Christine Madden

journalist | editor | dramaturg | literary translator

Category: Blog (page 2 of 6)

Send in the clowns

Clowns Without Borders Ireland continues their mission with a tour to refugee camps in Lebanon to ensure there is ‘no child without a smile’

Children of Al Jaleel school for Palestinian refugees in Talabaya, Lebanon. Photograph courtesy of Al-Jana

PLAY AND LAUGHTER are normal occupations of young children. It’s how they learn about the world and how to engage with it and each other. And how to relieve themselves of the stresses of their challenging encounters with it.

For millions of children enduring and displaced by wars and hardship, however, the new normal is despair, fear and trauma. There’s little to laugh about when your home and neighbourhood have been destroyed by bombs, members of your family have been killed and you now live in a refugee camp, suffering poverty, hunger, disease and the harshness of the elements.

But laughter is what Clowns Without Borders seeks to provide. The organisation had its beginnings in Spain in 1993, when schoolchildren in Barcelona asked a Spanish clown to perform for refugees in the Istrian peninsula of Croatia. It has now spread around the world, with chapters in 14 countries bringing performing artists to visit the children in refugee camps, conflict zones and areas beset by emergency. Their performances give these children a chance to escape, however briefly, their hardships and anguish with a few hours of light-hearted joy.

CWB Ireland team at Chatila, a Palestinian camp in Beirut: (l-r) Orlagh de Bhaldraithe, Daniel Guinnane, Helen Gregg and Niamh McGrath. Photograph courtesy of Al-Jana

CWB Ireland, a group of professional street artists, theatre practitioners, puppeteers and circus performers – all volunteers – recently travelled to Lebanon to visit several refugee camps. This year, Helen Gregg (team leader and performer), Daniel Guinnane (musician/performer), Niamh McGrath (performer) and Orla de Bhaldraithe (musician/performer) spent three weeks on tour of the refugee population, assisted by the local arts organisation Al-Jana. Its director, Hicham Kayed, wrote: “The performances had a strong impact on the children, often deprived of education and cultural or social activities. [They] would light up as they rejoiced in sharing in the tricks the clowns performed and the pranks they played on each other.”

Putting into practice their motto “No child without a smile”, CWB Ireland’s tour of 19 different locations included Palestinian camps such as Burj Barajneh in Beirut of Nahr el-Bared in Tripoli/Trablus, and new encampments of Syrian refugees in rural areas such as the Beqaa valley.

This was the second time round in Lebanon for Gregg, the leader of the group. She had expected the situation mostly to encompass the Syrian conflict and its refugees. The additional experience of going to the Palestinian camps that have been in existence in the 1940s – “where the residents are the descendants of those people who fled the Arab-Israeli war of that time” and are born as refugees, Gregg explains – was an eye-opener.

Children watch the show at SP Overseas Syrian camp in Saida. Photograph courtesy of Al-Jana

The experience was special not only for the children. “To be honest,” Gregg says, “the work is a gift to us. To be afforded the opportunity to connect with people from cultures and life experiences so different from our own, both children and adults, is a rare thing.” She describes meeting tiny Syrian children in the Beqaa valley, who fled with their families to – or were born in – the windowless shacks and muddy fields near the Syrian border, and “making them smile and laugh with our messing, being gifted with their hugs and kisses”. Every interaction was important to them, she says: “It’s terribly sad and yet wonderful at the same time to be able to make that human connection, to share fun together and bring the memory of them home.

“And when they asked us, as they often did, if we would be coming back tomorrow – well, that was heartbreaking.”

CWB Ireland have since embarked on a tour of Syrian refugee camps in Jordan with Hullabaloo, a new circus show by Laura Ivers, Maria Corcoran, Tony Mahon and Hillas Smith, directed by Angelica Santander


Euro Vision

    At the Pulse of Europe rally on Munich’s Max-Joseph-Platz, 19 March. Photograph: Christine Madden

MORE than a thousand people attended a Pulse of Europe rally in Munich on Sunday, 19 March,  joining thousands across Germany and other locations in Europe – including Galway, for which the crowd on Munich’s Max-Joseph-Platz gave a big cheer.

