Dan O'Neill was one of the brightest artistic stars West Belfast ever-produced.
For the past three weeks, I have been involved in a man-hunt; for a dead man. For the final resting place of West Belfast-born artist Dan O’Neill.
Where Grieving Begins: Building Bridges after the Brighton Bomb by Patrick Magee (Pluto Press, 2021)
The Woman who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist by Anthony M. Amore. Pegasus €27.95. pp272 I NEVER met Rose Dugdale, but I’ll never forget how one of the men in her life kept me waiting for a fortnight. It was October 1975 in Monasterevin, County Kildare, where Eddie Gallagher, a maverick republican from Donegal, was holding Dr Tiede Herrema, a Dutch industrialist, captive in the upstairs bedroom of a house in a council estate at St Evin’s Park.
IF you’re looking for details of how the 1984 bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton was set and triggered, you’ve come to the wrong book. In this memoir, the author Pat Magee, who set the bomb, makes it clear he’s not going to divulge that sort of information.
Gordon S Dickson, Des Pond: Special Agent. London: Austin Macauley Publishers, 2021 THE clue is in the title – Des Pond: Special Agent. He’s an active member of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but he’s a down-market version. “Desmond Walter Percivale Pond, aged thirty-five, was a thin, weedy-looking individual with a longish nose (at school he was unkindly nick-named Pinocchio) on which perched a pair of black-rimmed spectacles.” The book opens in a maximum security prison, where five Russians arrested for spying were awaiting trial, until someone managed to poison them all. The prison governor is furious that this could happen, and the chief prison officer, who has a heavy cold, tries to explain: ”‘I hab obbered every dell an’ prisonber to be searched, an’ interrogated da prisonbers dat is, not da dells, dir’. He blew his nose noisily. Other officers edged away as far as possible.”The scene switches to 10 Downing Street, “Where is Agent Pond, Darling?’ asked the Prime Minister. I will have to stop calling him that. It sounds a bit too personal, she thought.” The Darling in question is Sir Leonard Darling, Head of MI5. He assigns Agent Des Pond to the job of discovering who poisoned the Russian prisoners. In no time Pond is in St Petersburg with a feared female Russian, who is working with a group of dissidents intent on liberating a grouping of small nations: the Coalition for the Liberation of Ostvia, Dachnya, Havnia, Ovnaria, Pannonia, Phasnaviz, Entrovia and Rostnovia. CLODHOPPER for short. Agent Pond meets the group, and being a supreme card-manipulator plays cards with them and wins a hugely expensive Rolls Royce parked outside the door. Then he gets hit on the head, recovers and goes in search of the Great Ras, the leader of the dissidents and believed to be the reincarnation of Rasputin. After much chasing and double-cross, the great Ras is caught up with and unmasked for the fraud he is. Would you believe it? He doesn’t care about CLODHOPPER – he’s in it for the money! Quelle surprise. Back at Downing Street the Prime Minister has got a divorce and gets married to Sir Leonard Stephen Darling; Pond gets married to a fellow-agent called Sally. “Two sets of identical twin Ponds followed in the next couple of years: two boys and two girls. Fortunately the girls looked like their mother! The boys looked like Pond!” All this, complete with exclamation marks, is stuffed into the last two pages. The author never misses a chance to wring half-laughs out of any half-situation, starting with the chief prison officer’s cold, then the No 10 Downing Street cat mauling visitors, and ending with the burst of weddings and identical twins x 2. The pace is kept breathless by really short chapters and switches of location from Istanbul to St Petersburg to No 10 Downing Street. And the PM, of course, is a very busy woman. “I have an important Cabinet meeting in ten minutes. The NHS financing has raised its head again, and there is some fishy business going on up in Scotland. That dreadful Sally Trout woman again.” This is a spy thriller for those who find regular spy thrillers too frightening. Think ‘Carry On Spying’ and you’ve got the flavour – slapstick, shameless word play, and of course happily ever afters. The book brims with good humour of the broadest possible kind. The chapters are very very short, the entire book runs to 127 pages total. To those bowed down by the weight of a Covid-ridden world, Des Pond Special Agent offers a short burst of Benny-Hill-type escapism.
JAZ McCann writes very well. The reader is quickly drawn into his world. From the opening sentences of his prologue, Jaz paints the sights and sounds, the emotions, shocks, excitement, sadness, smells and the savage brutality and amazing horrors of his 6000 Days of incarceration, mostly in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh. He also makes us witness to the incredible courage, vision, commitment, solidarity, idealism, generosity, quirkiness, anger, native contrariness, humour, comradeship and stubbornness of the political prisoners. 6000 Days is an important and significant contribution to the history of the Irish penal experience, in line with Jeremiah O-Donovan Rossa’s classic Prison Life or Irish Rebels in English Prisons and other historical penal narratives. I have long had a view that we republicans need to write our own histories. Others should do likewise. Including from a unionist or even in this case a prison officer’s point of view. By setting all these narratives together the weave of our collective history – as lived in cities or rural Ireland by women, workers, the poor, by combatants, victims and, in this case by our political prisoners – becomes a shared history.
Journalist Ian Cobain decided to go against accepted wisdom when trying to explain the Troubles. Instead of writing a book about the 30 long years of violence, he honed in on a single death.
