Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Are you Writing Much These Days?"

My father asked me that question yesterday. I replied, "I'm writing my Catholic Voice articles and my Open Door articles."

"That's not much, is it?" he asked.

It occurred to me that he was right, and that I haven't even been writing much on this blog.

The truth is, I have been in a period of withdrawal. Partly, in terms of this blog, it's because I wrote a lot of posts that expressed some of my deepest and oldest ideas, and I felt rather cleaned out in terms of blogging.

But partly it's because I've had my own struggles. This blog expresses all the things I believe in, all my ideals; but I fall miserably short of those ideals. I used to post prayer requests at difficult times, but I stopped doing it, because I felt I was worrying people. I would get concerned emails, which I always appreciated, but which made me feel bad for causing anxiety and seeking attention. (And seeking attention was exactly what I was doing.)

If I ever seem like I am sermonizing in this blog, I realize I am the last person who can afford to sermonize. Please pray for me to overcome my faults, most especially pride and fear. Or, more accurately, please pray for me to let God's grace overcome my faults.

I also want to thank everyone who's ever read this blog, and everyone who's commented, and everyone who's prayed for me. This blog has meant so much to me, especially the fact that there are no boundaries to what I can write about; the more I have pushed the boat out, the more I have been delighted that people continued to read it, and to respond. 

I cannot ever remember a time, from my earliest boyhood, when I didn't have the urge to express the things that excited my imagination in written words (and, back then, in pictures). I remember once, watching a TV programme about Def Leppard, my enthusiasm must have been so obvious that my older brother said: "Maolsheachlann will be writing about a heavy metal band called Blind Cheetah next." That's the kind of thing I did. It's so wonderful when somebody is there, on the other end, to be an audience. It makes all the difference.

So thank you, and please pray for me (as I pray for you), and don't go away-- this blog is a going concern.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Unpaid Advertisement

I had a request from to publicize their business, which makes shirts for clergy. And here is the link:

I don't know how many clerical readers I have (though I can think of at least two), but it may be of interest to some.

Now and again I get these kind of requests. I'm happy to oblige (unless I forget about it). Trying to run a business, or indeed, trying to start or pursue any (or almost any) kind of venture at all, is a laudable activity. I think it's only right to facilitate it where possible.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Ireland I Had Dreamed Of (VI)

I'd rather abandoned this series, not sure where to take it next, but recently I've been reading a book called Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-79 by Terence Brown, which suggests a few thoughts. Though really it's nothing I hadn't said already.

Brown is of the conventional school of Irish historiography that holds that the 'humanism' (to use his word) of the 1916 Rising and the Irish Literary Revival was betrayed by a narrow-minded, stultifying, conservative establishment after the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922.

I can't agree with this. I believe that the vision (cultural, rather than political) of the Irish Free State was exactly what the Irish people, as a whole, had been seeking during the struggle for independence. I believe it was a fine vision, and I'm sorry it was abandoned.

I'm not going to comment too much on the economic aspect. Brown believes that the first governments of the new State were excessive in their determination to balance the books and limit public spending. This may be the case. Certainly, their slowness in tackling the overcrowding problem in Dublin-- where, as Brown points out, there were 22,915 families living in one room dwellings-- seems lamentable. He admits that there was some anxiety about whether the new State would be economically or politically viable, and that the new rulers were entirely unused to holding the reins of government and were understandably cautious. But think of all those people living out either the best years of their lives, or the last years of their lives, in such overcrowding. (Children, on the other hand, tend to be more buoyant, and most of them would have encountered better conditions later on.)

Personally I am in favour of pretty extensive government spending. I don't think microeconomics and macroeconomics are the same, and I think a government has much more latitude than private individuals and private companies in running up debts and borrowing. There are many parts of the world, like Germany and Scandinavia, that seem to have high levels of public spending and do just fine. As for Greece, in my recent reading of Evelyn Waugh's diary, I came across an entry from the 1920's where Waugh complained that it was always a bank holiday in Greece and nobody did any work, so I think that their problems are very long in the making.

And that's as much as I am going to say about economics-- aside from the admission that the Irish economic and social model of the time seems to have been dependent on enormous levels of emigration, and that economic modernization probably should have happened sooner rather than later-- a primarily agricultural country, where most of the farms were small and where inheritance generally went to the eldest son, didn't have a whole lot to do with the other kids (and though there was a great deal of celibacy in Ireland at this time, those who did marry had significantly bigger families than was the case in other countries).

But my whole argument is that economic modernization did not necessarily demand cultural 'modernization'. 

Brown seems to think otherwise:

"In the 1920s, it was the notion of the virtuous countryman that writers, artists and commentators accepted as the legacy of the Literary Revival period, rather than the heroic aristocratic figures of the mythological cycles. A vision of rustic dignity and rural virtue was popularized in speeches, poems, play and paintings...patriotic writers had produced countless poems in which peasants and farmers had appeared not to reveal human possibility but to exhibit the unspoiled simplicity of the essential Irish who for many centuries had endured the ravages of climate and opppression. Poems of this kind had exploited essential properties, such as the bog, hazel trees, currachs, the hearth, primitive cooking utensils, ploughing, sowing, and rough weather, employing a verse technique that owed its simple repetitions and structure to folk-song...They celebrated a vision of Irish pastoral, when rural life was a condition of virtue in as much as it remained an expression of an ancient civilization, uncontaminted by commercialism and progress.

The social reality of the countryside was more dynamic, unheroic, hardly bucolic, and involved in change in ways which were to disrupt in entirely...."

Brown actually admits that this traditional country life remained intact to a great degree, but then adds that the Irish countryman was "ready to use horse-driven threshing machines, prepared to experiment with steam, and in the 1930's he began to welcome the tractor, which would render the agricultural labourer increasingly redundant, into his rural world. By the 1920s the countryman had willingly accepted mass produced articles of clothing, boots and shoes....the bicycle had introduced a new mobility to the Irish countryside and life in the long dark winters was made more agreeable by the widespread use of commercially produced paraffin oil lamps which replaced the traditional rushlights."

