June 2012 (2)
Aung San Suu Kyi!!!!
Hello, my amigos hello and I hope all of you are well . Much has happened to me. Much! I went to PolandLand for the football which was an effing DISASTER, but I had good fun as I am an eternal pessimist and had expected Ireland to not do well, so when they didn’t, I wasn’t too devastated.
But much as I’d love to tell you about my time in Gdansk, I want to tell you about my Aung San Suu Kyi experience more! (From now on I’ll refer to her as ASSK, just so you won’t be confused.)
Okay, I’m going to try and tell exactly what happened but no amount of words will be able to convey how powerful it was.
It began with a phone call. I’m always terrified when the phone rings and I poke at it with a stick and shout, “Shut up, shut up! Stop ringing. Be peaceful! Please, I implore you.” But for once, the phone wasn’t bringing scary news, it was bringing thrilling news. It was Himself who actually answered the call and he comes back into the room, where I’m huddled fearfully and I said, “Who was it? What did they want?” And he says, “Would you like to meet Aung San Suu KyI?”
I took a good long look at him and thought, ‘Well, that’s lovely, that is, now the both of us are mad and he’d always seemed so sane, but there we go.’ Slowly and loudly I said, “You can have some of my anti-mad tablets. At least for tonight. But we’ll have to get you to a quack in the morning.”
However, it turned out he WASN’T mad and WASN’T having audio hallucinations. I will explain…
I’m sure you know who ASSK is and if you don’t, I urge you to Googleize her. It’s a long story but she was under house arrest in Burma for 15 years between 1989 and 2010. She was imprisoned by the military junta for having the audacity to be the democratically-elected leader of the country and they weren’t having any of it. Several times they (the junta) told her she could leave the country, but she knew she’d never be able to get back in, so she stayed, even when her husband (who was living in the UK at the time - because the Burmese wouldn’t give him a visa - was diagnosed with terminal cancer and then died.) (She was also separated from her children.)
Throughout her years of imprisonment I thought about her so much, about all that she was sacrificing on behalf of her country and I was in such total awe of her. Whenever I was asked by magazines or whatever who my favourite dinner guest would be I always said ASSK because if she was able to have dinner with me it would mean that things had improved enough in Burma for her to be able to leave and that her sacrifices had meant something.
I admired her strength, her dignity, her serene intractibility, her intelligence and most of all, her powers of endurance. I mean, it must have been horrific. How did she survive, second by second? At what stage did she realise she was Burma’s ‘Chosen One’ and all the personal sacrifices that that entailed? When did she realise that her personal attachments and love for her family and her husband had to be put to one side? How did it dawn on her that this wasn’t going to be over in 6 months or 2 years or 5 years, that she was in it for the long haul?
It made me think of that quote (and I know I’m not saying it right) that people aren’t born great, that they have greatness thrust upon them. And how awful that must be. ASSK was just an ordinary person (admittedly her father negotiated Burma’s independence from Britain) but she wasn’t looking for the role as Burma’s saviour.
So as I said, I’d cared about her and worried about her for a long time. I knew that Amnesty International were doing their best for her (Sorry, veering off a bit here. I was just thinking that even when I was living in London in my 20’s and drinking my head off and spending the electricity money on shoes and was totally skint that I coughed up enough lolly to be a member of Amnesty International.) Anyway, in November 2010, she was finally freed from house arrest and felt that the ruling junta had made enough concessions to enable her to leave the country.
Now I don’t know exactly what happened but between Amnesty International and Seamas Heaney and Mary Robinson and Bono and maybe other people and forgive me if I haven’t listed them, she was persuaded to visit Dublin and accept the Amnesty Ambassador of Conscience award. S he was coming to Dublin for literally 6 hours, between accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo (22 years after she was awarded it) and going to Britain. And it was decided to hold a concert in her honour in Dublin. The tickets sold out in a nano-second and I was ferry disappointed not to get one, but that was that…. And then came the phone call from a mystery benefactor offering me 2 tickets. (The mystery benefactor was not actually a mystery to me, but they’ve asked for anonymity in case all their friends and family kick their heads in and say, ‘Why didn’t you invite ME, you selfish article!!!!’ Indeed, what IS a mystery to me is why I was the person chosen to be invited but I am not going to analyse the situation, I’m just really really really really really really grateful.)
…there was just one fly in the ointment… I was going to be in PolandLand for the football. “Football!!!!” I scorned. “Football!!! You think I’d miss the ASSK concert just because of some oul’ football!”
