Paul Simon pays tribute to Seamus Heaney in Dublin

The late Seamus Heaney, whose life's work was celebrated, last night, by his devoted readership and by a cast of poets, musicians and friends.

The late Seamus Heaney, whose devoted readership and long list of fellow poets and friends celebrated his life’s work, last night, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

LEGENDARY singer- songwriter Paul Simon was among those paying tribute, last night, to the late Nobel Prize- winning poet Seamus Heaney at a celebratory event in Dublin’s National Concert Hall.

Others who paid tribute on the night, which Dublin City Council’s One City, One Book initiative as well as Poetry Ireland supported, included poets Paul Muldoon, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Michael Longley and Colette Bryce as well as musicians Lisa Hannigan, Martin Hayes and Paul Brady.

To read my piece, which the Irish Post commissionedclick here.

God Hates Haters: Why we shouldn’t celebrate Fred Phelps death

Finally, a definition of homophobia on which we can all agree, but we shouldn’t take an eye for an eye by celebrating the recent death of anti- gay Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps, writes Philip Cummins

The late, homophobic Westboro Baptist Church pastor Fred Phelps (84), pictured here in 1998 in Capser, Wyoming, picketing the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year- old University of Wyoming student, murdered in an indescribably brutal homophobic killing.

“Resist celebrating the death of Margaret Thatcher, she was NOT a Peacemaker but it is a mistake to allow her death to poison our minds.”

WHEN SINN FÉIN’S MARTIN MCGUINNESS posted the above sentiments on his Twitter account, in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death in April 2013, it was difficult not to think of the North’s Deputy First Minister’s long history in bitter opposition to Thatcher. The abstentionist MP for Mid Ulster’s tweet was indicative of the distance that both he and the republican movement that he represents have traveled since the deepest, darkest days of the Troubles. Alleged to have been the Provisional IRA’s Chief of Staff from 1978 – 1982, during which time ten PIRA prisoners died during the 1981 Hunger Strike, McGuinness loathed Thatcher and vice- versa, I’m quite certain.

I do sympathise with the view that Thatcher’s policies inflicted unnecessary socio- economic affliction that has been felt by generations of British people and that her unwillingness- as well as that of the Irish government- to engage constructively with all sides of the political divide in the North achieved nothing only to effectively prolong the Troubles. It wasn’t until 1997 / 1998 that New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair became the first British PM to sit at the negotiation table with all sides of the Troubles to deliver The Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Martin McGuinness, though, was right: to celebrate Margaret Thatcher’s death, as many millions did, was utterly tasteless, immature and inexcusable.

Unfortunately, McGuinness’ remarkably mature and responsible remarks about his one- time sworn enemy, who the PIRA had attempted to assassinate in Brighton in 1984, didn’t deter those in their millions who sang and danced their way through Thatcher’s passing, downloading ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ in their droves to bring that song to the top of the charts.

These were my very thoughts upon learning of the recent death of Fred Phelps Sr. (84), founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. A disbarred lawyer and the leader of a far right church of which all 40 of the church’s members are Phelps family members, Fred Phelps had a long history of spewing his vile and retrograde rhetoric while picketing the funerals of American soldiers. Indeed, two US Presidents enacted law into Congress to prevent Phelps from picketing at funerals of fallen soldiers: George W. Bush signed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006, while Barack Obama signed the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act in 2012, both of which ensured 150 foot and 300 foot buffer zones, respectively, around the funerals of serving US soldiers.

By all accounts, Fred Phelps Sr. was a individual of an utterly grotesque character; a homophobe, a bigot and a bitterly angry man who dedicated his life to a hatred of people for a part of their identity that they could not- and should not- change.

From an Irish point of view, Phelps was certainly no friend of ours, founding the now- defunct website, as well as lambasting both Senator David Norris and former President Mary Robinson in a sermon in which he responded to his invitation to take part in a debate on gay adoption by UCD’s Literary & Historical Society in February 2008. Suffice to say that The Good Pastor declined on the occasion.

