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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Conscience of a King

Seaghán Ó Murchú

Deághlan Ó Donghaile’s recent collations of Sinn Féin’s rhetorical legerdemain regarding the destruction or preservation of corporate property and British troops remind me of Eastern European versions during the Soviet bloc-era. Lately, looking for parallels to the continued hypocrisy revealed by damn near every champion of the downtrodden ever elected or appointed, I’ve been rifling memoirs, travelogues, and histories of the Warsaw Pact’s members for cautionary tales from which we Irish might take heed. How, after all, can idealism curdle into institutionalism? As we all know, for decades, party apparatchiks could sustain unswerving loyalty mouthed publicly by the nomenklatura contrasted with utter skepticism voiced by many in the privacy (where still one risked whispering truth to power, given bugs and informers) of one’s home. Of course, behind the Iron Curtain, proclamations issued forth on supposed behalf of the People’s Republic in the name of the working class rather than their enemies’ capitalistic class, but the discordant song remains the same.

Improverishment of one’s setting, physically, mentally, spiritually: drab concrete flats replacing colourful if peeling facades with postwar brutalism: in the East, not any architectural caprice so much as a deliberate lack of imagination, reified. Watching Krystof Kieslowski’s Decameron from the decade of Solidarinosc, you witness his attempt to capture life in all its details-adulteristic, philatelic, pietistic-in the apartments of a dreary Polish city ignored by sunshine and rarely graced with smiles. Now, any of us in Western cities might also look out our windows and peer out from similar balconies, but here the pathetic fallacy beloved by poets and filmmakers fades: somehow our local clouds do part, even if, as Nietzche mused in the aftermath of a battle the next morning, ‘Nature is cynical with her sunrises’.

Brian Hall and Monica Porter, traveling in early 80’s to Eastern Europe often muse upon their sheer inability to get straight answers; I suppose U.N. inspectors to Iraq today meet similar frustration. How can that nation’s people survive with so little mental energy, unable to respond, according to Greek doctors working at a Baghdad clinic, who testified in this week’s news as they attempted to lead an antiwar march there to resounding lack of success, that citizens there refused to betray any hint about political issues after thirty years of state surveillance? As with travelers to Romania related--even after the fall of Ceau?escu--the fear of the Securitate persisted, capable of changing for at least two generations the very posture Romanians assumed when walking on the streets, fearful always of who lurked around the corner, in the doorway, listening.

Again, the well-founded Irish fear of informers proves a more universal symptom under the diseased but remarkably clear of the dictator. Like Tolkien’s unlidded Sauron, the gaze from the Eastern wastes strikes fear in previously complacent Westerners. Two Towers indeed. If a regime based on oppression endures, it starves the peasants, jails the intellectuals, recruits the jobless, and persecutes the wavering urban masses. Having won loyalty of the party caste through initial appeals to inclusion and unity, once powerful, its inspiring doctrines fossilize into formulaic cant. As Ó Donghaile shows with Sinn Féin, the slogans around which many of us rallied have solidified into dogma, recited automatically by the faithful yet having soured among many agnostics their early fervor. Having faked for so long the mask of sincerity to survive politically and practically, Communists in the Eastern bloc and republicans in their north-eastern niche share cynical proclamations repeated each May Day or at each Bodenstown, pompous ritual replacing a recusant faith. Such an ‘interior dislocation’-in the phrase of Polish émigré Eva Hoffman-bodes well for no leader. Not to mention a restive populace, who, tired as they may be, still can wait. Imprisoned after the 1956 Hungarian revolt, Sandor Kaposci (former Budapest police chief) recalls how inmates manufactured radios no bigger than coins, to listen to the BBC. Print, the net, even founded rumour: opposition engineers its own momentum. In Budapest, in Prague, in Ballymurphy and the Bogside.

Remember King Claudius, spied upon by Prince Hamlet as the usurping and murdering monarch kneels vainly trying to expiate his guilt while refusing to relinquish the fruits of his sin? Certainly Shakespeare, one of the few permissible Western voices heard behind the Iron Curtain, proved ever adaptable to recurrent political issues. Speaking as he did to the complexity behind both killers and their victims, his plays comforted Ernie O’Malley as he fought the British, inspired the Polish and Czechs as they resisted the Soviets, and instruct us as we watch the Middle East from our Irish windows. Claudius, so smooth in public, in private cannot shield himself from his soul. Hamlet had predicted ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’. Now, after that play within a play, the trap sprung with the mouse trapped. Claudius, realising at last his schizophrenia when a leader cannot square his actions with his conscience, finally falters. ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go’. Yet he refuses to give up the ghost. Determined as ever to root out the palace malcontent, he dispatches more informers, more intimates, more spies, until ‘hoist with his own patard’.

Martin McGuinness may not have had much of the Bard while under the tutelage of the Brothers, but as a butcher’s apprentice he has also seen his share of blood. Not to mention ‘patards’. How lasting have been the lessons learned in decades of activism, in public proclamation and private contemplation? If Claudius succumbs to his own treachery, and if the Soviets and their collaborators where brought down after cruelly transforming noble dreams into deadly reality, how will Ireland’s republicans survive this persistent ‘cognitive dissonance’ between opportunist politicos and cynical constituents? How much longer can we endure to the assurances from the castle, the parliament, the assembly that fail to align the dreams which gave them their power with the reality upon which that power rests? We can learn from these accounts of the failures of the last half-century in Eastern Europe. So, then, what can we replace to survive the next half-century here in the West? Republicans face many specters: injustice lurks even more than informers, and knows no borders. As we sally forth from shires and flats against the armored troops and wily diplomats of Mordor, we need night vision. Peering into the darkness ahead, we rely upon clarity and insight for illumination. Truth may prove only a simple compass against an enemy from the East armed with high-tech destruction and low-tech treachery, but it’s reliable for the North.

[Books referred to: Brian Hall, ‘Stealing from a Dark Place’ (1988); Eva Hoffman, ‘Exit Into History’ (1994); Sandor Kopesci, ‘In the Name of the Working Class’ (1987); Monica Porter, ‘The Paper Bridge’ (1982).]





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



Follow the path of the unsafe, independent thinker. Expose your ideas to the dangers of controversy. Speak your mind and fear less the label of 'crackpot' than the stigma of conformity. And on issues that seem important to you, stand up and be counted at any cost.
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Index: Current Articles

3 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Carefully Crafted Message - Little Revealed, A Lot Concealed
John Meehan


What if They Give an Election and No One Comes?
Eamon Lynch


The Conscience of a King
Seaghán Ó Murchú


Lost Honour, Lost Cause
Proinsias O'Loinsaigh


Bogota Diary
Jimmy Sands


The Tongue
Anthony McIntyre


Glossary of Occupation

Paul de Rooij


26 January 2003


Drugadair and the Drugadiers
Anthony McIntyre


Thesis Antithesis
Paul Dunne


The Hungry Continent
Terence McMenamin


Sean Torain


Do They Talk to You?
Annie Higgins


Fight Against American Hyper-Imperialism and Oppression

Sean Matthews


The Letters page has been updated.




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