Thursday, September 21, 2017

Time and Eternity

Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days!
Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways: 

Cuchulain battling with the bitter tide;
The Druid, grey, wood-nurtured, quiet-eyed,
Who cast round Fergus dreams, and ruin untold;
And thine own sadness, whereof stars, grown old

In dancing silver-sandalled on the sea,
Sing in their high and lonely melody. 

Come near, that no more blinded by man's fate,
I find under the boughs of love and hate, 

In all poor foolish things that live a day,
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.

Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still
A little space for the rose-breath to fill! 

Lest I no more hear common things that crave;
The weak worm hiding down in its small cave, 

The field-mouse running by me in the grass,
And heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass; 

But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead... 


That's Yeats, of course, in "To the Rose upon the Rood of Time". The lines often come to my mind, because I'm very familiar with the conflict they describe. I've always been familiar with it. I've written about it on this blog before, especially in this post.

I suppose I could describe it as "love of the world, versus hatred of the world". Or love of eternity, as opposed to the love of time.

The mystical side of me, the side that is drawn towards romantic nationalism and poetry, craves all that is elevated and elemental; ritual, hierarchy, idealism, nature, solemnity, poetry, proverbs, mythology, high romance...

But then there is the other side of me, the lover of the ordinary; of news bulletins, diaries, the hum of voices on the air, pop songs playing in supermarkets, nerds of every description, Hallmark shops, newspaper cartoons, election posters, cinemas, all human life in all its delicious banality...

One side of me thrills to "The Passing of Arthur" by Tennyson ("clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful"), while another part of me thrills to "Snow" by Louis Macneice ("the drunkenness of things being various").

Part of me is the highest of High Tories, while another part of me feels very home in liberal democracy. (By liberal I do not mean anti-life, anti-family, or anti-religion. I mean the messiness  of liberal democracy.)

Part of me wishes to withdraw from all pop culture and current affairs, and part of me loves to gorge on three hour TV documentaries with titles like "The One Hundred Scariest Movie Moments".


I have been tossed between these two extremes all my life, and I'm really beginning to think that is my fate unto death.

The Heelers Diaries

There is an Irish blog called The Heelers Diaries which has been regularly updated since 2005. This is sterling dedication to the cause of the Catholic faith and to poetry (which are the two main themes of the blog).

The blog's slogan is: "The fantasy world of Ireland's greatest living poet".  I thought that was me!

There is no blog quite like it and I'm ashamed I haven't plugged it yet.

Irish Traditions and Customs

Beannacht Dé!

Regular readers (that elite group) will remember me mentioning, fadó fadó, an ambition to compile a comprehensive list of Irish traditions and customs, including the sort that generally fly under the radar.

Well, I'm still a long way from achieving that, but I enlisted the help of the contributors to the Irish Conservatives Forum (another elite group) and we've put together a fairly good list now.

I'd like this to be the kind of blog post that people might find through an internet search. My post on differences between Ireland and America seems to get quite a lot of that traffic, as does my review of Groundhog Day. I hope it might be useful to people, or at least interesting.

What is a tradition? What is an Irish tradition? Two big questions. I don't have any working definition, but I've followed a few guidelines. I've tried to stick to traditions that are ongoing, or that might possibly be revived. (There are exceptions.) I've tried to stick to things that are distinctively Irish, though not necessarily exclusively Irish. That's pretty much it.

So, without any further ado, here is the list. If you can think of any traditions I've left out, please tell me.

Sport

Gaelic Football
Hurling
The Munster Hurling Final
Rounders
Road bowling
Rugby, especially in Limerick
Boxing
Horse racing and horse breeding
Supporting English soccer teams
The John 3:7 placard that sports fan carries to games
Swimming in the forty-foot.
Making speeches after winning the All-Ireland

The social media hashtag #COYBIG (Come On You Boys in Green) when Ireland play international soccer matches

Music and Dance


Irish traditional music
Sean-nós singing
Irish folk ballads
Tin whistle
Uileann pipes
Lilting
Ceilidhs
Set dancing
Lúibíní, whatever the hell they are
Country music, in some areas. (I hear it is a way of life in some towns. Is that true?)

Language

The Irish language
Shelta
The various dialects
Yola and Old Fingalian (well, these are more memories than traditions, but I'll put them in anyway)
Hiberno-English, which deserves a section all of its own
South Armagh slang: 'Deadly' means cool or impressive, and the archtypical 'Go on ya good thing' and the famous South Armagh 'shout'. 'Beur' for a girl, 'fien or fiend' for a boy, 'yoke' for a car

Sculpture

Giving rhyming names to Dublin statues (the Floozy in the Jacuzzi, the pr---- with the sick, the hags with the bags, the tart with the cart, etc.) No name for the Millennium Spire ever stuck, despite many efforts. Also used for at least one monument in Blfast

Visual arts

Celtic knotwork
Pre-Celtic spirals
Hiberno-Romanesque architecture
John Hinde postcards

Literature

The Irish literary tradition in general.
Short-story writing (Sean O'Faolain, Mary Lavin, and others.)
Winning the Nobel Prize for literature (four times)

Food and Drink

Corned beef, cabbage and potatoes (puke puke)
A full Irish breakfast (which is...?)
Colcannon on Halloween
Red, white and orange ice-cream and jelly on St. Patrick's Day
Barmbrack
Tea. Strong tea, especially in rural areas. Lyons and Barry's.
Irish whiskey
Red lemonade
Cadet Orange
Cavan Cola. (I understand this is no longer produced but there are campaigns to revive it, so I will keep it in.)
Guinness
Irish stew
Dublin coddle
Friend breakfast at Bewley's
Dulsk (chewable seaweed)
Poteen

Politics

Catch-all parties
Clientelism and parish pump politics
The two-and-a-half party system
Small, breakaway parties that are successful for a while and then disappear
Splits. ("The first item on the agenda of every Irish organization is the split.")
Political dynasties and family politics: People generally vote the way their extended family votes with divisions usually not talked about within the family and the tendency for people of the same families being elected generation after generation. Neither of these are unique to Irish politics, but they are VERY noticeable in our political discourse

