Friends from far and near were in the Four Seasons Hotel in Monaghan last Saturday night for a special testimonial event for my old friend and comrade Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.
Mary Lou McDonald was there to remind us of Caoimhghín’s long and distinguished life of activism for over 40 years. It was also an opportunity to thank Briege. It’s not easy being the partner of an activist but Briege is a Republican in her own right and her family before her. So go raibh maith agat a bheanuasal agus do chlann.
It was a great night. Alex and Paul Maskey were down from Belfast. Aengus O’Snodaigh TD was up from Dublin. Rose Conway Walsh was there from Mayo, as was Chris MacManus MEP from Sligo. And there were many more. TDs and councillors and activists, family and friends.
I have known Caoimhghín for a very long time. He is one of the great stalwarts of Sinn Féin. His leadership during the hunger strikes of 1980 and '81, and in particular his role as Director of Elections in Cavan-Monaghan during the Anti-H-Block campaign of 1981, were crucial in securing the historic election of Hunger Striker Kieran Doherty. The Doherty family were represented in the Four Seasons. Caoimhghín has remained in close touch with them over all the years and Michael - Kieran’s brother - said a few words in appreciation of their friendship.
The election of Bobby Sands in Fermanagh South Tyrone and the success of Big Doc and Paddy Agnew in Louth, and of prisoner candidates across the 26 counties in the general election of 1981, helped transform republican politics on this island. After the 1981 general election, Caoimhghín threw himself increasingly into republican politics.
When Martin McGuinness and I travelled to Mullingar, where Caoimhghín worked in the bank, we asked him would he come full time with us. He left the bank on the Friday and became General Manager of An Phoblacht/Republican News on the Monday. He was once asked by a journalist why he left his job. He said: “I got tired of counting other people’s money so I decided to do something useful for a change.”
In the following years he and others in Cavan-Monaghan built on the dramatic 1981 win. The vote for Sinn Féin gradually increased, as did the number of local councillors. By 1997 there were ten councillors in Monaghan. When the general election was held in the South that year there was a hope that Sinn Féin could improve our electoral performance. We stood in fourteen constituencies.
Those were difficult times. The IRA cessation had ended in early '96 and Sinn Féin had been excluded from the talks process at Castle Buildings in Belfast. But in Cavan Monaghan there was a huge sense of expectation – of possibility. In addition, comrades from the North worked furiously on the campaign. I was in an out of the constituency and the locals set a grueling pace.
Two days later the count in Cootehill Comprehensive School was something else. The atmosphere was electric. Just before 3 p.m. RTE was reporting that we might, just might, be in contention for the fifth seat. Section 31 might have gone, but old habits die hard.
The result was announced at 4.30 p.m. There was a hush in the hall as the first figures were read: “eleven thousand five hundred and thirty one” and before another word could be said the place went wild. Caoimhghín had topped the poll. There was jubilation in Cavan-Monaghan. But none in the political establishment. Labour Party leader Dick Spring described the result as “worrying." Although that might also have been because Martin Ferris had come close to taking a seat in Spring’s constituency in Kerry. The establishment media were beside themselves in anger with many attacking the result. A trend which many continue today.
For Caoimhghín, it was the start of a new and different and challenging journey.
He took his place in Leinster House as the lone Sinn Féin representative. He fought many battles in Leinster House against a political system that was determined to marginalize his efforts to raise republican politics. Today, Sinn Féin leads the opposition in the Dáil. Two opinion polls on Sunday put the party well ahead of all the other parties in the Oireachtas, and in the North we are the largest party. That success is as result of the hard work and leadership of comrades like Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. Thank you chara. Thank you Briege.
THE ETERNAL BUZZ AND THE CROCK OF GOLD
The event for Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin was not my only social outing last week. Shane MacGowan published what some have described as his first ever art book. However, that label doesn’t do it justice. It is a wild mixture of over 3,000 poems, photographs, sketches, and paintings. It includes self-portraits and handwritten lyrics of almost two dozen songs, including early versions of lyrics for The Pogues. There are even some of his cocktail recipes.
The event was held in Richard Corrigan’s restaurant, The Park Café, in Ballsbridge, Dublin. He described Shane as “the London Irish we always wanted” ... “You set the flag in the stone for everyone to follow. Your songs will be sung forever.” The room was packed with artists, journalists, actors, musicians, and photographers.
The limited edition of 1,000 copies was curated by Shane’s wife, Victoria Mary Clarke, who salvaged, saved and collected a huge amount of scraps of paper that now make up "The Eternal Buzz and the Crock of Gold." As Victoria explained to those present how she is by nature a hoarder, Shane put his own inimitable description on the book when he described it as "dirty laundry."
Shane is very lucky that Victoria has been minding him all this time. Ireland and our culture is lucky that we have Shane MacGowan to bring us his wonderful art, his music and his wonderful songs. Works of genius.
I remember away back in 1972 when I was 23 being stopped in Dublin by the Special Branch as I left the Sinn Féin office in Kevin Street. They frisked me in the street and one Branch man gave off about Pearse and Connolly. “Rebels,” he said, “And where did it get them. And you ones nowadays. Sure you’re only the dredge of the bucket.”
That phrase – “you’re only the dredge of the bucket” – has stayed with me. It’s like a line from one of Shane’s songs....
“You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot …”
And in The Old Main Drag.:
“In the tube station the old ones who were on the way out
Would dribble and vomit and grovel and shout”
Shane and Victoria invited me along and asked that I recite one of his unpublished poems – "Alcohol Abuse." I was honored and pleased to do so.
Out of my brain
And suddenly my world
Was free of pain
Out of my brain
And I didn’t think
I’d feel that good again
But I could
And I would
And I did
You’ve simply got to chose
Between Alcohol Abuse
And a slave’s blink vision
She’s sitting in a corner
Look in her vacant eyes
Steal her pills and money
And then I realise
There is no life
In her vacant eyes
She is tranquilised
In her vacant yes
She is hypnotised
Is she coming back
I want to be there with her
I’ve seen them talking on the television
About Alcohol Abuse
It’s got a princely rhythm
Alcohol Abuse, Alcohol Abuse
In her vacant eyes there is no life
She’s hypnotised, She’s tranquilised
So I’m gonna chose