Rhetoric and the Irish civil war

Something that has piqued my interest about Irish civil war historiography is its skewed nature and lack of context. The more thorough reading of the secondary material that my current work has involved has made the reason clear. Many historians refuse to engage with anti-treaty arguments on their own terms. Very few historians are not affected by pro-treaty propaganda, its scapegoating of individuals and groups (such as women and socialists) and especially its success in depoliticising the core arguments.

A quotation from Eunan O’Halpin’s Defending Ireland (1999, p. 37) is  particularly indicative of some widely held beliefs about republican ideology:

Republican complaints about the government’s attitude are revealing of an enduring strain in republican thought, whereby an extraordinarily strict litmus test of legality, of due process, and of general is applied to the actions of everyone save those in the movement itself… the movement on the one hand denies the legitimacy of the laws it happens not to like yet consistently complains that they are not fairly and correctly administered. This emphasis on fairness is deeply rooted in republican critiques of the state, and goes well beyond the necessary sophistries of defence counsel. It remains a central though puzzling part of republican doctrine and propaganda.

The point about the failure on the part of the republican movement to meet the standards it sets others is a fair one. However, there is also the assumption that there can be no justification in any republican position – whether this encompasses the entire period from 1916 to the present is not quite clear but we might perhaps infer that. It also downplays the role of state power – in this case that of the Provisional/Free State governments – and suggests that, because republican claims can a priori be dismissed, abuses by state power (as the forces of law and order) need not be too closely examined.

Yet, having only glanced at some of the many anti-treaty newspapers, pamphlets, leaflets, cartoons and posters in a rich and increasingly accessible body of sources, it is clear that there was a coherent and logical opposition to the treaty which was based on serious reservations about partition, empire, the rights of workers and the political stance of the Catholic church. Certainly, the rhetoric could be off-putting and inappropriate in some instances. The point remains that it is not good enough to assume that opposition to the Anglo-Irish treaty was based on personal inadequacies or a culture of violence for its own sake which some attribute to the IRA. It is telling that Nikolaus Braun, who made an extremely thorough and comprehensive study of the propaganda of both sides, could not “offer any objective cause” of the civil war conflict – “because I fear, none exists”. (Terrorismus und Freiheitskampf, 2003, p. 592) This does not  illuminate the exceptional nature of the Irish political landscape, but rather, perhaps, the inadequacies in the way in which it has been described.

Incidentally, for those who would like an introduction to the issues of the civil war, I would highly recommend Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution by C. Desmond Greaves. It is an attempt to describe the Irish revolution from about 1910 to 1922 through the participation of Liam Mellows in various organisations and movements and it succeeds amazingly well.

On being a postgraduate

It is quite a while since I blogged here either about history or about M.E. I’ve had a bit of an identity crisis about the blog, since I couldn’t force myself to decide to focus on just one of those topics (as common sense might dictate); however, as I am now a postgraduate student, and my M.E. must necessarily impinge upon my studies I can perhaps leave that dilemma aside again.

There are many quotable sayings by Albert Einstein on education, many of which tend to the idea that education is not essentially about facts learned, but about adaptability, persistence and imagination – certainly a good thing for me, since my memory is a little bit of a problem and facts cannot be my strong point any more. The attributes listed would apply as much to obtaining the information itself (issues of energy and stamina) and finding ways to sort and remember key details, analyse it and write it coherently (cognitive issues), as to developing new approaches, but perhaps that very difficulty may serve my cause.

Perhaps Einstein’s point is that as art is born out of adversity, so intellectual advances do not come in a peaceful sequence but thrive on difference, opposition, struggle, revolution. Zero Anthropology argues that universities often foster a climate that kills creativity and independence of thought in graduate students in the social sciences.

The only independence shown is in trying to find some niche in the mass of literature where one’s project “fits,” so that the effort of reviewing literature itself inspires a conservative approach to contributing to what is already in place, the status quo. One day, some may apply for academic employment, and in secret hiring committees will meet to discuss whether the applicant is a good “fit” with the Department. They tell applicants what the Department wants, and applicants better suppress any independent streaks that could promise threatening new directions.

I’m not about to say that having M.E. is a blessing in disguise yet. Given that it’s so beyond the experience of many people that they refuse to believe that it exists, perhaps it is an indication of the foolishness of an attempt to do a higher degree, much less full time. I’m not going to comment on that just yet, except to say that success will require an endurance and ingenuity that Einstein would surely approve of.

