Saturday, 4 July 2009

Spuds, bibles and political red herrings

I usually have time for the Celtic League, and especially Bernard Moffatt, who has put his neck on the line for numerous vital but unpopular causes over the years. His work getting NATO and the MOD to ‘fess up over submarines getting entangled in fishing nets and causing loss of life and small vessels throughout the Irish Sea, for example.
I’m less sure about a recent action, though it is an interesting snapshot of the way Celtic nationalism, in trying to protect or revive national ‘tradition’, often gets tangled up in another ‘tradition’, religious belief.
On behalf of the Celtic League, Bernie has written to Jack Straw asking him to ensure the UK Prison Service provides access to reading materials and internal request forms in the Welsh language. This follows the jailing of Ffred Ffransis, a language campaigner who was not allowed to take his Welsh Bible into prison. Ffransis also claims he lived on spuds after being denied access to the vegetarian diet because he would not complete English-only request forms. Manx will see an in-joke here, but for off-island readers I should explain that locals refer to days of past hardship as the times when everyone lived on 'spuds and herring'.
I’d admit that, though a prisoners rights campaigner myself, this guy’s attitude doesn’t put him top of my list for letters to the governor. As you’ll see at support is very mixed in Wales too. And don’t those comments about Muslims tell you where some Welsh ‘patriots’ and ‘minority rights activists’ are really at?
His faith or politics in themselves are irrelevant, it’s more the way that godbotherering and nationalist lags try to portray themselves as ‘special cases’ who are every bit as likely as a Daily Mail ignoramus to regard other criminals as scum. I notice this Messiah Complex in animal rights and environmental campaigners too, though I find that old school peace campaigners, even when religious, are more humble. When inside they knuckle down and help illiterate prisoners with their reading, once out again they sign up as prison visitors and keeep up the good work.
But the historical relationship between Manx nationalism and the church is every bit as entangled, ugly and confused. It is no accident that the earliest Manx language document is the Bible. When Bishop Wilson had the Bible translated to Manx I’d argue it was a way of getting the rabble (fond of rioting against the enclosure of island land at the time) to knuckle under to English clergy, not to spread sweetness and light.
Similarly the island’s public school, King William’s College, while one of the first specimens of the tradition was set up originally as a training college for clergy. Again, a way of picking off the brightest locals & setting them up as a 19th century mandarin class, which is no different to colonialism elsewhere. While the church is always trumpeting its role in early Manx education, schools here in the 19th century were founded less to educate the poor than as a form of cheap child minding by the church while parents were flogging themselves to death in the fields, mines and model factories.
After spending the late 1980’s scouring local history for magazine articles I’m also amused at the way in which it was the churches who got most local ‘holy days’ and parish knees-ups abolished (officially because they ‘encouraged drunkenness’), and when local employers paid for new churches the clergy colluded to use church attendance as a way to keep workers in line. For example, miners and mill workers whose names weren’t ticked off by the vicar each Sunday morning got no work on Mondays. As most of the Victorian and Edwardian texts on which 21st century whimsy about ‘Manx culture’ is based were written by clergy, it is hardly suprising we don’t hear all that.
Young Manx nationalists (at least serious ones, e.g. Mec Vannin members) are more savvy these days, but even in the late 1980’s I was startled by geriatric ‘if only Hitler had won’ merchants. So the biggest joke may be that the Manx Home Rule campaign was led by a Jewish Scouser, Samuel Norris, who came here as a young reporter in Edwardian times and ended up using the paternalism of Westminster government to overthrow the home-grown colonialism which held the island back until the 1950’s.
Now there was someone who knew how to hoist bigots by their own petards. In Manx Memories and Movements he relates how, using the tradition that every prisoner’s relationship with his chaplain is private, he persuaded the local vicar to ‘adopt’ him as one of his flock, then used him to send correspondence back and forth to those running what was, effectively, an anti-poll tax campaign run by seaside landladies in 1917. In contrast, he hints, families who probably even now consider themselves Manx patriots and models of morality made their fortunes from war profiteering, in particular fiddles involving the local internment camps.
Well, they do say patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. And that’s equally true of religion, so when they’re combined we should dismiss almost anything said as either lunatic ramblings or blatent lies. Blasphemers and satirists – now they’re people we can take seriously!

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