Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Help the Hallowe'en Party!

When I were a lad, that's what the young 'uns used to say as they went from door to door-- "Help the Halloween Party!", not "Trick or Treat"!

I am rather sad that the American practice (is it American?) has replaced the Irish one (or at least the Dublin one), but apart from that-- and because I spend so much time on this blog waxing nostalgic and crying "O tempora! O mores!"-- I should say that I thoroughly approve of the ever-growing enthusiasm for Halloween.

It gives me a thrill to walk through my neighbourhood and see skeletons, witches and a whole miscellany of monsters staring out at me from windows. It is a wholesome and happy image, the image of mothers and fathers carefully helping their children to deck their house-fronts in evocations of blood, death, decay, decrepitude and ghastliness. One of my favourite movie tag-lines of all time is a tag-line that was used to promote the Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "The family that slays together, stays together". Homicide for the purposes of family cohesion is going a little too far, but arranging artful tableaux of horror and frightfulness is guaranteed to build a bond between the generations.

I haven't dressed up, not because I think it is silly of adults to do so, but simply because I don't have the guts. Most of the year we hide behind our costumes of trousers and shirts and sweaters, and few of us can really be called eccentric in our apparel. But when you dress up for Halloween, you are submitting your creative endeavours to the judgement of the public, and I'm neither arty-crafty enough nor courageous enough to face that. Not yet, anyway.

It could be said that Halloween is becoming too commercialised. I have some sympathy with this argument. When I were a lad (to relapse into nostalgia), I don't remember so many shop-bought or comparatively fancy window decorations. Nor do I remember the shops being so choc-a-bloc with plastic Halloweeen geegaws. I even remember writing a poem, in my teens, exulting in the fact that the "vampires of trade" had little to get their teeth into in Halloween, as opposed to Christmas. I can even remember the closing verse:

The Christmas we know is a media show
Brought to life through a flickering screen
But the Halloween night that they knew long ago
Comes to life in tonight's Haloween.

Well, that isn't true anymore. But what can you do? What Calvin Coolidge said about his own country-- "the business of America is business"-- has now become true of every country in the developed world. Buying and selling, instead of being one aspect of society, has become its main business, even its main amusement. This is highly regrettable, but since we are going to be frenetically buying and selling anyway, it may as well be plastic skeletons and fake vampire teeth.

Conservative Christians (usually Protestants) in America often criticise Halloween for being a pagan festival. Of course, it's not true. But equally of course, it is far from silly to worry about demonic influence or opening yourself up to occult forces. Playing with a ouija board, no matter how jokingly, would be foolish and dangerous. So would any kind of invocation of demons. But most people are sane enough to take the ghastliness and ghoulishness for what it is, pure sport, and no more demonic than a tanner playing the part of Lucifer in a Mystery Play in medieval England.

I think that Halloween is an encouraging phenomenon for Christians. It shows that our culture still thirsts for the supernatural. And the unspoken, unnoticed fact that Hallowe'en is in fact the Eve of All Hallows shows that secular culture still needs to raid Christianity for its celebrations, since it cannot create celebrations of its own. All feasts are religious feasts-- even if they are religious feasts in disguise.

Last year was the first year I went to All Saints' Vigil Mass. Somehow, Halloween suddenly made sense. Not only historical sense, but poetic and dramatic sense. The Christian perspective, I increasingly think, is the one perspective from which life ceases to be seen as a bewildering anarchy, but instead is revealed as a glorious picture. I had the same experience when I started going to Mass a few years ago. Sunday, instead of being a dreary and depressing day of closed shops and gearing up for a return to school or work, became the joyous Day of the Lord, centred on the most important liturgy of the whole week. Of course, that is my experience as someone living in post-Christian Europe; but, since I believe Christ is the Lord of History, I think the same experience of suddenly seeing the master-pattern would strike a Christian convert in China or South Korea or Saudi Arabia.

I could write and write about Halloween. I could write about my life-long experience of Halloween in Ballymun, where bangers and fireworks begin to be set off from early September. In my mind, the exciting chill of the October air is impossible to think of without also thinking of the crackle and shriek of fireworks. I could fondly recall the bonfires of my childhood, which may have grown bigger in memory but which I truly believe were pretty monstrous by any standards. I only assisted in the building of the bonfire one year, but it is one of my happiest childhood memories. I could try to explain how the Halloweens of my boyhood helped to implant in me a passionate belief in the importance of specialness-- special times, special places, special situations, special practices. I think one of the great struggles of our era should be to prevent specialness from perishing from the Earth-- to hold back the crushing tide of sameness, as the world becomes one vast suburb, one vast audience, one vast supermarket, one endless "shopping day".

But I can remember waxing nostalgic about Halloween in an English essay in school, when I was a ripe old codger of fourteen, so I think I had better stop there.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Question for Anarcho-Capitalists....

As America reels from Hurricane Sandy and police, military and emergency services scramble to pick up the pieces, ask yourself... you really, really, really think government only ever makes things worse, and that we would all be better off without it?

Extreme weather is one of the things that remind us there is such a thing as the common good, which is not reducible to the aggregate of all of our private goods.

Monday, October 29, 2012


I just saw a television ad for a sports programme in which one of the presenters rhapsodised "Sport defies borders!".

I don't understand this kind of thing. How could anyone's imagination be stirred, today, by the idea of transcending borders?

In our age of the internet, Starbucks, McDonalds, the increasing use of English as a worldwide lingua franca, the euro, international soccer, Hollywood movies, Facebook, international hedge funds, the UN, and cross-continental Muslim can we become excited about anything simply because it bypasses national boundaries? What is unusual or exciting about that?

Surely, today, what should excite us are rather those things that remain confined to a particular place or culture, those things that defy the harrowing winds of globalisation?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

What do Sinn Fein Have Against Tradition?

I happend to be reading the Wikipedia page about Gerry Adams and I came across this interesting paragraph:

"On 6 May 2010, Adams was re-elected as MP for West Belfast garnering 71.1% of the vote. In 2011 the Chancellor appointed Adams to the British title of Steward and Bailiff of the Manor of Northstead to allow him to resign from the House of Commons and to stand for election in the Dáil. Initially it was claimed by David Cameron that Adams had accepted the title but Downing Street has since apologised for this and Adams has publicly rejected the title stating, "I have had no truck whatsoever with these antiquated and quite bizarre aspects of the British parliamentary system". Officially however, Adams held the title between January and April 2011."

Now, I don't understand this attitude at all. I understand Mr. Adams refusing an honour or an office, even a nominal and automatic honour or office, from the British government because he refuses to recognise their jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

But why does he have to drag in this talk of "antiquated and bizzare aspects of the British parliamentary system"? How could anybody have so little imagination or sense of poetry or feeling of tradition-- or, at the very least, sense of humour-- that they do not relish these romantic relics of the Mother of Parliaments? Who is so grumpy as not to take pleasure in the fact that, in the House of Commons, the government and Opposition benches are separated by the length of two swords, lest David Cameron and Ed Milliband should whip out their rapiers in the heat of a debate? Who could resent the custom of the oldest parliamentarian being called The Father of the House? Who is such a killjoy as to protest the convention whereby MP's personal names are not used within parliament, and they are instead referred to as the Honourable Member for Little Bugglesworth or the Right Honourable Member for Ponsoby-on-Tyne?

This isn't the only example of Sinn Fein scorning historical traditions. Despite Martin McGuinness's rather shameless change of attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, after the Irish people showed themselves to be utterly out of sympathy with Sinn Fen's hostility towards her visit here, the party's website still contains this article which includes the lines:

Elizabeth Windsor still claims to be monarch of part of our country, where it remains a criminal offence to call for the abolition of the monarchy, under the Treason Felony Act 1848. The values she represents have no place in Ireland. Values of privilege, deference and inequality. Ridiculously outdated values that put one citizen and their family above all others based on nothing other than birthright.

Thankfully, on the occasion of the Queen's visit, the Irish people showed it was the values of Sinn Féin-- with their literal-minded and sullen interpretation of human equality-- which had no place in Ireland.

I believe passionately in human equality. I believe that every human being is as important as every other human being, and that we are called to love and cherish all of our fellow brothers and sisters. But I absolutely refuse to believe that this leaves no room for hereditary honours, for special bonds of history and heritage, for hierarchy, for deference, for chivalry, and for all the other courtesies that lend grace and ceremony to social intercourse.

It hardly needs to be added that Sinn Féin miss no opportunity to attack the Church, which they tend to lambast as a backwards and outdated institution.

Their attitude in all of this baffles me. Aren't Sinn Féin a nationalist party? And isn't the nation itself-- not just the Irish nation, but the very concept of the nation as the basic unit of world politics, and of popular sovereignty-- increasingly coming under attack in our globalized world? Doesn't Sinn Féin (quite rightly in my view) criticise the European Union for undermining national sovereignty?