But those are just a few thoughts on being a history postgraduate with M.E.; I hope to write some more specific posts soon.

Open letter from the Countess of Mar to Simon Wessely

I think this can stand as it is without the need for context or introduction. The Countess of Mar is a British peer who has stood for the rights of people with M.E. for many years; Simon Wessely has featured in this blog on previous occasions.

Incidentally, given his past association with NATO and the British military, and his campaign to prevent Gulf War Syndrome being recognised as a physical illness, Wessely’s comments on the campaign for a pardon for a soldier who was executed in World War I for “cowardice” (or what the family believed was shell shock) are very interesting.

4 December 2012

Dear Professor Wessely

I note from recent correspondence arising from the report in the Independent on Sunday on 25 November 2012, that you believe me as guilty of harassing you. Perhaps it is not surprising that I regard this belief with something less than amusement. Read the rest of this entry

Fabricated stories of ignorant bards

In spite of being in a state of almost constant exhaustion since November due to about four successive viruses (Christmas and Easter saw me in bed with the flu) I managed to make it to a couple of talks this year. The first was part of a series hosted by the Royal Irish Academy about the Halliday papers. Dáire Keogh’s paper was an overview of the pamphlets from the 1790s. Given that pamphlets were still a central means of circulating ideas (and this in itself has its own politics; being relatively expensive, pamphlets were not aimed at the populace at large, and one of the revolutionary acts of the United Irishmen was to print a newspaper dealing with Irish political issues) the Halliday collection is remarkably diverse. Alongside political and religious issues, there were subjects such as agriculture, new forms of transport and technology, and, notably, concerns about education in the context of population growth in Ireland.

Probably addressing the great public debate surrounding the anti-slavery movement in Britain at this time, an account of slavery in Antigua was published in Cork in 1789, listing specifically and in detail the nature of the abuses, lending it a very modern tone. A tract by John Wesley, a frequent visitor to Ireland, was also printed in Cork the following year. The French Revolution was, of course, a huge topic for polemic. The test of every man’s political creed, as Wolfe Tone put it, issues of empire, kingship, nation and citizenship were writ large, and the debate was polarised between supporters of Paine and Burke. The issue of Catholic mobilisation emerged, as Tone argued for their inclusion in the discussion of revolution. John Fitzgibbon argued that the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 made it inevitable that Catholics would eventually gain their lands back, and that an act of Union was the only solution.

On March 14, I went to the Brendan Ó Buachalla memorial lecture at the National Library of Ireland, which was given by Pádraig Ó Riain on the development of his Dictionary of Irish Saints. That such a work did not previously exist in spite of the enormous amount of scholarship on the lives of saints [1] may seem a little extraordinary, but it had its ancestors in Liam de Paor’s Dictionary of Irish Saints, which was unpublished at his death, as well as the unpromisingly titled Corpus Genealogiarum Hiberniae (1962) and Ó Riain’s Corpus genealogiarum sanctorum Hiberniae (1985). The difficulties of compiling such a record becomes obvious when the impressive breadth of sources is viewed, ranging from annals to literature to hagiography, especially given that many of the manuscripts lie in various repositories in mainland Europe and England. However, it is also clear that the author engaged in painstaking and very practical folklore research as well.

One particular difficulty facing historians was raised by John O’Donovan, who, with Eugene O’Curry, collected information about local saints as they worked on the Ordinance Survey. Often accounts of the lives of saints were based on “the fabricated stories of ignorant bards and Ecclesiastics, [rather than] containing the sentiments of the original teachers of Christianity in Ireland” [2]. One famous example of the way in which politics led to historical fabrications is the turf war between Kildare and Armagh which caused works such as the 9th century Tripartite Life of St Patrick (Bethu Phátraic) to be written in order to promote Armagh’s claims to supremacy. The Tripartite Life had St Patrick make a journey to Munster, and although this was apparently not based on any historical evidence (the Book of Armagh does not mention it, for example) there still seems to be a strong belief in Clonmel that he visited what is now known as St Patrick’s Well. Ó Riain’s account of the cult of Finbar is another such example, as he made the extremely controversial suggestion some years ago that the saint intimately associated with Cork may never have set foot in the area and was, in fact, from North Down. Finbar’s cult spread to Scotland and Cornwall, and there is evidence that elements of his life may have been incorporated into the legend of San Frediano of Lucca owing to the travels of Irish monks.  Ó Riain also hypothesised that St Finian (on whose works Columbanus of Bobbio drew when composing his Penetential, was in fact Finbar, and also that St Colmcille, a pupil of Finbar, was the same person as St Canice and St Colmán.