Broadcasting

The Late-Late Toy Show
The Late Late Show itself
The dawn chorus on Mooney Goes Wild
Dustin the turkey
Shows in the format of Scrap Saturday

Events

Bloomsday
The Rose of Tralee
The Galway Races
The Ploughing Championships
The Young Scientist Awards
St. Patrick's Day
Nollaig na mBan/Little Christmas
St. Brigit's Day
The summer solstice in Newgrange
The Twelfth of July
Reek Sunday
St. Patrick's Day parade, including the wearing of St. Patrick's Day shamrock

Halloween (an Irish tradition itself)

Mummery - the tradition of playing practical jokes and pranks for the sake of personal honour among young men. May just be an Ulsterian or Co.Louth variation, as I Mummery is the name of another, entirely different practice elsewhere in Ireland involving people stuffing straw up their shirts.
Halloween bonfires
Halloween costumes
Pumpkin carving (originally turnip carving.)

Death

The Irish wake
"I'm sorry for your troubles"

Education

The "debs"
The colours debate between Trinity and UCD

Social Life

Pretending not to see famous people

Apologizing
"You're very good", an expression equivalent to "Thank you"

The Irish mammy-- matriarch in working class areas (at least she used to be)
Wren boys
Irish names such as Sinéad, Cormac, etc.
Going to the Gaeltacht
Shops having later opening hours on Thursday nights (in Dublin at least-- not sure about elsewhere)

Religion

Standing at the back of church at Mass
Taking the straw from the Christmas crib
The Irish monastic tradition
First Communion madness
St. Brigid's Cross
St. Patrick's Day being a "break" from Lent
Calling the day after Christmas St. Stephen's Day (not Boxing Day, as in Commonwealth countries)
Lough Derg pilgrimage
Croagh Patrick pilgrimage
Sitting on the backmost kneelers during the 'sitting down' portions of Mass, then standing and kneeling at the appropriate parts, since its wrong to sit on the floor and it doesn't 'make sense' to be standing all the time when there's a perfectly good seat right there.

Superstitions


Burning the Jack of a newly bought/opened pack of cards because it's bad luck.
Not killing spiders because they are 'lucky' in the sense that they 'prevent' bad luck by killing pests such as flies and other lesser insects. I think this might just be an Ulsterian superstition.
Not picking up a comb left lying on the ground, as it may belong to a banshee.
Folk cures, including holy wells
Travelling to the house of a person with a healing prayer, for ailments such as a wart, having their hands raised over you and a prayer said by them, then being directed to a well to apply some of the well water. Certainly in Wicklow, possibly Cavan and Leitrim.
 

Clothes and jewellery
 
Aran sweaters
Cloth caps
Tara brooch replicas
Claddagh ring
The Irish language fáinne (ring-brooch), indicating you speak Irish
Pioneer pins
Trench coats

Folklore

Banshees
Fairy forts and the Shee in general
Tir na nÓg
The Hell Fire Club in the Dublin mountains, and the legends attached to it
The Ulster Cycle
The Fae
The Children of Lir
The Book of Invasions
The Otherwold, including Tir Na n-Óg


Names

Nicknaming people named Christopher "Git"
The nickname "Joxer"

Men with the middle name "Mary"

Transport

Aer Lingus vs. Ryanair
The Morris Minor

Miscelleanous

Carroll's cigarettes (still made?)
Bórd na Mona peat briquettes
President's cheque to centenarians
Begrudgery
The Irish weather, and talking about the weather
The Irish diaspora
Red hair
Blue eyes
Sunburn
Freckles

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Conservatives in Trinity College Dublin!

Conservative students in Trinity College Dublin have started a conservative online journal, The Burkean Journal.

This is a very heartening development. It deserves support. I've glanced through its articles, and I see that it's not just cheap libertarianism, either-- there is an article defending populism, an article by a prolife activist, and an article defending Catholic history!

Hurray! A reason to be cheerful! Thanks, TCD conservatives!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Five Things Not to Say to an Introvert

Since the internet is full of consciousness-raising lists, and tips on how NOT to speak to various demographics, I thought I'd get in on the act. Here are five things not to say to an introvert, by a lifelong introvert.

1) "Can you ring me back?"

Please remember that an introvert is seriously messed up. Simple things like making a telephone call become a big deal. I know-- it's pathetic. It really is pathetic! The simple act of picking up a receiver, dialling a number, and talking to a disembodied voice makes an introvert's heart pound. Yes, this is very lame. But you're better off emailing.

2) "I'd better mingle."

A normal person, at a coffee morning or a reception, tries to speak to as many people as possible, and not linger over any one person. An introvert, who dreads approaching other human beings, latches onto someone and won't let go.

Come to think of it, you should probably be brutal, or you'll never get rid of him.

3)  "Just ask the bus driver for directions."

Uh oh! Here again is something that seems straighforward. Bus drivers are used to being asked for directions. Does that make any difference to the introvert? No! He doesn't care about logic or rationality. He'll do anything to avoid such interactions.

Let's delve a little deeper into the insane pseudo-logic of the introvert here. He has no problem, say, walking up to a bar and asking for a brandy, because he knows that this is the primary function of a bar. But giving directions isn't the primary function of a bus driver, so he feels weird about it. Does that make sense? Of course it doesn't! He's a basket case!

 4) "Did you get away on holiday this year?"

Introverts have a thing about small-talk. They hate it! And you know, this time the introvert is right and you're the obnoxious one. "Did you get away on holidays this year?" Really, is that the best you can do? You may as well say: "I can't avoid not talking to you, but I'm going to be as unimaginative and impersonal as possible. You're really not worth any more effort, any more risk than that". There are a hundred million more original and interesting things you can say. Are you trying to save the batteries on your imagination? You make me sick!

 5) "Let's get out of our comfort zones."

The introvert would spend all his time in his comfort zone if he could. He doesn't find anything bracing or exciting about getting out of it. What you are saying to him is tantamount to: "Let's get cold, uncomfortable, wet, and hungry, hurray!". Why is he like this? Because he's messed up! If you take pity on him, you should certainly drag him out of his stagnation, but don't use the term "comfort zone" or you'll freak him out.

