Friday, October 15, 2021

Hurray! It's my Blog Birthday!

 Well, today it is ten years to the day since I launched Irish Papist! I'm very glad I did.


I hadn't been a practicing my faith long when I started writing it. In fact, the blog I had before it (for a short while) was called Practicing to be Catholic!

I'm very grateful to God for preserving my faith for that decade. I came to faith late in life, and with considerable difficulty, so the fact that it has endured is something to be appreciated.

And, of course, I'm grateful to my wonderful readers-- YOU!-- for giving the blog a purpose for existence. Thanks for reading, for the comments, for the emails, for the prayers, and for all the ways you've interacted with me and encouraged me.

Today is also, by a remarkable coincidence, my twentieth anniversary in UCD Library. I've been here so long it feels like home. I love working in a place that is a little world of its own. One day I hope to be known as the Swan of Belfield. If nobody else calls me this, I'll just use it myself. (Belfield is the name of UCD's main campus, where I'm located.) It would be quite appropriate as the lake in Belfield actually does have swans.

Special mention goes to the colleague and friend, who also reads my blog, who brought me in an anniversary balloon, chocolate, and card. How awesome is that? Very awesome. Benedictine, I'd say, in the Dirk sense.

Also to my wife Michelle who made these delicious cupcakes for me to bring in.




Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Idea of Thickness: A Blog Post from 2020

Today, continuing my countdown to tomorrow's ten-year anniversary of this blog, I'm going way back to 2020 for my final re-posted blog post. This is one of the posts that meant most to me on this blog, since the concept of "thickness" is never far from my mind.

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.

Losing my Father: A Blog Post from 2019

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of this blog. I've been counting down to that anniversary by re-posting a blog post from each year. I've reached 2019, which is the year I lost my father. I wrote this blog post about it.

I'm going to write a little about losing my father, which has obviously dominated my mental landscape recently. 

It was not a surprise, although it happened sooner than predicted upon his initial diagnosis. When we learned that he had a terminal illness, we were told he might have six months left. We hoped that prognosis was too pessimistic, especially given my father's ability to cheat the Grim Reaper on previous occasions. However, it turned out to be over-generous by many months.


His health had been in decline for several years before that.

My father chose not to speak about his imminent demise. He knew the reality of the situation, as he had been told it by doctors. The priest who performed the Last Rites also told me that he was very aware of what was happening. But, around his family, he never spoke about cancer, death, funerals, or anything like that. Life went on as close to normal as possible, given that he was bed-bound for his last weeks. He watched sports and TV and murder mysteries as usual. His hearing had badly declined, so I spent a lot of time sitting wordlessly at his bed-side, watching TV with him. I wondered if murder mysteries were not a little bit morbid, given the circumstances, but this didn't seem to bother him at all.

Our parish priest once told a story about a monk who was raking leaves. He was asked by a visitor to the monastery what he would do if he heard the world was going to end that very day. He said: "Finish raking these leaves". I suppose that was my father's attitude, too.

Is it cowardly of me that I am very glad he took this approach? I have always found farewells almost unbearably sad, even when they are only temporary. How do you say goodbye to someone you'll never see again in this world? I'd fretted about this for years. In the end, I never had to say goodbye. I realize many people would say I never got to say goodbye. But that's not how I look at it. I'm very grateful there was no goodbye. Some things are just too big for words.

I have always had a rather romanticized notion of a "death bed", based on a hundred newspaper cartoons of a character lying under a bedspread, propped up on pillows, and his family sitting around attentively. I assumed real death wasn't like this, that it was much less graceful and poetic. Surprisingly, I was wrong-- in this case, at least. My father went gently into that good night. It was just like the death-beds I'd encountered in cartoons, jokes, films, and TV shows.

He had no great pain (or so I was told), although he struggled with his breathing. He was asleep for the last few days before death.

I was in the house (it was my brother's house) when he died. He simply stopped breathing. His oldest and best friend was with him when it happened. He came out with a grim face and said, tactfully: "His breathing is very low". A few of us hurried in. It was obvious that the end had come.

Did I see my father die? I was out of the room when his breath stopped, but I'm told he had  a faint pulse for some time after. I was present as it ebbed away to nothing. If this is seeing somebody die, it's the first time I've seen somebody die. It wasn't traumatic, or dramatic.

(Even the famous "death rattle" I had heard about-- a rasping sort of breath, frequent in the last hours of life-- wasn't at all upsetting or sinister.)

