the back of the building and overpowered a sleeping garrison stationed there. They had secured a vital corner of the city without firing a shot.

At 7:45am the next morning, they opened fire on the Tower across the road and also raked the Mall and the Quays with machine gun fire. The element of surprise gave Prout the opportunity he needed to secure the artillery on the bridge. Its gunfire from close range suddenly made the Quay garrison untenable. The republicans retreated to Ballybricken. When a direct hit exploded in the magazine of the artillery barracks that evening, the area had to be evacuated. The end was near.

Pax Whelan gathered his Dungarvan, Cork and Kerry units to escape to the west leaving Jerry Cronin in charge of a small band to defend the city. Cronin's men retreated to Ballybricken Hill to fight the final battle for Waterford. At 11:50am on Friday 21 July 1922, shellfire breached the jail walls. After some bitter hand-to-hand fighting, Cronin’s forces surrendered. The fourth siege of Waterford was over.

The rebels were dispatched to Kilkenny and Newbridge jails, none of them taking up the offer to join the Free State army and swear allegiance to the Provisional Government. Prout spent the weekend in an open car with Paul and McGrath touring the city. The two local men were able to point out Republicans who had escaped arrest. The civil war would drag on for almost another year in West Munster. On 24 May 1923 anti-Treaty leaders issued unceremonious orders to “dump arms”. The civil war was over. By its end 3,000 people were dead, and 21,000 prisoners were in jails and internment camps. The war left a legacy of bitterness that infected the Irish polity for decades to come.

New York ball could be Waterford Crystal’s last flourish

Workers in New York are putting the final touches to a dazzling Waterford crystal ball which will descend into Times Square on New Years Eve. The ball is over three and a half metres in diameter, weighs over five thousand kilos and is covered with 2,668 Waterford Crystal triangles. The massive new ball continues a Times Square new year tradition and will have a new permanent home on the roof of One Times Square. The $5 million project has taken a year to complete and engineers built an entire roof structure and reinforced the steel columns to cope with the ball’s weight. The ball was created at the crystal factory in Waterford and is a major marketing boost for the troubled glassware giant. God knows we need some joy coming into this new year," Waterford spokesman Peter Cheyney said. "That's the truth."

Cheyney’s relief for the New York project came on the same day as the announcement a US private equity fund was looking to buy out the company. Negotiators said the unnamed investor group were poised to take a controlling stake in struggling Irish crystal and ceramics manufacturer Waterford Wedgwood PLC for 600 million euros ($846 million). The company has until 2 January to make mounting loan payments or face the possible forced liquidation of assets. The date is the third postponement of loan repayment and there is now a race against time to save the company. Most of the glass is now manufactured in Eastern Europe with only the showrooms and a small operation left at its Waterford base.

If it happens, it will be the second time the industry will have gone under in glass's 230 year association with Waterford. While glass blowing dates back to techniques invented by the Phoenicians in the first century BC, it was relatively late arriving in Ireland. Before 1780 Irish glass was a pale imitation of the British product. England was influenced in the 16th century by Belgium which turn looked to the Italians. Antwerp was the chief glass making centre in northern Europe and attracted glass makers from Genoa and Venice. In 1571 Giacomo Verzelini came to London and was given sole royal licence to produce glass in the “thin fragile” Venetian style. In 1674 George Ravenscroft applied for a patent for a “particular sort of crystalline glass” made from high purity silica which was the forerunner of flint glass, also known as lead glass.

England developed its own lead glass style. German and Bohemian craftsmen brought their engraving skills to England in the peace and prosperity that followed the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. But in 1777 an excise tax to support the fight against the US war of Independence crippled the English and Scottish industry. In 1780 restrictions were lifted on Irish industry including manufacture of glass. Free trade in Ireland lasted until 1825. These 45 years were the great era of Irish glass, what glass historian Phelps Warren called “the Age of Exuberance”. The product was made in Dublin, Belfast and Cork, but it was the Waterford Glass House which quickly became pre-eminent.

The growth of Waterford’s glass industry coincided with a time of great prosperity for the city. Growth was fuelled by a newly improved mile-long Quay and its associated maritime industry which profited from provisions for the expanding Newfoundland fishing fleet. These opportunities were exploited by an emerging astute Quaker business community. One such Quaker family were the Penroses who initially made their money in ships' chandlery. In 1783 George Penrose and his nephew William (often erroneously assumed to be brothers) began glass manufacture with a £10,000 enterprise which employed 70 people to cut, blow and engrave glass.

A week before they opened for business, the Penroses placed an ad in the Dublin Evening Post on Saturday 4 October 1783 under the headline “Waterford Glass House.” The ad read: George and William Penrose having established an extensive Glass Manufacture in this city, their Friends and the Public may be supplied with all kinds of plain and cut Flint Glass useful and ornamental: they hope that when the Public know the low Terms they will be supplied at and consider the vast expense attending this weighty undertaking they will not take offence at their selling for Ready Money only. They are now ready to receive orders and intend opening their warehouse 10th of next month. Wholesale Dealers and Exporters will meet with proper Encouragement. September 22, 1783.”

Public relations aside, the key to the Penroses success was the employment of fellow Quaker, and master glassmaker, John Hill from Stourbridge, Worcestershire. Hill spent three years at Waterford and his knowledge of glass, chemistry, standards and quality and sense of design quickly established the brilliance of the Waterford product. In the early days, the factory obtained sand from nearby Woodstown strand. In later years they obtained high quality silica sand from the English port of King’s Lynn. But despite the quality and elegance of Hill's glass and the Penroses growing reputation, they struggled to make a profit. They sold the business in 1797 to the Gatchell family. Jonathan Gatchell turned it into a prosperous business. He used his connections and business acumen to expand the industry and gain an export foothold in America despite the negative effect of the 1800 Act of Union. He employed close to 200 people at the factory. But by 1826, heavy duties against crystal glass were setting back the industry. Conditions gradually worsened and by the middle of the century, the Irish glass industry was dead. Waterford’s factory shut down in 1851. Another hundred years would pass before glass would be made in the city again.

The citizens of Waterford never forgot the reputation and prestige Penrose glass had given the city and there were many attempts to restore the industry. The opportunity finally arose after World War II when refugee German, Czech and Italian glass cutters and artisans were enticed to Waterford to found a crystal factory. It began in Ballytruckle on a three acre lease. The first General Manager was the Czech immigrant Karel (Charles) Bacik and the chief designer was the Slovak Miroslav Havel. The two men (who both died recently) would devote the rest of their lives to Waterford and its crystal. In January 1948 a £15,000 development was mooted for the fast developing factory. Bacik and Havel trained up locals and by 1950 the factory settled on a new site at Johnstown with room for expansion. The plant employed 100 people and grew rapidly. It quickly reclaimed pride of place as Ireland’s foremost glassware company and was the great success of post-war Waterford industry. In the late 1960s production began at a 40 acre site in Kilbarry. The factory expanded three times and employed 2,000 people. In 1971 a second factory was built in Dungarvan. At the time, it was one of the largest handcraft industries in the world and its glass was unique in using the very highest lead content(thirty percent).

In 1986 Waterford Crystal took over the Wedgwood pottery group just as the winds of change were set to blow through the company. The late 1980s and 90s saw a slow but sure throttling of plant capacity and a steady stream of redundancies. In 2005, they closed the Dungarvan plant to consolidate its workforce in Waterford. Today much of the glass is produced more cheaply off-shore, ironically including the Czech Republic and Slovakia where many of the original designers hailed from. These shifts sharply reduced overhead costs but the company's crippling debts continued to mount. The falling dollar of much of the last decade badly hurt the company in its key US export market and its share price has been worthless for many months. Although the dollar has now bounced back, a combination of slow sales and the global credit crunch have put its financial future at risk and there have been two redundancy batches already this year. Unless the new mystery backers come to the party, Waterford Crystal could be set for another century of hibernation.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The story of New Geneva Barracks

Despite their close geographical proximity, the south eastern Irish counties of Wexford and Waterford have not always shared a close heritage. The two are separated by the broad expanse of Waterford Harbour and there are no bridges between them. Only in recent times have the two been linked up with the opening of the car ferry between Passage East in Waterford and Ballyhack in Wexford. But when Wexford rose in rebellion against the English in 1798, the county across the harbour remained quiet. Waterford’s only real link to the rebellion is a building just outside Passage with the unusual name of New Geneva Barracks.

