Irish Papist

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Time to Keep Silence, and a Time to Speak

I deleted my last post, because I felt it was incoherent and confused, and I feel that may be a cue to let this blog rest for a while.

I do worry, often enough, about the words I let out into the world (or the world wide web, at least) and whether they are having an influence for good or for ill.

Our Lord told us we will have to give an account of every idle word we let fall, and I fret I have spoken and blogged many idle words, though I hope that not all my words are idle.

I hope anyone who visits this blog finds the contents interesting, entertaining, perhaps even inspiring. Most of my readers will already know to judge everything I write (and everything that everybody else writes or says) against the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church as expressed by its Magisterium, not only as regards its substance but as regards its emphasis and spirit. But, in case there is anybody reading here who doesn't know this already, I am saying it now.

After pouring forth so many words, I feel called to listen for some time-- how long or short, I am not sure. To listen to God, of course.

Pray for me! I will pray for you.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Storehouses of the Snow

Has thou entered into the storehouses of the snow? (Job 38:22)

One of the most famous of all Irish language proverbs is "an rud is annamh is iontach". It means: "What's rare is wonderful."

With all due respect to my ancestors, I don't like that proverb. Or rather, I don't like what it often implies.

I suppose it's inescapably true that rare things are remarkable, and in itself there's nothing wrong with that. Gold and precious stones and microstates and bizarre coincidences all make the world a more interesting place. What I really don't like is the implication that only rare things can be wonderful, and that familiarity breeds contempt.

I personally don't find this to be the case. I agree with G.K. Chesterton that:

The world is as wild as an old wives' tale
And strange the plain things are.

One instance of this common assumption that only rare things are wonderful, and one that particularly vexes me, is the matter of snow in Ireland.

Fact: snow is one of my favourite things in the whole world. Fact: I grew up in Dublin, where it hardly ever snows. 

People often connect these facts, and tell me that I would soon get tired of snow, and come to regard it as a bother, if I lived in Colorado or some such snowy place.

I protest that this is not the case. After all, I've been working in a library for fifteen years, and my sense of wonder at being surrounded by thousands of books has not diminished. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This assumption-- and the whole mentality that only what is rare is wonderful-- bothers me so much that I made it a minor theme of a novel I wrote a few years ago. The novel was titled The Snowman: A Horror Story. It wasn't particularly good, nor do I think it's publishable, but I got quite absorbed in the story. Partly it was an excuse to write a story where it snows all the way through.

My Snowman didn't look like this, but it's the same idea...
This is the plot: an alien entity takes control of a Dublin suburb, taking the form of a snowman. (He has, in fact, been summoned by the wish of a seriously ill boy to see snow.) The suburb becomes cut off from the rest of the world, in its own bubble of space and time. Anarchy ensues.

I very deliberately had my hero reflect, midway through the story, that the whole experience-- which lasts several months-- had not diminished his lifelong love of snow in the slightest. And, at the very end, my hero and heroine are given the opportunity, by the expiring Snowman, to escape into another world. Out of several worlds he shows them, they choose one where it is snowing heavily. (My initial idea was that the guy would not get the girl. In the end, I didn't have the heart for this. So, though they are not a couple as they step into the snowy otherworld in the novel's last scene, we fully expect them to end up together.)

Ballymun, where I grew up, under snow. Undated.

I have always loved snow.

I grew up at a bad time for it. My father would often tell me about the thick blankets of snow that Dublin experienced in his own childhood, and even later than that. In fact, I was told that I was just too young to remember some gala snow years.

I've often mentioned the community magazine he edited (and mostly wrote!), The Ballymun News. Two covers of The Ballymun News fed into my fascination with snow. One was painted by a local artist called Tom Shannon. I was a fan of Tom Shannon because he would give me Yorkie bars. The picture showed children skiing down a snowy slope, and it had the same child-like charm of a Lowry canvas.

The second cover was drawn by my older brother, in ink. It showed snowflakes falling through the sky, some seen from up very close, against the backdrop of the Ballymun flats and towers. I watched him draw this, and was fascinated by the way he sectioned off the black sky to fill it in, section by section. The perspective is very strange, since the viewer is apparently suspended in the sky. This added to the fascination of the picture, for me. In fact, both of these pictures have haunted me since childhood. (Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of either.)

