Irish Papist

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

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Irish Language Mass in Our Lady of Dolours, Glasnevin (and Some Thoughts on the Irish Language)

Some six or seven years ago-- it's surprisingly hard to date it-- I found myself rather furtively making my way, Sunday after Sunday, to Our Lady of Dolours church in Glasnevin. At this time I was moving towards the Faith, but I wasn't really ready to 'go public' about it. It had been so long since I attended Mass that I had a very dim idea of the genuflections and responses involved. For both these reasons I decided to attend a Mass some distance from where I lived. I didn't receive Communion, as I had not gone to confession since childhood. (In fact, confession seemed such a big hurdle that I sometimes despaired of clearing it.)

Strangely enough, this morning I found myself once again feeling furtive and sheepish in the very same church. I felt I had come full circle. This morning it was for a very different reason-- it was an Irish language Mass, and I was terrified somebody was going to talk to me in Irish!

My terrors were realized! Although the congregation was only small, almost the first person I laid eyes on was a woman who attends at my local church. (We actually wrote a hymn together, which was performed there.) She greeted me in Irish, and I nervously greeted her back.

After that, a different woman came to me and handed me a piece of paper, saying (In Irish): "I presume you speak Irish?"

"A kind of Irish", I said.

"Can you do a reading?", she asked.

"Sure", I said, not at all bothered by this prospect. (I enjoy being a reader.)

"I don't meant today", she said. "Goodness, I don't mean today. What's your name?"

"Maolsheachlann. Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh"

"Are you Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh?", she asked, seeming impressed.

Fame at last, I thought! But it turned out she was the mother of a former schoolmate, and that's how she'd heard of me. Still, she did mention my letters to the newspapers, when we spoke again after Mass.

There was a feeling of event and enthusiasm at the Mass. A young man was playing a harp. My friend from my home parish, who is a story teller, rendered the day's gospel as a story. (After it had been read in the normal way.) And questionnaires were distributed, asking people if they would be willing to help support and promote the Irish language Mass in various ways. I ticked the box beside "being a reader" and "bringing up the offerings". I couldn't see anything else I was confident I could do in the list, so I wrote in on the free space: "I could write a blog post about it, on my blog Irish Papist.". (It did mention social media.)  

So here is the blog post. The Mass is at 9:30 a.m. every Sunday in Our Lady of Dolours Church, Glasnevin. Check it out!

The funny thing (and you'll see why it's funny in a moment) is that it's a complete accident I turned up there. I didn't realise it was an Irish language Mass. I was looking for an earlier Mass than the 10:30 in my local church. I always like to go to Mass as early as possible. I like the atmosphere of earliness. The nicest Mass I ever attended was a seven a.m. Mass in a hotel conference room, at my pre-marriage course.

But it's an interesting coincidence because, as a matter of fact, I have recently been making a big effort to improve my grasp of the Irish language.

Here I need to explain my complicated history with the Irish language.

Although I did not grow up in an Irish-language speaking family (in the sense of Irish being spoken regularly at home), my parents were very pro-Irish language and indeed helped to found a local Irish language school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch in Ballymun, which I attended and which is still flourishing. I also attended an Irish language secondary school, Scoil Chaitriona in Glasnevin, only down the road from the Lady of Dolours church. (Which explains some of my trepidation-- I didn't want to run into any ex-teachers or ex-classmates!)

So you would have thought that I would have grown up with a very favourable view of the Irish language. But, in fact, the opposite is true, for many reasons.

One reason is that English was, by a country mile, my strongest subject in school-- in fact, I don't think it's arrogant to say that I was the best at English in my whole year in secondary school. (Someone who went to school with me said, a few years ago: "You were, like, Seamus Heaney or something!"). This was a big deal to me, as I wasn't particularly good at any other subject.

I thought of English as 'my' language, and I hated the fact that it seemed stigmatized in Irish language schools and amongst the Irish language movement. Mostly this was just my juvenile perception-- there's a very sensible and obvious reason you are forbidden from speaking in English in Irish language schools, except in English class-- but there might have been some objective truth to it.

As well as this, I sucked at Irish. I sucked at French and German, too, but I especially sucked at Irish. It's a difficult language and it has a complicated grammar.

I have spent a lot of time wondering how it is that English is my forte, but that I am such a poor linguist outside that. I have come to the conclusion that it has to do with grammar. I don't remember ever learning English grammar-- I learned it intuitively as I went along, at a very young age. (I read Lord of the Rings when I was seven.) I still don't know anything about participles or conjunctions or infinitives, in an abstract way. Indeed, I suspect my English grammar isn't all that hot (and I don't really care if it is or not).

So the awareness that I was so bad at Irish was one reason for my dislike of it. But there were other reasons. 

Family dynamics came into it. I am a contrarian by nature and I was fifth in a family of six, nearly all of my siblings (and my cousins, and my extended family) being enthusiasts for the language. Since I felt like a black sheep, I took being an English-speaker as a badge of my distinctiive identity, and adopted an antagonistic attitude towards the Irish language (and every manifestation of Irish national culture whatsoever). It was all very juvenile. Although, in fairness to myself, I was a sincere anglophile (as I am still today) and this also fed into my self-chosen identity.

I also associated Irish language speakers with a certain sanctimoniousness and priggishness. Think of cyclists or vegans. (And my apologies to all three groups, who I greatly respect, but you all know what I'm getting at. The stereotypes are there, however unfair.) I got the impression that Irish languge speakers delighted in taking offence when they couldn't get served through Irish in a post office or some other institution (a right they have by law). I had one lecturer who went to prison out of a refusal to pay the TV license, since at that time there was no Irish language TV service. I see that as admirably idealistic now. Back then, I saw it as symptomatic of a tiresome entitlement mentality.