In the late 18th century, Ireland was in a rare period of prosperity as Britain temporarily relaxed customs duties. In 1783, the new Irish parliament in Dublin was determined to fund a colony from Geneva who wanted to settle in Ireland. They were Protestants who wanted to leave their homeland after an unsuccessful rebellion against their Catholic French rulers. The Irish parliament voted £50,000 pounds to buy land and build a town to house the immigrants. The sum was increased by £6,000 pounds and land set out in the barony of Gaultier (east Waterford county) in 1653 for the support of Duncannon Fort (across the river in Co Wexford). These tenanted lands near Passage East were owned by the Alcock family, one of whom was MP for Waterford city. The government bought out the land from the Alcocks for £12,400 and compensated the tenants. They then began building with the intention of accommodating 1,000 Genevans. The public reason for bringing them over was to build a body of skilled merchants to give impetus to trade and commerce in the city of Waterford and the nation as a whole.

But there were ulterior motives. Authorities secretly hoped the Swiss Protestant ethos might infect the local Catholic population. Earl Temple, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote a letter to Grenville, the Chief Secretary, where he noted putting the Swiss in Waterford “might make an essential reform in the religion, industry and mores of the South who want it more”. This also meant setting up an educational establishment. The government wanted to establish a Genevan College but needed to keep it secret from the governors of Trinity College who had a monopoly on education.

But the Trinity governors never had to worry as the mission failed before it began. An advance party of Genevans arrived in Waterford determined to set up a silk industry. Work on the New Geneva site proceeded but concession talks between the Irish government and Genevan leaders broke down over persistent Swiss demands the government felt were unreasonable. The whole arrangement fell through, the Genevans returned home and the buildings were left derelict.

With the threat of an uprising in 1798, the Government took possession of New Geneva, raised the compound walls and provided accommodation for 1,500 soldiers. When fighting broke out in Wexford, Waterford remained peaceful. However the Government was uneasy if the United Irishmen had triumphed in New Ross, the nearby city and county of Waterford would have risen. The soldiers of New Geneva were suspicious and showed great cruelty towards locals. More than a century afterwards, the memory of the 1798 cruelties and outrages lingered among the people and New Geneva was to them a symbol of tyranny and oppression.

In Watty Cox’s Irish magazine for February 1816 there was a vivid account of the “blanketing” of a woman at Geneva Barracks in 1798. A Mrs O’Neill had travelled from Co Antrim to see her son imprisoned at the barracks. By bribing sentries she was permitted an interview but as soon as mother and son saluted each other, she was ordered into the presence of Colonel Scott and his wife. The couple subjected her to a rigorous examination and then handed her over to some highlanders for a “blanketing”. Blanketing was a common punishment whereby the soldiers would grab a blanket, strip the victim naked and hoist her in the air repeatedly. Mrs O’Neill suffered this indignity for more than 20 minutes. She implored soldiers to leave some clothes on but when Col Scott saw this departure from custom he was encouraged by his wife to cut off her clothes with his sword. The inhabitants of the area could see her naked body repeatedly rising and falling above the walls of the barracks. Afterwards the woman was taken to a neighbouring village where she died the next day. The fate of her son was not recorded.

Today all that remains of Geneva Barracks is a dilapidated farmhouse and the remains of watch towers erected in 1798. In the 19th century the lands passed to Lord Waterford who sold them to a local merchant. This man named Galwey dismantled the barracks and moved the stonework to augment his premises in Dungarvan. A marker now commemorates the Geneva site with a prisoner's description of the barracks as “the filthiest, most damp and loathsome prison, devoid of any comfort”. It is also remembered in James McBurney’s The Croppy Boy (which featured in James Joyce’s Ulysses) the last verse of which reads:
At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy”.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Brief Encounters: Raymond Chandler and Waterford

Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the great American crime writer Raymond Chandler, creator of the fictional detective Philip Marlowe. Anniversary books have started to emerge with the New York Times review last week of Judith Freeman’s “The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved” about his 30 year marriage to Cissy Chandler. The Irish city of Waterford should also have a part to play in any celebrations as his mother came from the city and both the mother and her only son spend many summers in the city at the turn of the 20th century.

In his book “Brief Encounters: Meetings with remarkable People”, Waterford-born author and radio documentary maker Bill Long (he also wrote a history of Irish lighthouses) wrote about his meetings with Chandler in London in the summer of 1958. The pair were neighbours; they met several times that summer and became friends largely due to the Waterford connection. On their first meeting, Chandler correctly picked Long’s Waterford brogue which pleased the American greatly as he deemed himself a “great judge of accents”.

Chandler’s mother Florence Thornton was from an old established Waterford Quaker legal family. The Thorntons had offices in Waterford, Cork and Dublin and Raymond inherited Thornton as his middle name. He told Long his mother was one of the Thorntons of Cathedral Square. According to Long he was grinning at the time “with the shadow of a cynical smile and the slightest edge of mockery in his tone”. Chandler enjoyed describing the family with mock pomposity: “I. Thornton and sons, solicitors and notaries public,” he intoned.

Chandler first went to Waterford with his mother after his alcoholic American father deserted the family when Ray was just seven. The Thornton family rallied round and they arranged for Florence and her son to leave America. After a short period in Waterford, they settled in London with a grandmother and aunt. For many of his pre-teen and teenage years, Chandler and his mother spent every summer in Waterford. “Uncle Ernest – my mother’s brother that is – was the head of the family then, and of the legal practice. Ruled both with an iron hand in an iron glove. A regular old tyrant was uncle Ernest! Upper middle class Protestants the Thorntons and god-awful snobs! Not just Uncle Ernest but the whole family were god-awful snobs. Full of bloody righteousness. Tension in the house all the time. And every goddamn thing had to be Protestant. The maids, the cook, even the man who worked in the garden.”

Despite the snobbery, Chandler was happy on his holidays. "I always had a good time in Waterford," he told Long. Chandler loved to reminisce about the upper-class Waterford families. There was the Dawneys, the Grubbs, the Carews and the Congreves, mostly Quaker or Protestants at whose homes he played tennis and croquet. Long noted Chandler’s childhood experiences in Waterford made an indelible impression. Summers with the Thorntons gave him an appreciation of social distinctions in a society which Long described as “neither urban nor rural but county”. Chandler admitted the Thornton snobbery had rubbed off on him. He hated to be called an Irish American because in his estimation that usually mean “Catholic and working class”. The Thorntons, he said, "saw to it that I grew up with a ferocious contempt for Catholics and to this day, I have a problem with that”. He continued, "the only Irish patriots with any brains came from the professional classes”. To Chandler, this meant being Protestant, but Long thought the real issue was not religion but class and education. Chandler thought it was more important where people came from rather than where they were going.

During his holidays, he enjoyed walking around the Mount Congreve estate a few miles outside Waterford on the banks of the River Suir. The Congreves were fellow upper-class Protestants and clients of the Thorntons. Chandler preferred some of the homelier aspects of the estate. “What I remember best,” said Chandler, “is the smell of the tobacco the old bothy-man smoked in his enormous bent-shank pipe. I remember resolving when I was ten or eleven at Mount Congreve to smoke a pipe when I grew up. And by God, I did and still do!”

The city also left an indelible imprint on the writer. He and Long swapped childhood memories of a long-gone bookshop in Cathedral Square. The shop was called Stickyback Power’s. Power is a common Waterford name but neither Chandler nor Long could remember why this Power gained his unusual nickname. Chandler loved the bookshop and told Long about the germ of an idea to set a Philip Marlowe novel using Waterford and the bookshop as locales. The storyline had Marlowe on holidays in Ireland and in a pub on the quays in Waterford. There he witnesses a sailors’ brawl. Later he hears one of the sailors has been murdered in the brawl and his body has been found slumped in the corner of a bookshop. Marlowe agrees to the captain of the ship’s request to investigate the murder which leads him into the low life of the city and he discovers a vicious prostitution racket.