I actually asked myself, as I sat by his body, whether my religious faith and my belief in the immortality of the soul seemed any weaker or stronger, at that moment. I have heard reports of both reactions, in the face of bereavement. But I found that neither was the case. It didn't seem to change anything.

However, I was determined I was going to spend as little time as possible looking at the body. After a little while, I left the death room and didn't go back into it. When he was lying in repose in the funeral home, I averted my eyes from the coffin whenever I was around it. I was frightened that the memory of his face in death would superimpose itself over my memories of him smiling, laughing, pontificating. This did happen to some extent with my memories of my mother, who died at the turn of the millennium. (I was also told that the embalming had left him almost unrecognizable-- but even if that wasn't the case, I didn't want to look.)

After he died, the house was full of family and friends. People were drinking tea and whiskey in the kitchen, and hugging and consoling each other in the hall. I went out to the street to pray a decade of the rosary at one point. Everything seemed so ordinary. The world went on, one second at a time.

Hours after his passing, I said to my wife: "Let's go home and watch television. Anything." We did so, although I fell asleep quickly.

I feared that a locomotive of grief was coming down the tracks, with me tied down helplessly. My father is easily the person who influenced me the most. I'd always struggled to even imagine a world without him. The prospect had always seemed apocalyptic to me.

To my surprise, this grief hasn't arrived-- at least, not yet. There is undoubtedly a huge sense of loss. But the icy, overwhelming grief I'd always dreaded...this hasn't overtaken me. I feel very calm and peaceful about it all.

For many years, I'd feared and expected the loss of my father. Every Christmas, every New Year, every St. Patrick's Day, I asked myself: "Is this the last one?". I was conscious of this in every conversation I had with him, and every moment I spent with him. I deliberately avoided doing or saying anything, in my relations with him, which I thought I might regret in the future. This consciousness lay very heavily on me, but I'm grateful for it now. 

Even in little things, I was aware of this. His conversational style often leaned towards the monologue, but I listened very patiently, even when I had heard the monologue many times before. I'm glad I did. (Of course there are things I regret, but not nearly as many as there might have been.)

Since June 2015, I have kept a diary, never missing a day. I am grateful for the many conversations and interactions with my father that I recorded in it. I was especially careful to write down any fragment of family folklore he passed on.

I can't think of anything I wish I'd said to him, that I never said to him.

Seventy-nine was a very good age for him to reach. His lifestyle was anything but healthy. At one point, he smoked sixty cigarettes a day! (Later, he switched to e-cigarettes). He'd been very sick on several previous occasions, and lived to fight another day. I'm grateful he was given so many years, more than I ever expected-- more than he ever expected, as I know from various remarks he made down through the decades.

The last sweet shared tradition we had together was watching Frasier. It became our routine. We would watch three episodes at a time (recorded from TV), and we did at least three complete "laps" of all eleven series. We often had the same reaction to the show, too; sometimes we would agree "This episode is too embarrassing to be enjoyable". (But we would still watch it.)

Another time, when a particularly unpleasant character was getting his come-comeuppance, I said: "I don't like watching this. I hate to see anyone humiliated, even if they deserve it." My father agreed. That is something I took from him. But I took so much from him.

(A related memory: my father lost all respect for a particular Irish athlete, an Olympic gold winner, because he turned to sneer at his opponent in the moment of victory. This despite the enormous importance he placed on Irish success at sports, to the extent that he couldn't even watch the Ireland rugby and soccer internationals, from sheer nerves. Bringing honour to Ireland was important-- but it was even more important to remain a gentleman, or a gentlewoman.)

My biggest regret is that his memoirs, which took up a lot of his attention in his last years, were never published in his lifetime. I hope to see them published eventually. Even as a slice of Irish social and cultural history, I think they deserve to be.

Recently, I had the idea of writing down my memories of him, while they are fresh. My wife thinks this is a good idea. That is the thing I feel most; not grief, but a deep desire to remember him and keep his memory and legacy alive.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Fears of an Eighties Kid: A Blog Post from 2018

In this post, I continue to count down to Friday's ten-year anniversary of this blog by rerunning a blog post from each year. We've now reached 2018. This post seems very appropriate to the Covid era!

I've started reading Lord of the Rings again. It's a book I've read at least twice in my life-- once when I was very young (perhaps as young as seven), and again in adulthood. Despite this, I don't remember the details of the plot that well-- not all of it, at any rate. 