And there were still other reasons, some of which were not unreasonable. I grew up during the Northern Ireland Troubles. The face of Irish nationalism at that time was Gerry Adams and the other apologists for the murderous IRA. They used Irish as often as possible, in a very bellicose way. They besmirched, not only the language, but Irish national culture and national feeling in general-- for me, and for hundreds of thousands of others. Today they are the most secularist and ultra-liberal party on the island, outside the loony left micro-parties.

And there's another reason I had a prejudice against Irish. Although there have always been Irish language enthusiasts of every ideological persuasion, in recent decades it has been especially popular with the liberal left and the radical left. The most famous Irish writer of modern times, Máirtín Ó Cádhain, was a member of the IRA and a Marxist. (I should point out that the IRA of his day, before the Troubles, were a considerably less ruthless organisation than the IRA of Gerry Adams's day.) My grandfather spent time with Ó Cádhain in the Curragh concentration camp, as it happens.

(To be fair, the language also had an appeal to to the much smaller extreme-right tendency in ireland. One obscure ultra-right and ultra-Catholic group, Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, wanted to make the use of English a criminal offence! Less controversially, Catholic religious orders have been amongst its biggest supporters. Of course, we all know many Catholic religious can be quite liberal-left, so there is wheel within wheel...)

Given all these factors prejudicing me against Irish, how on earth would I ever come to value it, or to seek to get better at it?

Well, some of it was just growing maturity. I simply 'got over' all my sillier reasons for disliking the language, such as family dynamics and associating it with teachers I didn't like.

Much of it has to do with my wife Michelle. She is American, and though she has Irish ancestry, she never set foot in Ireland until she met me. But she was enthusiastic about the Irish language in a way that I was not, and wanted to learn phrases and expressions. It was through her initiative that we started to pray the Rosary together in Irish. (We spent a rather surreal hour driving around the roads of New Jersey, me teaching her the Our Father and Hail Mary in Irish.)

Of course, the year that is in it (I love that phrase) has influenced me, too. This is the centenary of the 1916 Rising, and I have been reading biographies of its leaders, as well as watching the various television programmes on the subject. (Actually, the Irish language TV station TG4 has an excellent series of drama-documentaries about each of the leaders.) Like most Irish people, I have very deep reservations about the moral validity of the 1916 Rising, but I have no reservations about the wave of cultural nationalism which proceeded and followed it, and with which many of the leaders were also involved, and which has preserved so many things that might have been lost otherwise.

But more than anything else, it is my ever-burgeoning traditionalism that made me change my attitude. Regular readers of my blog will know my views on tradition, which I outlined in a recent series of posts (and I link to them all because, if anything on this blog was worth writing or reading, I feel it was these):

Here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tradition seems more and more important to me. It was always important, but it grows even more important with time and thought.

I used to see tradition as a bulwark against 'the filthy modern tide'. In fact, I wrote several unpublished novels dramatising this conflict. However, I have reached the stage where I am sick of being 'anti-' anything. I don't want to be anti-modernity, or anti-cosmopolitanism, or anti-pop culture, or anti-globalism, or anti-liberalism, or anti-pluralism, or any such thing. I want to be motivated by love, not antagonism and reaction and sourness.

(My friend Roger Buck, motivated-- I presume-- by such considerations, wrote a book with the brilliant title The Gentle Traditionalist. That expresses my own aspiration perfectly. I want to be a gentle traditionalist.)

Perhaps we are moving inexorably towards a globalized, multicultural, urbanised world. Doesn't this make it all the more important that we all hold onto our traditions, and even that we seek to revive them as far as possible? I'm talking about the traditions that unite us here, as much as the traditions that distinguish us from each other. All traditions. Everybody's traditions. Religious traditions, family traditions, school traditions, personal traditions, internet traditions, sporting traditions-- the whole lot. (One of the things I always love about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the various races, and even the various human ethnicities, seem very devoted to their own traditions, even in this very ultra-futuristic world of 'infinite diversity in infinite combinations'.)

Another factor that helped me change my mind was travel. For one thing, it put things in perspective. All the faction-fighting about the Irish language and its various ideological associations seems irrelevant when you travel abroad and realise the simple fact that other countries have their own languages, and we do not. (You are much, much more likely to hear Polish or Italian spoken in an Irish street than you are to hear Irish-- and I hasten to add, there is nothing wrong with hearing Polish or Italian spoken in an Irish street.)

This struck me particularly one day, the single day of my life I spent (or partly spent) in Wales. I was getting the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin and, having a couple of hours to spare, I wandered around the centre of that little town. I was amazed to hear people actually speaking Welsh, casually. Most people were speaking English, but the very fact that many people were speaking Welsh dumbfounded me. And it also filled me with shame. I assumed all the Gaelic languages were in the same situation.

All my life (as regular readers of this blog will now) I have craved special times and special places-- indeed, specialness in general. I have often written about the Halloween party I attended in childhood, which activated this desire with special vividness. I was transported at the idea of one special night of the year with its special atmosphere, sounds, sights, tastes, and smells. It seems to me that so much of human storytelling, from the Odyssey to Lord of the Rings to Star Trek, appeals to this hunger for specialness and difference-- the hunger to journey towards different places with different ways, the hunger for the 'incorrigibly plural' in a very concrete form.

And, as Tennyson wrote: "He is the best cosmopolite [cosmopolitan], who loves his native country best." Isn't it hypocritical to travel the world, looking for exotic differences and vibrant traditions, when you are not helping to strengthen your own native traditions? Don't we make the world a smaller and less interesting place, for the whole human race, when we neglect our native traditions?

Of course, I always thought like this, but it didn't motivate me to try to improve my Irish (except very spasmodically), because Irish is so bloody difficult.