Having given Long an outline of the plot, he asked him whether there was ever much prostitution along the quays. Long said Chandler wasn’t really interested in the answer and the project never came to fruition. Chandler’s health was poor in 1958 and his workrate was low. Long never met him again after that summer and he found out that Chandler died a year later of pneumonia at his villa in La Jolla, California. Chandler never returned to the city of his childhood but never forgot it. “You know of all the places – and I mean all the places – I’ve lived in,” he told Long, “Waterford is the place, that in the mind, draws me back all the time.”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Conor Cruise O’Brien dies

The death has taken place in Dublin of Irish intellectual giant Conor Cruise O’Brien. He was 91. O’Brien’s brilliant career led to important roles in politics, diplomacy, journalism, academia and the world of literature. Leading the tributes for Cruise O’Brien was Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen who said he was blessed with a strong intellect and strong intellect and a leading light in Irish life in many spheres. “While Dr Cruise O'Brien's political views were not always in accordance with those of my own party over the years,” said Cowen, “I never doubted his sincerity or his commitment to a better and more peaceful Ireland".

Cowen’s reference to Cruise O’Brien’s political views was his major involvement in the regeneration of the Irish Labour Party in the 1970s. His biggest fame in his native land was his stint as Minister for Post and Telegraphs during the Garret Fitzgerald-led Fine Gael and Labour coalition government between 1973 and 1977. During office, he was renowned for his strong anti-IRA stance and he enforced controversial strong media censorship before he was voted out of office in the Fianna Fail 1977 landslide election win.

Although O’Brien was subsequently elevated to the Irish Upper House (the Seanad), his main influence was in other fields. He was editor-in-chief of the London Sunday broadsheet The Observer, and a historian who wrote several critically acclaimed books. He was also appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Dublin. He always remained an outspoken opponent of republicanism and was for a brief period in the 1990s a member of the now defunct United Kingdom Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. However he was later forced to resign after publishing his memoir where he called on Unionists to consider the benefits of a united Ireland.

The roots of Cruise O’Brien’s political and anti-republican leanings can be found in his birthright. His father Frank Cruise O'Brien was a journalist who edited a key 19th century tract on the pervasive influence of the clergy on Irish politics. His mother Kathleen Sheehy was an Irish language teacher, grammarian and Suffragette whose father was a member of the Irish Parliamentary Party and a Land League organiser. Their son Conor was born in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines in 1917 as the Great War raged but as Irish opinion began to turn against Britain. Frank died when Conor was 10 so the strong-minded Kathleen was the major influence on her son.

She gave him a mixed education. His first school was Muckross College, a Catholic convent school. Later he went to Sandford Park, which was nominally secular but strongly imbued with a Protestant ethos. The brilliant pupil won a scholarship to study Irish and French at Trinity. He overcame the devastation of his mother’s death in 1938 and supported himself by tutoring and journalism. He married young, enrolled with the Labour Party and joined the Irish Civil Service on graduation in 1942. It did not take long for Cruise O’Brien to become a leading figure in the Foreign Ministry. He played a major role in the agenda of the UN notably in the organisation of China's admission to the assembly. He was also caught up in the Congolese Civil War in 1961 and controversially ordered UN troops into action. He was ditched after the UN deaths mounted up and he resigned from the Irish civil service.

Despite this, he had a good reputation in Africa and became the vice-chancellor of the University of Ghana for three years. When New York University offered its Albert Schweitzer chair in the Humanities, he left Ghana and President Nkrumah saw him off, thanking him "for what you did for the university, whatever it was". During his Congolese adventure he met the poet Máire Mac An tSaoi. His marriage had failed by 1962 and he and Maire became romantically involved.

In 1969 he returned to Ireland, where he was elected to the Dail for Dublin North-East. When Labour agreed to a Coalition with Fine Gael in 1973, it was obvious Cruise O’Brien would become a cabinet minister. His most infamous act in power was Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act which banned Sinn Fein and IRA members from being interviewed on RTE. Given that the state broadcaster had a monopoly in radio and TV at the time, it was effectively a nationwide censorship. While the rule was introduced by Fianna Fail in 1971, Cruise O’Brien greatly strengthened its provisions. The act went so far as to prevent a Sinn Fein member from speaking about a trade union dispute in which he was the spokesperson. The law was eventually repealed in 1993. O'Brien believed that there was too much sympathy for Sinn Fein in RTE saying "If the Provos are successful, there will be civil war into which the south will be drawn."

His views on the North brought him into conflict with Charles Haughey. Cruise O’Brien coined the phrase GUBU ("grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented") which were the flowery words used by Haughey to describe the arrest of double murderer Malcolm Macarthur in the home of the attorney general, Patrick Connolly. Cruise O'Brien was a tireless critic of Haughey not only about his stance on Northern Ireland, but he also publicly questioned his integrity years before any large-scale evidence emerged that Haughey was on the take. It was Cruise O’Brien who said “man watches his history on the screen with apathy and an occasional passing flicker of horror or indignation.” His own history will be the deserved subject of more than an occasional passing flicker.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Rain and sacrifice in Tangier

Despite many physical advantages, Tangier is not an easy place to fall in love with. Nestled under the Rif Mountains between the Straits of Gibraltar and Cape Spartel, this geographically significant city stares out to Spain, straddles the Mediterranean and the Atlantic and also forms a crucial land bridge between Europe and Africa. Yet despite all these natural advantages, modern Tangier seems mean, gritty and indefinably scary. All I saw was a poor town with a dirty beach in the rain.

Others have seen a more romantic side to Tangier when the charm was not quite so faded. It was the city the producers had in mind for the film “Casablanca” and arguably has as cinematic a name. Tangier was the wartime setting for spies and spivs. But when another movie came out in 1942 with the title Algiers, the makers switched Rick’s Café to the more prosaic financial and commercial capital of Casablanca. Tangier has long been the main European diplomatic settlement of Morocco on the fault line between French and Spanish domination. Legally it was an international zone from 1923 until Morocco’s independence in 1956. While the rest of Morocco was under French rule, Tangier was governed by the consuls of eight European nations and had three official languages. During the war it was ruled by neutral Spain but retained an anarchic quality. According to the city’s most notable ex-pat Paul Bowles, Tangier was a place where “every fourth person was a smuggler, a spy or a refugee from justice in his native land”.

Bowles spent the last fifty years of his life here and the town (as well as Fes) was the setting for his first novel The Sheltering Sky. Inspired by Bowles’s description of the city, William Burroughs lived there for several years in two stints in the mid 1950s. Tolerant Tangier was ideal for his hedonistic lifestyle and inspired him to write The Naked Lunch. Back in 1867, another American writer Mark Twain said the houses were so jammed together it seemed like "a crowded city of snowy tombs". The city was also a muse for Henri Matisse. He stayed many times at the now derelict Hotel Villa de France where he painted the view. "I have found landscapes in Morocco," he claimed, "exactly as they are described in Delacroix's paintings."

I got no sense of Delacroix’s paintings when I was there. But I was doubly handicapped. Tangier is probably not at its liveliest in the rain and my wet stay also coincided with Eid al-Adha, the festival of the “sacrifice”. The only people on the streets were the occasional gang of youths putting a ram’s head on a bonfire to re-enact Abraham’s sacrifice in lieu of his son Isaac. I was not aware of my coincidental timing until I woke up in the morning and heard a strange sound of silence coming from the street. The normal mad Moroccan hubbub was missing. All the shops were shut, the streets were empty. Even the hustlers pushing dope were quiet.