Before the lecture I stayed a few minutes at the launch of Catherine Morris’s biography of Alice Milligan. I had originally intended to stay for both, but I only really had the energy for one (still feeling some of the effects of a bad cold, as distinct from the flu I have at the moment), and in any case the launch ran late. You can watch Declan Kiberd and Catherine Morris talk about the process of writing the book here. (The first video is linked to the others.) I don’t have any notes, and my virus-addled recollections don’t really shed any light on anything at all, so you’re better watching the videos.

[1] http://www.confessio.ie/more/bibliography_full

This is a list of works on St Patrick alone.

[2] http://www.offalyhistory.com/articles/393/1/Shinrone-and-District/Page1.html

The full text of O’Donovan’s letter.

De Valera, Asperger’s and psychiatry

An article by Dr Tony Humphries in The Irish Examiner on autism provoked a furore in the Irish media and online. There are some troubling assertions in the article, and the author does not seem to have a very sophisticated grasp of the issues that he would seem to claim an expertise in. However, as I have previously chronicled in this blog, unscientific claims are not unknown to the medical or psychiatric professions, and often seem to coincide, in a most serendipidous fashion, with political expediency. And, as I noted in this blog post, Irish doctors are always on hand to assist in targeting the disabled. Having a need to procrastinate this evening, I’m going to write about an attitude to Asperger’s Syndrome that is influenced by 90-year old political propaganda and the mental health stigmas that it exploited.

A few years ago, Dr Michael Fitzgerald, who is a professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin and has a private practice in Blackrock, wrote a book in which he claimed that certain figures in Irish cultural and political life bore all the signs of having had Asperger’s Syndrome. Entitled Unstoppable Brilliance: Irish Geniuses and Asperger’s Syndrome, the book’s list of Irish “Aspies” includes Robert Emmet, Patrick Pearse, Éamon de Valera, Robert Boyle, William Rowan Hamilton, Daisy Bates, WB Yeats, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Fitzgerald wrote that he wished, in connecting Asperger’s with achievement, to gain some social acceptance for eccentricity. So far, so noble, but while the book provoked complaints about the sheer number of such posthumous “diagnoses”, for me it raises a few serious questions about Dr Fitzgerald’s attitude to Asperger’s. Read the rest of this entry

A small puzzle about (possibly) the longest continuous hunger strike

I was looking at an obituary of my grandmother’s cousin in the Irish Press. One of the nine survivors of the Cork Prison hunger strike in 1920, he died in 1965 at the age of sixty-eight. The hunger strike of Terence McSwiney, in particular, was watched with interest by the world’s media, as it was not known at the time how long a person could survive without food. McSwiney, Mick Fitzgerald and Joseph Murphy all died on the strike. The Press clipping says that the survivors lasted 94 days on hungerstrike, and incidentally that figure was also given in the Guinness Book of Records. Of course this figure is absolute nonsense. While the hunger strike itself lasted for that length of time it is impossible that any single one of them went without food for the entire length of the hunger strike, let alone all nine. For comparison, Terenece McSwiney died after 74 days and in 1981 Bobby Sands died after 66 days. (By “hunger strike” in this instance, I mean a successful refusal of food. A woman has maintained her hunger strike for several years, but she is force fed.)

I recall my mother saying something about 78 days in relation to her mother’s cousin, who she describes as cranky and obsessed with greyhounds. There’s also a mention by someone in Uinseann MacEoin’s Survivors who was in Cork Prison at the time that he knew someone there who had survived nearly 80 days. These are more realistic figures, I think. This is something I’ve intended to look into for some time, and I’m hopeful someone from the Cork perspective can point me in the right direction. Though Limerick and national newspapers haven’t yielded any useful results, family histories and local historians may help. Like three of the other hunger strikers, my grandmother’s cousin was from the Ballylanders area.

Incidentally, his uncle, my great-grandfather, was born 147 years ago yesterday.