Well, there you go. Farmers started using tractors and so pastoral became obsolete.

Does this strike you, as it strikes me, as being rather silly? Are the arts required to keep perfectly abreast of social change? Or are they not inherently selective?

It seems to me that the same argument would apply to any social ideal. I don't read any modern Irish literature or modern Irish poetry (because I don't read any modern literature or modern poetry full stop), but I see from the colour supplements in the broadsheets, and from advertising, and from various other sources, that twenty-first century Ireland holds up an imaginative ideal of itself that is every bit as unreal as the agrarian vision Brown complains about. For instance, in newspaper articles and in advertising I am always reading about wild office Christmas parties where a great deal of seduction and letting off steam and interpersonal bonding goes on. (And it's always office parties, because apparently everybody works in an office.)  I've been to lots of office Christmas parties (or library Christmas parties, anyway); they've always been pleasantly dull affairs.

Similarly, all the literature and journalism and advertising of our era-- in Ireland and elsewhere-- seems to suggest that most people are sexual promiscuous, whereas (from what I can tell) very few people are actually sexually promiscuous. 

You get the point I'm making. All art, all social aspiration, tends to be somewhat unrealistic. I would further say that every social vision tends to romanticize either tradition or change. Personally, I am all for romanticizing tradition. To some extent, surely, it must help preserve that which it romanticizes.

But the part of the book which really excited me-- I found it so moving, I was quite overpowered-- was the section about the idealization of Ireland's West coast. As you can imagine, it excited me in a way that Brown did not intend.

The West of Ireland at this time was seen as the bastion of unpolluted 'Irishness'. The biggest Gaeltacht areas (the term for an area where Irish is actually spoken as the language of the people) was in the West, as are the Blasket and Aran islands-- islands where a very traditional way of life survived, and which were a fashionable subject for artists and dramatists and poets during the Gaelic Revival. (Biographies by some of the actual islanders, in Irish, also became popular).

Brown quotes this very interesting account of a visit to the West from the Irish writer Séan Ó Faoláin, which seems very typical of the self-conscious artist's horror of all things romantic and populist:

 It was like taking off one's clothes for a swim naked in some mountain-pool. Nobody who has not had this sensation of suddenly 'belonging' somewhere-- of finding the lap of the lost mother-- can understand what a release the discovery of Gaelic ireland means to modern Ireland. I know that not for years and years did I get free of this heavenly bond of an ancient, lyrical, permanent, continuous immemorial self, symbolized by the lonely mountains, the virginal lakes, the traditional language, the simple, certain, uncomplex modes of life, that world of the lost childhood of my race where I, too, became for a while eternally young.

Now, what was Ó Faoláin so afraid of? Why spurn something like that? I can understand the restlessness of the artist, the desire to break out of a box, the need for new horizons and new subject-matter. But need there be a conflict? Does it have to be all or nothing, every artist and poet and novelist restricting himself or herself to writing about the Blasket islands, or all serious artists discarding the theme completely? Is there not an infinity of ways such an ideal can be featured in art, in the same way that Christian art has found an infinitity of ways to meditate on the Cross and the Resurrection and the scenes of the gospel and the lives of the saints? Can it not inform urban and 'modern' life, as well as rural life?

And if some artists had an allergic reaction to this, and had to let their imagination roam free in some completely different atmosphere, did artists as a whole have to rebel?

And if artists had to rebel, why should the people rebel?

Indeed, the people never did really rebel. To a great extent, the myth of the West and of a primordial Irishness remained popular, in advertisements and tourism and popular art and in all the things aesthetes disdain.

I've never been to the Aran Islands (the Blasket Islands are now uninhabited). I'm not personally particularly keen on literature and art from the West of Ireland. But I do cherish the kind of idyll that found its fullest expression there, and I think there was no need to assume it was played out or stale or obsolete. I could easily imagine hanging paintings of West of Ireland landscapes in my home or office.

Terence Brown himself shows an almost amusing fear of the West's hypnotic power as the cradle of the race:

"In the 1920's a number of literary works were published which attempted a more realistic treatment of the western island and the Gaeltacht, in a tradition that had begun with the short stories of the Irish language writer Pádraic O'Conaire and Seumus O'Kelly. Novels such as Peadar O'Donnell's Islanders (1928) and Adrigoole (1929) and Liam O'Flaherty's Thy Neighbour's Wife (1923) are works therefore not of romantic discovery but essays in rural naturalism and social criticism..."

And yet! "In both O'Donnell and O'Flaherty's writings there are passages of epic writing therefore which obtrude in their realistic settings. At such moments class politics and social analysis give way before an apprehension of the west as a place of fundamentally natural forces, of human figures set passively or heroically against landscapes of stone, rock and sea in a way that makes their work less radical than they perhaps thought they were. There is implicit therefore in their writings a sense that Gaelic Ireland in the west is the authentic heroic Ireland in a way that confirms rather than contradicts the conventional image of the west as 'certain set apart'. The power of this conventional image was perhaps so great that it affected as intelligent a social commentator as Peadar O'Donnell and overwhelmed the turbulent anger of Liam O'Flaherty's social criticism. "

On the next page, Brown quotes what seems like a most erudite insight from 'an English visitor':

The West is different. Its spirit was used by the intellectuals in the late struggle [for national independence] but it was never theirs'. It seems to come from some primitive elemental force which smoulders on, like a turf fire, long after such movements have spent themselves. It is a permanent factor to the existence of which no Irish statesman can safely shut his eyes.

Indeed, this 'primitive elemental force' has haunted Ireland-- intellectual included-- long after it was supposedly debunked. Certainly Irish artists have never found an equivalent matrix of images and ideals.

