Thursday, March 16, 2023

Ireland as Toytown

I was once listening to an interview on RTE radio in which a foreign visitor described Ireland as a "toytown".  She didn't mean it in a disparaging way. She felt a sort of surprise to see that Ireland was its own country, with its own flag and government buildings and so forth. (I can only vaguely remember the interview.)

I'm very familiar with this sensation. I have it all the time myself, although I'm a native of the country. It's a pleasing sensation.

Ireland is a small country, with only five million inhabitants (a big increase in my lifetime). Of course, there are many other countries with similar populations. But perhaps being sandwiched between Britain and the USA gives us (and others) a greater sense of our own smallness.

For my part, I'm glad that I live in a small country. I can't imagine wanting to live in a large country.

The fact that it took so long to achieve independence, and that this occurred almost within living memory, gives a certain added value to our political institutions. We know how much they cost, and how eagerly they were sought. Or, to put it less grandiosely, they was a lot of hype about them.

I still feel this strange sense of surprise all the time. Even though my father was born in an independent Ireland, the sight of an Irish flag flying still makes me do a bit of a mental double-take. "Well, look at that, we have our own country."

And living in a small country means the ordinary person has way more access to the central institutions of that country. I work in the university with the greatest number of students in the Republic of Ireland. But there are only a handful of Irish universities anyway. There's a very good chance that any given person I meet is a graduate of University College Dublin.

The college's academic staff includes many prominent figures in Irish life. Ireland's most prominent historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, is a regular visitor to the library.

When it comes to history, UCD has a long roll-call of famous Irish writers, politicians, and others who graduated from it.

The word "national" features around campus quite a lot. We have the National Folklore Collection, the National Hockey Stadium, and the National Virus Reference Laboratory-- the last of which featured very prominently in the news during the Covid pandemic, as you can imagine.

But it's not just UCD. Twice a day, on my way to work and on my way home from work, I walk past the main studios of RTÉ, Ireland's national broadcaster.

A lot of my conservative friends would love RTÉ to be abolished, or at least for the license fee that funds it to be abolished, seeing it as little more than a peddler of woke propaganda. I feel differently. While I don't deny the bias for a second-- who could?-- I have a lot more respect for institutions, especially old institutions. What would replace RTÉ? Well, non-Irish stations, for the most part. Besides, the license fee also funds Radio na Gaeltachta and TG4, the Irish language stations.

Similarly, I would not like to see The Irish Times or any other Irish newspaper go out of business. They are a part of Irish history.

Recently, I've been reading a book called Jonathan, about the late journalist and broadcaster Jonathan Philbin Bowman, who died in the year 2000, at the tragically young age of thirty. He was a precocious kid, the son of a famous broadcaster, who appeared on national television in his teens to announce he was giving up school to go straight into journalism.

As with all precocious kids, I found him nothing but obnoxious when I was a kid myself. But I came across the book (a series of recollections by different people, compiled by his father, many of which are quite blunt about his shortcomings) on the book exchange outside the library, and found it surprisingly compelling.

I was interested in the book partly because I'm always interested in Dublin characters and literary figures. I like reading about Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh and Myles Na Gopaleen and people like that.

But I was especially interested in Jonathan Philbin Bowman because he was such a free spirit, as evidenced by his decision to quite school in his teens. He was also the sort of person who would invite himself to dinners and give flowers to everybody he knew.

Free spirits are interesting to me because they seem to give a new life to their surroundings. It's fascinating that there's a limit to every free spirit; or at least, there's a background. William Blake was the most original figure imaginable, but he was still utterly English.

Even free spirits have a history, an accent, a tradition, a physical environment which they share with others. And somehow, seeing them in this context, we see the context itself anew-- as though for the first time. (David Thornley, the Labour MP and Catholic convert, is another Irish free spirit who interests me in the same way.)

I touched on ideas like these in my recent blogpost The Sky and the Ground.

I spoke earlier about the strange sense of surprise I feel whenever it occurs to me that Ireland is an independent state, a country of its own. But there's another and more general sensation of "surprise" that often hits me; surprise that the person in front of me exists in the same place and time as I do.