All this is deeply, deeply tragic. If you have an introverted child, beating the introversion out of it from an early age is recommended. It may not work, but it will help you to deal with some of the frustrations you'll experience.

In the future, we may be able to block the gene which causes introversion,  preventing untold misery (and a great deal of bad poetry) in the future. In the meantime, you should probably try to be patient with any introverts you encounter-- you have no idea of the effort they are making, the unseen ordeals they go through.

But once they start talking about their "rich interior life", shut them up as quick as you can. You'll never hear the end of it otherwise.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Slow News

Here are the current headlines on RTE's website:

FG open up eight-point lead over FF, latest poll shows.

Man arrested in connection with London Tube bombing.

Ryanair say flights cancelled due to messed-up holidays.

Sniffer dog Scooby discovers 230 K worth of cannabis.

U2 cancel St. Louis concert over safety concerns.

Arnotts evacuated after fire breaks out in store.

Search for man swept into sea while fishing in Co. Clare.

With all due respect to the man who fell into sea, and hopes that he is found, I find such "slow news days" immensely soothing and comforting. Not just now, when North Korea is firing missiles all over the place and Islamic terrorism is rampant, but all the time. I take an aesthetic pleasure from them. They are to the calendar what uncelebrated, ordinary towns and villages are to the map.

I have a nasty cold and I've been lying in bed for hours, so I have time to think about such things.

Do Black Lives Matter, or Do All Lives Matter?

The obvious answer to this is "both", but it would be completely missing the point.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently. I don't mean the controversy about these two slogans, particularly. I mean the fact that so much of social and political controversy comes down to rhetoric, and so much of rhetoric comes down to emphasis.

The "black lives matter" crowd insist on "black lives matter", not because they don't believe that all lives matter-- let's ignore the question of the unborn child, for the sake of argument-- but because they think the value of black lives has been neglected, that it needs to be emphasised.

The "all lives matter" crowd respond with their own slogan, not because they don't think black lives matter, but because they feel that there has been quite enough emphasis on identity politics already.

This principle very much applies to controversies within the Catholic Church.

Personally, I'm entirely in favour of social justice, and I think there is such a thing as social justice-- I don't think justice is simply "fair dealing", one person not defrauding or robbing another.

But it often seems as though social justice has become the whole of Catholic teaching, that all bishops and religious orders and Catholic spokespeople ever talk about is racism, immigration, working conditions, housing, etc. etc.

Even accepting that our Faith is based upon Tradition as well as Scripture, the lack of interest that Jesus shows in politics is startling. "Who made me a judge over you to decide such things as that?". "Give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar". "My kingdom is not of this world."

Given this, is it so strange that I resent any further pandering to the "social justice crowd", that I'm reluctant to join in their rhetoric in any way? We have more than enough of it!

In the same way, it seems to me perfectly healthy that Catholics resent the lack of emphasis put upon the principle "No salvation outside the Church". The Wikipedia article on this subject shows us how often this has been affirmed, and how stridently, in the history of the Church's teaching Magisterium.

As well all know, it was reframed in a rather less strident form by the Second Vatican Council, but it wasn't abolished. And yet, how would anyone walking into a church today, or reading a Catholic magazine, or looking at a Catholic TV show, possibly realize that the Church is the ark of salvation, and not simply a "faith tradition"?

Is it really so strange that many Catholics are dstraught, today, that rhetoric that has been softened out of all recognition is being softened further, that doctrine that had been so de-emphasized is being de-emphasized even further? We might call the controversies raging in the Church today "emphasis wars", and personally I think they are entirely legitimate.

The Tunnel of Time

Every workday, I walk through a "tunnel" which leads from the John Henry Newman arts faculty building to the James Joyce Library. (Everyone calls it a tunnel, even though it's not underground. It's a glass-roofed covered walkway.) For a good few years now, the tunnel has had a series of exhibition panels, representing the history of University College Dublin and the concurrent history of Ireland, running along one side of it. Since UCD was founded in the 1850s, the timeline begins there, and it ends (for some reason) in 1970. Perhaps there are later panels somewhere else in the university.



Walking from the Newman Building to the library is walking through recent Irish history, and walking from the library to the Newman building is walking backwards through recent Irish history.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time can imagine my reactions to this display. The photographs inspire intense feelings of nostalgia, affection, belonging, loss and protectiveness in me.

In many ways, they are simply fascinating in themselves. The group photographs (of graduating classes, for instance) are poignant, as group photos always are. I was a part of a group photograph yesterday and they always make me feel a little strange. I think everybody must have the same reaction; scanning those rows of long-ago faces, you wonder what happened to them. Did they live long? Were they happy? What became of them?

From my point of view, the exhibition chronicles a tale of decline; from a robustly Catholic, traditionally-minded Ireland to the era of student radicalism and campus unrest.


Here, for instance, is an image of two men who embody the Bad Old Ireland of progressive historiography, flanking a papal nuncio of some sort; Archbishop John Charles McQuaid on the left, and President Eamon De Valera on the right. I know it's a small picture, but just look at the sheer confidence with which they stride down the street. They are in charge and they know it.

One of the interesting things about the rise of the Alt Right is the rehabilitation of the idea of patriarchy. Suddenly, there are dozens of gorgeous young women queuing up to post YouTube videos in which they heap praise on patriarchy. Not so long ago, the seventeenth-century English philosopher Robert Filmer, whose Patriarcha defended the divine right of kings based upon the authority of fathers, seemed an example of an utterly obsolete concept, a footnote in intellectual history. Perhaps not so, after all.

I wouldn't call myself a believer in patriarchy, since it summons up images of women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, but I will admit that, in my heart, I want a country to be run by old men-- a gerontocracy, as well as a patriarchy. It seems right and natural. Perhaps this is because the wise old man is an archetype. I don't know. Anyway, the exhibition is full of grey-haired, suited, anti-charismatic old men, and I greatly approve of this! (Perhaps this is another reason I am interested in later Soviet Russia-- it was a gerontocracy to a notorious degree.)