I think the human imagination is drawn instinctively to something timeless, to folklore and 'elemental energies', to some kind of dignified simplicity. Personally, I find this in the practice of the Catholic faith. I am a Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true; but I do think that, in the rhythms of the liturgy and the rosary, and the cycles of the liturgical calendar, and the treasury of saint stories, and the timeless unity of Catholic life, I also find what artists and tourists and so many others sought in the West of Ireland.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Weird Appetites

Today I found myself thinking about something that I've often thought about in the past, but that recent circumstances have given me particular cause to ponder. And that is, how bizarrely specific our appetites and desires and inclinations can be.

When I say "recent circumstances", I mean my own experience, as this has happened to me quite a lot in recent weeks.

The first strange hankering I want to mention concerns the American show The Office. (After Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, which I tend to lump together as one show, this is my favourite television programme. I'm not sure I can even yield the supremacy to Star Trek. I like them in different ways.)

There is one excellent episode of The Office called 'Business Trip'. (The scriptwriters of The Office had a difficult time spinning storylines out of such a restrictive set-up, which was simply the life of a paper merchants and its employees. They often stretched the premise too far into wackiness. But 'Business Trip' is pleasingly simple, and it's hard to believe that it took them five seasons to use the storyline of a business trip.)

The story-line of 'Business Trip' involves Michael Scott (the office manager and central character of the show, played by Steve Carrell) and two other characters (Andy, a preppy salesman who is engaged to one of the office accountants) and Oscar (a gay, Mexican accountant) all going on a business trip to Winnipeg in November. Michael is boyishly excited about the trip, but it doesn't turn out to be very exciting.

(David Wallace, their CEO, mentions at one point that: "It's pretty tough to find somebody who wants to go up to Winnipeg mid-November." The lack of glamour in the business trip and its location is a big theme of the episode. This is part of what I find appealing; as I mentioned a few times previously, I like all things provincial. I don't know if Winnipeg is 'provincial', but you know what I mean.)

The scene that excited me particularly was one involving Andy and Oscar. They visit a local bar, one that is portrayed as being not particularly excitin
g. They get drunk and Oscar starts asking Andy what he can possibly see in his fiancee. Andy mentions that they haven't yet had sex (and in a modern comedy, of course, two engaged people remaining chaste is seen as bizarre-- though Oscar does ask, "Are you guys waiting to be married?" and Andy says: "Honestly, I don't know what we're waiting for!", so at least the concept of premarital chastity is acknowledged). Oscar drunkenly persuades Andy to phone his fiancée and ask her to explain herself, which he does.

It's a reasonably funny scene, and quite a sweet episode. (As Andy says at the end: "I had to go all the way to Canada to get to know a guy who sits twenty feet away from me".) But the point of my story is that, weeks after watching this episode, I suddenly found it coming into my mind over and over again. It was the pub/club/bar atmosphere that excited me. It had been a lon
g time, a record time, since I'd been in any drinking spot.

Then, one evening, on a bus that was passing through the suburb of Phibsborough in Dublin, I looked at a particular pub and thought: "I'd really like to visit a pub, just to be in one." The desire grew and grew, and I hopped off the bus a few stops later, and went looking for a suitable tavern.

But the point is, I couldn't find one. I'd gone too far into the suburbs. There was only one rather sleepy suburban pub, full of regulars-- the kind of pub I would usually prefer. But that scene from The Office had got into my head and I wanted a pub that wasn't sleepy, and that wasn't full of regulars-- something with a bit of animation, just like the pub in the scene, and where there would be a flow of different and new people (not that I intended to talk to any of them).

Eventually, I satisfied my craving by visiting a local hotel lounge. It was on a Saturday morning, but there were lots of people there from the nearby hotel, so it wasn't just regulars.

What I really wanted was to visit a bar in Winnipeg in November, on a business trip.

More recently, I became completely fascinated with the idea of days. Yes, days. It's something I've written about on this blog several times, though I've always struggled to express what I mean exactly. I'm fascinated by the fact that human life is divided into days. I'm fascinated by their texture, their pulse, how they are remembered. I'm always fascinated to hear people talk about particular stretches of their lives ("I spent three days in bed with the curtains closed...I tramped the streets for a week...we spent a month discussing the idea...") The past imperfect thrills me.

So I suddenly wanted to read a good diary. But every diary I contemplated reading seemed to lack what I was looking for. What about the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, the naval secretary who witnessed the Great Fire of London and whose diary is a goldmine of seventeenth century social history, as well as a much-lauded work of art? I'd tried reading it before, and there was a little bit too much bureaucracy and statecraft for my liking. Besides,  it was so old-- I wanted something more recent, so that I could relate to it better. The diary of his contemporary John Evelyn was out for the same reason.

Some of the diaries I came across were first-hand accounts of important moments in history; diaries by senior politicians, for instance. But I didn't want anything so specialised, or so dramatic. I didn't want war, or high politics, or expeditions in far off lands. The craving I felt was for the whole rich tapestry of life; dull days, busy days, sick days, red letter days, dark days, holidays, and every other sort of day. I wanted a diary that had as much of the mundane as the picturesque; more of the mundane, for preference.

So how about The Diary of a Country Parson, by James Woodforde, who died in 1803, and who lived a rather uneventful and routine existence? It's had fans since it was published in 1924. However, I found Woodforde's rather plodding account of dinners and expenditures and other daily incidents to be a bit too plain and lacking in reflection or introspection.

Next I tried the diaries and letters of John Henry Newman. The university where I work, University College Dublin, is the descendant of the Catholic University that John Henry Newman founded (though he only really got it started, before trouble from the Irish bishops forced him to leave). This fact, and the mere fact that it was the first dedicated Catholic university in Ireland, means that we have a huge amount of Newman material in the library, including a complete run of his collected diaries and letters-- over thirty volumes. (Newman kept everything.) I started on the first volume, knowing in my heart that there was no chance I would read them all, but rather taken with the idea of doing so. (I always love the idea of going off the beaten track.)

