Bear with me as I work through a clumsy metaphor.
Driving home this afternoon after two and a half days at the Theatre of War Symposium at the Abbey I found myself incongruously thinking about a dog I saw once on a tram, over thirty years ago. Although I was 21, I knew very little about dogs. We’d never had one at home. I had just arrived in Munich, a nervous emigrant boy, fresh off the boat and train. An elderly woman boarded the tram accompanied by a gigantic male German Shepherd. I felt momentarily uneasy. My understanding of Alsatians was that they are innately violent, bred as working dogs for the security industry, the police and armies. I’d seen them in old war movies, assisting bloodthirsty Nazi officers to sniff out and shred apart escaped prisoners. But the dog lay down at my feet, whimpered gently and placed its head between its front paws. I sensed that it was saying something very directly to me: “I am a gentle dog,” it said. “I care for an old lady. Don’t presume, don’t judge, don’t condemn…”
I couldn’t retrace the precise sequence of thoughts that had taken me from listening to Marina Carr quoting Aeschylus in a hushed Abbey auditorium to a long forgotten Bavarian dog. But it had to do with instinct versus influence. I had arrived at the Abbey conference slightly late on Thursday afternoon, with a queston in my head about wars. What is it that drives some men to visit violence upon other men, women and children? For most wars, as we know, are planned and fought by men. On Day 2 of the symposium, Rwandan artist Hope Azeda posed an even more dreadful question, ‘What makes a man kill a baby at close quarters?’ At the end of the third day of electrifying testimony from artists who live and work in war zones or in post-conflict situations around the world, I was no closer to an answer but had formulated some additional questions. Are men innately violent? Is there a need in human society periodically to allow men release innate rage through war and atrocity, as one psychologist quoted by Marina Carr suggested?
Carr’s concluding paper had contextualised the contemporary war narratives with an evocative journey through the long history of political conflict, right back to the roots of Western civilisation in ancient Greek history and myth. Men have gone to war and sent other men to war forever. But if mass slaughter and acts of intimate brutality are indeed a cyclical inevitability in human history, and if men are truly driven by violent urges, what is it then that prevents so many of us from violent inclination or actions? Are we, like the German Shepherd, the product of training and influence? I came later to learn that Alsatians are neither innately vicious nor kindly. They can be trained to kill or to care. They can do either equally well. Is this the way with men? Am I and my five brothers and my old Dad and all of the good men that I know, simply the beneficiaries of conditioning: strong mothers, comparatively stable politics, comparatively affluent times and location on the globe? I am fortunate in that, to my knowledge, nobody in my close circle has ever committed a bloody act, although a few distant relatives and ancestors certainly took up arms for Ireland. But could I as easily have been a violent man? Could I have gone into politics or become a military leader wilfully sending young men out to die and kill? Would I have taken up the sniper’s rifle or loaded up the car bomb to kick back as a young man if my own home community in Monaghan had been attacked systematically rather than in just one notorious car bombing incident? In extremis, in some given set of circumstances, would I have killed a child simply because demented humans under orders do that kind of thing, because it became my turn, my duty, my providence in the terrible lottery of history?
These were undoubtedly the what-ifs of an over-stimulated consciousness, exercised by three days of unsettling witness at the conference, where we were bombarded with words, figures, maps and images. The fact is that unambiguously I abhor violence. But I was more ambivalent about it in my youth.
In the same month that I enountered the dog in Munich, IRA volunteer Bobby Sands died back home on hunger strike. Germans would ask me my views on the IRA and I would carefully explain about British occupation, Bloody Sunday, Thatcher’s obduracy, Loyalist supremacy, the Monaghan and Dublin bombs and all the wrongs and injustices done daily to the Nationalist people of Northern Ireland, among them members of my own extended family. “But do you agree with the violence?” my new girlfriend and her friends would ask. They were all pacifists. I went on my first ever demonstration with them, to protest against Perishing and Cuise missiles. “I disagree with State violence,” I would answer evasively, “How would you feel if your kid sister was killed by a British army plastic bullet?”
