Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Watching the Late Late Show

Yesterday, I was watching some old episodes and clips of the Late Late Show on YouTube. I mean, of course, from the time that Gay Byrne presented it. It was quite the nostalgia kick.

I'm at the age for nostalgia, undoubtedly. Admittedly, I've always been a nostalgist, but the call of the past seems especially compelling in one's forties. All of my siblings seem to be going through this right now (we are all aged between forty and sixty-- my younger brother just turned forty last week). They're all immersed in genealogical research, though I tend to be more drawn to oral traditions and collective memories.

Mortality has been much on my mind this week. I discovered that a friend of mine died last month. I call him a friend, but we hadn't been in touch for a few years. He was an elderly gentleman, somewhat cranky and argumentative, but I appreciated his flair for self-dramatization and the stories he would tell about his past. I knew he was lonely at the end but I hadn't seen him in a few years, so I feel guilty about that. I finally sent him an email a few weeks ago, not realizing it was already too late. Only when he didn't reply did I scan for obituaries.

Watching the Late Late Show certainly reinforced this sense of omnipresent mortality, of the world of my youth slipping over the horizon. One of the clips I watched was Gay Byrne interviewing Jack Charlton, the manager of the Irish international soccer team from 1985 to 1996. Both have died recently, Gay Byrne in 2019 and Jack Charlton in 2020. And, of course, my father also died in 2019. He was a huge admirer of Jack Charlton (though not of Gay Byrne).

I think about nostalgia a lot. Whenever anyone waxes lyrical about the days of their youth, or about some vanished era, the cynics are wont to say: "That's just nostalgia". But why use the word just there? Nostalgia is fascinating in itself. I can easily imagine a world without it, a world in which our vision of the past would be as clear-eyed and passionless as security camera footage. The strangest thing about nostalgia is its existence.

I like the fact that the human mind is not a passive receptacle of memory, that it does something with it. I've spent a lot of time wondering why we get nostalgic. There could be all sorts of reasons, of course; the most obvious being that the past really is better than the present, often enough.

But would that even be enough for nostalgia? After all, it's not simply a comparison of better to worse, which would hardly be much in itself. It's a particular atmosphere, a particular mood. Music is often be described as "nostalgic", even when there is no lyrics. For instance, Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on Greensleeves" sounds nostalgic, even though there are no words.


One reason I think we feel nostalgia is because we suddenly see the past, or a particular period, as complete in itself, as possessing a certain wholeness. Anarchy is replaced by a pattern. Cacophony becomes music. It's somewhat akin, I imagine, to the reaction astronouts report when they look back at the earth and suddenly see it as one shining blue pebble in the darkness of space.

I know the nineteen-eighties was not really a good time in Ireland. All anyone ever seemed to talk about was emigration, unemployment, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, drugs, and so forth.

But, in a strange way, I feel "at home" in that period of Irish history more than any other. It was a time when just having a job was seen as a good thing, an achievement. Everybody was poor (or so it seems to me, looking back) so there was more solidarity, and less careerism and consumerism.

Catholicism, too, remained omnipresent in Irish society, even though the iceberg of the sex scandals was floating towards us. In the Jack Charlton interview, he describes the Irish team meeting the Pope during the World Cup finals in Italy in 1990. That story has often been told, but more interesting was his statement that he regularly arranged Mass for the team on away games. I wonder if that still happens?


One of the episodes I watched was a tribute to Paul McGrath, the legendary defender who was the foundation of Charlton's Irish team. It was a This Is Your Life type of episode, with various friends of the great man giving their memories of him. Among these was one man, someone who had worked as a security guard with McGrath in his younger days, who was now a Catholic priest. He was a reasonably young fellow, too. (He describes McGrath as "coloured" at one point, a poignant reminder of the pre-political correctness days. Nobody bats an eyelid.)

The Catholicism of eighties Ireland, as I've said elsewhere, was mellow and self-confident in a way that no longer seems possible. Certainly, this mellowness and self-confidence could just as well be called inertia and complacency. And it was, to some extent. But not entirely. It was simply accepted (for the most part) that religion was a feature of Irish life, and a good thing-- that the Catholic Church was a pillar of teh nation.

The Late Late Show was (and still is) broadcast on Friday night, when school was as far away as it would ever be, outside the holidays. I remember falling asleep, week after week, with "Uncle Gaybo's" velvety tones washing over me. Actually, I didn't like Uncle Gaybo much at the time, perhaps because my father didn't like him much. But my mother adored him, as did middle-aged and elderly women all over Ireland. He had the boyish good looks and gentle, smooth manner that seemed to appeal to older Irish women at that time.

More than anything else, in retrospect, The Late Late Show seemed like a kind of fireplace of the Irish nation, where it gathered once a week. It made the nation seem like one big extended family. This has always been my favourite conception of nationality. "The nation is the family writ large", as Patrick Pearse said.

I've often wondered what it must feel like to come from a "great nation"-- great in the sense of big. I've only ever known the cosiness of a small nation. I wouldn't trade it for greatness.

I could write much more about The Late Late Show, but perhaps that's enough for now.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Interview with Ciarán Ó Coigligh

Today, I'm going to do something rather different; an interview (via email) with Dr Ciarán Ó Coigligh, someone whose life's work and convictions makes him highly suitable to feature on this blog.

Ciarán is a published poet and novelist, and a retired academic with NUI Galway, UCD, and St. Patrick's Drumcondra DCU. He taught Irish language and literature at all these institutions. Just this year he gained a Master of Philosophy in theology.

Ciarán is exceptional in at least two regards; first, he was an outspoken Catholic conservative in the ultra-liberal world of academe; secondly, he is a Catholic, Irish-speaking member of the Democratic Unionist Party, a party which has historically represented the Protestant, Unionist population in Northern Ireland, and which was founded by Dr Ian Paisley.

I first became aware of Ciarán when I was recovering from surgery and I read a book he co-edited, An Fhealsúnacht agus an tSíceolaíocht (Philosophy and Psychology). It was so interesting it distracted me from my pain and discomfort. It's only one of many books he has authored and edited; I've just done a search in my own library's catalogue and his name returns twenty-seven different volumes!