Cardiacally insufficient post

Another wasted day caused by overactivity exacerbated by the effects of a lingering flu virus have caused me to take my pacing a bit more seriously. (This slightly alarming review article in the International Journal of Cardiology also helped to motivate me.)

The phenomenon known as Post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion – as illustrated in this series of articles – not only cruelly reverses the usually beneficial effect of exercise, but lessens the heart’s already compromised capacity to circulate blood around the body. This is why patients who have over-exerted themselves, whether by walking too far or even just climbing the stairs, have palpitations at rest, which is an uncomfortable and sometimes frightening experience. This also has long-term implications, as the review article quoted above points out there is a high mortality rate among ME patients due to heart disease.

One way to reduce the damage caused by repeated flare-ups is to monitor the Anaerobic Threshold – the heart rate beyond which the damage occurs. The methods for this are shown here , but in general the calculation is (220 – [your age]) x .6. Observing the heart rate and ensuring it does not go above a certain level is a difficult task, which is why I am considering the purchase of a heart rate monitor. I am open to suggestions of relatively cheap ones if anyone has experience of this.

Beethoven’s Irish (and “Irish”) songs

Thanks to the wise people of Mudcat.org, I discovered that Ludwig van Beethovenhad arranged some Irish songs.

One of the songs Beethoven arranged was called O would I were but that sweet linnet, the words of which had been written by William Smyth. Thomas Moore noted in his journal that Smyth had rewritten many of his Irish Melodies and sold them as new compositions, O would I were but that sweet linnet being lifted from The valley lay smiling before me (O’Rourke, Prince of Breffni). This song, a lament for Tigernán Ua Ruairc, is set to the tune of Cailín Deas Crúite na mBó. Smyth’s effort was little more than doggerel, but his appropriation was plausible enough to fool one of the greatest composers of all time into believing that it was culturally authentic.

Cailín Deas Crúite na mBó lyrics.

Some more background is below:

George Thomson (1757-1851) of Glasgow, Scotland, was a publisher and collector of folk songs. He commissioned composers of his day to set the folksongs, paying them well. Among the composers who took Thomson up on his offer were the Austrian Ignaz Josef Pleyel, the Bohemian Leopold Kozeluch, Franz Joseph Haydn, and even Ludwig van Beethoven.

Beethoven began his folksong settings in 1809 and continued with them off and on until 1820. Beethoven spent considerable time on the folksong settings and attempted to make them of real musical interest. Most of the folksong settings are for voice with a piano trio accompaniment (piano, violin and cello), and are not simple settings. While Thomson was most interested in British Isles songs, Beethoven expanded his own scope to include German, Danish, Tyrolean, Polish, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian and Italian texts, even though Thomson would only publish the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and other British songs.

All in all, Beethoven wrote approximately 64 Irish songs, most of which were published in the groups Twenty-five Irish Songs (WoO 152, 1814), Twenty Irish Songs (WoO 153, 1814-1816), and Twelve Irish Songs (WoO 154, 1816), all published in Edinburgh and London. Source.

The Ballycohey Ambush (1868): Landlordism and Anglo-Irish relations

Peter O’Grady gave an exhaustively-researched talk in Thurles on 15 February last which dealt with the Ballycohey Ambush. This was a violent protest against William Scully and his methods by tenants which took place on 14 August 1868 in the vicinity of Shronell in the parish of Lattin-Cullen, some four miles outside Tipperary town. [1] Covered in extensive detail by the newspapers of the time, it is almost forgotten by modern historians outside of Tipperary in spite of having had a significant impact on Irish and British politics, according to O’Grady. It created a revulsion against landlordism that helped Gladstone pass the 1870 Land Act, a piece of legislation important both in Ireland and in Britain. The talk, held in Thurles library, had an impressive number attendees from the Lattin/Shronell area, some of whom were descended from participants in the events. (NB: It may be easier to follow this blog post by identifying Ballycohey on a map (“Ballycohy” on Google Maps) and noting its position relative to Tipperary town, Limerick Junction, Shronell and Lattin.)