Over the past 20 years, Phelps’ infamy and his perceived status as a leader of a cult made him an ideal subject for documentarians. Michael Moore and Louis Theroux both focused their attentions on Phelps, the latter of whom made two documentaries on the Westboro Baptist Church and, at times, seemed genuinely taken aback by intense level of the church’s bigotry.

Homophobic thugs murdered 21 year- old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard (pictured) in a brutal hate crime.

The funeral of Matthew Shepard

Difficult as it is to select the single lowest point from Phelps’ infamous role as Pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, the picketing of the funeral of Matthew Shepard might just be the lowest possible level of depravity demonstrated by Westboro Baptist Church, showing it up to be the bigoted institution that has been profiled by highly respected journalists.

A 21 year- old gay man who was later discovered to have been HIV positive, Matthew Shepard was a student at the University of Wyoming. Murdered in the most indescribably gruesome of circumstances by two bigoted thugs whom he had met in a bar , Shepard, undoubtedly, was a victim of a hate crime and a homophobic murder.

In the above picture, Fred Phelps is picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral in Shepard’s hometown of Casper, Wyoming, with placards that state “No Special Laws for Fags” and “Matt in Hell”, typifying Fred Phelps’ hatred towards homosexuals and his homophobic agenda to suppress gay rights.

Again, drafting legislation against bigotry in American society- sparked, no doubt, the Westboro Baptist Church’s vile rhetoric- President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The bill expands the 1969 United States Federal Hate Crime Law to include crimes motivated by gender identity, sexual orientation or disability, making it the first Act in the history of federal law that allows crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation prosecutable as hate crimes.

Nate Phelps

Fred Phelps had two estranged sons: Fred Phelps Jr. and Nate Phelps (55). Nate Phelps, who now lives in Canada and is both an atheist and a LGBT activist, issued a statement in the wake of his father’s death. Posted on his Facebook page, Nate Phelps’ remarks were remarkably tempered and considered.

“Unfortunately, Fred’s ideas have not died with him, but live on,”, lamented Phelps. The standout comment from Phelps’ statement, however, was his mourning not of who his father was, but of “…who he could have been”.

“I ask this of everyone: let his death mean something. Let every mention of his name and of his church be a constant reminder of the tremendous good we are all capable of doing in our communities.”, continued Nate Phelps.

That Fred Phelps Sr. and his son Nate chose two completely different paths makes this story all the more remarkable: a father devoted to hatred and bigotry, a son dedicated to building bridges and encouraging tolerance within our society.

Why we should not celebrate Fred Phelps’ death

LGBT activists the world over will no doubt be delighted that Fred Phelps Sr., a man who personified every fibre of the bigotry and hatred that gay people have had to endure for decades, is no longer alive to spread his vile rhetoric.

However, to celebrate Phelps’ death as distastefully as did those who celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s death, or perhaps more pertinently, as distastefully as the Westoboro Baptist Church celebrated the deaths of the many homosexuals, AIDS victims, American soldiers and celebrities whose funerals they picketed, would be stooping down to the utterly depraved and unequaled level that Fred Phelps Sr. and his family have set for themselves.

Instead, we- and by we, I mean all sound- thinking people of all genders, orientations, race and creed; all of us who believe in creating a tolerant and fair society for our fellow person and a society where people are be entitled to live their lives as they choose- should educate our children that hatred of others fulfills no positive outcome in one’s life.

Phelps’ death in an Irish context

With the fires slowly burning out after the recent heated debates regarding homophobia in Ireland, sparked initially by Rory O’Neill’s, AKA Panti Bliss’, unfounded allegations of homophobia against two high- profile journalists as well as conservative Catholic lobby group The Iona Institute on Brendan O’Connor’s The Saturday Night Show as well as O’Neill’s claim on the Abbey Theatre stage, in which O’Neill suggested that “we’re all homophobic”, we can now look at Fred Phelps Sr. as a picture- perfect example of a homophobe- that is, someone who holds attitudes of extreme hatred of and an aversion to homosexuality and homosexuals- on the outrageously bigoted level occupied by the Westboro Baptist Church, which, thankfully, remains unequaled in Ireland.

