The 23 Enigma – three stories

•8 December 2014 • 1 Comment

I’m a Discordian – which means nothing other than I think religion is a joke, so I claim membership of a joke religion. One of the articles of faith, in a religion that believes nothing, is that there’s something going on with the number 23. Or maybe there isn’t, or maybe there might be sometimes and might not be sometimes. Or something.

Anyway, Discordians often notice that the number 23 is associated with synchronicities in the world. It might well be that we’re looking out for them, but things can get really weird. I’ve got three personal stories that people might find interesting, intriguing or downright scary. Or they might not. Anyway, here they are – they’re all true as much as any human recollection is true:

Many years ago, when I moved to London, I had trouble finding work. So, usually on a Friday, I would often go to the pub with my girlfriend’s colleagues. We’d talk random shit for hours while getting drunk. One night in July 2003, we got on to the 23 Enigma.

The main person I was talking to make the “It’s only because you’re looking for it” argument, so I suggested that, in following week, before we met in the pub again, I’d look for 23s and he’d look for another number – I can’t remember which one, so let’s say 17. He agreed, we drank more and then went home.

Within a couple of days, David Beckham revealed his new Real Madrid shirt. He said he chose the number 23 to honour his her Michael Jordan. Every newspaper front-page, every news broadcast had the number 23 very prominently displayed. Some papers even wrote about the enigmatic number 23 to explain the obsession with the number. This coverage continued for much of the week. Suffice it to say, when we met again the following Friday, there was no debate about which number cropped up more.

A year or so later, my girlfriend had a new job (I’d got one by this stage as well, so all was good). She had to give a talk at some new staff thing – on any topic – so she, remembering the incident above, decided to talk about the 23 Enigma. So far, so good. She gave the talk, it went well and she sat down.

The guy beside her said something like “that’s funny”, pulled up his sleeve and showed her his tattoo – the number 23. They laughed and went to the pub later on. I get a call many hours later from my now drunk girlfriend, relating this story and talking about her colleague Mark with the 23 tattoo. That’s when the coincidence hit – it turned out that I knew Mark and had written about him as part of a band called The Chaos Engine, where he was sometimes known as Mr. Eris (a nod to Discordianism being based around Eris, the Greek goddess of Chaos).

The final story was many years later. I’d bought a few DC superhero comics by Grant Morrison, author of the Invisibles, chaos magician – someone well acquainted with the 23 Enigma, Discordianism and all the rest. I didn’t really like them, so I decided to sell them as a bundle on Ebay. They sold and the buyer paid immediately.

I put them in an envelope, printed the address label, to see that the buyer lived across the road from me, same address bar the number. I live in 104, he lived in… number 23. I walked across the road, rang the doorbell of number 23, he answered and I gave him the comics. We both smiled at the ridiculous synchronicity, with the number 23 looking at us from his front door.

So that’s them. It’s hard to see how these can be explained away with the “It’s only because you were looking for them explanation” – these go beyond simple coincidences. Is there something else going on? Does Eris actually exist – or was she brought into existence by people starting a religion based on her in the 1960s – and is she messing with us? Who the hell knows. But they do make great stories, don’t they?

Hail Eris.

The Cromwellian logic of the Israel debate

•19 July 2014 • Leave a Comment

The debate about Israel is one of the most stark and heated, if not violent, in modern politics. The rights of Palestinians to life and self-determination are set against the right of the state Israel to defend itself and its population. Israel is touted as the only liberal democracy in a Middle East full of dictators and absolute monarchies, justifying anything the state chooses to impose on its stateless neighbours.

In looking for parallels, everything from South African apartheid to the Nazis is thrown into the ring. These are obviously emotive comparisons and are generally one-sided in that there is little debate about how bad they were. Few outside the extreme right of politics would argue in favour of apartheid or Nazism.

Woodcut: Cromwell as

Woodcut: Cromwell as “Le Gouvernour of Ireland”

You need to go back in history to find an example that echoes the situation in Israel, Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories that still divides opinion. One example from the history of these islands that fits well is that of Cromwell.

For much of Britain and elsewhere in the world, Cromwell was the father of British democracy. A revolutionary figure that ended the absolute rule of the monarchy, he established a short-lived republic and, despite the Restoration, fundamentally altered the balance of power in Britain.

