A Scoping Study of Northern Archives of Working-Class Life


Supported by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Funds, and the product of a research collaboration between Trademark Belfast and the Institute of Collaborative Research in the Humanities at Queen’s, this scoping study aims to make the case for a more thoroughgoing and cohesive approach to archives of working-class history in the north of Ireland. It is written by Dr Seán Byers and myself, and aims (as our respective research specialisms would suggest) to span across working-class political and cultural history here. The report below runs to 82 pages of descriptions of a wealth of archival potential, and it is our recommendation that it be used towards the creation of a major people’s history initiative, which is sorely lacking in this, the historically most industrialised part of Ireland.

We stress in the report itself that this scoping study is precisely that – it is far from exhaustive, in places speculative and overall wanting: that is the point. The uneven and sporadic nature of preservation, archiving and exhibition in working-class historical artefacts and ephemera here is reflected in the report. While, with limited time, we have endeavoured to point out some of the catalogued and uncatalogued aspects of working-class history that might form part of a people’s history initiative, we wish to stress that there are many more directions in which such a project could point. What we have here suggests some departure points. When a project of the kind envisaged here finally arrives, it will have far more.

Many thanks to all of the organisations, colleagues and comrades who have helped with this work. We hope to continue with it into the future and to do their enthusiasm and generosity for this project justice.

Read the report here: dfa-final_pdf


Thinking about Gramsci

Class ENG3064:

I talked a little about the ideas on Antonio Gramsci today—about hegemony and the ‘manufacture of consent’. Sometimes encountering ideas like this for the first time can be a bit confusing, so I wanted here to present a few hopefully helpful thoughts on this topic. The video here, while a little quirky, has some insightful commentary on Gramsci’s core concept and how it might relate to, for example, Bourdieu:



MIT Linguistics Professor and renowned political commentator Noam Chomsky provides what is perhaps a more serious and provocative analysis here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXYnqRjxEsw

There are some interesting outlines from Emory’s Scholarblog here on Gramsci, Raymond Williams and the complexities of their ideas: https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2014/06/20/hegemony-in-gramsci/

‘Hegemony’ is useful in thinking about form and the politics of literature for a number of reasons. For example, in relation to the Chomsky video and its emphasis on Western or ‘First World’ hegemony, we might think about postcolonial criticism and of literary histories and canons that emphasise (and elevate) writing (and writing styles) from first-world nations. But, returning to class, how do those nations themselves select and subordinate cultural forms in ways that reflect class relations?

Raymond Williams, in his book Marxism and Literature, relates hegemony to (what is imagined to be) common sense:

The concept of hegemony often resembles the definitions [of  ideology], but it is distinct in its refusal to equate consciousness with the articulate formal system … which a dominant class develops and dominates … It does not reduce consciousness to them. Instead it sees the relations of domination and subordination … as a saturation of the whole process of living … to such a depth … to appear to most of us the pressures and limits of simple experience and common sense.[1]

The Irish novelist James Plunkett, in describing how the poverty of Edwardian Dublin is accepted by most of those affected by it, writes (his capitalisation), ‘These Things Were’; people often misrecognise the extent of their subordination, he suggests, because it has been normalised through various forms of cultural leadership (hegemony) that manufacture consent.


In Plunkett’s novel this is symbolised by a wax museum—a boardable prison ship, with ‘lifelike wax figures’ of prisoners, moored close to Dublin’s city centre (SC 14). The floating museum crystallises the underlying dynamics of colonial and capitalist dominance, of a hegemonic order in which coercive violence must be celebrated, but need not always be enacted. The ship contains an exhibition that represents a brutal, museumised past, in which patriot rebels – and often people convicted of petty crimes – were shipped to the other end of the world, and carries with it the implicit, anxious suggestion that this past is no longer relevant. One character in the novel plans to visit the museum, but when she sees a poor man struck on the head by a police baton, she tellingly reconsiders the visit. Here Plunkett hints that when the regime actually tries to control the population through violence its hegemony melts away—the woman, who no longer wants to see the museum (about the past), suddenly sees its relevance to the process of obtaining consent (in the present), and what this consent entails.