I recently watched a documentary about Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland. His 1892 lecture The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland is often taken as the catalyst of the Irish cultural revival, and it's well worth reading. (There is nothing anti-English about it at all, which particularly pleases me.) He was the President of the Gaelic League, the organization which took the lead in reviving Irish as a spoken language. But when the Gaelic League voted to take a political stance-- in favour of the political nationalism which was also burgeoning at this time-- Hyde resigned, despite having a sympathy with political nationalism. This was because he felt the language should be kept neutral of such allegiances. A talking head on the documentary insisted that Hyde was right. When the Irish language is paired with some other cause, Mr. Talking Head said, it always suffers-- because the Irish language is the more difficult partner, and the easier to abandon.

This is how someone put it in a biography of Brendan Behan (who learned Irish while incarcerated): "There have always been more people willing to die for Ireland than to learn the irregular verbs." And I'm not surprised. It's so bloody difficult.

For this reason (as I admitted in my series on traditionalism), I have mostly avoided trying to improve my terrible Irish. But I became convinced of the truth of a motto that Irish language enthusiasts often use-- "tír gan teanga, tír gan anam"-- a country without a language is a country without a soul. There are many different Irish traditions, and many (such as GAA games) are in a very healthy state, but the language is truly the motherlode. As its promoters have always insisted, it preserves more than anything else a distinctively national way of looking at the world, the cultural memory of a whole people. Think of what a big distinction we make between the Francophone world and the Anglophone world, or their respective traditions in literature and philosophy. So there is no getting round the centrality of language. Leaving aside the Faith (which I would never seek to justify on the grounds of tradition anyway, or to reduce to a mere tradition), the Irish language is by far the most important of our national traditions, and shelters all the others.

In recent weeks, therefore, I have made my biggest effort in my post-school life, one which I really hope to sustain. I know it's going to take years for it to pay off at all.

I have been writing my diary in Irish, or in pidgin Irish, every day. (The diary itself is one I have been keeping since June.) I have also decided to read intensively in Irish. I reckon that my precocity in English (the only thing at which I've ever been precocious) came through intensive reading, so I am going to try the same thing with Irish. I call this the Toronto Strategy, since there was a bookshop (until recently) in Toronto called The Biggest Bookstore in the World (and because I like giving grandiose names to things). I have been reading kids' and teenagers' books mostly. I want to mirror what I would have done learning to read English as a kid. I didn't jump straight into the prose of Newman or the poetry of Swinburne. I read for fun.

And, to be honest, I'm actually enjoying reading these kiddie's books, just as I enjoy reading young adults' novels in English. Their story-telling is usually more solid and less pretentious than adult novels. I have just finished two novels by Deasún Breathnach (another leftie), both of which were excellent. One of them involved a suicidal cult which wanted to blow up the world. I'm now reading a collection of his essays. (One thing that irritated me in one of the essays was a complaint about someone writing-- in English-- 'alright' rather than 'all right'. Who cares? Why is this 'wrong'? I feel this is exactly the kind of finickiness which afflicts every language, but which has particularly bad consequences when it comes to minority languages which people are supposedly being encouraged to use.)

Perhaps it's my imagination, but I really feel I'm experiencing again the excitement of learning to read-- really learning to read-- that I did when I was learning to read in English.

Unfortunately, their isn't much on the internet in terms of reading in Irish. Most Irish language resources are about the Irish language, which is abominably self-referential. I can't find any free e-books. The best Irish language blog I've found, though, is an excellent one: Smaointe Fánacha Aonghusa, This has the advantage of being written by an orthodox and reflective Catholic. I tend to agree with his views on most things-- indeed, he made the very point about linguistic finickiness that I made above, in a post where he announced that he would not even publish comments where someone made a finicky linguistic point. (He once commented on my own blog, too!) The Irish, however, is a bit tough for me.

Thankfully, I have hundreds of Irish language books to read in UCD library.

And I do think it's going to take that many! I'm really very poor at Irish. I could just about have a conversation in broken Irish, but my written Irish...well, it's sub-pidgin. I think it's going to be a long, long time before I'm willing to write in Irish outside the private pages of my diary. But-- as Gerry Adams might say-- "Tiocfaidh mo lá!" (my day will come). I hope!

Is Irish worth preserving and trying to revive, given the tremendous difficulty of the project? Many people question this, including my fellow contrarian Kevin Myers, who points out the amount of money spent on failed revival projects, and the mere lip service (so to speak) paid by most Irish people towards the aspiration. Others have pointed out that the Irish language has no economic benefit and teaching it in Irish schools is a waste of resources. Some people have even claimed that Irish language literature and culture are not at all what they're cracked up to be.

Against all this, I would quote one of the few modern Irish poems I really like, and whose last lines always reduce me to tears. (A 'pooka' is a supernatural being.) I think all the most important things in social and cultural life are like the useless things in a child's purse.

Death of an Irishwoman 
by Michael Hartnett

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but pookas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was a child’s purse, full of useless things.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Request

I have always been interested in belief formation, and specifically, in how people come to a religious commitment-- and specifically with that, of course, how people come to a commitment to the Catholic faith. I have read a lot about this in the past, and I even went as far as putting together a book proposal on a book about conversions (which was, alas, not accepted).

Right now I am contemplating writing something (not a book!) about how people in Ireland, in our day, come to accept (or to get serious about) the Catholic faith.

So I am interested in accounts of how anybody (of any age, and whether they were cradle Catholics or not) came either to accept the faith, or to a personal commitment to it. As short or as long as you'd like.

I think it's important to know what draws people, in our time and place, to the Catholic faith, for purposes of evangelisation.

You can either email me at (and you know, you can ALWAYS email me about anything, I like emails) or you can leave it in the comments here. I won't use anyone's name or identifying information if I do write something on this subject.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer by John Keats

This article was written for the Australian magazine Annals Australasia.