Of course, De Valera and John Charles McQuaid are admirable for more than just being old men. They were both reactionaries of the highest calibre. De Valera used the occasion of the very first television broadcast in Ireland to voice anxieties about the new technology. And how right he was! McQuaid agitated against mixed male-and-female athletics, organized a boycott of an Ireland-Yugoslavia soccer game to protest persecution of the Church in Yugoslavia, and told the Irish faithful at the end of Vatican II: "“You may, in the last four years, have been disturbed by reports about the council . . . You may have been worried by talk of changes to come. Allow me to reassure you: no change will worry the tranquillity of your Christian lives.” How wrong he was! But if only he had been right!

However, if I don't proceed down the tunnel, I will be late for work.

Here is a picture of veteran's of Jacob's Biscuit Factory, one of the garrisons of the 1916 Rising. (American readers, please note that biscuits in Ireland are what you call "cookies").



Look how dignified they are, how assured of their place in history! The revisionist historiography of the 1916 Rising had yet to be written.

Here is my favourite picture of the exhibition: a UCD historian collects folklore from an old peasant woman.



I love, love, love this picture. It depicts a healthy ordering of values, in my view; the sober, scholarly, dark-suited historian is listening, deferentially, to the simple peasant woman. She is the repository of the nation's folklore, its greatest riches, its very soul. "Backwardness" is, in fact, the right way round. This is my idea of romantic nationalism.






Here is Patrick Kavanagh, the poet, who gave some lectures on poetry in UCD. On this blog, I've often quoted his line: "Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder", which I consider one of the profoundest lines of poetry ever written. Sadly, he was a basher of cultural nationalism, or "bucklepping" as he called it.

Uh-oh, here's trouble! He is Noel Browne, an Irish politician with communist tendencies who was a fanatical enemy of the Catholic Church. Although he did good work in fighting the TB epidemic of the nineteen-fifties, he was an extremely bitter and egotistical man, a fact acknowledged even by his allies. He was famous for his confrontation with the Irish hierarchy over the Mother and Child Scheme, by which the State would provide free care for mothers and infants to a certain age. When I was taught about this in school (Catholic school!) the reasons for the hierarchy's opposition was left utterly mysterious. I presumed it had something to do with sex, or breastfeeding, or something like that. In reality, the Church was concerned at the power being given to the State, and its intrusion into the life of the family. Hard to imagine it today, when Catholic prelates answer to everything seems to be ever-more government. (And I'm not a libertarian by any means.) Here he is seen protesting outside the American Embassy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.



Here is a picture of Butch Moore, who represented Ireland in the first Eurovision Song Contest we entered, in 1965. I don't know if Americans know about the Eurovision Song Contest. It's a competition in which TV networks from various European countries enter one song each, and one song is chosen as the winner-- formerly by voting panels, now by the public. It's how Abba got their big break. Ireland has won it more often than any other country. People like to make affectionate fun of it; the songs are usually very cheesy. I have happy memories of watching it with my brother and mother; we would buy fizzy drinks and treats for it, it was a little occasion. The voting is much more fun than the music.

I included this picture because, although I'm such a backwards-looking person, I'm most nostalgic for relatively recent Irish history-- the sixties to the early nineties, perhaps. Ireland was still Catholic and nationalist, but recognizably modern. I can be nostalgic enough about the nineteen-thirties, but it's too foreign to really identify with. But I can imagine living in 1965, and I can remember living in 1985. I'd never heard of Butch Moore, but from the looks of him he seems a very respectable, wholesome kind of entertainer.



And now, onto decline and fall. You can get a broad view of it here, including the obligatory picture of the Beatles:





A little later, we get photos of students who are suddenly bolshie, preening, loutish, long-haired, sullen, and all the rest of it. There are other images of student radical magazines and posters, which I should have taken:



A sorry, dispiriting final destination.

When I conceived this blog post, I was mostly intending to write about nostalgia itself. I was going to acknowledge all its dangers and contradictions. However, it took a different direction, and now I realize that I don't want to do this. You've heard it all before. We've all heard it all before. Everything that can be said against nostalgia is pretty obvious, and is constantly said.

And to be honest, although I've written this post with something of an ironic tone, I've said nothing I don't sincerely believe.

There is one observation I'd like to make, and this is something that often strikes me as I walk past the exhibition. Has it ever occurred to you that the spirit of a nation and the spirit of a historical period, as concepts, are very similar? Liberals, deconstructionists, debunkers, and all those dreary people are always reminding us of heterogeneity, contradiction, complexity, and so forth. There is no "Ireland", they say. There was no "fifties", they say. And they would seem to have a case. There are so many elements to the life of a country, so many elements to the life of an era, that it seems a vain effort to distill some kind of essence from it all.

E pur si muove...Somehow, in spite of all this, there is a spirit of an age, there is a spirit of a nation. You only have to look at a photograph from a particular time to see it. I won't claim you only have to look at a photograph from a particular country to see it-- you might have to watch a TV broadcast, or read a newspaper. It's more diffuse, but it's there.

In the case of a historical period, it takes a distance of  years to see it. Take a picture today, and put it away for thirty years. Suddenly you'll see something in it that wasn't there the first time you looked at it. Now, this moment in history.

One of my most vivid memories of America is from the second or third time I visited. On my first visits, I'd been so eager to experience Americana that I'd been disappointed. Nothing seemed all that different. Then, on this particular visit, as I was sitting in Philadelphia airport, I looked up from my book and was suddenly hit by the American-ness of everything like steam from a sauna.

However, this doesn't make me complacent. I'm still anxious for the national distinctiveness of every country. I think the phrase: "There's no there there" is one of the most profound ever uttered. Looking at the exhibition panels in UCD's tunnel of time, I'm struck by the fact there's much more of a there in the earlier pictures-- the ones closest to the Gaelic Revival. I want more there for Ireland, not less. In fact, I want that for the entire world.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Just a Statistic

Now and again, I look at the blog of Bruce Charlton, an English academic and Christian, who is one of the few commentators out there who appreciates the seriousness of political correctness. I discovered him when I went looking for books about PC and bought his little volume Thought Prison. He's very much an original. (He once commented on this blog.)