This eeriness was in stark contrast to the mayhem of the two days before. I arrived late at night after an exhausting and delayed eight hour train trip from Fes. When we got off the train, I was immediately approached by a petit taxi driver who offered to take me to the centre for 40 dirhams. Thinking the fare should be about half that, I haggled with him and said twenty. His side came down to 30 but I still shook my head in refusal. But he was unmoved and drifted off seeking more favourable succour (sucker?). Suddenly I realised the expected deluge of better offers weren’t there and there were no more taxi drivers around. I turned around to look for my guy and was prepared to accept the 30 but he had disappeared into the throngs.

That left a long walk into town. This was the last thing I needed after arriving two hours late. I heartily cursed my overly hard bargaining stance. As usual with Morocco, there were a distinct lack of signposts giving any useful information but I asked a couple of people along the way and eventually found my way into the heart of town after about 30 to 40 minutes of rolling my luggage along.

There weren’t many hotels to speak of; those I found looked closed for winter. From a distance I could see the imposing landmark of Tangier’s most famous hotel towering over the casbah. The Moorish-style El Minzah was the epitome of international zone elegance but a bit too salubrious for a grotty backpacker. Desperate for a bed, I probably would have paid its exorbitant rates for one night until I spied the more homely accommodation of the Pension Gibraltar across the road. Its seven euros a night accommodation may have lacked a sense of history, but it was much more in my price range.

From here it was just a short hop to the top of the medina and the Grand Socco. Socco is the Spanish word for souk. The market has moved leaving the socco as a meeting place and the best spot in Tangier to hail a cab. In a beautiful 1940s building (the former Rif Cinema) is the new Cinematheque de Tanger with its reputation for showing experimental and arthouse cinema. Across the road are the arched gates that lead to the small but circuitous medina. Down the hill towards the port is the Petit Socco, a supposed hive of prostitution, drug dealing and human smuggling.

Also down the hill lies the seaport linking Morocco with Spain in an hour. The tangle of fishing boats next door ply the waters at a slower pace but the neglect of the city can be seen further on at a beachfront that has seen better days. The end of the International Zone in 1956 was catastrophic for Tangier's economy as the foreigners deserted the hotels, leaving them as decaying and empty shells. According to The Independent, Tangier may be on the rise again. It says King Mohammed VI, who came to the throne in 1999, has recognised the economic potential of the city and is giving it a facelift. “There is an energy and optimism about the city,” says the English paper, “and it seems set to flourish once more.” While I did not see too much evidence of this, I hope they are right. Tangier is certainly a city with great potential. And I’m sure the old lush would have looked a lot more appealing under Bowles’ sheltering sky of sunshine.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Finding my feet in Fes

Most people expect to get lost in the medina in Fes, but my problem was just finding it in the first place. It should be difficult to miss. This labyrinthine sprawling medina is the size of 300 football fields and the largest pedestrianised space in the world. Home to 150,000 people, Fes al Bali is a mosaic of mosques, madrassas and mad souks. For over twelve hundred years people have lived on its tangled warrens of tiny streets and alleys that break out like sores in every direction. The medina is relatively self-contained and is surrounded by forbidding high perimeter walls that are penetrated in a relatively few locations by historic city gates. But where the hell was it?

I had a map which was well-nigh useless. It was torn from the pages of a Fes tourist brochure from my hotel and it showed the three main areas of the city. But it gave little to work on for street level directions. I did manage to find my way to the Jewish medina which was closest to the new town where I was staying. The Jewish medina was about 1.5 km from the nouvelle ville (the new town built during the French occupation) and the main medina of Fes el Bali was another 1.5 km further distant. Or so the man who would be my guide told me.

This was the chap who attached himself to me when I got to Fes railway station the previous night. I had arrived after a long and late eight hour trip from Marrakech. I was tired and glad of assistance. He could speak good English and walked me to towards a local cheap hotel. He stood there waiting as I checked in and asked what time in the morning I was planning to go to the medina. “About 9am,” I thoughtlessly answered before immediately wondering why he was asking the question. “Why do you ask?” I asked. “I am your guide,” he replied confidently.

Well, this was news to me. I certainly didn’t want to be hamstrung by a guide walking through the medina, even if it was a rabbit warren. “I don’t want a guide,” I told him. He told me I needed a guide, “Fes is a big place, you will get lost.” By now I was wanting him to get lost and I insisted I was doing without. Then we cut to the chase. “Didn’t I find you a nice, cheap hotel?” he said. I could not deny this and realised I would have to pay him off now. “Yes,” I said, “and here is five dirham for you.” He was still not satisfied having seen I’d gotten ten dirham in change from the hotel bill. “You give me the ten dirham change,” he insisted. I relented and gave him the ten. I never saw him again.

The following morning however, I was having partial feelings of regret. It wasn’t so much I needed help getting round the medina. It was simply a matter of locating an entrance to it. Surely a 300-hectare walled city would be easy to find? On the map, I followed the road past the Jewish medina that seemed to be taking me to the main Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) entrance but instead I ended up in a small street that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I knew from the medina walls and the contours of the hill around that I was in the vicinity but the entrance way eluded me. I decided I would at least explore the Jewish medina while I was here.

Barely 150 Jews now live in Fes but they have long played an important role in the commercial and cultural life of the city. In 808AD, Sultan Idriss II admitted large numbers of Jews from Andalusia. He wanted them for their commercial skills and wide regional contacts. They were also a lucrative source of revenue as they each paid an annual tax of 30,000 dinars. The golden age of the Jewish community in Fes would last for nearly three hundred years. But the community was eventually massacred or forced to flee by fanatical Muslim sects who could not tolerate their presence.

While my presence was tolerated, some of my photography was not. The snaps of the long row of busy market stalls were fine but when I took photos of the royal palace at the top end of the Jewish medina, I incurred the wrath of the local constabulary. After one such photo, a gendarme chased me up the street. He didn’t like the last snap I took. “Show me the photo,” he demanded. I took out the camera and showed him the last photo. “Delete,” he commanded in a voice that brooked no argument. I deleted it there and then. He was satisfied. As he walked away I pointed to the opposite wall and asked was it ok to photograph that. “Yes,” he said.

A bit bemused by local photography rules, I walked along the garden walls north of the Jewish medina where I saw a good-sized map pinned to the wall. It offered me the good news that if I kept walking along that road, I would eventually arrive at the big medina; the Fes el Bali. Sure enough the road led to a large enclosed space and a gate at the northern end of the medina. I wandered through this gate but once again found myself in a maze of unpromising looking and empty pedestrian streets that led to numerous dead ends. Was this to be an episode out of Kafka where I could never find the entrance to the Castle?

I beat a hasty retreat back to the gate and satisfied myself with walking down a marketplace on the outside walls of the medina. Here at least were large crowds. Lo and behold while fascinated by the market wares I suddenly found myself back inside the medina and on what seemed to be the main drag, or one of them at least (as it turned out, it was indeed the main street through the medina).

Pleased but still a bit nervous I cagily walked further into the claustrophobic maelstrom being careful not to take any turns off I could not replicate at a late time. Where was Ariadne and her ball of string when you needed her? I followed the crowds on the main street taking me down the hill. I hadn’t found the Bab Boujloud but it seemed I was doing alright without it. From what I’d read, there were two reasons why a guide was not necessary. The first was that the medina was on a hill, so if in doubt keep walking down and you will eventually reach an exit. The second was the eight-starred signposts scattered around the medina which led to significant landmarks (I hadn’t really noticed these so far).

The streets were full of frenzied commerce. There were sidewalk cafes and souks and endless rows of shops that sold leather goods from the medina’s own tanneries. There were brass works and copper works; there were craft shops and dye pits, electrical goods, fashions and fruits, and there were all sorts of animal foods (pigmeat excepted). The bloodcurdling sight of a camel’s head perched on a butcher’s counter took a bit of getting used to. There were rows of poultry shops all ready to chop off chooks’ heads at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile all around, men carried sheep in trolleys to destinations unknown. Donkeys carrying impossible loads were led by craggy old men who shouted “balek! balek!” (which translates roughly as “get out of the way quick!”) whenever they needed to get past you on a narrow street. This urgency was even more apparent when going downhill as they made a rapid gravity-assisted plunge through the medina.