But even then I was privately confused and already uncertain of the righteousness of the defenders from “my side”, even though I understood (as I still believe) that an ingrained official culture of oppression, discrimination and brutal suppression of peaceful protest had created the conditions out of which the modern IRA had arisen. Home for Christmas, I bought Bobby Sands’ books and other publications selected randomly from left wing shops to improve my consciousness; ‘Beyond Orange and Green’ by Belinda Probert; Tim Pat Coogan’s history of the IRA; James Connolly’s pamphlets. Back in Germany I worked by day building car engines in a BMW workshop where all the other men were either Turkish or Yugos (as they were known then). They nicknamed me ‘Belfast’ or ‘Bobby Sands’ because that was all they knew about my country. In the evenings I joined my German girlfriend’s student pals in yet more peace marches; anti-nuclear rallies; a feminist ‘Reclaim the Streets’ event; a gay pride parade. At the same time, I bought an old Volkswagen Combi and drove late nights to remote areas of the parklands along with an Algerian workmate to smoke dope, speak French, listen alternatively to Arabic music or Van Morrisson. We talked revolution. “Play Belfast, play Belfast,” he would say, meaning put on the Van cassette. “Gadaffi, il est fort!”, he would announce, and I would smile and tell him how the Colonel had supplied arms to the anti-imperial comrades in Northern Ireland, daftly unaware of the irony of spouting such Republican blather to the mellow tones of a Belfast Protestant gospel singer. The next day I would be out and about with my trendy German friends again with a pacifist t-shirt on me.
A few years later, back in Dublin, I joined Socialist Worker for a period, read politics in a more cohesive order and began finally to make sense of the confusing history of modern Ireland. I reflected particularly on the dubious strategic value, whatever the morality, of the permanent IRA campaign, with its regular fuck-ups; Australian tourists shot dead in a botched shooting in Holland; a baby killed in an ambush on a British soldier’s car in Germany. What must my by now ex-girlfriend and her pacifist friends back in Munich think? And yet what were the Nationalist people in the North to do in the face of indiscriminate Loyalist murder campaigns and the incitement to hatred and sectarianism of the demagogic leaders of Unionism? When my detached middle class Dublin friends blithely condemned the IRA, often in the same breath expressing contempt for nationalists and Northerners generally, I bristled at their smug moralising and reverted to contextualising, if not quite justifying, a campaign that I believed deep down to be futile, counter-productive and self-perpetuating, but also morally inexcusable.
I had gone back to college and joined the theatre by this stage. My political turning point was The Parade of Innocence. I left Socialist Worker amicably, eighteen months after joining. I stood over everything I had learned there. I had written articles for their tabloid, spoken at meetings, read Marx and the contemporary revolutionary writers, but I knew that I was too much of a reformist at heart to make a true revolutionary. I had come, almost ashamedly, to believe in democracy. The Parade of Innocence was a massive street demonstration and artistic spectacle to demand justice for certain men imprisoned by the British for terrorist bombings of which they were patently innocent. Hundreds of artists and thousands of citizens got behind the event. I played a small role along with dozens of others in bringing it to fruition. It changed the face of protest forever in Ireland and by a year later, there had been several Parade events, notably one that took place in sixty cities around the globe on one day to demand the release of the Birmingham Six. We were non-violent people campaigning on behalf of non-violent men who had been beaten up by the British police and wrongly jailed by a corrupt judiciary as part of the machinery of British warfare in Ireland. We had gone the international human rights route. We were passionate artists working in a coalition with brilliant, strategic justice campaigners. When the prisoners were released and welcomed home in 1991, we felt that we had made a difference, bringing final momentum to the seventeen year campaign of the prisoners’ families and dedicated people of conscience. Reformist peaceful methods had won out.
Three years later the IRA declared a historic ceasefire. Gerry Adams and his people were proposing peace. Solid old John Hume, a conservative Social Democrat had been working secretly with Adams towards this moment. It was a good day, but the ceasefire broke down more than once. And appalling murders continued to be carried out by Loyalists. But peace talk was now constantly in the air. A leader called David Ervine emerged from the Loyalist smoke and he talked eloquently about his own personal journey into violence as a younger man, ruminating now on the futility of it all. Gusty Spence, the prototype Loyalist killer gathered his men into a press conference and expressed his abject shame and apologies in old age at the wrongs he and his followers had done in their youth. Presidents and prime ministers flew in for talks and suddenly on Good Friday in 1998, a peace accord was signed, an imperfect treaty that would probably cement sectarian differences into the future, but a signed accord nonetheless. I was driving through Drogheda alone, on my way home from rehearsals, when it was announced on live radio. We had been waiting for several days to see if the non-stop talks would yield an agreement. I pulled over outside an off-licence to listen as American senator George Mitchell declared peace in Ireland. I turned off the ignition and began to cry. I cried and cried.
