In response to last November’s visit by Private Chelsea (Bradley) Manning’s mother, aunts and uncle to Dublin, Irish musicians, performers, academics and activists brought the inaugural Manning Truthfest to Haverfordwest (and Fishguard) this last weekend 10 & 11 January.
The driving force behind the weekend was Irish playwright and actor Donal O’Kelly along with Joe Murray of Afri (Action from Ireland).
Joe Murray writes:
Having hosted the Manning Family during their momentous visit to Ireland, Afri was delighted to continue that support for the Manning Truthfest – ‘the return fixture’ – in Wales last weekend. Donal O’Kelly had met the family, heard their story and, never one to miss an opportunity for offering support and solidarity, came up with the wonderful idea of the Manning Truthfest. This was a voyage of discovery in many ways as musicians and artists were contacted and assembled, car pools sorted and the ferry crossing arranged. From the moment we gathered this group of artists seemed imbued with a special spirit. On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by Genny and the family, provided with excellent accommodation and from then on it was non-stop music. Despite the harrowing nature and the brutal treatment of Chelsea Manning there is much to celebrate in a life marked by courage and truth and it was appropriate that this Truthfest was awash with the sounds of music, song, poetry, drama, dance and drumbeat. Thank you to all who made it possible.
The Truthfest crew (pictured below with family members) were a 13-strong team from Ireland (Donal O’Kelly, Joe Murray, Andy Storey, Andy Cummins, Joe Black, Sorcha Fox, Imogen Gunner, Robbie Sinnott, RoJ Whelan, Brian Fleming, Harry Browne, Ellen Cranitch, Nuala Kelly) plus Ciaron O’Reilly who travelled from London and Genny Bove from Wrexham, working alongside members of Chelsea’s Pembrokeshire (Welsh-Irish) family.
Truthfest on the streets
On Friday and Saturday mornings, some of us took to the streets in solidarity with Private Manning and to promote the events. Joe Black, Sorcha and Genny headed into Haverfordwest from our scenic Broadhaven base on Friday morning and kicked off with a banner drop from the footbridge over the A40 in the centre of town. We had the long FREE MANNING banner pointing west…
and Seamus’s pre-trial black and white banner (now updated to read FREE PRIVATE MANNING) facing east, and some reassurance that there wouldn’t be a repeat of the Bristol banner fiasco. This is the town where, according to Susan Manning, a Happy Birthday banner draped over a roundabout sign stayed there for days.
When the wind chill got too much, we headed to the relative shelter of Castle Square with a banner, placards and postcards, letting people know about solidarity efforts for Manning’s family and inviting them to join us in a celebration of truth.
We had one very interesting encounter in Castle Square with someone in the Education Department. Dave, who worked at a number of schools at the time, hadn’t worked directly with Bradley at Tasker Milward school but remembered him because of his American accent. He said that that Bradley was ‘the last person I’d have expected to do something like this’ noting that he wasn’t by any means a loudmouth. Genny asked whether Dave had seen any evidence of Bradley’s behaviour being driven by conscience at that time and he responded with an anecdote that rather contradicted his original assertion and that he said explained why he probably had a strong memory of the young Bradley Manning.
Dave recalled going into the sixth form common room around Christmas time to find the then deputy head in a rage over Christmas decorations that he deemed to be a fire risk. Rather than ask the pupils to take them down, he had started tearing them down himself and destroying them in the process, but as he went for one item in particular, Bradley rushed over to him and asked him not to damage it as this was not a decoration, but a sixth former’s A-level art work that had been hung up to dry. The deputy head continued to destroy the piece despite Bradley’s protestations, pushed Bradley in the chest and pinned him up against the wall, berating him for daring to question the deputy head’s authority.
Following the incident, Dave spoke with Bradley, asked him if he was all right and told him he would have to report the incident to the Education Authority. Bradley’s response was that he was OK and to ask Dave not to report it as he thought it would get him in more trouble. Dave explained that he had no choice, but when he did so no action was taken against the deputy head, Dave was reminded of the precarious nature of his – at that time – temporary contract with the authority and he was basically told to keep his nose out! Dave ended by telling us that over the intervening years there had been improvements in the LEA and that he felt confident that a similar incident reported today would be taken seriously and dealt with in an appropriate manner.