Some years later, I remember a classroom discussion on the possibility of a white Christmas. This was in a French class in 1992, when I was fourteen years old. It never happened, nor did anyone really expect it to happen. The idea of a white Christmas, to me, was a little like the idea of owning a jacuzzi. Such things happened to other people, in other countries.

My hour would come, though. In the winters of 2009 and 2010, Ireland experienced what became known as 'the Big Freeze'. We had more snow in those two years than we'd had in my whole life before that, including an honest-to-goodness white Christmas. (I had actually experienced a white Christmas a few years before this, but it had been a mere sprinkling. This was the full Hallmark treatment.)

Maddeningly, Irish people were already so sick of the snow, after a few weeks of it, that they were speculating on the possibility of a 'green Christmas'-- much to my disgust!

For me, the whole period was wonderful. Particularly wonderful were the three days in a row that my workplace was closed on account of the snow. Each day, the text informing me came late in the evening, making it all the sweeter.

At this time, I also built my first ever snowman-- in my late twenties!

Why am I so fascinated by snow?

I've thought about this for a long time, and I've come to realise that there are a few different reasons.

First of all, snow is both a symbol and an instance of something that has thrilled me all my life. I have mentioned it on this blog before. It's the idea (and, indeed, the reality) of a revolution that changes everything but leaves everything intact-- a revolution that transforms but does not destroy.

This, I venture to claim, was the sort of revolution that Christ brought about. He did not come to liberate his people politically, or to transform society in any outwards sense. Indeed, he instructed his listeners to give Caesar what belonged to Caesar. St. Paul tells us to obey every earthly power, and even admonishes slaves to obey their masters.

And yet, Christ's message was revolutionary. "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away."

As Christ did, so did his missionaries. Christianity has been criticized for adopting itself to existing cultural forms, such as Halloween-- as though there is something sneaky or lamentable about this. For my own part, I cannot see it as anything other than entirely admirable-- even beautiful. 

Just as grace perfects but does cancel nature, Christianization was a revolution that transformed but did not (as far as possible) destroy. Nothing could be further from the vandalism that the world has recently witnessed in Palmyra, and other places where ISIS and their like have taken hold. (And the same might be said of the Marxist revolutions of the twentieth century, or indeed-- to some extent-- of the consumerist tidal wave in the developed world.)

The transformation that snow effects is not of this kind.

When you wake up to find your hometown covered in snow, you find yourself in a place that is completely new, and yet familiar. The air itself seems to glow. It's a perfect illustration of the Chestertonian principle I have cited so often in this blog: "We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder with an idea of welcome....the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure."

Louis Macneice
One of my all-time favourite poems, 'Snow' by Louis Macneice, expresses this transformative action of snow in a manner that is unsurpassed:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it...

I didn't spend very much time thinking about Christianity when I was a little boy, so how does all this explain my childhood love of snow? 

It does indeed explain it, because this idea-- the idea of a revolution that transforms but does not destroy-- fascinated me long before I was able to articulate it, or before I was even aware of it. It explains my lifelong adoration of Christmas, Halloween and other festivals--  a few Christmas decorations makes the most familiar room otherworldly, while still remaining familiar. Halloween bonfires and fireworks do the same for the most familiar neighbourhood. 

This principle explains my love of the horror genre, where the everyday is so often made nightmarish (but often seductively so). My favourite quotation in this regard is from philosopher Michael Mendelson: "We need only be told that there is a body in the next room, and suddenly all is transformed." Indeed, even the flickering of a light, the hearing of a local legend, or a strange sound can do the same trick... 

It's not only horror that achieves this, but all art, and all poetry. "To make the familiar strange, and the strange familar" is the mantra of the journalist, but it serves pretty well for the artist and the poet too.

Here I cannot help mentioning my love of coloured reflective surfaces, like Christmas baubles and beer bottles, and of single-tint photographs, both of which bring about a similar 'revoluton'.