In Ireland, however, Cromwell was long remembered after his death as being worse than the devil. At least you could do a deal with the devil. The massacre of Drogheda and the plantation of all Ireland were the final nail in the coffin of Gaelic Ireland and the triumph of the British colonial regime. The conditions he left in Ireland led to the 1800 Act of Union (abolishing the Irish parliament), the Great Hunger of the 1840-50s and the development of the radical republican movement that came to dominate Irish politics.

Ireland was the testing ground for the emerging British colonial project. A series of “plantations” were carried out under successive monarchs – Laoise-Offaly (Queen Mary), Munster (Queen Elizabeth) and Ulster (King James). In each case, uprisings by Gaelic leaders were defeated and the land stripped from the indigenous populations and handed to residents of Britain. British people were given land in Ireland and, particularly with the Ulster plantation, thousands moved to Ireland to create new British settlements. The policy was designed to eradicate Irish rebellion through the destruction of Irish language and culture and to solidify the control of the British monarchy.

As the English Civil War was unfolding in England, an uprising broke out against the plantation of Ulster. The Gaelic population, some of whom had become tenants, others who were the remnants of the Hugh O’Neill uprising that precipitated the plantation. Settlers were attacked and an estimated 3,000 killed, though these numbers were massively inflated for propaganda use in Britain.

The two conflicts became conflated as Irish royalists combined with the rebels and Ireland became the focus of the opposition to parliament. With Cromwell’s victory in England and the execution of the king, parliament turned towards Ireland in 1649 and Cromwell took the lead. It was a conflict marked by sieges and massacres, not just Drogheda, but also Wexford, Kilkenny and Clonmel.

The massacre of settlers in Ulster was one of the primary justifications for the invasion and the subsequent brutality. When the parliamentary forces finally triumphed in 1653, all Catholic land was confiscated, Catholicism was banned and many thousands of Irish were driven to the west of the country – “To hell or to Connaught”. Many thousands more were sent into slavery in the Caribbean.

The conquest of Ireland became the template for British colonialism and practices developed in Ireland were applied, in one way or another, across the British Empire in the centuries to come. Yet, the conquest of Ireland remains but a minor detail in the British version of history. In 2002, Cromwell was voted #10 in a 2002 BBC poll of the greatest Britons. In comparison, the actions of Cromwell’s forces in Ireland and the long-term impact on the country continue to be writ large on the Irish view of history.

So, back to Israel:

  • defence of settlers implanted upon land of the conquered – check,
  • extreme military imbalance – check,
  • collective punishment of entire population – check,
  • division of opinion based on perspective, with appeal to democratic credentials – check.
  • prospects of consensus or peace on the ground in the near future – ?

On the last point, the British domination of the whole of Ireland last from the 1650s until the 1920s (and the question of land-ownership lasted until 1938). The situation in the North of the country, though more peaceful, has hardly been settled to anyone’s satisfaction.

However, this period of history was one categorised by imperialism and colonisation the world over. The concept of international law and international bodies responsible for seeking adherence to those laws didn’t yet exist. Perhaps these international institutions may find a way to bring about peace and fairness between Israel and the Palestinian territories in less than nearly 300 years. We live in hope.

The history of anti-Irish racism

•14 May 2014 • Leave a Comment

The following article appeared as the foreword to Phil Mac Giolla Bháin’s book “Minority Reporter”.

There’s nothing new about anti-Irish racism. In fact, some of the language of racism in general can be found far back in Irish and British history. Gerald of Wales accompanied the anglo-Norman invaders who first subjugated Ireland to rule under the king of England in the 12th Century. He wrote, in The History and Topography of Ireland (PDF), of the native Irish:

“They live on beasts only, and live like beasts. They have not progressed at all from the habits of pastoral living… This is a filthy people, wallowing in vice. Of all peoples it is the least instructed in the rudiments of the faith.”

The stereotyping of the native Irish and the defaming of local culture and practices was accompanied by forced anglicisation and regular military incursions. The Protestant reformation, in particular Henry VIII’s rejection of the Catholic church, gave religious sectarianism a new edge. Despite the missionaries from Ireland who had reintroduced Christianity to Britain after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Irish were now cast as followers of a superstitious and brutal religion – and seen as too stupid to know better.

