Damian Mac Con Uladh

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Who was Theodorakis’ ‘laughing boy’?

In Uncategorized on 2 September 2021 at 10:22 am
An album cover for Theodorakis’ album ‘The Hostage’, sung by Maria Farantouri

Written in honour of Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins, Brendan Behan’s song ‘The laughing boy’, or ‘To gelasto paidi’ in its Greek translation, has come to stand for various Greek historical figures and events and is one of the most recognised songs of the last 40 years in Greece

It’s one of composer Mikis Theordorakis’ best-known pieces, a signature song that for almost 50 years has conveyed the desire for more democracy in Greece and the struggle against 1967-1974 military dictatorship.

Indeed, so popular is the song “To gelasto paidi” (“The laughing boy”) that it would be hard to find a Greek unable to put a name to or even recite some lines from the number, which is a common feature at school commemorations marking the Polytechnic students’ uprising of November 1973.

Yet despite the song’s enduring popularity, it would come as a surprise to many to learn that its origins are in Ireland, in an Irish-language poem composed by a young boy who would go on to become one of the most famous and popular Irish writers and playwrights of the 20th century – Brendan Behan. March 20 [2014] marked the 50th anniversary of his Behan’s death, well before his time at the age of 41, from the effects of alcoholism. “I’m a drinker with a writing problem,” the Dubliner once said.

As a 12 year old in the mid-1930s, Behan wrote the poem in honour of Michael Collins, a hero of Ireland’s 1919-1921 war of independence against Britain, who was assassinated, aged only 31, by former comrades in the ensuing Irish civil war in 1922. He would later incorporate the poem into his hugely successful 1958 play The Hostage, which depicts the events leading up to the planned execution of an 18-year-old IRA member in a Belfast jail, accused of killing a policeman.

First staged in London, the play was later performed in Paris, where it came to the attention of Theodorakis, who had been living there since 1954. It inspired the composer to write cycle of 16 songs which he called Enas Omiros (A Hostage), to Greek lyrics translated by Vasilis Rotas.

“In The Hostage, Brendan Behan deals with the Irish people’s struggle for freedom. This new Irish mythology seemed to me to be very closely related to ours. The questions about God, about existence, about loneliness, love and hate retain their fundamental significance in the human struggle for life and liberty. That applies to Northern Ireland just as much as to Greece. When in 1961 I put The Hostage to music, I didn’t want to compose typical Greek folk music; I wanted at least the musical form to correspond to the special atmosphere of the work,” Theodorakis has recalled to Paddy Sammon, an Irish diplomat who has researched the song’s Greek links.

That was followed in 1962 by the staging of the The Hostage, in Rotas’ translation, in Athens. At a time when the Greek civil war was very much a taboo subject and leftwing activity was under the close surveillance by the rightwing state, Behan’s play would become a proxy for people to identify with the left and with their own history.

‘Mikis Theodorakis and Maria Farantouri on an album cover of ‘The Hostage’

The song became “associated with various social, economic and related struggles, for education, for more democracy, for different ways to redefine the social contract, the way people would live, the way people would go on”, Greek poet Yiorgos Chouliaras told an Irish radio documentary some years ago. He says that such “emendations” and “misunderstandings” are “necessarily associated with all cultural matters”. And it was through these that the song “became something that was considered extremely Greek”.

It also became identified with particular figures. As historian Kostis Kornetis points out, the “laughing boy” for many was leading Greek communist Nikos Beloyannis, who was executed in Greece 1952, an association that was fuelled by the iconic photograph of him at his trial smiling with a carnation in his hand. The song was also linked, in the popular imagination with Sotiris Petroulas, who was killed, aged 22, a student who was killed when police attacked demonstration in July 1965.

But as Sammon explains, the song took on yet another new life thanks to its inclusion in the soundtrack to Costa-Gavra’s 1969 film Z about the assassination of MP Grigoris Lambrakis. Sung by Maria Farandouri, the song then became increasingly identified with Lambrakis, a peace activist after whom a mass youth movement was later named.

  • ‘To gelasto paidi’ featured in the soundtrack to Costa-Gavra’s 1969 film Z

More associations would follow. Farandouri, who went into exile after the 1967 military coup d’etat, sang it at solidarity concerts across Europe. “It became a hymn not only for the Irish liberation movement, but also for every liberation movement in the world, and Greek democracy,” she told the same Irish radio documentary. When the junta sent in tanks against protesting students and citizens on 17 November 1973, causing the deaths of at least 24 people over a number of days, Farandouri then added a couple of stanzas to the song, deliberately linking it to that event.