Taking the principle to its ultimate, we reach the awe-inspiring heights of the sacramental system itself-- the water of baptism, the words of absolution, the ordinary become sacred.

I have touched on another aspect of what I love about snow-- that is, its otherworldiness.

We say that snow falls, and indeed the phrase 'softly falling snow' is one of my favourite phrases ever. But snow doesn't fall-- it dances. It glides, pirouettes, eddies and whirls. Snow is a veritable airborne phantasmagoria (which is one of my favourite words). There is something ghostly, something ethereal, something dream-like about it.

Another word that always come to mind when we think of snow is 'purity'. 'As pure as the driven snow' is a saying that is usually used sarcastically, but it's no less evocative for that.

As I have explained in my post defending priggishness, and in my post on the Laurence Binyon poem 'The Burning of the Leaves', I've had a lifelong fascination with purity and purification. I suppose we all do. We hanker after purification of some kind-- even an out-and-out hedonist who takes as his motto "have a good time, all the time" is striving after his own vision of purity.

Fire is one symbol of purity and of purification. Snow is another. It is a natural metaphor for all that is fresh, innocent, pristine. It glows, just like fire does.

Our Lady of the Snows
Snow puts me particularly in mind of the Christian virtues of chastity and humility-- the virtues which seem most contrary to human nature, the most otherworldly, but which are most bewitching when we encounter them, or even read about them.

To quote Chesterton again: "The whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized by the statement that white is a colour, not the mere absence of a colour."

The exaltation of celibacy in Christianity was something that repelled me for a long time. I have always seen something mystical in the union of man and woman, and I wondered how a deliberate privation could in any way be pleasing to God. I much preferred the emphasis upon marriage in rabbinic Judaism.

I eventually came to realise that Christianity does see something mystical in the union of man and woman, but that virginity is a higher ideal still. It was only in reading about the saints that I eventually came to see its beauty-- more of a 'heart knowledge' than a 'head knowledge'. And the bold beauty of virginity is like the gleaming beauty of a snowy landscape.

What applies to celibacy applies just as much to chastity-- and it also applies, in my view, to humility. These are all virtues that seem unnatural, otherworldly, even cold. They are not at all appealing when we contemplate them for ourselves. It's only when we see them in others that we realize their beauty, and wish to emulate it. And their beauty, too, is like the gleaming beauty of a snowy landscape.

But what is the highest beauty that snow can symbolize, even above the beauty of virginity and chastity and humility?

Surely it is the pure white of the Host, the "source and summit" of the Catholic faith, which was prefigured by the white manna that fell from heaven-- the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of sacramental bread. Here, the purity imaged by snow and fire, and every other symbol, finds its ultimate reality.

Was the Eucharist what I was yearning for as a little boy, when the sight of snow falling from heaven thrilled me so much?

My faith tells me that it was-- indeed, that every yearning that every human being feels is ultimately a hunger for the Eucharist, of which J.R.R. Tolkien so beautifully wrote: "I put before you the one great thing to love on Earth, the Blessed Sacrament....There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on Earth."

We all have our foretastes of Heaven, our 'intimations of immortality'. I see nothing at all incongruous in taking snow as a symbol of the beauty beyond all beauty, the wonder beyond all wonder. Certainly the sight of snowflakes dancing in air-- like all wonder-stirring sights-- fills me with a wistfulness so deep that nothing in this world could satisfy it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Personal View of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence

Though you'd be hard pressed to tell it, it's still the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Given the importance of the anniversary, I think it's a shame that the commemorations were mostly bundled into a few weeks around Easter, even if that was the exact anniversary of the events.

To keep the ball rolling, I am going to write a little about the seven men who signed the Irish Proclamation of Independence, a noble document which adorns the walls of many pubs, schools and private houses in Ireland.

First of all, a few remarks about the Rising itself. I'll keep it brief because I've written all this before.

I don't necessariliy condone the Rising. I have mixed feelings about it. There has been a vast amount of discussion, ever since it happened, on whether it fulfilled the criteria of a just war. I lean towards the negative in those debates. But I'm not sure.

The deaths of innocent civilians is the most difficult aspect of it. Who can forget the story of the little girl who was shot through the head, because she was peering through a keyhole when a rebel shot the lock? There are many such stories.