No Pope Here! That was a slogan I was familiar with growing up. Who knows as a child I might even have shouted it with my mates. There are many who still stand by the sentiment. So, I can hear you asking, and I hear some of you louder than others, what is a Presbyterian minister doing reading about the Pope? Well, here is the thing. I do not only think that Let Us Dream is only helpful for a Presbyterian, whose vows tell him not to refuse light from any quarter, but I think this is a document of social transformation that needs read and discussed by Jews and Muslims and Hindus and agnostics and atheists. It is a powerful challenge for all of us. “When are we getting back to normal?” “I don’t want to go back to the old normal.” “What will the new normal be like?” These are all questions that I have heard, even said over this past strange year.
My people! was my immediate reaction on being gifted a copy of Paisanos (literally, fellow-countrymen) which tells the tale of the forgotten Irish who left their mark on the independence struggle of Latin America.
It's not just a memory. It's a searing vision. His father is standing on top of the hill waving his cane. Slowly. And as the car carrying Michael Dowling away and out of Knockaderry slowly moves on, so does his father. He turns and walks over the crest of the hill. Away. It's an image of an emigrant's departure, a memory of what might have been a father's purest expression of love for his son. And his only expression. Michael Dowling's story is told in his recently published memoir, ‘After the Roof Caved In’.It's a story that the Irish who have left for other shores will recognize in a general sense. But the details are all Michael Dowling's. And they make for quite a read. Dowling, as many will know, is one of the most prominent Irish American community members in New York, city and state. He is President and CEO of Northwell Health, the Empire State's largest health care provider. But he is first and foremost an Irishman, a Limerick man, the son of his parents, a brother to his siblings, a husband and father. An immigrant. And, he will tell you pretty quickly into a conversation, a believer in the near sacred status of the game of hurling. Back in his boyhood, Michael Dowling would seek refuge and secure solace from a game that was a way of life in his home village of Knockaderry, County Limerick. To some it was more than just that. It was a veritable religion, a sporting faith that would give the local Catholic parish a run for the money donated by pious and mostly poor parishioners. But hurling couldn't entirely distract or take away from the fact that life in the Dowling household was devoid of virtually all the material comforts that might be expected in the Ireland of today. And there was Michael's father, a man seemingly incapable of expressing love and emotion up close and only, fleetingly and occasionally, from a hilltop."He couldn't handle emotion," says Dowling of his father. The son believes that if his father was alive today he would be diagnosed with depression. But back in the Knockaderry of his boyhood, food for the body and food for the soul as delivered by the church were the priorities. The mind had to look after itself. Michael Dowling's mind was able to do that, even as his father struggled with his.A story about a hardscrabble life in a Limerick of years ago quickly brings to mind Frank McCourt's ‘Angela's Ashes’. And there are certainly similarities between the McCourt family story in the lanes of Limerick, and the Dowling family story in the tiny village about twenty-five miles distant from the city by the Shannon. But there are differences. Despite all the daily challenges of life in the Dowling household there is a positivity in how Dowling relates the story. Indeed, there is a strain of joy running through the narrative that would hint at more Frank O'Connor than Frank McCourt. There's always some good to be found, even in the most difficult of circumstances, Dowling believes. "I've always looked for the positive, for what's possible. Yes there was heartache, but also joy," he says. "I would be happy spreading cowshit. It would strengthen me for the hurling."One of the childhood positives for Dowling came from living in a beautiful area, one of rich farmland – even if most of the small farmers themselves were far from rich. Dowling's memories, and the early ones were in the 1950s and the early '60s, include a tiny house with a door always open to friends and neighbors, of "old guys" sitting around the fireplace telling stories. "I wish those stories had all been written down," Dowling says.But while the fireside stories might be fading in memory, Michael Dowling's own story, and that of his family, has been preserved and presented for posterity. "For many years people would say that I should write down the story. The more I thought about it, well, when I started to write I found it to be therapeutic. And when I started it was hard to stop."
6000 Days by Jim (Jaz) McCann. (Elsinor Verlag, 2021.) IN the concluding part of this book, Jim McCann celebrates the birth of his first child by writing: “I had overcome imprisonment... not only was I going to share it with my loved ones. It was fulfilment, it was ecstasy.” After the previous 250 pages, in which he recorded his trials and tribulations as a prisoner in the H-blocks, we, the readers, are with him. We can understand his euphoria. We not only admire the fact that he survived 6,424 days in jail but that he managed to do so in such appalling conditions. But it is the next sentence that makes this prison memoir so exceptional. “There had been special moments like Bobby [Sands]’s election, the escape, that first Christmas parole, but this capped them all.” This linking of his intimate domestic concerns and the wider struggle encapsulates McCann’s overall theme: republicanism unites the personal and the political.Aged 20, McCann was sentenced to 25 years by a Diplock Court (no jury, one judge) for attempting to kill an RUC officer. He would go on to serve 17 years. At every stage of his imprisonment, through the blanket protest, the dirty protest and all the resulting brutal beatings and casual punishments, he was sustained by the fact that his refusal to bend had a political purpose. That he did so while fearing the inevitable violence that would be meted out to him made his stand all the more courageous. Not that the modest, phlegmatic McCann even hints at his defiance in terms of his own bravery. Instead, he reserves such praise for Sands and his nine comrades who died while on hunger strike, especially Joe McDonnell. It was a uniquely sobering moment for McCann. He writes: “Bobby’s death, and Joe following him on the stailc [strike] was a turning point in my life. I had been convinced that justice always prevails and those that fight for what is right always win through... Now reality was hitting me... being right did not necessarily equate with gaining justice.”