Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Category: UK

O Brave New World

Tattered-Union-flag

Nothing happens in a vacuum. My words are shaped by the experiences I’ve lived through. Everything has a cause and effect. Some events resonate so strongly within their own context that the echoes can be heard for years.

I moved back to England 5 months ago yesterday. My return was shaped by my departure many years before. I knew that the European Referendum would be the defining story of my first year. I was a journalist for a long time. I still think in stories. My own view of Europe is coloured by my experiences. While I was in college I produced and presented a European news show on community radio. I considered myself European, as a blow-in in a country of race memory it was the most comfortable choice. Europe was everywhere, the little blue plaques on public buildings, the awarding body for any funding. I visited Brussels on a press trip for local journalists, we all knew that the European funding for radio documentaries was so much easier to get than the Irish alternative and often more generous. In college I got the opportunity to mix with journalism students  from the Netherlands and and spent a semester in France with European funding. I studied French as part of my course, the better to read European documents and legislation. There’s an innate understanding in bi-lingual Ireland that translation can be a slippery thing and the devil’s in the detail.

Europe was labyrinthine, a gestalt entity built on centuries old rivalries and jealousies. A squabbling family that will stand together when it matters. I’ve watched that relationship grow tense and strained and the dream to falter but you can’t choose your family. You can refuse to attend a family Christmas but the ties and the shared history are still there. We’re shaped by our history and so much of that history is shared. That’s just the way it is.

Nationality is a funny thing. I chose to define myself as European for most of my adult life because the choice was either to be the member of a club that had the blood of half the globe on its hands or one that constantly told me I didn’t belong. I spent years viewing Ireland through a English lens and now I’m in England I view it through an Irish lens. At this point I don’t know where one nationality begins and the other ends. Being transplanted does funny things to the sense of self. I know my father spent many years without a nationality. An accident of birth. I have a form in a family file to apply for British citizenship when it’s not automatically given. My dad was born in India. A generation earlier my grandfather fought in the 1st World War in the Indian Army Medical Corps. He didn’t get his medals automatically like every other British subject. He had to apply more than a decade later. I never questioned those medals when I saw that multicoloured ribbon as a child. As a researcher looking at the documentary evidence from the National Archives I wondered, as I had wondered when I saw my great uncle, his brother, describe himself in various American documents as Indian, Irish or British as the occasion suggested. Nationality is a curious thing.

Given my experiences, a lifetime of noticed things and lessons learned, I cannot imagine voting anything other than Remain on Thursday. It saddens me but I understand why so many others will vote Leave. It’s a fairly safe bet that when Thomas Mair gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, he views the world through a very darkened lens. That case is live now so that’s all I’m going to say but those views don’t grow in a vacuum either and only time will tell what shaped them, if it’s possible to tell.

One thing I’ve noticed since I moved back to England is how many people take the whole “Island Nation” thing very literally indeed. I’ve spent the largest part of my life on a smaller island but Ireland has always looked beyond it’s rocky borders. For hundreds of years the Irish have been populating the globe – or at least making sure that there’s an Irish bar in every town, village and urban conurbation. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain that Dublin is not in the UK. Given that this is a country that appears on the weather map I’m still a little shocked at the lack of understanding of the next door neighbour but perhaps that’s the crux of it. I’m also discomforted by the all the little jumps to the right in everyday life. The fact it is now seen as normal to be vetted at almost every stage of setting up a life because everybody knows that people are inherently untrustworthy and they’re all just out to scam you so you might as well scam them first. So estate agents charge exorbitant fees for opening a Word document and credit checks have become so ubiquitous they have become a growth industry.  When you assume ordinary people are only on the make it’s easy to assume that anyone from outside is at least ten times worse. We’re seeing the results in the Leave camp of prejudices left unchallenged. If no one is correcting long held false beliefs then it’s easy for the cynical and power hungry to use half truths and fantasy to stoke a fire. This is something that is beyond newspaper columnists to fix, it needs to be addressed on a societal level through education and investment. I wouldn’t trust the current UK government to do any such thing so here’s hoping that European funding will still be available in the future.

Living in Ireland you get used to the fact that Europe is the voice of reason when all else fails. If it wasn’t for a European Court of Human Rights ruling many years ago Ireland would not have got as far as a referendum on marriage equality. For years it’s been Europe piling on the pressure to reform abortion law in Ireland. And that’s the one thing this referendum campaign has reminded me of through my Irish lens – it’s as divisive and poisonous as an Irish referendum on the family.

The point I’m trying to make is that just as I could no more be on the Leave side than sacrifice my first born child to a snake god, so a lot of people here are shaped by the world they live in. And when that world is shaped by papers who go out of their way to demonise the poor and the different, when ordinary people are vetted as naturally untrustworthy just to go through life. The world does feel just a little less fair, a little more brutal. An unjust, brutal world shapes the people who live in it. Not everyone will respond by looking beyond. Some will lash out. Some will kill.

This isn’t just a British problem it’s everywhere. It’s polarising people to the left and the right. The vote on Thursday worries me but I’m more worried about the world that we’ll be living in next week. It’s the same world we live in today and it’s a terrifying one.