All the same, Easter 1916 happened, and is a crucial part of Irish identity. It is hard for non-Irish people to appreciate the extent of this. It is akin to the American Revolution for Americans, or the Battle of Britain for the English.

Whatever my scruples about the Rising, I do have a great deal of respect for the men and women who fought in it. Seven men signed the Proclamation, and I will deal with them individually.

Patrick Pearse was (and is) undoubtedly the most celebrated of the 1916 leaders, and he is the one I admire the most. My upbringing has something to do with this. We owned a copy of his Political Writings and Speeches, and it had almost Scriptural prestige in our house. My father often quoted him.

I reacted against this in my teens. I can remember, pettily, inserting a self-drawn cartoon which condemned him as a psychopath into the school library's copy of Political Writings and Speeches. But this was just a phase.

Who was he? He was an Irish language activist, a teacher, a headmaster, an orator, a poet, and the President of the Provisional Government which was proclaimed in 1916.

There has been much discussion of whether he was attracted to boys. He undoubtedly loved and romanticised boys and some of his writings praising them read very suspiciously to our over-sexualised era. There is no evidence of any romantic relationships with women in his life (he was extremely shy around women). However, there is also no hint of any actual inappropriate behaviour towards boys. He was the headmaster of a boys school and virtually all of his pupils seem to have idolised him.

Pearse was a galloping romantic, and I think this is why I have such a high regard for him. One of his essays was entitled 'The Spiritual Nation'. He viewed nationhood as something spiritual, as do I. He was not interested in a national liberation which did not involve cultural renewal. He memorably expressed this aspiration in this classic formula; "Not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well".

(In fact, he was a political moderate until very late in his short life. initially, he was much more interested in cultural renewal than in politics. But his experiences as a headmaster of an Irish-language school-- a pioneering enterprise, at that time-- convinced him that political revolution was required for cultural renewal.)

He was not without faults. Though he was an observant Catholic, and sincerely religious, some of his writings seem to treat Irish nationalism as a kind of secular religion. The most disturbing instance of this are these words, from his oration at the grave of Wolfe Tone, a hero of Irish nationalism:

We have come to the holiest place in Ireland; holier to us even than the place where Patrick sleeps in Down. Patrick brought us life, but this man died for us.

I have always found these words shocking, and the perfect example of the danger of idolatry which haunts nationalism. Nevertheless, Pearse was a fervent Catholic, and he received confession and absolution before his execution. In fact, he was so pleased to hear that his fellow-signatory, the Marxist James Connolly, had also received absolution, that he said it was the one thing he had been worried about.

Pearse's poetry is, in my view, absolutely first rate. He seemed to have been a complete naif when it came to poetry, writing haunting lyrics in free verse. They are marked by their directness and artlessness, and seem to owe nothing to any poetic tradition, unless it is the prophetic writing of the Bible. Take this poem which was written on the eve of his execution:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way


Perfection. "The Fool" is another masterpiece, as is "The Risen People".

The second most famous figure in the Rising was James Connolly. Since he was a Marxist, and the leader of the left-wing Irish Citizens' Army (several different military organisations fought in the Rising), he has always been the left-wing hero of the Rising, and indeed the saint of the Irish left in general.

I've never had all that much interest in him, despite his prominence, even when I was a socialist. (I was a socialist in my early twenties, but I was never a Marxist. Indeed, I was a self-consciously anti-Marxist socialist even then.) He left many writings, but I wouldn't dream of reading them-- my few encounters with Marxist theory have been enough for me.

As a person, however, Connolly seems to have been entirely noble and admirable. An ex-soldier, he directed the fighting in the main garrison of the General Post Office, and all acounts of his leadership show him to be valiant, humane and inspiring.

I also admire his history as an organiser of trade unions. It's a long time since I've been a socialist, but a concern for the poor seems to me an entirely Christian outlook. The working conditions in Dublin at the time of the Rising were appalling. An apostle of the free market might tell me that this was entirely due to government regulation or tarriffs, or some such thing, and that the perfect liberation of market forces would eliminate such poverty. Maybe. In the meantime, people have to live, and to live with some dignity.