To put it simply: I don’t ever remember David Quinn, director of The Iona Institute, or anyone else involved in The Iona Institute, publicly instructing young children that “queers” are evil- the product of Satan himself, no less- and that they should be treated with utter contempt; I don’t remember The Iona Institute printing signs and brochures insisting that “no special laws” be drafted to protect “fags” in Ireland.

Though I don’t fully agree with The Iona Institute’s stance on same- sex marriage, I do believe that The Iona Institute are legitimate in their opposition of same- sex marriage. The idea that a person or a group of people who oppose same- sex marriage are inherently “homophobic” simply because they view marriage as a gendered institution between one man and one woman and, for this reason, oppose same- sex marriages, is a complete misnomer.

True: if that opposition to same- sex marriage expresses extreme levels of hateful opposition, such as those levels demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church, then a charge of homophobia is fair and unequivocal. However, Ireland, in my opinion, has yet to experience those outrageous levels of bigotry demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church.

It will be this time next year when the Irish people go to the polls for the impending referendum on same- sex marriage. In the mean- time, however naïvely, we can only hope that, in Nate Phelps’ words, the teachings of the Westboro Baptist Church go the way of Fred Phelps.

Stephen Fry Pledges Support For First Fortnight: Ireland’s Only Mental Health- Based Arts Festival

Stephen Fry Pledges Support For First Fortnight: Ireland’s Only Mental Health- Based Arts Festival

STEPHEN FRY is many things. The ultimate Renaissance Man, Fry is best known to the public as an actor, comedian, broadcaster, director and an author of far too many books to mention.

Fry, however, is also an  activist; for many years, he has been vocal about mental health awareness. Diagnosed with bi- polar disorder, Fry is one of a few high- profile figures  who have been instrumental in raising awareness of mental health issues. In 2006, Fry made ‘Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive’, a documentary that chronicled his struggles with bi- polar disorder.

Unsurprisingly, then, Fry was unequivocal in his support for First Fortnight, Ireland’s only mental health- based arts festival. The yearly festival, which started on January 2nd and runs until January 11th, aims to challenge the stigma and prejudice surrounding mental health through the arts. Fry sent this tweet to his 6.5million followers:

Just last year, Fry gave an insight into his condition: “I have a condition which requires me to take medication so that I don’t get either too hyper or too depressed to the point of suicide.”, adding that he “attempted it [suicide] last year.”

The story of Fry’s endorsement of First Fortnight has since been picked up by RTÉ, the Irish Independent and the Herlad.

All this week, First Fortnight, currently talking place in multiple venues around Dublin, will host a series of arts and panel discussions. If you have any vague interest in the arts or mental health issues, I sincerely recommend that you check their program of events at #FFfest14

Health: What we can all learn from Jenny Lauren’s air rage incident

Predictably, the Irish media has cynically focused on Jenny Lauren’s pedigree as Ralph Lauren’s niece, rather than focusing with even the smallest degree of empathy on Ms. Lauren’s long history of battles with mental health issues

Jenny Lauren leaving Killaloe District Court, which sits at the Brian Boru on the Hill pub, Ballina, Co. Tipperary

TALKING about mental health issues in Ireland has never been fashionable. Land, property, personal wealth, pension pots, pedigree, what school did you attend? and who’s son or daughter are you, now? have always been the dominant trends in Irish conversation.

And so it has been over the past number of days in the media coverage of Jenny Lauren’s- that’s Ralph Lauren’s niece, to you and I- air rage incident last Monday on Delta Airlines flight DL477 from Barcelona to New York, which diverted to Shannon Airport for “safety concerns” after Ms Lauren was found to be “breaching the peace” on board the flight.

Ms Lauren was charged with threatening and abusive behavior on- board the flight and being intoxicated to an extent that could cause danger to passengers. The court heard that she abused three airline staff, including two air hostesses whom she each labelled “f***ing ugly blonde b***h”. She has since been fined €2,000 for the incident.