Aren't they outspoken in their support for the Irish language, which is an imperilled language and one which could easily be seen as antiquated and outmoded? It is certainly the case that the Irish language would have perished decades ago if Irish people had not made a conscious effort to preserve it-- precisely out of reverence for its antiquity, and its importance to Irish national tradition.

I simply don't understand how you can revere and protect your own national traditions, while showing contempt for the traditions of another nation-- and indeed for the very concept of tradition.

But then, I don't understand anything about Sinn Féin. Gerry Adams, in a radio interview about the history of sexual abuse in his family, criticised the decision to have his father buried with the tricolour wrapped around his coffin, since he considered him to have "besmirched" that flag.

But nobody has besmirched the Irish flag (not to mention the Irish language and other precious national traditions) as utterly and as odiously as Sinn Féin and the murderous IRA. As an Irish patriot, I utterly reject them, along with all their sulky egalitarianism and resentful republicanism.

Another Fine Article from Peter Hitchens...

On the Church of England's decision to accept tacky wedding ceremonies in its churches:

"Just as Groucho Marx wouldn’t belong to a club that would have him as a member, people will have no respect for a church that is obviously so desperate to welcome them that it will take money in return for ditching its principles.

The whole point of churches is to disturb our day-to-day lives with the haunting rhythms and poetry of eternity. If we go into them and find that they are just like the nearest shopping mall, only with nicer architecture, then we will turn away disappointed."

How don't people get this? It seems so obvious.

Some Catholics see the lionization given to dissident priests like Father Brian D'Arcy, by the media and others, and think that if only the Catholic Church were to concede the demands of "liberals" (I hate using that word, but it seems to be the only one that will fit there), then suddenly it would be showered with love and affection and congregations would boom.

Don't they know the first thing about human psychology?

Every opinion piece by a Fintan O'Toole or Vincent Browne, thundering against the Church as a medieval and repressive institution, is to be prized more than a bouquet of roses. Every protest by radicals, every poem and play and "artwork" filled with scorn for bishops and priests, every tut-tutting editorial in the Irish Times is a measure of the real respect that secular society has for the Catholic Church.

Or, as our Lord himself said: "Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you."

As for the Father Brian D'Arcys of this world, in their role as media darlings they are nothing but a stick used for beating the Church. (I am not attacking Father D'Arcy personally. I believe he is a well-intentioned priest, and all the money from his books and newspaper articles goes towards helping others, as far as I know.)

If the Church in Ireland were to embrace the changes urged upon it, you can be sure of one thing; that, after a brief honeymoon period, the very people who clamoured for the concessions would very soon be sneering at the Church for its lack of conviction and resolve.

Read the whole of Peter Hitchens's article here.

And please pray for all the people in America bracing themselves for the coming of Hurricane Sandy.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Exposed: My Hypocrisy

On Thursday night I did some internet shopping and bought a model of a US Airways Airbus A320. The choice of plane didn't come from a deep knowledge of civil aviation, rather from the fact that it was the cheapest US Airways model plane I could find on Amazon.

But why did I go internet shopping for a US Airways model plane to begin with?

I can't really explain. I was just bitten by an intense desire to own one, ASAP. I have a flight to America booked (with the very same airline) for the seventh of November, and I know that they sell them in the giftshop in Philadelphia airport (where I change planes), but I couldn't even wait that long. (Rather ironically, the delivery estimate is the day before I fly out.)

I've flown to America and back three times now, both flights involving two legs each way, and they were all with US Airways. To my great surprise, I've developed a strange bond with the airline. (Marketing text-books probably feature profiles of my customer type under some heading like The Loyalist or The Keeper.)

I think I mostly like them because of their colours and their corporate aesthetic. I like the so-navy-it's-almost-black shade of blue that is their dominant colour. I like the sleekness of their logo. I like their lettering. I like the balance of red, white and blue in their designs.

I like the whole atmosphere of their flights. I especially like the voices they use in their pre-recorded messages and videos. The male voice always makes me imagine some fellow named Hank or Max, with a square jaw and slicked-back black hair and rolled up shirt-sleeves. The kind of fellow who would clamp your shoulder and call you "Champ".

I even like their in-flight meals.

This purchase goes against all my principles. All of them! I like to think of myself as anti-consumerist, anti-big business, anti-globalization, a sceptic when it comes to technology, and a rare cool head when it comes to the mania for foreign travel. (Foreign travel, as far I can see, is a recipe for filling every picturesque part of the world with kitsch tourist shops and identikit fast-food restaurants.)

In the past I have made rather acerbic comments about people whose t-shirts and baseball caps turn them into walking advertisements for a beer or a sportswear company.

And here I am, panting to get my hands on a promotional toy for a big business responsible for millions of foreign trips every year, eager to have it on my desk so I can go on a mental flight of fancy every whenever my eye falls on it. What a hypocrite.

Still, it's better to be a hypocrite than a prig, I suppose.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Why I am not a Feminist

The word "feminism", like "conservatism" and "art" and many other words, can pretty much mean anything you want it to mean. I think it would be nigh-on impossible to disagree with every proposition that has been put forward in the name of feminism. So I could surely get away with calling myself a feminist no matter what I believe. But all the same, I don't. I'm not a feminist. I might even be an anti-feminist.

Why am I so reluctant to call myself a feminist?

Well, one reason is that I always cringe when a man calls himself a feminist. I always suspect he is just saying it to impress some woman, or some group of women.

But the more important reason is that I dislike the whole atmosphere of feminism. And feminism seems to me more an atmosphere than a philosophy. After all, there are so many contradictory schools of feminism. I remember one feminist writer boasting how a journalist had asked for her opinion of Madonna, and how she had flabbergasted him (or so she thought) by launching into a eulogy of the pop-singer. She thought that Madonna was a wonderfully liberated, self-possessed, self-aware paragon of womanhood. Or something like that.

Some feminists seem to think that women should have a place at the table with men (who are all supposedly smoking fat cigars and calling for more brandy). Some feminists seem to want to break up the table altogether and build a new one-- or maybe have everyone sitting cross-legged on the floor instead. Some feminists detest any form of discrimination. Some feminists demand more discrimination. Some feminists seem to think we are all too hung up on the difference between the sexes and other feminists seem to think that we don't take it into account nearly enough. Some feminists appeal to Mother Nature and other feminists seem to think nature is a tyrant to be slain, or else a mere figment of the imagination. Some feminists are pro-life while other feminists seem to base their entire philosophy upon "reproductive rights" (or anti-reproductive rights).

But one thing seems to be common to all feminism, or at least, all of the feminist discussion I've gingerly turned an ear towards. And that is an atmosphere-- an atmosphere of resentment, sullenness, suspicion, self-pity and bitterness. I don't think such an air is ever healthy to breathe.

The beleagured man who reads pretty much any feminist tome soon comes away with one impression; that anything men do is wrong, whatever it is. If sailors affectionately refer to their ship as "she", it is not a sign of respect and affection for the female sex, but rather a form of objectification and condescension. If an Irish patriot personifies his country as Kathleen Ni Houlihan, it somehow indicates a pathological hatred of women. If men exalt the role of reason in public affairs (which I personally have never felt the least temptation to do), they are thereby excluding women. If a man celebrates his wife as the angel in the house, he is demeaning her as good for nothing but housework. If a man shows an intense devotion to the Virgin Mary, he wants all women to be meek and unquestioning handmaids. If a man avoids swearing in front of ladies, he gravely insults them. (Oh, and by the way, don't call them 'ladies'!). If men talk about football in front of their female colleagues, they are excluding them. If they avoid talking about football in front of their female colleagues, they are also excluding them. And so on to the Crack of Doom.

Doubtless I am being unfair to many feminists. But on the whole, I think my description of the atmosphere of feminism is a fair one.

Perhaps my antipathy towards feminism might be pathological. When it comes to the sexes, my attitude of "vive la différence" is so intensely held that I probably over-react to anything that I think (truly or falsely) might be tending to make them more alike.

Nothing gives me more pleasure, in the contemplation of this mighty world, than its dizzy diversity. The wealth of different national cultures, regional cultures and local cultures; the myriad of different ways human beings earn their living, and all the slang and solidarities and stereotypes rising out of those livelihoods; the even more stupendous amount of ways human beings spend their leisure hours, collecting chocolate bar wrappers or carving sculptures from ice or chasing storms; the galaxy of different philosophies of life and of politics and of society, from anarchism to authoritarianism; the uniqueness of every workplace, every family home, every single individual, right down to the way a person chews his spaghetti or names her pet cat.

And all of that-- all of that titantic tapestry of human variety-- seems to me centred on that eternal knot of man and woman. No difference seems more fundamental or fruitful. To untie that knot seems to me the most wanton, life-hating vandalism I can imagine. The difference between men and women is the paradigm of all differences.

So what do I think about women?

I love women. No, I adore women. I have spent vast amounts of time thinking about women and wondering about women and watching women, ever since I was a tyke. I care intensely about what women think and say about men. I always feel mortally wounded when a woman attacks the male sex per se-- I'm not talking about eye-rolling exasperation here, but actual antipathy.