This seems absurd on the face of it. Everybody has to be alive at some time and some place, and there have to be other human beings who share our environment-- it's not like we could pop up out of the ground.

But I can't shake the feeling. Nor do I want to. The fact is that this person in front of me, in all their uniqueness-- "once only since the world began, never before and never again"-- exists here and now. Not in ancient Egypt or the Russian steppes or in the vast depths of prehistory, but here and now.

I know this sensation isn't unique to me, since I recently heard the Irish writer John Waters describe his own experience of it.

As a sort of sub-category of that, there is the "surprise" of sharing a nationality. Walking the same streets, having the same collective memories, using the same buses and trains, and so forth. And in the case of a small nation, this sense of "surprise" is all the more vivid. So I'm happy to live in toytown.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

A St. Patrick's Day Tradition

Well, it's almost our national holiday, and church choirs all over the country are limbering up their vocal chords, preparing for a rousing rendition of "Hail Glorious St. Patrick, the Saint of our Land".

It's a nice bonus that this year it lands on a Friday, meaning that there's no need to abstain from meat. (I like abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays; but I also enjoy the occasional reprieve.)

At this time of year, on this blog, it's been my custom to post an excerpt from Eamon de Valera's famous "comely maidens" speech, from St. Patrick's Day 1943.

This year is the eightieth anniversary of the speech, which was broadcast at ten p.m. on Radio Éireann. It only lasted ten minutes.

I have an article about the speech in the St. Patrick's Day edition of Ireland's Own.

Anyway, here is the most famous part. Much-mocked as it is, I suspect few (if any) of this blog's readers require any defence of it.

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Monday, March 13, 2023

Eating and Drinking

I don't think I've ever written a post about eating and drinking. Yesterday, I was in a café looking at people eating and drinking, and I had the idea for a blog post about it.

I love eating and drinking, but I tend to dislike conversations about eating and drinking. Foodie conversations bore me. I'm sure this is my loss. But I find myself struggling to find something to say in foodie conversations. Once I've said whether I like or don't like the taste of something, I don't really know where to go from there. Again, I'm sure it's a lack of imagination or appreciation on my part. (I hate the idea that not being interested in something is ever a cause to boast.)

I've noticed that foodies are generally light eaters, while hearty eaters (like myself) are often not foodies. Perhaps this is because hearty eaters like to know what they're getting. I take my food so seriously that I don't want to experiment. I want to eat what I know I will like-- and lots of it.

I've been a hearty eater all my life. (A "trencherman" was an old word for this, one whose loss I regret.) When I was a kid, I was chubby, and I got cruelly teased about it, which caused me a lot of anguish. I've lost and put on weight throughout my adulthood. I don't get neurotic about it. Right now, I'm overweight, but not remarkably so. (I was at a funeral a few weeks ago and someone who hadn't seen me for months said: "You've lost weight.")

Anyway, the point of this blog post isn't my weight. I just want to make the point that I like eating and drinking, and I've always liked eating and drinking. I've never really understood the sentence: "I forgot to eat". I've never forgotten to eat. Pretty much the only times I don't feel like eating are when I'm nauseous. I think I could easily have three dinners every day.

And of course, not all the pleasures of food and drink are to do with the actual eating. There's an element of ceremony, ritual, cheerfulness. This is what struck me when I was in the restaurant yesterday. I realized how much pleasure I took in the spectacle of people eating and drinking, the atmosphere. The clink of cutlery on plates, the scent of food, the steam rising from tea and coffee, the whole air of enjoyment.

I especially like the sight of people drinking tea and coffee. The simple sight of somebody holding a cup of coffee gives me pleasure. (I like the phrase "a cuppa joe".) The simplicity of the pleasure is part of the appeal. I find myself thinking: "Well, whatever else is going on in that person's life, whatever else is happening in the world, they can at least enjoy a cup of coffee right now, on this day, in this moment."