I'm very familiar with the opening chapters, though. I read the first half of The Fellowship of the Ring again and again in my childhood. The second chapter, "The Shadow of the Past"-- the exposition-heavy chapter where the wizard Gandalf explains to the protagonist Frodo the true nature (and peril) of the magic ring he has inherited-- has always been one of my favourite passages of fiction. The scene is set in a cosy front room on a sunny morning, but Frodo is chilled to the soul by Gandalf's story. "Fear seemed to stretch out a vast hand, like a dark coud rising in the East, and looming up to engulf him."



Reading those lines brought me back to my childhood, and the fears of my childhood.

It was one memory in particular that sent me into this reverie. I used to visit the farm-house of my aunt Kitty (RIP), who lived in county Limerick in the south-west of Ireland, for my summer holidays. She was an avid reader of trashy magazines and tabloid newspapers, and I gorged on them when I visited her.

One morning, reading such a tabloid, I came across a report that an experimental laboratory had somehow managed to mix cancer with a virus. The newspaper report suggested it was only a matter of time before this virus escaped from the laboratory and became a pandemic. I remember standing under the eaves of the house, after reading this, and being gripped by fear. Even then, I was conscious of the contrast between my bucolic surroundings-- a quiet farm on a summer's morning-- and the apocalypse I was imagining. It was very similar to the contrast between Frodo's cosy home and Gandalf's terrifying tale.

Young as I was, I knew that tabloids were sensationalist, so it didn't take me long to get over this scare. But something about my aunt's farm seemed very conducive to getting the spooks. It happened on many other occasions.

On another occasion, I'd read a story about Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. According to the story, Jackson's "spiritual advisor" had warned him that he was putting his soul at risk by playing with demonic forces. The magazine showed a large colour still from the music video, which was undoubtedly creepy. Again, I have a vivid memory of standing outside the house on a sunny morning and getting a cold blast of "daylight horror".

My aunt and uncle told me a story (true, for all I know) that an old man's face had been seen in the wallpaper of the bedroom in which myself, my brother, and my mother were sleeping. The way I interpreted this was that, upon staring into the wallpaper, the pattern "resolved itself" into an image of the old man-- much as you suddenly "see" a hidden image in a visual riddle. Somehow, this seemed much creepier to me than the other interpretation (which only occurred to me years later)-- that a photographic image simply superimposed itself over the wallpaper. I avoided looking at the wallpaper.

My biggest Limerick scare came upon reading an article about the Third Secret of Fatima- I think it was in Ireland's Eye magazine. The article suggested that the Third Secret of Fatima predicted the end of the world, and that it was going to happen in 1992-- the very year in which I read the article.

I remember lying awake that night and waiting for the bombs to fall. We were going to return to Dublin the next day. I desperately wanted to get back to Dublin, as I knew the fear of apocalypse would seem silly there. But in the silence and darkness of the Limerick countryside, it felt very believable.

Nuclear war was a terror which haunted my childhood and early teens. Doubtless every eighties child experienced this, to some degree or other. Somewhere I encountered the claim that, in the event of a nuclear attack, the first thing that would happen would be a black-out. Every time there was a power-cut, I was terrified it was the precursor to a nuclear attack.

My fear reached its height on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War. I was thirteen years old. Some sadistic adult had told me that, if the Americans attacked Iraq, "You can put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye". I can vividly remember the newsflash in which the invasion was announced. It came during a football broadcast, and the first image was an American soldier in silhouette.


That night, I lay awake until morning reading David Copperfield for the first time. "This world was so wonderful for so many centuries", I kept thinking, as I read. (Even the adversities of David Copperfield's early life seemed gloriously romantic, compared to the imminent apocalypse.) "Why are we going to destroy it all? How did it ever come to this?".

When the bombs didn't fall the first night, my fears quickly evaporated.

(I can barely imagine the terror that the recent false alarm in Hawaii must have created.)

I had many dreams about the announcement of a nuclear attack on television. The sheer inevitability of the thing was the greatest horror-- there would be no chance of escape, not even an outside chance. It would jut be a matter of waiting to be incinerated. I often had nightmares which ended with the bombs visible outside my window.

I wonder how many of my readers have seen "A Little Bit of Peace and Quiet", the eighties-era Twilight Zone episode in which a housewife comes into possession of a medallion which can freeze time? Spoiler alert....in the final moments of the episode, she freezes time just as a nuclear missile is about to hit her town. To me, that was blood-curdlingly terrifying, too terrifying for fiction.

It wasn't only nuclear war that petrified us in the eighties, of course. It was also AIDS. (Back then, the name of the dread disease was always rendered in capitals.)