The straight path of the road finally ran out at the entrance to the massive Karaouine Mosque. The mosque can hold 20,000 people but non-Muslims are not allowed to enter. So I took the right hand turn taking me further down the hill. This way eventually led to a triangular opening at Nejarine Square. Here, said a sign, the medina brass works were all located and sure enough wherever I looked I could see (and very much hear) the clunking of hammers on all sort of brass instruments and utensils. There was no obvious way forward from here and several possibilities. I tried to be a bit more adventurous and took some of the different paths always figuring I could make it back out from here. One of the paths took me to an exit from the medina, the Place R’cif. Great, I thought, now I have at least two escape routes. Working my way back to Nejarine Square brass works, I finally noticed the eight point directional arrows. And at the map in the centre of the square, I realised there were several routes that led between significant medina landmarks.

Armed with this crucial new knowledge, I started to explore some of the paths. The signposts weren’t always there at a fork in the road, or even sometimes wrong when they were there, but generally speaking they were a godsend for getting around the casbah. Through various wanderings I found several other exits including the Bab Guissa and the Bab R’Mila (which I renamed the Roger Milla Gate in honour of the Cameroonian football great). On my way back from one of these gates, I found the entrance to the tanneries. Several guides offered their services for payment but I wasn’t interested. I climbed through some stairs where leather wares were being sold and found the balcony where the whole tanning operation could be admired in all its glory. In the gap between buildings, rows of holes held dyes of all different colours. The process hasn’t changed in centuries. Workers stood in several of the holes and washed the hides. On the side wall, hides hung in the sun to dry. There must have been at least fifty holes of dyes in the part I saw. It stunk which shouldn’t surprise as the dyes are made of acids, pigeon shit and cow piss. As I held my nose, someone shouted at me, presumably demanding money. I ignored this, avoiding eye contact and fled the balcony as quickly as I could. I made my way back to Nejarine Square and finally found an eight-point star that was pointing the way to the mysterious Bab Boujloud.

It turns out that the road that led to the Bab was more or less parallel to the road I took to enter the medina. I didn’t find it immediately, there were several twists and turns and bad bab information that continually sent me back to the square from whence I came. But after taking a different route though the market I found the long alley back up the hill that led to the Boujloud. The monumental gate dates only to the French occupation in 1913 but the ruins of the 12th century original are right next to it. The modern gate was under scaffolds for renovations. After five or six hours tramping around the medina, I finally called it quits and made my way up the hill one last time. The paths were now heaving with people and it took a while to get out. But at least it didn’t require a guide.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Djemaa el Fna: Marrakech’s Assembly of the Dead

It seems odd travelling on an Irish airline from France to Morocco. The onflight ads are jauntily delivered in an Irish-tinged English. Yet the flight is packed with French and Moroccans heading from Marseilles to Marrakech and most of the other departures from the terminal were the same airline’s flights to Agadir, Fez and Casablanca. The carrier is of course Ryanair. The budget airline has a serious bums on seats policy and they have made significant inroads into the French-Moroccan market. As for me, this flight for 10 euro was too good to pass up. The hidden extras of checked-in baggage and credit card payment more than doubled the cost but it was still ridiculously cheap compared to European train travel. Others evidently agreed. There is not a spare seat on this plane.

And so when flight FR5152 landed on time in Marrakech, the happy travellers greet the Ryanair horserace jingle with cheers, clapping and hoots of laughter. When we get off there is much jostling for position in the passport line. The local immigration police take their time processing the queue and have to type in all the garbage information from the immigration cards onto their computers. I say garbage as my handwriting was barely legible and when asked where I was staying in Marrakech (at that stage I had no idea where I was going to stay the night), I put down “Marrakech Radisson” in a probably vain bid to seem wealthy and therefore not worth hassling. I’m not even sure there is a Radisson in Marrakech, but I knew that on my budget I certainly wasn’t staying there even if there was.

Similarly I avoid the fleet of Mercedes “grand taxies” lined up outside the terminal building and find a cheap and cheerful local bus to get me to the “centre ville”. I’m hoping that means the medina and not the new European town. The heart of Marrakech and its undoubted centre ville is the Djemaa el Fna. The name in Arabic could either mean “assembly of the dead” or “place of the vanished mosque” but there is nothing ghostlike about the Djemaa. It is a massive square packed day and night by locals and tourists alike. It is a heritage site listed by UNESCO whose cultural space is a “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity”.

At least, that is what it said on the cracked plaque in the square. It didn’t take long for me to see it. Thankfully the bus dropped off its load in the medina at a convenient spot between Djemaa el Fna and the magnificent 12th century Koutoubia mosque, the largest in Marrakech. Around me was a flurry of activity and noise. The road space was a seething mass of activity and a never-ending contest between cars, buses, taxies, donkeys, carts, horses, mopeds, bikes and many intrepid pedestrians. It looked daunting but when I was forced to cross the road the sea of traffic miraculously parted for me. I made it to the other side safely enough even if a few motorbikes whizzed by a bit too close for comfort.

On the other side of the road, I found my “Radisson”. This was a one star just-north-of-fleabag hotel, perfect for me. It was clean enough, and most importantly it was just a couple of hundred metres from the Djemaa el Fna. The huge square is teeming with people and noise. The squeal of singers is matched by the pounding beat of African drums. From the distance it looks as if the square is ablaze with pales of smoke rising above the rooftops. On closer inspection the fires are from the endless rows of grills and the victims are piles of chickens, pigeons, snails, pigs on spits and a bevy of other unfortunate roasted animals. Perhaps the assembly of the dead doesn’t refer to humans, after all.

Each of the restaurants comes with its own aggressive spruiker or two. These guys won’t take no for answer. Or even several noes. They plant a menu into your hand, attempt to steer you to a table and even if you are still insistently against the idea, they implore you to at least take a look at the kitchen in all its outdoor glory. And assuming you are not vegetarian but are hungry (like I was), you won’t resist their charms for very long.

Charms of a different kind take place in the square during daylight hours. The musicians are still there but instead of beating out a frenzied rhythm, the music now attempts to raise snakes from their torpor. There seems to be dozens of snake charmers scattered along the square and when walking it pays to be careful and watch where you are going. Those snakes seem drugged and probably harmless but I would imagine a dozy viper wouldn’t take too kindly to being trodden on.

Behind the square lies a dense network of souks selling every produce under the sun. And there is a sun here, even in December. It gets very cold at night as winds drift down from the nearby snowy High Atlas Mountains. But during the day, the warmth comes as a pleasant change from the European winter.

The earliest travellers to Marrakech called it Morocco City. The word Morocco is derived from Marrakech which has a Berber root “murakush” meaning land of god. It was the country’s capital for many centuries with the Djemaa el Fna the city’s heart and soul. Here people met and listened to storytellers spinning their yarns. Acrobats, musicians, dancers, charmers and healers vied for attention and money. The square became a hub of trade and entertainment, a gift it has not lost to this day.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Sur les Papes d’Avignon

It should probably come as no surprise that the idea for the world’s largest Gothic building should come from a Goth. Not one of the East Germanic barbarian tribe who terrorised the Romans in the fourth century, nor a black-dressed post-punk pallid type that gauntly haunt the streets of most cities in current times. No, this Goth is Raymond Bertrand de Got, who was crowned pope as Clement V in 1305. A haughty Frenchman, he decided to be crowned in Lyon not Rome. After his election, he went one step further and moved his whole court and papacy out of Rome and into the southern French city of Avignon.

Clement V was a controversial choice for pope. The conclave of cardinals took twelve months to elect him as it was split down the middle between French and Italian cardinals. Clement was a pawn of the powerful French king Philip IV better known as Philip Le Bel (“the fair”). The king’s nickname referred to his hunky good looks not his morals. In truth Philip the Fair was Machiavellian before the word was even invented and used his influence over Clement to destroy the Knights Templar so he could remove himself from the debts he owed them. It was under Philip’s influence that Clement moved his papal court to Avignon so he could be closer the real action that was taking place in France.