Gramsci’s advised that ‘just as [the working class] has thought to organize itself politically and economically, it should also think about organizing itself culturally’.[2] This is partly what a novel like Plunkett’s is trying to do. Because the working class, as Williams puts it, ‘has, precisely, to become a class, and a potentially hegemonic class, against the pressures and limits of an existing and powerful hegemony’, its cultural production is not only possible but integral to the struggle for a new society.[3] Cultural activity (or the canon) is ‘never either total or exclusive’, and this allows that the working-class can develop its own alternative expressive forms; new forms, that are ‘irreducible to the terms of the original or the adaptive hegemony, and are in that sense independent’, always emerge.[4]

Of course one of the difficulties here is in identifying what is genuinely subversive and ‘counter-hegemonic’ and what is only partially so, or even appropriated by the dominant class. This we will look at in later classes …


[1] Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, p. 110.

[2] Antonio Gramsci, A Gramsci Reader, ed. David Forgacs (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1988), pp. 70-71.

[3] Williams, Marxism and Literature, p. 111.

[4] Ibid. 111, 113, 114.

History, Memory and Commemoration: thinking about class, war and the writing of Patrick MacGill


A longer version of a talk I did for the Bangor Literary Festival this week:

What I’d like to talk about briefly is how historiography, or the study of how history is written, is crucially important in any understanding of the role of discourse and power in narrating—and making sense of—things like memory and commemoration.

Because I don’t have a lot of time here I’d just like to talk about one example from a diverse literature in Ireland which challenges the propaganda of war from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective. Patrick MacGill, a Donegal native most famous for his 1914 novel Children of the Dead End, but less known for his war novel The Great Push (1916), emerged from humble origins, as a navvy, a labouring emigrant. He then became a writer—a very successful one—and soon after enlisted in the London Irish Rifles at the outbreak of war. MacGill’s talent meant that he actually ended up getting spotted by and working for British military intelligence, as a propagandist, writing on their behalf during the war, though The Great Push very much challenges official histories of the war, or as he put it, aimed to expose the ‘guilty secrecy of war’. So here is a tension in MacGill’s work, between his inclinations to oppose the barbarity he saw in war, and his own role within it. And as the title of David Taylor’s recent book on MacGill, Memory, Narrative and the Great War, would suggest, this Ulster soldier’s writing is all about issues of memory and narrative.[1]


It’s fascinating to look at the kind of efforts that went into the propaganda that the British military was producing during this period, and I have with me a copy, for example, of The War Illustrated[2], a volume produced in 1915, which included – impressively – 1130 illustrations, and many stories of the war. A great deal of effort is of course here exerted in sanitising the war in certain ways, emphasising courage and heroism, and tapping into widespread constructions of masculinity. A lot of the stories and images additionally promote the idea that ‘we’re all in it together’ (an idea interestingly resurrected by David Cameron in his commentary on the 100th anniversary of the war). Here Irish nationalist leader John Redmond and ‘the hero King of Belgium’ are depicted as being fully behind the troops (in Captain Blackadder’s words from the eponymous British cult comedy, we might quip, ‘about thirty-five miles behind you’):


A lot of the time, war looks like fun, even a game. On one page, for example, we even learn that ‘football enthusiasts who enlist may still have opportunities to play their favourite game’.

MacGill’s 1916 novel references this propaganda, and in particular the famed ‘Footballer of Loos’, London Irish Rifleman Frank Edwards. Like the more well-known army captain Billy Nevill on the Somme a year later, Edwards flamboyantly dribbled a ball during a charge on enemy lines in November 1915. Such a story of maverick courage, of a youth carelessly (one might say with insouciance) risking his life for a cause, tapped into an androcentric, imperialist ideology of cavalier bravado typified by the popular Boy’s Own Paper, which was published from 1879 till 1967.