I've had the pleasure of meeting Ciarán once, all-too-briefly, when we attended Mass and had lunch together in UCD, back in 2016. But I've often interacted with him on social media, where we have discovered many, many areas of agreement and mutual sympathy. I was delighted and privileged when he agreed to this interview. Here it is!

Q: You've had a very interesting journey politically in that you are now a supporter of the Democratic Unionist Party, who would have been seen as a Protestant or even anti-Catholic party in the past. However, many observant Catholics in the North now vote for them, since they have a much better stance on the life issues and on religious freedom than the nationalist parties. I would vote for them myself if I lived in the North. You say you come from a republican background, do you now consider yourself a Unionist or is your support for them based purely on those social issues?

The fact that I was the only 'outspokenly Catholic conservative pro-life' academic in Saint Patrick's College / Dublin City University, tells you all you need to know about the success of internal subversion, in what was formerly a Catholic college, and is now no longer in existence, having been incorporated into DCU as a secular institute of education. The transformation of Saint Patrick's, Mater Dei, and Church of Ireland College of Education into a secular institute (subsequently joined by All Hallows College) by recently retired Catholic Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Anglican Archbishop Michael Jackson constitutes in my opinion the most shocking assault on Christianity on the Island of Ireland since the closing of the monasteries.

Yes, I have a substantial list of publications, including books, peer-reviewed articles, articles in more popular publications, and in recent years, publication on social media. I have for decades been invited to comment on matters of controversy from a conservative perspective on TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta, and Gaelic-medium programmes on RTÉ, Not long after I publicly acknowledged my membership of the Democratic Unionist Party, and challenged Sinn Féin IRA on a number of matters such invitations ceased. Fachtna Ó Drisceoil [a broadcaster on Radio Na Gaeltachta, Irish language radio] who has de-platformed me told me once that I was a very controversial figure and that many people refused to engage with me on air. I responded that this told him more about them than it did about me. Ó Drisceoil wanted the DUP to nominate me as their spokesman on Gaelic matters. The Party does not operate in that way. I have been de-platformed. I have always been happy to collaborate with others in the field of Gaelic scholarship and have always been happy to speak to local, national or international audiences whenever invited.

I was for many years a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Ger Casey, Joe O Carroll, and Fr Brendan Purcell were members, as was the late Justice Rory O Hanlon. The Irish branch folded a good many years ago. Some pro-life academics in NUI were members of Opus Dei, but did not enter the public arena to any great extent.

I always liked Mrs Margaret Thatcher. I found her physically and intellectually attractive and an unapologetic defender of British values. I also admired Revd Dr Ian Paisley for his steadfastness in promoting and defending that in which he believed in terms of religion and politics. The Hunger Strikes of 1981 delayed my transition from radical republicanism to radical Christian conservatism by many years. Yes, I am now an Irish Unionist. I feel no allegiance whatsoever to the depraved Republic of Ireland. I would prefer to have a British passport. At least the people of Britain had same-sex 'marriage' and murder through abortion forced on them by the political elite. They did not vote for these barbarities as did the electorate of the Republic of Ireland.

I first contacted Jim Wells MLA DUP when he was forced to resign as Minister for Health because of a vicious lying attack on him by a woman involved in a homo-sexual relationship. She was subsequently found guilty by a court of lying in what she had claimed about Jim. I subsequently offered to canvass for Jim, in a Stormont election, during the course of which, I encouraged him to canvass a militantly Republican housing estate in Analong, South Down, disparagingly known as 'the Congo'. This is now the stuff of folklore amongst the DUP membership and I claim responsibility for his 3% increase in electoral support! The DUP has a commitment to the poor.

I believe the depraved Republic of Ireland would be better off in the Commonwealth, which is a vibrant growing economy rather than in the EU, which has shrunk hugely since Irish accession back in 1973. Re-joining the United Kingdom would be my preferred option.

Q. My own grandfather and father were strongly rooted in the Irish republican tradition, as were my extended family going back several generations, and I feel a certain sense of guilt as I grow more and more alienated from it. It seems to me that the secularism and extreme liberalism we see in Sinn Féin and indeed in Irish society is based in Irish republicanism, especially the legacy of the United Irishmen and their embrace of the ideals of the French Revolution. Do you feel any similar sense of guilt or disconnection from your background?

A. No, I feel no sense of guilt at my now complete alienation from militant republicanism, but I do regret that it took me so long to express my alienation publicly. Over twenty years ago, I was invited to deliver the oration at the funeral of my uncle who was, until his death, a local IRA leader and Sinn Féin representative in several local and national elections. I have a copy of my address somewhere which I shall be happy to share, whenever I find it. During the course of my address, I sang his deserved praises as a local community activist. However, I prefaced those remarks by referring to the fact that 'even those of us who do not share his political views' can appreciate the good he did. My very deliberate use of the words 'of us' was my first ever public distancing of myself from militant republicanism and it was a milestone in my personal journey.

Q: You are an Irish language speaker and you have had many books of poetry and prose published in that language. What do you think the future holds for the Irish language? Both the hopes for its revival as a language of daily life, and the frequent announcement of its imminent death, seem to have been proven wrong again and again. Its survival, as a second language at least, seems assured, but it's extremely unusual to hear anyone speak Irish on a bus or a street (in Dublin, at least) and that seems unlikely to change. Or am I wrong? Do you consider yourself a revivalist? Do you think efforts to revive the language, by government and others, have helped or hindered it?

A: Irish Gaelic is the language of our home. My wife Máirín and I reared our children as speakers of the language. Now adults, they continue to speak it to us and to each other but do not have any circle of friends with whom they speak it. I think the future of the language is bleak. God willing, I may be proven wrong. My wish is that Gaelic be spoken widely throughout the island of Ireland. I have just finished writing a bilingual course entitled Learn Gaelic/ Foghlaim Gaeilge, which I claim will bring an individual with no knowledge of the language to an advanced ability to understand, speak, read, and write it. I wrote the course in Connacht Gaelic and English, and currently I am overseeing its translation into Munster and Ulster Gaelic. So yes, I am a revivalist. 