In all of West Tipperary’s eventful history, there are some landlords of special notoriety.  John Sadlier M.P., ‘Prince of Swindlers’, who would have been notorious for breaking rank with the Independent irish Party with his friend William Keogh even had he not collapsed the Tipperary Bank (and a few others), or the proverbially wealthy John Damer, the descendant of a Cromwellian officer who was famously cursed by Liam Dall Ó hIfearnáin, whose ancestors had been disposessed by the Damers. Perhaps no name is so now reviled in that part of the world as that of William Scully. The son of Denis Scully, a loyalist Catholic and critic of the Penal Laws and an associate of O’Connell, Scully became a landlord of great wealth and property in Ireland and the largest private landowner in the United States. U.S. By 1900, he owned 225,000 acres of prime agricultural land in the U.S., farmed by 1500 tenants, and 2,500 acres in Ireland. It was later written of Scully’s bad character in the U.S. that

[n]o frontier landlord in the entire country caused as much unrest among his tenants and was the object of as much ill-feeling and political agitation as William Scully. [2]

O’Grady talked first of the impact of landlordism in Ireland, an imposed system which set planter perpetually against native. Landlordism was inevitably connected with colonialism (Cromwell’s solution to the Irish problem being, in effect, to impose landlordism) and the struggle against it started a progress of events which eventually led to the national struggle. The Scullys benefited from the relaxation of the Penal laws in the 1770s and leased the lands of Ballycohey and Shronell from the Damers. They also benefitted from the widespread sale of lands during the Famine. West Tipperary and its vicinity saw large Famine clearances, such as Knockorden in Lattin and Castletown near Oola, where 1,000 people were evicted. The republicanism that inspired the Fenian movement started during this time. Paul Bew, possibly one of the historians criticised by Peter O’Grady for imposing an illusion of democracy on nineteenth century Ireland, believes that tenant complaints were exaggerated (“As The Nation acknowledged in 1870, it was a matter of ‘extremes’ of legal tyranny rather than actual practice”), and that their real grievance was in being subject to an alien race and religion. [3] Without entering into too detailed a discussion on the landlord system in Ireland, its injustices were thrown into relief when exported. William Scully, who acquired much of his 220,000 acre U.S. holdings from the government at $1.25 or less per acre,

… rented this huge acreage to twelve hundred tenants under a modification of the Irish land system, which required that the tenants make all improvements and pay both the taxes and a cash rent. These requirements kept the tenants in poverty and their improvements substandard while limiting the social amenities of the Scully districts. [4]

In June 1868, William Scully’s Ballycohey tenants  took issue with his announcement of changes to the leases including a provision that they had no rights to the crops they planted on the rented land. The tenants refused to sign, offering to pay an increased rent instead. Scully retaliated by preparing notices to quit. Scully himself had police protection as a result of death threats. His elder brother was shot in 1842, which may have shaped his attitude towards his tenants. Scully was charged but not convicted of shooting a son of a tenant whose holding he wished to appropriate. He was also sentenced to 12 months’ hard labour for inflicting a serious head wound on the wife of a tenant, but never served his sentence. Hassled by a hostile crowd, Scully failed to serve notice on Ballycohey tenants on 11 August as planned. As he decided to return three days later, against the advice of the police, an ambush was planned by the tenants with the aid of an informer in the R.I.C. This was assisted in its logistics by the Fenians, though O’Grady stressed that this was not a Fenian operation. Nevertheless, events would show that it was expertly planned and carried out.

Scully and his police escort went by train to Limerick Junction from Tipperary town and then walked a distance of about half a mile over the train tracks to avoid being confronted on the road. The ambush party, having expected to attack on the road, simply switched to Plan B. A huge crowd gathered outside the Ryans’ house and intimidated Scully and his bailiff Gorman, though not the police. Scully’s escort advised him to go home, but together with Gorman and Maher, another bailiff, and a policeman named Morrow, he went into Dwyer’s house. They were met with a volley of gunfire from the loft of the house and from the outhouse. Gorman was mortally wounded and Scully, in spite of being hit, fired back. Morrow, who was still outside, was hit and died. Maher was seriously wounded. The police outside gave chase, but the ambush party had already escaped and were subsequently helped out of the area by locals. Some returned to live in Ballycohey after several years had passed.