I love the way women talk. I love the way they move. I love the way so many of them make up their faces in public, in such an endearingly unselfconscious way. I love the intensity of friendships between women-- male friendships may be as deep, but they never seem to be so intimate. I love women's love of pretty things. I love their sense of occasion and formality. I love that, when two women are talking about a girly subject, all divisions of age and personality and social status seem to disappear for the length of that conversation. I love women's insatiable fascination with the human interest of every situation, their tendency to ferret out the life history and personal circumstances of everybody they have to deal with.

Are these generalisations? Yes! Are they sweeping generalisations? You bet they are.

I think it would be an awful thing if men and women stopped making sweeping generalisations about each other and themselves, just as it would be an awful thing if the trade in national stereotypes were to cease.

When you think about it, all civilisation is based on exaggeration. The function of architecture is to give us shelter. But what if it stopped there? The function of food is to sustain us. But how much that leaves out! The function of clothes are to keep us warm and (perhaps) hide our nudity. What a bore that would be by itself. The function of transport is to take us from place to place. But how impoverished the world would be without the figure of the train-spotter and the collector of model airplanes!

In the same way, it might be true that the significance of sex differences can be boiled down to reproduction. (Though who knows what horrific Frankenstein bio-technology might make even that difference obsolete, some day?) But why should we lament that men and women, over the millennia, have added layer upon layer upon layer of elaboration to that brute difference? Why should we regret the jokes, the courtship rituals, the codes of chivalry, the gender roles, the taboos, the conventions, the costume, the million other patterns that humanity has spun around the spindle of sex?

I recently read a book about the traditions of Halloween in Northern Ireland. The (American) folklorist pointed out again and again how the various traditions in the province were "gendered"; it was mostly men and boys who built bonfires and exploded fireworks, and it was mostly girls who took part in the divination games which were supposed to forecast your future mate. It seems to me that the spontaneous, healthy instincts of humanity always celebrate the difference between boy and girl, man and woman.

Nor am I "on board" with the various efforts to achieve a mathematical equality between the sexes. Why should we expect that a parliament should have just as many female deputies as male deputies? Maybe men are just better at politics. Maybe women are just less interested in politics. And why should we worry that there are more women teachers or more women nurses? Why can't we accept that women are better at those vocations? Why should we fret about the fact that girls consistently do better at school and outnumber boys at university? Why not just accept that girls tend to be brighter and more motivated?

I think a society without all-girl's schools and all-male clubs would be a poorer society. I take pleasure in the fact that there are all-male and all-female environments, even if I never frequent them myself.

And, yes, being such an enthusiast of social diversity, I am glad that feminists exist-- even the more militant and extreme feminists. They make the world a more interesting place.

But I passionately hope that their efforts to untie the eternal knot of Man and Woman will come to nothing, and that the delicious differences between the sexes will never be done away with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What's New About the New Testament?

Today, as often happens, I came across a book on the library shelves and took it to browse while drinking my mid-morning cup of tea. It was The Hutchinson Book of Essays, containing essays on a variety of subjects from authors down several centuries.

I wonder if my twelve-year-old self would have been horrified to know that, by the time he reached the grand old age of thirty-five, the essay would be his favourite form of reading? Nothing could have seemed duller to me, in my childhood and teens, than an essay. Whenever I was given an essay title in English class I promptly wrote a short story.

Now I find myself less and less interested in fiction and more and more interested in ideas and argument and reflections, addressed to me directly, "man to man"-- as though the author was sitting opposite me over a steaming cup of tea. My favourite writer now is G.K. Chesterton, and it is his essays (including his book length essays) that I love. I have indeed read his fiction, but with reluctance and with merely fitful interest, and also with the wish that he would drop the tedious characters and scenery and just say what he meant to say.

So I opened the book of essays with eagerness. But after skimming through a few, what struck me most was a certain atmosphere which was common to all of them-- and which is notably absent in the essays of Chesterton (and those of C.S. Lewis, my other favourite essayist). I think it is an atmosphere which is, in fact, the underlying mood of human life in general, but which is especially noticeable in essays, since essays are necessarily reflective.

I will try to describe this mood.

Underneath all the excitement of festivity, of acquisition (carrying a new book away from the bookshop, for instance), of problem-solving, of the anticipation of physical pleasures like food and drink, I think there is a fundamental gloominess and weariness to human existence. It is a melancholy rather than a despair. William Wordsworth described it perfectly, in his poem about Tintern Abbey, when he wrote about the "still, sad music of humanity".

The world is very old, and it was very old long before history began. Pleasures soon pall, and even bring a bitter afterbite in the form of regret and hangovers and disappointment. Most of what we say is said simply to fill silence. Most of what we do, aside from the things we are required to do, is done to fill time-- this is why we so soon become bored when we have no work or duties, none of the things we do against our inclinations but without which we soon feel at a loss.

Taking all this into account-- this cycle of desire and disappointment, this ever-present spectre of boredom and futility-- I find it no suprise at all that the Eastern religions urged their followers to escape from the cycle of desire and satisfaction, from the round of bith and rebirth, and even to escape from selfhood. I do not find it surprising that the ancient classical world was so keen on the philosophy of the Stoics, the doctrine that it is best to break away from hope and dread and disappointment, to stop searching for joy and fulfilment in the outside world, and to instead concentrate on how you acquit yourself no matter which way the cookie crumbles.

In a way, I think that the Stoic philosophy is the natural philosophy of mankind-- of mankind when it is in a reflective mood, and not wrapped up in some particular excitement or scheme (which is, fortunately, a lot of the time). I think this explains why Rudyard Kipling's "If" is often voted the most popular poem of all time. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a superb poem, but the content is rather sad when you think about it:

If you can dream, and not make dreams your master;
If you can think, and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same....
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run...

The poem seems to be saying that the best thing we can hope for in life is to keep a straight bat, not to let the side down, to meet whatever the world throws at us cheerfully and gracefully. Though the lines do give us pleasure, since they are so happily expressed, the philosophy they express is a rather sad and proud one.

The wisdom writing of humanity, in general, seems to come to the same conclusion. "Lines Written in a Country Churchyard", that other candidate for most popular poem of all time, also takes a melancholy and rather weary view of human life. Samuel Johnson tells us that "Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed". Philip Larkin tells us that "Life is first boredom, then fear. Whether or not you spend it, it goes". The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, and that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Taking it right up to date, the modern proverb tells us that life's a bitch and then you die.

But perhaps the best example is the one given by Abraham Lincoln, at an address in Milwaukee:

"It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass away." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!"

Consoling, perhaps, but not exactly inspiring-- though it does have a kind of grim grandeur.

My point, which I'm sure you can guess by now, is that I think Christianity fills human life with a hope and a fervour that is simply not native to it. Left to itself, and outside moments of special excitement, humanity always seems to settle down to philosophies of resignation. It may be a cheerful resignation or a bleak resignation, but it is ultimately resignation.

I don't believe that Christianity is simply an allegory for all the highest and happiest instincts of the human race. I think that, without the Gospel, human nature never attains those heights. It may yearn for them, but even the yearning is buried deep inside us.

Think of how often the motif of newness is used in the Gospel. Christ tells his disciples at the Last Supper, "I will not drink from henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father." "I give you a new commandment; love one another." "Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins." "Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." And then there are the words in the Book of Revelations: "He that sat upon the throne said, behold, I make all things new."

Of course I am biased, but I think this lustre of newness shines from Christianity even after all these many centuries. There is something child-like and fresh about zealous Christians that seems to contrast starkly with the old, tired world around around them. Even the use of Christian symbols or Christian language seems to infuse a kind of morning air into any given atmosphere, discussion or event.

Christ called his followers the salt of the Earth, and it is one of my favourite images from the Gospel. Because salt is both a seasoning and a preservative.

And how is it that Christ's words have remained so startling, so challenging, so revolutionary (in the best sense) even after having been quoted relentlessly for so many generations? The Beatitudes are still bombshells. The parables still haunt us. The words of the Messiah are still, after so many millions of homilies and allusions and discussions, surprising. They are more surprising than the witticism of the hour or the epigram of the moment. The New Testament is newer than the news headlines.

Of course, you could make the same claim for any writer or poet or philosopher who has endured through the ages; for Socrates or Shakespeare or Sir Walter Scott. But I don't think it's the same thing. The same pressure has not been put upon the words of any other wise man. Millions of people have devoted their lives to following the words of Christ, and whole societies have sought to pattern themselves upon his teaching. And yet his words and teachings have never passed into platitude or truism. They did not simply become absorbed by society's bloodstream to the extent that they were no longer interesting. They remain as revelatory and shocking to us as they were to his first listeners.