His recent blog post on the decline in his blog statistics gave me much food for thought.

Professor Charlton is still averaging around two thousand hits a day. It's such a contrast to my own statistics.

Since I started it in 2011, this blog has accumulated 420,829 pageviews. That seems like a lot, in absolute terms, but I don't know if it's such a lot given the amount I've posted.

Last month, it received 9,536 pageviews. Yesterday, it received 184 pageviews. (At times, I average three hundred pageviews or so-- it goes up and down.)

In terms of my individual posts, their pageviews rarely reach triple figures. The review of It that I wrote on Saturday has had 101 pageviews so far. Most posts seem to settle at around 45 pageviews.

Compared to some of the YouTube vloggers I watch, these numbers are extremely small. For instance, my favourite YouTuber, Millennial Woes, has thirty thousand subscribes after four years. Admittedly, videos may be a lot more popular than blog posts.

On the other hand, I'm quite often surprised at how many people know about the blog. Strangers have recognized me through it. (Only once or twice, but it's happened.) A fair amount of people in Catholic circles in Ireland seem to know of it. it's included in the National Library of Ireland's web archive, for what that's worth.

And sometimes I'm surprised at how low blog readerships can be. I was taken aback when I learned that a well-regarded Irish library-themed blog doesn't have many more readers than this blog. 

Well, I'm grateful people do read it. That can never be taken for granted. All writings exists to be read, and it means a lot that people out there do read what I write.

RIP J.P. Donleavy

Reader, please me join me in a prayer for the soul of J.P. Donleavy, the Irish-American author whose death was announced today. Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord; may perpetual light shine upon him; may he rest in peace.



 http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/news/acclaimed-author-jp-donleavy-dies-at-91-36130864.html


I was a big, big fan of J.P. Donleavy in my late teens and early twenties. I came upon his work by complete chance; somehow, a copy of De Alfonce Tennis, one of the strangest books I've ever read, happened to be knocking around the house. I've never been able to find out where it came from. De Alfonce Tennis is a book about a form of tennis which (I eventually learned) was actually played by Mr. Donleavy and his friends. The book is partly a novel, partly a humorous manual on the rules of the game and the way of life expected of its players. The protagonist is a fictionalized version of the author, and the narrative describes an ocean liner journey to America, during which he falls for a beautiful English woman named Laura. How I fell in love with Laura! She was the epitome of female desirability to my fourteen-year-old self; accomplished, intelligent, mysterious, pale-skinned, dark-haired. At one point, we are told that she had travelled to Tibet where she had been the only woman ever allowed to look at certain sacred texts. That was what I wanted women to be, at that age; awe-inspiring.

Laura and Jay Pee (as he is called in the book) play the first ever match of De Alfonce Tennis on board the liner. The game's court and rules are, as a result, full of nautical references. (The game's rules and equipment were bequeathed to the narrator by a mysterious "Founder"; I forget the exact details.)

Obviously, I recognized the book was a big leg-pull, but the surprising thing was that many of its passages were startlingly  lyrical. I read them again and again

I went on to read other Donleavy books; his debut and most enduringly famous work, The Ginger Man, set in the bohemian fifties Dublin that he knew as an American student on the G.I. Bill; The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, a novella set in Vienna, which peers into the world of an eccentric expatriate whose life revolves around his psychoanalysis sessions; A Fairytale of New York, the meandering story of a free spirit in New York who spends time working in an undertaker's, amongst other things (if the title sounds familiar, it's because Shane MacGowan swiped it for his song); The Onion Eaters, a romp set in an aristocratic house in the Irish countryside, whose new owner is impoverished, and afflicted with a rash of house-guests, most of them uninvited; and a few others, which I didn't like as much as the ones I've named.

Donleavy was a complete original. His plots were not particularly inventive or imaginative, and his stories were rather shapeless; they often seemed to begin and end at random. But his prose was very often pure poetry. I remember being literally unable to sleep one night, at the age of sixteen, after reading The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, because I wanted so badly to write like J.P. Donleavy. At one point, my father accused me of hero-worshipping him!

One memorable feature of Donleavy's books were the little poems he would use to finish most chapters. Here is one example, from The Onion Eaters. (Please forgive the coarseness; Donleavy could be extremely bawdy).

As the circus continues
More crazy than cruel
One of us now
Will spin like a top
On the end of his tool.

Another notable feature of Donleavy's prose was that he would often put the verb at the end of a sentence, German-style, apparently for aesthetic effect alone. I don't have any examples to hand, but he would write something like: "I sauntered down Fifth Avenue, eager the city's giddy atmosphere to taste". I loved that. The idea of simply playing with language in this way intoxicated me.

I actually got to meet J.P. Donleavy, in 1998, when I was twenty-one. I wrote a fan letter to him, and asked if I could interview him for an article. He sent me a postcard, which I've carefully kept, inviting me to phone him, which I did. We arranged that I would travel down to his rather grand residence, Levington Park in Mullingar. I interviewed him for perhaps an hour and a half. I taped the interview. (I recently came across the cassette. I have nothing to play it on now, though. I'm not even sure it's playable after all this time.) The resulting article was published in Foinse, the Irish language newspaper. He was a very gentlemanly, down-to-earth fellow, not at all the eccentric I was expecting. He told me that one of the reasons he'd granted the interview was because I'd mentioned De Alfonce Tennis in my letter, a book that (he complained) most people simply ignored.

Well, that was then. In the nearly twenty years that have passed, I've often thought of sending him a Christmas card. Now it's too late. It's a long time since I've read his books, and I'm not sure I'll ever read them again. They belong to a particular moment in my life. But they were very important to me in my youth. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Commonality Value

We all understand the concept of "rarity value". It's often occurred to me that its opposite also exists-- I suppose it should be called "commonality value".

The appeal of many things is that they are so common. The awareness that they are so common, that there are innumerable other instances of them, is a big part of their appeal.