As the centuries passed, the racist rhetoric continued and expanded to justify the continued repression of native Irish resistance and, from the 16th Century onwards, the plantations of Ireland – a programme of confiscation and colonisation of the land with settlers from England and the Scottish lowlands. The combination of religious rhetoric and land confiscations reached a fever pitch with Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the 17th Century. From this point onwards, British colonialism expanded globally.

The lessons learned in Ireland became a template for how to deal with other troublesome natives. As Noam Chomsky put it, in one of the interviews in The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many:

“There has always been racism. But it developed as a leading principle of thought and perception in the context of colonialism. That’s understandable. When you have your boot on someone’s neck, you have to justify it. The justification has to be their depravity.

“It’s very striking to see this in the case of people who aren’t very different from one another. Take a look at the British conquest of Ireland, the earliest of the Western colonial conquests. It was described in the same terms as the conquest of Africa. The Irish were a different race. They weren’t human. They weren’t like us. We had to crush and destroy them.”

The colonisation of Ireland was completed with the Act of Union in 1800, following the defeated 1798 Rebellion. Ireland became an unequal part of the United Kingdom and, as its small economy was suppressed to the advantage of the larger country to the east, a trickle of Irish people began moving to Britain seeking work. The Irish became farm labourers, dock workers, builders and, as the industrial revolution began to take hold, factory workers.

The trickle of Irish immigrants into Britain became a flood with the advent of An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) in the 1840s and ’50s. Often referred to as the Irish Famine, the death of approximately one million people and the emigration of at least the same number was not the result of natural causes as the word famine implies. On the contrary, the island of Ireland was still exporting massive amounts of food during the same period. An Gorta Mór was a legacy of the colonial policies of the British state, which pushed much of the native population to the rocky land of Connacht, and the laissez faire politics of the British government that prevented any realistic attempts to alleviate the suffering in Ireland.

Irish emigrants ended up across the world, from Australia and South Africa to Argentina and the United States. But many hundreds of thousands went no further than Britain – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. The immigrants were a gift to the emergent capitalism of mid-19th Century Britain, destitute thousands fed the huge factories and populated the great industrial cities. However, the poverty and lack of education of many of the immigrants fed the historic prejudices.

The Irish lived in ghettos which were often little more than shanty towns. These areas – including Irish Town in Manchester described by Friedrich Engels in “The Condition of the Working Class” or Whitechapel in London described by Rudolf Rocker in the “London Years” – were rightly regarded as barely fit for human inhabitation. However, for many in Britain, the Irish were seen as natural inhabitants of such squalor, unwilling and unable to improve themselves.

Similar conditions in the United States drove many Irish West, to become pioneers of the new territories and gradually to attain new status. There was no such option in Britain and, as a result, new issues emerged. Out of the ghettos emerged new kinds of activism. A new version of the Irish fight for independence from Britain emerged amongst the emigrants in a number of movements that would become known as Fenianism. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had groups in Ireland and Britain, the Fenian Brotherhood and then Clan na Gael were their equivalent in the United States. At a number of times through their history, these Fenian groups engaged in bombings in Britain – the most notorious of which was the Clerkenwell bombing in 1867 when a botched prison break killed 12 civilians.

Michael Barrett became the last man to be publicly hanged in Britain after he was convicted of participating in the bombing. Despite many doubts over his conviction and campaigns for clemency similar to those in Manchester on behalf of those who became the Manchester Martyrs, Barrett came to symbolise a new aspect of anti-Irish prejudice – the dangerous bomber. So much so that his execution is thought to be the origin of the use of the name Mick as an insulting generalisation for Irish people.

The 1880s saw a new flank in Irish activism that had a more positive effect on British society. The New Unionism wave that turned trade unions into mass organisations for the first time originated in the largely Irish community of East London. The “Matchgirls” Strike of 1888 and the subsequent London Dockers’ Strike that so nearly became a London general strike were solidly based amongst the Irish.

