Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Idea of "Thickness"

An idea that keeps coming to my mind, as I look about this world and explore my own feelings about it, is the idea of "thickness". I've found myself invoking this idea several times, when talking to friends, and I've struggled to express it adequately. I'm going to try to put it into words here.

Although I've struggled to express it, I don't want to make out that there's any great mystery to it. I don't think there is. But I would ask the reader to think in very fundamental terms. For the moment, forget about Catholicism, religion, conservatism, Ireland, or anything else you might associate with this blog. I would ask them, too, not to assume I mean something lofty or noble. Not necessarily. "Thickness" can be vulgar and tacky.

By "thickness" I mean something like "distinctiveness plus depth". And again, not depth in a lofty sense, but in a simple sense.

I think Christmas might be the best example for "thickness". Christmas is in many ways my ideal for everything.

You can't walk through a city centre in mid-December without realising it's Christmas. Christmas is everywhere; in the lights, the decorations, the carol singers, the pine trees, and a hundred other details. There are countless Christmas songs, Christmas films, Christmas recipes, and so forth. Christmas is very distinctive-- for all its multiplicity, it has an inescapable "flavour"-- and it's very, very deep. There's a lot of it. It's bottomless, in fact. It's so omnipresent, at that time of year, that if becomes a backdrop to everything.
Here's another example of thickness-- parliamentary history. You could take any recondite field of knowledge, but parliamentary history is a personal favourite of mine. I have an idyll, a poetic vision, of a parliamentary history uber-nerd, sitting up in bed, in his pyjamas, with a copy of Hansard (the record of British parliamentary debates) in one hand and a steaming mug of cocoa in the other. (My uber-nerd-- let's call him Harold-- is always English, since Westminster is "the mother of parliaments".)

Harold knows all about the Rump parliament, the Barebones parliament, the Khaki election, and the West Lothian question.  He can tell you who the Speaker of the house was for any year you mention. He knows how constituency boundaries have shifted down the years. In short, he is neck-deep in the "thickness" of parliamentary history-- a subject that is both distinctive (with its own procedures, vocabulary, rituals, and so forth) and deep-- again, effectively bottomless.

Would you like to run into Harold at a party? Personally, I would. Such people are often classed as "bores", although I've never understood why. Surely somebody who has a limitless fund of conversation on one subject is the opposite of a bore? Harold has much to say about something, at least. The true bore, to me, is someone who has nothing to say about anything, or (perhaps) a little to say about everything-- which is generally platitudes, popular opinion, and the fruits of casual reading or viewing. Harold is possibly a bit socially awkward, but would you really rather be trading tiresome and aimless banter with the social butterflies?

So couldn't it be said that everything is "thick", then? After all, you could immerse yourself in anything.
But I think there are real differences, and that "thickness" is an objective quality. For instance, take the contrast between Christmas and Easter.

Christmas is thick, in the secular world as well as in religious circles. Easter is not. Have you ever seen an Easter movie or read an Easter book? There may be any number of Easter hymns, but I know of no Easter songs. A person could easily walk through a city centre street and not realize it was Easter. I imagine that was possible even a hundred years ago.

Now, Christians know that the meaning of Easter is as deep and as distinctive as it could possibly be. And I imagine that distinctiveness, that depth, would be very evident in a monastery, or perhaps in some village with many pious traditions still alive, or even in a big and observant Catholic family. But, in contemporary Western society, Easter isn't at all "thick" in the sense I mean here. "The Easter spirit" doesn't roll off the tongue-- sadly. Easter doesn't form a backdrop like Christmas does.

(In fact, I've always had the desire for Easter to be made "thicker"...but that's another story.)

Another example of something that is not "thick", to contrast this time with parliamentary history. Let us take local history. Local history is very laudable, but in general, it's not "thick". It might be. I imagine, for instance, that the history of the Isle of Man is "thick", but I doubt the history of Watford is "thick". There must be lots of it, as with all history, but I doubt that it's very distinctive.

I crave "thickness" and I always have. And I have a certain affection for "thickness" even in contexts that might not seem particularly laudable. I've never been in a bingo hall, and bingo seems like a singularly mindless occupation to me. But I can't help feeling a certain affection for bingo halls, since bingo has its own slang, its own rituals, its own way of life.