I am aware that all my claims here could easily be disputed, or even ridiculed. An unsympathetic reader might say that he could just as easily demonstrate, from selective quotation, that the soul of the world is spry and spontaneous rather than old and weary. An anti-Christian could simply shrug and say that he catches no scent of morning air at the mention of Christ, merely the dusty smell of old hymn-books. I can't help that. But I think most people, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that the world really does tend towards world-weariness and that the Christian creed really does carry along with it a unique youthfulness of spirit.

Abraham Lincoln's Eastern sages, representing the natural resources of mankind, boiled all wisdom down to the words: "This, too, shall pass". Our blessed Lord proclaimed: "Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away". In that contrast, for me, lies the great difference between the World and the Creed.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Thirty Best Films of All Time...

...according to me, anyway.

(Warning: this post is a piece of pure unabashed self-indulgence. I myself am fascinated by lists and favourites, especially when it comes to movies. I would always be interested in a list of somebody's favourite movies of all time, even if it was written the dogcatcher of Little Peartree, Arkansas. So this list is aimed at my fellow nerds.)

As previously mentioned on this blog, I keep an ultra-anoraky Excel file of all the films I've ever seen, which I diligently update each time I see a new one. There are currently 951 films on the list. (That isn't even including all the films I have a hazy, far-off memory of having seen in the depths of childhood.)

I give each film marks out of five, and out of all those hundreds only thirty films have received five marks out of five. I am ruthless in awarding full marks only to films I actually watch again and again, and not to films that I feel I should watch again and again. So no Citizen Kane and no Casablanca.

So here goes, in no particular order:

The American President (1995)

Dialogue so sharp it might make your ears bleed. "They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand." "People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty; they drink the sand because they don't know the difference." Even though the film caricatures conservatives and rather idealises liberals, its mood is basically warm, chivalrous and generous. These are the kind of liberals for whom I can feel affection, liberals that are not fundamentally hostile to religion or patriotism or tradition. At one point Michael J. Fox's character even says to the President (played by Michael Douglas), "You have a deeper love of this country than any man I've ever known". It is a feast for the eyes, too.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

A romp of sheer good-natured exuberance. It's a fine example of early nineteen-sixties optimism, before the decade descended into drugs and destructiveness. The Beatles are cast more as naughty schoolboys than as pop idols, and the film's much-lauded technical experimentation is not at all obtrusive. It merely gives it all a sense of zippiness.

Airport (1970)

Yes, seriously. Melodrama is an art as legitimate as any other, and this is melodrama superbly done. It captures the essential drama of aviation and airports-- all those disparate stories and lives thrown together-- magnificently. And yes, its cheesiness is a lot of fun.

Shaft (1971)

It's not just some mediocre film tacked onto a great opening credits theme. Shaft takes a character and his world and makes you buy into them entirely. The bustling, hustling streets of seventies New York seem to come to life around you-- you can almost smell the hot dogs on the chilly air. And it has one of the greatest last lines of all time.

Flash Gordon (1980)

One of the things cinema does best is to take us to an utterly different world, a world forged entirely in the imagination. And few films do it better than this one. For all its self-aware ludicrousness, you can't help getting caught up in the story. "Ah, well, who wants to live forever? Dive!"

Groundhog Day (1993)

My favourite film of all time. In this post I try to explain why, and inevitably fail.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Though Groundhog Day is my favourite film of all time, I think Pulp Fiction is the greatest film ever made, a bravura performance of sheer move-making genius. I think there is something downright superhuman about Tarantino's achievement with this one. How did he do it? Every single line of dialogue is worth analysing in depth. There is something uncanny about this film. Whenever I watch the final scene of the hold-up in the diner, I feel as though something has actually happened, something that transcends the bounds of fiction. I can't put it any better than that.

The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

Yes, seriously. Everybody hated this film except me. I had never seen the TV show before I saw the film. I didn't even know what it was about. I think that let me see it fresh. What I love about this film is that I really get a sense of characters who exist before I started watching them and who go on existing when the film ends, in a kind of eternal idyll of the Deep South, and a perpetual adolescence.

Kill Bill Part 1 (2003)

The scene where The Bride looks at the samurai swords in Hattori Hanzai's attic, while soft music plays and a gentle sunlight shines upon the blades, is one of the most magical scenes in all cinema. And that is only one of many gorgeous, voluptuous scenes.

Pirates of the Carribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

An utterly perfect blend of comedy, horror and adventure. I especially like the swordfight between Jack Sparrow and Bill Turner, where action and dialogue is combined to sublime effect. The sequels were all dreadful beyond words.

The Aviator (2004)

The greatest biopic ever made? The film is a three-hour feast of colour, atmosphere, montage, period detail and sound. Scene blends into scene with breathless urgency, taking us into the intense and driven mind of Howard Hughes. Viewed as history, the film is far too gentle on its subject. Viewed purely as cinema it is flawless.

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

See my remarks on Flash Gordon. I didn't expect much when I went to see this in the cinema. By the time the credits were rolling, I had decided I would go again the very next day. An unfairly lambasted film, that paid the price for being ambitious and trying something totally different.

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

I'm not a Jane Austen fan, but Joe Wright's version of this story captivated me. It manages to combine muddy, provincial reality with soaring romance.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Everybody dreams of little villages where everybody knows everybody and you may as well break for lunch at 11:30. In this film, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright conjure comedy magic from that eternal English idyll.

Cromwell (1980)

A historical drama that is utterly po-faced and utterly enthralling. Who'd have guessed that you don't need bare bosoms and wild psychological speculation to make history interesting? This film presents both Cromwell and King Charles the First as flawed but idealistic men who lived and died by their principles. One of the most adult films I've ever seen.

Shadowlands (1993)

"We read to know that we are not alone". A film that takes Christianity, reading and love seriously.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Quite simply the funniest film ever made.

Dead of Night (1945)

For horror fans who prefer chills to either thrills or spills. This Ealing production is irresistibly English. Although I've always found the last story of the anthology-- the famous ventriloquist story-- too intense for comfort.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The greatest horror film ever made. It takes something usually seen as quaint and picturesque-- British mythology and folk tradition-- and makes it terrifying. A film of real religious depth.

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the Amicus anthology horrors. Amicus were like Hammer horror except better. Much better.

Rocky (1976)

"Adrian! Adrian!". The most romantic film ever made, for my money.

Trading Places (1983)

A quintessentially eighties film. The whole thing has the flavour of a proverb or a joke, the characters being more like archetypes than individuals. Moves from set-piece scene to set-piece scene with aristocratic ease.

The Color of Money (1976)

A much-underrated film. The scene in which Fast Eddie walks down some stairs to the still-deserted hall where a pool tournament going to take place, and the green baize and the coloured balls glow invitingly under the electric lights, is one of the most gorgeous and evocative in all cinema.

The Naked Gun
Naked Gun 2-and-a-Half: The Smell of Fear
Naked Gun 33-and-a-Third: The Final Insult (1988-1994)

It's the straight face that does it. Not only are these films hilarious, but inside their own zany universe they stand up as fine cop stories. The production values are top-notch.

Scream (1996)

Horror and black comedy, perfectly welded together. The scene in which the identity of the killer is revealed is disturbingly realistic in atmosphere, for all the implausibilities in the script.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Yes, these kids are narcissistic and rather bratty, but this film must be one of the most profound studies in group dynamics ever made, and its cathartic power is remarkable. Even the dancing sequence, in all its 1980s cheesiness, fits. And that final, fist-in-the-air freeze-frame...!

Some films fall out of my five-out-of-five club, and some films are promoted to it. I do not award marks on the basis of cool critical objectivity, but rather on the basis of what the films mean to me, at a particular moment of my life. Watching movies are one of the many ways we make sense of our lives, and find meaning in it, and I am not in the least bit abashed that my movie-watching is a part of my whole being, rather than a sealed-off screening room where I step entirely out of time and space and my own circumstances.

Movies are not life, but they are a part of life (at least for passionate fans like myself). The big screen, and the big world outside the big screen-- as well as my little place inside that big world-- all come together to make every movie-watching experience the unique event that it is.

My Letter to the Irish Catholic Newspaper

I wrote this letter in response to last week's issue of the Irish Catholic, which contained lots of articles about evangelisation and the missions. My point was that evangelisation itself-- the actual business of proclaiming the Gospel to those who don't accept it, and exactly how this is to be done-- never seems to be directly discussed.

My own shyness makes evangelisation difficult for me. I do try to argue for the Faith when the opportunity arises. And I keep hoping this blog might possibly draw some readers who are not committed Catholics-- perhaps people who came here through a search for something entirely unrelated-- but who, just possibly, might come away a little more well-disposed to Catholicism. (Of course, I welcome all readers!) That is also why I include posts about all sorts of things; well, it is partly because I simply enjoy writing them, but also in the hope that non-Catholic readers might see that Faith can pervade a whole, unified view of the world. (Not that I consider myself an expert or even an especially well-informed layman.)

I also hope that simply to be seen in public reading Catholic books, not eating meat on Friday (no longer obligatory but still a good idea, I think) and taking my faith seriously in other simple, everyday ways might be a subtle form of evangelisation.

