As Bob Geldof releases his new DVD on WB Yeats, he is as forthright as ever on everything from Aung San Suu Kyi to the 1916 Rising, writes Ed Power
The freedom of Dublin is not an honour to be lightly surrendered, Bob Geldof believes. But when he felt that his name had become inextricably entwined with that of Myanmar political figure Aung San Suu Kyi he concluded that extreme measures were called for.
“I’d spoken for her — welcomed her when she arrived in Dublin,” he recalls. “I got up and sang, Bono got up and sang. I’d made a speech — I’d been a supporter. When one of your heroes is revealed to have feet of clay — or, in her case, feet of filth, you have to do something.”
As he says, Geldof was among the great and good to fete Aung San Suu Kyi when she came to Dublin in June 2012. She was presented with the Freedom of the City with Bono declaring Dublin had hosted a “great big bunfight in her honour”.
An ‘Electric Burma’ concert was dedicated to her at BGE Theatre, organised by Amnesty International and attended by figures from across the political and showbusiness spectrum.
But the world saw a different side to Aung San Suu Kyi after widely reported human rights abuses against Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority last year. Amid reports of a “genocidal” campaign directed at the Rohingya Geldof stated he would renounce his Freedom of Dublin in protest. He could not in good conscience have his name on the roll of honour alongside “this wretched person”.
The decision was controversial – with critics pointing out that he had not similarly handed back his Freedom of London, no matter that Aung San Suu Kyi had been similarly feted there (she was stripped of her Freedom of Dublin in December).
“You have to do something,” he says. “As I had done this in Dublin, sang and spoken to honour her,and Dublin could literally do no more of her. I felt... cleaner... less of a chump. It shouldn’t bother anyone else. It’s a personal response to what I did personally for that woman.”
Geldof is speaking to the Irish Examiner for the release of his 2016 TV documentary about William Butler Yeats. A Fanatic Heart provides an overview of Yeats’ life and work and, in the expanded DVD edition, includes readings of Yeats’ work by Sting, Noel Gallagher, Elvis Costello, Edna O’Brien, Bono, Van Morrison and others.
However, it also serves as intensely personal prism through which Geldof interrogates Irish history on the anniversary of the Rising and also his relationship with a country which, as an angry young man in the 1970s, he couldn’t get out of fast enough.
“I wish I could have been there when they arrived at the GPO and said, ‘What the f**k.. you know what you are doing?… let’s sit down and talk about this’,” he says.“The elders were consumed with despair and this messianic self sacrifice.”
Geldof caused calumny in 2016 when, speaking to a British newspaper, he likened the Padraig Pearse’s belief in “blood sacrifice” to the worldview of Isis suicide bombers. He remains adamant that the Rising was the “original sin” of the Irish state — from which flowed the isolationism and theocratic oppression of de Valera’s Ireland.
These aren’t just pat observations: in the documentary he has a bit of a meltdown in the GPO, raging against what the leaders of 1916 had wrought. It’s wrenching television, with Geldof, who lost his daughter Peaches to a heroin overdose when she was 24, talking about the terrible irreversibility of death — the threshold over which, once you step, there’s no going back.
“Once I’m in the fulcrum I became overwhelmed by the ghosts around me,” he says. “It’s so empty and there’s that kitsch element of it. There’s that almost gay statue of Colmcille… “
Whether or not you agreed with Geldof’s opinion of 1916, there’s something off-the-cuff, almost punk rock about the manner in which he cuts loose in the GPO. It’s the same fury he channeled into the Boomtown Rats, the mouthy late 1970s band that briefly gave U2 a run for their money as Ireland’s biggest ever musical export.
e looks back on that period of his life with obvious fondness — but also some poignancy, given that rock’n roll has lots its centrality in youth culture, supplanted largely by technology and social media.
“I never quite understood until the moment it happened that rock ’n roll would only ever be a 50 years thing. I thought it was the central spine of our culture and my life. ‘Hail hail rock’n’roll... it’s here to stay.’ Well of course, it was a function of the technology of its time.”
Geldof has long been a divisive figure in Ireland. He was a source of great pride in the 1980s, as the driving force behind Live Aid and Band Aid. Yet he never held back from critiquing the country, as made clear by Boomtown Rats 1980 single Banana Republic (“Banana Republic/Septic Isle/Suffer in the Screaming sea”). The question has often been asked: if he cared so much about Ireland why didn’t he stay, as U2 did, and try to make a difference?
“I had no choice,” he says. “When I look for work I couldn’t get any. I didn’t have the leaving, I didn’t go to university. There was nothing open to me. The unions had everything locks off. I tried to get into journalism in Rathmines — they wouldn’t have me. Even if I could have, I couldn’t have gotten a job as a journalist.
“They were closed shops. There was no ways out for me — I had to get out, along with tens of thousands of others. Culturally, the centre of the rock’n’roll world was London — it arguably still is. That’s where we had to go — so we did.”
There’s a happy ending, of sorts. Ireland of 2018 is unrecognisable from the country Geldof grew up in, he says. If anywhere fills him with unease today it is Britain in the time of Brexit
“When I go home now I’m deeply comfortable in a country with has thousands of flaws but which mainly doesn’t. I’m very uncomfortable in Brexit Britain — very very uncomfortable — and will rail against that, as I do.”
A Fanatic Heart: Bob Geldof on W.B.Yeats is out now on DVD