Strictly speaking, Avignon was not a French city at the time but a papal enclave surrounded by French territory. In fact Avignon would not become part of France until the time of the Revolution. The city stood on a strategic position on the Rhone river on the main route between Rome and Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, the shrine of St James, and Europe’s most important pilgrimage destination since the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin’s armies in 1187. Avignon had long prospered from this lucrative trade of pilgrims.

But to get past Avignon required a treacherous crossing of the Rhone. The city’s only crossing over the hazardous waters was the St Benezet bridge (the Pont d’Avignon) which was regularly washed away by the fierce currents of Spring and early Summer when the upstream Alpine ice was melting. The bridge was finally put out of use by a catastrophic flood in 1668 and remains today as a sort of pier poking out over half the Rhone. Yet as the only fixed crossing of the river between Lyon and the Mediterranean, the Pont and the town it served were hugely important.

Clement V (and Philip the Fair) were clearly aware of the town’s importance when he (they) chose it as the site of the new papacy in 1305. But it was one thing to choose a new Vatican, what was really needed was a new St Peter’s. And so began the creation of the enormous Palais des Papes. Clement V did not build it himself and was content to as a guest at the Dominican monastery than overlooked the town but his successors were far more ambitious.

For most of the 14th century, Avignon would become the home of the popes and the imposing Palais des Papes would be their residence. Clement's French successor John XXII stayed in the city and upgraded the Dominican residence but it took a third French pope Benedict XII to build an impressive palace at Avignon befitting the papacy. Under his guidance a massive Palais Vieux took shape flanked by high towers. Under the popes that followed him, Clement VI, Innocent VI, and Urban V, the building was expanded to form what is now known as the Palais Neuf.

While a succession of popes became ensconced in Avignon, Rome never forgot the slight of losing its primary source of power. Finally under Guillaume Grimoard, crowned as Urban V, it won back its precious prize in 1367. But it was a short lived triumph. With numerous cities of the Papal States in revolt, Urban was forced to return to Avignon where he died in 1370. His successor Gregory XI would be the last of the official Avignon popes. After he died, the Romans rioted to ensure the election of a local pope. But the new man, Urban VI, was quickly disowned by the hierarchy. A majority of bishops elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope taking the name Pope Clement VII and re-established a papal court in Avignon. The great Western schism had begun.

Now thanks to the Church’s own manipulations, Christendom had a pope and an antipope. But which was which? Britain, Ireland, Portugal and Rome supported Urban, while France supported Clement. The Holy Roman Empire could not wholly support either Roman emperor. But in 1398 France withdrew its support from Clement’s successor Benedict XIII and that made him officially an antipope. The Council of Constance in 1414 ensured the legitimacy of the Roman line, and excommunicated Benedict formally ending the Avignon line.

The city remained a papal possession and a nepotistic papal nephew continued to rule the town. Finally in 1797 the treaty of Tolentino sanctioned the transfer of the city to the French state. Today the city of Avignon proudly wears its papal (and anti-papal) history on its chest. The Palais des Papes towers over the city and the Rhone. The city is a capital of culture and remains an important outpost of Catholic history, antipopes or not.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Prague and Kafka: A cage in search of a bird

Franz Kafka was everywhere. Wherever you looked in Prague, the unsmiling visage of the city’s greatest writer popped up. The pensive face was in shop windows, on road signs, postcards, t-shirts, coffee mugs, graffiti and even appearing on beer bottles. Such ubiquity seemed Kafkaesque seeing as the writings of the man himself dealt largely with matters that were usually not quite within reach. In 2008 Prague, it seemed, Kafka was all too easy to grasp.

Yet nothing is ever quite what it seems with this Czech genius. During the Communist era, all mention of Kafka was suppressed. His nightmarish visions were too dangerous a reminder of the totalitarian mentality the country was then immersed in. Indeed it seems bizarre to even call Kafka Czech; for as a German speaking Jew, he could not speak the native language of the city he was born and grew up in. He never explicitly mentioned Prague in any of his work, yet most of it is clearly set here. Like James Joyce and Dublin, Kafka had a love-hate relationship with the city of his birth and the city informed his every written word.

Franz Kafka was born on 3 July 1883 into a middle-class Jewish family. His father Hermann was a merchant and haberdasher and a domineering presence. His mother Julie came from an intellectual, spiritual family of the Jewish merchant and brewer Jakob Lowy. Kafka inherited his delicate intelligence from his mother but also got some of his father’s spiritedness. Young Franz grew up in the Jewish quarter of the old city. Every day he walked through the cobbled old streets to school and he graduated from the German University in Prague as Doctor of Law in 1906. He spent much of his productive years as an employee of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire as an insurance accident assessor for the Workers Accident Insurance Bureau. He retired early due to ill-health and died of tuberculosis in 1924. During this time he also wrote some of the most enigmatic fiction of the twentieth century though very few of his famous works were ever completed.

On a snowy Saturday last week, I went to the newly opened Franz Kafka museum at Cihelná 2 in the riverbank shadow of the castle to understand more about the man and his mystique. In the entry courtyard of the museum is an amusing tableau. Visitors are immediately confronted with the rotating statues of two men en pissant. The gentlemen are not furtive urinators. No, they stand proudly and openly, heads arched back, in a puddle of their own making and wave their willies around with seemingly gay abandon. I don’t recall ever reading anything in Kafka related to urine, but perhaps the sculptor was merely taking the piss.

What I was aware of was that Kafka lived in the shadow of his father. The museum exhibit opens up with a rasping letter that Franz wrote to his father. It begins “You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you.” It goes on to contrast the businessmen father who was “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind” with the son who is “a timid child” and castigates him for failures as a father and his inability to talk calmly about “a subject you don't approve of or even one that was not suggested by you”. The letter continues to forensically diagnose their relationship and perhaps mercifully, was never read by its intended recipient.

Kafka was equally harsh to the women in his life. He was engaged twice to the Berliner Felice Bauer and broke it off both times. Bauer finally married another man in early 1919. She had loved Kafka, but could not endure his depressions and manic episodes any longer. A year later Kafka became involved with the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská. Milena was 13 years his junior but they were very close. But the relationship was severely hamstrung by the slight problem that Jesenská was already married. Jesenská would eventually die in a Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbruck (Kafka's two sisters died at Auschwitz). In 1923 Kafka found a new companion, Dora Diamant, a Polish Zionist. The pair travelled together during the last year of Kafka’s life, and after his death she moved to Tel Aviv.

Due to his tuberculosis, Kafka spent that last year moving in and out of sanitaria. He died of starvation. In the last few weeks of his life his condition made it too painful to digest any food and because intravenous therapy had not been developed, there was no way to feed him. He wrote his last letter to his parents on 2 June 1924, a day before he died. “It is not a shady well, it is life, dear sweet life preserved in a well form”. He died in Berlin with Dora at his side and his body was taken back to Prague where he was buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague-Zizkov.

He ordered Dora and his great friend and publisher Max Brod to destroy all his writings. Diamant complied but Brod refused, after initial misgivings. It is to his credit that we owe the existence to Kafka’s great works “The Trial”, “The Castle”, “America” and “Metamorphosis”. As the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges observed about Brod’s actions, “we owe a full knowledge of the most singular works of the century to this case of happy disobedience.” But the last words belong to Kafka himself, as quoted by the museum: “the messiah will arrive only after we no longer need him.”

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A pilgrimage to Auschwitz

It felt entirely appropriate getting to Auschwitz by train. My slow rattler was taking two hours to get me just 65km from Krakow to the town of Oswiecim. The cold snowy November weather merely added to the terrible sense of identification I was channelling as the train seemed to plough through the whitened fields. But it was superficial identification. For one, I had a view – something which would have been denied the hundreds of thousands who made the fateful journey in the war years - secondly I was here voluntarily, and thirdly I had a return ticket; again a luxury denied those doomed to take this journey in the 1940s.