An Exciting Couple of Days

GreyfriarsBobby

The Edinburgh statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog who stayed by his owner’s grave for years, His nose has been rubbed bright by luck seeking tourists.

There have been a lot of changes in the past year. One of the biggest is that I’m finally starting to put my money where my mouth is when it comes to the academic side of things. When I started working on the Kirwan case five years ago I was looking for the subject for the next book. I stumbled across the case doing a broad sweep of the National Library catalogue and knew instantly that there was something there. If William Kirwan came up in the courts list while I was on the beat there would be no question it’d be a case to follow. It’s got everything – middle class killer, attractive victim, sexual impropriety. I don’t think there was ever a period in history when that wouldn’t have made headlines.

So I told my agent that I’d found the next subject and started digging.

The one thing I could never have guessed is how much that case would take over my life. I usually get rather buried in my research but this was something else. Where ever I dug I kept discovering more. If I’d been in a certain type of film we would have been stumbling into a new hidden cavern filled with priceless golden artifacts every couple of days. Pretty soon it became clear that the research was too large for one book. There are so many angles to approach it from, so many side branches and interesting avenues to go down as my cast expanded and my timeline grew. This was no longer a single case to study – this was a field. Kirwan wasn’t an end in himself but a door into something so much bigger. I’m still finding stuff and I don’t intend to stop looking, it’s odd to look back these days and see that this whole change of direction came from one rather thin case (when you actually look at the evidence).

It became clear fairly early on that this research was more than just the book. The book will still get written (although it’s evolved rather from that early agent conversation) but things have grown quite a bit. I’m now hoping to start a PhD next year (more of that another time) and I’m working on proving myself academically. So that’s how I met little Greyfriar’s Bobby (in the picture) earlier this week. I was over at Edinburgh University delivering a paper on 19th century newspaper coverage of the Dublin Insolvency courts (and yes, Kirwan did get a mention). It was a fabulous conference. So much fun to get to meet so many people equally nerdy about 19th century newspapers and to so many expert views on a huge range of subjects. I learned that the paper I’ve often turned to for illustrative purposes, the Illustrated Police News, degenerated into a Victorian lads mag by the end, or that Harriet Martineau wrote extensively on the Irish Famine, or that Dicken’s speeches were his form of profile management. Here’s the programme of the full range of talks, with links to all the abstracts if you want to know more about each subject. Also here’s the Storify put together by organiser Dr David Finkelstein, to give a flavour of the couple of days.

I’m planning on putting my paper up on Academia.edu, or even looking into getting it published elsewhere but I’ll keep you posted. The Edinburgh trip was eye opening. Academic presenting is very different from anything I’ve done to date. It’s a specific skill that I want to grow but the experience – stimulating, intense and exhausting – was definitely one I want to get used to.

Voting for a better future

On May 7th in the UK and May 22nd in Ireland voters will get to make a momentous decision. In both cases the choice will be not simply one for a political party or even a Yes or No – the choice facing voters will be a fundamental one, what kind of world do you want to live in?

Both votes are divisive ones. In the UK, this General Election is likely to result in a second consecutive coalition government. With a historically fragmented electorate the choice for voters is far broader than usual. Do they swing to the left or the right. In Ireland the choice, ultimately is the same.  The Marriage Equality referendum which offers a democratically sanctioned equality for same sex marriage has been fought on the old ideological currents that run beneath the fragile veneer of modern Ireland. Ireland is familiar with referenda but it’s been a long time since there was a vote on a subject that went so close to the still beating heart of Holy Catholic Ireland. While it might appear on first glance that the two votes have nothing to do with one another, don’t be fooled. This month voters in both countries are being asked to vote for one of two futures – in very broad terms we are being asked to choose Star Trek or the Hunger Games.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. If we vote Star Trek in either May vote, we are not suddenly going to discover life on other planets. If we vote the Hunger Games we will not suddenly be divided into zones and forced to fight to the death but if you look behind all the campaign posters and the political point scoring the choice is equally stark. In both votes one result will bring positive change. It will say to a marginalised quarter of society that they are included, they are of value and they will not be left behind. It is saying that principles like equality and compassion are central to society and that the people themselves recognise the need to step forward together into a brighter, fairer future.

Or in either vote the choice could go the opposite way. In both cases a retrograde step. In both cases a closing of ranks, a lowering of heads and a clear message to those on the outside that they are not wanted, they are not cared about, they are not “one of us”.

This is a choice about the future you want for your children. Do you want to look forward or back? Democracy is not something that we can passively expect to happen, it is something we must push forward ourselves. This May we have a chance to make a difference. Don’t vote out of fear, vote to include. At least connect.

Rose and Crown

When I was little the Queen came to visit our school.  The teachers were ecstatic and the other pupils were pre-Christmas type excited. As the day got closer they jostled to be picked to be the one who would give the obligatory posy to her Majesty.  Even back then in those memory misted days I have no recollection of getting excited. 