Himself and I had a chat about things and he was very conflicted about it all, because he has also been a supporter of ASSK (even before he met me) but in the end it was decided that I would go to the ASSK concert and he’d go to Poland. As it transpired, I was able to go to Gdansk for the massacre by Spain and I flew back to Dublin on Sunday.
Now, I’m skipping out so much - the fun in Gdansk when we weren’t being massacred by the Spanish, my happy hour in Oslo changing planes, my lost suitcase, my lost car, my shame at the carpark exit, the fact that I hadn’t a single thing to wear to the ASSK concert because the one good dress that still fits me was in the awol suitcase, along with all my make-up – but we’ll fastforward to Monday, when I picked up my Mammy at 3 o’clock to go to the event.
When we arrived at the theatre, the amount of media there was INDESCRIBABLE!!! Television stations from around the world, photographers, journalists, satellite dishes, a big stage set up in the outdoors. The excitement was indescribable. The mammy and I were brought to a reception room and ALL KINDS of Hobnobs were hobnobbing there (‘Hobbing with the Hobnobs’ is my current favourite phrase, courtesy of Dr Bill, who does a regular slot on Tom Dunne on Newstalk.) I got up to get my mammy a cup of tay and brushed shoulders – as in LITERALLY my shoulder brushed against hers – Vanessa Redgrave! That’s the calibre of Hobnobs we’re talking.
Myself and the mammy were paralysed with nerves. Canapes and stuff were put out on tables but our joint self-esteem was too low to allow us to eat. But after a long time had passed and none of the Hobnobs had spoken to us, she gave me a nudge and in a low voice said, “Hop up there and get us a couple of bikkies.” There was an impressively WIDE selection of bis-quits, but I cleared the platter of all the Bourbons and brought them back to her and we ate them and after a while I got up and went to another platter and took all the Bourbons off that and we ate them too – it looked like none of the Hobnobs were eating anything - and after a while we’d eaten every single Bourbon bis-quit in the place.
Then! Finally we were told to go ‘below’ to take our seats. But we had to go to the loo! And we went the wrong way looking for it. So then we had to go back through the Bis-quit room and out the other side and the staff were clearing things away and looked startled and alarmed at our reappearance and I was beginning to panic. “Quick Mam!” I was yelping. “Quick!”
“I’m going as quick as I can,” she said. “I’ve arthritis!”
“I KNOW,” I said, dragging her towards the ladies. “But you’ll just have to put it to one side for today. Pretend you’re young! We can’t be late. It’s Aung San Suu Kyi!”
We found the ladies and then we made our way back through the bis-quit room, where the staff had nearly finished clearing up and were looking really really worried about us, so much so that I thought one of the lovely waiters was going to throw Mam over his shoulder just to get her to her seat in time. “Wouldja come ON,” I said, to her, heedless of who heard me. I can’t handle being late at the best of times but ASSK is my hero of heroes. “I’m COMING,” she said. And then we were in the lift and then we were in the lobby and then got to the auditorium – just in time for the annoucement that ASSK’s plane had been delayed and the concert wouldn’t be starting for another half-hour. All credit to Mam, she said nothing, she didn’t even pinch me and she’d have been well entitled.
We took our seat and amigos, we were surrounded by Hobnobs - the mayor of Dublin was in the row behind us, the fiddler Martin Hayes was 2 rows in front of us. People whose names we didn’t know but who certainly LOOKED like Hobnobs were on both sides of us… and then a ripple started. Like a breeze blowing over a field of corn. Electricty starting moving through the crowd and murmurs of, “She’s here, she’s here, she is, she’s here.” And then! There she was! Aung San Suu Kyi! Free! And in the small little rock that is Ireland! Climbing down the steps of the Grand ‘grand’ Canal theatre. I thought I was going to pass out. To be so close to this woman whom I’d admired and cared about for the last twenty-two years. For all that she’d done and all that she symbolised. To be in her presence was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
Everyone was going mad and standing and cheering and clapping and taking photos (even though we’d been told no photos). And eventually she took her seat – in the row in front of me and the mammy - accompanied by Bono and Seamus Heaney and other bigwigs. At this stage I’d have been happy to go home, the night just couldn’t get any better, but the concert started and it was utterly brilliant. All kinds of artists – I’ll say some of them – Declan O’Rourke, Donal Lunny, Angélique Kidjo, Damien Rice, Bob Geldof, Saoirse Ronan who read one of Seamus Heaney’s poems. But – for me anyway – the most mesmerising performance was from Martin Hayes.