And, the threat of food shortages aside, there's something very dependable about the pleasures of food and drink. They come around on a daily basis. Unless I die unexpectedly in the very near future, I'm almost certainly going to have another cake, another sandwich, another piece of chocolate. I may well have many, many more in my future. That's something to look forward to, to be grateful for.

The simple pleasures of food and drink are also a pleasing contrast to the more sophisticated pleasure that tend to be the focus of our lives-- whatever is occupying us at the moment, be it work, a hobby, the news, family, study, all the multitude of activities that preoccupy us. I've notice that the meals and drinks I enjoy the most are the ones I eat or drink while I'm intent on something else (I don't necessarily mean doing that thing while eating). It's an added pleasure.

Food and drink is something that's at once universal and beguilingly particular. Everybody eats and drinks, pretty much every day. Sitting down to eat together is an act of fellowship and togetherness across every time and place. But the things we eat, how we eat them, when we eat them-- those differences are rich in national, regional, ethnic, family, and other associations.

In fact, it's hard to think of a food without associating it with some circumstance or other-- a holiday, a period in your life, a friend or a relative you tend to eat or drink it with, etc.

I also take pleasure in the creatureliness of eating and drinking, along with all other human needs. Although we are god-like in some ways, in other ways we are very limited beings with very specific limits. We need to sleep every night. We need shelter and clothing. And we need to eat and drink. It's humbling, in a sweet way, and a cause for solidarity. I like to think of my own frailty and the frailty of others, in this regard.

And now it's time for lunch.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Nostalgia for US Airways, and Reflections Arising

I've mentioned the US Airways model on my desk before. (My life isn't very interesting.) I think I bought it about eight or nine years ago at this stage. Maybe it was even longer.

US Airways went out of existence in 2015, when it merged with American Airlines. Thus ended a history that had begun in 1937.

I'm not some kind of US Airways nerd. I didn't realize it had been founded in 1937 until just this minute, when I looked it up on Wikipedia. But I did develop a sort of attachment to the airline, over a few years when I was flying back and forth over the Atlantic.

I liked everything about US Airways. I liked the livery (colours) of its airplanes. I liked the uniforms of its staff. I like the style of its announcements and its in-flight videos. I even liked the packaging of all the little freebies they'd hand out on the flight. I always flew US Airways if I got the chance, and I was sad when I heard they no longer existed as a distinct airline.

(I actually enjoy flying. Mea culpa. I know this is terrible for a conservative, localist, traditionalist, anti-consumerist, etc.)

I've browsed the internet a few times to see if there's any such thing as a US Airways "fandom", but there doesn't seem to be. Nobody seems to be nostalgic about the airline.

It got me thinking about our relationship towards businesses. Some businesses evoke a great deal of sentiment from their patrons. Coca-Cola, for instance. Or Harley-Davidson.

I'm very interested in what I might call the cells of society. All of them. Nations, of course. But also families, political parties, clubs, religious organizations, and so on.

Businesses are such a fundamental unit of our society that I think we overlook them. But every single one has its own history, drama, identity.

If we have to live in a consumerist society, why shouldn't we make the best of it? I sometimes think it's a shame we're so cursory about these entities. Perhaps the relationship between the public and business would be less mercenary if it was softened by sentiment. ("Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.")

It's possible I've always had a glimmering of this feeling. When I was a child, I had a strange yearning to be considered an eccentric, and to do zany things. There was a brand of cheap household goods that went by the name Homestead back in the eighties. I began to scribble "Homestead" on the copy-books of my classmates. Eventually, one of them got in on the act and began to scribble "Cadbury's". Perhaps it's significant that I chose this particular form of eccentricity.

I know this is all rather fuzzy, and probably very naive. I'm the kind of person who always craves meaning and soulfulness. We live in a society that, in its day-to-day life, is rather short on both. We spend a great deal of our time in suburbs, supermarkets, office-blocks, and so forth. Places and situations which are rather deadening to the soul, to the imagination.

There are many possible responses to this. We can concentrate on our private lives; friendship, family, romances. We can flee to imaginary worlds of various kinds. We can take refuge in the past, or in visits to quaint country villages and open-air markets.

