66 Days

I'm deeply sceptical of martyrdom and the cult of martyrs among liberation movements such as physical-force Irish republicanism, when they themselves are committed to violence to achieve their ends.

Nonetheless, I was eager to appear as an interviewee/commentator in Brendan Byrne's film, 66 Days, a documentary on the hunger strike and death of Bobby Sands. I admire Byrne as a film-maker, both as a director (Lines of Fire, 2000, is a powerful documentary on the poetry and the "Troubles" - which I prefer to call The Years of Disgrace) and as a producer (The Uncle Jack, 1996, is a quirky autobiographical documentary directed by John T. Davis).

My own two-bits' worth consists of putting Sands' death in the Irish cultural context inside of which Sands - a charismatic figure - was to an extent acting out a script already written. Another interviewee/commentator is Fintan O'Toole, always insightful and provocative.

66 Days was directed by Byrne and produced by Trevor Birney of Fine Point Films. It opened in Dublin and Belfast in August 2016and will be shown at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto Canada. Thereafter I believe it will open in New York City.  

From Staircase Troubadour to Nobel Laureate

That Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature would once have read like a joke bulletin on the Rowan and Martin Laugh-In. Dylan, who from the get-go expressed a premature world weariness, has had the last uncharacteristic laugh.

Yet after all, this is the singer who said “It ain’t the melodies that’re important, man, it’s the words”. And what words! And so many of them tumbling and squabbling down a torrent of songs for over half century!

And not just in songs – Dylan’s own early liner notes, his poetry-prose book Tarantula
(1966) and his autobiography, Chronicles (2004), proved the man didn’t need a guitar to get lost, and found, in words.

His cause with the Nobel Committee would have been well served by the fact that the literary critics have been stalking him for the past decade. Professor Sir Christopher Ricks’ book, Dylan’s Visions of Sin (2003), was reviewed enthusiastically by the Poet Laureate. My colleague in Heaney Studies, Neil Corcoran, published Do You Mr Jones: Bob Dylan with the Poets and Professors in 2010.

There’s grist for the critical mill, all right, with Dylan’s evolving body of work, like Picasso’s, rich enough to have periods – the Guthrie period, the protest period, the rock period, the country & western period, the Christian period, and so on.

All in all, I feel a fifty-year old vindication coming on. For as a budding, undergraduate literary critic at Queen’s University, I stalked Dylan a long time ago.

On the night of January 12th 1963, I watched a live BBC drama called The Madhouse on Castle Street. Set in a bleak English boarding-house, it had one character who had no lines but crouched on the stairs and sang a mournful song about a dying swan and as the credits rolled, sang about answers to heavy questions blowing in the wind.

I’d never heard songs like these, and I’d never heard of Dylan who was the staircase troubadour. Neither had the assistant in the Gramophone Shop the next day, but she procured for me Bob Dylan (1962), this phenomenon’s first album and perhaps the most important album of my life.

Not only did I listen to the album til its tracks disappeared but I was inspired to get a second-hand guitar and brand-new Echo harmonicas (mouth harps, if you please) from Matchetts, and impersonate the instant youthful Master.

I introduced his songs to the Queen’s Folk Society then in its glory hootenanny days when everything was possible, including a new Ireland. The mouth organ in a metal harness made for me by a garage mechanic for twenty Gallaher’s Blues, fitting like a medieval torture instrument, drew a laugh.

I also began to write songs in the Master’s style, but though Judy Collins, “imperial jointress” of Folk with Joan Baez, had Elektra Records procure the rights to two, I ignored Yogi Berra’s advice: “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I didn’t and settled for literary criticism. Magnificent Dylan took the fork and sang literature into being.

I knew it, and for a new little magazine at Queen’s produced in 1965 by the New Ireland Society (doomed to disillusionment five years later) I wrote a critical analysis of Dylan’s songs – perhaps the first. That issue of Eremon is now in my archive at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and is the only copy the library can find anywhere. Appearing in it is Bernard MacLaverty’s first published story.

In my essay I defended the seriousness of Dylan’s artistry with words and character. And also praised him for joining the hemispheres of folk tradition and literature.

I was privileged to know Seamus Heaney and I once told him that I felt blessed to have travelled through life with three contemporaries – Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, and himself. Crinkle-eyed, the Nobel laureate replied “Have you met Muhammad Ali?” As if! He had, and counted it an honour.

What he thought of Dylan and whether he met him, I don’t know. But meet on the page and in the Nobel annals they now do.

This piece appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on October 14, 2016.

Thoughts on the urban gull issue

Thoughts on the urban gull issue

New Yahoos of the Chimney-pots

John Wilson Foster


In the very near future the lesser black-backed gulls will depart our shores for wherever they spend their presumably quieter winter. Not a moment too soon. I am counting the days. For the first time in my life, I have become infuriated with a bird and cold happily throttle it.