I cried again today. To my own astonishment, saying goodbye to a Dublin symposium delegate who I barely know, I welled up and could not answer her question, “What did you make of it all?”. I tried to articulate the questions forming in my mind about men and war and nature v. nurture, but could not quite express myself. After she left, I hung about saying goodbye to other colleagues and new acquaintances. The five women profiled in Project Ariadne gathered in the Abbey foyer for the first photo ever taken of them together. These are five artists located in separate parts of the world making meaningful theatre in the midst of wars. I stood apart from everyone else and watched that quiet moment of history. I had heard four of them speak and I admired them all.
I went over after the photo and spoke briefly to Frédérique leComte who works in Congo and Burundi with ex-child soldiers, war-rape survivors, bereaved persons, torture survivors and their torturers. I thanked her for the powerful images she had shown us of the artistic work and the honesty with which she had addressed the ethics of working within the “Peace Industry”. She had described the problematic reality of accepting a peacekeeper’s job and wage from the same governments which overty or covertly profit from arms sales to warzones. I thought about some of my own cross border and cross community theatre work in Ireland, funded as it has been from European Union funds; British Council funds; Irish Arts Council funds – when the parliaments behind these entities are complicit in the perpetuation of global wars, whether by selling arms or allowing warplanes to land and refuel. I said to Frédérique that I believe her work is vital nonetheless because it helps to reverse the tide of violence; it assists the hurt to heal; it enables some of the men previously caught up in wrongdoing to reflect on the self-destructive consequences of carrying out evil orders. She listened and took my hand graciously and I fought back tears again. I felt that I was saying goodbye to an inspirational sister that I didn’t know I had.
Leaving the Abbey I felt I was departing after a huge family gathering, one of those reunions where you only get to say a fleeting hello to half the relatives and wish you’d had more time to meet them all. The best of people. The best of artists. Ashtar Theatre, the Palestinian company making art with children in a Gaza schoolyard last Summer while American rockets were falling from Israeli planes overhead; Stacey Gregg the young Belfast woman who has written an astounding play about that Northern Irish oxymoron that is called the Peace Wall; the Belarus Free Theatre who meet members of their audience on street corners by secret rendezvous and walk them to the backstreet locations of their proscribed performances; Hope Azeda who charmed the Irish audience with her comic banter before setting out the horrors that her company addresses daily in their post-genocide healing work in Rwanda; the quiet man who sat beside me one afternoon and told me about his work among young drug users in a provincial midlands town in Ireland; and many other colleagues already known to me who make theatre that makes a small difference here and there which all adds up in the global project of fighting back peacefully; countering the worst tendencies of our species and gently tipping the balance away from violence, misogyny, hatred and self-destruction.
Tonight, some hours later, exhausted and inspired, I am back home and find myself reflecting on what? A dog in Germany in 1981. Maybe we are indeed like dogs, but if so, the dogs I met this week are the the good dogs, the guide dogs. Some of us are incorrigibly gentle by the nature of our pedigree; others are susceptible to snarling violence but have been lucky enough in our influences and training not to have been programmed for the dirty work; most of us are probably happy-go-lucky mongrels gamboling about the Dublin streets, mercifully spared the moral dilemmas of immediate conflict. Some of the artists I listened to this weekend said that they could not afford the luxury of pretending that armed resistance or insurrection in their communities is inevitably wrong. Or that art can stop the violence or stop the other side’s bombs from raining down. But all were working independently to effect positive human change by means other than violence. I sensed that most of the artists present, in the small ways that they connect with one man here, one woman there, a mass audience now and again, have already deflected and prevented future acts of violence. Let us respect and celebrate that.
I lay my head between my paws.
I am a gentle dog. I mean you no harm.
I work for good; my good and your good.
Meet me. Do like me.
Your head upon your paws.
Do not make me bark.
Do not cause me to leap in defence of my charge,
For I can be frightening when provoked.
Scratch something into the gravel with me.
Rise and sniff around me.
My head is between my paws.
Play with me.
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