But, one way or the other, I do think that Catholicism in Ireland needs to come off the ropes and start taking the initiative, or there might not be anything left of it in twenty or thirty years. Hopefully more extroverted and qualified people than me can do it in a more vocal and outgoing way.

Well, here's my letter:

Dear editor

Your October 18th issue contained several pages devoted to the theme of evangelisation and mission, since it covered both the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation in Rome and Missions Sunday. But I felt a certain frustration reading them. In the reports from the synod, we read Cardinal Peter Erdo tracing our current "tsunami" of secularisation back to the 1970's and 80's, Father Robert Prevost complaining of the media's role in the erosion of Western Christianity, Archbishop Rowan Williams reminding us of the need for contemplation, Cardinal Timothy Dolan reminding us of the importance of the Sacrament of Penance, and Bishop Enrico dal Covolo complaining of the state education system's hostility to Christianity. In the articles about the missions-- with the notable exception of the interview with Father Hugh McMahon of the International Missionary Union-- the emphasis was almost entirely upon social and humanitarian work.

Doesn't it seem that, when Catholics set out to talk about evangelisation, we end up talking about everything except evangelisation itself? I am not trying to dismiss the importance of the considerations raised by the worthy and erudite prelates at the synod in Rome, and I feel nothing but awe and utter unworthiness before the heroic efforts of missionaries who feed the hungry, heal the sick and educate the world's poor. It is absolutely true that evangelisation must be rooted in prayer and self-renewal, and that the gospel of Christ is given priceless credibility by the corporal acts of mercy Catholics perform.

But, as St. Paul reminds us, "How then shall they call on him, in whom they have not believed? Or how shall they believe him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear, without a preacher?" (Romans 10:14). We will never evangelise the culture simply by talking to each other at yet more conferences and seminars and retreats. St. Francis is famously supposed to have said: "Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words". I suggest that, in our situation, it is now absolutely necessary to use words-- specifically, words addresed to unbelievers. The Catholic Church in Ireland today faces the challenge: "Evangelise or die". But if you walk through Dublin city centre on a Saturday morning, you will almost certainly come across Muslim street preachers, Protestant street preachers, Hare Krishna street preachers, and possibly Jehovah's Witness and Mormon street preachers. Why no Catholic street preachers? Can't we run to our own stall outside the GPO? I do not think I would make a good street preacher myself, but surely we have Catholics whose talents lie in that direction? And of course, this is only one example-- we all must evangelise in whatever way we can.

Yours faithfully

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh
Sillogue Gardens
Dublin 11

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Thoughts from a Tub

I have recently rediscovered the joys of reading in the bath, which is something I used to do all the time as a kid. Warm water and the printed word; a combination that is impossible to beat.

One of the rules of my recently revived sport of tub-reading is that I can't bring the book I'm "officially" reading into the bath. Reading a new book is always a kind of prospecting; you don't know if the book as a whole is going to be any good and you especially don't know if any particular passage or chapter is going to be any good. So, since reading in the bath is gleefully self-indulgent, I only bring already-read books in with me; books that I know won't let me down.

So today I plucked Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi from the shelf and took it into the bathroom. I was strangely moved by the very first words I read, which were not actually Chesterton's words but the publisher's preface:

THE object of HODDER AND STOUGHTONS PEOPLE'S LIBRARY is to supply in brief form simply written introductions to the study of History, Literature, Biography and Science; in some degree to satisfy that ever-increasing demand for knowledge which is one of the happiest characteristics of our time. The names of the authors of the first volumes of the Library are sufficient evidence of the fact that each subject will be dealt with authoritatively, while the authority will not be of the dry-as-dust order. Not only is it possible to have learning without tears, but it is also possible to make the acquiring of knowledge a thrilling and entertaining adventure. HODDER AND STOUGHTONS PEOPLES LIBRARY will, it is hoped, supply this adventure.

Why did I find this so moving? Because in one paragraph it evoked to me a commercial and social philosophy that I cherish, and one that I think is rather on the wane.

(Yes, I am a galloping nostalgist, and I am always inclined to over-prize and over-praise the past. I admit this. But it doesn't mean I'm always wrong.)

To put it simply, I like the schoolmastery tone of the paragraph. It seems to me that business and commerce are very necessary and very laudable aspects of society; but their constant temptation is to become entirely focused upon profit and the bottom line. I think that a healthy society demands more from its commerce than this. And publishing especially should be an industry that pursues some ideal of the common good, rather than simply trying to shift units.

I simply don't often detect, in more recently published books, the tone of that preface-- the tone of a publicly-spirited entrepreneur addressing a readership that is presumed to be earnestly-minded and bent upon cultural and intellectual self-improvement.

You can find intellectually ambitious books in bookshops, of course, but they are almost inevitably written in an academic style, with all its associated pedantry and obfuscations and frenzy of footnotes. The idea of an educated layman who has a humanistic interest in all provinces of knowledge, but who expects even a technical book to be written with flair and style, seems rather lacking in our day.

I remember, in the primary school I attended, there was a collection of old kids' magazines called Look and Learn. The magazine ran from 1962 to 1982, and though it contained comic strips (notably the science-fiction story The Trigan Empire) the magazine was mostly devoted to educational articles, written and illustrated in a lively manner. And this was a publication for kids!

I never actually read Look and Learn-- I only skimmed through it-- but I do have very fond memories of the encyclopedias (I think encyclopediae is a lost cause by now) that my parents bought me in my childhood. And it wasn't just encyclopedias, actually, but also children's general knowledge books with titles like Tell Me Why and How to Hold a Crocodile. It wasn't only the content that I appreciated, but the whole atmosphere that hung over their pages-- the sense that they were good for you, that they were mentally nutritious, that life was a voyage of intellectual discovery and reading these books was launching myself upon that voyage.

Particular articles and picture stand out in my memory. I remember reading about the English artist Wright of Derby and looking at the accompanying reproduction of his famous picture an Experiment of a Bird in the Air Pump. I remember how the very solemnity and suspense of that picture echoed my own sense of enthralled discovery.

I also have a vivid memory of coming back home from a game of street football, eating a bowl of reheated curry for supper, and reading about Genghis Khan for the first time. I remember how that felt-- it was like coming over the brow of a great mountain and seeing a vast virgin territory stretching before me. That was the general feeling that I got from reading these "improving" children's books.

There is a common idea that children hate anything that they suspect of being worthy or self-improving, that knowledge and culture will only be welcomed by them if it is sugar-coated and presented as "fun" in the shallowest sense. I'm not sure that this is true. I think that children have quite an appetite for instruction and serious knowledge. I think they even have an appetite for the solemn impartment of learning, since they love to be treated as adults. Books like the Horrible Histories series may have their merits, but I can't help feeling that they are cheating kids of a sense of awe or solemnity in the acquisition of knowledge.

And I think adults, too, are missing out on something when books are increasingly divided between those which are intended entirely to entertain and those which make no concession at all to that worthy citizen, General Reader.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

My Uncle's Kitchen in Ballybrown, County Limerick

The picture above shows the kitchen of my uncle Willy's bungalow. You can see, right in the centre, the Sacred Heart picture that haunts all my childhood memories of visiting himself and his late wife, Kitty.

I spent a lot of time looking at that picture when I was a child. I would look at it while we all ate meals around the kitchen table and the grown-ups were discussing the mysterious, exotic matters grown-ups discuss.

Being a city boy, I felt that I was in the heart of the country (though Patrickswell is only a few miles from Limerick city), and that the kitchen was the heart of the town, and that the Sacred Heart picture was the heart of the house. The rendition of Christ is rather insipid and watery-- looked at objectively. But I'm afraid the picture has rather determined my taste in sacred art. I like my saints and holy figures to be languid, thin-boned, with eyes primly upraised to heaven. That is, I have the very vulgarest taste in sacred art, and I'm not one whit ashamed of it.

Visiting my aunt and uncle was always a culture shock to me-- it was like stepping into a different world. Their lives revolved around the farm, the GAA (my aunt called them the Grab All Association), the church, and-- that was pretty much it.

My uncle was and is one of the gentlest men I have ever met, but when he watched a hurling match on television, he turned into a demon. He could outswear a whole construction site when he got carried away by a game. He had been a hurler himself, and I always remember seeing him taking a swing at a tennis ball with a slender length of rubber pipe-- and hitting it unfailingly. (We had a tennis ball because myself and my little brother would play cricket with a pair of twins who lived nearby. We had aspirations.)

There were so many things about Patrickswell that were foreign to a Dublin boy. I had never experienced darkness like the darkness of the Limerick night. I would look out at the window of our bedroom and marvel at the almost unrelieved blackness of the view outside. It was scary and exciting at once.

My aunt used a stove to cook. A stove!

Walking for almost an hour to get to the nearest shop was also a novel experience, and even as a boy, it started me thinking that modern life might be rather too convenient, and too focused upon spending money. Walking so far to get to a shop seemed strangely right.

