Thursday, September 12, 2019

My Grandfather, my Father, and Me

Over the weekend, I came across some letters and other documents written by my grandfather. He generated a huge amount of writing in his lifetime, but (to the best of my knowledge, and to my great regret), most of it has been lost.

He was a community activist, a member of the Worker's Party (which was both an Irish nationalist and a socialist party), and at one time a member of the IRA (this was long before the Troubles in Northern Ireland had broken out).

As a result of my father's death and funeral, the death and funeral of another family member, and various other family events, I've been hearing a lot of family stories, including stories about my grandfather and my father.

Much of my knowledge of my grandfather comes from my father's memoirs, which remain unpublished, and every word of which I typed from manuscript.

He seems to have been quite a character, the protagonist of many a comic story.

He was a mechanically-minded person, and he once invented a control panel using which (or so he hoped) he could control all the lights and appliances in the house from one central point.

So delighted was he with this invention, that he gathered his entire family around to witness its ceremonial turning-on. However, as soon as he hit the first button, all the lights in the street went out-- and stayed out for several days, apparently.

There are several stories about his fondness for fake séances, one of which involves a member of the Irish army-- a strapping fellow in a greatcoat-- running back home to jump into bed with his mother.

I don't remember him that well. He died in 1991, a little after the outbreak of the first Gulf War, when I was thirteen. It was my first real experience of death.

I remember him as a white-haired, patriarchal figure, who lived with my aunt and was always watching television. He looked like a rugged Samuel Beckett. He had a rather stern demeanour, but a wicked sense of humour-- I remember how devastasted I was, one Christmas, when I handed him a small gift-wrapped cylinder and he said: "I hope it's not a pen!". (He hurried to reassure me when he saw my face fall, however.)

Like my father, he was very political and very idealistic. However, the differences are also very striking.

I learned to my great surprise, only last week, that my grandfather (despite being an Irish nationalist) had little regard for the Irish language, and thought that too much effort had been devoted to preserving it. I'm getting this information second-hand, so I can't be sure, but it seems reliable enough.

And it fits with my knowledge of him. He seems to have been a much more hard-headed, pragmatic character than my father. His public-spiritedness was focused, more than anything else, on bread-and-butter issues, and on helping out particular individuals.

That's admirable in itself. But why be a nationalist at all, in that case?

I'm not sure what my grandfather's religious views were. I've heard different things. The impression I get is that he was somewhat anti-clerical.

The picture I get-- peering into the murk of the past-- is that the progression (or regression!) from my grandfather to myself is one of increasing conservatism, traditionalism and mysticism-- a trajectory which is quite the opposite of Irish society over the same time.

When I read my grandfather's letters, I get the impression of a man who was very business-like, very down-to-earth, very practical-minded. The lyricism which is never far from the surface, in all my father's writings, is nowhere in evidence. (Having said that, I've heard that he wrote at least one patriotic ballad, and I only have a few documents from his hand.) Somehow, I get the impression he had little interest in literature, poetry, or the life of the imagination.

My father had a more poetic temperament than my grandfather. But he was still a lot more practically-minded than I am-- observant, analytical, very interested in subjects (such as economics and city planning) which seem unbearably prosaic to me.

Where did my father get his devotion to the Irish language, I wonder? He never learned to speak it, but he did help to set up an Irish language school in our community-- the one I attended. Without having attended that, I wouldn't have even the middling grasp of Irish that I do.

My father was a convinced Catholic, but he never went to Mass. He might go to the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, but that was about it. And yet there was no doubt at all about where he stood, when it came to religion and to Catholicism. (I was very glad he received the Last Rites at the end.)

The sweep of social and cultural history is very interesting to me, and family history is a current within that. My grandfather and my father were both men who pursued ideals, who made a solid contribution to the life of their times. I think I would be doing well to emulate them even in a very small way.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Culture and Christianity

An interesting discussion I've had elsewhere, with a reader of this very blog, leads me to address this question: should a national culture be founded on Catholicism, or even on Christianity?