The school was cleaned from roof to basement and we were handed little plastic union jacks to wave on the day.  I remember they had a hollow black stick with a red pointy button on top that was quite good for poking people in the back with.  I quite liked the plastic flag too. You could see the sky through it and the colours swirled with if you pulled at the plastic enough.  As a symbol of patriotism it meant little or nothing to my five year old sensibilities.  My mum had found  me a Welsh flag to wave instead, the flag of the land of her birth.  It had a wooden handle and was made of a strange shiny fabric that frayed nicely at the end – and it had a dragon on it. There was no comparison.

I remember getting told off when I brought my Welsh dragon into school.  It wasn’t the prescribed Union Jack, which was discarded in a messy corner of my bedroom, it’s red and blue pulled almost white and no longer capable of any satisfactory waving.  There was almost a row over that discarded Union Jack but in the end time was too short and young children had to be wrangled into lines on the side of the road to wave at the royal car.  I ended up standing at the front and waved my dragon like mad as the car drove down the road.  As it neared me it slowed down and a smiling grey haired lady looked out of the open window.  She caught sight of my dragon and waved right at me.  That was the last time I got excited about royalty.

I remember the silver jubilee.  We had a street party and I wore the Welsh national costume (Wales being a bit of a recurring theme in my childhood).  At one stage there was a fancy dress competition and once again I was dressed in my red check skirt and stove pipe hat.  I came second and was momentarily offended at being called a Welsh witch. 

These aren’t particularly unique memories if you grew up in England like I did and when I did.  Most people of my age and geographical upbringing would be able to tell you something similar.  It comes of growing up in a constitutional monarchy. Like most other people we gathered around the family TV set to watch Diana Spencer marry Prince Charles.  It was just another shared point of reference, a marker in the course of our lives.  But we were never particularly royalists.  I remember being taught how to curtsey (possibly for that school visit before the flag debacle) but could never do it without falling over.  There may have been the odd commemorative mug around but shoved in the back of cupboards rather than on display anywhere.

I’m writing this as background because today Queen Elizabeth II came to Ireland.  It’s a historic visit, the first in the history of the state.  There have been protests (small but noisy), a heightened garda presence (big, very big, but on the whole rather quiet) and more metal barriers than you could shake a St Patricks parade at.  There was a wreath laying and a visit to the Book of Kells and the Queen changed her outfit several times.  It’s all very portentous and historic.

This time round I wasn’t waving a Welsh dragon, I didn’t even have a stovepipe hat.  I spent most of the day wandering around a Dublin that looked like the set of a post apocalyptic British film made as a comment on Margaret Thatcher.  Yellow vested gardai were everywhere, as were disgruntled Dubs.  The royal cortege sped down a deserted O’Connell Street while the citizens of Dublin were kept at a very long arms length, at a sufficient distance so that projectiles couldn’t be lobbed, or anti monarchist chants heard, let alone republican banners read from a speeding car.

I’ve no sympathy for the idiots who staged a sit down outside the Conways pub on Parnell Street or the muppets attempting to burn flags down the road in Dorset Street.  They were the kind of rabble that come out of the woodwork any time something like this happens and they’re not representative of the prevailing attitude in Dublin.  I’ve seen enough of the trials that came out of the Love Ulster riots (which were sparked by an Orange March down O’Connell St – which was always going to  be a rather daft idea).  Most of the people charged weren’t republicans at all but unfortunates with no fixed abode who’d come across the placard waving protestors and seized the opportunity to sack and pillage the nearby sports shops.  There’ll probably be something similar over the next day or so.  That’s the way things tend to go in this city.  We have a highly excitable underclass.

What surprises me is how many closet royalists I’ve met in the last few weeks.  There’s been a genuine excitement about this visit that went beyond building bridges, and don’t get me started on the royal wedding hysteria we’ve only just got over.  I’m not expecting everyone to start singing A Nation Once Again but somewhere at the back of my mind was the assumption that the citizens of a republic would be less impressed by a family who gained their status through nothing more than an accident of birth, a life of privilege through a fluke of genetics.  When the Queen visited Trinity College this afternoon she was greeted with a labyrinthine line of people waiting to be presented to her.  It’ll be the same for those invited to the gala concert later this week. I’ve seen people with invites congratulated already on Twitter but I just don’t really get it.  She didn’t do anything to get to be queen.  What is the big deal about shaking her hand?  She can’t actually cure scrofula you know!

I’ve nothing particularly against the British royal family I just don’t really see the point of them.  I certainly don’t see the point of living in a temporary police state for four days while the glitterati of Dublin play high society with an elderly couple who lucked into figure head status across the Irish Sea.  Today’s wreath laying at the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square may have been a significant moment in reconciliation between the two countries but the next three days are simply a junket that most of us don’t get to participate in.  There’ll be a lot written about how the acceptance of this visit shows a new maturity for the Irish people.  But wouldn’t it be even more mature to just take it all in our stride and not make such a fuss.  There’ve already been four bomb scares today.  The lockdown of the city is a reaction to a genuine threat from a few bigoted individuals.   Couldn’t these grand gestures have been made in a shorter visit?  One that wouldn’t require the city to be in a constant state of high alert for the best part of a week?  Do we really need to give the monarch of another country such a prolonged junket?  Can’t we just go back to appreciating our new found maturity in peace?

© 2019 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