I was always struck, when my uncle brought us for drives, with the way the country drivers invariably raised a finger to each other as they passed. (No, not that kind of finger. A friendly finger.) This, too, struck me as the Way Things Should Be All Over.

Visiting my uncle's farm was, in many ways, like stepping back in time. I can remember my uncle agreeing with another local man that the prophecies of Saint Colmcille were coming to pass. I can also remember earnest discussions of Biddy Early, the famous local healer who has been remembered as a witch. At this time, a curse she had supposedly placed upon a hurling team was still considered to be in operation.

It seems a strange paradox that people who get their hands dirty with the elemental, earthiest aspects of life-- people who are quite literally down to earth-- are those also those who are most absorbed by the spirit world. The supernatural always seemed to hover over my aunt's farm. I can remember one night when my uncle, sitting in his front parlour, was telling us ghost stories, the electric lamplight shining upon his face. Suddenly the lamp went out and we were plunged into darkness. I am sure it wasn't a put-up job on his part. He isn't that kind of guy.

Another time my aunt told me a creepy story about the wallpaper in the spare room-- the room where me and my mother and my brother would sleep on our visits. She told me-- or at least this is how I interpreted what she said, but the story seems so odd that I've wondered if I didn't misunderstand her-- that somebody had seen an old man's face by staring into the wallpaper.

I took this to mean that this person, by simply staring at the floral pattern on the paper, had suddenly made out an image resembling an old man's face in the pattern itself. I did not interpret it as meaning that a ghostly vision had superimposed itself on the wallpaper, or anything like that. But the weird thing was that the first idea-- the perfectly naturalistic one-- seemed every bit as scary to me as any more uncanny possibility.

I can also remember being shown a rock which contained the footprints of the Devil and St. Brigid. I was rather sceptical of these claims, but the diabolical footprints were quite convincing-- they were tiny and crow-like, but somehow that only made them spookier.

My aunt had a pile of magazines in the bedroom in which we stayed. Many of these were glossy, trashy women's magazines.I remember one true-life story about a schoolboy who had been beaten to death because two of his class-mates had decided they wanted to kill somebody and, since the boy had no friends, nobody would miss him. I was particularly struck by this because I was a lonely boy at school.

Another story in these glossy magazines described the making of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, and the fears of some of his (unnamed) friends that he was Disturbing Dark Forces and might come to grief. I remember walking into the morning sunshine, after reading that piece, and shivering in the broad light of day. A daylight chill is the most delicious chill of all.

Memory makes collages. Those trashy magazines seem all of a piece with the birdsong and the smell of the soil and the quietness of my aunt's farm.

She also had more decorous magazines, such as Ireland's Own and Ireland's Eye. These are popular Irish magazines full of nostalgic accounts of times past, gentle short stories, and general knowledge features-- stuff like the wealth of the Sultan of Brunei or the invention of the bicycle. But it was one of these magazines that gave me the biggest scare of all.

One night I remember coming across an article, in Ireland's Own or Ireland's Eye, about the third Secret of Fatima. The writer had allowed himself plenty of room for speculation and the gist of the article was that the (then still unrevealed) third Secret pertained to the end of the world. Furthermore, it was going to happen very soon.

Being a child of the Cold War, I was already rather fixated on the possibility of a nuclear holocaust, so reading this article-- a printed article in a magazine, how could it not be true?-- sent me into a panic. I can remember lying awake all night, in the darkness, listening to the breathing of my mother and brother, waiting for the bombs to fall. It was our last night in Limerick and somehow I felt that, once I was back in Dublin, I would be safe. The Third Secret of Fatima would be powerless against the noise and light of the capital.

My uncle and aunt had only one joke each, and they told them every time they visited. My aunt's was: What did the bra say to the hat? You go on a head and I'll give these two a lift. This joke was invariably told when my mother was present and so was hideously embarrassing. My uncle's joke was: Why did the hen peck the pot? Because he couldn't lick it. I still don't get this one, but it delighted my uncle no end.

I had a brief religious conversion during one trip to my aunt and uncle. Attending Mass with them really shook me up, since everybody in the town went along, and since the church itself was bright and colourful and had that indefinable sense of presence which pervades well-frequented places. I remember the text "I am the vine, you are the branches" set my imagination alight. Somehow (I can't remember how) I acquired a miraculous medal and a set of rosary beads, on this same trip. I can remember my aunt, as I was leaving, urging me to keep praying and remain true to my faith. Alas, this conversion was a very brief affair.

When I eventually returned to the same church, it was to attend my aunt's funeral. This was many years later-- only five years ago-- and I was becoming more and more conservative at the time. Now I was all for tradition, I was all for rural life, I was all for community, I was all for ritual and ceremony-- but it struck me, as I was listening to the priest describing my aunt's work with the church choir and her constant attendance at Mass, that the "traditional ways of life" that I was coming to prize so much were rooted in the actual physical act of going to Mass every Sunday. This sobered me greatly, since I was an atheist at the time. It seemed as though everything I loved was based upon something I couldn't believe. I would forever be warming myself at another's fire.

All through those years, God was whispering to me. It took me so long to hear. So very long.

My Letter to the UCD University Observer

I have just sent the following letter to the editor of the UCD University Observer, in response to their latest issue (and its freefall into unadulterated ultra-liberal propaganda). Their website is here, but their latest issue (containing the editorial and opinion piece to which I refer) doesn't seem to have been uploaded yet.

I wonder if they will print it?

Dear Editor

It is a cliché (and like most clichés partly true) that every interest group feels that "the meeja is agin us". It is also an accepted state of affairs that student's unions, and the student press in general, will align with the liberal-progressive philosophy that has been pushed upon young people for decades now, mostly through the influence of the entertainment industry, the advertising industry (hedonistic individualism is good for sales) and "tenured radicals" in academe.

However, even though I accept that the student press will be a vehicle for the trendy (or "progressive") social thinking of our day, and even though I believe in the freedom of the press and your entitlement to take a particular editorial stance, I was disappointed by the unabashed bias of your October 16th issue, which didn't even make a pretence towards balance or objectivity.

Not only did your editorial fail to even acknowledge any arguments against abortion, it also offensively linked "silence" on support for abortion with a reluctance to talk about mental health issues. There is no resemblance at all between these two things-- abortion is the taking of human life, while mental health is its flourishing. You then compare moral conservatism, (for instance opposition to abortion) with economic "conservatism". In fact, social liberalism and free market economics-- what one writer has wittily described as "acts of capitalism between consenting adults"-- go hand in hand, especially in their too-narrow definition of "consent".

You also carried an article in favour of same-sex marriage, by Enrique Anarte Lazo, (but no balancing article in favour of the time-honoured definition of marriage). Mr. Lazo says: "To solve these problems in a satisfactory way, it is necessary to create a space of dialogue. That is why European democracies have always been an example to follow. The myth collapses, however, with topics like gay rights or abortion, which both require forgetting about theological and religious thinking, and focusing on legal, social and political argument". This seems to mean that democracy is a fine thing in its way, but not when it comes to liberal sacred cows such as same-sex marriage and abortion, which should be imposed regardless of the will of the people. Mr. Lazo is also wrong to imply that those opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage rely upon religious arguments to make their case. Usually, as a matter of fact, they make their arguments upon philosophical, social and other grounds. But they are absolutely entitled to argue on religious grounds if they so choose. That's democracy.

Unfortunately, it seems as though The University Observer has become little more than a propaganda sheet.

Yours faithfully

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh
74, Sillogue Gardens
Dublin 11

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In the Kingdom of Sound

Today I was struck by the sound of somebody tap-tap-tapping on a computer keyboard, which I always find a deliciously chunky sound. It made me think of other sounds that delight me:

1) Annoucements over the tannoy in supermarkets. Maybe because they remind me that there is a life going on there all the time, a life "behind the shelves" as it were. When I was younger me and my little brother were fascinated by a mysterious "extension seventeen" to which our local supermarket's employees were often summoned by the tannoy. It lay behind a curtain of translucent plastic strips and was mysteriously dark and warehouse-like.
2) The sound of a crow cawing. Though I love the phrase "putting the crows out of business", I never understood it. I would rather listen to a crow than to some tweeting songbird any old day of the week. Their cawing is so earthy and rugged.
3) The sound of a crowd singing in unison-- especially when "in unison" is a polite fiction. I love choral, unaccompanied singing, I like it best when it is a large amount of people, and I like it most of all when it is out of time and gloriously ragged.
4) The sound of a lady's high-heels tapping on the pavement, especially at night.
5) The sound of bangers. This is topical at the moment because this is banger season in Ballymun. As long as I can remember, my home suburb of Ballymun has been alive with fireworks and bangers for the whole month of October and indeed well before. Lots of people complain about this but I absolutely love it.
6) The sound of children playing in a schoolyard, especially heard from a distance.
7) The sound of children playing in the avenue outside my house.
8) The crackle of a fire, especially a bonfire.
9) ALL the sounds that water-pipes make; their mysterious tapping, the wind whistling and sighing through them, and the many other miscellaneous noises they produce. Especially nice to listen to when you are soaking in a warm bath.
10) The sound of an old man singing to himself. I think it one of the most dignified sounds of all. I always remember my Uncle Willy (who was not then old but seemed ancient to me) singing "The Fields of Athenry" while he was sprucing himself up in his farm-house bathroom. The way his gentle voice echoed off the tiles and filled the house has always remained with me.
11) The sound of music being played in supermarkets, pubs, cafés, or other public places. Especially gentle, contemplative songs. It always thrills me that such music seems to be overheard rather than heard. I remember particularly sitting in an empty cinema before the screening and hearing the Carpenter's song "Solitaire".
12) Probably my favourite sound of all-- the hum of voices in the air, where it is impossible to make out individual words or voices. To me it is quite simply the sound of life.

