Posts By William Wall

Antonio Gramsci: A New Year’s Letter

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This translation originally appeared on William Wall’s website on the 17th of December.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) was one of the great political philosophers of the 20th century. Founder of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was imprisoned by Mussolini in 1926 despite his parliamentary immunity. He would spend the rest of his life in prison. He is most famous for his philosophical and cultural writings collected in various volumes as ‘prison notebooks’, often written on scrap paper, in a sort of code, and smuggled out to friends, in particular Palmiro Togliatti who would succeed him as head of the PCI. But he was also a father and family man, and many of his letters to his wife, his sister-in-law and his children still exist. Tender, amusing, nostalgic, loving and paternal, they show a different side to the great thinker. This letter, to Tania Schucht, his sister-in-law who had charge of his affairs, is a good example. It was probably written on the prison island of Ustica.

The text of this letter comes from Fiabe, Antonio Gramsci (Edizioni Clichy, Firenze). I am grateful to the editor, Tommaso Gurrieri for his approval of this translation. The translation is Creative Commons, as is all my work on this blog. See the note at the end of this page.

Dearest Tania,

And so the new year has begun. It is necessary to make plans for a new life, according to tradition: but even though I have thought a lot about such a plan I have never managed to achieve it. This has always been a great difficulty in my life from my earliest rational years.

In those days the elementary schools would assign, at this time of year, as a theme for composition, the question: ‘What will you do with your life?’

A difficult question, which I resolved for the first time, at eight years of age, fixing my sights on the profession of carter. I found that the carter unites all of the characteristics of usefulness and delight: he flicks the reins and guides the horses, but, at the same time, he performs a work that ennobles the man and earns him his daily bread.

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Island of Saints and Sadists: Ireland 2014

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People often ask me why I write such dark books.

You’re such a sunny person, they say.

I say: Look around you, what kind of a country do you think you’re living in?

Here is a tale of the island of Saints and Sadists.

A young woman came to our country for help, for a home, for safety.

We call her an immigrant and it has become a bad word in the way that the simple trade of tinker became a bad word when I was a boy. And sometimes we call them refugees, which is even a worse word. Or fugees. At least we’re not racist about it. It applies to anyone in distress who asks us to take them in.

And she had been raped in her own country and she found she was pregnant when she came into the care of our state and we carried out the usual compulsory medical examination.

And nobody told her you couldn’t have an abortion in Ireland.

And nobody told her that our state has fought long and hard to force women to keep babies until they are born and then our state has fought long and hard to take their babies away from them and give them to decent people who deserve them or to the nuns.

Because our state cares for women. In the way that any decent man cares for his woman. And there are 221 men in our parliament and only 25 women. So that’s a lot of caring.

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Dear friends in the Irish Labour Party…

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… I won’t be voting for you. I have voted Labour in every election since I could first vote. I haven’t always given you my first preference – sometimes there were better left candidates – but you’ve always been there in the first two or three, and first more often than not.

Some of my younger friends are amazed that I voted Labour at all, but they weren’t there during the seventies and eighties, when Labour was on the side of divorce and contraception in a Catholic confessional Ireland. In those days Labour seemed to a lot of people to stand on our side in fights that were not easy, given the array of reactionary forces – the Church, the two main political parties, most of the institutions of civil society. In those days the modernisation of Irish social life – still an unaccomplished task of course – seemed of vital importance. We did not notice, or took a long time to notice, that Labour was moving steadily to the right in coalition after coalition. Those with historical blind-spots, like me, didn’t know, or swept aside the fact that Labour had not always been on the side of Labour, and in fact as a trade union member, I was perplexed to discover that Labour was not always on the strikers’ side in industrial disputes. But other forms of struggle seemed so important then, and Labour was by-and large- on our side. What’s more I have always believed in the idea of a broad coalition of the left, hoping that differing parties with differing discourses could or at least should draw together in shared opposition to capital and oppression.

So for a long time I believed that at heart the Labour Party was really a party of labour, of the worker, a left-wing party, and that given the opportunity it would show its true colours.