I was only really beginning to learn about sex when AIDS came on the scene. I remember reading that it affected both homosexuals and heterosexuals, and I had no idea what those words meant-- I assumed that a heterosexual was someone who slept around, and that a homosexual was someone who only had sex with a single partner. I think this was a pretty good guess, in retrospect.

I can remember one Irish current affairs show in which a panel and a studio audience were all discussing AIDS. It gave me a sense of crisis, of something enormous unfolding, a civilizational threat.

The real horror of AIDS was that one single drop of HIV-infected blood was a death sentence. I spent a long time thinking about this. I remember wondering whether, if one were pricked in the hand with a HIV-infected needle, one would have time to chop one's own arm off in order to stop the spread of the virus through the bloodstream.

I envisioned a future where the vast majority of people were HIV-infected. It seemed inevitable. The public information campaigns did a good job of explaining that you couldn't catch it from kissing or from toilet seats-- but how many other ways that seemed to leave! And besides, could you really trust such assurances?

In sixth class (when I was twelve), I heard the urban legend of AIDS Mary-- the woman who leaves the grisly message "Welcome to the world of AIDS" for someone she has infected. In the version I heard, I'm pretty sure it was some kind of infected booby-trap rather than a sexual encounter. But I'm pretty sure I heard it in the presence of our teacher, and I don't remember him dismissing it.

This ad (which was broadcast in Britain, but we got the British TV stations) only made the disease more terrifying. It still gives me the shivers. What were they thinking?

I can't remember worrying much about the hole in the ozone layer, which was the ecological scare of my childhood. This despite the fact that my teacher in fifth and sixth class (when I was eleven and twelve) was something of a hippie, and wrote a school play dedicated to the subject-- a musical, as a matter of fact. I was one of the extras. The narrative shifted between the present and the future, and the extras (who appeared in the future scenes) were a chorus of zombie-like creatures who were all dying of skin cancer from the sun's ultraviolet rays...or something like that. It was a grim production, but it won us first prize in an inter-school drama competition. I don't remember being in the slightest bit bothered by its subject matter. Was I sceptical, or did it just seem too far away in the future to worry about? I'm not sure.

Not all my fears were naturalistic. One evening, sitting in a field with a group of local kids and listening to them tell scary stories, I heard that Satan himself could be summoned if you said the Lord's Prayer backwards. I lay in bed that night desperately trying not to say the Lord's Prayer backwards, but my mind kept forming the first few syllables nonetheless. I despaired at the thought of going through life without ever thinking my way through the whole thing, in spite of myself.

Did I really believe that this would summon the Devil? I don't think so. I was in my early teens at this stage. But fear is a strange and perverse thing.



Much earlier, in my childhood, I can remember looking at a pile of stuff which had been covered with black plastic, in our hall, and knowing that there was nothing underneath. But I was still scared that there was.

In my first year of secondary school, when I was thirteen, I heard one boy tell another boy (as we were changing back into our clothes after P.E., or gym class) that deep-sea divers excavating the wreck of the Titanic had seen these words written on its hull: LEAVE US IN OUR WATERY GRAVE. I can remember feeling a physical chill as I walked home that afternoon...but it was a rather pleasant one.


There are so many other childhood fears I could mention. The strange thing is that I remember most of them fondly...in retrospect, they were quite exciting and enjoyable. Perhaps the night reading
 David Copperfield and waiting for a nuclear attack was an exception.

Did my irrational fears end in my teens? Well, apart from phobias, they pretty much did. The last real irrational scare I experienced was when I went to see The Ring (the American remake) in 2002, in the Savoy cinema in Dublin's O'Connell Street. As most of my readers may know, this movie concerns an enigmatic video which, once it's viewed, causes the viewer to die within seven days. I remember walking out of the cinema thinking: "I wish I hadn't seen that", and lying awake that night in genuine fear.

But that was the last time my imagination terrified me. Ever since then, it's been prosaic fears!

Commonality Value: A Blog Post from 2017

Looking through my blog posts from 2017, to find one to represent the year as I count down to the ten-year anniversary of this blog, I was struck by this blog on "commonality value". One of the reasons is the mention of country roads, and of meditating on country roads. I've been doing that a lot recently, as I try to improve my knowledge of Irish geography. It's hard for me to really believe that there are places outside of Dublin! I half-think they disappear when I come back to the capital. I actually wrote about this very subject on Facebook last night!

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.

A Personal View of the Seven Signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic

Today I continue my countdown to the tenth anniversary of this blog by rerunning a blog post from each year. This seems like an appropriate representative post for 2016.

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

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




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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

Sorrowful.

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




 

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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