It seemed doubly shocking that such a place could lie in the shadow of beautiful and graceful Krakow. The former capital of Poland remained the centre of the country’s scientific, artistic and cultural life in the middle of the last century. The city also had a flourishing Jewish population. Yet as the capital of the so-called "general government" during the Nazi occupation (with governor-general Hans Frank setting up his headquarters in the city’s imposing Wawel Castle), it made perfect sense for the area to be the centre of Hitler’s plans for a Final Solution to the “Jewish problem”.

The unassuming nearby town of Oswiecim was perhaps an appropriately grisly choice to house a German death camp. Prior to the war, it had a thriving Jewish population of its own – they even formed the majority of the town. They were a largely Yiddish speaking people who called the town by its German name Auschwitz. The outskirts of the town also held an old Polish brick barracks which was expropriated by the Nazis during the invasion in 1939. Initially the Germans were just looking for a place to store political prisoners and about 700 Polish intellectuals and resistance movement members were interned there in June 1940.

But gradually the scope of Auschwitz increased. There were a small number of Jews in the initial shipment, but it didn’t take long for their numbers to increase. Then came other undesirables and enemies of the Reich - the Communists, the disabled, the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the “gypsies”. This word gypsy (Zigeuner in German, which is why they were identified by the letter "Z") was a pejorative word for a people that in central Europe were known as Sinti and in South East Europe known as Roma. Possibly half a million Sinti and Roma perished in the death camps. The Sinti and Roma exhibition in Auschwitz I is one of the harrowing highlights of the visit.

Above the entrance to the camp is the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”. In 1872 the German novelist Lorenz Diefenbach used the phrase (roughly translated as “work liberates”) as the title of a novel and it was successfully adopted by the 1920s Weimar government to promote their public works program. The Nazis knew a good thing when they saw it and continued to use the phrase in their propaganda program. The commander of Dachau ordered it to be put on the entrance gate to his concentration camp and it was repeated at Sachsenhausen, Terezin, and most notably, at Auschwitz. Here prisoners walked under the gate, accompanied by the strains of a Jewish orchestra.

But not many Jews had this experience. Auschwitz was too small to cope with the growing number of prisoners. The Wannsee Conference had authorised the Final Solution and Germany needed a bigger and more efficient camp to process the vast numbers involved. In 1941, they built Auschwitz II in the woods some three kilometres away in a place the Poles called Brzezinka and the Germans translated as Birkenau. This was a vast emporium of death. No orchestras here, nor any pretence of “Arbeit Macht Frei”. Here, a massive tower overlooked the main gate and the railway tracks led straight to the gas ovens at the far end of the camp.

Auschwitz II was a massive operation and the largest of all the Nazi death camps. Most of the killing, torture, and medical experiments took place here. Cattle cars unloaded their cargo and those lucky enough to be selected not to die immediately were sent to one of the camps to work as slave labourers. These “lucky ones” merely had their fate postponed to overwork, hunger, sickness and a slow lingering death. But the vast majority were sent straight to the gas chambers. Four crematoria fuelled by the hydrogen cyanide insecticide known as Zyklon (Cyclone) B efficiently murdered 20,000 people each day. Evidence of the vast numbers involved is retained in the museum. Behind one glass exhibit are a vast collection of 20,000 pairs of shoes, yet this barely represents one day of gassing. There are also masses of suitcases, spectacles, human hair and other poignant reminders of the daily lives of the hundreds of thousands who died here.

By January 1945, the Red Army were closing in on the camp. Himmler ordered the camp to be destroyed and sent 60,000 survivors on a mid-Winter death march back to the Reich. Only 20,000 survived. Another 7,500 too weak to march were left behind at Auschwitz and liberated by the Russians. At least 1.5 million died (other estimates are as high as 5 million) in the camps themselves, the vast majority at Auschwitz II.

The word “Auschwitz” continues to be synonymous with the Shoah as a whole. It remains newsworthy on an almost daily basis. This week for instance, The Scotsman told the story of how educational trips to Auschwitz were saved despite government cutbacks. Meanwhile Germany is pursuing the arrest of Holocaust denier Gerald Frederick Tobin who argued the Auschwitz death camp was too small for the mass murder of Jews to have been carried out there. Across the pond, the Isthmus of Madison, Wisconsin reviewed Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” about the 8-year-old son of a German officer appointed the commandant of the camp, while the LA Times reported the death of 80 year old art dealer Jan Krugier who survived the camp and the subsequent death march. As for me, having spent several absorbing hours of tramping around these sacred grounds, I silently took the train back to Krakow thinking about the frailty of human reason.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sikorski and me: a cryptic journey through Krakow

My hopes of seeing the crypt today at Krakow's Wawel Cathedral were dashed by world events. I had made it to freezing Krakow after an overnight nine hour train journey from Prague and I was eagerly looking forward too visiting the cathedral and castle on the acropolis at Wawel. But the cathedral crypt proved to be a no-go area.

I had wondered why there were so many TV cameras hovering around the cathedral grounds. It seems the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled Polish WWII prime minister, was exhumed from the crypt yesterday in an investigation into his death in 1943. He was now being reburied after an autopsy this morning. He certainly deserves a bit of peace. 65 years after his death, the poor chap was forced to undergo DNA analysis, computer tomography, radiology and toxicology tests. The results of the test will be announced in a few weeks time.

Władysław Eugeniusz Sikorski was the hero of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21 when the young Soviet Russia invaded Poland intent on taking revolution to the heart of Europe. Things were looked bad for the Polish until Sikorski masterminded the "Miracle of the Vistula" defeating a numerically and materially superior Russian army near Warsaw. Shortly after, the Russians sued for peace and abandoned the idea of international revolution. Sikorski and a young French instructor with the Polish army, a certain Charles de Gaulle, saw how lightning fast warfare would be the way of the future and were both instrumental in the new science of blitzkrieg.

Sikorski was rewarded for his efforts by becoming the Polish army chief of staff and served in the national government in the mid 1920s. He withdrew from politics after Poland became a dictatorship in 1926 and spent much of the next ten years in Paris. He returned prior to the war he predicted would occur but escaped to London after Poland was invaded (where the Germans showed they had been paying attention to Sikorski's blitzkrieg techniques). There he was appointed Prime Minister in exile and placed at the head of the large Polish army based in England. After the German invasion of Russia, Churchill sent Sikorski to negotiate with Stalin to reopen diplomatic relations. But Stalin wanted a piece of the Polish pie after the war and demanded unacceptable concessions.

In 1943, the German Wehrmacht discovered the mass grave of Katyń where the bodies of 4,500 Polish officers were piled up in several pits. The Soviets had killed the officers in 1940 after they had carved up Poland with the Germans. Radio Berlin gleefully reported the news in an attempt to put a wedge between the Russians and Polish. The wedge was successful. The Russians claimed the Nazis had carried out the killings in 1941 but Sikorski didn't believe them and wanted the matter investigated. The Russians used this as an excuse to break off diplomatic relations with Sikorski's government and Stalin campaigned for a Soviet-backed Polish government led by Wanda Wasilewska, a dedicated communist.

Sikorski was becoming a serious thorn in the side of the relationship between Britain and Russia. He was conveniently removed from the equation after he died in mysterious circumstances. On 4 July 1943, he was returning from an inspection of Polish forces deployed in the Middle East, when his plane crashed on take off into the sea off Gibraltar killing him and eight others (including his daughter). A British court of inquiry found no reason for the crash merely saying the "aircraft became uncontrollable for reasons which cannot be established". The files of the investigation were to be kept secret until 2050. In the absence of hard facts and the absurdly long secrecy requirement, conspiracy theories have abounded.

It didn't help when it was revealed a Soviet aircraft was parked next to Sikorski's unattended plane at Gibraltar. The head of M6 on the Rock at the time was Kim Philby, who would later be exposed as a Soviet spy. Security was casual in Gibraltar, by wartime standards. Sabotage was certainly possible and there was a strong motive. With the imposing Sikorski out of the way, it proved a lot easier to install a puppet pro-Soviet government in Warsaw once the war ended.