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I Have Been Reading The Tailor of Ulm by Lucio Magri

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Honeymooning in 1979 on a package holiday to the Hotel Alaska, Rimini (it’s surprising how attractive the word Alaska sounds on a hot July day in Italy), I became friends with a man who ran a bar. I remember him saying to me, one day, in reply to some question I asked, ‘Sono communista io’. To make that statement as casually as he did, would really have been impossible in Ireland. In that sense, I think he was the first communist I had ever met who was completely comfortable in his skin. Communism has deep cultural and social roots in Italy even still. The singer-song-writer Giorgio Gaber puts it well in his wry, nostalgic stage monologue Qualcuno era comunista perché (A person was a communist because…):

“[Qualcuno era comunista] perché aveva bisogno di una spinta verso qualcosa di nuovo, perché sentiva la necessità di una morale diversa, perché era solo una forza, un sogno, un volo, era solo uno slancio, un desiderio di cambiare le cose, di cambiare la vita.”

“A person was a communist because he had a need for a push towards something new, because he felt the need for a different kind of morality, because it was simply a force, a dream, a flight, it was simply an impulse, a desire to change things, to change life.”

I have often asked my Italian friends who were members of or close to the Partito Comunista Italiano(PCI) what happened to the once powerful party. I have been given many explanations and I suspect for most of them the collapse of the PCI was a personal as well as a national catastrophe. This was, after all, the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union and China. It had the great fortune to have as one of its founders one of the most important philosophers of the 20th Century, Antonio Gramsci. It had a history of struggle, particularly against fascism. It counted almost all of Italy’s intellectuals, writers and artists among its members, including, at one time or another, Italo Calvino,Pier Paolo PasoliniNatalia GinzburgCesare PaveseElsa MoranteFederico FelliniCarlo Levi,Alberto MoraviaSalvatore QuasimodoLeonardo SciasciaVittorio de Sica, the singer Fabrizio de Andre (Italy’s Jacques Brel) and the publishers Giulio Einaudi and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli and many more. It was guided by master theoretician Palmiro Togliatti (commemorated in this song). Most of all, it was the organising force behind much of the resistance during WWII and emerged from that war in position to dominate the peace.

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Education: Giving our young people the kind of qualification they need

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This post appeared originally on William Wall’s Ice Moon blog on the 2nd of November.

We hear so much nowadays about the need to find a way to measure how our education systems work. In England, for example, the government has just instituted a major educational reform that will see GCSEs graded in 9 levels to replace the antiquated 8 point scale. What’s even more shocking is that the old system of designating student achievement by letters (G- A*), which everyone must recognise as a way of masking the actual real world function of the metric, is to be replaced by a straightforward numerical system with 9 as the top grade. This new scale will make it easier for bosses to work out who is at the top and who is at the bottom. To say someone got a 9 in English, for example, is a much better indicator of achievement than to say they got an A. Bosses are plain-speakers and like things explained to them in plain language.

However, I feel this change, revolutionary though it is, does not go far enough. There already exists a perfectly good numerical scale that would serve to provide a real world understandable equivalent to a student’s achievement at the end of education and would be much more readily appreciated by bosses.


The ideal real-world equivalent of grading an examination would be to benchmark a student’s knowledge against a currency. So, instead of saying that after x years in the system a student has achieved a ‘pass’, a ‘d’ or whatever, terms that have no real-world equivalent, we could say that he has earned 50c or 55c, etc.

Now we have a proper metric by which to understand the fruits of education. Furthermore because of currency exchange benchmarks in the real world, we have a metric of international equivalence. Our student’s 50c can be measured against an American student’s achievements by the simple expedient of applying the prevailing exchange rate, which, of course, reflects the real world value of education over there. By applying the Reuters spot rate for today, for example, I can tell you that British Pound GCSE value of 50p is equivalent to an American Dollar rate of 67.4. It is no accident that this figure represents the European point of view as regards the American education system – their grade inflation is worse than ours.

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Paranoia With A Plan

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Book Review: First Book of Frags by Dave Lordan (Wurm Press, Portarlington, 2013)


Dave Lordan announced his uncompromising presence with his first collection ‘The Boy In the Ring. The title poem is emblematic of so much of our recent history. In that brief lyric, Lordan invents or recalls the visceral experience of being the centre of a ring of violence. The boy in the ring is a child in an industrial school, a child in a court, a child in a schoolyard, a child on the street. Whoever he is, he is in great danger, and yet he is not simply a victim. The poem concludes with the unanswered/unanswerable question ‘When will the boy get out of the ring?’

Lordan’s work escapes from all the rings, including the literary traps of form and content. He is always a political poet, always challenging, both as a riveting reader of his own work and in print, so it was with great interest that I opened his first collection of prose.

