Ar Scáth a Chéile a Mhaireann na Daoine (Under the Shelter of Each Other, People Survive)



As explained in the introduction, the motivation for this issue was born in the north of Ireland, where the most visible forms of solidarity between Irish people and other people fighting against colonialism in the world are ubiquitous. In this text, Sara Greavu reflects on what constitutes actual solidarity, using stories from Ireland and beyond to both promote and problematize its practices.

Greavu Funambulist 2
A mural on one of Belfast’s so-called “Peace Walls” in solidarity with Tamil Eelam. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (March 2022).

Living in Derry, in the contested part of the north of Ireland, we are accustomed to seeing visible expressions of solidarity all around: on the street, in the pub, in local community centers, and in people’s homes. In the fifty or so years since the start of the most recent phase of the conflict in Ireland (and throughout some part of the 800 years prior), an internationalist understanding of the forces of colonization, of imperialism, of resistance, and of liberation—and a sense of circulating solidarities with others who have suffered similar losses and indignities—has had an important role in sustaining and inspiring those struggling for equality, justice, suffrage, and self-determination.

In the relative peace of the present time, activists and political tourists come to the north from across Europe, North America, and beyond. Some come in delegations representing other liberation struggles, from the Basque Country or Palestine for example, or from groups formed around campaign issues, seeking justice for the victims of state killing, for instance, or, more recently, from groups organizing against the ravages of extraction. They stand for photographs in front of Free Derry Wall, which once signaled the demarcation line of the “no go” area, when citizens barricaded off a section of the city from the state police and British army between 1969 and 1972.

It is an enduring symbol of “a risen people” and is itself one of the vestiges of transnational solidarity in the 1960s, its slogan borrowed from student protests in Berkeley.

As these visitors walk through the republican/nationalist working-class neighborhoods that saw the most intense repression and the fiercest resistance during the hot phase of the conflict, they are likely to encounter a variety of other markers of transnational and transtemporal solidarity, flowing outward, that might include Palestinian flags, murals referring to the Cuban revolution, to Thomas Sakara, to Black Lives Matter, to Indigenous sovereignty and Landback…

In loyalist/unionist (pro-British-state) neighborhoods, they might see the Israeli flag flying alongside the flag of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment, displayed in support of the soldiers who killed fourteen unarmed civilians in Derry in the 1972 massacre known as Bloody Sunday, the same regiment having killed at least nine people in a series of incidents in Ballymurphy, Belfast, prior to that. These flags are also markers of some kind of solidarity, though they don’t find their roots in a shared internationalist political imaginary of liberation. These solidarities are, perhaps, mobilized through the law of opposites, a pinched, straight form: if you are like A, I am like B.

Even within the shared imaginary of liberation, the feelings and practices of solidarity as they are invoked here can obscure the complex position of subjugation and privilege occupied by Ireland (the state), the Irish (people), and those who identify with Irishness elsewhere in the world. Like the words justice or care, which sometimes seem to be drained of their meaning by overuse, or made unstable by their own capaciousness to refer to so many things, solidarity—how it exists and operates—is a crumbly thing to get hold of. How does it differ from allyhood or empathy? What do these symbolic expressions of solidarity accomplish and what other forms can solidarity take? Consider the mural in West Belfast which depicted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, accompanied by a quote from him on the contradictory position of the Irish people as both perpetrators and victims of racial prejudice “Perhaps no class has carried prejudice against color to a point more dangerous than have the Irish and yet no people have been more relentlessly oppressed on account of race and religion.” This strange sense of Irish exceptionalism points to questions about how we can understand expressions of solidarity that seem to be used to elide difference, to claim another’s oppressions as our own, to signal a move towards innocence or to draw a parallel that indemnifies our own actions. What at first might seem compellingly robust may in fact be much more uncertain upon closer scrutiny.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the 1960s radical student activist from the north of Ireland who was the youngest woman ever elected to the British Parliament, writes of the moment of recognition for her generation, seeing images of the civil rights movement in the United States, marching to say that they have no votes and realizing “Neither have we! Neither have we, we’re the same as them.” From that flash of identification rather than a set of political principles, McAliskey writes: “we made our first solidarity with our own pain,” a solidarity not made through theory but a visceral sense of connection.