I'm not dismissing any of these approaches. But perhaps there is another approach; to try to find meaning and soul in the most drab, ordinary, unpromising aspects of our modern society. Or even to put more meaning and soul into them.

It's just an idea. Maybe it would never fly...

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Three Popes on Ash Wednesday

The ashes bespeak the emptiness hiding behind the frenetic quest for worldly rewards. They remind us that worldliness is like the dust that is carried away by a slight gust of wind. Sisters and brothers, we are not in this world to chase the wind; our hearts thirst for eternity. Lent is the time granted us by the Lord to be renewed, to nurture our interior life and to journey towards Easter, towards the things that do not pass away, towards the reward we are to receive from the Father. Lent is also a journey of healing. Not to be changed overnight, but to live each day with a renewed spirit, a different “style”. Prayer, charity and fasting are aids to this. Purified by the Lenten ashes, purified of the hypocrisy of appearances, they become even more powerful and restore us to a living relationship with God, our brothers and sisters, and ourselves.

Pope Francis, Ash Wednesday 2022

As we said earlier, quoting St John Chrysostom, the cursing of the ground has a “medicinal” function: meaning that God’s intention is always good and more profound than the curse. The curse, indeed, does not come from God but from sin. God cannot avoid inflicting it, because he respects man’s freedom and its consequences, even when they are negative. Thus, within the punishment and within the curse of the ground, there is a good intention that comes from God. When he says to man, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return”, together with the just punishment, he also intends to announce the way to salvation, which will pass precisely through the earth, through that “dust”, that “flesh” which will be assumed by the [Incarnate] Word.

Pope Benedict XVI, Ash Wednesday 2012

The very ancient and moving rite of ashes today opens this penitential journey. While putting ashes on the heads of the faithful, the celebrant warns each of them: "Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return!" (cf. Gn 3:19).

These words also refer to a "return": the return to dust. They allude to the necessity of death and invite us not to forget that we are merely passing through this world.

At the same time, however, the expressive image of dust calls to mind the truth about creation with an allusion to the richness of the cosmic dimension of which the human creature forms a part. Lent recalls the work of salvation, to make man aware of the fact that death, a reality he must constantly face, is nevertheless not a primordial truth. Actually, it did not exist at the beginning, but, as the sad consequence of sin, it "entered the world through the devil's envy" (Wis 2:24), becoming the common inheritance of human beings.

St. John Paul II, Ash Wednesday 1999

Monday, February 20, 2023

Mal's Guide to Lent

It's almost time for Lent! Have a great Lent by following my handy guide.

The most important thing about Lent, of course, is Giving Something Up. If a heathen asks you, "What did you give up for Lent?", and you say, "Nothing", they're going to think: "These Christians don't take themselves seriously anymore".

Here are some suggestions on what to give up, along with the estimated spiritual points gained for each one.

Social media: ten points, if you are a heavy social media user. If you only share the occasional meme about cats once every few months, who are you kidding?

Coffee or tea: twenty points. This is saint-level heroic, but be aware of what St. Josemaria wrote: "Choose mortifications that don't mortify others." If you become Atilla the Hun without your coffee, maybe choose something else. And, for goodness sake, one or the other, not both. That's just stupid.

Chocolate: fifty points. I am privately of the opinion that if you give up chocolate for Lent you will go straight to Heaven should you meet your end before Easter. But this is a private theological opinion and not to be relied upon.

Television: OK, boomer. Twenty points.

Alcohol: Twenty points, but in order to keep your mortification secret you should drink your mineral water or 7-up from a whiskey flask. Look around furtively each time you take a sip.

Karaoke: Twenty points. God love you!

The news and current affairs: Thirty points. You might not have considered this, but consider it now. After six weeks, you might know less about Kanye West's latest adventures than the next guy, but you'll also be less depressed, anxious, resentful, confused, preoccupied with skin pigmentation, and full of suppressed rage towards straight white males or pink-haired social justice warriors.