In this series I have been writing about poems which I consider to be the greatest poems in the English language. I use the word ‘great’ not only to signify greatness of expression, but greatness of theme. Personally, I don’t believe that poetry is ‘the best words in the best order’ (whatever that might mean). But I do believe that poetry is the best (or at least the most important) thoughts expressed in the most felicitously chosen words. In my view, a truly great poem needs to tackle a subject of profound and universal significance. ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ by John Keats certainly fulfils both these criteria.

Since it is only a sonnet, I can afford to include the entire text of this poem in my analysis of it. It will doubtless be familiar to most of you, but it’s still worth re-reading:

Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Astonishingly, John Keats wrote this sonnet at the age of twenty-one, and he wrote the first draft overnight. It came as a result of reading the translation of Homer’s works by George Chapman. Wikipedia says (something I never realised until now) that Keats would have been familiar with the ‘more polished’ translations by Pope and Dryden, but found Chapman’s ‘vigorous and earthy’ paraphrase to be a revelation.

This poem has tremendous personal significance for me because it was while reading this poem that I first experienced the very thrill of discovery it describes. I read it in my early teens, and it instantly took my breath away. I’m sure I had enjoyed poetry before—in fact, I know I did—but this poem revealed to me the depths that poetry can unveil to us. In fact, I can remember the very lines that had this effect on me. It was the ninth and tenth lines—“then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.”

The night sky seems like a ready-made metaphor for awe and wonder. C.S. Lewis, when answering the objection that the size of the universe makes a mockery of the Christian worldview, wrote that he would feel cramped in a universe he could see to the end of. Think of all the expressions (which are charming poetry in themselves) we use to express transcendence; “Reach for the stars”, “the sun, moon and stars”, “over the moon”, and so forth. It’s not only the span of the heavens, but their solemnity that haunts us. I have sometimes looked at the moon and considered it too good to be true, too poetic to be real. “High and preposterous and separate” is how Philip Larkin once described it. From ancient mythology to the opening credits of Star Trek, the heavens above us have always been the supreme source and expression of awe, wonder and transcendence.

Of course, poets have been writing about the starry sky for as long have poets have existed, so what makes Keats’s use of this metaphor so memorable? Firstly, it’s the particular scenario he chooses. The idea of an astronomer—a pioneer astronomer, at that—becoming aware of a whole new planet for the first time seemed to me so exciting it was almost heart-stopping.

Secondly, Keats’s turn of phrase here is one of the happiest ever conceived. “Swims into his ken” is a perfect union of thought with language. The moment when a new idea, a new possibility, comes into somebody’s mind is so poetic in itself that we resort to ready-made poetry to express it; a light-bulb switching on in cartoons, the expression ‘the penny dropped’ (from slot machines) in everyday language, or the exclamation ‘Eureka!’, with its associations of Archimedes leaping from the bath. But none of these have the grace, the fluidity, the sense of effortlessness and receptiveness in Keats’s expression. It is no wonder that the phrase has been used semi-humorously ever since, because it is unforgettable.

The other metaphor the poem uses to express the wonder of discovery is also a rather obvious one—the discovery of the New World (in particular, the Pacific Ocean). I remember, when I first read this poem, assuming that this was the moment that European explorers realized America was a whole new continent and not an approach to India. I’m probably hopelessly wrong about that, but who cares? (Apparently, Keats himself was wrong about who discovered the Pacific; and, when it was pointed out to him, he didn’t care either.)

The discovery of the New World has always fascinated me, in the sense that there was a New World there waiting to be discovered. It’s not the case that there were dozens of New Worlds; the discovery of America by Europeans is a unique moment in human history, one that could only happen once, and that I can easily imagine not happening (either because America didn’t exist or because it would already be known about). As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." The last clause may be unduly pessimistic, but it was certainly an unrepeatable experience of its kind.

Again, it’s not only the metaphor (which is commonplace, and none the worse for it), but the way Keats expresses the metaphor that makes it so unforgettable. He ends the sonnet on a moment of suspense, a moment of hushed amazement; “silent, upon a peak in Darien” is possibly the most deliciously understated final line in English poetry. “Looked at each other with a wild surmise” is equally perfect, and the extravagance of ‘wild surmise’ is an effective counterpoint to the falling note of the final line.

Of course, the poem is about the Homeric epics. I had not read the Homeric epics at this time, and even when I did—I read The Iliad translation of E.V. Rieu, and the Odyssey of Alexander Pope—I don’t think either of them conveyed to me the sense of sunlit exuberance that this sonnet conveys. When I was a child, one of my brothers had a picture book of ancient Greek and Roman legends, and from this and many other sources I derived my image of ancient Greece as being ‘the realms of gold’ and ‘the pure serene’. To me it was all gleaming white marble statues, elegantly fluted pillars, and the crisp light of early morning. There may have been bloodshed and horrors, but there was no banality or dullness. It seemed like the childhood of the world—everything fresh, vigorous and vivid. I think this is a fairly common view, and one which Keats’s sonnet marvellously conveys.

The joy of travel, both real and imaginative, is captured in the phrases ‘the realms of gold’ ‘round many Western islands’ (islands are always more exciting than landmasses), and ‘goodly states and kingdoms’. It’s hard to really analyse the magic of these particular lines. Aside from periods of reaction in my teens, I have always been a nationalist, because my attitude towards sovereign realms has always been ‘the more the merrier’. And there is a special pleasure in small sovereign realms. Little as I knew about history, I understood (vaguely) that the ‘realms’ and ‘islands’ of which Homer was writing were much smaller than the nations of my time, that they were semi-mythical, and that they were mysterious—places you had to step foot on to learn about. Human storytelling and human fantasy seems unable to dispense with the idea of little island societies that are both perilous and enchanted (either metaphorically or literally). I think they will always be our image par excellence of travel and journeying. This sonnet captures that ageless fascination better than it has ever been captured.