This theme occurred to me (though far from the first time) when I was going to Mass today. As readers will know, I'm not a Traditionalist. I'm not anti-Traditionalist, in fact I've found myself leaning in that direction quite a lot recently. But something keeps me in the Ordinary Form, and partly it's the desire to join in the same liturgy that innumerable Catholics participate in all around Ireland (and all around the world) every single day.

This same feeling often strikes me in regard to other things, though. It struck me on Friday evening, when I went to see the movie It in the cinema. Like most Stephen King films, it's set in Anytown, USA. Well, actually, it's set in the fictional town of Derry, Maine, and the town is anything but ordinary under the surface. But, on the surface, it's the ordinary American small town with white picket fences, low skyline, box-like buildings, and doubtless plenty of Mom and Pop stores. This environment, so common in horror and science fiction, seems so endearing precisely because it's so ordinary.

The same is true of love stories. The world will never grow tired of love stories. Sir Paul McCartney addressed this very theme in "Silly Love Songs": "You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, but I look around me and I see it isn't so..." The fact that men and women have been falling in love (etc. etc. etc.) since the species began doesn't make love stories any less interesting to us. It makes them more interesting.

The themes of Christian art are another example. How often can the Crucifixion be pictured? Or the Nativity? Or the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden? When do these themes get played out? They never get played out. In fact, the artistic tradition enriches each new treatment of them.

This feeling also occurs to me when I'm listening to homilies. I take great pleasure in the knowledge that the Bible passage the priest is enlarging upon has been discussed innumerable times, millions of times, in the history of Christianity-- that it's a "living word".

Holiday customs are another example. A Christmas tree is beautiful in itself, but it's more beautiful because there are Christmas trees in almost every home, office, shop and square throughout the Christian world. The same is true for Halloween bonfires, New Year's fireworks, St. Patrick's Day parades, Thanksgiving parades, and so on.

Another example: popular songs, stories, plays, and other works of art. When does a work of art become a "classic" or a "staple"? And doesn't it seem to become more than it was at first, when it attains this status, as though there is now a kind of aura around it?

Another example is days. Days are beautiful (in my view) because there are so many of them. Nobody could hope to remember all the days that make up their lives...I keep a diary and one of the pleasures of reading it is remembering days that I'd forgotten. This is even more true of history, whether it's the history of the world, the history of a nation, the history of a soccer club, or the history of some institution. Individual days blur into that delicious shimmering timescape, the past imperfect...

One instance of "commonality" value which gives me special pleasure to think on is country roads. I take tremendous pleasure in daydreaming about the thousands of miles of country road, many of them deserted or almost deserted, which must stretch all over Ireland. The same is true of cinemas and pubs. And yes, I wrote about this fascination in this blog post, where I made an effort at prose poetry. I tried to evoke a similar atmosphere here.

 I suppose you either feel this or you don't.  Personally, it's something that I think about very often, that I've always thought about, that moves me profoundly on almost on a daily basis. I wish I could find words to do it justice. Perhaps that would require poetry, rather than prose.

Phrases I Like

In a dreamy mood today. The problem with this blog being six years old (aside from the fact that it's remained so obscure) is that I can't keep track of what I've written already. I'm sure I've written about my favourite phrases already, probably more than once, so I'm sure many of these will be very familiar to regular readers. But what the heck. It's a pleasant subject. I think phrases are like little poems. Some are clichés, perhaps. I don't care. I like clichés.

Here are some of my favourites:

Softly falling snow. This is probably my favourite phrase of all time.

The cold light of day. Despite the fact that this phrase is supposed to be sobering, I find it lyrical and comforting.

Down memory lane. The first time I heard this phrase (or read it, more accurately) I was delighted by it. I'm no less delighted today.

The silver screen.

Till the cows come home. (I can remember when I first heard this, too-- my elder brother used it, though I don't remember the context.)

The dark side of the moon,

Blue moon. (Apparently, the song of this title was my mother's party piece.)

All human life is there.

The dead of night. (Dead of Night is also the name of one of my favourite horror films.)

Dead of winter.

The middle of nowhere. (And the back of beyond, but that's slightly less lyrical. Incidentally, it took me a shamefully long time to realize that Timbuctoo was a real place. I also thought it was Timbuck Two.)

Our daily bread.

In at the deep end. (I've always found this exciting, perhaps because the deep end of the pool seems so scary when you're a kid. Or maybe just because I Iove swimming pools.)

Burning the midnight oil. I imagine a window lit up when everything around it is dark.

This ain't my first rodeo. (I first heard this phrase in the movie Big Miracle.)

The last chance saloon. (In fact, "the last" anything nearly always makes an evocative phrase. "The last bus home" is an example.)

The old, old story. (I started writing a novel with this title, and wrote eight chapters.)

The greatest thing since sliced bread. (Do conservatives think new innovations are "the worst thing since sliced bread?")

The corridors of power. ("Corridor" is one of the most evocative words in the English language, in my view.)

The graveyard shift.

The night train. (A term I first encountered as the name of a late-night radio show.)

I'm sure there are many, many, many more, but I can't think of them right now.    

The Drama of Speech

Recently, I've been aware of just how much is happening when two people talk.

First of all, the very first words they utter make a choice-- the choice to speak in whatever language they use. Since I've been trying to improve my Irish, and since I've become more concerned about the fate of Irish, I've realized just how naturalized this choice has become. It's taken for granted. "Speak English!" means, "speak plainly". "Good plain English" means good plain speech, or good plain writing. Nobody would think of putting an improvised bilingual sign on a broken photocopier or vending machine.

The sad fact is that, every time an Irish person opens their mouth-- except to drink Guinness, of course-- they are ratifying their own colonization, they are choosing the loss of their own culture. And I feel uneasy writing that, because it sounds left-wing and Postcolonial Studies, and because I hated Irish language zealots for talking like that all my life. But...it's true! Thousands of times every single day, Irish people choose to perpetuate the legacy of their own subjection. That includes me, of course.

Now and again, the shame of this strikes me so powerfully that, for a moment, I resolve to speak and read nothing but Irish, as far as I can. However, that swiftly passes.

The fact that I speak and write the best English in Ireland, and the worst Irish, is a contributing factor.