The very title of this blog, Irish Papist, reflects two of its main interests: Irishness, and Catholicism.

My Catholicism is the centre of my life, and the most important part of it. But the subject of Ireland and Irishness is also of absorbing interest to me. 

Can we simply equate the two? Is Irish Catholicism the same thing as Irishness? Does Irish Catholicism contain everything good about Irishness? Should our vision of Irishness be explicitly Catholic?

My answer to that is "No". Here I depart from many of my Catholic integralist friends.

I accept the Second Vatican Council as an authoritative act of the Magisterium. Its document on religious freedom, Dignitas Humanae, tells us:

In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.

I think reason tells us the same thing. The only adequate reason for adhering to a religion is because you believe it is true. Adhering to a religion for any other reason-- tribalism, a reaction against the modern world, social conservatism, aesthetics, etc.-- is only adopting a pose, striking an attitude.

If Faith is a "junior partner" to patriotism, or conservatism, or social justice, or anything else, than the Faith is always going to give way when it comes to a conflict between them. You cannot serve two masters. 

And we can see this in the manner in which so many Irish left-wing nationalists ultimately rejected Catholicism when it came into conflict with their own particular brand of nationalism. (Many people in this tradition-- Sinn Féin, especially-- have ultimately rejected nationalism, as well. But they still use the term, just as they still used the term "Catholic" long after they had apostasized.)

As well as this, if we accept the primacy of conscience, then it must be expected that many people will find themselves unable, in all good conscience, to accept the Catholic faith. Should our vision of Irishness exclude them? Should it exclude Protestants and Jews and Muslims and well-intentioned agnostics and atheists?

Personally, I have no place in my vision of Irishness for those who are anti-Catholic, anti-religious, anti-clerical, and anti-traditional. After all, such people are on a journey of nihilism which logically leads them to reject national loyalties, too.

I think it's perfectly fine for Irishness to demand a respect for our Catholic history and traditions, from those who cannot in good conscience affirm the Catholic creed.

I don't believe anybody is less Irish for not being a Catholic. I don't even believe anyone is less Irish for being an atheist. But I do think somebody is less Irish for being anti-Catholic and anti-religious.

(Of course, as a Catholic, I wish every single person in Ireland was also a believing Catholic.)

I also think it was perfectly legitimate for the Irish Constitution to recognize the "special position" of the Catholic Church as the religion of the vast majority of Irish people, as it did until 1973. I believe it was perfectly legitimate for Ireland to ban alcohol sales on Good Friday, to have the Angelus bells broadcast on the state broadcaster, to censor blasphemous books and films, etc.

One needn't have been a believing Catholic to support all these things, nor do I think they constituted oppression of other religions, or of the non-religious.

Robert Briscoe, an adherent of the Jewish faith who was Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1956-57, and again in 1961-62, famously said that, the more Catholic the Irish people became, the more he liked it. Michael Medved, an American talk radio host who is also an Orthodox Jew, has said the same thing about America and Evangelical Christianity. Surely most religious people would rather live in a country whose laws and customs were influenced by religion, even if it was not their own religion-- as long as that religion was not actually imposed on them, and the free exercise of their own religion was not impeded.

Ultimately, I believe we must distinguish clearly between religious faith and national culture. They are two different things. They can be deeply intertwined, but they should not be equated with one another. Both suffer, in the long run, when that happens.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Anti-Social Networking

My blogging has been rather light lately. To fill the gap, here are some of my recent Facebook posts. I hope you find them amusing and intriguing-- or, at least, not insufferably boring or irritating. 

(Yes, I know. Facebook is evil. But it's a good outlet for one's random thoughts.)

As you'll see, I've recently been trying to write some of my Facebook posts bilingually-- in Irish, followed by English. My written Irish is terrible, and it's quite embarrassing to expose this fact in public. But I've come to the conclusion that it's better to use bad Irish than not to use it at all. The Irish language is far too important to be left to those who can speak and write it.