Sharon Curley, Ms Lauren’s solicitor, told the court that her client had a number of medical conditions and was extremely sorry about the trouble she had caused. Judge Patrick Durcan said he accepted that her behavior was entirely out of character, but he had to also recognise the upset and disruption that had been caused, not least the costs of $43,158 (€31,718) incurred as a result of the flight diversion and the inconvenience that the diversion caused to passengers and crew, which the court heard.

On yesterday’s edition of Mary Wilson’s Drivetime show on RTÉ Radio One, during which Wilson interviewed Clare FM’s John Cooke, the focus, again and again, was on Ms Lauren’s pedigree and on her ownership of a jewelry shop; not just any plain ‘ol jewelry shop, mind, but a “high- end” jewelry shop. There was also a discussion regarding the rumors that Ms Lauren had flown- in a team of hot- shot lawyers from her native New York.

Most remarkably from Wilson’s interview with Cooke, however, was the mention that court reporters at Killaloe District Court had been paying a lot of attention to what Ms Lauren- Ralph Lauren’s niece, in case you’d forgotten- was wearing (she was dressed almost entirely in black, if you must know) during her court hearing in Killaloe District Court, which sits in the function room of the Brian Boru on the Hill pub in Ballina, Co. Tipperary. Cooke also mentioned that Ms Lauren wasn’t wearing any of her own “high end” jewelry.

Let’s not talk about Kevin

Jenny Lauren’s Homesick: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Finding Hope

Few journalists, if any, covering Jenny Lauren’s air rage incident have mentioned Ms Lauren’s 2004 memoir Homesick: A Memoir of Family, Food and Finding Hope. In that book, Ms Lauren discusses her troubles with an eating disorder, anxiety and bi- polar disorder. Aged 10, Ms Lauren attended her first appointment with a psychiatrist. It was during that time that Ms Lauren’s low self- esteem issues and eating issues first started to appear and, over the course of the next 15 years, developed into starving, binge- eating, purging and compulsive exercising, to the point that her small intestine herniated.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that any of these facts excuse Ms Lauren’s potentially dangerous behavior on- board an aircraft. What I am saying is that, once again, we have allowed a focus on social class and pedigree to over- shadow an opportunity to speak about mental health issues and how, socially, mental health issues can affect anyone of us.

Ms Lauren’s unfortunate mixing of alcohol and prescribed medication- which no- one should, ever, ever, ever mix- didn’t trigger a mature and open discussion about how mental health issues never pick their victims; that even if you are the niece of a man whose personal wealth is estimated at $7.7billion and whose company reported revenues of $6.9billion that you can still be affected by depression, anxiety, panic disorder and eating disorder as much as someone on welfare.

Instead of focusing on the unfortunate fact for us all- that is, again, that mental health issues never choose their victims- the media allowed itself, typically, to get caught up in Ms. Lauren’s social status and pedigree, thereby side- stepping a discussion about mental health.

All this week, First Fortnight, currently talking place in multiple venues around Dublin, will host a series of arts and panel discussions. If you have any vague interest in the arts or mental health issues, I sincerely recommend that you check out their program of events at #FFfest14

Beleaguered Limerick: The Arts Vs. The Bureaucrats

The fiasco that is Limerick City of Culture 2014 has been defined by an incompatibility between the arts community and the bureaucrats, though the source of the controversy surrounding Patricia Ryan’s appointment by Pat Cox is as rampant in the arts community as it is in the political classes

‘L’ for…Limerick?

RICHARD HASS did well to stay north of the border. The US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland is no doubt well- briefed in the history of conflict in Ireland, though the latest chapter in Limerick may have proved a bridge too far for the American diplomat.

Much of the commentary on Limerick City of Culture’s tumultuous week was triggered by the departure of Program Director Karl Wallace and two members of his team from the project. Citing issues in decision- making and being “side- lined” by the board, Wallace received an almost unanimous outpouring of support from the arts community both in Limerick and throughout Ireland.

The focus swiftly turned to Pat Cox, Chairman of the Board of Limerick City of Culture, and Patricia Ryan, the now- former CEO of the Limerick City of Culture project, who had worked for Cox as a political adviser when Cox was president of the European parliament. Ryan would later act as a special adviser to Mary Harney.