"Thickness" can apply to anything. It can apply to transport, for instance. I've spent far more time in buses than on trains, but I've never found anything "thick" about bus travel. A bus is just a long car, for the most part. But air travel is very "thick", and train travel is as "thick" as you could wish. We've all heard about train-spotters and model train sets. Have you ever heard about bus-spotters or model bus sets?

Now I'm on the subject of travel, it occurs to me that age is not necessarily a guarantee of "thickness". Walking is the oldest form of human transport, but it's not particularly "thick". Not a fraction as "thick" as train travel, which came along the day before yesterday.
I would claim that even time-periods can be "thick" or not "thick". The seventies, it seems to me, were "thick". So were the sixties. But what about the noughties? Perhaps they will seem "thicker" in retrospect, but I doubt it.

So what is the importance of "thickness"? Well, it has a personal importance to me, since I crave it. But I think it is important for society, too. 

"Thickness" is always easy to mock, and is the habitual target of stand-up comedians. Christmas is a racket, the Isle of Man is inbred, train-spotters are pathetic, parliament should be modernized and streamlined, etc. etc.

But people gravitate towards "thickness" constantly, if only to mock and castigate it. It's something to grasp hold of, something to capture the imagination (in whatever way), a backdrop, a theme, a flavour, material for a joke or a caricature. "Thinness" is none of those things.

Let's turn to the example of Catholicism. We've all heard about the Catholic who has a "quiet, inward" faith, even though he might not get to Mass every week, and doesn't go in much for prayers and novenas. His faith is expressed in how he lives his life, he tells us-- or his obituarist tells us.

Very well. But I can't help feeling a lot more admiration for the old lady who goes to daily Mass, whose house is filled with holy pictures, who is always rattling off rosaries, and who goes on pilgrimage several times a year. Apart from anything else, she is constantly proclaiming the name of Jesus, while "quiet, inward faith" leaves it unspoken most of the time. But more than that--she fills the atmosphere, the little corner of the world she occupied, with the incense of piety.

The same applies to nationality. What is the point of being a patriot if you are not doing your part to preserve your country's traditions and distinctiveness? I've never had any interest in an Irishness which is confined to the depths of the psyche-- a quiet, inward Irishness, perhaps. Nationality that is not expressed in outward things is a feeble, wispy entity. But a nationality which expresses itself in song, story, language, dance, clothes, food and drink, and so forth-- that's a living and vibrant nationality. A "thick" nationality. Besides, I believe that, to a great degree, taking care of the "outward things" means that the "inward things" take care of themselves.

These are by basic thoughts on "thickness". It may not seem a terribly significant concept. But I find it coming to my own mind all the time. Generally speaking, I'm in favour of whatever fosters "thickness" and opposed to whatever diminishes it.

Friday, August 21, 2020


As the title says, I've been feeling a lot of restlessness lately. 

I've written at great length, on this blog, about the problems of the contemporary world that preoccupy me. Homogenization. Globalization. The death of tradition. The sidelining of poetry.

But increasingly, I find myself asking what I'm doing about it, and feeling the urge to do something about it. Some kind of protest, or gesture, or stand.

And it's challenging for me, because I'm a shy and retiring sort of chap. I find it very difficult to do anything extroverted.

And yet I feel, by their very nature, the problems that preoccupy me require a more extroverted response than simply writing. That they require taking to the street-- or the supermarket, or the pub, or the other theatres of ordinary life.

My aborted novel, The Cross, in which the central character decides to carry a cross through the streets of Dublin, was an attempt to dramatize this urge.

I've seriously considered forming a group to distribute sheets of poetry outside supermarkets. Anything to disrupt the bovine soullessness of contemporary life.

The supermarket especially upsets me. It seems a provocation that such hideously utilitarian, characterless, consumerist places should be so complacently endured. But people spend far more time in supermarkets than they do in theatres or arts centres or cinemas or galleries.

But the supermarket is only a particularly galling example. I can't reconcile myself to the fact that most daily life is utterly banal, rootless, drained of the transcendent or the poetic.

Other things are fuelling this restlesness, this sense of malaise. I posted this on Facebook yesterday, to no response:

I've stopped keeping a diary after five years. It just became too much of a task. That was weeks ago. However, I've now found myself wondering about the value of the unrecorded moment, the unrecorded day. What value does experience have in itself? How does any given moment relate to your whole life? Where do the words go when they are wiped off the blackboard? Or, to quote Rod McKuen, what does it matter what's done in the day after the day is done? Are some parts of life meaningful and is the rest just about getting to those parts, or can it all be meaningful? Facebook, give me answers.