I once visited an Italian town called Merano which is sixty per cent Italian speaking and forty per cent German speaking. Or maybe it's the other way around. Anyway, it seemed very strange to me that daily conversation was conducted in two different languages. The visit was quite stressful and brief, so I didn't have much time to observe the social dynamics, but I really do wonder...what happens? When you walk into a shop, do you have a good idea which language the shop assistant is going to use? It must be a very different atmosphere. Or maybe it's not, and people get used to it.

Another aspect to the drama of speech is the continual evolution of language. All the time, words and phrases are coming into vogue, or passing out of usage, or changing their meanings, and so forth. It's literally happening as we speak.

I'll also mention an interesting intellectual puzzle (to me, anyway) which I've mentioned before. What on earth makes us choose one synonym over another? For instance, if we want to say someone is good at something, we might say proficient, skilled, accomplished, well up, adept, capable, or we might use many other terms. What makes us choose one rather than another, in the instant?

I'm sure there are many more aspects to the drama of speech, of language use. You could probably write hundreds of pages analyzing a five-minute conversation!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Parable of the Prodigal Son, Updated

There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
 

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 

When he had maxed out all his credit cards, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death


So he set off back to his father's house.

His father saw him coming from a long way off, and went to meet him. "My son!", he cried. "You have returned!"

"Hi Bob", said the son.

"Why do you call me Bob, and not father?", his father asked, somewhat taken aback. "And who are these people with you?"

"I'm not into the whole hierarchical, patriarchal thing anymore", he said. "These are my lovers, Julia and Gary. Julia and Gary, meet Bob. Bob, meet Julia and Gary."

"Welcome", said the father, looking a little troubled, but smiling gamely. "My son, how is it you have returned to me?"

"Listen, Bob", said the son, "This is the deal. I'm broke. I lost all my money. And I've realized that it's not my fault. It's your fault."

"My fault?", asked the father. "My son, how is this so?"

"You just piled so much emotional baggage on me from my earliest childhood, you really screwed with my mental health, my self-esteem. Do you know how much therapy it's taken me to even start to get to a better place? Thank Gaia I had Gary and Julia to help me work through my sexual repressions."

"My son", said the father, "I am deeply grieved to hear all this. You're quite right! I don't blame you at all! Welcome home! Let me tell my servants to slay the fatted calf--"

"Uh!", said Julia. "No thanks! We're all vegans."

"Very well", said the father, bowing his head. "You young people are way ahead of us. Don't worry, we'll have a vegan feast on the table in no time." And so he rushed off.

Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, "along with his lovers Gary and Julia. And your father Bob, has laid out a vegan feast because he has come back safe and sound."

At this the older son became angry and refused to come in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.

The older son said: "All these years I've been slaving and never disobeyed your orders. And then this son of yours, who has squandered your property with sexually ambiguous lovers, comes home, and you make him a vegan feast-- whatever the heck that is."

"We must show mercy!", the father replied. "Compassion! Love!"

"I get that part", said the son. "But shouldn't he, you know, stop fornicating first? And maybe say sorry? Isn't what he's doing wrong?"

"We-e-ell", said the father, making a steeple of his fingers, "objectively speaking, I suppose, we might say that it's less than ideal. But we really have to take into account the mitigating factors, the social pressures, the particular context--"

"Dad, you've changed!", said the elder brother, impatiently. The sound of hip-hop was now billowing from the house. "Ever since you started reading Hans Kung and Timothy Radcliffe. What happened to all the stuff you used to tell me about the body being a temple, and the need for repentance, and honouring your father and mother, and all that? Is that all old hat now?"

"No, no, no, no, no!", said the father, raising his hands, smiling beatifically. "There's been absolutely no change in that department, that's still all true, one hundred per cent, I guarantee you. This is just....a new approach, suited to the times. Mercy! Compassion! Love! We must walk with your brother..."

"Looks to me like he's walking all over you", said the eldest brother. "I'm sorry, Dad. You taught me too well. Right is right. Wrong is wrong. If this ne'er-do-well brother of mine stops fornicating and taking advantage of us, I'll happily forgive him. Until then, I'm not going to indulge his shenanigans."

At this, a terrible change came over the father. His face went red, his eyes bulged, and he began to shake his fist. "Fundamentalist!", he shouted. "Neo-Palagian! Pharisee! Legalist!" And many other things too awful to write out.

"Hey", said the eldest brother, "what happened to Mercy, Compassion and Love?"

Movie Review: Stephen King's It

"It may be profligate, but is it not life? Is it not the thing?"

Lord Byron, in a letter to his publisher, writing about his own poem Don Juan.

Yesterday, I went to see It, the new movie based on Stephen King's thumping 1986 novel, which runs to over a thousand pages. (Actually, the movie is only the first part of a duology.) I rarely go to the cinema these days, for various reasons, but this was one movie I wasn't going to miss.

I read It a couple of years ago, and I was greatly impressed. After The Stand, I think it's Stephen King's best work. And let me get this out of the way; I believe that Stephen King is a genius, probably one of the greatest novelists of all time. There's a lot of snobbery when it comes to Stephen King, for two main reasons; the first being that he is a horror writer, the second being that his books sell in their millions and appeal to every kind of reader.


I've mentioned that I'm a member of a horror club. As far as I know, none of the other members of my horror club are keen on the writings of Stephen King. I won't accuse them of snobbery, but I do think they're missing out.

(Sadly, and incidentally, Stephen King has developed a particularly bad case of Trump Derangement Syndrome, to the extent that the God Emperor had to block him on Twitter. To be fair, Trump is uncannily similar to the villain of King's 1979 novel The Dead Zone, so King obviously has a long-standing horror of populist politicians.)

The particular power of King's writing is something that defies analysis. His plots are rarely all that original. His characters are fairly stock. There is no great ingenuity in the construction of his plots. But as a storyteller, he is up there with the best. You identify with his characters. You care about them. You buy into the story. What's happening on the page seems important. Indeed, King writes with such a sense of urgency that life itself seems more important and vivid, as seen through his stories.