I see great merit in people (of all nationalities) acquiring facility in Gaelic. Efforts by governments and other agencies have been partially successful on occasion and wholly unsuccessful on other occasions. The great flaw was over-, indeed sole reliance on public schooling and a failure to maintain and increase the Gaelic-speaking population. Gaelic speakers need to marry each other and raise large families and ensure that their offspring marry Gaelic speakers. We have singularly failed in regard to the latter. We are perpetually inventing the wheel. Grotesquely, the Gaeltacht is contracepting and aborting itself out of existence as is the rest of the depraved state. There are thousands of Gaelic-speaking couples in Ireland and even more in the US and GB who have not given their children the gift of the language.

Q: Irish language speakers in Ireland, at least those who are vocal in the media and on social media, seem disproportionately progressive and left-wing, even given the dominance of the liberal left in Ireland. Why do you think this is? It is more apparent than real?

A. Gaelic speakers who are vocal in the mainstream media and on social media have idolised the language. They are functional atheists and promote Gaelic as a replacement for the Christian faith which they have rejected, by and large. More generally, Gaelic speakers, like speakers of any other language, like to be liked, to follow fashion, not to be excluded or marginalised. Therefore, they parrot the latest fetishes of the culture and confuse imitation, translation in this case, with originality of thought.

Q: You are a published and prolific poet. Which poets do you like to read? Do you write poetry at the prompting of inspiration or is it more deliberate? Do you revise much?

A. I have published twelve volumes of my own poetry, with two more to be published in 2021, God willing, 
one of which is a bilingual requiem for the 339 members of the Orange Order
murdered in the Republican Terror.. I read nothing of contemporary writing in Gaelic. There is no one writing from a Christian perspective apart from myself. At almost sixty-nine, I am too old to waste time reading anti-Christian diatribes. I read the Bible daily, I am working again on my knowledge of Old English in the hope of publishing something on its Christian poetry; and on my Latin in order to write something on Patrick, the apostle of Ireland. I revise a lot. Most of the poetry I now write is to celebrate significant milestones in the lives of others: birth, baptism, communion, confirmation, marriage, and death.

Q: Do you get much response from readers of your poetry? It seems to me that it's very hard to get an audience for poetry these days.

A. No. I get very little response. Some of my published volumes have never been reviewed to my knowledge. I feel I am an embarrassment to many, a thorn in the side of others, and maybe a prick in the conscience of a few.

Q: In twenty-first century Ireland, religious faith is often seen as requiring defence or explanation. Do people challenge your religious beliefs and, if so, how do you answer them?

A. My children challenge my faith continuously. I respond by quoting what Jesus said and what the Old and New Testament, the word of God, tells us about the life of faith. My associates in the DUP are, without exception, people of profound faith, who encourage and embolden me in the public expression of my faith.

Q: You were very bravely outspoken as a practicing Catholic in academe. What advice would you give Christians and conservatives working in heavily liberalised professions, like academic life?

A: Raynod Topley, the Head of the Department of Religious Studies, in Saint Patrick's College, a great Christian and a close friend, who has gone to God, once, after a bruising encounter in the University, said to me that I would plough a lonely furrow. You, Maolsheachlann, will do the same. It is the daily burden you pick up in following Christ. You are being watched all the time by those who love you and wish you well and by those who strenuously disagree with your theology and philosophy. However, the good news is that you are forever influencing them all. What you do, what you do not do, how you carry yourself in company and when alone-- all these things influence others in ways you will never know. For example, you came to my attention by virtue of your promotion of the work of G. K. Chesterton.

Stand your ground. Do not allow yourself to be cowed or ignored. If your beliefs are being belittled defend them in a courteous manner and pray for those who treat you unfairly. Many people actually share your political and religious views but few are brave enough to raise their voices in a public forum. You are an encouragement to them. Try to see the image of Christ in all and acknowledge the least good that anyone in your circle does.

Q; Is there any issue you've changed your mind on in the last five years?

A: In the last five years I have come to understand that truth and holiness reside in many Christian denominations. However, this has caused me to reconsider my commitment of long-standing to ecumenical and infer-faith dialogue. I am no longer happy with ecumenical services where fundamental differences of theology and politics are ignored and where blandness is the order of the day. I now believe that I may have a vocation, if that is not too vaunted an expression, to work with Evangelical Christians who challenge me on Purgatory, Mariolatry, the (extra) Sacraments, the Mass, Papal Infallibility, and a number of other aspects of Roman Catholic belief and practice.

I have been greatly disillusioned by the efforts to normalise homosexual relationships and 'families' in the preparations and discussions prior to the Conference on the Family held in Rome some years ago. I was even more disillusioned by the silence of the official Catholic Church here in Ireland on the referendums on redefining marriage and repealing the 8th Amendment and disgusted that the Catholic hierarchy stated that it would not oppose the removal of reference to blasphemy from the Constitution. The invitation to James Martin SJ to address the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in 2018 was a body blow as was the invitation to homo-sexual activists to bring the Offerings to the Altar at the Papal Mass and the inclusion of entertainers who have supported those obnoxious referendums. These matters caused me to curtail my involvement in parochial affairs to a minimum. I maintain that minimum involvement in deference to Fr Martin the parish coordinator who is a very holy man and a great theologian. The latest scandal is that the Vatican and the Irish hierarchy encouraged people to avail of vaccines which derive from the stem lines of infants murdered by abortion. They should have called on Catholic scientists worldwide, including those working in the Vatican laboratory, and others of good will to produce ethically derived vaccines.

When I share fellowship in a Roman Catholic Church I am acutely aware that some present have voted for abominations. When I share fellowship in a Free Presbyterian Church I am certain that those present share my view on the culture of life and indeed it will often be the case that the presiding minister will preach courageously and at length on the topic. I am anxious to accentuate all that is Christian and biblical and to relegate to a secondary position all that is uniquely institutional or denominational in terms of belief and practice so help me God.