I wasn't really expecting answers from Facebook, of course.

This is where my head is at. I am bothered by things which seem to bother hardly anyone else, and the task of putting them into words is also troubling me.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Ragbag

 As my access to a desktop computer remains severely limited, here is a ragbag of bits and pieces to keep the blog ticking over.

First off, this link to my latest article in the Burkean Journal, on pop culture.

Next , a poem I wrote yesterday:

In a Café

What light-years you have travelled to be here,
With me,
At this café table, in the morning sun.
What a race you have run
From the vast abyss beyond your memory--
The neonatal dark, the primal light--
From the savage jungles of the infant soul
Where monsters might uncoil from every bough
But paradise is never far from sight.
What epic treks you've made through countless lands
Mapped and unmapped; childhood, and childhood's end;
Growth, grief, first love, the blazing desert sands
Of loneliness, the finding of a friend.

What dungeons, torture chambers, furnaces,
You crawled through, all alone, where none could aid;
What limitless horizons were displayed
Only to you, on mountain-tops of bliss.

I see my face look back out of your eyes--
Those oceans limitless;
Those windows to a world other than this;
Those starry starry skies.

And from so far, for you to be so near--
So very near--
As near as ever time and space allow;
The morning sunlight playing on our tea
With me,

And finally, a smattering of Facebook posts:

I was looking at nostalgic videos of Ballymun on YouTube the other day. For those who don't know, Ballymun was an estate of high-rise towers and apartment blocks built in the 1960s, when this kind of thing was in vogue. It remained unique in Ireland until all the high-rise was pulled down about a decade ago. Working class communities were moved there from inner city dwellings, many of them slums. It started out with great community spirit but was eventually plagued by vandalism, drugs and unemployment.

It filled me with thoughts. First off, I grew up there in the eighties, and the pictures from the sixties and seventies were hard to relate to. Everything looked cleaner and happier and more sociable. By the time I was growing up, kids had gone feral and everything that could be smashed up was smashed up. There was open drug-dealing. Sometimes I'm surprised at the nostalgia.

But I'm nostalgic too! Partly because you can't help being nostalgic for your childhood. Partly because Ballymun was so distinctive. You saw a picture of it and recognized it immediately, there was nothing like it. I remain convinced that human beings need to be part of something distinctive to flourish. That is why I am always harping on about preserving distinctiveness-- you miss it when it's too late. (There were also lots of green spaces for kids to play on-- the endless games of soccer, followed by ghost stories when it got too dark to play...)

Another thing that made me sad was the realization of ever-diminishing folk culture. The people who went to Ballymun from the tenements (or slums) often lived in squalour but had a vibrant cultural life of ballads, stories, and even high literary culture. There were pianos in the tenements and street urchins who read Sir Walter Scott. It's the environment Brendan Behan came from. This lingered in Ballymun but was increasingly replaced by pop culture. I think it's pretty much gone now. It's sad that, as people's material conditions improve, they so often seem to lose their spiritual or cultural life.

Religious practice declined as well. I remember the parish priest recalling, about ten years ago, how there used to be many Masses on a Sunday only a few years before. Sadly, and contrary to what you might expect, working-class parishes have smaller congregations than middle-class parishes today-- at least, in Dublin. Popular piety remains, but observance dwindles.

That's all.

Reading old periodicals, as well as being fascinating in itself, gives you a good perspective on how the public agenda changes. I was reading an article from a 1985 magazine, about Ireland's neutrality. I remember what a hot topic this used to be, as reflected in the article. I never hear anyone talk about it now.

I've been fantasizing about starting a group called the Poetry Liberation Front which (among other activities) would hand out sheets of poetry to people outside supermarkets, shopping centres, and other strongholds of suburban soullessness.

There is a romantic and a cynic at war inside me. The romantic dreams of the days when people would listen to myths and legends and folk stories and ballads around the fire. The cynic suspects they would all rather have been watching soap operas on TV if they had the choice.

Here's an odd thing, an example of the joy I take in words and phrases. This morning somebody said to me: "It's just across the street". I jogged across the street. The phrase "just across the street" gave me such curious joy that the sky seemed brighter, the life around me seemed more vibrant, and I felt absurdly cheerful. "Street" is such an evocative word. It is where the man in the street is to be found, as well as the dogs on the street who know everything. Wisdom is to be found on the street, as we know from the term "street wise".