I managed to keep it up for almost a whole volume. Newman was certainly more stimulating company than the Rev. Woodforde, and lived life at a higher pitch, both intellectually and spiritually. was a bit too high of a pitch. Newman lived a life of heroic dedication, and it's rather exhausting even to read about.

Besides, he wasn't much of a diarist. He jotted down the events of the day, but he didn't expand upon them. The meat of the volume was much more in the letters than the diary, and these were indeed much more of a chronicle of his reactions, anxieties, hopes, impressions, and all the other things we expect from a diary, than was his diary proper. But even here, the obliqueness of the thing became frustrating. I was always pleased to come across a letter to his mother or one of his sisters, where he tended to pour out his heart, but one might just as easily find oneself wading through a long and dry correspondence with some distant acquaintance.

I gave up on diaries for a few days, reading a book about Shakespeare instead, but the hunger overtook me again. And I seemed to have found exactly what I was looking for when I discovered Evelyn Waugh had kept a diary for most of his life. (He destroyed some parts of it, but most of his life is represented.) And even better-- it was much more than just a record of events. He put down his thoughts and ideas and reactions and emotions, too. This seemed like the jackpot. And he was a Catholic, to boot!

But even here, I felt frustrated. It was pretty good as long as he was at public school (for my American readers, this means a private boarding school; they feature heavily in much English writing and many English memoirs of the time, but Waugh was-- as the introduction pointed out-- pretty much the only writer to keep a diary of the experience as it happened.) But then he goes to Oxford-- he destroyed his Oxford diaries, probably because of homosexual experiences recorded in them-- and graduates to a boozy and party-filled young adult life that, despite the presence of many eminent friends, is surprisingly tedious to read about. In fact, the most interesting passages are the ones where he is working as a teacher in a rather obscure school. Too much freedom, I have always noticed, makes everything dull.

I was looking forward to his conversion to Catholicism, which came after his career as a novelist took off, and after the failure of his first marriage (all of these events are missing from the diaries themselves, since he also destroyed this sequence). Unfortunately, when the curtain rises on his successful years, his diary persona becomes blasé and cynical and impersonal (as the volume's editor admits), and the entries are shorter and less heartfelt. I jumped a decade and more, to the end of World War Two; then, when I found him bitterly listing his low opinions of his own children, I gave up on Waugh.

And on diaries, too, at least for the moment. My trawl through them had partly satisfied my hunger, and partly convinced me that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. Perhaps I had been too influenced by fictional diaries, like The Diary of Adrian Mole (a favourite in my early twenties) and The Diary of a Nobody (a perennial favourite, and my candidate for the funniest novel in the English language). Or perhaps I had learned that the diary of a real somebody is less interesting than the diary of a fictional nobody.

My final strange appetite is the most recent, and the mildest. As I was reading that book about Shakespeare that I mentioned, I found myself (not for the first time) becoming infatuated with the title The Winter's Tale. I think it's one of the most evocative titles ever; and perhaps thinking about it at the height of summer (though it's not very summery in Ireland right now) adds to its charm.

I recently offered readers an "e-book" (i.e., Word file) collection of my poetry entitled While The Wind Howls on a Winter's Night. The title comes from this verse:

In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.

I have to admit I'm pretty proud of that line. I quote it now to try to explain what magic I find in the title The Winter's Tale. (Not that it's needed, I'm sure. I mentioned in a recent post a Youtube video of old Irish ads that I was watching over and over. One is for a sherry called A Winter's Tale, and it seemed to be evoking the same kind of idyll.)

I'd already read throu
gh A Winter's Tale not long ago, motivated by the same fascination;  I liked it well enough, being a product of Shakespeare's later mellow and dreamy phase. But I like The Tempest better, for the same reason. All the same, I found myself seeking out another edition of The Winter's Tale, purely for the sake of the title. I would, I told myself, read the introduction at least. By the time I had finished the introduction (thoroughly enjoying it), I was already interested in something else....

Yeats once wrote:

Hands, do what you're bid;

Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

 Should that be my attitude too (though Yeats himself is obviously ambivalent in this poem)? Or should I let these fancies flow freely? One way or the other, I think the mind's tendency to suddenly be attracted to a bizarrely specific idea is quite fascinating.

And more that fascinating; I think that it is very often the seed for works of art and other enterprises. I'm very interested in the creative process, and it's amazing how often a song or a film or a book grows out of one image, one character, or one atmosphere. I also think that a person's philosophy of life very often has such a genesis; something speaks to that person's depths, in such a way that it influences their entire lives, and it can very often be something as madly specific as the things I list here.

Monday, August 3, 2015


This is a poem I wrote years ago, when I was an agnostic (if not an atheist). I obviously wouldn't stand over all the sentiments now, especially the assertions of cosmic meaningless. I don't think I'd really agree that "the people who order a shape to their lives, have ice where their eyes should be, use words like knives" etc. (Then again, it wasn't me saying it. It was the honey-haired teacher. That is the good thing about writing poetry from the point of view of a character; you can always distance yourself from its content. Frankly, I can't remember if I would have agreed to all this back then or not).

I think this is one of my better poems from back in the day. Maybe because it has ideas in it. I like ideas to be dealt with directly in a work of art-- explicity. If you are going to have a novel with a religious theme, for instance, let's have actual discussions about religion in it, rather than the religious themes being approached solely through metaphor, symbolism and dramatisation. Perhaps it is more artistic to be oblique, but it's also tiresome.

The themes of this poem have been much on my mind lately. I still rejoice in the wildness of life, even if I no longer believe that "the cosmos is chaos".


A little boy piecing a picture together
Confined to the class-room in wintry weather.
The honey-haired teacher looks on him, and dreams
Of boys that grow up, and their infinite schemes:

Stop trying to make a mosaic of it;
A thousand pieces, and none of them fit.
Thousands of days, and a handful remembered,
The picture you started with scrambled, dismembered.