In spite of the several deaths and injuries – and there was no question of self-defence being a factor – Scully’s reputation influenced public opinion against him. The incident, which was instantly a cause célèbre, seemed to crystallise the issue of landlord-tenant relations. E.D. Steele noted that Britain’s Conservatice government “conspiculously failed” to bring the perpetrators of the killings to justice, partly because the local community refused to give evidence, “and partly because the moral and political position of the attackers was a very strong one.” [5] Scully responded to the widespread condemnation of his conduct as landlord by asserting that the tenants could have gone to the law if they had felt hard done by. He wished to fight back against the tenants, but Charles Moore of the Moore family of County Antrim, a member of parliament for Tippeary who had purchased the nearby Mooresfort estate in 1854 [6], defused the situation by purchasing the Ballycohey land at an inflated price.

William Gladstone (who was “profoundly moved” by the incident)  promised to pacify Ireland, and in an election speech of October 1868 he stated his position on the Irish land question. Though Scully’s actions had been legal, it was possible, if not to excuse, to understand “this deep and sullen feeling of… passive estrangement, sometimes arising into active and burning hatred” which were the result of “unjust laws regulating the tenure of land.” [7] Gladstone became influenced by George Campbell, an administrator and judge in India, who visited Ireland and made comparisons with Indian customary tenures. He was under pressure from assorted interested parties in England and Ireland who were alarmed by his election promises and by the increase in agrarian crime that followed the incident at Ballycohey, and unsettled by the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, feared that Gladstone intended to legislate for fixity of tenure (which was already customary in Ulster only). In the event, the expectations that Gladstone had inevitably raised in Ireland were not met by the Land Act of 1870, which offered a limited protection to evicted tenants and legalised the Ulster Custom where it could be shown to exist. However, ED Steele argues, not only that Gladstone had tried to persuade his cabinet to enforce tenant right, but that the Act constituted an enormous development of state intervention in private property and freedom of contract. [8] Gladstone’s approach was more long-sighted than his opponents gave him credit for. His statement on introducing the bill, that “the stability of the Empire” depended on it, reflected his belief in the political threat behind the land issue, and the threat of Fenianism to the very viability of the British Empire.


[1] http://www.tipperarylibrarynews.ie/?p=3572

[2] Paul W. Gates, Frontier Landlords and Pioneer Tenants (1945), p. 34, quoted in Homer E. Socolofsky, ‘William Scully: Ireland and America, 1840-1900’, Agricultural History , Vol. 48, No. 1, Jan., 1974, p. 155

[3] Paul Bew, The Politics of Enmity, p. 274

[4] http://answers.encyclopedia.com/question/william-scully-608302.html

[5] E.D. Steele, Irish land and British politics: tenant-right and nationality 1865-1870, Cambridge University Press (1974), p. 72. Steele calls the Ballycohey ambush “one of the most fateful incidents in nineteenth century Irish, and Anglo-Irish, history.” (p. 71)

[6] http://www.ashefamily.info/ashefamily/3713.htm

[7] Steele , p. 73.

[8] Ibid., p. 298

More about the Ballycohey Ambush:

Gerard Moran, William Scully and Ballycohey: a Fresh Look (Tipperary Historical Journal, 1992) You will need Adobe Acrobat or an equivalent programme to read this file.

Extract from A.M. Sullivan’s ‘The Story of Ireland’ (1900)
Extract from Sir Michael O’Dwyer’s ‘The O’Dwyers of Kilnamanagh’ (1933)

Some biographical information about William Scully

Ballycohey memorial, Shronell

Tullamore rings in the changes for M.E. and Fibro

The latest blog alert was for Sunday 9 October, with the theme being “what the disease is doing to you, how you are affected day to day and what your hopes for the future are”. I couldn’t take it up as I was in Tullamore for an international conference on M.E. and Fibromyalgia held by the Midlands Fibromyalgia Support Group with support from the Academy of Nutritional Medicine (AONM). However, I think it’s possible, in writing up some of my impressions of the conference, to answer some of those questions. Luckily for me (given that I’m still recovering from that strenuous day), I don’t have to go to the trouble of transcribing my notes just yet, as the AONM have generously written up summaries of all speakers’ presentations.