Eyebrows were raised regarding the nature of Ryan’s appointment to the €120,000 position, given that the 18- month contract had not been previously advertised and, therefore, Ryan had been appointed without any outside competition for the role.

The Artistes Vs. The Bureaucrats

What has marked the fallout from Limerick City of Culture has been an incompatibility between the artistic community and the bureaucrats. Writing in the Irish Independent, Emer O’Kelly, a former member of the Arts Council, opined that “politicians and business people see the world through a lens of image and public relations. Artists see, or at the very least look for, reality.“, in reference to Ryan’s objection to a single line in a rap song (the line being “the city looks rough”), which was composed by a group of youngsters from Moyross. Ryan claimed that the line portrayed an image of the city that Limerick Capital of Culture did not want to project throughout the festival.

Don Paterson Vs. Creative Scotland

All of which reminds me of a powerful and persuasive critique of Creative Scotland– Scotland’s national arts agency- written by Don Paterson, the leading poet of his generation.  Writing in the Herald Scotland, the multi- award- winning poet launched a stinging attack on the bureaucrats behind Creative Scotland:

“The business advisers and ‘arts brokers’ of Creative Scotland should never, under any circumstances, be in the position of driving what kind of art or literature is produced by offering extravagant incentives for projects that they themselves would like to see, and that would not have spontaneously occurred to the artists themselves. This is medieval patronage, not support.”

The outspoken Scot then recommended the following:

“The first step will be to entirely destroy Creative Scotland’s dysfunctional ant-heap (I could find no polite synonym for ‘cluster***k’), the product of a shocking SNP policy vacuum and a New Labour neo-managerialism incapable of understanding the difference between art and business. (Let me spell it out for those still confused: investing in art has no guaranteed return. If it does, it isn’t art.)

The second will be to take the adult decision of trusting its artists with art, its administrators with administration, its brokers with brokerage – and then make the almost unimaginable leap of simply trusting each other. Until then we will deserve our reputation as nation of amateurs, who invest their precious and shrinking resources not in the creation and distribution of books, art, music, drama, not in the means by which the nation can dream, aspire, inspire – but in third-rate cookery programmes.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Paterson: artists should be trusted with art, administrators with administrations. Ryan’s unfortunate step into an untrained role of  lyric- editor is testament enough to this point.

However, as applicable as Paterson’s wide- ranging critique is to the current situation in Limerick, there are elements to the broader, larger issues within both the arts and within government bureaucracy that the City of Culture fiasco has raised, though these elements have not as of yet been discussed in the media.

Cronyism in the arts politics

On yesterday’s edition of the Marian Finucane show on RTÉ Radio One, Limerick Leader editor Alan English gave what I would consider to be a refreshingly mature and objective contribution to the discussion regarding the ongoing debacle in Limerick.

English observed, quite rightly, that Pat Cox’s apportionment of Patricia Ryan as CEO of the project- without the role being previously advertised- was a “big mistake” from the start; of this there can be absolutely no doubt. However, English goes on to say that if the very nature of the appointment had taken place in the private sector rather than the public sector, “no- one would have batted an eyelid.”

I would extend English’s sentiment to the arts community in Ireland; that if the very nature of Ryan’s appointment had similarly happened in the arts community- that is, that had she been appointed by a longtime friend and former colleague for a role that had not been previously advertised and, therefore, had been appointed without any outside competition- not a single individual would have batted an eyelid.

There is not a year that goes by where I am not stunned by the level of blatant cronyism, favoritism and sycophancy that is, I believe, endemic in the arts in Ireland. True: the amount of money involved and the profile boost have defined Ryan’s appointment, though let’s focus not on salaries and more on the actions that lead to an individual landing such a role.