As I've said, It is a monster of a book. But that's a big part of its pleasure. The story revolves around an evil entity which has haunted a small American town (King's stock-in-trade) for generations, and which comes alive every twenty-seven years. The entity can take various forms, but most often takes the form of a scary clown. In fact, this book seems to have popularized the figure of the scary clown, to the extent that hardly anybody seems to like clowns anymore. (I never liked them in the first place) The protagonists of the story are "The Losers Club", a gang of eleven-year-olds. all of whom are bulled in school.

The novel has two timeframes-- one strand of the story is set in the late fifties, and another strand is set in the present day (that is, the eighties). In the second timeline, the Loser's Club reassemble as adults, and confront the reawakened "It" once again. (In the book, the narrative shifts between these two timelines. The film dispenses with this, so that the first film is entirely set in the first timeline, now brought forward to the nineteen-eighties.)



So here we find many of Stephen King's standard themes-- childhood, plucky kids, camaraderie between kids, small-town America, a confrontation with some elemental evil, courage, and the journey of life.

That last theme, the journey of life, is the one where the book really shines. King takes a group of characters who had a traumatic, formative experience in their childhood and shows them to us as middle-aged adults. The book is as much about lived experience and the passage of time as it is about an evil clown. And King succeeds in reproducing the texture of life, the roller-coaster ride of life, with extraordinary vividness and poignancy.

The sheer size of the novel gives him scope to do this. He describes the lives of his characters in such detail that the stakes of the supernatural drama at the novel's centre seem so much higher. One particular passage, in which he describes the contents of one hypocondriacal character's medicine cabinet, lingers in my memory especially. King's gift is that he doesn't treat such scenes as character establishing moments, or as filler, but with as much seriousness as he treats the big dramatic moments. They could easily be short stories in themselves.

(One detail in the book which I adored is the glass tunnel that connects the children's and adult's sections of the town library. It has a thematic importance, but it's delightful in itself, and the author dwells on it with evident relish.)

So much for the book. What about the film?

The film was excellent. I award it four marks out of five. (Five marks are reserved for the films I watch over and over again.)


First of all, it looks amazing-- the production values are top notch. Every single frame is constructed like a tableau. The film is set in summer, and often drenched in a golden sunlight which is very appropriate to King's romantic, bittersweet vision of childhood. This is one of those films, like Inception, which takes itself so seriously that you can't help taking it seriously, too. It demands your attention from the first moments.

I don't remember all the plot details of the novel too well, but as far as I can remember, the film follows it very faithfully. (There is one big change, but I won't say what it is.) The close-to-the-bone banter between the boys is brilliantly written-- I heard a lot of laughter in the cinema. Unless I'm mistaken, much of the banter is original to the screenplay. The eighties period detail is obtrusive-- the camera lingers on a cinema marquee to show us the titles Lethal Weapon II and Batman-- but I actually liked that. (There was one detail which jarred, however. The AIDS epidemic is mentioned, but the Losers' show an amazingly casual attitude to blood. Were you a child in the eighties? Do you remember how terrifying blood became?) 

Commendably, the movie exploits all the standard conventions of the horror genre. Sometimes, it seems as though horror movies can be divided into two categories-- gory horrors full of jump-scares (that is, sudden scares that come out of nowhere and make the audience jump in their seats), and spooky movies which rely on atmosphere. There's no need for such an opposition. Jump-scares are good. Atmosphere is good. Gore doesn't make your movie trashy, necessarily. Following it source novel, It uses pretty much every convention of horror that there is-- and it uses them very well.

In fact, the faults I would find in this movie are faults that lie in the novel itself. King never really explains the powers and limits of the evil entity-- the titular "It"-- and this makes the conflict between the Losers Club and It (or Pennywise, as it calls itself in its clown form) seem haphazard and contrived. For instance, Pennywise can manipulate the human mind, and frequently induces hallucinations. Given such a power, it seems silly that a group of schoolkids should be able to mount any kind of challenge to it at all.

It bothers me in another way that's harder to convey, but I'll do my best. This is my question: what is the story about? I realize that it's about a supernatural entity that plagues a small town, but is there anything deeper going on? I'm not talking about the thematic level here. The story obviously has themes of childhood, courage, companionship, fear, and the social construction of reality (the latter because the townsfolk are willfully blind to the the fact that there's something very odd about their home). And it has plenty of other themes besides these. 

But on the level of the story's applicability-- what does a scary clown plaguing a small American town have to do with anything happening in the world today? The time-honoured device of the "town with a dark secret" seems sadly archaic these days, and was archaic long before the novel was written. Our social problems, even our existential problems, are much less parochial. Indeed, in an era when local boundaries seem to mean hardly anything at all, the "town with a dark secret plot" seems like pure escapism. There's nothing wrong with pure escapism-- but It obviously has ambitions beyond escapism. Indeed, this objection operates on the level of plot, too-- the townspeople may be able to ignore the fact that something very weird is happening in their neighbourhoods, but how has the outside world failed to pick up on a string of disappearances and tragedies spanning generations? After all, the film is set in 1989, not 1889.

In my view, if an author is going to use the town-with-a-dark-secret device today, he or she has to explain how the dark secret hasn't aroused the interest of the outside world, the media, or the government. On a thematic level, he also has to explain why this story is relevant to citizens of the information age, the age of globalization. There are undoubtedly ways to do this-- in fact, this scenario might actually be a good way to address the theme of globalization and the loss of rootedness. For instance, the citizens of the town might have founded it with the express purpose of seeking a more stable, self-contained community. But we need some explanation, some thematic updating of the convention..

(Of course, you could respond that a story is a story is a story-- a philosophy endorsed by King himself, in a memorable sequence of this very book. That's true, but the horror genre seems to thrive on deeper meanings, deeper resonances-- to the extent that I, personally, feel unsatisfied if a story seems to lack one.)

All in all, though, I can enthusiastically recommend It, and I'm looking forward to its sequel. 

Postscript: I've been reading up on the novel, and I've been reminded that King does actually set some conditions to Pennywise's powers, particularly its powers of mind control, which explain how the Losers' Club can plausibly fight it. However, my criticism still applies to the movie, where its powers are very vague.