It was that version she sang at an historic concert in Athens in October 1974 given by Theodorakis to mark the fall of the junta that summer and the restoration of democracy. Whereas Behan’s original “laughing boy”, Michael Collins, was killed “on an August morning”, Farandouri’s extra lines referred to “November 17”. And instead of staying the laughing boy was killed by “our own”, the Polytechnic version referred to the killers as “fascists”.

  • Maria Farantouri in a memorable performance of the song at the first concert given by Mikis Theodorakis in Greece after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974

In more recent times, the song has developed more associations. Among the comments from viewers beneath the song on YouTube are references to Alexis Grigoropoulos, a 15-year-old boy murdered by a special policeman in December 2008, and Pavlos Fyssas, the 34-year-old hip-hop artist stabbed to death by a neonazi Golden Dawn supporter last September.

And what would Behan make of the song’s Greece afterlife? Sammon is in no doubt that he would have approved. “I think he would be just so delighted that schoolchildren are learning this song in schools in Greece. He wrote a wonderful short story called ‘The Confirmation Suit’. He was saturated in stories. He would just love the idea that people in Greece are singing the song.”

Sammon now believes it’s time to re-export the song back to Ireland, as a tribute to Behan himself: “I think it would be lovely if someone was able be able to put the music for ‘The laughing boy’ as written by Theorodakis into an Irish-language version and to have it sung in honour of Brendan Behan because he is somebody who still lives on. It would uplift us in these difficult times. It’s only a short poem. But it would be something really really unique.”

The laughing boy

By Brendan Behan

It was on an August morning, all in the morning hours,

I went to take the warming air all in the month of flowers,

And there I saw a maiden and heard her mournful cry,

Oh, what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy.

So strong, so wide, so brave he was, I’ll mourn his loss too sore

When thinking that we’ll hear the laugh or springing step no more.

Ah, curse the time, and sad the loss my heart to crucify,

Than an Irish son, with a rebel gun, shot down my Laughing Boy.

Oh, had he died by Pearse’s side, or in the GPO,

Killed by an English bullet from the rifle of the foe,

Or forcibly fed while Ashe lay dead in the dungeons of Mountjoy,

I’d have cried with pride at the way he died, my own dear Laughing Boy.

My princely love, can ageless love do more than tell to you

Go raibh míle maith agat, for all you tried to do,

For all you did and would have done, my enemies to destroy,

I’ll prize your name and guard your fame, my own dear Laughing Boy.

Το γελαστό παιδί

(Vasilis Rotas’ Greek translation of ‘The laughing boy’)

Ήταν πρωί τ’ Αυγούστου

κοντά στη ροδαυγή

βγήκα να πάρω αγέρα

στην ανθισμένη γή

Βλέπω μια κόρη κλαίει

σπαραχτικά θρηνεί

σπάσε καρδιά μου εχάθει

το γελαστό παιδί

Είχεν αντρειά και θάρρος

κι αιώνια θα θρηνώ

το πηδηχτό του βήμα

το γέλιο το γλυκό

Ανάθεμα στη ώρα

κατάρα στη στιγμή

σκοτώσαν οι δικοί

μας το γελαστό παιδί

Ω, να ‘ταν σκοτωμένο

στου αρχηγού το πλάϊ

και μόνο από βόλι

Εγγλέζου να ‘χε πάει

Κι απ’ απεργία πείνας

μεσα στη φυλακή

θα ‘ταν τιμή μου που ‘χασα

το γελαστό παιδί

Βασιλικιά μου αγάπη

μ’ αγάπη θα σε κλαίω

για το ότι έκανες

αιώνια θα το λέω

Γιατί όλους τους εχθρούς μας

θα ξέκανες εσύ

δόξα τιμή στ’ αξέχαστο

το γελαστό παιδί.

Don’t counterfeit the tune! (Μη παραχαράσσετε την μελωδία!)

In Greece, Uncategorized on 15 February 2019 at 12:16 pm

Screenshot (1125)

In January, a video went viral in Greece of an Orthodox priest and his fellow passengers on a bus singing a song containing the words “Don’t counterfeit history, Macedonia is one.”

The bus was on its way to one of the demonstrations against the Prespa deal, which revolved the long-stranding Macedonia naming dispute by renaming the Republic of Macedonia as the Republic of North Macedonia.

The clip, put to a captivating dance mix and footage of people dancing by Greek satire site Luben, proved an internet hit (clocking up almost two million views in less than a month), both among supporters of the agreement, who saw it as ridiculing its opponents, and, ironically, by opponents of the deal, who found it a catchy way to express their stance against it.