The people who order a shape to their lives
Have ice where their eyes should be, use words like knives,
Are spooked by their own dreams, enraged at delay,
And know no third option to growth and decay.
Their soul is a timetable, hopes are a plan,
And they end up exactly the way they began;
A purpose incarnate, not woman, not man.

The cosmos is chaos; the stars do not dance
To any grand tune but the music of chance.
But chance is not everything. Some kind of choice
Is ours, and all things are not spinning of dice.
Words have many meanings, and still they must fail
To capture the essence of life’s much-told tale
For essence there is none; no ultimate why,
Just a madness of stars in a meaningless sky.

But finish your jigsaw; a world of its own.
Outside is the world of the vast and unknown
A little bit vaster and less known for you
But only a little. Do what we all do—
Built delicate webs in the infinite space,
A moment of time and a corner of place,
And fill them with voices and faces you know.

But always remember your mirror will show
A face back to you that will always seem strange;
The soul is a kingdom we cannot arrange.
And when sleep arrives, you must leave what you’ve made
And enter that wilderness, rapt and afraid,
All order forgotten, all purpose betrayed.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Chesterton and Ireland

A comment from Roger Buck on my series of posts about an ideal Ireland-- in which he wondered about the Chesterbelloc's connection to Ireland-- has led me to repost this little talk I gave to our Chesterton Society five years ago. For some reason the italics stopped working about half-way through, so that's why book titles are unitalicized:

Since this is the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland, there could be hardly a subject more appropriate than Chesterton and Ireland. Unfortunately the subject is a vast one, and far beyond my capacities, so all I can offer here is a few observations.

Ireland played an important role in Chesterton’s life. His most famous literary creation, the detective-priest father Brown, was based upon an Irish Catholic priest, Father John O’Connor—the very priest who received Chesterton into the Catholic Church in 1922. The ceremony took place in a shed with a corrugated tin roof, since Battersea—where Chesterton lived—had no Catholic Church of its own.

Another Irishman who played an important part in Chesterton’s life was George Bernard Shaw, who was an intellectual opponent and a much-esteemed friend. Chesterton and Shaw admired each other immensely, though they disagreed on almost every subject imaginable. Shaw said of Chesterton: “He was a man of colossal genius.” Chesterton said of Shaw: “ It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

W.B. Yeats was another Irish writer who Chesterton admired immensely and often quoted, often in passing and without attribution—which is surely the best form of tribute to any writer. He described him as “by far the greatest poet who has written in English for decades”.

And to borrow the title of one Yeats’s works, it may be argued that Chesterton viewed Ireland as 'the land of heart’s desire'. Ireland was, it may be said, an embodiment of everything he admired—it was a piously Catholic country, it was a land of small farmers that had been relatively untouched by industrialisation and big business, and it was small.

To take the first point first. Chesterton had a love of smallness that is a running motif throughout all his work. In probably his greatest book, the little volume of apologetics called Orthodoxy, he complains of those scientifically-minded secularists who rhapsodise about the size of the universe, saying:

These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

In his much-admired novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—incidentally, this was said to be a book that Michael Collins admired—he evokes a London divided into tiny principalities, and his pleasure in describing the flags and heraldry and cermonies they employ is obvious. He was a staunch defender of the family, and a lifelong enemy of Imperialism. One of his famous tropes was the story of St. George fighting the dragon. His famous long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, describes the battle of King Alfred against the Danes. It is perhaps significant that this occurred at a time when Christian England had shrunk to a portion of the country, the rest of it occupied by the Danelaw of the pagans. It is irreverent to suppose that Chesterton secretly wished to trim a dozen or counties so from the edges of England, but he was a lifelong Little Englander—in the best sense of that term—and he was opposed to the Empire not only for the oppression it inflicted on other peoples, but for the unwelcome grandeur and pomp it bestowed on his own country. To Chesterton, the true England was the England of Chaucer, not the England of Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt. It should be remembered that his opposition to Imperialism, which we presume would be de rigeur to an intellectual, came at a time when British Imperialism was highly respectable amongst the cultured classes—even progressive writers like Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw often supported imperialism, seeing it as a step towards the collectivism of their dreams.

Chesterton came to prominence during the Boer War, when he went against the current of national opinion—both the Liberal and Conservative parties, along with most intellectuals, supported the war. Chesterton, an unknown young journalist at the time, hated the jingoism and triumphalism that the war unleashed amongst the English people. He believed that moneyed interests had driven England to go to war against the South African republics. The parallels with Anglo-Irish history are obvious—and it should also be noted that Chesterton was raised in a liberal family who would have been firm supporters of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule.
This love of smallness might seem in contradiction to the second aspect of Ireland that Chesterton admired—its Catholicism. Catholicism is anything but a minority faith, and Protestant England could successfully pose for many centuries as St. George against the Dragon of Catholic Europe.

Even though Chesterton, as I have mentioned, did not convert to the Catholic Church until 1922—when he was forty-eighy years old, and after about two decades of championing Christianity against all comers—all of his works are so Catholic in tone that Catholic readers might be surprised to realize that his road to Rome stretched so long. He had a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which his biographer and Maisie Ward described as “chronic”, writing odes to her even in his Unitarian boyhod. He was an outspoken admirer of England’s medieval and pre-Reformation past.

When he first became a Christian, Chesterton assumed a position much like C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”. In Orthodoxy, written in 1908, he wrote: "These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed.”