Christ is my rock and guide.

Many thanks, again, to Ciarán for these fascinating and honest answers. Christ be our guide, indeed!

Saturday, April 3, 2021

A New Catholic Magazine, and Other Matters

A new online Catholic magazine was launched on the first day of this month. It's called Leaven, and this is how it describes itself:

Leaven is a bimonthly digital magazine mainly for and by young Catholics in Ireland, providing readers with thought-provoking material from a range of voices, talking about everything, and holding to what is true. Bringing a spiritual lens to the world, we aim to showcase a coherently and distinctly Irish Catholic vision that is kind and thoughtful, honest and faithful, balanced, relevant, and fresh. We are firmly committed to getting beyond stereotypes and stale talking points, highlighting that smart, young, curious, compassionate people – and especially women! – are integral to our Church, and helping their voices be heard. Leaven is for anyone who wants to grow a genuine living faith in their own life and become a leaven for Ireland and the world.

Each issue will explore a mix of topics from science to literature, pop culture to social justice, history to philosophy and beyond. The first issue will be launching on Holy Thursday, 1 April, under the editorship of Greg Daly, formerly of The Irish Catholic, Aleteia, and Catholic Voices.

I have an article in the first issue, in which I write about my fears and sadness regarding the decline of oral culture (stories, songs, riddles, and so forth). It has the title Parlour Games in the Jury Room, which I only mention because I take a strange relish in the title itself. In all honesty, there's nothing in the article that regular readers of this blog won't have encountered many times already, so I wouldn't recommend you pay to read it. But you might want to subscribe to Leaven anyway. It's a worthwhile venture, insofar as it aims to present Catholic writing on a wide variety of topics, in the spirit of C.S. Lewis's observation: "What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent."

I greatly applaud Greg Daly on this venture. And I also envy him. Lately, I've felt the strong urge to do something of this kind myself-- to launch a magazine or a blog or a group which will play some part, however small, in the cultural life of our time. 

Partly this is because I would like to emulate my father, who edited (and mostly wrote) the community magazine The Ballymun News for about thirty years. (Here is a link about the magazine from the socialist blog The Cedar House Revolution-- the author's guesses about the magazine are off the mark, but my brother Turlough Kelly puts him right in the comment section.)

The more I think of it, the more impressed I am by my father's determination and drive in publishing a magazine. I'm impressed that he wrote so much of it, of course, but I'm even more impressed that he managed to navigate the practicalities of printing, typesetting, attracting advertising, and all that kind of thing. (When I was growing up, there was a book on our bookshelves called Into Print, a "how-to" book for putting out your own publication, which I loved for its photographs and their deliciously seventies atmosphere-- long hair, wide shirt-collars, grainy photography, that kind of thing.)

As I've mentioned in previous blog posts, I've felt drawn more and more to poetry, to try to perform some service to poetry and its presence in everyday life. I don't know how to do that. I have thought about starting a poetry discussion group in work. I've even thought of forming something called The Poetry Liberation Front and handing out poems to shoppers outside supermarkets. (I've been increasingly preoccupied with supermarkets, too, which seem to me like the Ground Zero of modern soullessness and utilitarianism. Just ignoring them doesn't seem to be an adequate reponse to their existence.)

But I've also been contemplating starting a school of poets, or some kind of poetry journal. I love reading about the different schools of poetry that run through literary history-- the Graveyard Poets, the Pylon Poets, the Fireside Poets, the Movement, and so on. True, most poets (like most artists of any kind) have an individualist temperament which makes them kick against any classification, but I still like the idea of poetry schools.

When I was a teenager, and into my early twenties, I wanted to be A Poet above all else. Years of disillusionment proved to me how thankless a task this was. Nobody publishes poetry anymore. Nobody reads it. And certainly nobody pays for it. These obstacles are compounded if you write traditionalist verse-- verse that rhymes, scans, and makes some kind of sense even on a first reading. Free verse rules the roost now.

I took to writing prose in my late twenties, and quickly realized that prose gets a much readier audience. And, once people get used to reading your prose, some of them will even read some of your poems. But I'd pretty much abandoned the idea of poetry as anything but a sideline, and even convinced myself that I'd outgrown such adolescent ambitions. After all, most writers start out writing poetry.

However, the stubborn and idealistic and contrarian side of my nature is making itself heard more and more. After all, it's not OK that poetry is relegated to a literary ghetto today-- occasionally to be heard at ceremonial occasions, or used as a form of therapy. (Not that I'm against either of those uses.) And it seems a cop-out just to accept prose writing as the line of least resistance. Poetry needs to be made a part of ordinary life again-- if there is no audience right now, then creating an audience is the necessary first step. To fail at that enterprise would be a noble failure. Once again, I aspire to be A Poet, and not just a prose writer who occasionally writes poems.

I write this on Easter Saturday. I've lamented, in a previous post, the lack of "thickness" that Easter suffers from. Why are there no popular Easter songs, no films set at Easter other than Christian films? At least there was no shortage of worshippers doing the Stations of the Cross and attending confession in my local church yesterday. This might be a project for all of us-- to make Easter great again, or perhaps (in purely cultural terms) for the first time!

In the meantime, I wish you a happy and holy Eastertide. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

On Pranks

Well, it's coming close to April's Fools Day. Now is the time to start planning your pranks, or to start bracing yourself for those played by others.

Is there anyone out there who has never fallen for an April Fool's Day prank? I know I have. I responded indignantly to this Guardian leader which announced that paper's conversion to monarchism, on purely progressive grounds. A liberal friend of mine posted it on Facebook, and I left a withering comment. (I was complaining about the reasons, of course, not the supposed change of direction) Yes, I felt pretty foolish when she pointed out the date.

April Fool's Day is rather different from other traditions in that modern life is no impediment to its continuation. Rather the opposite, in fact. In all honesty, the pranks of media organisations are usually more memorable than those played by ordinary people in daily life.

In America, the case of the Liberty Taco Bell is probably the most famous prank, while in Britain nothing seems to have outdone the spaghetti tree documentary.