And a street is one of those indeterminate, in-betweeny places, which excite me for some odd reason-- like corridors, lobbies, concourses, foyers. Even the words excite me. I guess they are full of possibilities, of the potential for stories and anecdotes.

When I'm posting about Christianity specifically, I say so. Sometimes I am reflecting on society and culture in general and comments assume I am talking about Christianity. To the extent that, in an article I once wrote about the decline of poetry, there was a comment blaming it on the loss of the Latin Mass! This is tiresome.

I absolutely believe Jesus is the alpha and omega, but I also believe different social and cultural questions have their own autonomy. You can mourn the decline of tradition in society without meaning JUST Christian practice-- especially since it would be a bad compliment to Christianity to practice it out of tradition. I can write about Ireland without meaning JUST Catholic Ireland. Nationality is different from religion, just as family is different from religion. You may want your whole family to share your religious beliefs, but you don't pester them about it, or disown them if they don't.

When C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton wrote literary criticism and social commentary, did they have to relate everything immediately to their faith? Did this make them less evangelistic? I think it made them more evangelistic and gave them an audience they would have lacked if they were mere tub-thumpers.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Hail to Peter Kantor and Colin McCormack

In a Lancashire snooker hall, in the final year
Of the nineteen-seventies, they pulled it off;
Peter Kantor and Colin McCormack, blear
From six days' cannoning billiard balls, for the sheer
Feat of the thing, for the record books, for the love,
Broke the record for playing non-stop snooker.

Where are they now, and what are they doing today,
Colin and Peter? Does Peter like Tangerine Dream
All these years later, still? Is Colin's beard grey
Or gone altogether? And does either one of them say
"I once broke a record"? Or do they at all esteem
The feat they achieved for six days' continuous snooker?

Where did I see them first? In my sauntering teens
In the stagnant nineties, in an old second-hand Book
Of Guinness World Records. I hungered for just such scenes:
For hurtless hysteria, hype for a hill of beans,
For a groove where the needle of memory gets stuck,
Be it nothing more than a marathon session of snooker.

And a part of me always remains in it, always remains
With Colin and Peter and all of that jubilant crowd
In their inky eternity. Honour their purposeless pains
And honour, too, those who honoured them, all that sustains
The spirit of man in the trifles he has endowed
With gratuitous greatness, in six-day long sessions of snooker.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A Smattering of Social Media Snippets

Well, it's been another long absence from blogging! It's through no reluctance to blog, but simply a matter of access to computers. I very rarely have access to a desktop computer these days, as this strange interlude of history continues, and this blogging platform really requires a desktop.

However, Facebook is a much more convenient way of firing off one's thoughts and ideas. Here are some things I've said in the past few weeks. (They may be of interest. Isn't that the whole assumption behind social media, anyway?)

I will return to more regular blogging-- but who knows when?

To me the value of nostalgia lies not so much in the object as in the attitude itself. Nostalgia is a creative action of the soul. Yes, it can be unhealthy, but I think it's mostly not.

Here's a question. How many of my Facebook friends consider themselves nationalists and what does this mean to you?

I consider myself a nationalist. Partly this is filial piety towards my father, grandfather, and all the generations who invested so much in the vision of an Irish nation. But even more, it's because I think the world is a richer place-- for everyone-- if we protect and cultivate meaningful diversity, diversity between countries. Especially in our era of globalization.

But I am a Catholic first and foremost so my nationalism has to be consistent with Church teaching. I've come to accept that a lot of current nationalist attitudes towards immigration are not consistent with Church teaching. (I realize that could be argued, but this is my interpretation.) I would like it if we we could cultivate a nationalism and even a populism which is not so preoccupied with immigration. I also understand the concerns on this matter and I resent that there can't be a calm discussion about its implications.

Personally I wish that all the energy and sacrifice that was poured into Irish political nationalism had gone into cultural nationalism instead. We have a state, but do we have a country? Perhaps Patrick Pearse would have done better to continue his educational and literary work, rather than leading the 1916 Rising. I say that in all respect to the bravery and sacrifice of the rebels. I don't really care about a united Ireland, as things stand. What's the point if we are culturally globalized anyway?

I'm writing in the Irish context but I'm also interested in what my friends from other countries think in their own contexts.