As before mentioned, he had the last rites and absolution before his execution, despite having been a lapsed Catholic before this. The Irish radical left has always found this 'an inconvenient truth'. Indeed, it was Connolly who sent runners to request the presence of Catholic priests during the fighting, so his men could have confession.

The next figure I will mention is Joseph Plunkett. I knew very little about him before this year, when I started reading about the Rising in more depth. Since then I have read and watched a good deal about him, and he is undoubtedly my second favourite of the leaders after Pearse.

He was a devout Catholic, though not a daily Mass-goer or particularly outspoken about his faith. He was also a big fan of G.K. Chesterton-- he read The Man Who Was Thursday at least four times, and he wrote a poetic tribute to him.

Plunkett came from a wealthy family, though he also had a deprived childhood since his mother was neglectful. He was fascinated by machinery and war games-- indeed, it was Plunkett who devised the military strategy for the Rising. That strategy has had very mixed reviews-- one writer wondered what success an uprising could have when it involved "occupying bases and waiting to be attacked". In any case, it's hard to assess his plans fairly, since the entire thing was so botched that it mostly had to improvised.

Plunkett is the most romantic figure of the Rising for two reasons. One is that he was dying of TB-- he would have been dead within weeks, even if he had not been executed. The other is that he married his fianceé Grace Gifford in the prison chapel, shortly before his execution. They were not allowed to exchange a single word, other than their vows.

He was a poet, and one of his poems has become a classic:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.


I will pass swiftly over Éamonn Ceannt, who seems to me by far the least interesting of the signatories. He was a military man and a cultural nationalist. Other than his role in the Rising, the most notable thing about him is that he once played the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) for the Pope. I don't mean any disrespect to him, but I have little to say about him.

We have been dealing with the visionaries so far. But not all of the signatories were visionaries. The pairing of Thomas Clarke and Séan MacDiarmada were the 'hard heads' of the Rising. Between them, they laid most of the groundwork of the rebellion, long before the other five became involved. It was these two who insured that the secret organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, infiltrated and took control of the Irish Volunteers, an open citizen's 'defence force'.

Tom Clarke is the 1916 signatory I find least appealing. He was, to be blunt, a fanatic-- a man whose life was utterly dedicated to getting the British out of Ireland. He was involved in a dynamiting campaign in his youth, and spent years in prison a a result. He came out a prematurely aged man, and even more fanatical. His tobacco shop in O'Connell Street was in many ways the hub of the rebellion.

What I find most unappealing about Clake is his apparent lack of any vision for a post-independence Ireland. He wanted to get the British out, and that was it. He had very little interest in cultural nationalism. And he was a hardliner-- when the other leaders wanted to surrender, to spare further civilians from being killed, he pleaded with them to keep fighting to the death.

He was not a religious man-- he was embittered against the Church for its hostility to the Fenians, a previous group of Irish insurrectionists. He told the priest who came to minister to him before execution to leave, when he urged him to repent.

I read a biography of Clarke recently, intrigued as to why someone would devote his life to Irish independence, with apparently so little consideration of what an independent Ireland would look like. I didn't find the answer, but I can at least say that he was a loving husband and father. If he was a fanatic in public life, he was quite sentimental in private life-- which, at least, I find endearing.

His close friend Sean MacDiarmada is like Clarke is a lesser key. He was much more a political nationalist than a cultural one. He was a man of action rather than a man of ideas. He has been called an 'amiable fanatic'-- indeed, everybody seems to have liked him. What I find most endearing about him is that he helped convince the footsoldiers of the rebellion to surrender when they wanted to fight on. He told them that he expected to be executed, along with the other leaders, but that the rank and file would live to fight another day-- which they did.

On his census form, he recorded his religion as 'Irish nationalist'. However, it's obvious from his other answers that he was doing his best to irritate the census-takers, and he did not chase the priest away from his cell in the manner of Tom Clarke.

In my mind, Clarke and MacDiarmada represent the tough-minded, anti-romantic strain of Irish nationalism, where Pearse and Plunkett represent the romantic and idealistic strain. I definitely identify with the latter, rather than the former.