The anecdote indicates that Chelsea’s concern and willingness to speak out in the face of abuse by those in positions of power and to act for the benefit of others, potentially at cost to herself, is longstanding. Encounters with people like Dave who have tales from Chelsea’s past are precious; never underestimate the value of hanging round in the street!
Friday night at the Shamrock Bar in Fishguard
With a warm reception from the Shamrock Bar on the Square in Fishguard, our Irish friends produced a magical mix of uplifting music, thoughtful reflection and rousing sing-along. There was a strong Irish flavour to the evening with some interesting connections being made. Robbie Sinnott met two more Sinnotts from his family’s part of the world and acquaintances in common, while Andy C discovered that his cousin Nuala works at the Shamrock.
In the more formal proceedings, Joe Murray welcomed everyone and introduced us to an evening that included:
poetry and song from Sorcha Fox
music from RoJ Whelan – including his moving song Free Bradley Manning
and loads more music, much of it with an Irish flavour, from Imogen Gunner (fiddle and vocals), Robbie Sinnott (accordion and vocals), Ellen Cranitch (flute), Brian Fleming (bodhran), Joe Black (guitar and vocals) in many and various combinations and with some additional instruments in the mix there.
The evening’s music built up to a rousing sing-song that had everyone joining in, with Chelsea’s uncle Kevin on ukelele…
and aunty Mary lead singer!
Accordionist and singer Robbie Sinnott spoke about the significance for him of bringing his music over from Ireland for the family:
I feel privileged to be able to support Chelsea Manning and her family in any way at all. Chelsea’s grandfather was from Dublin, and gave to his children a love for many songs in the Anglo-Irish folk tradition. I am delighted to be able to perform these songs with the Fox/Manning family joining in, or even just for their enjoyment and the entertainment of anyone else who shows their solidarity for these wonderful people.
In the interludes, we heard from speakers including Nuala Kelly, previously director of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas who has worked with Irish prisoners and their families for many years. She spoke about the significance of supporting families who have loved ones imprisoned far from home.
Journalist and author Harry Browne spoke about the power of making the family connection as well as the responsibility of journalists who write stories based on the WikiLeaks revelations to fight for their source’s freedom. Harry is pictured below with Susan Manning in less serious mode on Saturday night.
Chelsea’s uncle Kevin is a staunch Manchester United fan, and Donal O’Kelly presented him with a copy of Ken Loach’s film featuring Eric Cantona Looking for Eric signed by the Director. Loach is a strong supporter of Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
The venue was decorated with solidarity banners and posters and the beautiful tiger wall-hanging Chelsea’s Mum Susan had made and donated to be raffled.
Our information table, meanwhile, was augmented by the addition of new bilingual Private/Preifat Manning briefings from CND Cymru, edited and printed post-haste to be ready for this event and delivered in person by Jill Gough and Jon Plumpton.
It was lovely to see Chelsea’s family members enjoying themselves and comfortable alongside all the musicians and assembled supporters from near and far. There was a real sense of camaraderie and a wonderful, warm and relaxed atmosphere in the bar all evening, so relaxed in fact that even the security guard joined in with some traditional Welsh songs. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the camera in my hand and missed recording the very appropriate Calon Lân (A Pure Heart), but I did manage to catch the second offering:
Brian Fleming wrote this about the Welsh-Irish connections and the possible spread of solidarity through this chance encounter:
The security guy singing somehow seemed to exemplify how little shoots of transformation might grow out of this. He’s coming to Dublin with 10 of his mates for the Wales-Ireland rugby match so there’ll be a Wales-Ireland sing off in a pub in Dublin somewhere that weekend and I hope we can all meet up again. In terms of the bigger picture, I think the strategy of the truth festival is an extremely enjoyable, sustainable and public form of resistance that will serve the movement very well in the years to come. Saul Alinsky would be proud of the idea.
A group photo to finish.
More photos on flickr.