The “Don’t counterfeit history” (“Μην παραχαράσσετε την Ιστορία”) tune had been doing the rounds in the run-up to the demonstrations against the Prespa deal. One version, uploaded on 13 January and accompanied by truly gaudy graphics, attributes the “lyrics/music” to a Marigo Mpouri, who claims she wrote it as a teenager “30 years ago” in a church-run camping facility outside the village of Proti, in the northern Greek prefecture of Florina.

However, in recent days, some Greek sites have cast doubt on the melody’s “Greek” character, claiming that the tune is, in fact, Slavic in origin, which would be highly ironic considering its recent Greek use against what is seen as Slavic appropriation of Greek history.

Unfortunately, this “Slavic” version now doing the rounds, which was uploaded to YouTube in 2013, fails to mention the name of the performer or the title of the song, whose “Slavic” character is somewhat undermined by the unmistakable sound of a didgeridoo in the track, among others.

[Update: On Twitter, @xoriskanape points out that the above song is by Russian group Reelroad (more on them here) and is entitled Венгерская (Vengerskaja, literally “Hungarian”), from the group’s first album (2001). On its website, Reelroad states (my working of a Google translation):

In fact, the origin of this melody it is not known for certain; one option is that it is native to Ukraine but in our performance it is more similar to the Breton.

They also say that Spiritual Seasons and US group Caliban do a version. So, that at least identifies the creator of the “Slavic Folk Music” in the other video.]

Back to the “Slavic Folk Music” video: Deep down in the comments, which are overwhelmingly positive towards this “Slavic” song, there are some clues as to the melody’s origins, though. In 2017, one commenter wrote: “Sorry, but that is an Irish dance. I don’t exactly know its name in English, but in Russian it is called Кастарват. Google it.”

Irish? A rabbit hole beckoned and down I went, losing a few hours of work in the hunt for “Kastarvat” videos. The earliest video on YouTube with that word in its title dates from 22 October 2010. This song is played by a Ukrainian band called Дзень (which Google tells me means “Zen”), who identify it as a “Hungarian dance”, adding even more confusion.

Another clue, this time pointing to a Breton origin, surfaced in a clip from 2011 showing people dancing to Кастарват. The video’s description says the music is from a song called “Fransozig” by Breton band Tri Yann.

And, indeed, a 2007 performance by Tri Yann of the song (the video has over a million hits) does sound remarkably familiar to the “Slavic” tune that has been popularised by Ukrainian and Russian “folk” bands and the Greek “Macedonian” song that rails against Slavic historical and cultural appropriation.

Other Kastarvat videos – the song seems to be quite popular among “Celtic” folk bands in Russia and Ukraine – provide the original name of the song as Kost ar c’hoat, which French Wikipedia says is a “Breton dance”.

So there we have it: a traditional Breton song, often mistaken as Irish (pan-Celticism), which was picked up by eastern European “trad” bands only to become “Slavic” in the ears of many pan-Slavists and, most recently, by Greeks, to denounce Slavic appropriation of Greek history, becoming a new panhellenic anthem in the process.

How ironic that it ends up as the tune to a song containing the words “Don’t counterfeit”.

Grey-haired men pestering children

In Uncategorized on 13 January 2015 at 12:29 pm

Have you been wondering about those election adverts put out by political parties in recent days? Thanks to Kostas Kallergis, you can now view them with English-language subtitles. Kostas also throws in his analysis of the message they are trying to convey.

When the Crisis hit the Fan

The Greek political parties have started broadcasting their political ads and thought it might be interesting to translate some of them for (fun) you.

New Democracy (ruling party) has produced three videos so far. The first one is a desperate (in terms of acting, at least) attempt to show Antonis Samaras close to the younger generation (the majority of ND’s voters are above their 40s or even 50s).

The reference to the stadium is one more cheap attempt to attract votes of supporters of AEK Athens football club. They have been asking for a new stadium for more than a decade now and New Democracy is promising to make their dream too. I loved two details in this video.

The first one is that our PM indirectly admits that Greece, the country he has been governing for the past 2,5 years, is not a normal and serious country yet.

The second…

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A sniff at democracy

In Uncategorized on 18 December 2014 at 10:04 am

(Photo: ProtoThema.gr)

Independent MP Grigoris Psarianos appears to sniff the inside of the jacket of his colleague Rachel Makri (Photo: ProtoThema.gr)

This is a scene from the backbenches of the Greek parliament, where the government yesterday evening failed in his first attempt to have its candidate for state president elected, in a process that will likely go to another two rounds and, as is looking increasingly likely, to national elections.