For a long time I've been a ferocious critic of political correctness. I imagine people who see me in the street think: "There goes Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, the ferocious critic of political correctness." However, more recently I've been troubled by a kind of contradiction in my own thought.

This is it: I tend to believe that taboo, reverence, and piety are good things in themselves. Don't get me wrong, I wish all those things were directed towards their proper objects, but even IN THEMSELVES they seem admirable to me.

And all those things are abundantly present in political correctness. People who trip themselves up constantly trying to use the correct epithets are, in a sense, showing a sort of piety, a sort of reverence. It's misdirected but it's real. And I don't have the slightest problem against censorship on the grounds of public morals; I think Mary Whitehouse was a hero.

But isn't this just what the PC brigade are pushing for, according to their own lights?

My gorge still rises at political correctness, don't get me wrong. And I still consider it a mortal enemy. But there is a little part of my mind that asks: "Are you being completely consistent here? Shouldn't you acknowledge a healthy impulse even in your enemy, "to honour as you strike him down' "? Perhaps Nietzsche was onto something when he said "you may have enemies you hate, but not enemies you despise."

(I would like to think this is the most pompous Facebook post ever.)

* * * * * * * 

Rinne é an rún cúpla lá ó shoin gan achmainn grinn ar bith a bheith agam as seo amach. D'eirigh mé as an rún sin, ach measaim fós gur smaoineamh maith é. Táim braon don t-íoróin agus don síor-magadh a bhfuil í ngach áit inniú. Uaireanta is mian liom clócha agus róba a caitheamh an t-ám ar fad, fiú san ollmhargadh, agus fíliocht a labhairt in ionad prós.

A few days ago I made the resolution to be completely humourless. I've given it up already, but I still think it's a good idea. I'm so sick of irony and the perpetual levity that's everywhere these days. Sometimes I feel the urge to wear a cloak and robe all the time, even in the supermarket, and to speak in poetry instead of prose.

* * * * * * * * 

I was just looking at the English poetry shelves. I was surprised at the paucity of English poets whose surnames begin with "Y". There were a few poets called Young but none of them were particularly good. (I do like "Night Thoughts" by Edward Young, though I admit that is a niche interest.) The Y section in the English poetry shelves is a narrow and undistinguished stretch.

I contend there are no major ENGLISH poets whose names begin with Y. Yeats was Irish, of course.

* * * * * * *
"One might safely say that no people ever liked stench or starvation as such, but only some peculiar pleasures entangled with them. Not so feels the sensitive Gudge... Gudge has succeeded in persuading himself that slums and stinks are really very nice things; that the habit of sleeping fourteen in a room is what has made our England great; and that the smell of open drains is absolutely essential to the rearing of a Viking breed." G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World (1910)

"I have seen too much of slums to go into Chestertonian raptures about them." George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

* * * * * * * *

Chuaigh mé ar turas chuig an Royal Irish Academy inné, turas eagraithe ag leabharlann UCD, áit a bhfuil mé fostaithe. Bhí an smaoineamh céinne agam is a mbíonn agam go h-iondúil, agus mé ag éisteacht le daoine ag obair at son institiúidí a bhfuil ag plé le oidhreacht agus stair na hÉireann. Tá an cuma orthu go bhfuil suim acu san oidhreacht mar rud stairiúl, rud marbh. Ach is beag an suim a bhfuil agam san oidhreacht mar iarsma. Bím í gconaí ag smaoineamh: conas a feidir linn beocht nua a thabhairt don oidhreacht? Mar shampla, tá taispeantais acu mar gheall at Thomas Moore, file a raibh clú oll-mhór ar in Éireann uair amhain. Ní leor diomsa breatnaigh ar file mar sin mar abhair acadiúl. Sé an cheist domsa: cén fáth nach bhfuil suim againn inniu í Thomas Moore, no file at bith beagnach, agus conas is feidir an suim sin a spreagadh?