Sounds I don't like:

1) Bells.
2) The jingle of an ice-cream van.
3) The romance languages. I don't get the appeal. I'd much rather listen to a German or Russian speaker.

Monday, October 15, 2012


When dawn was breaking I lay in the embrace
Of sheets and pillows. The whole world was a place
Of warmth and softness and the dregs of dreams.
That was today. How far away it seems!

When morning came I stood in the chilly street
And dreamed of softness and enveloping heat
And watched for a bus. The sky was all-aglow.
That was today. It seems so long ago.

When day was fully-grown, I knelt in prayer
As the priest’s familiar words brazened the air
At the lunch-time Mass. Only the house of God
Seemed real then. Already it seems odd.

Wherever I go, this thought hangs over me;
Nothing exists except what I hear and see
This very moment. Beyond yonder wall
Is nothing to be seen; nothing at all;

As though all this were only scenery
Changed by invisible hands, too quick to see,
As act follows act. Oh, what mind can embrace
The weird plurality of time and space?

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Oldest Debate in the World

One funny thing I've noticed about life is how much of it is glimpsed out of the corner of one's eye. I don't know how else to put this notion. I will try to explain.

Everything that happens, everything that we see, can be interpreted in an endless amount of different ways, and seen from a myriad different angles. The same act takes on a hundred different meanings and associations.

Take universities, for instance. I am by no means an expert on the growth of universities, but I have read that European universities had their origin in cathedral schools, grew into loose associations of scholars and teachers (which sometimes had a rather disreputable air, since the townfolk often had running feuds with the scholars), were rooted in religious teaching and the humanities of the period, became more regimented and specialised and secularised as time went on, and eventually became the more or less vocational institutes of today. My picture might be wrong; that's incidental to the point I'm trying to make.

The point is the many ways you can look at college and university life. It can be seen as training. It can be seen as an intellectual adventure. It can be seen as an opportunity for high jinks and licensed bohemianism. It can be seen as a romantic vision of dreaming spires and common rooms and cobbled quads. It can be seen as a school for radicalism. Conversely it can be seen as a haven for intellectual snobbery and aesthetic posturing. It can be seen as the guardian of heritage or the laboratory of a future world. We superimpose all those ideas on the concept of "university". And we do the same with every other concept.

Human beings are, as CS Lewis put it, inveterate poets. We cannot be long satisfied with a functional view of anything; we soon begin to endow it with associations, idylls, stigmas, statements, undertones. Think of anoraks, cappucinnos, postage stamps, red hair, trouser suspenders, spectacles.

Well, the same process has been going on in my own mind, regarding the concept of debate. My interest in debates has become more and more focused on the phenomenon itself, rather than on the subject debated.

I think this began when I was moving from agnosticism to religious belief several years ago. I found myself watching many debates on Youtube between atheists and Christians. At that time I was utterly absorbed by the subject matter. I wanted to know the arguments for and against religious belief, and that was all I was looking for.

But, in spite of myself-- seeing out of the corner of my eye, as it were-- I began to take pleasure in the debates themselves. I took pleasure in the formality of the occasion. I took pleasure in the gladiatorial contest between opponents. At the same time, I took pleasure in the urbane and polite manner in which (in most cases) the contest was conducted.

I took pleasure, too, in the masculine atmosphere of the encounters. Chesterton has written a lot about the male nature of debate and argument. Of course, this is a generalisation. I am sure many women enjoy debating and are very good at it, but on the whole, I think it can be said that men evince a much stronger appetite for argument and debate than do women. More than this; affection and companionship between men often takes the form of friendly debate and argument.

This masculine love of debate is seen at its best in a vigorous but good-humoured clash of ideas. Unfortunately, the ego-fuelled fellow who wants to mercilessly crush all dissent is also a very male type (and one I have met).

In this as in almost everything, I agree with Chesterton's attitude: "It may, perhaps, be wondered whether one could possibly say a worse thing of anybody than that he had said 'the last word' on a subject. A man who says the last word on a subject ought to be killed. He is a murderer; he has slain a topic. The best kind of critic draws attention not to the finality of a thing, but to its infinity. Instead of closing a question, he opens a hundred."

(It should be noted that the same Chesterton who held this view was also a staunch champion of the principle of dogma. There is no contradiction. Even when you have accepted a dogma there is any amount of things to be said about it and around it; a thousand new implications and lines of argument lead from the dogma; and, besides, not everybody accepts the dogma and it requires constant defending.)

The more I studied the controversy between atheism and theism, the more the landscape of the debate came into view. I realised that there were definite battlefields, strategies, counter-strategies, defences, and manouvres. I realized the battlefield was littered with the bones of centuries. I began to take an interest in the debate itself, considered apart from which side was right and which was wrong.

And I realised that one of the reasons my heart pulled towards the side of the theists was that, insofar as they successfuly rebuffed the unbelievers' atacks, the debate remained open. The New Atheists, and every bullish atheist who simply wanted to see the last of religion, wanted to end the debate. They wanted to live in a world where miracles and Divine Providence, and indeed all things supernatural, had been ruled out of court. It seemed to me that such a world, whether you were an atheist or not, was a smaller world. The oddball carrying the placard announcing that The End Was Nigh, the fresh-faced Mormon knocking at your door, the irascible but loveable Catholic priest, the ouija board, the mysterious stranger who saves a man's life on a stormy night and then turns out to have Died Twenty Years Ago Last Night....all those stock characters of folklore and fiction seemed as indispensable to me as the sun and the moon.

The theists, on the other hand, did not want to abolish atheism, seeming instead to see unbelief as a permanent part of the human condition. Faith itself implies the possibility of a lack of faith. It seemed to me that a religious view of the world contained a space for unbelief, while atheism couldn't allow even the smallest chink onto the supernatural to remain open.

I also saw that some of the debates were, as it were, part of the dialectic of faith itself. The prime example is the problem of evil.

We all know the problem of evil. How could an all-good Creator allow evil in the world? How could we watch a baby die of natural causes and believe in the Christian Deity?

For my own part, the problem of evil never caused me a moment's trouble intellectually. It seems almost like a non-issue to me, taken philosophically. If there is a life after this one, and if the Almighty is good, then we can be perfectly confident that the pains of this life are nothing at all compared to our ultimate bliss; that they are even part of that bliss.

But the interesting thing was to learn, as I accepted Catholicism and began to explore its doctrine, that I simply couldn't dismiss the problem of evil so cavalierly. It was bad Catholicism to do so. The Catechism, I learned, took the question very seriously indeed:

If God the Father almighty, the Creator of the ordered and good world, cares for all his creatures, why does evil exist? To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice...There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil.

And yet, the point I am trying to make in this post is not principally a theological one. I am simply trying to celebrate the life-giving, world-making, personality-forming, faction-creating, existential value of debate itself.

Whenever I hear anybody use a term like "the oldest debate in the world", "the eternal debate", "the hoary old debate", or "the much-vexed question", a thrill passes through me. (My heart also leaps whenever I read about "seas of ink" being spilled on this or that disputed matter.)

I love the thought that, as well as ancient philosophical and religious and historical debates, there are well-rehearsed discussions in every country, town, interest group, political party, family and workplace. Everywhere we are look there are controversies raging-- whether it's two old men arguing about the Irish Civil War or two teenage heavy metal fans arguing when exactly Metallica lost the plot.

I love to think and hear and read about the various debates that have come to be seen as permanent features of the human landscape, like huge rocks around which the waves crash and whirl.

There are the great philosophical debates: Does free will exist? What is the self? Can we have reliable knowledge of the outside world? Are there universals or is everything particular? Are morals absolute?

There are the great historical debates: What if the Nazis had won the Second World War? Why did the First World War happen? Why did the Roman Empire fall? Were the Dark Ages really so Dark? Was the Renaissance really a Renaissance?

(Of course, we have our own burning debates in Irish history. Was the 1916 Rising morally justifiable? Was Michael Collins right to sign the Treaty? Why didn't De Valera go to negotiate it? Was Ireland right to remain neutral in World War Two? Should Ireland have joined the EEC?)