"Ní bhíonn bocht dháiríre ach an té atá gan aisling. Ní bhíonn beo ach an duine a fhéachas lena aisling a chur i gcrích."

Nílim ar aon intinn le Máirtín Ó Cadhain maidir le mórán, ach aontaím leis anseo.

Me and my father, some years ago

Does anyone else out there take an immense delight in reading old magazines and periodicals?

I love how specific they are to a moment in time, in obvious ways and in less obvious ways. After all, "a moment in time" is such an elusive thing. It looks backward to the past and forward to the future, in a way not only unique to that historical moment, but to the particular writer and to the audience they are addressing.

I dislike historical fiction for this very reason. It's impossible to recreate the lived experience of a particular moment in social history. The harder you try, the more laboured and contrived it seems.

I want more tradition, but I want it to pervade ordinary life. I am for the traditionalism of Tuesday morning on a workday. The traditions, customs and rituals that can fill the most ordinary moments are the ones that count to me, not the "big ticket" traditions that happen once a year or every now and then, and require great expense and planning. They are important, too, but they seem far less important. What is the point of cramming all our traditions into weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmas, big sporting occasions, etc., if ordinary daily life becomes completely drab and humdrum?

For the same reason, I'm not attracted to the idyll of living in some sleepy, old-fashioned village. I want to be in the belly of the beast. I want to take contemporary life at its most soulless and utilitarian and try to make the most of that.

The Arian controversy, as you know, hung on the question of whether Jesus was divine or created. I often think how many Arians must have felt they had a slam-dunk case in John 14:28, "The Father is greater than I". This seems inarguable, doesn't it? And yet virtually all Christians reject the Arian position today.

This is why I am so reluctant to appeal to the "plain" meaning of Jesus's words, or to pit my judgement against the Magisterium. If we can go wrong so easily with Christ's own words, why should the same not apply to Church documents?

I think the association of ideas plays a massive role in human life, one habitually underrated. I notice it even in the littlest things. For instance: I regularly have to give directions in the library, and I notice that whenever I say: "Go to the right of the escalators", people virtually always say: "I go upstairs?". (Well, not anymore, because once I'd noticed this I started to clearly specify that they should stay on the same floor. But before that, they always asked this.)

I'm especially prone to association of ideas myself, sometimes to a comical and ridiculous level. Sometimes I become drowsy in a particular place, or reading a particular book, simply because I've been drowsy in the same situation before.

The Ilac shopping centre in Dublin used to have-- when I was a kid-- a fountain or water feature in the centre, with hot air balloons rising high into the air, and glass lifts which rose over the roof from which to see the cityscape. It also had a café over the fountain, on a kind of mezzanine level, whereby you could look down into the water.

Strangely, I noticed a link in my memory, whereby every time I remembered a particular book of Years criticism I read, I thought of this part of the fountain, the balloons, the lifts, and the café. But though I also read that book a long time ago, I don't think I read it there. So why does my memory link them? I think because that area above the fountain seems symbolic of the sublime and elevated to me. Took ages to make that link. The mind is a funny thing.

Incidentally, are biscuits (or cookies, as Americans say) better dunked in tea/coffee, or undunked? I used to dunk them all the time. Now I'm tending not to.

How weird it is that we give the same name to the ear-piercing, jarring noise a police-car makes, as we do to the creatures who produced such irresistible music in Greek mythology?

I asked people yesterday, in a post here, for their views regarding pop culture, high culture, and folk culture. Most people were quite withering about pop culture.

I agree with them. I think pop culture has had a catastrophic effect on society. And yet... Can I wish the cinema away? It has brought so much magic into my life. I have happy memories of watching all eleven series of Frasier with my father, just before his final illness. I have happy memories of watching Fawlty Towers with my family, and Star Trek with my brothers. I can't really wish those away.

There is the austere conservative side of me which thinks we would all be better off sticking to books and telling stories around the fire. But another part of me is fascinated by pop culture as a kind of modern-day equivalent to folk culture. Are Batman and Jean-Luc Picard our equivalent of King Arthur or Finn Mac Cumhail? I see how they differ. Do the differences outweigh the similarities, invalidate them?