Regrettably I and the person who went with me, who has M.E. and possibly Fibro as well, missed Dr Peter Julu’s talk. The conference was to start at 9 a.m., and the first train to stop at Tullamore on a Sunday morning leaves Heuston at 8.30. Not that I would have made an earlier one: I had to get up at 6.40 as it was. We somehow managed to get a bit lost when we got to Tullamore – I was at fault for relying on Google Map’s disingenuous representation of the hotel’s location – and so I was tired enough by the time we had registered to want to rest until the first coffee break. With a very large body of sick people to refresh, the coffee breaks each lasted half an hour, and tea, coffee and biscuits (not forgetting a gluten-free selection) flowed liberally. Water was also available at all times inside the conference room. Otherwise, it wasn’t easy to tell that the attendees weren’t your average conference-goers, though a few were in wheelchairs and there was some comfortable seating for those too tired to sit in the normal seats for any length of time. The lengthy breaks and the attentiveness of the organisers and hotel staff to our collective comfort meant that just about a majority managed to stay until the end, although, if they’re like me, they’ll still be recovering.

Of course, given the recent developments with her research and the severance of her connection with the Whittmore Peterson Institute, Dr Judy Mikovits’s talk was of great interest to many. She let it be known that she has an offer to continue her work on patient blood samples in Canada. Her account of the partial retraction of the Science paper was that she had not relayed a standard methodological process, so it was more of a correction than a retraction, if I understood her correctly. Dr Perrin added at the end that the authors of the paper on XMRV (Lombardi et al) had not claimed to have found a cure for M.E., and that the media had mistakenly claimed otherwise. Dr Mikovits’s paper was much too dependant on terminology specific to virology for me to make any judgement about her work. She did maintain that the samples that Lombardi at al studied had not been contaminated, as others had claimed. She also stated that other researchers had not replicated the conditions of the initial study – a requirement of science! – and that it was vital that it continued, and research into other diseases like cancer stood to benefit by it. (Since I started writing, I found this  detailed summary of her paper.)

Most of the papers contained the theme of autonomic nervous system dysfuntion. Dr Julu’s paper suggested that it was a factor in cardiorespiratory dysfunction in M.E. Dr Goyal talked about the exhaustive process of health support and detoxification (which includes elimination of latent viruses, should they be present) which can help regulate the immune system. Dr Daniel Perrin is an osteopath whose methods of treating M.E. have been verified in some recent studies and he talked about what he believes is behind the neurological dysfunction in M.E. and why viruses have shown to be present in the spinal fluid of some M.E. patients (an autopsy on Sophia Mirza had massive amounts of viruses present. Her death was certified as due to of M.E.). In diseases such as M.E., the blood-brain barrier is compromised, which allows toxins to enter the brain. Dr Mikovits mentioned, if I wrote this down correctly that XMRV in M.E. patients was triggered by the extremely widespread HHV6 and CMV. Catherine Norton showed some of her PhD research on the quality of life of people with Fibromyalgia, comparing it with the effects of Raynaud’s disease and Sclerodoma. Sufferers of the latter illnesses reported a similar lack of medical support to Fibro patients.

Two particularly heartening things emerged from the conference: in spite of recent controversies, Dr Mikovits pointed out that researchers have been spurred into looking at retroviruses, immunology, NK cells and the like, something that was not being done before. And Dr Goyal revealed the heartening new development that the Medical Research Council in Britain is beginning to fund biomedical research into M.E. and moving away from the psychatric model. As Dr Perrin noted that researchers and clinicians should start to create a united front so that the stranglehold of the anti-science brigade on the media could be loosened, I reflected that patients should alter our approach too. The person who accompanied me expressed her dissatisfaction with Greg Crowhurst’s presentation, which was dispiriting and negative. Suffering is a negative thing, but dwelling on this is disempowering in its tendency. I think we also need to address our issues from a position of strength and unity. Focusing on our individual stories and issues is a P.R. tactic that was necessary in its time, but I think the same end of making people realise just how serious are the problems that the illness brings us is now better served by looking at them dispassionately, as issues. Essentially, we need to depersonalise things for our own sakes, and to take the ammunition from the hands of – you know who.

On the subject of the Medical Research Council, I found this story from 2009:

It is an established fact that the MRC has a secret file on ME that contains records and correspondence since at least 1988, which, co-incidentally, is about the time that Simon Wessely began to deny the existence of ME.

The file is held in the UK Government National Archives at Kew (formerly known as the Public Record Office) and was understood to be closed until 2023, but this closed period has been extended until 2071, at the end of which most people currently suffering from ME will be conveniently dead.

As one puzzled ME sufferer recently noted: “why on earth have a 73 year embargo on these documents on an illness where a load of neurotic people, mostly women, wrongly think they are physically ill?” (MEActionUK@yahoogroups.com; 14th October 2009).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.