Waving flags and banners, the assembled crowd listened to speakers expounding on their personal experiences of Europe and the importance of the EU to them as private individuals, workers and professionals, community members and citizens.

Scottish Saltire waves at Pulse of Europe rally. Photograph: Christine Madden

And although Britain and Scotland seem currently to be wrestling out their differences regarding union – EU and UK – membership, several of the attendees at today’s rally demonstrated their support for Scottish membership in the EU.

Pulse of Europe, a non-party-affiliated citizens’ initiative to defy the rise of far-right and racist politics in Europe, has begun holding rallies in German cities every Sunday. Their goal, according to the website, is “nothing less than the preservation of the confederation in order to secure peace and guarantee individual freedom, justice and legal security”.

Father and son show their support for the EU. Photograph: Christine Madden

One hundred years ago, stated one speaker, European countries were at war with one another. Now, symbolised by the stars on the blue field in the EU flag, they are members of a political and economic union and – despite disagreements – at peace. The stability of the union and friendly understanding among these nations is a gift that should be valued and treasured and protected.



EU-enthusiast trumpets his support at the Pulse of Europe rally. Photograph: Christine Madden

Munich rally attendees welcoming Scotland in the EU – “Your vote, your future”, the empty star labelled “space for Scotland”. Photograph: Christine Madden

Rebels with a cause

Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne, and At the Existentialist Cafe, tells her Munich audience why existentialism is the rock-and-roll side of philosophy

Writer Sarah Bakewell, author of ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’, signing books at the Literaturhaus München. Photograph: Christine Madden

AT THE RISK of looking like the PR for Munich’s Literaturhaus, here’s another report on an event in their programme. Apparently English writer Sarah Bakewell doesn’t often tour, but she made an exception and paid the venue an exclusive visit to promote her engaging book, At the Existentialist Café. In a question-and-answer session with Austrian literary critic Sigrid Löffler, with passages from the book read by German actor and singer Wiebke Puls, Bakewell described her enduring love affair with existentialism with easy-going humour and enthusiasm. Better than straight philosophy, Bakewell’s book invites us into the cafés and jazz clubs with the existentialists, whose lives she describes with the arch affection of an intimate. Löffler describes Bakewell as the “master of presenting images in relaxed, chatty language”.

Any apprehensions of a dry-as-dust scholastic treatment of a supposedly defunct philosophical movement should be dispelled by the book’s subtitle: ‘Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails’. The philosophers inhabiting this engaging book Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and others had gained a reputation for being worthy, serious, embodiments of “stuffy old Europe” in American circles. But, argues Bakewell, these people were the rock-and-roll celebrities of mid 20th-century Paris, where they represented youth, rebellion and (sexual) freedom.

Far from propounding a rarefied body of thought, distanced from the world we inhabit, the existentialists were writing about “the problems of living, of the world, of love, of desire and what it means to be a human being”, says Bakewell. Their philosophy is imbued with passion and immediacy, which is why, she says, “existentialism never goes out of fashion for 16-year-olds” – a reference to her own discovery of their dynamic work when she was a teenager.

They felt their ideas had the power to change the world

They also sometimes acted like teenagers, quarrelling and falling out with one another. But, as Bakewell explains, this is because they their ideas mattered so much to them, that they felt their ideas had the power to change the world.

They lived with an admirable intensity and immediacy that we, in our technology-addicted world, no longer seem to feel. Separating ourselves from the bold fact of our physicality, the active reality of our existence, we crave easy thrills and, often virtual, distraction and disruption – nothing like the rebellion and revolt the existentialists thought, felt, advocated and put into practice.

Existentialism, Bakewell believes, has a new validity and urgency in the 21st century. “The existentialists asked questions that we need to think about now,” she states, “the big question of freedom.” The leaching of our freedom in the current political climate, she says, is accompanied by scientific discoveries about the brain, that we don’t make conscious decisions, that we’re ruled by hormones, etc. “It’s an old argument with scientific justification,” she explains, “but it doesn’t answer the question of freedom: what is my life and what am I going to do with it?”


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