Several times, while writing this article, I have felt a physical frisson of pleasure and amazement, something which this poem (not uniquely, but especially) has always provoked in me. I remember writing in my diary, in my late teens, that it would be a sad day if it ever ceased to provoke that reaction. Twenty years later, I can give thanks that this hasn’t happened.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thoughts on 'Baker Stret' by Gerry Rafferty

I'm up way past my bed-time, on a "school night", so I'm just going to write a few words on something that's buzzing round my head.

I've been listening to the song 'Baker Street' by Gerry Rafferty a lot in the last few days. I've always liked it but it's particularly appealing to me now.

It's a very strange thing. I remember hearing this song in the background one evening, when I was in my late teens. At the moment the song came on, I had just convinced myself that I had symptoms of a serious and probably terminal illness. (I was something of a hypochondriac back then.) I was seriously worried. But the funny thing is that this is a pleasant memory. At least, remembering it gives me a pleasant feeling. Perhaps it was that, in my heart, I knew that I was being silly and I wasn't really coming down with something terminal. Or perhaps it was that an awareness of mortality suddenly made life seem more precious, and the song dramatises life (and life plans) in a way that made life seem even more fragile and aspirational.

Baker Street itself-- the actual place-- is a memory in my life. I first met my wife in London and we went to the Sherlock Holmes museum in Baker Street. The museum was terrible but I felt determined to go there, since my father and mother had tried to find the residence of Sherlock Holmes when they lived in London and were unable to do so. It seemed like a touching tribute to them, and we only just made it-- the museum was closing as we reached it, and it was the last day of our visit. Of course, there never was a 221B Baker Street, but the museum seems like the closest thing there is. Here is an excerpt from the entry for the address on Wikipedia:
At the time the Holmes stories were published, addresses in Baker Street did not go as high as 221. Baker Street was later extended, and in 1932 the Abbey National Building Society moved into premises at 219–229 Baker Street. For many years, Abbey National employed a full-time secretary to answer mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes. In 1990, a blue plaque signifying 221B Baker Street was installed at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, situated elsewhere on the same block, and there followed a 15-year dispute between Abbey National and the Holmes Museum for the right to receive mail addressed to 221B Baker Street. Since the closure of Abbey House in 2005, ownership of the address by the Holmes Museum has not been challenged, despite its location between 237 and 241 Baker Street.

Funnily enough, London itself had exactly the same effect on me as that moment of hypochodria in my teens-- or rather, coming back from London did. For several days after I'd returned to Dublin, I felt a strange and pronounced sense of disorientation. The sheer size and impersonality of London had dislocated my imagination. ("This city desert makes you feel so cold, it's got so many people but it's got no soul".) This was an unpleasant mood, but remembering it is pleasant and rather exhilarating-- it gave my thought processes a good and salutary shaking. That combination, of an experience which is unpleasant to live through but pleasant to remember, seems to happen to me a lot.

Another thing I like about 'Baker Street' is the title. I love any title of a work of art that involves the name of a street or (even better) IS just the name of a street. It's mysterious and evocative.

Finally, I like that it's a song about someone in a particular life situation, one with its own atmosphere and mentality. Listening to it tonight, and wondering at its appeal to me, I realised that all songs that are about anything at all tend to be somewhere on a spectrum of concrete, immediate experience and general, universal experience. For instance, 'Escape' by Rupert Holmes ("Do you like pina coladas?") is about a very particular, individual situation that occurs in a single time and place-- a man intends to cheat on his wife through a lonely hearts ad, and discovers that the lady he's arranged to meet actually is his wife. That's the concrete, immediate pole. The other pole is general or universal subjects-- "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"  or "Imagine" or "Nine to Five".

But in between those poles are the songs which are about a particular character in a particular situation, or a particular part of their lives, but not in a specific time or place or setting-- as in 'Baker Street', which may have a particular street as its title, but which features a whole series of related vignettes. It's not so much a story as a montage. I find such songs particularly delectable. They make life seem more pleasingly dramatic, and are a consolation when we find ourselves in tricky terrain. Because we can think: "You could write a song about this. This is the kind of thing people write songs about."

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Baby, It's Not Christmas Anymore

The fruit cake is all eaten and the gifts are all unwrapped.
The Christmas trees are compost and the wrapping paper's scrapped.
Peace and goodwill are over, and it's time again for war.
Baby, it's not Christmas anymore.

Some mistletoe won't save you from a sharp slap on the cheek.
Society will frown if you drink Irish cream all week.
There's no-one giving out free sweets in any shop or store.
Baby, it's not Christmas anymore.

The magic is all disappeared, the twinkle is gone out
And a stranger singing at your door must be a drunken lout.
So check that pile of invoices, and mop the showroom floor.
Baby, it's not Christmas anymore.

Note: I have never actually ever seen anyone kissing under mistletoe, at Christmas or any other time. But I'm supposing for the sake of poetry that it does happen.

Sources of the Self

The title of this blog post is an allusion to a work of philosophy, one which I must have issued hundreds of times in the library. I didn't realize until now that it's by Charles Taylor, a Catholic philosopher. I haven't read the book and I'm almost certainly never going to, so all I'm taking from it is the title.

I know I have been absent for blogging from some time, but I've been doing a lot of thinking in the interim.

Something that strikes me more and more, and that fascinates me more and more, are the different streams that go to make us who we are. I was recently listening to a discussion about existentialism and I realized the extent to which existentialism has influenced us all, me included. (Or perhaps existentialism merely hitched a ride on a change that was happening anyway. I'm never sure if philosophical schools of thought are causes or effects, or both.) The idea that life is a project of self-creation, or at least of self-discovery, is deeply embedded in all our imaginations these days.