Greavu Funambulist 1
Black shamrock badges, originally produced in 2006 in solidarity with the people of Iraq, to denounce the military use of Shannon airport for refueling war planes and “rendition” flights in the U.S.-British-Australian military occupation of Iraq.

Solidarity is often understood to be grounded in a shared sense of oppression or common experiences of suffering across differences. As such, solidarity is rooted in anger and pain, even if it elevates these negative emotions into a positive state of collective consciousness. To speak of pain is to admit to the political realm the force of affect, of an emotional state, felt within the body. In Affective Economies (2004), Sara Ahmed proposes that affect plays a crucial role in the “surfacing” of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs. “Emotions are not a private, internal matter. They do not come from within and then move outward toward others.” They themselves are constitutive of the very boundaries of bodies and the world, creating an affective economy that aligns social space across vast distances of geographical space.

In Mia Mingus’s 2011 classic text on disability justice, she identifies a sense of “Access Intimacy”: the feeling when someone else understands your access needs and this shared connection means that, together, you can “hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access.” Access intimacy doesn’t mean that you share the same needs or even know exactly what each other’s needs are, just that you can start from a place of “steel vulnerability” to ask for help or support. “Access intimacy is not charity, resentfulness enacted, intimidation, a humiliating trade for survival or an ego boost. In fact, all of this threatens and kills access intimacy.” When scaled and applied to other forms of exclusion and oppression, this sense of intimacy seems to be related to the affect of solidarity: a sense of being seen, of being less alone in your pain.

How have people tried to understand solidarity, both symbolic and operational, through affect and through action, and what names or ways of considering it might we find among theorists, artists, and organizers?

In this work of building a toolbox of terms and strategies, we need to also be mindful of the rocky continuum that runs from deep and impactful solidarity to that which is shallow, tepid, self-serving, or performative.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, “mutual aid” suddenly entered the broader collective consciousness, as people worked out models for practical, grassroots survival work. Locally, the Irish saying “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” (“Under the shelter of each other, people survive”or “We are nothing without community”) gained strong resonance. In a global crisis that could only be solved by collective strategies to keep each other safe, anarchists and other left activists had already honed a set of resource-sharing strategies to care for each other in parallel to their work for revolutionary social change. Locally, in Derry, it was largely community political networks established during the conflict who mobilized to deliver food and support to those who needed it. This understanding of interdependent networks of support and social solidarity, not individualism and charity, has been a key tool in organizing and prefigurative politics for many years. Mutual aid is not the end goal, but is used as a way to achieve emancipatory change, pending more revolutionary conditions. Its newfound popularity has merely broadened its name-recognition

In their exploration of terrains of engagement between Black and Asian communities in the United States, Savannah Shange and Roseann Liu identify what they call “thick solidarity,” a mode of cross-racial solidarity “that doesn’t rely on the slender if of empathy, as in if I were you, but rather pushes into the specificity and incommensurability of our racialized experiences.” This is a solidarity “based on a radical belief in the inherent value of each other’s lives despite not being able to fully understand or fully share in the experience of those lives.” A debt is owed to those who continue to be at the sharp end of inequality in the afterlives of slavery and empire, and choosing solidarity is to acknowledge this reparative debt owed, and to acquire the same “bad credit” assigned to those who together occupy the margins of social life.

Almost thirty years ago, in How the Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev proposed that the Irish in the U.S. were not initially seen as white by the Anglo-American population and it was only by aligning themselves with power, through violence against the Black population and in their support of slavery, that they transitioned to a state of white acceptance. This understanding of how the Irish in the U.S. failed at solidarity is a thesis for understanding solidarity as a set of actions, not just as an affect. Ignatiev encouraged white people to become “Race Traitors” with the strapline, “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity,” suggesting that the action of solidarity needs to extend beyond the symbolic and requires a step outside the socially acceptable and, at times, the legal. Whiteness itself, as a category and a club of unearned privilege, needs to be destroyed. The goal, through treasonous action and disloyalty, is the wholesale annihilation of the white hegemony on which global capitalism rests.