The Irish involvement in the trade union movement continued and produced such legendary figures as Jim Larkin from Liverpool and James Connolly from Edinburgh, both of whom ended up returning to Ireland, the land of their parents. The British trade union movement to this day contains an obvious preponderance of Irish names, including my own – I was born in Dublin, moved to London in 2012 and was, until recently, President of the National Union of Journalists.

The Fenian movement continued on its own path to Irish freedom, partially achieved in 1922, and Republican activities largely disappeared for decades, barring some sporadic actions in Ireland in relation to Northern Ireland. The trade union movement achieved improvements in the living standards of all, particularly after the Second World War. But, for the Irish, many aspects of the old prejudice remained. The treatment of Irish workers has been captured in song, in particular Dominic Behan’s “McAlpine’s Fusillers” written in the 1960s about the treatment of builders working for Sir Robert McAlpline. “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs were still to be seen in 1960s London.

In 1968, as the whole world seemed to be rising up and demanding equality and civil rights, the Catholic community of Northern Ireland did the same – and provoked a violent reaction, first from the Unionist and Loyalist majority and then from the army, originally brought in to defend them. The remnants of the IRA split and the largely Northern Ireland-based Provisional IRA began its campaign against British rule. The Troubles began in 1969.

This had much the same effect on the Irish community in Britain as the IRB’s actions 100 years earlier. Every Irish man or woman was a suspect and, as the cases of the Birmingham Six, Guilford Four, Maguires and Judith Ward showed, any Irish person could be arrested and convicted regardless of whether or not they were involved in IRA activities. Border security in the 1970s and ’80s was notorious in its suspicion of all Irish people and the dehumanising and sometimes degrading actions of officials.

The end of the 1990s created a perfect storm that changed nearly everything. The economy of the Irish Republic was becoming the envy of the world as the Celtic Tiger appeared to break every rule and grow beyond all expectations. Irish emigration, which had been a constant factor since the 1840s, quickly went into reverse as Ireland became a destination of choice for emigrants from other countries, first Nigeria, then China and then Eastern Europe.

At the same time, the Troubles were slowly coming to an end. Ceasefires and negotiations, first secret and then in the open, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Very quickly, the myths that underpinned the prejudice started to disappear – Irish people turned out to be well educated, cultured and, increasingly, financially well off. Dublin became a favourite stop for English stag and hen parties. Irish accents became commonplace on British television. Everyone loved Boyzone, Westlife and Riverdance.

However, the old myths and prejudices persisted in one part of Britain and this is what Phil Mac Giolla Bháin has been central to exposing and combating. The continued tolerance of racist bile like the ‘Famine Song’ in Scottish football was unacceptable and Phil’s success in creating an international issue out of it is to be commended. The fact that this made him the journalist of choice for people to reveal the state of Rangers’ finances speaks to his professionalism and courage to tread where many others feared.

After the collapse of the Irish economy and the return of emigration as the only option for young Irish people, there is a danger of a resurgence of anti-Irish prejudice. There were hints of it in some of the reaction to the Pope’s visit to the UK in 2010. Catholics were portrayed by some opponents of the visit as being superstition and stupid, a strong echo of the descriptions of the thick Paddy of old. In 2012, an English Defence League splinter group calling themselves the “North-West Infidels” have moved from attacking Muslims to targeting Irish community parades, accusing groups like the James Larkin Society in Liverpool of links to the IRA.

To be very clear, I’m not an Irish nationalist, I’m an anarchist who wants to see the eradication of all borders, not the creation of more. I’m not a Catholic – I have a letter from the Catholic Church to confirm that. And I don’t have a particular dislike of the Rangers football team or most of the fans – I don’t like football at all. As far as I’m concerned, football represents my inability to get the bus home when I lived in Holloway and Arsenal were playing. I don’t care whether a team succeeds or fails, it’s a complete irrelevance to me.

What I do care about it racism and hatred. If you sing a song that expresses your hatred of me and people like me, I want you to stop. If you react to something written with threats of violence, then you deserve to be stopped. I oppose all forms of intolerance and prejudice, whether it be against Irish people, Muslims, LGBT people or any other group. It is the job of an ethical journalist to expose this kind of hatred and prejudice and Phil Mac Giolla Bháin has done it well.