I’ve seen him once before so I knew how gifted he is, but he just came on, humble as can be, one man and a fiddle and a grand head of hair (his hair alone deserves a credit) and started playing slow. And I don’t know how he does it, but he quietens people, he casts a calming spell and then starts to gather people up, like a fisherman tightening the ropes on the net of a big catch. He started playing faster and people were with him, sort of attached to him, in captivity to him. And he played faster. And faster. And many of the foreign Hobnobs, who’d flown in from around the world just to see ASSK, started to consult their programmes, thinking, ‘Just who IS this man?” And he played faster and wilder and it was hard to believe that the sounds and the emotions were coming from just one man and when he finished up he brought the house down. He is AMAZING. (He’s playing the Pavilion Dun Laoghaire next Tuesday although I’d say the tickets are all gone…) He made me so proud to be Irish and it was a fittingly magnificent performance for ASSK.
Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for - Aung San Suu Kyi took the stage. She’s very beautiful and she looks very young, even though she was 67 on Tuesday and has endured a lot of physical and emotional deprivation. She wore simple clothes and a flower in her hair and she spoke with aching sincerity. One of the things that affected me most was when she said, “I had no idea so many people cared.” And I was thinking, ‘If only you knew.’ If only she’d been able to feel the collective love and concern and admiration from around the world all these years.
But maybe she intuited some of it, because how else did she keep going?
It made me think about all the people, all the individual human beings, around our globe, who campaigned for her, or who paid a small sum every month to Amnesty or who refused to go on their holidays to Burma, even though there are magnificent hotels and resorts there (built by slave labour) simply because she had asked us not to, and it made me aware of how powerful any individual is, once they align themselves with others with the same stance.
Then there was more singing and at the end all of the artists were on the stage and everyone, including the audience was singing, “Get up, Stand up,” and I swear to you it was like a religious experience, it was utterly transcendant.
ASSK was hurried outside – things were running much later than had been anticipated – to receive the freedom of the city and Mam and I were despatched to a reception room and were told that after the ceremony outside, ASSK would be ‘doing a quick walk-through’ the room and that there ‘might be an opportunity to meet her.’ And I got the message: there wouldn’t be an opportunity to meet her. And that was okay.
It was a long, thin room and it was rammed with Hobnobs, far, far more than at the earlier do and I was starting to think that maybe we should just go home, that we’d had a wonderful time and there was no point waiting, when a good Samaritan – and I’ve no idea why she chose me to be the recipient of this bountiful news - whispered me a little whisper: that ASSK was not going to come through the door everyone was expecting her to come through, that she was going to come in at the far end of the room. I didn’t know whether or not to believe this person, I didn’t think this person was deliberately misleading me, but that they might have it wrong.
Nevertheless I made up my mind to chance it. First I consulted with my mammy, who urged me to go it alone, “I’m old and decrepit,” she said. “I’ll only slow you down. I’ll mind your bag. Off you go and do your best.” So I made my way towards the far end of the room, where the crowds were thinner and thinner and eventually there was no-one at all. Wondering if I was being taken for a right eejt, I loitered by the door…
And suddenly it was all action. Organisey men appeared beside me and there were walkie-talkies and urgent words and extreme tension. “Just a quick walk-through the room,” They were saying. “She’s exhausted and she’s got a plane to catch.” And, with a shock of surprise, I realised I was in exactly the right place and apart from the organisey men, there was no-one else near me, not for yards. Then someone was saying, “Three seconds, two seconds, she’s coming, she’s coming…” And the door opened and in she came, tiny, powerful, brave woman that she is, her entourage hurrying in her wake and I took my chance and jumped into her path and she looked a little startled to see me, but recovered well and I stuck my hand out and she took it and I said, “Thank you for enduring,” and she looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you for helping me to endure,” and of course, she wasn’t talking about me, she was talking about all of us, about you, about every single one of us who has wished her well over the last 22 years, so I just thought I’d tell you. ..
Much much love to you, my beloved amigos. I hope things are well with you. For those who don’t already know, Helen Walsh’s story The Mystery of Mercy Close is published on September 13th. And if you’re not already on the twitters, please come and join us, it’s great, great fun. Helen Walsh is also on twitters @RealHelenWalsh as is Mammy Walsh @RealMammyWalsh and we’ll be hearing more from them soon
Thank you for reading this, for all your kindness and I’ll be back asap
Lots and lots of love
PS More about Amnesty International here