The final signatory, Thomas MacDonagh, is someone about whom I know very little, even though he is a flamboyant figure-- the third poet of the Rising. He was also a teacher in Pearse's school, and a lecturer in English at the university where I work.

Since I have always been an anglophile, and Irish nationalism has all too often involved anti-Englishness, I cherish the story of the last words he spoke to his students, after a class on Jane Austen: "Ah, there's nobody like Jane, lads".

He was a handsome, debonair and charming figure. He offered cigarettes to his executioners. He seems to have had a religious temperament, though not in a particularly orthodox mode.

Well, God bless them all. They all paid the ultimate price for their beliefs, and I pray they are all with the Lord now. And God bless everybody who died in the fighting. And God bless Ireland!

Hurray for Penzu!

This post is going to be a free advertisement, and a fully deserved free advertisement. I come to praise Penzu, the diary software that I have been using every day for considerably over a year.

I've kept diaries on and off throughout my life-- more off than on, though. I remember keeping one when I was about twelve years old. Tim Burton's Batman movie was out at the time, and I remember drawing Batman insignia on the back cover. I don't think this lasted more than a few weeks.

Penzu screenshot-- not mine.

My family got a computer (Microsoft Works) in 1994, when I was sixteen. This was the occasion for me to start writing poetry seriously. It was also the occasion for me to start keeping a diary, and I kept it for a long time; perhaps a year and a half.

I wish I still had those diaries. Not only did they describe the routines of my schooling, or some of it, but I remember they contained many reflections which were of lasting importance to me. It would be extremely interesting to read the musings of my sixteen and seventeen year old self. However, it's long gone.

I kept paper diaries in college. I have less nostalgia for these. It was a time of great confusion and aimlessness in my life. I can remember these diaries were full of affectation and self-pity, and I eventually I threw them into the river Tolka in disgust. Although I do regret this, I don't regret it nearly as much as my school diary.

Tolka, final resting place of my college diaries

Efforts to keep diaries after that were fitful and unsuccessful. I got it into my head that a diary should be a terse chronicle, rather than a record of thoughts and feelings. This was probably an over-reaction to my college diaries. I have a pocket diary from 2014 that has a few months worths of records, but nothing else.

Then, last year, on the 24th of June, I decided to keep an online diary. A few moments of research were enough to discover that was the market leader. I created an account, and started to keep a diary-- my first entry was entitled 'To Make a Beginning'.

This was the first paragraph:

I decided yesterday-- or was it today?-- that I would start keeping a diary again. Strangely enough, it was the memory of a passage in Brideshead Revisited that did it. There is one section set aboard a liner that filled me with a strange fascination with the notion of days, how our lives are divided into these units. And I remembered, from the computer diary I kept in my teens, how delicious the in-betweeny days seemed to be-- the uneventful, reflective days-- and how each day seemed to have more of an identity when it was preserved in a diary. Even though that diary is long lost, I remember the days I chronicled in it as days, because I chronicled them. Hence-- this.

Brideshead Revisited

I think most of us begin most projects, or routines, in the same spirit as we make New Years' resolutions-- hoping they will stick, not really expecting them to. But this one did. I have not missed a day in my Penzu diary since that time. Some days, I have had to make notes on paper and transfer them to the online diary later, but I've not missed chronicling a day.

And, although my life is not particularly eventful, there's already quite a few memorable highlights in the diary. There is an account of my jury service, which was for two weeks on a very dramatic case. There is an account of the wedding of one of my closest friends. There is, sadly, the account of my father-in-law's funeral and internment in New Jersey. There is an account of the strange episode wherein I arranged and catalogued the private library of Judge Ronan Keane, the former President of the Supreme Court. (It was what we call a 'nixer' in Ireland-- a job on the side.) There is an account of a job interview (unsuccessful). There is an account of an operation where I went under general anaesthetic for the first time in my life.

Then there are all the public events, like the general election, or Brexit, or the death of David Bowie. There are all the feasts of the liturgical year, a complete round of which I have made. And all the secular holidays, too-- although the one Christmas recorded in my diary so far was a subdued and rather sad one, for several reasons.