Media silence over Freedom firebombing – imagine if it was Waterstones

•4 February 2013 • 9 Comments

Apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been an indefensible level of silence about the firebombing of Freedom Bookshop on Friday morning. Only one TV channel, Press TV, bothered to send a camera crew to East London.  ITV, the Evening Standard and the Guardian did write stories about it, even if the latter did use the bizarre phrase about the shop that “[i]t claims to stock thousands of books, newspapers, pamphlets…” It’s a bookshop, what exactly makes a statement of easily verifiable fact a claim?

The fact that the story was picked up by the Associate Press meant the story was auto-syndicated around the world (e.g. the Washington Post), but, apart from those, there’s been little else in the mainstream media. No BBC London, no Channel 4 News, no Mirror – let alone any of the conservative newspapers.

Since when is the deliberate targeting of a bookshop not news? Imagine if it had been a branch of Waterstones (there are still a few around). I have no doubt crews would have been all over it and it would have made news bulletins and every newspaper. The only explanation for the lack of coverage of the attack on Freedom is blatant politics.

It would seem that because Freedom is an anarchist bookshop, it doesn’t count. No, most of the mainstream media is only interested in anarchists when they can print groundless allegations that we’re planning to wreck royal weddings or the Olympics.

I went down to the shop on Saturday and saw real anarchism in action – around 100 people turned up to wipe down soot-covered books, clean floors and scrub walls. Not just anarchists, but friends and fellow travellers all ready to help out to get the shop up and running again. Not for pay, not because someone told us to, no – because we wanted to, because solidarity is important and Freedom needs to exist.

Freedom Press, founded in 1886, is one of the last reminders of a different time in London’s East End, a time when people like Peter Kropotkin, Errico Malatesta and Rudolf Rocker walked the streets of the East End. A time when Jewish trade unions rose up and struck to end the sweat shop system that blighted their lives. A time when revolution was in the air and people were willing to fight for a better world.

As the Tories and their sell-out Lib Dem colleagues strip workers of their rights and condemn the less well off in society to food banks and poverty, it’s a time we should all remember. It’s also a time we should start emulating.

Unfortunately, Freedom’s recent financial woes meant the shop was uninsured at the time of the attack, so they need funds to continue. Lots of fund-raising efforts are underway, check out the Freedom website for details.

Motions passed at the NUJ Delegate Meeting from London Independent Broadcasting and New Media Branch

•29 October 2012 • Leave a Comment

The NUJ London Independent Broadcasting and New Media Branch, which I currently chair, proposed two motions to the union’s delegate meeting – both were passed without opposition. LNM means Late Notice Motion (ie. they were proposed after the deadline for motions in response to specific events).

LNM 17
This DM congratulates Channel 4 for its brilliant coverage of the Paralympics (29 Aug – 9 Sept), in particular how presenters and journalists with disabilities were at the forefront of their coverage.

DM hopes that Channel 4 will continue this practice, which has helped bring disabled people into the spotlight and show that many are capable of doing these jobs.

However, DM condemns the government’s attempts to use the success of paralympians to attack disabled people who depend on benefits and condemns the cuts being imposed on these benefits that are absolutely essential to their ability to live. DM further condemns the closure of the Remploy factories that gave so many disabled people a chance to work in an accessible environment as gross hypocrisy from a government that claims to be trying to help bring disabled people into the workplace. DM furthermore condemns the role of the private company ATOS in these political machinations.

DM instructs the NEC to support organisations fighting cuts to disability benefits, in particular Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

LNM 18
DM congratulates the Youth Media Agency (YMA) on the launch of their Youth Media Directory on 24 July and their successful meeting on getting age entered into the replacement
of the editor’s code as a topic of discrimination on 27 September.

DM supports the work of the YMA to improve coverage of young people in the mainstream media and in supporting independent media by young journalists.

DM urges all branches to look at the Directory on the YMA website ( and to recruit the young journalists involved in the projects to the NUJ.

DM instructs the NEC to work with the YMA to develop guidelines on how to improve the coverage of young people.

The Branch will be holding a Recruitment and Organising session this Saturday (3 November) from 11am to 4pm.