I personally believe this tendency has gone too far. Identity may not be a 'given', but surely it loses all meaning if it becomes utterly fluid. As well as being highly implausible, that leads to alienation.

I wrote several paragraphs on this subject, reflecting on various contemporary controversies, but I decided to delete them. I don't want to bash anyone's sense of who they are. Suffice it to say that I neither believe identity can be entirely self-created, nor do I even think this is desirable. It makes the self into an Etch-a-sketch pad, a blackboard or a whiteboard. And what is inspiring about that?

In this post, at the risk of narcissism, I'm going to write about my own sense of self and its sources. Actually, it's not going to be so much my sense of self, as my sense of values and beliefs-- but I think they are linked.

Family is the obvious and first source, and I've been thinking a lot about it recently.

I wrote a blog post entitled The Domesticity of the Dead (alluding to Chesterton's phrase 'the democracy of the dead') in which I mused on this subject a little. I have been to a lot of funerals recently, and it's made me very conscious of the obligation to hold onto the memory, and to honour the memory, of our deceased relatives and friends.

I feel this as an imperative, not as something I can rationalize. After all, if you believe in another life, the dead are with God and don't need us to keep their memories alive. And if you don't believe in another life, then they don't exist and you can't benefit them in any way by cherishing their memory.

But who thinks like that?

Besides, I'm realizing more and more that the relationship of the dead to the living is not all one way. The dead need us and we need them.

Can you imagine what life would be like if you simply popped into existence one day, with no parents or ancestors? It's hard even to contemplate such an impoverished existence. I think that always, in the back of our minds, we are aware of this hinterland to our existence.

I know that I am aware of it. It's funny because I am not really one for genealogies or family history (although I admire those who do such research). I think of it more in terms of 'soft' records than 'hard' records-- stories, memories, atmosphere. I have only a very vague grasp of my family history, but I have a very vivid awareness of it.

It's pretty much all on my father's side, my Dublin side. I used to visit my aunt Kitty's farm in Limerick, every summer, as a child. She was my mother's sister, one of the Farrells. I barely knew them, aside from her. One summer they had a family reunion, and her house was full of strange faces I have already forgotten, aside from one which I half-remember.

Limerick always represented to me a side of Ireland, and of Irishness,that seemed exotic and romantic and spiritually superior to my Dublin life. It still does. When we would drive to her farm, the miles upon miles of empty country roads we would pass through kindled my imagination. Even now, every now and again, I take pleasure in thinking of the hundreds of miles of country roads stretching all around me, outside the sprawl of the city.

But 'Dublin made me', to quote the title of a famous poem. When I think of my family heritage I hear the 'haunting children's rhymes' of Dublin, and I'm always especially struck by the couplet of the non-Dubliner Louis Macneice, who wrote the best poem about Dublin ever:

The glamour of her squalour
The bravado of her talk.

I would defend the Kelly family, in all its branches, from a charge of squalour. (Untidiness, maybe. Squalour, no.) We do, however, have a tendency towards bravado and big ideas. When I remember my childhood, I seem to remember incessant cups of tea and equally incessant debate. It was quite democratic. It never even occurred to me that being a child debarred me from having opinions on everything from metaphysics to poetry. Nor did anybody suggest that it should.

This tendency was not only present in my immediate family, but also in my extended family. It may still be going strong, though I've rather lost touch with them. (In my speech at my wedding reception, I claimed a desire to see my extended family draw closer together again. I still feel this, but circumstances mean that this is not the right moment for me to act on it.)

I know from typing my father's memoirs that this tendency towards grandiosity dates back at least to my grandfather. He is the man who blacked out an entire street because he was attempting to control all the electricity in his house from one console. (This would have been in the fifties.) That is just one of his escapades.

The Kellys tend to be ideological, as well. My paternal background is very 'republican' in the Irish sense, which means nationalistic, left-wing and radical. Obviously, I have discarded some elements of this programme, and I do feel a kind of guilt about this. I am an Irish nationalist, but I'm not a republican, or a socialist.

However, I would very much like to believe that I retain the most important parts of this ideological heritage. I'd like to believe that I have a vision of Ireland that would accord with what my forebears would have held. How could they know that Irish republicanism would take the politically correct, anti-Catholic turn that it took? (To be honest, there are definitely strains of anti-clericalism in my family background, but it's anti-clericalism rather than anti-Catholicism.)

There are more intangible elements of my family background that I believe have influenced me, but are almost impossible to describe. "High mindedness" might be the best description-- high mindedness that runs the whole gamut through pretension, idealism, impracticality, intellectualism, piety, cultural snobbery and a thousand other manifestations. On the whole, I'm very grateful.

Since I've already dealt with family background, I can't take the most important 'source of my self' first; that is, my Catholic faith.

I only began to practice my faith some time around 2010. (This consisted of going to Mass; it would be some time before I leaped the hurdle of a first adult confession and subsequent Communion.) I can never tell exactly when; it may have been 2009. I still have emails written to various apologists in that year, trying to iron out my difficulties. Those difficulties were all intellectual and had nothing at all to do with the 'spirit of Catholicism'.  Culturally and socially, I was already a Catholic. (Aesthetically, I've never become a Catholic, and I don't think I ever will. Aesthetically speaking, I'm probably a Methodist.)

The 'soul' of Catholicism, I think, has never been better expressed than in this brief passage from a letter that Chesterton wrote to a female friend, in which he describes an interaction between his sick wife and a priest paying a house call to her. He wrote that the exchange illustrated certain aspects of the Catholic faith:

Its fearlessness of the facts of life and the Fact of Death, its ease and healthy conscience, its contempt for fads and false laws, its buoyancy that comes from balance; its naturalness with the natural body as with the supernatural soul; its freedom from sniffling and snuffling embarrassment; its presence of the Priest; its utter absence of the Parson.

