Thursday 19 September 2019

Twelve heroes and one monstrous creation

Five books telling true stories about Irish men, women and institutions both inspire and enlighten, writes Gene Kerrigan

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

These days, we've got used to the end-of-year arrival of a flock of books that assess political and current affairs. They're an alternative to the incessant torrent of news.

Hourly, we endure waves of assertion, followed by eruptions of indignation, followed by new waves of speculation ­- leaving us with no chance to form an opinion before we're overrun by the next wave of allegations.

Books take the time to attempt a summing up of where we are and what really matters.

This Christmas, I ended up with five books that together tell the stories of 12 heroes and one monster.

Three of the books deal with the past, two of them cover stories that are still unfolding. One of the heroes is dead, one is still fighting the good fight. Ten of the heroes won their fight long ago, and the monster is still stomping around the place, causing ructions.

All of the books are worth reading. One should become a classic.

The monster is Nama.

Some journalists have usefully probed individual aspects of Nama, but summing up the Nama project in a book is a gigantic job.

There is no neat storyline, no singular hero or villain. The known story has yet to settle into a recognisable shape, much of the goings-on are highly technical, much is secretive. And it's peppered with legal landmines.

I couldn't imagine where to even start.

Frank Connolly's Nama Land takes on the job, laying out Nama's controversies and connections.

After a couple of weeks, I'm still reading the book. As the projects and the puzzles multiply, Connolly patiently follows the money trail.

Basically, Nama is the rescue vehicle hurriedly built by the State as the banking and building sectors went under.

What began as a clean-up project in the wake of the banking scandals has now sprouted whole new scandals of its own.

Nama is now a crucial component of the Irish power structure, north and south. Connolly's work is an essential guide to a brutish monster, that is intended to serve the interests of the many, but appears to restore the fortunes of the few.

Michael Clifford's account of the Maurice McCabe saga, A Force for Justice, appears mid-scandal, showing us the origins and details of Sgt McCabe's heroism.

From the beginning, the authorities have underestimated the power of one dutiful garda telling the truth in the interests of the force and the public.

The scandal is about the arrogance of power - but also about widespread fear and timidity within the Garda force.

By writing now, rather than waiting until the scandals have run their course, Connolly and Clifford have equipped us with essential information for when the authorities seek to close down discussion, assuring us all is well.

The other three books go back into our past.

Until recently, few had heard of Mary Elmes. Born in Cork, academically brilliant at TCD and the LSE, she went to Spain in the 1930s, to help victims of the Spanish civil war.

As an Irish neutral, working with American Quakers, she moved to France, following refugees fleeing the fascists. Then, as now, refugees were treated cruelly, caged in camps.

Elmes and her comrades did what they could to ease the horrors.

As the Nazis took France, Jews were rounded up, to join the refugees behind the wire. Then, the dreadful flow eastward began - to the death camps.

Elmes persuaded Jewish parents to give her their children and drove them up to safe houses in the Pyrenees while the parents were sent east on packed trains, usually to their deaths.

Eventually, the Nazis arrested Elmes and held her for six months, but she survived.

After the war, she wanted to forget the horrors, left no memoir or diary and declined a Legion d'Honneur from the French state. Clodagh Finn (A Time to Risk All) and Paddy Butler (The Extraordinary Story of Mary Elmes) deserve much credit for retrieving Elmes's story from the past.

The book I was least looking forward to was Striking Back by Mary Manning (with Sinead O'Brien). It's over 30 years since Manning - on the checkout at Dunnes Stores - refused to handle South African goods, resulting in a prolonged strike. After all this time, what could be left to say? I began reading with low expectations.

However, I haven't been so moved by a book in a long time. For various reasons, it couldn't have been written earlier. It's personal and political, intimate and artful. It's the story of the strike but a lot more than that.

It's the story of a life, told in a voice seldom heard, it's a story of family, and it's the story of Official Ireland - opposed to apartheid as long as it didn't have to actually do anything about it.

In the austere 1980s, Manning, aged 21, was delighted to get a job on the checkout at Dunnes. It was tough work, under relentless discipline, but it was a wage. Then, following the widespread condemnation of apartheid, Manning's union, IDATU, issued an instruction that apartheid goods were not to be handled.

On the first day of the ban, Manning watched in horror as a shopper approached the checkout with two grapefruit. "Please, not me, go somewhere else," the young woman silently prayed.

Because it was a union instruction and because she thought apartheid outrageous, she refused to handle the goods. That was fine with the shopper once she understood the reason why - but Manning was suspended.

This provoked a strike, but most of the workers passed the picket. Ten fought on for almost three years: Manning, Tommy Davis, Liz Deasy, Michelle Gavin, Karen Gearon, Sandra Griffin, Theresa Mooney, Vonnie Munroe, Cathryn O'Reilly and Alma Russell.

They learned from every small victory and every shocking betrayal.

None was well-off, all had the usual problems of youth - relationships, babies, break-ups - living on £21 a week strike pay, with the constant fear of where this was leading.

Manning went to extreme lengths to conceal the truth of the strike from her mother, who was made timid by the circumstances of her own birth.

It's in the family relationships that the book shines. These are voices seldom heard in our literature. Fearful and brave and rendered with skill and depth. The book accurately maps the reality of class division - a very real, truculent and unforgiving form of Irish apartheid.

The brave liberals who publicly denounced the near slavery of South Africa privately undermined the strike. The Garda put it in writing that they would support the company against the strikers. Some strikers had private, aggressive visits from enthusiastic cops. Bishop Casey publicly denounced the savagery of apartheid and privately denounced the strikers.

The strikers won. Dunnes held firm to its "right to manage", but the government was embarrassed into finding a way to ban South African imports - the first country to do so, all to the credit of the 10 heroes who put everything on the line, while others turned away.

Mandela and Bishop Tutu met the strikers. Mary Manning, unable to get work in Ireland, spent five years in exile in Australia.

Striking Back should be part of every Irish child's education. It speaks of morality and courage and would tell them that Ireland does not have to be a country of sleazy secrets and dodgy deals.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss