Archive for the ‘book review’ category

More graphic non-fiction: The downtrodden and the risen people

May 15, 2013

The downtrodden and the risen people
LookLeft #15, May 2013

Looking at some recent graphic novels portraying contemporary and historical peoples’ struggles.


Big Jim: Jim Larkin and the 1913 Lockout (O’Brien Press, 2013) is the latest offering in the O’Brien Press graphic novel series depicting Irish history.

Writer Rory McConville and artist Paddy Lynch transport us a century into the past, to a Dublin where the Irish working class is struggling to flex its industrial muscle in the face of attacks by the most powerful bosses in the country.

This is the tale of one of the bitterest years in Dublin’s history, when native Irish capitalists, led by William Martin Murphy, attempted to crush the fledgling Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, led by Jim Larkin.

Larkinism, as this brand of ‘new unionism’ (organisation of unskilled workers), coupled with syndicalism (uniting all workers regardless of profession and extensive use of sympathy strikes) was known, stood at odds with the pliant social partnershipesque nature of the traditional craft unions.

The threat to profits posed by such organisational methods was intolerable, and so on 26th August, following a strike on Dublin’s trams aimed at modestly improving terms and conditions, Dublin’s bosses locked out members of the ITGWU, beginning the largest industrial battle in Irish history.


McConville’s writing is skilful and doesn’t suffer from stilted dialogue or hackneyed exposition, unlike other books in the O’Brien series.

The social conditions of Dublin’s poor are examined, and Larkin is presented as the brilliant organiser, but complex and difficult man that he was, and with Padraig Yeates as historical advisor, no liberties are taken with accuracy.

Lynch’s artwork is very effective, as rough and dark as the era it depicts, and interesting use is made of archival photographs cleverly interspersed throughout.

It is also quite witty in places, and there are cameos from the likes of Captain Jack White, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Delia Larkin and William Partridge.

There are some areas that could have been better explored; for example, although Constance Markievicz and Dora Montefiore get some page time, little is really said about the role women – including women strikers – played during the lockout.

The class antagonisms between revolutionary socialists and bourgeois nationalists, such as Arthur Griffith who described “the consequences of Larkinism [as] workless fathers, mourning mothers, hungry children and broken homes”, could also have been examined.

Overall, Big Jim is an enjoyable and unique read, as well as being a great introduction to the Lockout in its centenary year, and more accessible for those who would rather not begin with Yeates’ epic Lockout.

The Lockout would forge the consciousness of the Irish working class in the following decades, and should still resonate with us today; after all, the fight was ultimately about the right to join a union – a right still not recognised a century later.


Journalism (Jonathan Cape, 2012) is a collection of comic journalist Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces drawn between 1998 and 2011 for outlets like Time and The Guardian.

For over twenty years Sacco has been travelling the world, brilliantly documenting the lives, hopes and fears of the marginalised, suffering and forgotten – covered previously in LookLeft #5.

Grouped into regional chapters, Journalism skips across the globe from African immigrants in Malta to India’s so-called ‘untouchable’ caste.

The section on Palestine deals with illegal Israeli settlers in occupied Hebron, who live amongst – and make life hell for – the indigenous Palestinians.

The presence of 500 right-wing religious zealots, under Israeli military and state protection, has destroyed the local economy and physical attacks on Palestinians are frequent. We are also shown the devastating effects of Israeli home demolition operations in Gaza.


In Chechnya and neighbouring Ingushetia we are shown the heart-breaking situation of refugee families merely trying to survive, caught between the ruthless Russian military and Islamist separatist during the Second Chechnyan War.

In Sacco’s native Malta we discover the hidden world of African immigrants who arrive there after crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of landing in Italy.

Fleeing wars, poverty and famines, in the hope of a better life, they find themselves impoverished and attacked amongst a tiny population of 400,000 which largely hates and fears them.


Finally, Sacco brings us to India. India is a neoliberal success story or so we are told to believe.

Success, however, is something unfamiliar to India’s Dalit caste, the ‘untouchables’, who are double victims of poverty and government corruption.

Relief programs are largely cash cows for local politicians, while villagers literally steal food from rats to survive.

Despite some, self-admittedly, relatively weak material this is a satisfying compendium of Sacco’s unique work.


Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (Nation Books, 2012), a collaboration between Joe Sacco and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges, sees the duo dive into the dark heart of a US we rarely hear about.

The victims of US imperialism and transnational capitalism are obvious to those with eyes to see, but what of those who are internal victims of the US capitalist system?

Days takes us on a thoroughly depressing journey through the “sacrifice zones”, urban and rural ghettos whose inhabitants – Native Americans, mining communities, the urban poor, undocumented workers – have been gutted and offered up to the great market god.

We are offered a vista of demoralised and essentially defeated peoples, hollowed out shells of once thriving communities, meagre employment, omnipresent anti-social behaviour and rampant environmental destruction. It seems drug dealing –legal and illegal – is the sole growth industry.


For example, chapter three provides an insight into the lives of once vibrant mining communities in West Virginia, now existing in the shadow of massive explosive mountaintop removal, which provides easier access to coal seams.

Not only has mining employment all but dried up as coal companies opt instead to literally obliterate the majestic Appalachian Mountains, but the by-products of this destruction have caused cancer rates, along with kidney and lung disease to skyrocket.

The coal industry is a political powerhouse with deep pockets, so government does nothing, leaving these communities to rot and die, dependent on welfare and highly addictive painkillers like Oxycontin, aka ‘hillbilly heroin’.

Those who do attempt to protest become victims of politicians, coal companies and even neighbours desperate for the little employment available.

Mostly written by Hedges, at his polemical best, it suffers slightly by the short length of the sections given to Sacco, who’s talents are somewhat wasted.

Regardless, it is a fantastic call to arms to from these two veterans of journalism from below.

As Hedges says in the final chapter, which focuses on the hope offered briefly by the Occupy movement, “If we persist, we can keep this possibility [for revolution] alive. If we do not, it will die”.



Demons, ghosts, warriors and superheroes: Irish comics today

February 22, 2012

Demons, ghosts, warriors and superheroes: Irish comics today
LookLeft #9, December 2011

Growing interest in recent years has seen a burst of activity in the home-grown Irish comic/graphic novel scene; LookLeft reviews some current titles.

The League of Volunteers

The League of Volunteers
Atomic Diner

The League of Volunteers transports readers to an alternative WWII-era Ireland, where vampires roam Dublin’s streets and mythical characters from Irish folklore exist alongside costumed superheroes. Despite Irish neutrality, De Valera has organised patriotic heroes into a secret League to protect Ireland from the Nazi menace and other dangers of a more supernatural nature – namely the goat-headed demon Bocanach, freshly released from its eternal prison by those always foolish Nazi occultists. Centuries of isolation have left Bocanach with only one objective:  the demonic reconquest of Ireland.

The mix of superheroes, mythology and alternate history invites, not unflattering, comparisons with the likes of Alan Moore’s own League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy and Sláine. Robert Curley serves up a smörgåsbord of curious characters including the anti-fascist street fighter Glimmerman; ex-Blueshirt Archer; human-demon hybrid Blood Rose; Lúgh Lamhfada of the Tuatha Dé Danann; and even Fionn mac Cumhaill.

The exciting plot is full of historical and folkloric references and in-jokes, and characters appear interesting and rounded (e.g. it’s implied that Glimmerman and Archer fought on opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War). Meanwhile, Barry Keegan’s simple, energetic greyscale illustrations are highly effective, giving the feeling of watching an old war film. Though perhaps not as polished as the above mentioned titles, the first two issues are extremely enjoyable.

Róisín Dubh

Róisín Dubh
Atomic Diner

It’s the dawn of the 20th Century, and Rose Sheridan’s cosy middle class life is irrevocably shattered when her parents are slain by a freshly liberated vampiric sorcerer. Herself injured in the attack, the catatonic Rose is unwillingly bound to obey Donn, Lord of the Underworld. Donn tasks her with re-vanquishing the supernatural leech, who now has a 1,400-year-old blood thirst to quench. Thus is born Róisín Dubh, demon hunter.

Issue #1 is writer Maura McHugh’s retelling of the legend of Abhartach, a power-lusting Derry chieftain whose magical dabblings render him immortal, with a taste for human blood. Hated and feared by his subjects, he was eventually imprisoned by a rival. Stephen Daly’s high contrast monochrome artwork is a perfect accompaniment to the brutal tale, and this deliciously bloody apéritif whets the appetite for the next course.

Jennifer Wilde

Jennifer Wilde
Atomic Diner

Of all three offerings from Atomic Diner, this is certainly the most original. We’re promised a 1920s trans-European romp featuring “death, espionage and revolution”, in which young artist Jennifer Chevailer and the wisecracking ghost of Oscar Wilde attempt to discover the strange secret behind her father’s murder. While extremely enjoyable, issue one is mostly exposition and scene setting, so it’s difficult to tell where the story is going. Nevertheless, its smart, sassy and sophisticated stuff from Maura McHugh; fingers crossed it will fulfil its potential.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Belfast writer/artist Patrick Brown has been publishing his brilliant adaptation of the epic Irish legend Táin Bó Cúailnge as a free webcomic for three years. Part of the Ulster Cycle Legends, the Táin relates Cú Chulainn’s defence of Ulster against Connacht’s Queen Medb. It is a violent, visceral and darkly comic tale and Brown’s interpretation doesn’t leave much to the imagination; the single-colour artwork, raw and frenetic, is reminiscent of Eddie Campbell’s work on From Hell and the story is well-crafted with an obvious passion for the subject matter. The webcomic stands at 140 pages with more promised, and if you like it you should support the creator by buying the print editions.

The Curse of Cromwell

Cromwell and William’s Irish Wars
Moccu Press

Writer Dermot Poyntz and artist Lee Grace have produced a trilogy of historical graphic novels dealing with the Cromwellian and Williamite wars in Ireland (Curse of Cromwell, War of the Two Kings and Plight of the Wild Geese). Similar to Blood on the Rose (reviewed in LookLeft #5), while historically accurate, they lack a sense of engagement. While enjoyable enough, often they feel like perfunctory military or Leaving Cert-esque histories with images added on.

Brian Boru: Ireland's Warrior King

Brian Boru: Ireland’s Warrior King
O’Brien Press

Much better is Damien Goodfellow’s debut offering, chronicling the life and times of Brian Boru of the Dál gCais who rose from minor Munster chieftain to become High King of Ireland. There are no heroes in this story, just a cast of power-hungry Gaels and Vikings whose alliances and intrigues are constantly shifting. Narrated by the wily Gormfhlaith, wife and ultimate betrayer of Boru, the book traces his life from his rise in Munster to his death at the Battle of Clontarf. The art – jagged, dark and bloody – reflects well the times depicted; unrelentingly harsh and marked by constant warring. While the Brian Boru’s legend is open to historical critique, this is a rollicking good read.

Two reviews of Dr. David Landy’s ‘Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights’

January 25, 2012

Below are two, essentially identical, reviews of Dr. David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel, for LookLeft magazine and SIPTU’s Liberty newspaper.

Identity Crisis? Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights. Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel by David Landy (Zed, 2011)
LookLeft #8, October 2011

Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights is a ground-breaking investigation into the relatively recent phenomenon of organised international Jewish criticism of the Israeli state. From the outset Landy, an Irish-Jewish academic in Trinity, opposes the much touted rightwing view that those involved in this field are either “self-hating Jews” or suffering from “identity crises”. He instead asserts that such groups, in their various different forms, exist because those involved are universalist in outlook and feel that, as Jews, they can play a role in ending Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

While not uncritical of these groups, Landy points out that they have played a very important role in making both Jewish and non-Jewish criticism of Israel more “acceptable” in the mainstream than previously. This is especially true for Western Europe, where the shadow of the Nazi holocaust still looms large – no longer do people have the same fear of being painted as “self-haters” or “anti-Semitic” by Israel’s supporters. However, their positive role in wider society aside, outside of providing a relatively safe avenue for Israel-critical Jews to “come out”, these groups have thus far failed to make a serious impact within the Jewish diaspora. Landy also outlines some of the problems with the worldviews of some of these groups, a major one being that Palestinians can be essentially eliminated from their discourse, treating what is a national liberation issue instead as a “Jewish issue” that will only be solved by Jews.

In conclusion, Landy points out that although his is the first such study of this emerging movement, it is not the “definitive” account. These groups have grown and developed over the past decade – some even moving into the “boycott and solidarity” camp – and will continue to evolve in the future. Despite the sometimes slightly alienating academic jargon, for anyone interested in the Palestinian solidarity movement and/or the long history of progressive and critical Jewish thought, this book is highly recommended.


Palestine’s Jewish Lobby: Book about Jewish opposition to Israel launched in Dublin
Liberty, November 2011

Prof. David Landy

The long-standing concern for Palestine in Ireland was evident in the capacity crowd which attended the launch of Professor David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Opposition to Israel (Zed, 2011) in Dublin’s New Theatre on the 1st November.

The book is a groundbreaking examination of the relatively recent phenomenon of organised international Jewish criticism of Israel. Landy, an Irish-Jewish lecturer in Trinity College, opposes the right-wing view that those involved in this field are either “self-hating Jews” or suffering from “identity crises”. His view is that such groups exist because those involved are universalist in outlook and feel that, as Jews, they can play a role in ending Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

While not uncritical of these groups, Landy points out that they have played an extremely important role in making both Jewish and non-Jewish criticism of Israel more “acceptable” in mainstream discourse – no longer do Israel’s critics harbour the same fear of being painted as “self-haters” or “anti-Semitic” by that state’s supporters. However, notwithstanding this positive role in wider society, outside of providing a relatively safe avenue for Israel-critical Jews to “come out”, these groups have so far failed to make a serious impact within the Jewish diaspora itself.

The book outlines the problems often associated with the world views of some of these groups. Often Palestinians can be essentially eliminated from their discourse, treating what is a national liberation issue instead as a “Jewish issue”. As Trinity Professor Ronit Lentin, herself an Israeli, said at the launch; “The book does not shirk from the difficult question as to whether movement members’
activism is about constructing a ‘better’ Jewish identity or about genuine solidarity.”

Wrapping up the event Professors Landy and Lentin said that although this is the first such study of this emerging movement it could not be considered “definitive” as these groups have developed significantly over the past decade, and that “the thing about social movements is they are always moving”.

A recording of the launch – which was a collaboration between Zed Books, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Trinity College Department of Sociology and Poster Fish Promotionscan be heard online here (Note: I also spoke at the launch)

A couple of comic related articles up on Rabble

November 2, 2011

Rabble, Ireland’s newest and best non-party culture/politics freesheet has published a couple of articles about Irish comics (the type you read) that I wrote on their website. Hoepfully I’ll be contributing more frequently to this mag, which is one that is definitely worth supporting!

1 – Now Now Stolen Cow: The Cattle Raid of Cooley Webcomic – an interview with Belfast comic creator Patrick Brown, about his epic (in both senses of the the word) online interpretation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

2 – Irish Comics on the Web: Five of the Best – does what it says on the tin. Almost…

Audio: Launch of David Landy’s ‘Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights’

November 2, 2011

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign has posted the audio I recorded of the launch of Dr. David Landy’s new book, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Opposition to Israel earlier this week. Along with my good friend David, Prof. Ronit Lentin from the TCD Sociology department and myself also spoke, and the meeting was chaired by Raymond Deane from the IPSC.I also reviewed the book for the current issue of LookLeft magazine.

Copied from the IPSC website:

Audio: Launch of David Landy’s ‘Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights’

Tuesday 1st November saw the launch of Professor David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Opposition to Israel (Zed, 2011) at a standing room only event in Dublin’s New Theatre. The book is an outstanding, ground-breaking examination of the relatively recent phenomenon of organised international Jewish criticism of Israel. More information on the book can read here.

To download and listen to the audio recording, please click here (MP3 format, right click and ‘save target/link as’).

Speakers: Dr. David Landy (author and TCD academic), Dr. Ronit Lentin (author and TCD academic) and Kevin Squires (IPSC National Coordinator). Chair: Raymond Deane

The book was launched in conjunction with Zed Books, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Department of Sociology in TCD and Poster Fish Promotions. Audio provided by Citizen Partridge.

LookLeft issue 8 in the shops now

October 7, 2011

Just a heads up that the new issue of LookLeft (#8) is now in the shops (including every Eason’s nationwide). I’ve got three articles in it – one about the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes and two reviews of Debtocracy and Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights. Go pick up a copy.

Also, keep an eye out for the upcoming new issue of No Quarter (#6, Anti-Fascist Action’s magazine) in which I will have an article on the ultra-right in Israel.

In this issue of LookLeft

Can trade unions lead a fight back? – Paul Dillon examines the strategic choices which face the trade union movement North and South

LookLeft looks at how class defines health outcomes

Nama plays no constructive economic role so why was it created, asks Conor McCabe

Historian Brain Hanley takes a look at the life of socialist-republican George Gilmore

Donal Fallon and Kevin Brannigan take alook at Ultra football culture

ESB – ‘It’s Your energy…for now”

Slaves and Slavery – William Wall looks at the economics underpinning the Magdalene Laundries

Tom Redmond on Left Unity

Reports from Bodenstown and Peter Daly commemorations

Tomas MacGiolla – An enduring legacy

Fighting austerity in the Banana Republic of Italy – Angela Gissi, an Italian living in Ireland, examine the backgroudn to Italy’s recent general strike

An Uncertain Future – the Arab Spring

A toxic Triangle – Gavan Titley examines the media’s role in the growth of Islamophobia.

Saving the Euro and the cowardice of Social Democracy – Influential Greek economist, Yanis Varoufakis,

Interview with the authors of White Riot and history of Punk


Three pages of news from working class communities and the left

Five pages of reviews

The Jemmy Hope Column


Book Review: Revolutionary Pirates?

September 21, 2011

Review: Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on the Golden Age of Piracy by Gabriel Kuhn (PM Press, 2010)
LookLeft #7, July 2011

Almost 100 years before the French Revolution gave the world the slogan ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, the imperial sea-trading routes were plagued by “floating republics”. These pirate ships of the Golden Age (c.1690-1730) and their crews of “rebels, robbers and rovers” plagued the high seas from Madagascar to the Bahamas. Much has been written about these “republics of rogues”, from both radical and reactionary perspectives. Kuhn’s short book, an attempt to distil the reality from the myth, draws on many sources and illustrates what was indeed revolutionary about these pirates and their rejection of the aristocratic status quo – turning their backs on “institutionalised authority” and attempting to build internally “egalitarian communities” that were the antithesis of the dictatorial regimes that existed on the imperially-sanctioned vessels on which many of these pirates once served.

Kuhn himself is an anarchist, but unlike some other anarchists, he does not ideologically romanticise these Golden Age freebooters either. He is careful to point out that there was much that was decidedly unprogressive about their behaviour – they were brutal, violent, often slave holders and while their democratic form of organisation was revolutionary, generally “they had no social ideals at all” and that if anything, the perceived radicalism of these pirates lies more in their symbolism than in their actuality.

Finally, it has to be said that while the book is not a chronological history of Golden Age piracy – for the most part it explores themes and ideological interpretations – it is an extremely engrossing work that anyone with an interest in this era of history will be rewarded for reading.