IMG_20160327_0002The problem with reading the history of American Native Peoples and their virtual annihilation by my European ancestors is that one can become very depressed at the horrors they endured for centuries. From the initial deprivations under the early settlers, on through the ‘opening of the West’, and well into the last century their story is a heart-breaking one of mass extermination amounting to genocide. And so, to read a book that has a happier tale to tell about Native Americans  is something wonderful. Charles Wilkinson describes a resurgent Native American movement intent on  reclaiming its rights and on bringing an end brutal and degrading treatment (the book is subtitled ‘The Rise of Modern Indian Nations’). It is not at all an unqualified  success story. There is still a long way to go and of course entitlement to the full extent of the lands which were stolen from them (i.e., all of North America!) can never be adequately addressed, but this book gives an account of the many successes Native American tribes have had since the middle of the last century in reclaiming at least some of their heritage, both in terms their traditions and of their lands, and this has had the effect of restoring confidence in themselves and in their efforts to assert their rights.

The question of when began this rowing back of age-old mistreatment is a bit clouded, but Wilkinson locates it  somewhere around the mid 1950s. The burgeoning civil rights movement  was a big influence, although it seems that there was a somewhat uneasy relationship between the black people and native Americans despite the ill-treatment they suffered in common. Black/coloured people had been forcibly removed from their homelands and shipped to America, where as the Native Americans were forcibly deprived of their (sovereign) homelands in America by the various means of fraudulent treaties and genocidal massacres. 

The resurgence of the Native American movement to assert this sovereignty was greatly helped by the returning Native American war veterans who had put their lives on the line for their country and expected better treatment at home than had been afforded their parents. Many of these men and women used their education grants to study law and then to use their skills to further the cause of their people, many of whom were still living in the reservations they had been forced into long ago and in which they were also still enduring appalling conditions.

Other books I have read have gone into considerable detail about these conditions and the assaults on the dignity of these ancient and civilized peoples and, quite rightly, the tone has often been one of sincere regret and severe condemnation. Wilkinson eschews a ‘horrified’ tone and allows the facts to speak for themselves. In so doing, he lays bear in a matter-of-fact way the unspeakable injustices of expropriation wreaked on these aboriginal peoples in the fevered days of the white man’s land-grabbing in the ‘New World’. The book  is not just another denunciation of the white man (indeed there is mention of white men and women who have fought the Indians’ cause along the way). It is a reasoned and factual account of what was lost and the relatively recent efforts to turn the tide and make better the life of today’s tribes. The successes are enumerated along with the future difficulties. Furthermore, most of the accounts and narratives are given by Native Americans themselves, with Wilkinson adopting a facilitator’s role.

Recent events that mark this change in attitudes towards the Indian Peoples IMG_20160327_0004can be seen in the return of many lands important to the tribes culturally, for example the return of Blue Lake and its surrounding forestry to the people of the Taos Pueblo by President Nixon in 1970. There had been a long road to travel  through red tape and bureaucracy before this happened, but it did happen in the end. Like in other instances, the persistence and resilience and courage of native Americans, coupled with dedicated legal know-how, finally won the day. The American Indian always had plenty of courage, but legal know-how is a more recent acquisition and has made all the difference.


This book also has the advantage of being one more deadly blow against the self-serving notion which has it that Europeans found their ‘New World’ virtually devoid of people and with vacant land there for the taking. I find this still a commonly held view here in Ireland. In fact, as this book shows conclusively, the array of nations and cultures present when the white man arrived was widespread over the entire continent.  Wilkinson also provides maps of Indian reservations which show their present lands and what has been gained since the more recent affirmative actions of the tribes. The comparisons of their present holdings with what was the extent of their original territories says it all, as is evident in the Taos Pueblo map (above) of the 1970s returned lands.

The best thing about this book, apart from its being a scholarly but eminently readable achievement, is that – like I said at the start of this piece – its message is positive. There’s a lot to be done yet, but the position of the American Native Peoples is improving, even though the progress is slow and the road ahead anything but easy. And because 10 years have elapsed since its publication I am driven search out news of developments since then.