Michael Collins is often presented as the hard-headed, pragmatic man of action, in contrast to De Valera's romantic idealism. But this is a passage from Collins's book The Path to Freedom:

"We have secured the departure of the enemy who imposed upon us that by which we were debased, and by means of which he kept us in subjection. We only succeeded after we had begun to get back our Irish ways, after we had made a serious effort to speak our own language, after we had striven again to govern ourselves. We can only keep out the enemy, and all other enemies, by completing that task. We are now free in name. The extent to which we become free in fact and secure our freedom will be the extent to which we become Gaels again."

These are the things that strike me as important and imperilled as I enter into my mid-forties, in 2020.

1) Cultural diversity-- the real sort, not the nominal, skin-deep sort. That specialness and character should be preserved against the tide of sameness. I worry about this all the time, incessantly.

2) Poetry. Poetry seems ever more important to me. Poetry seems, not only essential in itself, but the necessary corrective to all that is utilitarian, banal, and dehumanising in society. And it seems to me that poetry has never been more marginalized in the life of society than it is today.

3) Something I can only evoke by a term such as "folklore", or "oral tradition". Ballads. Parlour games. Campfire tales. Local legends. Everything that is not commercialized, commodified, passively consumed, or mass marketed.

I am always preoccupied by these subjects. I don't claim they are more important than others. But they feel most urgent to me.

And what about the Faith? Of course, the Faith. But the more I learn of the Faith the calmer and surer I feel of it. Our Lord's promise to St. Peter is a sure rock we can rest on. We need the Church to save us, not the other way round. That victory has been won already.

Saw a guy in a café today. Irish, in his twenties or thirties. Marvel comics tee-shirt. Liverpool F.C. bag. Reading a Harry Potter book.

Nothing against those things individually but I found the sight depressing and depressingly typical.

Here is a crazy idea I had today. Do you think there might actually be too much emphasis on family in today's society and that this might actually be damaging the family? Bear with me here.

This thought came to me as I was contemplating the Irish of today. I wonder what is important to them in life. Most don't care about religion. Most don't care about culture, beyond Netflix. Most don't care about politics very much, at least not in any idealistic sense.

But I think it unfair to assume they only care about consumerism, sport and entertainment. If you asked them what was most important to them in life, I bet the majority would say family.

Does our privatized, self-referential society place so much expectation and pressure on the family, without a wider horizon, that it actually puts unbearable strain on family life?

Chonaic mé an scannáin "Áit Ciúin" san phictiurlann aréir. Céad turas chuig an scáileán mór tar éis na srianta Covid. Scannán uafás, agus uafásach maith. Scríobh agus stiúir John Krasinski é. Tá an domhan faoi smacht eachtrannaigh ó domhan eile, itheann said duine ar bith a dheanann torann glórmhar. Leanann an scéal teaghlach amhain. Barrsamhail an-dearfach don teaghlach agus don athair ach go h-airithe.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell may be the book which disappointed me most in my life. Great title, great idea. A long, long novel (or series of novels, or roman fleuve) in which an old man looks back on his life, and the fortunes of a large group of his friends and acquaintances over decades. I loved the idea. But I found the execution very disappointing, and never finished it. (As with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, I got absurdly far and then gave up). Anyone else read it?

I like the idea of a roman fleuve but it would have to be worth the investment of time.

Philip Larkin loved A Dance to the Music of Time, and said he only wished it was longer. What do I know?

Should the Church be counter-cultural or should it try to accommodate itself to the culture? I think it has to be both. "Moving with the times" is easy, but pure oppositionalism is also easy. And sterile.

When I read the writings of JPII, I'm struck by how this supposed hardliner went as far as he could in recognising the elements of truth and virtue in modern currents of thought and in other religions, while steadfastly rejecting the evil parts.

Is this so different to what the Church has always done? When we read about Christian Europe in the Dark Ages, how do we account for the incessant tribalistic warfare, the pious Christian kings with many mistresses, the slavery, the Christianization of pagan feasts and customs? The Church has always and everywhere been trying to "encounter the culture" and "enter into dialogue" as far as I can tell.

Running to my foxhole now.

A few days ago I posted: "I love Ireland but it has no soul".

Today I was out and about and found myself pondering this again. I think Irish people are kind and funny and warm, for the most part. I certainly don't think I'm better than anyone. But...

It's hard to describe the "but", as huge as it seems to me. Few people really seem to care about anything bigger than themselves, or to have any burning convictions of any kind. It all feels so cramped, shrivelled, windowless. It reminds me of Burke's phrase: "the lives of men become no more than the flies of a summer".