Music: This is what I've done, several years in a row. Smart-alecks have suggested it's no great sacrifice, considering my taste in music. You could nuance this mortification: for instance, continue to listen to heavy rock but absolutely deny yourself the pleasures of air guitar or air drumming. Or continue listening to funk but don't let yourself tap your feet. Every infraction should involve a financial penalty. For St. Simon Stylites-level penance, listen to your favourite songs but always mute them once they hit the chorus.

Well, that's enough for mortifications. As every homilist and YouTuber is going to tell you this week, Lent is a positive, not a negative thing, it's about growing closer to God, and all that. Here are some positive devotional practices for the time of Lent.

1) Try reading the Bible. For cradle Catholics, this is a holy book composed of the Old and New Testament, to be found in most good bookshops, and even online. Since it's Lent, I suggest reading only these fun books: Leviticus, Numbers, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles.

2) Do the Stations of the Cross-- on one leg.

3) Ask the bore in your life about something that they find fascinating but you find impossibly dull. When they launch into a long discourse, smile and nod and ask questions. (But remember that you are the bore in somebody else's life, and if somebody does this to you, don't be offended.)

4) Do an hour's mental prayer every morning. This actually only takes five minutes in clock time. But it's five minutes that lasts an hour.

5) Perform the spiritual works of mercy. For instance, when a colleague mentions their "partner", you can ask: "By the way, are you married? Because otherwise, it's actually fornication."  This is "rebuking the sinner" and may initiate a fascinating conversation on Christian sexual ethics. It might also land you in an even more fascinating conversation with HR. It's a risk. This blog accepts no liability either way.

6) Do some Lectio Divina. This is actually really trippy and happening. You read the Bible until you come to a passage that really, like, speaks to you, and then you repeat it over and over again like a mantra, going into an inner space where you're totally down with God. You can have a lava lamp and a trance playlist in the background if you like.

These are just some suggestions. There are many, many, many, many, many other guides to Lent. You could actually spend your whole Lenten season watching and reading them. This might be the biggest mortification of all. 

(In case it wasn't obvious-- and if it wasn't, then you're really in trouble-- this is all a joke and not to be taken at all seriously. Apart from the bit about the chocolate.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

A Day in the Life of my Almost-Ideal Ireland

This morning I had an idea while praying my rosary, and ideas that come to me while I'm praying the rosary are usually good ones. I would write an account of life in my ideal Ireland, from the perspective of one person.

Or rather, my almost-ideal Ireland. In a really ideal world, nothing bad would ever happen, and reality would be entirely in conformity to one's wishes. This seems impossible and also, strangely, unsatisfying. So this is my almost-ideal Ireland.

This St. Patrick's Day will be the eightieth anniversary of De Valera's "the Ireland that we dreamed of" speech, often dismissed as "the comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" speech-- though he never mentioned crossroads or dancing.

After decades of derision, the speech has been hailed as a noble vision more recently, even by liberal commentators. So this seems an opportune time to summon up an ideal Ireland, or an almost-ideal Ireland.

I will call my character Fintan. He lives in Rathfarnham in Dublin.

Fintan wakes up at 6:00 a.m. on the 6th of October, 2033. He's a young man, in his early twenties.

He's woken by his radio alarm, which is set to RTÉ Radio 3, a relatively new station. At 6:00 a.m., it plays the Angelus, followed by the National Anthem. Fintan always tries to pray along with the Angelus and stand for the National Anthem, but sometimes he's too groggy to do either.

At 6:02, in between his shower and the rest of his morning routine, he listens to Plé (pronounced "play"), the morning show on Radio 3. Although the title is in Irish, the station is mostly in English. Today it's a discussion of the legacy of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish political leader of the late nineteenth century. For today is Ivy Day, a commemoration of Parnell which had been long neglected but has recently been revived-- a pattern for many old commemorations and holidays, and which may have begun with the St. Bridget's Day public holiday introduced in 2023.

He has a cup of coffee and his morning porridge, enjoying the sober and calm discussion on the radio.

Sometimes he listens to Radio Na Gaeltachta. Fintan is not fluent in Irish, but-- like the rest of the country, it seems-- he's doing his best to learn it. He can now follow most of the shows on RnaG, if the speakers aren't talking too quickly.