Shrouded, as these tales of soldier footballing would later be, in a myth-making nostalgia of war-time heroics (as represented, for instance, by the well-known 1916 painting by Lady Butler below) — such depictions were likely to rankle with men like MacGill, for whom they would seem senseless—calculated to animate the war, like a comic-strip, for naïve and adventurist young men.


  • Picture courtesy of BNPS Press Agency

At any rate, these antics were needlessly hazardous: some of those who dribbled Edwards’ ball died; Edwards himself was wounded before reaching enemy lines. It is therefore significant that, in the year when another Irish writer, Seán O’Casey, commenced work on his powerful anti-war play The Silver Tassie (1926), Edwards, who survived the conflict, was himself busily engaged in reproducing such nostalgia in more pleasant environs.

On 24 September 1926, he and comrades from the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association (the picture, in which the ball in question takes pride of place, is from their Old Comrades’ dinner of 1923) marked the tenth anniversary of Loos and its 59,247 casualties with a Chelsea re-enactment of the famed footballing dash.


  • Picture courtesy of BNPS Press Agency

In The Great Push, the Edwards who would later become the subject of great lore is nothing but ‘a boy’, his objective being ‘a game’ in which the football is kicked towards the German trenches as the London Irish charge. MacGill exploits the figurative potential of the escapade to full effect: after these ‘boys’ are seen ‘dribbling the elusive football towards the German trench’, they soon encounter shocking casualties—the man who crawls across the battlefield ‘like a gigantic lobster’, with his lower lip ‘cut clean to the chin and hanging apart’, the ‘men and pieces of men’ that are ‘lying all over the place’, ‘a leg, an arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip’. These images of ‘lives maimed and finished, and all the romance and roving that makes up the life of a soldier gone for ever’, tellingly precede a glimpse of the ‘bullet-riddled’ football, now ‘a limp lump of pliable leather’.

For MacGill, the restoration of the football in 2011, as the object of ‘a unique display of British bravado and courage’, would surely present a depressing befogging of a grim battle. And MacGill’s choice in his novel to develop a series of surreal, expressionist scenes, as O’Casey would do in his later play, is telling. Here, in literature, disaffected working-class writers experiment in the unreal, when the ‘real’ — as depicted in books like The War Illustrated — proffers discourses of masculinity and militarism that would send tens of millions to their deaths.

MacGill’s sense of popular culture’s hegemonic role recalls ubiquitous Victorian characterisations of war as a game. As Robert H. MacDonald observes,

the metaphor of war as sport – and its corollary, sport as war – was a commonplace […] But the warfare of the playing field is not just a metaphor for moral or spiritual conflict: the game itself is a training in the military spirit […] The most important encoding of the trope of war-as-sport was in the later Victorian slogan from the cricket or rugby field to “play the game”.[3]

MacGill’s novel refuses to play the game.

In modern commemoration, of course one of the issues we encounter is the continuance of this relationship, in the reproduction of Victorian ideologies of masculinity through marches and pageantry and indeed the link between war and sport (think, for example, of the use of poppies on footballers’ jerseys). This continuity is problematic. As John Nagle and Mary-Alice C. Clancy have recently noted of the north of Ireland and divided societies more generally, ‘social memory is constructed so as to maintain ethno-national boundaries by providing a static view of historical relations between groups founded on extreme acrimony.’[4]

History must be grasped in all its dialectical complexity. But much commemorative activity surrounding WWI reinforces a static model of historical relations, reproduces myths of masculine gallantry, refuses to engage with the complicated, messy, granular texture of our knowledge of the past, and ultimately buttresses barriers between communities here. And commemoration, of course, is too-often harnessed to present-centred constructions of history that, once again—in a period of great uncertainty and inequality—tend to tell us that ‘we’re all in it together’.