I went on a work field trip to the Royal Irish Academy yesterday. As always, when listening to people whose work involves cultural heritage, I find myself wondering why they are content to regard it as something historical. I have very little interest in heritage as something historical. To me the question is, how can we give it life? For instance, they had an exhibition on Thomas Moore, an Irish poet who was once phenomenally popular in Ireland. I can't take this as simply a matter of historical interest. To me the question is, why don't we read Thomas Moore (or pretty much any poet) today? And what can we do about it?

* * * * * * * *
Bhí mé ag féachaint arís ar an scannán The Jane Austen Book Club aréir. Chonaic mé cheana féin é, roinnt blianta ó shoin. Níl gean mór agam ar úrscealta Jane Austen, ach is íontach an rud é scannáin a fheiscint a bhfuil comh daríre sin faoin léitheoireacht agus an tábhacht agus an sult a bfhuil ag baint leis.

I watched The Jane Austen Book Club last night. I saw it before, a few years ago. I'm not mad about Jane Austen's novels, but it's wonderful to see a film that takes reading, and the pleasures and importance of reading, so seriously.

* * * * * * * *

I was travelling within Ireland at the weekend. As always, when I travel through Ireland, I'm struck by the fact that virtually every playing field you pass outside Dublin has Gaelic sports goalposts (used by both hurling and Gaelic football) instead of soccer or rugby goalposts. Even though I don't actually like Gaelic games much, purely as sports, this gives me great pleasure-- the same pleasure I take in going to America and seeing how they care far more about baseball, basketball and American football than soccer, cricket, rugby, etc.

And here's something else that strikes me. The Gaelic Athletic Association, which organizes these sports, was only founded in 1884 and the games were only really codified around then. The impetus behind this was a very explicit cultural nationalism-- for a long, long time there was a ban on members of the GAA playing foreign games. I think this is important because we are so often told that cultural protectionism is futile, or that traditions can't be invented and have to come into being of their own accord. Obviously not true when you see the legacy of the GAA in Ireland.

* * * * * * 
I am reading a biography of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid (Archbishop of Dublin 1940-1972) by John Cooney. The book is very hostile to McQuaid, but the facts are interesting. McQuaid established what is now the Irish Film Institute, as a Catholic film club. He strongly supported the abolition of the law which required female teachers to give up their jobs when they got married. And (according to Cooney) he persuaded the President of UCD to move UCD from the city centre to Belfield, south of the city. So McQuaid has had an influence on my life every day for the last seventeen years or so.

I don't agree with everything he did. He organized a (not very successful) boycott of a soccer match between Ireland and Yugoslavia in 1952, held in Dublin, as a protest against Yugoslavia's imprisonment of a Catholic bishop. Personally I think politics should be kept out of sport. Always. I think the USA was wrong to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The American football players who dishonoured the flag and anthem to protest police brutality were wrong. The boycott of South African teams during apartheid was wrong. Sport should be kept free of politics.

* * * * * * * 

What's a capitalist's favourite dessert? PROFIT-eroles!

* * * * * * * 
Language is so wonderful. I was reading a description of the 1980 Wes Carpenter film, The Fog, which I've loved since I was a kid. The film was described as "a gem". That's the perfect word: "The Fog" has never really attained the status of a classic, nor does it quite deserve it. And "minor classic" doesn't really work, because a classic is a classic is a classic. But it IS a gem. Why should that word fit so perfectly? I don't know, but it does, partly because of the way the word is used in practice. Partly, I think, because a gem is something small and not necessarily valuable, but still noted for its allure.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Touching Piece in "The Oldie"

I don't often buy magazine. I used to buy Empire and Total Film magazine, in my twenties and early thirties. I would also buy DVD Monthly which was my favourite of the lot (mostly because a retrospective review is more interesting than a first-take review). I enjoyed reading them, and I'm actually feeling nostalgic about them as I write this. But I eventually stopped because I got tired of their excessive focus on action and superhero films-- not to mention their pandering to celebrity culture.