As we consider the proliferating inequalities and urgencies around us, we might draw on the work of projects like Pirate Care: “a transnational research project and a network of activists, scholars and practitioners who stand against the criminalization of solidarity and for a common care infrastructure.” It concerns itself with “those care initiatives which are taking risks by operating in the narrow gray zones left open between different knowledges, institutions and laws, inviting all to participate in an exploration of the mutual implications of care and technology that dare to question the ideology of private property, work and metrics.” “Care” as a unidirectional activity will continue to reproduce the asymmetrical relationships between people. In contrast, activities as disparate as Mediterranean rescue boats, groups providing abortion pills where the right to choose is illegal, self-organized medical initiatives for those who lack papers or insurance, and open-access online book repositories are all gathered under the umbrella of extralegal Care as Piracy and Piracy as Care. This kind of solidarity puts something at stake beyond the rhetorical: reputationally, legally, bodily. Solidarity is the start of something, not the product. We see this form of solidarity in the actions of Irish abortion activists, who found practical and sometimes extralegal ways to help those in their communities with unwanted pregnancies, and who now extend this support, for instance, to those in a similar situation in Latin America.

Problems emerge in the space between our political and affective identifications. We might agree on the absolute injustice and negligence of current systems of power, but have radically different ideas of what should replace them. The abstraction and zoomed-out view that allows connection across distances of space and time, also fosters uncomfortable contradictions and affective complications, when the people who share your critique of the current regime don’t necessarily share your desires. The archives of struggle are full of the results of these discontinuities, from the fracturing of the Non-Aligned Movement, to betrayals of raced or gendered workers when strike settlements are made. Irish history books are similarly rife with examples of support being given to the struggle by those with an impoverished and narrow view of liberation that merely sought an end to British imperialism on a nationalist basis with no thought for what radical possibilities might be opened up within this future self-determination.

Greavu Funambulist 3
A mural in “Free Derry” in homage to Che Guevarra and in solidarity with Cuba. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (March 2022).

Solidarity sometimes operates most powerfully in the realm of stories. Stories like that of Irish communist Mark Ashton, whose experience growing up queer in Portrush, County Antrim and radicalization during a trip to the Subcontinent combined to produce the inspired political alliance, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. Ashton was a key founder of LGSM, lesbians and gay men who supported the National Union of Mineworkers during the bitter strike of 1984–85. The National Union of Mineworkers went on to return the gesture through their steadfast support for LGBT rights. Or the story of the generosity of the Choctaw people, who raised $170 for Irish famine relief during the “Great Hunger” of 1845–49. Each year in County Mayo, there is a memorial walk that recalls their gift, sent in 1847, not much more than a decade after their own “trail of tears and death” when they were forcefully displaced from the North American Southeastern Woodlands. Or the story of how Bernadette Devlin McAliskey went on to actualize that jolt of connection she felt, through her organizing in the U.S. In one famous incident in 1970, having been given a golden key and the freedom of New York City by Mayor John Lindsay for her work for Irish civil rights, she and fellow activist Eamonn McCann, in turn, presented the key to the Black Panthers “as a gesture of solidarity with the Black liberation and revolutionary socialist movements in America.”

These stories offer us inspiration, connection, kinship, a sense of agency, even in the face of brutality and domination. We can make solidarity across time, with those who came before, with our ancestors. We can make ourselves recognizable to the future through our actions; leave evidence of our work and accompany future comrades in struggles-yet-to-come. But we also need to attend to the asymmetries of this collective imaginary, its inequalities and specificities.

Like all collectives, while they may start as a shiny theoretical proposition, when they hit the oxidizing air of practice, both the work and the rewards tend to be unevenly distributed.

This is not an argument against this model, this emotion, this undertaking. It is a call to apply ourselves to understanding the unevenness; to redouble our work to fix and polish and maintain these solidarities, through practical action and through the stories we tell. ■