And, of course, there are all the 'in betweeny days' which, to me, are the most delicious part of a diary.

I have also kept a record of my dreams, when I can remember them, and of conversations with friends. These are often the most intereting to re-read. Who remembers most dreams, and most conversations?

I promised some free advertising. I wanted to say that Penzu is a wonderful service. For one thing, I love the name, which seems to be a pun on 'pen' and 'penser' (the French verb for think).

Some people ask me why you even need a diary software. Why not just use a Word document, or a Google Drive document?

Well, of course you can do that, but I find Penzu much more attractive. It's purpose-built for diary writing. It generates a new diary entry every day, for that date, so you don't have to. Secondly, the formatting is aesthetically very pleasant, and you can customize it. Thirdly, its list of entries is very navigable (although it's a shame it doesn't have a facility whereby you can 'skip' back or forward at a day a time-- you have to go into the list of entries each time).

Penzu has a free service, a 'Penzu Pro' service, and a 'Penzu Pro-Plus'. After a few days of using the free service, I upgraded to Pro. It's twenty dollars a year. When the time came, I renewed it. I have shelled out on very few luxuries in the last few years, but this didn't seem expensive for something I use every day, and which gives me such satisfaction.

Penzu Pro allows you to keep multiple diaries in one account, to customize the formatting, and to add tags to your entries. (My tags are things like: "Mass", "Communion", "Confession". "Dreams", "Deep Conversation", "Oddity", "Big Day".) Tags make it easier to search.

 You can add photos and pictures-- and video, too, though I've never done that.

I've found it a very efficient service. Sometimes it 'goes down', but very, very rarely, and never for long. It's rarely slow or unresponsive, which is a big deal.

I like the fact that it can be customized. The background image I use as a template for every entry is a photograph of an empty cinema, looking out from the seats to the screen. A cinema screen has always been my favourite metaphor for the mind, for consciousness.

Is keeping a diary a waste of time? I don't think so. I don't think it actually takes time from anything else, in my case. Maybe it's because I write quickly. I update it every few hours, a few minutes at a time. Of course, sometimes I write more reflective entries at greater length.

I like to include little details, little 'grace notes'-- an overheard conversation on a bus, a poster seen in a shopping centre, demonstrations and street evangelists in the city centre, a story that somebody tells me, and so forth. if there is an art to keeping a diary, I think that is part of it.

Who is a diary written for? Primarily, of course, it is written for youself, to re-read in the near and distant future. I do find myself hoping somebody else will be interested in it some day, though-- a child, or a grandchild, or a great-grandchild, or even somebody less directly descended from me. Perhaps even a social historian, or a researcher. (I do find myself explaining references to people and events I haven't mentioned before, as though it is being  read by a complete stranger.)

Of course, I have a sneaking hope that one day it will join the exalted ranks of famous diaries such as those of Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, Virginia Woolf, and Kenneth Williams. Stranger things have happened. Not many, but some.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Happy Wedding Day, Mr. C!

Today is the wedding day of a friend and a reader of this blog, who I'll call Mr. C.

Say a prayer for him and his bride, and for a marriage laden with blessings!

 Deo gratias!

On Family Folklore

Today my father told me a story from the Second World War (or the Emergency as it was officially called in neutral Ireland), involving our family. We had been agreeing on the rightness of Ireland's neutrality during the War; my father pointed out that the Luftwaffe would undoubtedly have been bombing Ireland if we had supported the Allies.

The Luftwaffe didn't bomb Ireland. At least not deliberately. On several occasions, German bombers did attack Dublin, as a result of navigation error. (There are other theories, but I think Occam's Razor applies here.) The most famous of these was the 'North Strand' bombing. I once saw an exhibition about this in a public library.

"It wasn't like this when I went out this morning!"
My father was almost a casualty of the North Strand bombing. Born in 1939, my grandfather was pushing him in a pram when it happened, and they were only a little distance from the danger zone. So the Nazis almost killed me before I was born.