I had a subscription to First Things magazine for several years. It was always a pleasant occasion when it arrived-- I would sit down to read it with a muffin and a cup of coffee. I had to cancel it for reasons of economy, though.

Sometimes I buy Ireland's Own, which more or reflects my own ideal of Irishness, and which has published some of my own articles. (Indeed, I have another in the pipeline.)

But generally, I don't buy magazines.

However, I do like to read magazines. A magazine has something that a book (generally) lacks: a community of voices, and a taste of the particular historical moment that it appeared. I enjoy reading back issues of periodicals in the library. Currently I am reading through the archive of Comhar, an Irish language periodical which has been published since at least the forties. And recently, I found a few copies of The Oldie on the book exchange outside the library. Which is, after all that preamble, the subject of this blog post.

In the July 2018 issue, I came across a very moving item in its editorial pages. I hope they won't mind me transcribing it, and indeed, it would seem contrary to its spirit if they did. It describes how the novelist Teresa Waugh met a ninety-eight-year-old woman named Patricia O'Brien in a nursing home, and learned that she had been a poet all her life, but only in her late nineties had she managed to finish poems:

Several times, she politely asked Teresa to find a publisher for her work-- and for one poem, "This Time, Next Time" in particular.

"She dictated the poem for me to take home and print in large letters, which I did. When I last saw her, she was very ill, and, I feared, on her deathbed."

"She clasped my hand and asked to promise to go on trying to get the poem published after her death. I had told her that, although I could promise nothing, I would try. She was thrilled."

The article goes on to describe how O'Brien passed away that April, a day after Teresa Waugh last met her. Waugh says of the lady: "She had an intense love of poetry and could recite reams of it by heart to her dying day."

Here is the poem O'Brien most wanted to have published. It's no a masterpiece by any means, but it is quite haunting, and reminiscent of Christina Rossetti (which endears it to me).

This Time, Next Time...

All in a ring, they sang together 
This time, next time, sometime, never. 
Laughing girls who dropped together
This time, next time, sometime, never.

This time, next time, sometime, never, 
Sang the lovebird from the tree, 
"Surely my love will come to me
This time, next time, perhaps never", 
Sang the lovebird from the tree. 

Golden days in gilded weather. 
"My love, my love has come to me 
And we shall dance and sing together, 
Constant and true in all our weather, 
This time, glad time", joyfully 
Sang the lovebird from the tree. 

This time, next time, sometime, never 
My love, my love has gone from me, 
Dropped through a hole in the world has he 
Out of time to eternity,
And never again to come to me, 
And never again to come to me.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Abair Cáis!

Me and Bean Uí Cheallaigh after Mass in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, Ennis, yesterday.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Poetry, Strain and Conservatism (I)

In this post I'm going to try to draw together some themes I've written about previously.

I write a lot about poetry on this blog. Partly this is because I've loved poetry all my life, and I naturally want to write about it. But there's more to it than that. I believe poetry is relevant to many (or perhaps even all) of the other subjects I discuss on this blog; Catholicism, tradition, conservatism, nationalism, and so on.

"Poetry" is a much-contested term. In its most literal sense, I take it to mean a literary form that is arranged in lines and stanzas, that is metrical, and that generally employs rhyme. More broadly, poetry is sometimes used to refer to all imaginative literature, of any kind. 

We all frequently use the term in an even broader sense, and it seems very natural to do so. "Poetry in motion", "visual poetry", " spare me the poetry", "the poetry of cartography"; phrases like these come naturally to our lips, and everybody knows what we mean when we use them.

For whatever reason, poetry seems to be the art-form that usually springs to mind when someone wants to emphasise the expressiveness, or charm, or romance, or allure of something; a woman's face, an academic discipline, a cake, a landscape, or almost anything else you can think.

In this wider sense, poetry might be what distinguishes everything I find precious in this world.

My conservatism, for instance, is most definitely a romantic conservatism-- that is, a poetic conservatism. I support institutions and traditions that seem to me poetic, rather than prosaic. For instance, traditional gender roles are more poetic than androgyny, or sameness between the sexes. Hierarchy is more poetic than egalitarianism. And so on.