But that question is inescapable, and it seems surprising that so bold a thinker as Chesterton remained an Anglican, since all his instincts seemed to propel him towards the Catholic Church. There has been almost as much speculation on the reasons for this hesitation as there has been on Hamlet’s tardiness in bumping off his uncle. Many say that the principal reason was his beloved wife Frances’s Anglo-Catholicism; Chesterton feared his conversion would grieve her. In fact, she followed him into the Church some years later (entirely on her own initative, she insisted). Another reason given is that Chesterton—who for all his willingness to castigate his home country, even writing a book titled the Crimes of England, was passionately patriotic—considered Catholicism to be an unEnglish religion. (If we find this a rather feeble reason, we may note that the English writer Peter Hitchens, whose recent book The Rage Against the God has been well-reviewed in Catholic circles, has given much the same reason for remaining an Anglican, despite his dissatisfaction with the modernising spirit in Anglicanism.)

In any case, the point is that even before his eventual conversion, Chesterton was an essentially Catholic writer, and here is another fascination that Ireland held for him. But it wasn’t just the majority denomination of Ireland that appealed to him. It was the piety of the people. All his life Chesterton praised and appealed to the common man above all cliques and elites—one of his anthologies of essays even bears the title The Common Man. But he was well aware that the common man in England was, already by the time he was writing, not a practicing Christian. The common man of Ireland, on the contrary, was.
In his critical study of Chaucer, Chesterton lamented this difference between medieval England and modern England—a degeneration from an objective, public religion held by all to a subjective, private religion held by some. He wrote:

"This is perhaps the deepest difference between medieval and modern life, and the difference is so great that many never imagine it, because it is impossible to describe it. We may even say that the modern world is more religious, because the religious are more religious….But we may be practically certain that if there is a modern man like the Miller of the Reeve, he has not got any religion at all. He certainly would not go on a religious pilgrimage, or perform any religious duty at all…the modern problem is more and more the problem of keeping the company together at all; and the company was kept together because it was going to Canterbury."

However, in 1932, Chesterton attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and witnessed a living display of popular piety. In a slim volume on the subject, titled Christendom in Dublin, he wrote:

"Nobody who was been in Dublin for a week as I have been during the Eucharistic Congress can doubt that Ireland is passionately religious; and especially that the Irish populace is passionately religious….Nobody who has lived in England all his life, as I have lived in England, can doubt that modern England, with its many manly and generous virtues, has become largely indifferent to religion."

In his book on George Bernard Shaw, he could write, in the same vein::

"The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth."

How melancholy it is to read those words today, and feel the transformation that has occurred.

The third characteristic of Ireland that endeared it to Chesterton was its preponderance of small farms. We are so used to seeing this aspect of Ireland’s history satirised, as a source of greed, loneliness and narrow-mindedness—for instance, in The Field by John B. Keane—that it might be surprising to learn that Chesterton, along with many of his contemporaries, hailed it as the ideal economic system. For many years he edited The Distributist Review. The philosophy of distributism was sometimes compressed into the slogan “three acres and a cow” for every citizen. It was as hostile to big business as it was to socialism, and advocated the widest distributism of property feasible. In his book Irish Impressions, Chesterton describes travelling down a road in the North-West of the country, and noticing that the harvest on the right side of the road, which consisted of small farms, was neatly gathered, while the harvest on the left side of the road, a large modern estate, was “rotting in the rain”. He wrote:

"Now I do, as a point of personal opinion, believe that the right side of the road was really the right side of the road. That is, I believe it represented the right side of the question; that these little pottering peasants had got hold of the true secret, which is missed both by Capitalism and Collectivism."

But Chesterton’s solicitude for Ireland when further than mere admiration. As a patriotic Englishman, he admitted to a sense of vicarious guilt when it came to England’s past in Ireland. In his essay “Paying for Patriotism”, which argues that a patriot should feel shame for his country’s misdeeds as well as pride in its achievements, he ironically wrote:

"It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered."

But for all Chesterton’s generosity towards the Irish, he was not an uncritical admirer of this country’s political and intellectual life. One notion that drew his satire was the cult of the Celt, which was very fashionable at the time he was writing. In Celts and Celtophiles, he wrote:

"It is impossible to hear without impatience of the attempt so constantly made among her modern sympathizers to talk about Celts and Celticism. Who were the Celts? I defy anybody to say. Who are the Irish? I defy any one to be indifferent, or to pretend not to know. Mr. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish genius who has appeared in our time, shows his own admirable penetration in discarding altogether the argument from a Celtic race. But he does not wholly escape, and his followers hardly ever escape, the general objection to the Celtic argument."
To Chesterton, a nation was a spiritual entity, while a race was merely a pesudo-scientific construct.

Considering Chesterton’s sympathy with Irish national opinion, it might be a surprise to learn that his longest Irish-themed book, Irish Impressions, published in 1919, drew on Chesterton’s attemps to recruit Irish men into the British Army during the Great War. Chesterton was an enthusiastic supporter of World War One, and remained one until his death. Given Ireland’s massive hostility towards conscription, it is perhaps indicative of Chesterton’s popularity in Ireland that he was treated, as his book shows, with courtesy.

Chesterton himself described the idea of Irish conscription as “rank raving madness”; and yet he still appealed to the Irish to volunteer in what he say as a defence of European civilization. He wrote: “If the Irish were what Cromwell thought they were, they might well confine their attention to Hell and Connaught, and have no sympathy to spare for France. But if the Irish are what Wolfe Tone thought they were, they must be interested in France, as he was interested in France. In short, if the Irish are barbarians, they need not trouble about other barbarians sacking the cities of the world; but if they are citizens, they must trouble about the cities that are sacked”. Even today, despite the best efforts of historical revisionism, I think this is an argument that would find few sympathizers in Ireland.

He described the Easter Rising in the same book as “a black and insane blunder”, since the Irish had attacked the British Empire at the one moment when its cause happened to be just. “Does anybody”, he wrote, “want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side of the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten?”. Considering the verdict of history on World War One, we may now find a rather bitter irony in the rhetorical question.

