Sunday, July 26, 2009

RTE shies away from the facts - political correctness strikes again?

IT IS no secret to anyone that RTE, like most news organisations, is far from immune from bias and has its own sacred cows that it is unwilling to tackle. The more unsavory, denigrate aspects of Traveller culture is one such example. As pointed out by Kevin Myers last week, the fact that double rapist Simon McGinley - who, shockingly, raped an 85-year-old woman after being convicted of the rape of the 13-year-old girl behind the 'C' case in 1997 - was a member of the travelling community was omitted by most of the media. Myers made the point that had McGinley been the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator, the media would have readily reported that he was a Traveller.

It was with great interest, then, that I watched a story to do with two feuding families in the Mitchel's Crescent area of Tralee on RTE's nine o'clock news this evening. The words 'feuding' and 'family' immediately set off alarm bells and, quietly confident of what I would would find, I threw a few relevant details into the search engine. Sure enough, my prejudices - because, indeed, that is what there were - were confirmed.

A story from the Kerryman - for whatever reason, provincial papers tend to be less politically correct - detailed how eleven people involved in a feud between two Traveller families in the same area were charged for threatening behaviour, possession of weapons and breach of previous bail conditions. Now, that these two stories do not relate to the same on-going feud ranks as about as likely as Michael Bay winning the Pulitzer Prize for literature.


So, why then did RTE decide to leave out the identity of families? No doubt, their rationale would be that being a Traveller or otherwise is of no relevance to the story. But considering the continuing problem of high-profile feuds between Travellers, is it really not in the public interest to know? Considering that a Traveller male is around17 times more likely to spend time in jail than a member of the general population, is being a Traveller really an irrelevant piece of information in a news report?

Are RTE really trying to avoid the furthering of prejudice, or are they actually just contributing to a culture of silence around the problems associated with the Traveller lifestyle? How can we ever address the failures of the Traveller lifestyle - and there are many - if the media prevents us from knowing the magnitude of the problem?

How can there be debate when we are too afraid to speak?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ireland and Spain share more of a history than you might think

ONE WAY that you know it is summer in Dublin is by the seemingly endless crowds of Spanish students which fill the streets. They come primarily to improve their English, but, nevertheless, I imagine it perplexes many a sun-starved Irishman and woman that Spaniards would leave their warm and dry homeland en masse for our rather damper shores. Of course, we Irish are only too happy to return the favour and, every year in search of the summer, travel in droves to bask in the sun-kissed avenues of Barcelona, Seville and Palermo. One would be forgiven for thinking that, aside from these summer exchanges, Ireland and Spain share few historical links. In fact, the Irish have a long history of migration to Spain, albeit for an altogether different purpose: to fight in the Spanish army.

Irish involvement in Spanish forces dates back to 1587, during the Habsburg period when Spain was almost constantly at war. Due to a demographic crisis caused by mass emigration to the Americas and epidemics such as smallpox, Spain required foreign troops to fill out the ranks of its army. These mercenaries typically came from poor or densely populated areas and both the Scottish highlands and Ireland became popular recruiting grounds. As Catholics who shared a common enemy in the English, Irish soldiers were held in high regard.

Writing to the Spanish king in 1598, Diego Brochero de Anaya extolled their virtues (if somewhat condescendingly): “that every year Your Highness should order to recruit in Ireland some Irish soldiers, who are people tough and strong, and nor the cold weather or bad food could kill them easily as they would with the Spanish, as in their island, which is much colder than this one, they are almost naked, they sleep on the floor and eat oats bread, meat and water, without drinking any wine.”

The number of Irish migrant soldiers which travelled to Spain and the Spanish Netherlands rose dramatically during the 17th century, largely due to two major events: the battle of Kinsale in 1602 and the arrival of Cromwell in Ireland in 1653. By this time, the Irish were a permanent feature of the Spanish army in Flanders, fighting the Dutch and French and helping to maintain the monarchy’s control over the Low Countries. Between 1587 and 1661, it is estimated that 6,300 Irishmen joined the army there. Uprisings in Catalonia and Portugal in 1640, however, led Spain to shift its military focus primarily to the Peninsula itself, and by 1662 the majority of Irish troops had been transferred out of Flanders to mainland Spain.


A milestone in Irish-Spanish military affairs came in 1709 when King Felipe V decided to gather all the Irish units in the Spanish forces into a single brigade. This new brigade was made up of five regiments: the Ultonia, Hibernia, Irlanda, Limerick and Waterford. The fives regiments fought in various battles during the War of Spanish Succession, a conflict which prevented the unification of the French and Spanish kingdoms, but perhaps the most distinguished moment of any Irish regiment in Spain occurred in the Catalonian town of Gerona between 1808 and 1809.

In 1808 Napoleon had invaded Spain and put his brother on the throne. Barcelona had fallen to the French forces in February, but Gerona, 92km to the south, remained unoccupied. Despite its modest size, the city’s location between Barcelona and the French town of Perpignan meant that it threatened the lines of communication between French forces at either end. Determined to clear the route between the two hubs, General Duhesme and a force of 6,000 men attacked Gerona on June 20, 1808. The only trained troops in the city were 800 men from the Irish Ultonia regiment under the command of a Colonel Anthony O'Kelly from Roscommon. Despite being vastly outnumbered, they held the city and Duhesme’s forces were forced to retreat after incurring the loss of 700 men.

Desperate to take Gerona, Duhesme and his men regrouped and laid siege to the city again on July 24, this time with an increased force of 13,000 men. However, by this time the city’s Ultonia regiment had been joined by 1,300 light infantry from Barcelona, and, though they maintained a numerical advantage, the French were repelled yet again after a three week offensive.

The third, final and lengthiest siege was not to come for almost another year. In May of 1809, the French assembled their largest force yet at Gerona, this time under the command of a General Verdier, and began subjecting the city to heavy artillery fire. Facing Verdier by the time of the third siege were around 5,000 additional Spanish troops alongside the Ultonia regiment, all under the command of General Alvarez de Castro. The main point of attack for the French was the fort of Monjuich, Gerona’s defensive stronghold. Verdier soon breached Moujuich’s walls, but despite this, 200 Ultonia resisted two assaults on the castle and managed to hold it until August, when it finally fell.

Even though the city’s strongest point had been lost, Alvarez and his men held out for another four months. By winter, however, their situation had become desperate, with hunger, disease and relentless artillery fire all having taken their toll. Finally, on December 11th, after seven months under siege, they capitulated. Of the 800 Irish Ultonia at Gerona, only 253 survived the siege. In recognition of their bravery, King Ferdinand VII thereafter christened the regiment ‘Disinguidos de Ultonia’, until it was disbanded by the same king in 1818, allegedly due to insufficient recruits. Nonetheless, their service has not been forgotten. Today in Gerona, Irish tourists may find themselves staying at the Ultonia hotel; a quiet reminder of the heroic sacrifice made by their countrymen for the city.