He leaves the house, and makes his way to the newly-built St. John Sullivan chapel a short walk from his house. It's a small, plain church, with a statue of the recently-canonized Fr. John Sullivan in a recess. A Jamaican priest performs the morning liturgy. Although the vocations crisis has begun to level out, and this year there were twenty seminarians in the Dublin Diocese, it's now more common to see an African or Asian priest in an Irish pulpit than an Irish one. Every day Fintan prays for new vocations.

Fr. Jamoi preaches on the upcoming abortion referendum, in which the proposal is for a new constitutional amendment on abortion. The campaign is a heated one, but it looks as though the referendum will past. Ever since the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in 2022, the prolife movement has had a string of victories worldwide, gathering support not only from conservatives and religious people but even from many on the left. As soon as the Aontú-Fianna Fáil coalition came into power last year, they announced the referendum.

Fr. Jamoi calls for charity and temperance in the debate, and urges the congregation not to forget prayer as the most important weapon. He reads a special referendum message from Pope John Paul III, the newly-ordained Pope who has begun to heal the divide between liberals and conservative in the Church.

After Mass, Fintan walks to work in the local Luach supermarket, where he's a floor manager.

Luach is an Irish supermarket chain that opened in 2030 and now has fifteen locations worldwide. It has won praise for its subdued lighting, tasteful music (much of it Irish), and even for having occasional poems recited over the public address system.

Fintan doesn't love his job, but he doesn't hate it. One of the innovations of Luach was to be more community-oriented, and he enjoys the regular community events which the supermarket holds-- several a week, usually. Today, there is an exhibition of local painters, in the purpose-built events area beside the bakery. "Supermarkets with soul" are an international movement, which begun in Canada some years ago. There's now a single self-service checkout, while there are seven manned checkouts.

At lunch-break, he goes to the local café, Kennedy's, which has replaced the Starbucks which was there until recently. International franchises like Starbucks and MacDonald's have suffered in recent years, casualties of consumer backlash against huge corporations. In all honesty, Fintan rather misses the Starbuck's, although Kennedy's is a perfectly good substitute. He has a club sandwich and coffee, and chats to his colleague Angad. Angad is an Indian, a devout Sikh. They rarely discuss religion, but today they have a cordial discussion on the matter.

Immigration has been significantly reduced in Ireland in the last five years, but relations between the sizeable groups of ethnic minorities, and the indigenous majority, are good. Many of the immigrants are just as enthusiastic about what's been called the Second Gaelic Revival as are the native Irish.

After work, Fintan gets a bus and heads into the city centre. Having forgotten to take a book, he asks the bus conductor (conductors were re-introduced several years ago) for a headset and listens to Raidio Taistil, the in-journey radio station for all of Ireland's public transport. Right now there's a book show, discussing a new book on prehistoric man.

The roads are a lot less busy since the huge expansion of public transport, which started in 2025. Fintan remembers the days when it took two hours to get through Dublin city centre. Those days are long gone.

He gets off in the city centre, and walks to the Cromlech Theatre in Capel Street. Built in 2030, it's a small cinema, theatre, and lecture hall, and he's a regular visitor.

Tonight there's a panel discussion on the subject of George Orwell and his legacy. It lasts two hours and Fintan is only bored a couple of times. Afterwards, there are drinks in the bar, and he runs into his friend Fiona. They head to Nealon's down the road and have a few drinks, mostly talking about Orwell and other writers. They even speak in Irish for a half-hour. It's not the only Irish-language conversation in the pub. They have a dinner of smoked salmon and chips.

They walk together on the bus-stop, and Fintan gets the bus home, listening to Raidio Taistil again-- a current affairs show, this time. The subject is identity politics in universities. Students have begun to push back against the "tenured radicals" in the universities, who are inevitably screaming censorship and intimidation. There have been calls on the Minister of Education to take action against the academic purveyors of identity politics, but she insists that academic freedom is sacred.

Fintan goes straight to bed, but lies awake for a long time, reading old movie magazines. He finally falls asleep listening to three drunks in the street outside singing "The Star of the County Down".