There aren't really any famous Irish April Fool's Day pranks. I remember one of my colleagues being taken in by a news story that the Millennium Spire was being taken down for cleaning, a few years ago. (I wish they would take it down permanently!)

I've tried perpetrating a few April Fool's Day pranks myself. One year, I texted one friend to invite him to a funeral for the family dog, and another to invite her to my bar mitzvah as I had decided to convert to Judaism. I got a respectful agreement from the first chap-- when I owned up to the joke, he told me he suspected it was a prank, but thought he'd better not assume anything, just in case. My other friend wasn't falling for it for a moment. She just wrote back, "Mazel tov!".

When I was a trainee in the Allen Library, I played an elaborate prank (not an April Fool) in which I fabricated a ghost story. The Allen Library was housed in a building which used to be a Christian Brothers school. I pretended to be a daughter of a former pupil. I think I was asking if there had been any further sightings, and I linked it to a book which I knew was on the shelves of the Allen Library. I went to the lengths of setting up an email account for one Alannah C. Holmes. (Juggle the letters about a bit.)

Well, it fell pretty flat. I got no reply. I did hear subsequently that one of the Brothers had got quite excited about it-- but obviously not excited enough to reply.

When I was in college, I put up signs in the corridors that said DRY PAINT. When I claimed responsibility for this, one of my classmates refused to believe it was my idea.

I've had lots of ideas for pranks which I haven't had the resources to pull off. For instance, every time I pass a particular telephone box (for there are still some telephone boxes in Dublin) I think about how funny it would be to have one person apparently making a call inside it, while several people queued outside.

Watching some girls roller-skating a few weeks ago, I had the fantasy of a group of elderly, tweedy men roller-skating through the city centre.

There was a time (in my early twenties) when I wore a lot of plain sweaters. (I was so timid at the time, I thought anything colourful or patterned was drawing too much attention to myself.) Whenever I found myself in an electronics store, customers would ask me questions, since employees in such stores so often wear plain sweaters.

It gave me the dark thought of wandering the floor of some department store, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a name-badge, and waiting to be approached by customers. Then I could launch into a tirade, or (less aggressively) make a series of bizarre claims, or some such thing.

As I've been writing this blog post, I've been struck by a peculiar thought regarding the appeal of April Fool's Day. It's a day that most of us don't see coming-- it only occurs to us that it's April Fool's Day when we encounter a prank story. Indeed, that's the only reason that it works.

In this way, it's a perfect example of the duality of time, which is both linear and cyclical. There is nothing new under the sun, but you can't step into the same river twice. There is a certain frisson in the moment (or in contemplating the moment) when you raise your head from the scrum of everyday life to see the larger pattern of which you had lost sight. At least, there is for me.

Why is this? Well, for my part, it's because both of these "streams of time" have their sublimity. There is a beauty in the everyday, the purely ephemeral, and there is another sort of beauty in the timeless, the recurring.

Of course, this collision of the linear and the cyclical can be poignant as well as pleasing. I remember being very struck, in school, by an article about a girl who had become addicted to something or other-- drugs, or aerosols, or some other substance. It described how she was stopped short, in the depth of her addiction, when she looked at the date on a newspaper and saw it as her birthday. She had been so consumed by her addiction she hadn't even realised it.

Another story I heard from a friend (indeed, the same friend who posted the Guardian link) has somewhat the same character. I think I've mentioned it on this blog before. One year, she was so heartbroken by a break-up that she simply ignored Christmas, and lay on her bed watching DVD box sets through the entire season. That story exerts a strange hold on me. The thought of ignoring Christmas is fascinating for many reasons-- one, because it is so sad; two, because there is a strange relief to it (let's face it, Christmas can be pressured); and three, because it underlines the length and variety of human life. We have probably all "missed" a Christmas some year or other. We can afford it.

Well, enough about April Fool's Day. On a completely different note, I will be appearing on RTE 1's Ryan Tubridy Show next Thursday, to talk about a new book I have co-authored with Dirk Benedict, Eternity and the A-Team: Glimpses of the Divine in Eighties TV Drama.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Where But In Custom and In Ceremony?

For many years now, I've been preoccupied with the lack of ceremony and ritual in modern life. My hunger for these things feels primal, and I find it hard to analyse it any further. It seems odd to me that other people don't feel the same yearning. Perhaps they do, but the fact that there is so little ceremony in daily life would seem to suggest that they don't.

Ceremonial in daily life would seem to have ebbed over decades, as far as I can see. One example that has been on my mind recently is the use of national anthems.

When I was growing up, the Irish national anthem was played at the end of a day's broadcasting on RTE, the state television channel. This happened at least into the nineteen-eighties and perhaps as late as the nineteen-nineties. It was played over footage of the sun setting on a scenic landscape. Back then, I rather disliked the segment, because sunsets always make me sad. But I miss it now.

And this despite the fact that I don't much like the national anthem from an aesthetic point of view. The lyrics are militaristic bombast, which is rather typical for anthems. But they're not even rousing bombast, like the American National Anthem. They are rather dreary bombast. I don't like the tune, either.

But that's not the point. It's been our national anthem since the nineteen-twenties, and it's part of our history now.

In truth, although I'm a nationalist, my sadness at the neglect of the national anthem hasn't really got anything to do with nationalism. I miss it for the element of ceremony that it added to daily life. Not only was it played at the end of programming on TV and radio, but it was frequently played at the end of musical "sessions" in pubs. Now this custom seems to have dried up completely, and its use seems more or less limited to big sporting occasions.

I've thought about leading a campaign for the restoration of the anthem on RTE. I live twenty minutes away from the studios, so I could easily do that while respecting the current Covid travel restrictions. I could become the familiar headbanger with the placard, a status I have often aspired towards for its own sake.

I remember in secondary school, we would stand up and say a prayer before each class. Not with every teacher, though-- we had one history teacher who didn't engage in this practice. Once, when a girl automatically stood up and started saying the prayer by herself, the teacher said:"That's why I don't say a prayer for class"; presumably meaning that she thought it was simply mechanical repetition and therefore valueless. I was impressed by this reasoning at the time, but I'm less repressed now. Better mechanical repetition than nothing.