Starting at 11am, the plan is to have two hours of training – then lunch paid for by the Branch – and then back at 2pm for two more hours of strategy – defining targets and plans to approach workers in workplaces where we’re not yet organised.

If you’re a member of the Branch or work in Independent Broadcasting (ie. anywhere but the BBC) or New Media (websites, mobile phone content, bloggers, tweeters) and want to get involved, come along.

The session will be held in NUJ HQ, Headland House, 308-312 Gray’s Inn Road, London, WC1X 8DP.

A tale of two Harry Bolands

•9 August 2012 • 2 Comments

Many years ago, I was reading Emma Goldman’s autobiography sitting beside the pool while on holidays in Greece (not necessarily everyone’s idea of relaxing, but I’m not everyone). I sat bolt upright in my sun-bed when I got to page 567 and Goldman writes of lecturing in Philadelphia. There, she writes, she met “two persons whose friendship recompensed me for the otherwise dreary experience, Harry Boland and Horace Traubel.” Harry Boland! She goes on, “Harry was an old devotee and always generously helpful in every struggle I made.”

Some personal biography is probably necessary at this point to explain my surprise. The Irish revolutionary Harry Boland was my great-granduncle; I grew up with stories about him and the rest of the Boland family. I even chose to write about Harry for my Leaving Certificate history essay. I knew Harry had travelled in the US fund-raising for the IRA during the Irish War of Independence and there was the strange tale of the Russian jewels, but a connection to Emma Goldman was unheard of and a complete surprise.

However, only a few pages later, she writes about the 1916 Rising and how Padraic Colum wrote an account of the events for Mother Earth. Which means the Philadelphia meeting happened earlier in 1916, most likely before the Easter Rising. The Harry Boland I knew about was in Dublin at the time, he fought in the rising and was imprisoned until 1917. He didn’t go to New York until May 1919, at which time Emma Goldman was in prison. Their paths might have crossed in the short time between Goldman’s release in September and her deportation in December that year, but he clearly wasn’t the Harry Boland to whom she referred in the book.

A bit more research and I found that a Harry Weir Boland had written a poem for Mother Earth himself marking the death of King Edward VII in less than respectful terms. “Bury him, then, face downward in the dust,” it begins, a sentiment I’m sure would have been shared by his namesake in Ireland.

Over the years, I’ve found out more about the American Harry Boland. He was born in Pennsylvania in 1873 of Irish immigrant parents, Michael A. Boland and Ellen Carolan. He lived in Philadelphia most of his life and across the Delaware River died in Camden, New Jersey, in 1926. Like Goldman’s other Philadelphia friend, Horace Traubel, he was an admirer of Walt Whitman. However, what I’ve never been able to find out is whether he knew of or even met his namesake.

There were numerous other possible connections between them. Emma Goldman writes of a meeting in June 1917 that the widowed Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was in attendance. Hanna was a member of the Republican women’s organisation Cumann na mBan alongside the Irish Harry Boland’s sister, Kathleen. After his death in 1922, Kathleen and Hanna travelled to the US to raise funds for the anti-Treaty side of the Irish Civil War.

Harry himself gave a speech in Philadelphia in 1921 when acting as Sinn Féin envoy to the United States. After his death in 1922, Joseph McGarrity of the Philadelphia Clan na Gael organised a mock funeral procession in the city which was attended by up to 10,000 people (see Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution by David Fitzpatrick).

It’s hard to believe the American Harry was unaware of the Irish Harry. Did they meet in 1921? Was Harry Weir Boland still living in Philadelphia when thousands marked the death of his namesake? If there’s anyone out there who knows more about Harry Weir Boland, the old devotee of Emma Goldman’s, I’d love to hear about it.

Rally for Media Reform – democracy in Britain corrupted by illegal and unethical press practices

•20 June 2012 • Leave a Comment

More on the event:
Hugh Grant: Leveson inquiry has shone ‘disinfectant sunlight’ into ‘infected corners’
News: Rally for Media Reform – democracy in Britain corrupted by illegal and unethical press practices: Natalie Peck

and my subsequent piece for the LSE Media Policy Project:
Media Reform Now: We Need to Re-Unionise the Industry


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