What MacGill would make of this we can only guess at (and he did after all have his own ambiguous relationship with the propaganda of war), but it is certain that his sense of how young men had been conditioned to think of war as a noble, even adventurous calling heavily influenced this novel of the war. It also influenced MacGill’s experimental departure from the strict realism of his most well-known works, as he grasped at a more critical and defamiliarising aesthetic—one more fully realised in later writing, and particularly in dramatists like O’Casey and Brecht. In many ways then, MacGill’s novel remains a means of engaging with the complex difficulties of commemoration, asking questions about reflexive historiographical practice in relation to memory and commemoration. In The Great Push we get a glimpse of one disenchanted soldier’s perspective on the distortions and silences that bedevil the history of this enormous human catastrophe.  



[1] David Taylor, Memory, Narrative and the Great War: Rifleman Patrick MacGill and the Construction of Wartime Experience (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2013). Taylor’s book provides an excellent overview and analysis of not just MacGill’s work but the theorisation of memory and narrative too.

[2] J. A. Hammerton (ed.), The War Illustrated Album de Luxe, Vol 1 (London: The Amalgamated Press, 1915).

[3] Robert H. MacDonald, The Language of Empire (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1994), p. 20.

[4] John Nagle and Mary-Alice C. Clancy, Shared Society or Benign Apartheid? Understanding Peace-Building in Divided Societies (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), p. 182.

Mark Ashton: the LGSM hero of ‘Pride’ (2014)

Mark Ashton: the LGSM hero of ‘Pride’ (2014)


Anybody know if Mark Ashton, the Portrush-reared Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist, has been recognised in any way in Portrush or Belfast (a plaque, ceremony, official recognition)? I know that Unite (fittingly) named an education room in their Belfast office after him this year, but surely we could have something public, something out on the streets that celebrates the memory of this extraordinary man?

I’m writing the intro to a book on working-class writing and got to thinking about Ashton’s significance. He’s the central protagonist in the recent film Pride (2014), is also featured in Micheál Kerrigan’s play Pits and Perverts (2013) and here’s what Lucy Robinson has to say about him in her study, Gay Men and the Left in Post-War Britain:

‘Mark Ashton is especially important because he represents a different type of gay body politic […] In many ways he constituted a break with the past and the legacies of the reform movement and the liberation movement […] Ashton was informed by Punk and had been part of the squat scene in Clapham. He was a recognisable face in gay clubs and knew the up and coming new breed of gay celebrities like Boy George, Marilyn and Jimmy Sommerville. Sommerville, a member of Labour Party Young Socialists, also shared Ashton’s political dedication. Sommerville took the position that “gay rights and socialism have to go hand in hand” […] Between 1985 and 1986 Ashton was the first out gay General Secretary of the Young Communist League, but even prior to that he managed to get motions in support of lesbian and gay rights passed by the YCL. As well as ensuring lesbian and gay issues were integrated into his left-wing world, Ashton brought the Left into the gay world. Ashton hung a red flag from his window in honour of Pride in 1983.’

He died at the age of 25 in 1987, having contracted Aids and is apparently also the person referred to in The Communards’ song ‘For a Friend’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOArNfHCKqU , the red flag flying throughout the music video (Jimmy Sommerville and Bronski Beat perform at a big LGSM concert too – he was pals with Ashton.)

Ashton understood the intersectional nature of socialist struggle:

‘One community should give solidarity to another. It is really illogical to say, “I’m gay and I’m into defending the gay community but I don’t care about anything else…”.’ (see him speaking on the YouTube vid below from 5:09 mins).

He was an exceptional activist, an Irishman lost to the British left all too young. Here’s some more footage and information about his contribution to LGSM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xjrm5REdCKI

Clearly he was a person with great leadership skills, whose death was a massive loss to progressive causes on these islands. So why is he hardly recognised at all at home?

Should this man have a statue or a plaque here? It would surely be a fitting tribute, not just to Ashton, but also to the many who were effectively exiled from a homophobic and conservative Ireland (north and south) to more tolerant pockets of cities like London and elsewhere.

More here: http://ourqueerhistory.com/mark-ashton-activist/

here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHJhbwEcgrA

And here (thanks to Unite): http://www.unitetheunion.org/…/rebelr…/buildings-and-rooms/…