We seem increasingly to be left with nothing, and that gives me a great sense of loss. A little bit of standing on ceremony would surely be good for us all.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Joys of Working in a Library

This is an article I wrote for my staff newsletter. Unlike quite a lot of the articles I've submitted to staff publications down the years, it was actually included, and got quite a good response. (I am sure I have the record for rejected articles to UCD library staff publications.) When I started, there was a printed newsletter called LibSpin. It has been replaced by a succession of online newsletters, the latest simply being called The Staff Newsletter. It's mostly just staff news. I'm pretty much the only person who writes articles per se for it. And even poems sometimes!)

I love snow. I grew up in the nineteen-eighties when snow was a rarity in Ireland, and the idea of a white Christmas seemed as exotic as palm trees and sandy white beaches. Sometimes, when I meet people who live in a snowy climate and I express envy of them, they reply: “You wouldn’t like it so much if you had to deal with it all the time.” This irks me because I know they’re wrong. I know that I would like it. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt.

Here’s one example of familiarity not breeding contempt. I started working in UCD library in October 2001, close to twenty years ago. I can remember my wonder and delight the first time I surveyed its shelves, its apparently endless succession of books on every conceivable subject. So far from diminishing over the years, that sense of delight has only intensified. Being surrounded by books still gives me more pleasure, more of a sense of well-being, than anything else in life. It’s my “happy place”.

The world is full of wonders, but I honestly can’t think of anything more wondrous than a library.

Perhaps it comes down to the wonder of the written word itself. History begins with the discovery of writing, and when you think about it, no subsequent invention is more transformative. I can’t get over the fact that marks on a page can convey thoughts from one mind into another, even across centuries and continents. That seems to be the primordial leap, after which every other communication technology is mere refinement or enhancement.

When I was a boy I used to take a random book from our bookshelves at home, open it at a random page, and read the first lines that came to my eyes. It always gave me a thrill to find myself thrown into some story or discussion, to realize that this book had (in a sense) a life of its own even when nobody was reading it. I savoured the sense of mystery and possibility in the lines detached from their context.

I didn’t join my local library until I was fifteen years old-- partly because we had so many books at home, partly through an odd timidity. I can still remember the books I borrowed on my first visit; Brown Lord of the Mountain by Walter Macken, Water on the Brain by Compton Mackenzie, and The Complete War Memoirs by Spike Milligan. I quickly became a familiar (perhaps too familiar!) face to the library staff, and I was even inspired to write an ode to the library. “Stand here among the silent echoes of mankind”, was the first line-- I forget the rest, although the words “all history hangs in the air” featured at some point.

There is nothing like a library to induce, as Louis MacNeice so perfectly put it, “the drunkenness of things being various”. Philosophers talk about the problem of “the one and the many”, and I believe some dim awareness of it lies permanently at the back of all our minds. Why should the world be so multifarious? How did we get so lucky? It might easily have been otherwise. I feel some tingle of this every time I come across a book on the shelves that delights me with its particularity. It might be an anthology of skipping rhymes, or a sociology of utopian communities, or a cultural history of the banana. When the reader opens such a book, for a moment everything else-- World War Two, the dinosaurs, politics, religion, everything-- recedes into the background and this unique subject holds centre stage. Of all the numberless subjects and books in the world, you find yourself immersed in this one, at this time. There’s a great dignity to that, a specialness.

Time itself seems suspended in a library-- or rather, not suspended, but somehow flowing at a different pace, or at a multitude of different paces. For instance, if you browse the literature shelves, you enter into the time of literary history-- not quite timelessness, but on the edge of it, so to speak. I remember once, shelving books in the Jonathan Swift section, and becoming acutely aware of the slow “conversation” that was occurring on that shelf, by critics writing decades apart. The number of books on Swift gave me a sense of “hype”, but “hype” of a contemplative and refined type. “Swift must be a big deal”, I thought. “But a big deal stretched over a long, long time…”

Then there are the titles! The poetry of book titles is captivating. The title that immediately comes to mind is the history of children’s literature with the title Boys and Girls Forever, a title that I find both jubilant and poignant. There is also a book about cinema with the title Light Moving in Time. Or (to stay on the cinema shelves) the Graham Greene film review collection with the delicious title Mornings in the Dark. Of course, there are hundreds more, thousands more.

Perhaps it’s strange, even presumptuous, that a library assistant should write a love letter to the libraries for an audience of library staff. Who do I think I’m telling, after all? But I don’t want to be the guy in the snowy climate who becomes blasé about the snow-- or even the guy who just acts that way, out of a fear of seeming eccentric. I would rather be the guy who cries, "Look at the snow! Look at the snow!"

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Snow by Louis MacNeice: An Appreciation and Analysis

"Snow" by Louis MacNeice is one of my favourite poems. I have mentioned it on this blog often before. I've meant to write a whole post about it for a long time, but I've felt inhibited by its elusive magic. 

As a poem which (in my view) addresses some of the most fundamental properties of reality, it's rather hard to grapple with. Somebody, I forget who, once said that poetry is there to express the things we can't express in prose. (Which reminds me of a more famous quotation: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.") There's some truth to this, and particularly so in the case of this poem. But poetry criticism and poetry appreciation still exist, just like music criticism. We want to talk about the things we love.

First, the poem itself. As it is widely available on the internet, I trust the MacNeice estate won't come after me for reproducing it here:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Surprisingly, given how often this poem is anthologized, there seem to be no consensus as to its meaning.

Clarissa Ackroyd, who writes a blog called The Stone and the Star (what a great name!), has this to say about the poem:

'Snow' is a poem about the nature of reality, about the way things are, and about the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious. It is a poem with an intense duality, showing the physical world as marvelous and bizarre, while also invoking what lies beyond the physical world. It is a poem about poetry, because poetry in its fullest sense is also a dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious....It is a poem about being alive. There are moments when the beauty and strangeness of what we see or hear catches at the heart and leaves a indelible impression that can last for a lifetime.