The title has intrigued me for some time. ‘Fragging’ was the Vietnam War practice of dropping an occasional hand-grenade into the back-pack of an unpleasant officer. And these short fictions are hand-grenades. As the narrator in ‘Christmas Cracker’ says, ‘Tenderness and all that shite is for hypocrites and mealy-mouthed muffin-heads.’ And tenderness there is none in this collection. It seems deliberately set up to take the piss out of all the careful conventions of what we call Irish literature. There isn’t a simple chronological narrative with a sympathetic character and a redemptive ending in the whole thing. What there is a knapsack full of verbal hand-grenades and characters that would stand your hair on end.

‘Dr Essler’s Cocaine’ conjures a fascist orgy somewhere in the (future or present?) west of Ireland in which Lordan has the narrator tell us that ‘The Irishman does not care what his masters get up to as long as he is allowed to get drunk and lash out at his own.’ In another fiction, almost a poem, a series of complex statements about a character called Kathleen is clearly a meditation on the complexity of the feminine image of Ireland beloved of nationalists: ‘We must behave as if the dead are watching and waiting to receive us, or else we are lost. It all comes down to the dead, says Kathleen.’

‘A Bill’ posits an Ireland where transport has declined and the world has grown bigger so that what was once a nearby town is now distant, a place to journey to, and which is famous for its suicides in the same way that Knock is famous for its miracles. The story is about the media and counseling industry that develops around suicides and clusters of suicides, and about managerialism and capitalism’s desire to exploit every human action.

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The McAleese Report on the Magdalene Laundries (2013)


Yesterday the McAleese report on the Magdalene Laundries was published. Like many others, I expected that the report would be a whitewash. Why did I expect that?

Martin McAleese is the husband of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese. She was chosen for election by reactionary forces who sought to undo the advances achieved during the presidency of Mary Robinson, who was seen by them as a left-wing president who sought to advance dangerous causes such as feminism (she had been a highly successful feminist lawyer before her election). For an interesting insight into the selection process within Fianna Fáil read this article.

During her tenure she made many appearances at Catholic Church events. Her most controversial moment came, typically enough, when she took communion in an Anglican Church of Ireland cathedral. That her only controversial action should be theological is characteristic of her presidency which was marked by outward expressions of piety.

In 2010, then President McAleese gave the opening lecture at a conference of the right-wing Italian Catholic movement Comunione e Liberazione in Rimini, Italy. This is how The Italian correspondent of The Irish Times described that organisation:

“Founded in 1954 by Italian Monsignor Luigi Giussani, Comunione e Liberazione (CL) is, to some extent, an Italian version of the influential Spanish lay movement, Opus Dei, although it has no formal connections with Opus Dei. Throughout its history, it has received both public and tacit support from at least three popes – Paul VI, John Paul II and the current pope, Benedict XVI.

The current papal household is run by consecrated members (Memores Domini) of CL. Generally perceived as right-wing, conservative and integrationalist, CL has often been politically active in Italy. In the 1970s, the movement played a prominent part in failed campaigns to prevent the legalisation of both abortion and divorce. CL has always counted important shakers and makers among its public supporters, including most notably the seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti.”

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Reilly’s Jew: What ‘austerity’ really means #1


In Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish there is a phrase that fascinates me: ‘a small penal mechanism’.

‘At the heart of all disciplinary systems functions a small penal mechanism’, he says.

The sentence came to mind recently when I heard that the Irish government was introducing a €75 charge for each round of chemotherapy. The charge is nicely judged: it will only apply to those cancer patients who are not poor enough to qualify for a medical card (free treatment) but are too poor to be able to afford private medical insurance. They have, perhaps, given up insurance in these times of austerity in order to feed their kids, and now faced with the terrifying prospect of cancer they must reassess the situation. It is a game of exquisite torture.

I’m reliably informed that chemotherapy can involve anything from a handful of rounds to dozens or even hundreds.
What does this particular form of ‘austerity’ tell us about the people imposing the charge?Minister Dr James Reilly – the man who closes down public nursing home beds while simultaneously being a shareholder in a private nursing home, the man who was listed in Stubbs Gazette recently as an undischarged debtor in relation to a €1.9 million debt on a nursing home – has cast around in his health budget of €1407,8000,000 (or €1.4 bn) and found a group of people who will try to pay up no matter what because the alternative is unthinkable.

What’s more, they’ll never be on the streets protesting. The big man (and Reilly is big) picked a fight with the sick child.