But, like all great authors, Chesterton is doomed to be reduced to a handful of familiar quotations; and of all the books and articles he wrote upon Ireland, all that seems certain to endure is the puckish quatrain from the Ballad of the White Horse;

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (V)

At this point, as I launch into my third post on cultural and social nationalism, readers could be excused for getting frustrated. The title of this series is The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of, and here I am still probing the philosophy of nationalism. Why the heck don't I just write about what sort of cultural nationalism I would like to see, in its concrete particulars?

Well, I will get to that. And the truth is partly that my subject escaped from me, and that I got carried away. But it's also the case that, when it comes to nationalism (for want of a better word, and I have been struggling to know what word to use throughout) I care less about the concrete particulars than I do about the basic attitude. My ideal is an Ireland with a particular attitude towards its own national identity, and how that attitude then manifests itself is not that important to me.

My central question might be, how prominently should national identity loom in our collective consciousness? How much of our attentions should it occupy?

And my answer is: not that much. Not really. A very small percentage. I see it as something that is mostly in the background.

But I do think it should occupy some of our attention, and on a fairly regular basis. I think there are two basic attitudes to national identity, amongst those who think it matters at all. It's the same as the two attitudes to language amongst lexicographers. That is, there is a descriptive attitude, and a prescriptive attitude.

The descriptive attitude-- which is the fashion amongst lexicographers when it comes to language, and also amongst sociologists and cultural studies professors when it comes to national identity-- is that national identity is simply what it is. It's there. It is, in a way, as impersonal and matter-of-fact as the weather. It's something that has to be taken into account when formulating public health policy and business plans, or interpreting social trends. We might celebrate it or deplore it, but it is what it is.

The prescriptive attitude is one that seeks to preserve and shape national identity. It has a concerned attitude, rather than a scientific attitude. This, of course, is my attitude.

(Of course, these are both extremes, and most people are neither one nor the other entirely. Cultural studies professors, for instance, may be very open in their attitudes to language change or cuisine, but they will definitely be very prescriptive when it comes to political correctness, where this comes into conflict with some national characteristic-- as it often does, since political correctness tends to homogenize everything. And even the most totalitarian cultural nationalist could hardly have a programme for everything.)

How prescriptive should we be? How prescriptive can we be?

Once again, I don't think we can be all that prescriptive.

A nation is something intrinsically anarchic. Come to think of it, human society in general is intrinsically anarchic. Human nature is anarchic. Life is anarchic.

I can think of so many illustrations of this anarchism. Stepping into a back garden that has been neglected for a while is one that is particularly vivid. The sheer tropical abundance of the weeds and nettles is startling. When did they spring up? They grow so quickly, it seems silly you can't actually see them growing as you look. It's as though they do it when your back is turned. And then there are the critters crawling, creeping, hopping, and sliding all around you, blithely indifferent that this is somebody's property. And that spade that's leaning against the back of the house, how is there rust on it already? And that chocolate bar wrapper that must have blown in through the gate, how are the dyes faded on it already so that it is almost white?

I could almost write a whole article (or a poem) about this phenomenon, life's tendency to surprise us with its own abundance. History and experience, custom and memory, pile up far quicker than we expect them to. I don't want all my illustrations to suggest entropy and decay and wilderness. This applies as much to production and achievement as it does to decline and fall. It's like the moment when you realise you've gone from being a neophyte at some activity to being something of an old hand at it.

(Or take the internet. When did the internet cease to be new? When did everybody get an email address? When did 'cyberspace' cease to have a futuristic sound-- insofar as anyone says it at all? It just seemed to happen one night, while we all slept.)

Life is an anarchy, and the last thing that any nation can be is an intentional community (the academic term used for hippy communes and utopian societies and the like).

The twentieth century, as we never cease to be reminded, saw the catastrophic failure of social engineering on a grand scale. Italian fascism and Nazi Germany tried to legislate all social and cultural activity. (The Nazis called this Gleichshaltung, a word that appeals to me, and that means 'coordination'.) Marxist regimes, along with social and cultural engineering, tried to bring about a 'command economy', whose disastrous failure we all know about.

W.B. Yeats, who was intrigued by Italian fascism at the beginning, eventually rejected it decisively with the withering comment: "Only dead sticks can be tied into convenient bundles." (The term 'fascism' comes from the 'fasces', a bundle of wooden rods which signify discipline and control.)

My argument would be that there has been an over-reaction to the failure of these regimes, that the stigma of fascism or communism or totalitarianism now hangs over every aspiration towards collective identity, or every appeal to collective identity.

I like liberal democracy. I like its messiness. I like its "incorrigibly plural" nature. I like its tendency to give rise to sub-cultures and factions and fads and every sort of eccentricity. I don't want a suffocating sameness.

But I think there is room for shared identity and for pluralism. And I'm not talking about a watered-down, minimalistic, 'civic patriotism'-- which seems to me a contradiction in terms.

The only sort of patriotism that interests me is a patriotism that is particular, that is rooted in particular traditions and memories and associations.

As I said earlier, I think it should be something that is mostly in the background-- like the weather, or like Christmas.

In my ideal Ireland, Irishness would matter to the vast majority of the Irish people. Not all of them. I would not want a society devoid of determined cosmopolitans, or of the sort of people who are so besotted with some other culture that they identify with it, or indeed of ethnic minorities. In my ideal Ireland, however, there would be little support for the idea that minorities should be perpetually resentful of the majority, or that the majority (or the State) should be inhibited from celebrating national culture at the risk of excluding minorities. That's all nonsense.

Of course, some people would be more exercised about Irishness than others, and most people would get hotter and colder about it at different times, and the nation as  whole would go through similar phases. But there would always be a background commitment to cultural and social nationalism-- one that would be several notches higher than what we have today. (Though, since I started writing these posts, I've been noticing that there is rather more of it about than I usually think.)