"Its freedom from sniffling and snuffling embarrassment" might be the key here. Somebody once wrote that William Blake was never silly because he was never afraid of being silly. Something similar applies to the Catholic faith, in my view. It never seems silly, from any angle, in any mood, in any stage of life. And this despite all its ritual, robes, intricate theology and miracles. Even in the face of communist persecution and Nazi concentration camps-- to take only two examples of stark reality-- the Catholic faith 'held up', in the sense of rising to the occasion. It did not seem absurdly out of place or out of its depth. (I wasn't there, of course, but I can read.) The facts of life and the Fact of Death, indeed.

The Catholic faith, in my view, speaks both to the heights and depths of human existence. It is not simply a faith that seems true to me when I am feeling 'spiritual'. When I feel like a miserable human being, when my prayer life is at a low ebb (going through the motions, in truth), when the last thing I want to read is the Bible and I can barely sit through Mass, my Catholic faith is as real to me as ever. In a way, I sometimes wonder if I am not closer to Jesus at such moments, since my spiritual pride shrivels up, and I become more child-like and humble in my attitude to God.

Even though I very strenuously try to distinguish between patriotism and faith, I have to admit that my Catholic faith was very much shaped by growing up in Ireland, going to a Catholic school, and coming from a Catholic family (although a Catholic family where the spectrum of belief and practice is extremely broad).

I grew up in nineteen-eighties Ireland, just before the country began to secularize in earnest (partly aided by some spectacular own goals on the part of the Irish Church). Increasingly, I remember this moment of Irish Catholicism as an ideal, even though it certainly wasn't. Theological liberalism was rampant, but i was a child (and a teenager) and I didn't realise this. I only saw the good side, one that I have tried to do justice to in my writing that era-- a warm, calm, open-minded, generous kind of Catholicism. I want to emphasize that this sort of Catholicism is not, in my view, actually open to us in Ireland today, because we are on stormier waters.  But it had its virtues. Culture wars and hot potatoes were not the order of the day. I understand what led W.B. Yeats to write, in 'A Prayer for my Daughter":

An intellectual hatred is the worst
So let her think opinions are accursed.

I don't think opinions are accursed, but I am all too aware of the dangers of intellectual warfare-- spiritual pride, an addiction to anger, an emotional reliance on the conflict (and on the existence of an enemy), and triumphalism in being right.

How can we remain orthodox while avoiding Pharisaism? That seems to me like an essential question.

The next 'source of my self' is the writings of G.K. Chesterton. I quote him constantly, not only in this blog but in ordinary life. It seems to me that, although there were certainly better writers, no other creative writer has ever been so right. He was not only right in the substance of what he said. He was right in his emphasis, in his tone, in his preoccupations. When he exaggerates (which is all the time), he exaggerates for a good reason-- to correct something we are prone to undervalue, for instance. He is, in my view, the only writer to whom I could apply Matthew Arnold's famous words:

He saw life steadily, and saw it whole.

What especially do I love about him? Most of all, his emphasis on wonder and upon the joy of life, where nearly all other writers and intellectuals (even the optimists) focus on the miseries of life. I also love his democratic spirit. I'm never sure, with other writers, whether they are talking to me or to somebody else-- somebody more educated, more sensitive, more mature, more compassionate or idealistic or disillusioned. When I read Chesterton, I know he is talking to me, because he is talking to everyone. What he wrote about Samuel Johnson applies to himself, minus the bawling and banging: "Johnson was a demagogue, he shouted against a shouting crowd. The very fact that he wrangled with other people is proof that other people were allowed to wrangle with him. His very brutality was based on the idea of an equal scrimmage, like that of football. It is strictly true that he bawled and banged the table because he was a modest man." The story of Chesterton canvassing one householder while his fellow canvasser had covered the rest of the street is entirely believable.

It is the man in the street who really enjoys Chesterton. So many of his fellow imaginative writers seem determined to enjoy him for everything except what he most patently was. I have read all kinds of 'appreciations' of him by novelists and critics which leave me baffled, wondering if they are talking about the same author. They seem determined to abstract his message from his writings-- because a message is vulgar-- and to enjoy whatever remains as 'pure literature'. But Chesterton was all about his message. You can disagree with it, but you can't abstract it.

Perhaps one of the things I admire most about Chesterton is his ability to say the obvious thing and to see the obvious thing. With many other writers, I really wonder what they are talking about. With Chesterton, my reaction is more often: "How come I never noticed that?". One example is the observation, in his book on Chaucer, that the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, that motley band, are all going to Canterbury together. That is indeed a fact of tremendous significance when we compare the world of Chaucer to our own world. It's a fact that you could glean without ever reading The Canterbury Tales. But it took Chesterton to point it out, and to point out its significance.

The best book I read last year was a book on William Shakespeare called Shakespeare the Thinker, by A.N Nuttall. Nuttal says in that book that it takes a kind of courage to ask the simplest questions. I agree.

Chesterton has pervaded my worldview so profoundly that it's impossible to overstate his effect on me. It's not simply that he confirmed and bolstered my pre-existing views of the world (though he certainly did that, in many many instances). He also set me on the right path where I had gone wrong.

Here, for instance: "It would be really interesting to know exactly why an intelligent person-- by which I mean a person with any sort of intelligence--can and does dislike sight-seeing. Why does the idea of a char-a-banc full of tourists going to see the birth-place of Nelson or the death-scene of Simon de Montfort strike a strange chill to the soul?,..If there is one thing more dwarfish and pitiful than irreverence for the past, it is irreverence for the present, for the passionate and many-coloured procession of life, which includes the char-a-banc among its many chariots and triumphal cars. I know nothing so vulgar as that contempt for vulgarity which sneers at the clerks on a Bank Holiday or the Cockneys on Margate sands."