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Savita Halappanavar and the Doctor’s Plague


When my sister was born my mother began to haemorrhage badly and was in danger of bleeding to death. My father and my aunt (a nurse who qualified in England) pleaded with the doctor to carry out a hysterectomy – then the only treatment. He refused on the grounds that a hysterectomy would prevent her having future children. In effect it would be a form of contraception. When my father threatened to take him to court he held out both hands and said, ‘Mr Wall, these hands were blessed by the Pope’. Nevertheless, under threat of legal action, he buried his conscientious objections and did the deed and saved my mother’s life. This was more than fifty years ago.

The recent denial, in similar circumstances, of appropriate treatment to Savita Halappanavar by staff at University Hospital Galway and her subsequent death from septicaemia has caused much controversy here and abroad, not least in her home country where the India Times ran a headline that said: ‘Ireland Murders Pregnant Indian Dentist’. It is, I think, a fair accusation.

There are a few things I would like to say on the matter.

Firstly, what Savita Halappanavar died of – septicaemia – used to be called ‘puerperal fever’ and puerperal fever was nicknamed the ‘doctor’s plague’. It resulted from the increasing tendency to medicalise childbirth from the 15th century onwards. By contrast, incidence of puerperal fever was much lower for traditional births where midwives attended women in their own homes. In other words, for many centuries it was more dangerous to give birth in a hospital than at home. Puerperal fever achieved it’s ‘plague’ status because of the presence of large numbers of women giving birth at the same time in a factory-type situation – and, significantly, the handling of their bodies by men, namely doctors. It was not a plague that affected doctor’s but one that they created. In that sense it was truly ‘the doctor’s plague’.

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& the state of California executes


& the state of California executes


a man who wrote children’s books

twenty four years on death row

during the twelve minutes


it took to find a vein in his

left arm

he joked with them


the warden of San Quentin

said everything depends on the veins

& how accessible they are


& also it was a high-pressure

assignment for the nurse

getting the needle in before so many people


the man was strapped into a dentist’s chair

in a room that was painted sea-green

green is a relaxing colour

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James Connolly or The 100th Object in the Irish Times ‘History of Ireland’ series


The Irish Times has been running a series of articles called ‘A history of Ireland in 100 Objects’ and they’ve announced that the public will be asked to choose the final object in the series.

I would like to propose, as the 100th object and one which encapsulates the entire history of modern Ireland since independence, the miniature figurine of James Connolly on sale in the shop of the National Museum of Ireland.

This figurine of the great communist revolutionary is categorised under the ‘Soldiers of Ireland’ list, mainly of people who fought and/or died for Ireland. The list includes The Papal Zouaves who fought so bravely for the Pope against Garibaldi’s red-shirts; General Richard Mulcahy, who signed the order that led to the execution for possession of firearms of 77 former comrades who were imprisoned during the civil war; Dublin Fusiliers who fought so bravely for the British Empire and Churchill’s dream of breaking the Turkish hold of the Dardanelles; and Patrick Pearse leader of the nationalist Irish Volunteers who fought so bravely for a Catholic Irish-speaking Ireland. Along with them is a colourful figure of a captain of the Bank of Ireland Yeomanry. I have no idea if the Bank of Ireland Yeomanry fought for Ireland, but they no doubt played their part in the class war. I’m surprised the Bank of Ireland doesn’t still have a militia, but I suppose it has the police and the politicians and the European Union on its side.

At least Connolly wouldn’t be completely alone in this mass of bourgeois reactionaries and tools of religion: Countess Markievicz was a socialist too, and makes her appearance in Citizen Army uniform as a ‘Solider of Ireland’. As well as being the first woman elected to the British House of Commons she was Connolly’s friend – though our nationalist histories would rather think of her as a hysterical escapee from the madhouse that was Ireland’s gentry. WB Yeats, of course, did his best to propagate that myth.

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From the East End to the West: The Political Journey of an Irish Londoner

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Like many families that lived around harbours, my mother’s went to sea. At least three generations of them. And most of them went to sea in Royal Navy ships. On top of that, the Great Depression, coupled with De Valera’s Economic War drove all of my mother’s siblings to England, one way or the other. The two girls went nursing. The three boys joined the navy. Four of them never came back; one went down with the Neptune in a mine-field off North Africa, three of them married and settled and were quite content to stay there, apart from holidays ‘at home’. The fifth came home to die.

This is the story of generations of working class people and poor farmers and labourers in every country of the world since the industrial revolution. I heard the same stories in Naples. In one of the opening scenes of Il Postino the actor Massimo Troisi looks in disbelief at a postcard from America, unable to accept the relative affluence of his cousins there. It could have been shot in Connemara. Recently a Nigerian taxi-driver in London described his home place in exactly the same terms that my uncles used.

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