The government managed to muster a mere 160 votes, twenty short of the 180 it will need to see Stavros Dimas, its presidential hopeful, ensconced in the state’s highest office. Only five MPs from outside the two coalition parties supported Dimas in the first round of voting, including independent MPs Grigoris Psarianos, Spyros Lykoudis and Christos Aidonis, who decided that the responsible thing to do for the country at this juncture was to vote with the government and prevent snap elections.

Ahead of the vote, one would think that the gravity of the situation facing the country would be playing on the minds of all MPs, especially Psarianos (a former Syriza (2007-10) and Democratic Left (2010-14) MP, now independent), Lykoudis (elected with Democratic Left in 2012, now independent and head of a new party called the Reformers) and Aidonis (elected with Pasok in 2012, independent since 2013), who, after all, are presented as paragons of responsibility who have the country’s best interests at heart, leading the way for others to follow.

But minutes before the vote, a roll-call procedure which got underway shortly after 7pm, Psarianos had other things on his mind. In this image, taken at 6.59pm, we apparently see him sniffing – yes, sniffing! – the coat of a female colleague, independent deputy Rachel Makri (who can be seen in the centre of the photo below), who had taken her seat two benches down shortly beforehand.

(Photo: TheToc.gr)

Rachel Makri (centre) wearing a light blue coat (Photo: TheToc.gr)

Holding the jacket is novelist Petros Tatsopoulos, an independent MP who was elected on a Syriza ticket in 2012, who is clearly amused. Sitting in front of Psarianos is Lykoudis. On his left is Aidonis, bursting into laughter. Joining in on the fun from across the aisle is Markos Bolaris, an independent MP who was expelled from Pasok in November 2012.

Like schoolboys in the back row of the classroom, they probably thought no one would notice, despite the intense media focus on the proceedings. But a group of men in the 50s and 60s getting a kick out of smelling an item of clothing belonging to a younger female colleague is anything but responsible parliamentary behaviour.

It’s hard to know what Psarianos was up to. Only he could tells us. As a passionate wearer of angler jackets, even in the parliamentary chamber, perhaps he’s afflicted with some kind of jacket-envy, given that he’s not that particularly well-endowed when it comes to that item of clothing.

Grigoris Psarianos speaking from the parliamentary tribune (Photo: ienimerosi.gr)

Grigoris Psarianos speaking from the parliamentary tribune (Photo: ienimerosi.gr)

In Syntagma Square : Syrian Refugees Fight Back

In Uncategorized on 10 December 2014 at 9:34 pm

The Samos Chronicles blog has produced the most comprehensive account of why Syrians are protesting on Syntagma Square. In their own words, Syrians explain why they find themselves in Greece and why they are determined to continue their journeys to their intended destinations.

The Samos Chronicles is written by Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones, emeritus professor of social policy and social work at the University of Liverpool.

Samos Chronicles


There are many aspects to the desperation which has driven the Syrian refugees to this self-organised protest. Many of them are on hunger strike. One common bond is the fear of being trapped in Greece with no money and no support. Without money to pay your way out of Greece clandestinely you face a frightening future.

Many of the Syrians who make it to Greece have some money; some have much. In many respects those in Syntagma square, are more privileged than the millions of Syrians living in the camps in Turkey or Jordan. Of the 11 million Syrians refugees today (including those internally displaced within the country as well as outside the borders) only 4% make it to Europe.

We were told many stories in the Square of people selling homes, cars and businesses to pay for the escape from Syria. But as a consequence of there being no…

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Baltakos plans new rightwing force with ‘serious’ Golden Dawn figures, claims report

In Uncategorized on 6 October 2014 at 11:56 am

Takis Baltakos and Ilias Kasidiaris

Takis Baltakos and Ilias Kasidiaris (Photo: Ethnos.gr)

Takis Baltakos, the former cabinet secretary and righthand man of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, is planning a new rightwing political force that could include “serious” figures from Golden Dawn, a Sunday newspaper has reported.

Baltakos was forced to resign in April after a video surfaced showing him engaged in what appeared to be a friendly conversation in his parliamentary office, with leading Golden Dawn MP Ilias Kasidiaris.

According to Ethnos on Sunday, Baltakos hopes to have the new party established by February at the latest. The newspaper also claims that Kasidiaris, currently in custody pending trial along with other Golden Dawn leaders on charges of running a criminal organisation, is involved in this venture.

Excluded from the party would be Golden Dawn’s leader, Nikos Michaoliakos, who, along with other Golden Dawn figures, is viewed by those planning the new entity as a liability.

Since his resignation as the most powerful official in the government, Baltakos has made no secret of his political plans. Asked in August if he will form a new party, he said that “when the time comes, everything will have been done”.