I was indeed, before I discovered Chesterton-- and indeed, for a long time afterwards-- inclined towards a 'dwarfish and pitiful' irreverence for the present. Most imaginative writers would encourage me in this, from Wordsworth to Nietzsche to Philip Larkin to W.B. Yeats. It took Chesterton to make me feel rightfully ashamed of myself. Indeed, this contempt for sight-seeing was already at odds with many other things I felt, such as a hearty defence of everyday life and popular entertainments and Christmas.
The final 'source of the self' that I'm going to mention (although I could continue this article until my fingers fell off) is Star Trek: The Next Generation. I would watch this with all three of my brothers, after school and before dinner, on Sky channel. It is one of the very few things we all did together. I fondly remember the running commentary and jokes we would keep up. One of my brothers is still quite a fan, while the other two lost interest long ago.

It's only Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager I'm talking about here. I don't have the slightest interest in the original series; I made an effort to watch it some years ago and it bored me beyond endurance. Deep Space Nine, although I enjoyed it at the time, has lost all appeal for me now (and my brothers all watched that one together, too, which proves this isn't all just nostalgia). DS9, with its rather baroque tone, now seems to me like an affront to the whole spirit of Star Trek.

It's the optimism and humanism of Star Trek that appeals to me the most. It may be a sign of distinction or sensitivity to view the human race with disdain, but I am unable to cultivate this feeling (though, I will ruefully admit, I sometimes feel a misplaced disdain towards individuals). I like the scene where Jean-Luc Picard has this piece of dialogue: "I know Hamlet. And what he said with irony, I say with conviction: "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!"

(This, by the way, is in no way a denial of original sin. The fallen nature of humankind seems so obvious to me that it takes a special kind of audacity to try to dispute it. But the tragic flaw in the human soul doesn't make us despicable, or in any way take away from our dignity-- a dignity that seems obvious to me even without the revelation that we are made in God's image.)

Star Trek, to me, depicts a world where 'liberalism' and 'conservatism' are in admirable harmony. Every one of the characters is a pronounced individual, a free agent, and the Enterprise is a model of 'diversity'. And yet, the crew are also a model of community which is unsurpassed in popular culture, or in any other form of culture. They work together, socialise together, live together and develop together. Similarly, the futuristic atmosphere of the show doesn't prevent the crew (and other characters) from remaining 'backward-looking' in the sense of cherishing their national and racial heritages. (I hope I can get away with using the adjective 'racial', since I am referring to Klingons and Betazoids!)

In recent weeks and months, I have been thinking a lot about my 'liberalism', and truly regretting the false choice between conservatism and liberalism with which contemporary society often presents us. If a passionate opposition to abortion and euthanasia debars me from liberalism, then I agree that I am not a liberal. If a passionate belief that the meaning of human sexuality lies in the complementary of man and woman debars me from being a liberal, then I am not a liberal. If an admiration for patriotism and tradition debar me from being a liberal, then I am not a liberal. If liberalism requires an agreement that every limit on human freedom is an evil, necessary or otherwise, then I am not a liberal.

Despite all that, I believe that I am a liberal. Liberalism, as I would define it, is a reverence for the uniqueness and autonomy of every individual, every culture and sub-culture, and every sphere of society. To be liberal is to cherish free speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression (something rather separate from free speech). I don't think any of these things can or should be unlimited, even in an ideal world. On the other hand, I don't think they should be left to benign neglect or to a spirit of 'live and let live'. I think we should take a benevolent interest in the plurality of views and ways of life that make up society. Indeed, I think that we already do this, as a result of living in an 'open society'. I think that we take in a kind of 'anti-totalitarianism' with our mother's milk, which it takes a certain amount of effort to 'unlearn' (unfortunately, some people do).

Every time we say that somebody has a right to their opinions-- a statement that rolls so easily off our tongues-- we show this. After all, there is no obvious reason why anybody should have a 'right' to their opinions. When you think about it, it's an extraordinary claim. 

Every time we draw a line between politics and education, or politics and sport, or politics and art, we show how instinctively liberal we are. The claim amongst some Marxists and feminists that 'everything is political' runs counter to this instinct, and even the people who make such a claim rarely behave as though it is true. They are thus better than their own philosophy.

What is this 'outside place', this lobby or foyer, from which we can calmly survey different truth claims, different worldviews? In a more literal and physical sense, I've always been fascinated by such places. I am fascinated by indoor shopping centres (or 'malls', as they are deliciously termed in America). When I still had disposable income, I used to regularly buy a smothie in Dublin's Stephen's Green shopping centre and carry it to the second floor, to drink it while leaning against one of the balconies that overlook the centre. I savoured the sound of the voices hanging in the air and the strange sensation of being 'inside' and 'outside' at once. This is what the 'virtual space' of pluralism seems like to me. It's extraordinary that it exists at all.

The liberal, pluralistic environment that we all live in is not natural-- it's highly artificial and achieved. I think we are in constant danger of undervaluing it.

(Are there limits to pluralism? Undoubtedly. Would I be in favour of imposing more limits than most people who consider themselves pluralists? Yes. For instance, I think there is a great deal to be said for the censorship of works of art, and I consider the 'Hays Code' of movie self-censorship to have been very admirable. But I don't see that this negates the basic idea of pluralism as being inherently good.)
I've often written that I see the nation as an extended family; this is my idea of nationalism. Similarly, my idea of liberalism is to see society as an extended group of friends. I don't think there's anything revolutionary about this; in fact, I think it's what most people do already.

I could list so many other sources of my worldview, but I'm at risk of exhausting the reader. Nor do I think the sources of my worldview, or my worldview itself, as particularly important. But I'm fascinated by such things. What does a person believe and cherish? And how did they come by such beliefs, such values?