Remarkably, my father also had a narrow escape from the horrific Dublin bombings in May 1974, when loyalist terrorists (who were fighting against a united Ireland) bombed a street in Dublin city centre. My father and his friend were walking in that direction and only stopped to get a sandwich in a pub. So (without wanting to take away from the tragedy of that day, where 27 were killed), I can say I was almost killed by both Nazis and loyalists before I was born.

But that wasn't the story I heard today. The story I heard today was that my father (only a little kid) had been tearing up newspapers in the kitchen one night, during the Emergency. When his grandfather came downstairs, and saw papers everywhere, he assumed the house had been hit by a bomb!

Missed me!
I immediately wrote this down in my online diary, and added a new 'tag'-- "Family folklore'. Such folklore strikes me as increasingly important. If my father had not told me that story, and I had not remembered it or written it down, no doubt it would be completely forgotten-- "lost in time like tears in rain", as the beautiful line from Blade Runner has it.

We can't hold onto everything. And, when I imagine a world where everybody has photographic memories and nothing is ever lost, it strikes me that oblivion and forgetfulness are beautiful gifts from God. On the other hand, I think it's incredibly sad when some stories disappear-- things that are worth remembering.

(I might mention here a wonderful line from Brian Friel's Translations, one of the very few plays I've seen in the theatre. A father says it  to his nostalgic son: "To remember everything is a form of madness.")

Then I found myself thinking of another memory. I don't know what year it was from, but certainly it was the mid-eighties. I was with my mother and my little brother, and we went to a carnival with rather simple amusement rides. I remember we had also just bought a kid's picture book featuring the superhero teddy bear Superted.

It was late evening. Although the carnival wasn't closed, it was about to close, so there was an atmosphere of delicate melancholy, which readers of James Joyce's book Dubliners might recognizse from the story 'Araby'. (One of the few Joycean pieces I actually like.)

I remember feeling sorry for my mother, who was watching us enjoying the rides. (They must have been kids' rides.) I told her that I felt sad to be enjoying them while she was just watching. "I enjoy just watching you", she said. That seemed even sadder to me. All these years later, of course, I understand it.

I also remember a story in my English textbook in primary school, when I was about eleven. It was a nostalgic piece about the author's childhood, and he she remembered how her bed-bound grandmother would call herself and her siblings into her room, to hug them, saying "you have all the freshness of youth on you" (or some such words). I thought that was incredibly sad, too-- to be old and have childhood forever behind you, to need to experience it at second hand. Sometimes I feel that now, but very rarely. I can now understand how my mother could enjoy just watching us play, and that old lady could feel happy rather than sad hugging the little children.

That's not what I set out to write about, though. What I wanted to record was the incredible feeling of urgency and poignancy that fills my soul when I think of that evening in the carnival, and similar memories. My mother died in 2001, ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam. My brother told me he doesn't remember the day at all (he would have been very young.)
There is such a feeling of aching tenderness when we remember those we have lost (or even those who are still alive, but with whom we have shared much of our lives). The world is so big, and they only have us (and a few others, perhaps) to hold onto their memories. Even if they are well-known in a public sense, what does the world know of their inner being?

This emotion is like the one you feel when you are holding hands with somebody you love in the middle of an enormous crowd, or seeing someone you know from a long way away. They look so very small, from such a distance-- and how your heart aches with love for them!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Behold, I Make All Things New!"

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more.  And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.  And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.

 The Apocalypse, Chapter 21

Over the years I have tried to memorize various Bible verses. I haven't been very good at holding onto them, because once I have them memorized I tend to neglect them and thus forget them. The only way to keep something memorized is to keep revisiting it on a regular basis. (I once memorized the entirety of 'The Raven' by Edgar Allen Poe, to recite at a dinner party. No way I could recite it now.)

I've been committing this verse to memory recently because I find it one of the most evocative of all Bible verses. I'm especially stirred by the words: "Behold, I make all things new". 

It has occurred to me that this might seem to contradict my traditionalism and love of all things old, on which subject I have often written here.

And yet-- it doesn't seem to at all. In fact, the sight of a Halloween bonfire or a Christmas tree, or the rhythms of the liturgy, somehow awaken in me the same atmosphere as this passage and those very words: "Behold, I make all things new". It's very strange. I think it has to do with the timeless as an image of the eternal.