The analogy with Christmas is a good one in this regard. Some people are Christmas nuts, others are rather dutiful about Christmas, other people are madly enthusiastic about it some years and dutiful about it other years, but nearly everybody participates to some degree. I would like Irish cultural and social nationalism to be the same. This same analogy shows that it doesn't have to be suffocating or stifling. Do people only do festive things all Christmas long? Of course not. Similarly, it doesn't take much to create a Christmas atmosphere; a few strings of tinsel are enough.

(While I'm talking about Christmas...I've mentioned this before, but one December a female friend of mine, who was recovering from a traumatic break-up, told me that she was going to ignore Christmas completely that year. Being a big Christmas man, I was shocked. Subsequently, though, this particular image has grown to be of far more consequence to me than she would have ever imagined. I like the idea of somebody ignoring Christmas one year. I like the fact that life is so rich we can sometimes be blasé about it. As I said in a previous post; I don't think you're living your life to the hilt if you spend all your time whitewater rafting or swimming with dolphins or writing poetry. Some of it at least should be spent watching DVD box sets in your pyjamas, all day long.)

So I would like most people to make some kind of effort at a self-conscious Irishness, regularly enough.


Well, by naming their cats after Irish mythological figures, of course.

Not just cats, though, and not just mythological figures. The same applies to houses. I don't mind people naming their houses St. Rita's or Padre Pio or Tivoli or anything they like. But, in my ideal Ireland, rather more people-- more than half, maybe-- would name their houses St. Colmcille's or Iona or St. Brendan's or Cois na Farraige (By the Sea).

And by giving their children Irish names, which is actually very popular these days.

And by singing Irish songs at parties-- and going out of their way to learn them. (There is a magazine called Ireland's Own and its lyrics page has the caption, "If you feel like singing...sing an Irish song!" I've just learned that this was a catch-phrase belonging to an Irish radio presenter.)

And by entrepreneurs giving Irish names to their companies and products and corporate headquarters and hotels and bed and breakfasts. And by the same entrepreneurs using Irish imagery (Celtic crosses, Celtic knotwork, round towers) in their marketing and design. (It doesn't matter if it's cheesy. That's absolutely fine.)

And by Irish rock musicians using "Celtic" themes in their music. There was a vogue for this in the seventies and eighties, led by the splendid band Horslips. They made several concept albums based on Irish folk epics. The genre itself is sometimes given the witty name "Sham-rock".

And by Irish people buying more postcards (and playing cards, and mugs, and tea-towels, and calenders) that show thatched cottages and portraits of Irish writers and scenes from country fairs of yore. It always makes me sad when I hear that these things are produced for the "tourist market".

And by more documentaries and seminars and debates about the soul of Ireland in the 21st century-- but not debates about whether national identity and national distinctiveness even matter. This should be a given, the starting point for most participants. (Please remember this is my ideal Ireland.)

And by the national anthem being played more often-- on TV, radio, and at social events-- and by the Irish flag, along with provincial and regional flags, being flown more often. (Let it be said that I don't particularly like our national anthem, and I rather dislike the Irish tricolour. That's not the point.)

And by those of a musical bent learning how to play more Irish folk tunes.

And by those of a dancing bent learning Irish dancing.

And by those of a bookish bent reading more Irish poets and novelists and writers, especially older and less well-known ones.

And by those of a writerly bent introducing themes from Irish history, folklore and literature into their own writing (something that is becoming less fashionable of late).

And what about the Irish language? Well, that is such a big subject that it deserves its own post. (I don't know if I have enough energy left to give it one, though.)

The truth is that I am an English speaker. All the poems, books, words and phrases that I love are English. I cannot find it in my heart to really wish for the Irish language to be the de facto national language of Ireland. My ideal Ireland would be English-speaking-- but with a bigger Irish speaking minority than we have now, and more people who are proficient in Irish, and more people using Irish more regularly. In my ideal Ireland, Irish-language greetings and phrases and quotations and so forth would be much more widely used. (Right now, you are much more likely to hear someone speak Polish or Spanish or Italian than Irish. I doubt I hear anyone speaking Irish in public, in an everyday setting, more than once a month. In my ideal Ireland, it would be a daily occurrence.) The ceremonial use of Irish (on signs, at official events, and so forth)-- something people complain about today, as a waste of public money-- would not only be retained but increased.

And that's enough about the language for now.

All of these are traditional expressions and displays of Irishness. But, of course, new expressions of Irishness are much to be desired. I would only wish for them to be in harmony with the existing ones, and not a radical departure. (No "new definitions of Irishness" seminars, please.)

All of this sounds like a lot. But it's really not a lot. I'm not for a moment overlooking the fact that people have a bewildering array of other interests. I'm not implying some kind of treason in an Irish person listening to Indian music or reading French novels or calling her dog Gandalf. I don't for a second think that the Irish people should be thinking about Irishness all the time, or even half the time, or even one hundredth of the time. I'm not saying that a patriotic Irish person who hates Irish music (for instance) should force himself to listen to it.

But in all the massive activity and aspirations of several million people, it only takes a little change of direction to make a very big difference.

So that's enough on cultural nationalism for now-- though I may revert to it, incidentally, in future installments of this series. Yes, there's more to come!

Meanwhile, some readers may be interested in (even amused by) these Irish TV ads from the eighties. I've been watching a lot of them recently and they have been shaping my thoughts on this subject-- they certainly should not be taken as expressive of my ideal, but they have fed into it in some ways. Especially in my increasing feeling that cultural nationalism is not only compatible with commercialism and corniness, but that they are even an essential part of it. (In many ways, the 'cultural nationalism' I detect in these ads is on a subtle level, like the voice-overs, which seem to me more gentle and formal than voice-overs on Irish ads today-- and I think gentleness and formality was a characteristic of Irish culture, one that has waned. Of course, anyone outside Ireland would never pick up on that, and I'm sure plenty of Irish people would challenge me about it and accuse me of a baseless nostalgia.)