Olivia Coles on the Poetry Magazines website perceives a topical, political dimension to the poem:

For all the lyricism of Snow, beneath the surface is MacNeice’s trademark sense of foreboding - his sense not only of inescapable involvement but also of culpability... In 1935, events on the European stage were beginning to make it more than clear that this was a time of extremes, in which nobody could afford the privilege of subjective “variousness” and subtlety of opinion. A time of international crisis demands that opinions and alliances be black and white: as precise and perfected as the neoclassical Berlin that Hitler and Albert Speer imagined into existence, and the ideal city that Mussolini constructed on the outskirts of Rome. This sort of precision and belief that events can be seen in terms of winners and losers, good and evil, right and wrong, is an impossible ideal that MacNeice knows to be mere fantasy and a dangerous one at that.

The most notable academic criticism of the poem seems to be that of R.C. Cragg, published in the journal Essays in Criticism in 1953, some twenty years after the poem was published. Cragg's article is entitled "Snow, a Philosophical Poem: A Study in Critical Procedure". His conclusion is: " 'Snow' is a difficult poem. Its substance is the whole of cosmology, its glossary the history of philosophy. Not the least of its merits is its straightforwardness; it speaks openly and unashamed, avoiding the facileness of symbolical meanings, and it moves without confusion, distortion or strain."

Cragg's article is rather dense and his tone is haughty, but I believe he hits upon the essence of the poem in these lines: "The relation is not between snow and roses but is a world relation of concept, plurality. And yet plurality is the basis of one world, of a unity of impressions, and we are back to our old problem, the One and the Many."

I'll address the problem of the One and the Many in a moment, but it's worth noting that Cragg's thesis has been questioned in the academic literature-- in fact, in the very same journal, one year later. M.A. Roberts wrote "Snow: An Answer to Mr. Cragg", in which he asserted:

There is no need for philosophy here. The experience which the poem recreates is familiar enough. Our day to day experience of "world" is lifeless, killed by the weight of our abstract "knowledge" about it. But there was a time, and there still are times, of experiencing that world as a living thing, not abstractly, but "face to face".

Although Roberts (and Ackroyd) are certainly justified in seeing the poem as a celebration of immediacy, and although there may perhaps be something to Coleman's political analysis, I think Cragg has it right. "Snow" is above all a philosophical poem, and in particular a meditation on the problem of the One and the Many. (I'm not so sure it's a "difficult poem", particularly.)

The One and the Many is a venerable metaphysical problem. Does only one thing exist, or do many things exist? If many things exist, how can we really say they are separate or different from other things? Are you yourself one "thing"? Is your arm one thing? Is a muscle within your arm one thing? Is a cell within that muscle one thing? How do we mark the boundaries between one thing and another?

We could analyse the world into smaller and smaller parts, perhaps going into the realm of the sub-atomical to find the basic constituents of existence. On the other hand, we could see the entire interconnected system as one entity of its own. Both claims are tenable.

Most of us, I think, accept the simultaneous existence of unity and plurality. The universe is, in a certain sense, a whole. But things also have an independent reality-- somehow.
That MacNeice was preoccupied by such metaphysical problems is clear from his other writings-- for instance, he wrote a poem entitled "Plurality", a response to the an ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides who addressed the question of the One and the Many, and who is often considered the father of metaphysics. It is, in my opinion, one of his best poems.  Rather strangely, Parmenides believed there was no such thing as plurality or change, that these were simply illusions, and that everything that existed was uniform and changeless. It's a strange position to take, to be sure, but he had his reasons for this claim, and they are actually quite difficult to answer. The attempt to answer them played a major role in the development of metaphsyics.

The One and the Many might seem like a rather dry subject for a poem, but I don't think this is the case. When we really ponder the problem-- or even when we find ourselves ambushed by it, unsuspected-- it arouses in us a sense of wonder, of surprise, of awe. How is that many things can exist? The last line of the poem tells us that "there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses". But what is this mysterious "more"?

I can't say what MacNeice meant by that line, but I would suggest that mysterious thing is "otherness". At least, that is what the poem suggests to me.

There has been much talk of "the Other" in the last hundred years, beginning in philosophy and eventually percolating into general social discussion. It's easy to scoff at this, and much of it is pretentious, but "the Other" is an important concept in so many ways.

For instance, many of the disputes between conservatives and progressives hinge on the concept of "the Other"-- a great deal could be said here, and doubtless the temptation is for me to be unfair to progressives. From my own conservative (and especially nationalist) perspective, the defence of "Otherness" is central to my outlook. Otherness, that is, conceived of as specialness, distinctiveness. To take one example, Brexit could be seen as an attempt to protect (or to revive) the "otherness" of Britain from Europe, or from globalization. On the other hand, liberals would doubtless fault conservatives for their hostility to the Other when it comes to homosexuality and transsexuality.
(This article in The Burkean was, I think, my best effort to argue for "specialness"-- or Otherness-- as a central conservative value.)

Is it legitimate to pass from the "hard" metaphysical problem of the One and the Many which Cragg (correctly, I believe) identifies as the theme of "Snow", to "softer" examples of the problem (or perhaps even analogies) drawn from society and culture, when considering this poem? I think so. This is, after all, the method MacNeice uses in other philosophical poems, such as "Plurality". MacNeice always took the broad view, and liked to jump from philosophy to politics to everyday life, and so on. That is why I think that the various interpretations of "Snow" are, in fact, quite legitimate.

Having regarded the poem as philosophy, let us now look at it as poetry-- bearing in mind that the greatness of "Snow" lies in its brilliant fusion of both.

The magnificent opening line is both dramatic and ordinary: "The room was suddenly rich..."