I'm not necessarily talking about religion here. It is religion, but also folklore, tradition, belief in a cause, romanticism, all those things. Everything that gives life grandeur and depth. They seem missing from contemporary Ireland to me.


Why am I so preoccupied by the fear of cultural homogenization and the desire to protect traditions? I think about this all the time and have far as long I can remember.

I'm not even sure the world IS becoming more homogenised. It's a hard thing to discern because you have to take all sorts of different things into account. Perhaps the world grows more homogenous in some ways but more diverse is others. And who is to say definitively if one sort of diversity is superior to another? I feel sure of the homogenization thesis in my heart. But I also know the heart is deceitful above all things. Either way this idea haunts me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Something I Wrote During the Lockdown

(Apologies once again for my long and continuing absence from blogging. I am hoping to have more time soon, although it will be a gradual return. In the meantime, here is a blog post I wrote during the lockdown. I wrote it as a sample blog post for a work blog I was proposing, in which library staff would write articles drawing on the books and collections in the library. That idea sunk without a trace, so here it is.

As I had no access to any libraries at this point, and very little internet access, I had to rely on the books at home. That is why the selection is so eclectic.) 

Themes in Irish Poetry since 1970: a Very Selective Content Analysis

Poetry is both universal and particular, private and public, timeless and ephemeral. Poetry has been an important part of Irish culture from the days of the Irish filí to the time of Yeats and beyond. The popular readership of poetry may have declined in recent decades, in Ireland as elsewhere, but it remains a prestigious literary form, and one which many people turn to in order to express their deepest feelings, concerns and aspirations. Poetry is also an especially favourable medium for examining the preoccupations of a culture; although a poet might well write about trivial things, it’s generally used to explore the deeper currents of human existence.

This blog post is a very selective examination of some Irish poetry written since 1970. The date of 1970 may be considered fairly arbitrary; however, it seems a convenient starting point for “contemporary Ireland”, coming as it does after the social upheavals of the sixties.

My sample consists of six books and six periodicals published between 1981 and 2019. They are:

The Selected John Hewitt, published by Blackstaff Press in 1981.
The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse, published by Oxford University Press in 1986.
Sweet Sweet Memories, self-published by Fran Murphy in 1986.
Poetry Now Anthology 98, published by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council in 1998.
Poems Through Ireland, a poetry collection self-published by street poet Jamesa Kelly in 2000.
Tallaght Soundings, a collection of prose and poetry by Virginia House Creative Writers, 2007.
Six copies of Comhar, the premier Irish language magazine, which range from 2011 to 2018.

I have only featured poems published after 1970, which amount to 207 poems in all. My sample includes poems in both Irish and English, poems by recognized poets and by “ordinary people”, and poems dating from the whole range of my chosen timespan.

One thing that is immediately obvious from reading these poems is that the Celtic Mist had long evaporated by 1970; even the “ordinary” poets (who might be assumed to be either above or below literary fashion) do not draw on the romantic literary conventions associated with the Celtic Revival. The closest we come to this is “The Hero’s Portion” by John Montague, which takes as its subject the ancient Celtic custom of assigning the best portions of meat to the mightiest warrior. But the vocabulary is far from romantic: “Cracking and splitting down to the marrow stuffed bone where he licked and sucked as clean as a whistle”. Jamesa Kelly’s express a strident Irish republicanism, but one based on a solidarity with ancestral suffering and struggle rather than on an idealized national heritage.

Irish history—the sort of history which fills history books, that is—features in thirty-six of the 207 poems, most prominently in the works of John Hewitt and Jamesa Kelly. Hewitt was an Ulster poet, who was raised in the Methodist tradition. His poetry sought to transcend the ethnic and religious divide of Ulster, and to identity with Irish history as a whole, particularly in solidarity with its suffering:

The careful words of my injunction
Are unrhetorical; as neutral
And unaligned as any I know
They propose no more than a thoughtful response;
They do not pound with drum-beats
Of patriotism, loyalty, martyrdom.

“Neither an Elegy Nor a Manifesto”, 1972

John Hewitt
James Kelly’s volume includes laments for the Irish republican hunger striker Bobby Sands, and many denunciations of Britain’s role in Irish history. However, he has no rosy view of Ireland’s traditions: the poem “Modern Ireland” is an attack on the title subject, but concludes that the present is still better than the past: “Goodness, how pathetic our past”.