About the author:

Distinguished  Professor at the University of Colorado, Charles Wilkinson IMG_20160327_0003.jpgis the author of twelve books, including American Indians, Time and Law and Crossing the New Meridian. A former attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, he has travelled to more than one hundred Indian reservations. Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation said of him: “Of all the students of American Indian law, Charles Wilkinson is the best. He is down to Earth, loves the people, and appreciates the beauty of the land.” Wilkinson currently resides in Boulder, Colorado. (2005)





Reluctant Tommy

CAUTION: Doubts have been raised about the authenticity of the material in this book, especially in the description of military events and actual persons.

If, like me, you are very tired of the commemorations / glorifications of the Great Futile War (1914-1918) which have plagued 2014 and 2015 (and there must be still more to come until the end of 2018!!!), then this is the book for you.

Ronald Skirth was born in 1897. He left home to fight as a volunteer when he was nineteen years old and served on the Western and Italian fronts. His book (edited by Duncan Barrett) tells of the experiences of a man who came to hate the killing and who came to find mechanisms for frustrating it,  and to write about why he was driven to such actions. He saw close-up the real horror and futility of what was happening around him and witnessed the appalling unconcern shown by the officer class for the men who relied on them for leadership.

One particular incident soured his view of war forever – the sight of the dead body of a teenage German soldier. There was no bloodstain, no bruise visible on his person or uniform. Leaning back his helmet had been tilted upwards revealing his face. It was the deathly pallor of that face which shocked me beyond my powers of description. Part of a lock of blonde hair was resting on his forehead above the two closed eyes. I thought Germans wore their hair closely cropped, – but not this one. There was the suggestion of a smile on the pale lips, – a smile of contentment.” That was the moment he resolved he would never again help to take a human life. The many other bodies he saw which, unlike the young German, were mutilated beyond recognition, only strengthened his hatred for this organised orgy of mass-murder and his contempt for those who  directed it so incompetently.

The process of the actual writing of the book is a story in itself, not least because Ronald meant at first to write a love story about his courtship of the girl who was to become his wife after the war.  However, the act of writing revived his war-memories and so he ended up providing the material for this fine book. He had kept a diary at the front and used it as the basis for several folders of recollections. He kept on revising and adding to these memories for some years afterwards, even after suffering two strokes. When he died in 1977, all these writings passed to his daughter, but she did not read them until two decades later. She then handed them over to the Imperial War Museum where they remained until discovered by Duncan Barret, again some years later, who edited them into this book.

Interestingly, one of the ‘blurbs’ on the cover of the book, supplied by Richard Holmes of the Evening Standard, reads as follows An important contribution to the literature of the war … whenever I get too misty-eyed about officer-man relationships I shall reread it to remind me of how badly things could go wrong’. I do not think that Holmes will ever re-read this book. Having nicely filed it away as ‘an important contribution to the literature of the war’ he will continue to enjoy his ‘misty-eyed etc., etc.’ He really has not understood what Ronald Skirth is saying. It’s not that things went badly wrong. Skirth is saying that the whole business was rotten from the start. I suspect that Holmes did not read the book entirely, or if he did, I am amazed he missed its main thrust.

Or am I amazed? No. When I see the present officer class (and political caste) laying wreaths at memorials for those who died in foreign wars I realise how far we have come from the time so many fine young men and women were sacrificed as cannon fodder. That is to say, we have not come very far at all. And I wonder how those American war veterans of the recent Iraq wars feel when they see on TV those towns that they ‘liberated’ which are now in the hands of ISIL (or whoever). And please do not misread me. I am appalled by what happened to these men and women and the wounds they suffered … and for what? It doesn’t help my mood to hear that many of them were badly treated when they arrived home.

If you harbour any notions about war being glorious, and that it is a duty to go killing people in other lands and other than in self-defence, and for the freedom of one’s own country, then you should read this book.

Boyne Berries no. 17
Boyne Berries no. 17

Boyne Berries no 17 (Spring 2015) brought lots of good things. A really nice springtime poem from Gearoid O’Duill entitled ‘Snowdrop’:

“Spring flowers make no show yet, except the snowdrop, 

its white head cautiously spread, pendulous,

each inner petal veined with gentle skein of green…”

I always like the considered line and the well-chosen word, which I also find in ‘Ritual’ by Lorcan Black, a poem touching on the fleeting nature of love:

“One blink and the thread dissolves,

the doors slice open…”

‘The doors’ image is part of an extended metaphor of a train journey which continues right through the poem. Other poems which appealed to me were ‘Spring Invasion’ by Kate Ennals, Adrienne Leavy’s ‘Bright Shadow’, and a rather ‘zero’ poem from Ciaran Parkes entitled ‘Bog Body’. Nice poem too from Orla Fay (‘Fawn’) reminding us of the ‘fierce beauty’ of other species that inhabit this planet, which we often presumptuously describe as ‘ours’.