As I said at the start, "Snow" is a poem that addresses some of the most fundamental aspects of reality. For this reason, MacNeice could have used pretty much any setting, any imagery. I like the fact that the imagery he chose was so conventionally poetic, even traditional: roses, snow and fire. I can imagine some of his more aggressively modernist contemporaries choosing something uglier or more banal; weeds and rust, perhaps. (Not that MacNeice's poetry never suffers from the influence of modernism; it very often does. But "Snow" is an ideal blend of modern conceptualism and traditional lyricism.)

Even more than the lyricism of the imagery, I enjoy the ordinariness of it. "Snow" is set in a room which could be almost any room anywhere; although the presence of a bay window and pink roses suggests a front room, and it has a rather English flavour to it. "The drunkenness of things being various" is applicable to all times and all places; some more so than others, of course, but it's always there. Poetry such as this heightens the experience of everyday life. It makes us aware of the wonder and mystery which is always present.

The tangerine that the narrator eats is an understandable choice; a juicy fruit is probably the best sort of food to use in a poem about the vividness of the sensual. I don't like fruit myself, aside from a few-- bananas, grapes, dates-- and you'll note that these are the less juicy fruits. I particularly dislike oranges, apart for the very qualities which makes a tangerine appropriate here; the extraordinarily strong association they leave in the memory, particularly with the season of Halloween. (Fruit does seem more inherently poetic than other foods; an apple seems to have more poetic potential than a cheese sandwich.)

I've barely even mentioned, so far, the substance from which "Snow" takes its title. Regular readers might be surprised at this, knowing my love of the stuff. Indeed, I wrote a whole novel against a backdrop of snow, The Snowman. I also wrote this blog post, "The Storehouses of the Snow", on my love for snow.

It's easy to see why MacNeice chose snow as the central image of the poem. There is nothing more transformative than snow. It makes us see our surroundings in a completely new light, without doing violence to them or obscuring their natural contours. It's always sudden, silent, a least, in this part of the world. Just like the snowfall in Joyce's "The Dead", it tends to make us see the world in a new way. It awakens us.

Snow and roses separated by a pane of glass is a particularly powerful image. It's very cosy, of course, to imagine oneself sitting in a comfortable parlour and looking out, through roses, at the snow falling outside. But it's also evocative of the contrasts, the sharp edges, that give life so much of its relish and its character. A man and a woman embracing are as close as they can be, and yet remain utterly distinct in their masculinity and femininity-- "incorrigibly plural", "soundlessly collateral and incompatible". The same is true of a grandfather holding his infant grandson, a street lamp illuminating a dark alley, the ticking of a clock reverberating in silence, and any number of other delicious contrasts that you can imagine for yourself.

The phrase "incorrigibly plural" has entered popular usage, although "cultured usage" might be a better term here. That is, it is frequently quoted without attribution. It deserves it. Poetic genius is when a poet combines two or more words that fit supremely well, but that might never have been yoked together if they had not thought of it. When once you hear the phrase "incorrigibly plural", it inevitably suggests itself to your mind from then on, whenever you are trying to express the same concept.

The same applies to "the drunkenness of things being various", which is perhaps the crescendo of the poem, and its most famous line. My wife makes fun of me because I quote this line so often. But I can't help it. "The drunkenness of things being various" is an emotion that I feel very strongly, and that I have felt all my life. I find it in books of quotations, in browsing The Guinness Book of Records or The Book of Lists, in playing Trivial Pursuit and savouring its wonderful board, in scanning the shelves of libraries and bookshops, and in hundreds of other situations. I suppose there is something irreducible about this. You either feel it or you don't.

Of course, we know that the world is various, but somehow it keeps surprising us in its variety. Things are various in ways we don't expect or anticipate; there is always something new out of Africa, and out of everywhere else. The bounteousness of life is hard to express, the constant discovery of more. I think this sense of wonder and newness might be the wellspring of all poetry; the sense of awe that Keats captured when he wrote: "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken..."

It doesn't require the discovery of a new planet to inspire this sense of wonder, though. It can just as well be something very ordinary, like snow beginning to fall outside a window full of roses.

Finally, in musing upon this poem, I come back to the strangeness of time, space, variety and mutability. I am reminded of Chesterton's lines:

The world is as wild as an old wives' tale
And strange the plain things are...

Reader, have you not felt the strangeness of these things? Don't the depths of the sea, with all the marine life going on there, seem like a fairy-tale on dry land? Doesn't it seem incredible to think you were ever a child? Doesn't it seem incredible to think that, hundreds of years ago, men and women very like us walked over the exact same spots of ground that we traverse today? Don't "the changing of the seasons and the tides of the sea" seem uncanny?

The five senses which are invoked in "Snow" are also extremely strange, when truly pondered. Each is a world of its own, irreducible to the others, but all of them describe the same world. Brightness is completely different to heat, but both of them radiate from fire-- and so on. Once again, incorrigible plurality.

Why does MacNeice use the rather odd word "spiteful" in the line: "World is more spiteful and gay than one supposes?". I think he does so to describe the perversity and stubbornness of the world, the fact that it is always (or at least, regularly) different from our expectations. And why "gay"? Well, because the world goes on quite happily even when we are miserable. In fact, the ineradicable gaiety of the world has very often lifted me out of despondency into cheerfulness. Snow gleams, tangerines are juicy, and fire flames with a bubbling sound despite whatever heartbreak or melancholy you are undergoing.

I still don't feel like I have done justice to "Snow", but I have to stop somewhere. This poem seems something of a little miracle to me. It's an example of how language can rise above itself to evoke things which seem to be beyond the capabilities of language. I never cease to marvel at it.

Post-script the First: MacNeice himself had this to say about the meaning of the poem: "This is the direct record of a direct experience, the realization of a very obvious fact, that one thing is different from another-- a fact which everyone knows but few people perhaps have had it brought home to them in this particular way, i.e., through the sudden violent perception of snow and rose juxtaposed." I found this quotation on the internet, and its source is Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, though I can't find a page reference.

Post-script the Second: The story of the inspiration behind the poem (which I never knew till I researched this blog post) can be found here. Elsewhere I have found it stated, by the owner of the house in which MacNeice was staying, that the situation was exactly as described in the poem, down to the tangerines. He was present with MacNeice at the time.