Like many supporters of the arts in Ireland, I gather and hoard brochures and festival programs of arts festivals from around the country, particularly those of literary arts festivals that I collect in bookshops and cinemas. Such is the incestuous nature of the literary arts in Ireland, I have almost always been able to form a spider- diagram of how the program director of the festival knows at least one of the readers / chairpersons of a panel discussion / workshop tutors / presenters of a reading. Cronyism and favoritism are as rampant in the arts in Ireland as they are in any other strata of Irish life; be it party politics, the media, GAA / Rugger circles, the church, or any other social sphere that exists in Irish life. The “cute hoor nod and wink” is not unique to Irish public life; to pretend otherwise would be utterly ridiculous.

Some years ago, a friend of mine was shortlisted for a writing competition. Having assembled at the venue for the prize- giving ceremony, the other shortlisted writers and members of the general public were waiting for the prize- giving ceremony to start. While having a smoke outside, my friend saw the judge of the competition arriving in his car; in the passenger seat of the judge’s car was the recipient of the competition’s first prize. It has since been established that the judge and the recipient of the competition’s first prize had been friends long before the prize and, to this day, remain friends.

Saving Face

Last August, in the aftermath of Maureen Kennelly’s appointment as Director of Poetry Ireland, I wrote a feature containing five suggestions for the incoming director. I received some support for what was, I hope, my honest, fair and balanced opinion piece. However, I was struck by the fear that some had in being associated with the feature.

I received notification emails from Facebook and Twitter notifying me that certain individuals had, in the case of Facebook, either ‘Liked’ or ‘Shared’ my feature, and, in the case of Twitter, had ‘Re- Tweeted’ or ‘Favored’ my feature.

To my surprise, when I accessed my Facebook and Twitter accounts, no trace of the nature of the notification emails could be found: those who had ‘Liked’, ‘Shared’, ‘Re- Tweeted’ or ‘Favored’ had since deleted their posts. Furthermore, these individuals had ‘unlinked’ my public Facebook page, so as to further distance themselves from my opinion piece. Though I don’t take social media terribly seriously, I found this behavior odd, to say the least.

Of the handful of individuals who rescinded their online endorsement of my opinion piece, one was a former Poetry Ireland intern, the other was a workshop facilitator who has, in the past, received funding from both Poetry Ireland and from the arts council.

It wasn’t the case, I don’t believe, that these people disagreed with me; the individuals involved have, in the past, disagreed with my opinion and have mounted spirited defenses, online. Rather, I believe that they were fearful that their endorsement of my opinion piece on Poetry Ireland might go against them in the future. In short, I believe that they were more interested in saving face than fearlessly expressing an open, honest opinion.

Similarly, I was also taken aback by the reaction from some of my superiors, one of whom took me aside and advised me that I would never, as the saying goes, have lunch in this town again, another of whom advised me that if I wanted to carve out a literary career for myself, I was going about it the wrong way.

I don’t regret for a single, solitary second writing the opinion piece: to have any integrity as a writer, one must write honestly and fearlessly. I have no doubt that my opinions have cost me opportunities and friends, though what has cost me, socially, has- I hope- been balanced out with a gain to my integrity. In fact, I’m reminded of something that the late Dennis O’Driscoll said in a RTÉ radio interview about the incestuous nature of the literary arts in Ireland:

“I think that unless people speak the truth about the books that they get for review and they’re not bearing in mind rows they’ve had with people or that the publisher who published the book [for review] rejected a book of theirs or whatever…I think there’s a tremendous amount of dishonest reviewing and it takes a lot of courage and, I think, a lot of integrity and support on behalf of the editor you’re writing for, as well, to do honest reviews. I think it’s a tremendously important activity, but it does cost you friends and a lot of things, really.”

Where to from here

Dialogue between the arts community and the bureaucrats is the only way forward for Limerick City of Culture. Both have to accept that for any public arts festival or cultural celebration to take place, both sides need each other, whatever the cost.

If the debacle over the last week has shown anything, however, it is that the public do care about arts festivals and culture in Ireland; they care about how their town or city is represented in the national media and to the rest of the island. The very fact that 500 members of the public gathered for an emergency meeting, last week, shows this much. If anything, this is a small victory for the arts in Ireland and, one hopes, a turning point for transparency in Irish life.