Of the stories, I was very struck by Mari Maxwell’s ‘McTagish Law’ with its ambiguous ending, and by Rozz Lewis’s ‘The Statues of St Jude and Buddha’ with its exact depiction of a very familiar family situation where the ‘faith of our fathers (and mothers!)’ has not lasted into the next generation.

My poem ‘Neanderthals’ is a bit on the gloomy side, being concerned somewhat with human arrogance. How is it that this long extinct species of mankind has come to represent all that is backward and vicious? Recent studies seem to show that Neanderthal Man (and Woman) had a high level of intelligence and a developed social sense. Perhaps it’s inbuilt in our white caucasian  natures to regard all other types and species of the human as inferior, be they the ‘savage injuns’  of the recent past or the black/coloured peoples of the present? I remember when I was a young boy that a group of Irish UN soldiers was ambushed in the Congo and many of them killed by Baluba tribesmen. For years afterwards in Ireland the word ‘Baluba’ was used to describe any unruly and uncouth group who interfered with the comfort of their neighbours. And were these tribesmen uncouth and unruly? Perhaps, but we should remember that the UN soldiers were operating in territory the Baluba tribesmen regarded as their own and were acting under the not unreasonable assumption that these armed men were invaders and meant them harm. Had the Inca reacted in the same way, the history of South America would be very different. We were all very sorry for our Irish soldiers at the time (and quite rightly so), but I can’t remember that any good word was said about the Balubas.

A BBC programme broadcast at the time this poem was written (September 2012) made an

Stiil from the BBC programme 'Andrew Marr's History of the World' (Broadcast 2012)
Still from the BBC programme ‘Andrew Marr’s History of the World’ (Broadcast 2012)

honest effort to overcome prejudice in order to show that these nomadic ancestors of ours were something more than wild beasts, but this was only partly successful. Certainly some of the publicity material for the programme didn’t help break down barriers. One photo (pictured right) presented Neanderthals as a cross between noble savages and black rappers. I think we don’t know enough about them to be definitive about their overall lifestyle but I can guess that they were not operating the laws of the jungle, as maintained by our right honorable friend on the bench. They seem to have had at least a modicum of social cohesion.

Another unfortunate aspect of this judge’s comments was that he was criticising  the actions of a group of Irish Travellers. This court scene was, therefore, a rather sorry vignette of our prejudices towards groups other than ‘our own’.

Footnote: The judge in question, in a previous case, had sentenced a man to climb Croagh Patrick for verbally abusing a garda.


 … The Judge said that the defendants

were like Neanderthal men abiding

by the laws of the jungle… (news report)


Whereas there is this widespread idea

that Neanderthals had haggard haircuts,

went half-naked, had a wild-eyed stare,

and killed and chopped each other up for food; 

and whereas it is said their skulls were small

and, like the Heidelbergensis before them,

that they probably worshipped stones and trees

and yes were homo but not sapiens – 

I have no doubts at all but they were kind

among themselves and did not soil the ground

where they lay down to sleep, and loved their kids,

and hoped for happiness. And then we came along.

Ghost Map

The sub-title of this book is The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World’. The book comprises two sections: a detailed account of the cholera epidemic itself which struck a part of London south of the Thames in 1851 and raged for 20 months; and then a shorter section on what was learned about the disease and how this knowledge was used later to deal with it. Sound Boring?

Not at all. The scale of human tragedy described here is heart-breaking, as is the scale of the stupdity of the City Fathers in persisting with out-dated explanations of what was the cause of the disease. To be brief, the authorities stuck with the ‘miasma’ explanation which blamed bad air and smells for carrying the disease, even in the face of hard evidence that it was water-borne. This is the kind of explanation which seems just common sense today but back then in the mid 1850s it was a revolutionary concept.

Still sound boring? – Well, I think that if you start reading this book there’s a good chance you won’t put it down until you finish. It is far from being anything like a scientific treatise. In fact, It reads like a detective story – a few dedicated people trying to track down a culprit, all their efforts being spurned and derided by those in power who think they know all the answers.