Before too long I will be able to leave a bedroom window open on a warm night without being awakened before dawn by the high-pitched cacophony of what can only be called gangs of Larus fuscus announcing this, alleging that, disputing the other.

In August the gulls drown out the wrens and robins who compose the muted post-nesting dawn chorus.  But actually, some gulls bedded down only in the small hours of the morning, late-night noisy revellers on the wing, contemptuous equally of the darkness, the city council’s noise control regulations, and the human inhabitants abed.

I say they will depart our shores, but I do believe most of these winged smartly-dressed riff-raff never even paddle let alone swim, or even set their by now needlessly webbed foot on the seashore. I remember the lesser black-backed gull of my boyhood in Belfast as an elegant, uncommon, rather shy summer visitant (as they used to call it in the bird-books) to river and sea, a welcome alternative to the bolder herring gull. How and why they transformed Dr Jeykll-like into Mr Hydes of the city rooftops is a mystery to me.

It is true that they are not alone in their conversion to the city. When I was a boy, I had to leave Belfast for the country to see magpies and hooded crows. Now both are urban dwellers, having lost their wariness and become emboldened around habitation and humans.  They too are noisy as if you have to kick up a racket to assert yourself in the asphalt jungle.

For a few decades these scavenging crows have ruled the rooftops and bullied birds smaller or more pacific than themselves. But this new set of local migrants has moved in and taken over - bigger, handsomer and rougher. They give the crows short but noisy shift; the gulls have become the new yahoos of the chimney pots on which they perch deep into twilight, challenging all and sundry.

And what an exaggerated arsenal of aggressive vocalisations they have at their disposal. There is a threatening wail as they glide, a variety of cat-callings, and then the self-satisfied nickerings when they land. But worst of all – though fine and dandy at the breezy seashore when you need to make yourself heard against the wind and the breakers – is the elaborate throwing up of the head and the series of ear-splitting jeers directed no doubt at neighbouring fellows but as if at the world in general.

Larus fuscus has taken especially to the Victorian rooftops of south Belfast with its intricate and rather ornate and unsuspected chimneyscape with which I have become familiar for the first time because I am at chimney-pot level in my new apartment four storeys up.

But what were once elegant single-family dwellings built and inhabited by Belfast’s industrial middle-management have decayed into offices, student flats or, even worse, dereliction (though there is now some post-recession attempts at renovation and gentrification).  

I cannot help but see the intrusion of the lesser black-backed and herring gulls as part of the suburban decline. Scavenging is a form of self-help begging and this is what the gulls do now on the streets and in the skips instead of at the seashore where it seemed less like scavenging than feeding naturally.

With fascination I have watched them for the first time this spring absurdly nesting (if that could be the word) among the ceramic crenellations. It is as if the roofs and chimney pots have become the new forest canopy. The improbably huge nestlings spend weeks in their precarious abode and I have yet to spot them reaching the ground as fledglings before being able to take wing. But since I see no corpses I assume they make it safely – next season’s disturbers of the dawn.

The lessers are of course part of a larger picture. Just as peregrine falcons saw high-rise buildings as faux cliffs, and nested and roosted there, so too have the gulls, and I have seen glaucous-winged gulls (the herring gulls of the North American west coast) raise young on the generous ledges of older multi-storey buildings in downtown Vancouver.  

The chimneyscape of south Belfast is an interesting variation on an international gull phenomenon. And of course, herring gulls have become aggressive nuisances in English seaside resorts, scavenging become begging and then chugging with threats.

The lessers too have become bolder. I recently watched one determined specimen try to catch a swift. Admittedly the quest was a hopeless one and perhaps the swift was smirking in flight, but I was impressed at the fist the lesser made of the chase and how long he maintained the pursuit, sometimes coming within a few feet of the forked tail. Perhaps the lessers are exhibiting a new intolerance in their new habitat.

An acquaintance was dive-bombed in another part of south Belfast by the gulls presumably nesting on the neighbouring housetops. The rooftop zone is increasingly being divided in breeding season into small urban patches to be stoutly defended.

I will watch this winter to see if the herring gulls, less common as denizens of the chimneyscape, desert the rooftops for other parts. But where in September the lessers go abroad and what they do there I have no idea. I must make it my business to find out. They are seasonal migrants and I want to discover if in fact they spend a noisy winter of discontent elsewhere and bring their problems here come springtime.  

Adult lesser with fledglings above

Adult lesser with fledglings above

This piece appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on September 13, 2016

Birds and Words: Memories of an Amateur Birdwatcher

Birds and Words: Memories of an Amateur Birdwatcher

In December I was delighted to present a public lecture on “Birds and Words: Memories of an Amateur Birdwatcher,” at the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club lecture series in the Ulster Museum, Belfast.