One of the features of poetry (the literary form, that is) is the deliberate imposition of constraints-- rhyme, metre, verse form, brevity, strict unity of theme, and so on. Somehow, the poetic effect seems bound up with these constraints.

In the same way, society itself seems more poetic when it is more structured rather than less structured. So tradition, custom, taboo, ceremony, loyalty, these all serve to make society more poetic.

More fundamentally, however, it is the contemplative aspect of poetry which is relevant here.

Poetry is generally contemplative, while prose is generally analytical or descriptive. Poetry lingers on its subject, while prose is always hurrying on to make some point or other. A short story or an article or an essay might begin with an atmospheric portrait of a lake on a summer's day; but it's highly unlikely to stop at that. Poetry can stop at that; or rather, enter more deeply in.

The life of society is generally lived in prose; work meetings, agendas, bus timetables, traffic, small talk, news stories, schedules, instructions, queues, procedures, and so forth.

All goal-directed activity, in other words-- and generally the goal is not a goal in itself, but simply a means to some other goal-- for instance, washing clothes so that we can get dressed for work, so that we can earn money. so that we can pay the rent...

But not all of social life is prose. There are Christmas trees, and walks on the beach, and model ships, and children's games, and staring into the fireplace while cradling a glass of brandy, and telling jokes....

To put it simply, there are activities which are done for their own sake, and which contain their own justification-- and then there are activities which are purely instrumental.

I would include in the "purely instrumental" category those activities which are performed entirely for mental or physical stimulation. Crosswords, for example. 

I have a colleague who always spends his coffee break solving crosswords. It baffles me. Yes, it's his coffee break to spend however he wants. And perhaps he finds it soothing or therapeutic, or something like that. And I realize I'm being unpleasantly judgemental here. But, once he's done the crossword-- what then? I imagine he throws them away, and forgets about them. The only point of this activity (it seems to me) is to keep one's mental wheels spinning-- it's the human equivalent of a dog chewing a bone.

And a lot of fiction (even most fiction) seems essentially the same, to me. It's suspense that keeps the reader reading; curiosity aroused and satisfied, over and over again. The mental jaws get a work-out, and that's the primary purpose of the activity.

This reaches its logical conclusion in detective stories and murder mysteries. Here, the puzzle is the important thing, and everything else in the story is incidental to that. My father (a devotee of murder mystery shows on TV) would often change the channel once the crime had been solved, not even bothering to see how the human elements were wrapped up.

Now, I admit that things are rarely quite so straightforward. Murder mysteries and detective stories are not just riddles, and the appeal of fiction is not just the arousal and satisfaction of suspense. There are poetic elements to both-- to go back to my father, he often commented on his love of the "country house" setting of Agatha Christie stories.

But the emphasis is upon suspense, and curiosity, and analysis.

So that is my contention-- that modern society is "prosaic" in the sense that it is preoccupied with suspense, excitement, problem-solving, and analysis, while more traditional societies are "poetic" in the sense that they are more devoted to contemplation.

I think this explains why modern society has so little time for poetry. It's not that people today are unwilling to read. Just look at at the Fantasy or Science-Fiction section of a bookshop, and you'll see that most of the books there are at least five hundred pages long, and are usually part of a series that spans a dozen volumes or so. But they are unwilling to read poetry, because reading a short volume of poetry actually requires more mental strain than reading a five hundred page novel. And the mental strain involved is quite simply the strain of contemplating rather than analysing, problem-solving, or gratifying suspense.

This blog post is turning out to be longer than I expected, and it's a while since I've posted anything on the blog (I've actually half-written a lot of posts, but not published them). So I will stick a (I) on the end of the title, and come back to it soon.

Monday, July 15, 2019

My Talk in Belfast

Here is the video of the talk I gave in Belfast, back in October, on the subject of my book.

I put a lot of work into writing this talk and I was quite happy with it.