'Death's Dispensary'
‘Death’s Dispensary’

The common people at that time took their water from neighbourhood pumps. Eventually one of the investigators, John Snow, was able to show proof that a particular pump in Broad Street (Soho) was the source of polluted water and managed to get it closed down. Even then, the authorities were very slow to admit they were wrong and very ready to rubbish the evidence he supplied. Sound familiar?

Another fascinating aspect of the book is its depiction of the parlous state of waste collection in London at that time and the disgusting work the ‘night-soil’ men had to do and the way they had to do it.The vulnerability of the water supply, given these methods, is starkly obvious and reading about them is inclined to make one think of ‘fracking’ its implications for the most precious resource (after clean air) that we have.

Bk Paradise LostWhen one visits a place there is often the urge to find out more about it. So it was with me when I stayed a few holiday days in the Turkish city of Izmir, formerly Smyrna. A wonderful, vibrant city with lots to see (the fabled Pergamon not far away). One often hears about places ‘that have a great history behind them’ and it’s a bit of a truism. However, with Izmir one can sense that it is a place of great deeds and adventures, some admirable, some reprehensible. So I picked up Giles Milton’s book ‘Paradise Lost’ (subtitled ‘Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance’) to get a bit of backgrounding.

Milton desribes a city founded in ancient times and in which a veritable hodge-podge of nationalities lived side by side in tolerance and harmony over the centuries. It is not enough to say that this was due in large part to the fact that it was an important commercial centre and that all latent hostilities were buried under the idea that ‘business is business’ and no ideologies or spiritual beliefs should be allowed to interfere. Doubtless this was one of the reasons for peaceful co-habitation but I believe that living in close and friendly terms with people of different religious persuasion can breed mutual respect, provided there is good will on both sides. The destruction of all this tolerance, and the city itself, makes for sad reading.

Nationalist activist and social advocate, Halide Edib, addressing the protest rally against the occupation of Smyrna in May 1919

Halide Edib, the great woman writer and social advocate who played such a prominent role in her country’s developing history and she is pictured in one of the book’s photos in fiery pose, high on a balcony, her cloak dramatically flying in the wind, addressing a protest rally against the occupation of Smyrna in May1919. G

ood book, well written. Recommended.

In a very short review by Robert Gale Woolbert in the journal ‘Foreign Affairs’  (Jan. 1947) I read: ‘The author of this informative volume is said to be a lady who was in Rome continuously during the last days of Fascist rule. It is in the form of a diary running from April 1943 to June 1944, and combines a lot of chitchat with some really interesting items.’  Another review in the Spectator by Robert Hale of 1946 makes a few comments on the book but adds nothing about this mysterious ‘lady’.

Flour for liberated Romans
Flour for liberated Romans

I can find little else about the author of this fascinating book. It is well worth reading by anyone interested in the period, or anyone interested in how it feels to living under occupation by a foreign power. These months of living under constant aerial bombardment by the allies and with their country in the hands of their former German partners-in-arms are tellingly chronicled by M. de Wyss, whoever she was. She seems to have have good access to well-placed sources on both sides and a knack of getting ordinary people to talk freely to her. I thought for a while that maybe she made some of it up, but it’s just too full of real situations not to be anything but a true account.

American troops driving through Rome in British trucks
American troops driving through Rome in British trucks

She is obviously very fond of Italy and Italians but that doesn’t prevent her from having a rather jaundiced view of things now and then. She finds it amusing  the way that the Italians, having by now (August 1943) given up the fight, are so very impatient for the English and Americans to invade and finish the job of getting rid of the Germans. She remarks: ” This is a good example of a wide-spread Italian attitude. Responsibility does not exist for them. The Allies are to do all that the Italians need without the slightest effort on their part! But the country and even the people are charming – charming and childish”. Not a comment that would please her Italian friends! But that’s the sort of book it is. One person’s close up view of an extraordinary time in Rome ‘under the terror’ and her unvarnished views on what is going on around her. I am strongly reminded of Victor Klemperer’s book ‘I Shall Bear Witness’ (Phoenix, 1999) in which he describes what it was like living as a citizen in Berlin in the final months of the second world war and seeing it collapsing all around him. As with his book, the privations of ordinary people are described in telling detail and the constant fear of death from the skies or on the ground is everywhere in the writing.

It is books like these that show us how much we take for granted our lives spent far away from war zones.