Two poems in the selection—an excerpt from “A Farewell to English” by Michel Hartnett, and “Gaeltacht” by Pearse Hutchinson, express a strong sense of loss in the decline of the Irish language, and the culture associated with it. Other than that, the corpus of poems analyzed here come close, at least by implication, to agreeing with the famous words of Stephen Daedalus: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Michael Hartnett

At least this is true when it comes to history with a capital H. The other sorts of history—family history, social history, personal history—are treated more favourably on the whole.

Memory is a major theme in these poems: in thirty-seven of the 207 poems, it is a primary theme. The memories featured are very often painful, especially in the works of John Hewitt. They are only sometimes nostalgic—most of often in the volume by Fran Murphy, about half of whose poems are fond recollections of her Italian-American childhood. (She moved to Ireland in 1968, but her poems display very little interest in Irish culture per se.)

Occasionally they are ambivalent, as in “Above the Pool” by John Montague, which describes a childhood romantic encounter. What strikes the reader, when reading these “memory” poems, is their intensity, their vividness—that, and how they tend to be more concerned with personal and family life than with the “grand narratives” of history. (John Hewitt, whose “memory poems” are often specific to the conflict in Northern Ireland, is a counter-example.)

Irishness is rather less of a theme in the poems than I had expected. John Hewitt writes eighteen poems on the subject, and Jamesa Kelly writes sixteen, but outside that there are only twelve poems where Irishness is a prominent theme.

Jamesa Kelly’s “For All Who Want to Be Irish” is one of the most explicit meditations on this topic:

It’s not as simple as it seems you see,
Here is a complex sort of treachery.
Is it possible to live here, but really part of it,
Unless you are born in this land
And spend your time in the womb of Mother Ireland?

The tentativeness of this poem is quite representative. Few of the poems in my sample posit any essence of Irishness, or meditate upon the national character per se.

Modernity, also, is less of a major theme than I would have expected. There are few “zeitgeisty” poems, few references to new technologies or social changes. Jamesa Kelly has poems on Viagra and mobile phones, and The New Oxford Book of Irish Verse includes “The Guttural Muse” by Seamus Heaney, in which the poet envies a crowd of young people leaving the disco. The last poem in Tallaght Soundings (“Demographics” by Patrick Sneyd) is a very matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the new multicultural Ireland. Other than that, modernity is more taken for granted than commented upon.

Poetry itself is quite a prominent theme. John Hewitt writes about Walter Savage Landor. Jamesa Kelly writes about Michael Hartnett. Michael Hartnett writes about Yeats. Cathal Ó Searcaigh writes about Ovid, and Marguerite Sneyd writes about a poetry reading given by Paul Durcan. Altogether there are sixteen poems in which poetry is a major theme.

Dirk Benedict meditating on poetry
As might be expected, there are many poems about romantic love, although they tend to concentrate on its pains and disappointments, rather than its joys. “Scaradh na Compánach” by Caitríona Ní Chlėirchin describes the Countess of Donegal’s sadness and anxiety as her husband leaves her for battle. “Another Cold Dinner” by Fran Murphy laments a husband constantly late home, and expresses feelings of abandonment. Jamesa Kelly’s volume contains poems addressed to several different women, but the accent in these is upon pain and sorrow. It is significant, perhaps, that the most purely romantic poem in the sample—“Twilight” by Anne McGarth, one of the Tallaght poets—celebrates a private moment of reverie, set against a cityscape with no mention of other human beings.

Virtually all the poems are written in free verse, or using a very loose metre and rhyme scheme. John Hewitt is the poet who draws on traditional verse forms the most, particularly the sonnet. On the whole, however, the forms used occupy a middle ground between traditional verse on one hand, and the kind of dense, cryptic verse favoured by High Modernists such as Pound and Eliot on the other.

The overriding impression I take from these poems is one of melancholy. They seem to evoke a human condition where—as Samuel Johnson put it—much is to be endured and little is to be enjoyed. Personal experience is more real to these contemporary poets than the backdrop of history and current affairs. Memory is insistent, but is painful more often than not. Poetry itself is frequently a theme, which fits well with the general atmosphere of interiority and self-exploration. Ireland is a context rather than a subject matter. Religion is rarely mentioned. There is little sense of broad horizons, new frontiers, or enticing possibilities. The poet is thrown upon his or her own resources, navigating fhe traumas of private and cultural memories, seeking personal meaning in an often hostile or indifferent world.