After his body was recovered from the Mediterranean, Sikorski was buried in a brick-lined grave at the Polish War Cemetery in Newark-on-Trent, England. In 1993, his remains were exhumed and transferred to the royal crypts at Wawel Castle. In July this year, Polish prosecutors announced they would reinvestigate the matter and the Archbishop of Krakow gave permission for Sikorski's body to be re-exhumed. "Given Sikorski's important role in Poland's history and having the tools and the know-how that we have now," said Ewa Koj, the prosecutor overseeing the investigation "we cannot let this remain a historical mystery." Good luck to them, at least the mystery why I couldn't see the crypt today has been solved.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dubrovnik: Pearls of the Adriatic before swine

I landed in Dubrovnik after a short hop north up the coast from Kotor. While “The Pearl of the Adriatic” is a highlight of any trip, perhaps I was spoilt having coming from Montenegro’s fjord coast. I wouldn’t quiet go as far as saying I was underwhelmed. But yet I found myself preferring the understated appeal of Dubrovnik’s southern neighbour. Maybe it was the fact it was a Saturday and the old town was packed with day-trippers and visitors from the several parked cruise ships. Certainly the town looked a lot more attractive at night when all the tourists had gone and I had the old town to myself. And I had to be impressed by the magnificent rebuilding the town had undergone in the last 15 years.

Although the city was without military value, it was the victim of sustained attack during the Balkans War in the early 1990s. Serb mortars poured down from the hills while the Montenegrin Navy took potshots from the bay. Nearly two thirds of the city suffered bomb damage during the war. During the eight-month siege of Dubrovnik, about 100 civilians died and more than 30,000 fled their homes. Of the 824 buildings in the old town, almost 70 percent were struck by shells. Dubrovnik's walls sustained 111 direct hits and there were 314 more on Dubrovnik's baroque buildings and marble streets. UNESCO and other international organizations rushed to the rescue. Teams of skilled workers laboured through most of the rest of the decade to restore the town to its former glory.

The area around Dubrovnik was originally called Ragusium by the Romans. The town of Ragusa was formed in the seventh century when Byzantine coastal residents took refuge there to protect themselves from barbarian invasions. City walls were quickly built to protect the new settlement. Ragusa made its living from trade with its Mediterranean neighbours. Over the next 400 years Ragusa became increasingly prosperous and attracted unwelcome rival attention. In 1205 it fell under the control of Venice but it managed to break away 150 years later.

By the 15th century the Republic of Ragusa was trading with the Near East and Europe and a major rival of Venice for control of the Adriatic waterways. It maintained its independence from powerful neighbours through cunning diplomacy and used its wealth to expand its cultural influence. But the seeming inexorable progress of the town was cruelly destroyed in one act of nature.

In 1667, Dubrovnik was devastated by a major earthquake which destroyed most of its Renaissance art and architecture. After the earthquake, Dubrovnik fell into decline, hastened by the emergence of other European naval powers. It was Napoleon who finally put an end to the republic in 1806 when he entered the city and announced its annexation. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna ceded Dubrovnik to Austria to whom it remained attached until 1918. It passed into the hands of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which renamed itself as Yugoslavia, before finally becoming Croatian after its horrible baptism of fire in 1991.

(pic shows the extent of damage to Dubrovnik during the war)

By then, Dubrovnik was a household name across the world. The city began to develop its tourist industry in the late 19th century. Luminaries such as Lord Byron, George Bernard Shaw and Agatha Christie were awed by the town and Dubrovnik became a major tourist centre in post-war Yugoslavia. Christie spent her second honeymoon here. GBS said “if you want to see heaven on Earth, come to Dubrovnik”.

The London Times would seem to agree. The city walls of Dubrovnik made their recent list of the world’s 50 best walks. It described the hour-long circuit of the old town’s battlements as unforgettable, as it was “around an Escher-like collection of sand-castle sentry posts, helter-skelter stairways and crumbling catwalks, all poised on high cliffs against the bluest bit of the Adriatic.” And having walked around the walks, I can see the point of this Adriatic pearl of wisdom.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Waiting in Sarajevo

I’m sitting in the Sarajevo bus station though it’s a train to Zagreb I’m catching in three hours time. It’s warmer here and you can sit down without having to buy something, unlike the train station which has plenty of cafes but nothing approximating a waiting room.

I don’t expect much sleep with a rattling night ahead. The train has got to be better than a bus though there’ll be a border crossing into Croatia around 3am to contend with, a process I'm becoming intimately familiar with. I’ve already had three goes with the Croatian authorities today. My bus left Dubrovnik early and we passed the string of islands that fill our ride up the coast before we hit the strange Neum corridor which is about 15km of Bosnian coastline and the country’s only access to the Adriatic.

The corridor was defaulted in 1699 by the Republic of Dubrovnik to the Ottomans in the Treaty of Karlowitz. The wealthy merchants of Dubrovnik were worried by the approach of the Venetians and were happy to have an Ottoman buffer between them. The corridor was inherited by Yugoslavia, and now the sovereign state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Croatia places a passport check going in and out of the corridor but there is no Bosnian presence on either side. Nor it seemed were there any connecting roads with Sarajevo in the corridor. In the town of Neum itself where we stopped for coffee, the restaurant owner showed his colours with a Croatian scarf placed prominently on the bar and he accepted only Croatian money or euros.

I passed through Croatian borders a third time further north along the coastal plain where the Sarajevo road splits from the Split road. This time the Bosnians were on display complete with their national insignia. It was not far to the city of Mostar, though the winding road meant it took another hour. The journey was sensational through deep ravines alongside the rushing Neretva River surrounded by scrubby mountains on both sides. I was trigger happy with the camera for most of the way.

A funny thing happened in Mostar. I was hoping for a photo of the famous ‘stari most’ (old bridge), the symbol of the city which was destroyed by the Croatians in the 1993 war and subsequently meticulously rebuilt. There was no view of the bridge on the bus journey itself but I saw a sign pointing to it as we headed towards the bus station. When we got to the station, the bus driver turned off the engine and said words to the effect of ‘dieci minuti’ roughly translated that we had ten minutes here before we pulled out. I calculated it might be possible to run back to the river and catch a quick photo of the bridge. But as I started running from the station I began to think this was madness, it might be at least five minutes there and then I needed to get back again too.

I gave myself four minutes to get there. It took me almost exactly four minutes of full pelt run to get to the river. I eagerly peered over the bridge but there was no sign of the famous ‘stari most’ in either direction. I took photos anyway and realised I’d better rush back to the bus. Only on the way back did it occur to me that I might have been on the bridge itself, though from knowing its distinctive shape, I doubt it. It turned out the bridge was around a bend, and not visible from where I stood. But with the time ticking, I rushed back to the bus, puffing madly. To add insult to the injury of not finding the bridge, the bus driver waited the best part of 20 minutes anyway. As we pulled out, it was obvious there was another bridge the other side of the station that was even closer, no more than one minute walk away. Oh well, there’s a reason to return to Mostar some day.

(pic: The bridge I did not see in Mostar).

I made up for the disappointment with fabulous scenery shots elsewhere as the views got even better between Mostar and Sarajevo. Coming in to the capital, the views turned grim. The grey and closing weather didn’t help but any of the high Stalinist-looking flats could easily have hosted sniper alley. Thankfully the inner town was much nicer. I dropped my bags at the train station and walked along the river to the centre. It is a beautiful and ornate old town, very stately and grand. Most of the buildings have been rebuilt after the war.

I can see why Archduke Franz Ferdinand might have liked it here until he made it to the bridge where Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot him in 1914, which knocked down several royal houses of cards and led to the death of millions in World War I. Oddly enough Sarajevo itself escaped any further damage in that war. However I can also see the result of the gunfire of more recent bouts of Serb nationalism. I pass several pock-marked and bullet-ridden buildings. The siege of Sarajevo lasted four years from 1992-1996 with Serb forces high on the hills taking pot shots at anything that moved below. I’m wondering whereabouts in the city is their entity, the mysterious Republika Srpska?