On Wednesday evening the Old Drogheda Society was hosting one of its monthly lectures, Irish Soldiers in the Plains Wars: Irish Soldiers, American Wars From Appomattox to Wounded Knee. Initially I felt too tired to go to and with a trapped nerve playing me up, I was even less inclined to venture beyond the kitchen. A friend sent me a Facebook message about an hour before inquiring if I fancied it, so reluctantly I heaved myself out of the chair and dutifully tagged along with her.
What a rewarding experience it proved to be. Ian Kenneally delivered a lecture of such brilliance that I told him from the floor during the following Q & A session that it was comparable to being at the cinema for a great movie. He somehow managed that in spite of the laptop he was using for his projections having powered out half way through the evening.
Over thirty years ago during the 1981 hunger strikes we gained access to books for the first time in years. With little else to do, banged up 24/7, reading was a big thing: for most of the day behind the doors, the only thing. While men were dying over in the prison hospital and the jail was a crucible of molten hatred seeking to consume Margaret Thatcher in its furnace - although the relationships between ourselves and the screws who worked the wings wasn’t overly fractious - cell life had to go on. I recall picking up a Dee Browne book, The Fetterman Massacre, on the recommendation of a cell mate but with no great expectation of anything much. A lesson was learned: never judge a book by its cover - it might be good.
The jail policy at the time was not to allow protesting prisoners access to anything other than fiction, a practice that endured beyond the end of the blanket protest. The anomaly was that once we had access to our own clothes and could use the prison library, although still on no-work protest, there was no insistence on library books being works of fiction. The library screws were quite efficient in obtaining requested factual literature pretty quickly. The Fetterman Massacre was not a library book but had made its way in from the outside. Somebody down at the censor’s office probably thought the books by Dee Browne were good old fashioned Cowboy and Injun ones where the bible-thumping cowboy would triumph over the Injun heathen. That might have been considered the type of literature capable of inducing a desire for redemption among the troublesome Injuns in them thar blocks. Maybe the calculation was not that profound, and Dee Browne books were just regarded as Westerns of the JT Edson mode, safe enough for the most dangerous prison population in Western Europe - as officialdom liked to term the recalcitrant lot in its keep - to read without us being driven to even more sedition than we already needed cured of.
I was amazed at the sense of intellectual excitement generated by first The Fetterman Massacre and then Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by the same author. That feeling returned on Wednesday Night listening to Ian Kenneally as he weaved his way with atmospheric potency through the hills, shrubbery, rivers and trails that became battlefield landmarks in the later historiography. He conveyed fear, incompetence, courage, cowardice, cynicism, strategic under-achievement, over active egos and real people, plotting it all on a mental map that was read with the consummate of ease by an engrossed audience.
It is possible that I have attended a more riveting lecture at some point in my life. If I did I can’t remember it. While the focus was on the Battle of Little Big Horn, Ian Kenneally's purpose was to bring out the Irish dimension to the Plains Wars. He sought to explain the moral and practical terrain through the eyes of the Irish soldiers - often the sick and the lame - who fought in the ranks of the US Army.
The only thing I have read since 1981 with a strong Native American angle was Cormac McCarthy’s dry, dusty and uncomfortable novel, Blood Meridian. While great writing, it failed to hit the same cerebral spot as both Ian Kenneally and Dee Brown did.
For me, in spite of the sciatic pain, there was ecstatic gain. Lectures and talks - they don't come better than that.