In a frank interview with To Vima in August, Baltakos, who described the Orthodox church and armed forces as “pillars of the nation”, said that it was imperative for New Democracy to swing to the right to win over the 16.5% of the electorate that lies to its extreme.

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Filming The Road to Sparta

In Uncategorized on 11 September 2014 at 11:50 am


The past and present of an ancient race dating back to 490BC is the subject of a new short film whose makers are seeking €15,000 in crowdfunding to get from the road to the silver screen.

The Road To Sparta is about four individuals, including the great ultra-endurance runner Dean Karnazes, running the 2014 Spartathlon, a 246km ultramarathon between Athens and Sparta.

Today’s Spartathlon runners are following in the path of Pheidippides, the runner sent by the Athenians to Sparta in 490BC in a bid to raise reinforcements to fight the mighty Persian army in what was to be the Battle of Marathon.

According to the historian Herodotus, he arrived in Sparta “the next day”. In 1982, an RAF officer, John Foden, set out to see if that was possible. After he and two colleagues succeeded, the Spartathlon was born the following year.

The race starts at 7am at the foot of the Acropolis and passes through Elefsina, Megara, Kineta and Corinth, on its way towards the most historic of destinations in Sparta: the feet of the statue of Leonidas, the Spartan leader who found immortality with the 300 at Thermopylae ten years after the Battle of Marathon.

The brainchild of journalist Barney Spender, the 30-minute film will not be a straightforward sports documentary “but more of an artumentary where sport meets history meets music, a film of brain, brawn and beauty”.

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Same old shit

In Uncategorized on 9 September 2014 at 11:45 am

Kostas Kallergis on the depressing and stupefying spectacle that is Nerit, the new Greek state broadcaster that replaced what the New Democracy/Pasok coalition claimed was “a symbol of corruption and waste”. Well, one year one, Nerit is a thousand times worse than ERT and the same old hiring policies are continuing.

When the Crisis hit the Fan

Lots of you have asked me why I haven’t been writing any more in the past three or four (or five?) months of this blog’s hibernation. My answer is “same old shit”. Like this one.

It’s been a bit more than a year since the government decided to suddenly close down ERT, the public broadcaster. One of the main arguments was that the government wanted to create something new, a new broadcaster without the political dependencies of the past. Today they have proved (once more) what a big fat lie that was. So here’s the story.

There’s this journalist and anchorman called Nikos Evaggelatos. NERIT, which is the brave new sister of the old corrupt ERT, announced today that it’s hiring him for a news show. Credible Typologies blog wrote that initially NERIT’s BoD was a bit wary of the deal because (wait for it…) New Democracy approved him but…

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Greek island police chief snapped giving Nazi salute

In Uncategorized on 7 September 2014 at 10:58 am

Greek police office Yiorgos Kagkalos giving a Nazi salute in a German transport museum (Photo: Ethnos)

Greek police office Yiorgos Kagkalos giving a Nazi salute in a German transport museum (Photo: Ethnos)

A photograph has emerged showing the police chief of a Greek island giving a fascist salute in front of a Nazi-era train in a German museum.

In the image, published in Ethnos on Sunday, Lieutenant Yiorgos Kagkalos, chief of police on the island of Hydra, can be seen with an outstretched right arm. Behind him, on a red locomotive, is a large Reichsadler, a stylised eagle combined with the Nazi swastika used as a national emblem in Nazi Germany.

Greek police office Yiorgos Kagkalos gives a Nazi salute in a German transport museum (Photo: Ethnos)

Greek police office Yiorgos Kagkalos gives a Nazi salute in a German transport museum (Photo: Ethnos)

According to Ethnos, the photograph was taken on 13 March 2011 when Kagkalos visited the Nuremburg Transport Museum. The train appears to resemble a Elektrolokomotive E 19 12, a model of which is kept at the museum.

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Athens police detain women who attended rehearsals for antiracism play

In Uncategorized on 3 September 2014 at 11:18 am

Photo: Steve Criddle/Flickr

Photo: Steve Criddle/Flickr

Three members of the cast of a play that deals with racism were stopped and detained by police on Monday after finishing rehearsals, despite being in possession of valid residence permits.

The three, all women, were stopped by police and asked for their papers in Keramikos, central Athens, at around 9pm, outside of the Eutopian Workshop, where the rehearsals for the play, “No to racism from the cradle”, take place.

Police at the scene, who were not wearing service numbers and refused to reveal their names, told the women and bystanders that they were detaining them because they appeared “suspicious”.

The women were then transferred, in a patrol car bearing the registration EA 20281, to the Attica aliens bureau on Petrou Ralli street, where they were detained for two hours.

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