There are the pop cultural debates: Who was the best James Bond? Which is the best Beatles album? What is science fiction and what is mere space opera? What is heavy metal? When did The Simpsons go downhill?

Eager for more examples, I just now entered the words "eternal debate about" into a search engine and these were the first subjects that were returned:

The eternal debate about an afterlife.
The eternal debate about Valentine's Day.
The eternal debate about who counts as a "radical faerie" (which seems to be some kind of gay subculture)
The eternal debate about Capricorn or Sagittarius Ascendant (astrology)
The eternal debate about developing tweener prospects for NHL duty (something to do with hockey)
The eternal debate about the branding of children's books as for boys or for girls.

Isn't it marvellous? I love thinking about our world bubbling with all these famous debates; some of them years old, some of them millennia old; some of them universal, some of them confined to one geeky group of fans or to enthusiasts of some ultra-niche hobby.

Perhaps my delight comes from the fact that these "great debates" manage to assuage two deep-seated fears at the same time. (Or is it more positive to say they satisfy two deep-seated yearnings?) We fear a world that is nothing but flux and in which there is nothing familiar, stable or reliable. But we also fear a world in which there are no shadows, no mysteries, no "wriggle-room"; the reaction that C.S. Lewis articulates in The Discarded Image, his exposition of the cosmic theory of the Middle Ages:

The human imagination has seldom had before it an object so sublimely ordered as the medieval cosmos. If it has an aesthetic fault, it is perhaps, for us who have known romanticism, a shade too ordered. For all its vast spaces, it might in the end afflict us with a kind of claustrophobia. Is there nowhere any vagueness? No undiscovered byways? No twilight? Can we really never get out of doors?

The concept of an Eternal Debate gives us something permanent, reliable and public-- but also something that leaves us room to be individuals, to explore, to form alliances and theories and attitudes, to be either loyal or irreverent, orthodox or daring, to contribute or own "value added"-- and (to draw on Lewis's words) to be in the dark and to be out of doors.

I would be very grateful for any other suggestions of "great debates", no matter how old or recent, how well-known or obscure. What is the first thing that comes to mind? I'm insatiable.

Seen on a Poster in St. Peter's Square in 1964

Vatican II: This Time It's Ecumenical!

(OK, not really. And it would probably have been anachronistic, anyway. But I still like the idea.)

Friday, October 12, 2012

Campaigns I Wish Existed

I am always coming up with ideas for campaigns that I think should exist, to protect many of the precious and fragile things of life. Here are just a few:

1) The Campaign for the Sanctity of Lunch-Hour

Say No, No, No! to the various worthy and energetic activities that are scheduled for lunch-time. I have just seen, on my own university's website, an advertisement for a lunch-time "Kettlebells" class. (A kettlebell, the advertisement tells us, is a centuries-old Russian exercise tool that looks like "a cannon ball with a handle".) "Push yourself at lunch-time!" the advertisement chirpily invites us.

But why on earth would anyone want to push themselves at lunch-time? Don't we spend enough time pushing ourselves (or, more likely, being pushed) before and after lunch-time?

Lunch-time is for the serious business of eating and drinking. Nothing else about it should be serious. I am strongly of the opinion that even lunch-time reading should be light and undemanding.

No more lunch-time meetings, seminars, classes, jogs, lessons or anything else even in the remotest sense strenuous or self-improving! Schedule a time when nothing, absolutely nothing, is to be scheduled!

2) The Campaign against Movie Sequels

The Godfather Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, Aliens...yes, there are some good sequels out there. But they are so rare that the same titles are mentioned over and over again whenever anyone raises this topic. And they are as nothing compared to the endless, putrid stream of cynical, overblown, thrown-together, dutifully-made, bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping sequels that everybody hates but that everybody still goes to see. Hey, who knows, it might be another Empire Strikes Back!

Sequels are like the weather-- everybody complains about them but nobody does anything about them. And what we should do is to make a firm resolution not to support them. The gain would far outstrip the loss-- and more original movies would be made, too.

3) The Campaign Against Acronyms

Once there was just the BBC and the RAF and a few other modest names formed of letters. Then the thing exploded, as society became more technological and bureaucratic. Today you can drive your SUV to the office guided by your GPS, switch on your PC, LOL (or not) at the funny email your colleague has forwarded you, have a BLT for lunch, drop a coin in the collection box of the IRSPCA or the ISPCC, complain about SIPTU or IBEC, and read in your newspaper about NATO's dealings with FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) or a march for LGBT rights.

It has to stop. Acronyms are ugly, confusing and dehumanising. They make us sound like a race of robots.

Of course, smart-alecks would inevitably refer to the Campaign Against Acronyms as the CAA, but there's not much that can be done about that.

4) The Campaign Against Technological Metaphors and Similes

"I really want to reboot this discussion because I think we're all having trouble processing the amount of information being thrown at us right now. Ultimately it's the interface with our end-user that's most important. And maybe we're getting into a bit of a feedback loop right now."

Yuck, yuck, yuck. Please stop. Nothing will ever persuade me that figures of speech drawn from technology and computers are just as good as a homely, pastoral phrase like "wait till the cows come home" or "plough ahead".

But what's this? I hear the fellow at the back, in rather high-pitched and nasal tones, informing me that language has always changed and that every effort to "preserve it in a glass case" has failed. Yes, yes, yes. I know, Sonny Jim, I know. But that doesn't mean we have to be passive spectators of language change, any more than a gardener can't prune or pollard his flowers and trees.

5) The Campaign Against Convenience

It is my passionate conviction that convenience is the enemy of civilisation. No machine has caused as much damage to the fabric of social life as the motor car. People thought it would give them freedom and independence, but instead it made them commuting drones in dormitory towns, victims of road rage, and statistics in an obesity epidemic.

But instead of learning from this, we rush to embrace mobile-phones, online shopping, self-service machines, music downloads and e-books.

Learn to love standing in a queue. Practice taking pleasure in not being able to remember that niggling quotation, and force yourself not to look it up on the internet. Rejoice in being cold, uncomfortable, cramped and having to interact with people who you never would have sought out if left to your own devices (no pun intended).

It's only when inconveniences disappear that you realise how much pleasure and drama they brought into your life.

6) The Campaign Against Tacky Advertising

There is a magazine called Adbusters which helped to launch the Occupy movement and seems to oppose all advertising whatsoever. Since I myself worry about the corrosive effect of commercialism, I borrowed some issues of the magazine off a colleague. The content, with its strident and ultra-politically-correct opposition to nearly all the healthy and careless instincts of humanity, horrified me so much that I felt like tatooing "ENJOY COCA COLA" on my face.

There is nothing wrong with advertising in itself. Some advertising is highly artistic, tasteful and ingenious. As well as this, advertising usually has a more or less life-affirming message since happiness (or even simply the promise of happiness) sells. The faces on billboards are usually smiling faces. Advertisers are in the business of evoking idylls, whether it's for a holiday destination or a family boardgame, and idylls nourish the imagination and seek to bring out the good in everything.

No, my gripe is not with advertising so much as with the banality and crassness of much advertising. This is difficult to describe but in general I think that, the more bizarre or specific or incongruous a sales tack becomes, the more offensive I find the advertisement. An advertisement for butter that shows, through a golden nostalgic filter, an old-fashioned milkmaid churning butter is unobjectionable and even (I think) admirable, if done with style and taste. An advertisement for butter that creates a cartoon character called Captain Butter who jumps out of a fridge is banal and tawdry.

In general, I think the principle should be that the advertisement should have some instrinsic artistic merit.

7) The Campaign for Christmas at Christmas

Once again, everybody complains about it but nobody does anything about it. We should have a concerted effort to boycott shops and companies who start revving up the Christmas money-making machine in September or October.

We should sign a solemn compact to not even mention Christmas, insofar as possible, until December.

I love Christmas. I love Christmas. I LOVE CHRISTMAS. But we all know the consequences of starting it off too early. Instead of the anticipation of Advent climaxing in a twelve-day feast of merrymaking, everybody is exhausted and worn-out by lunch-time on December 25th.

Thus we get the irritating phenomenon of people wishing us a Happy New Year on St. Stephen's Day, as though Christmas was already over.

I think I could list a whole bucketful more campaigns I wish existed, and I might do so at another time, but I'm sure that's enough for now.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Like a Tree Planted"

I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to me, first and foremost, through my imagination. It is true that my reason, my conscience and my relationships with other people have also been avenues for the divine to come into my life; but, when I look back on my life so far, it is the moments of awe and wonder in which the tug of the Spirit seems strongest. Perhaps it is the same for many people, even for most people.

There are many occasions that spring to mind. I remember a rural Mass I attended while visiting my aunt in Limerick, which contrasted very vividly with the rather dreary suburban Masses I had experienced before that. (I think I was about fourteen.) The fact that the whole community attended, and that their religion seemed such a natural part of their lives, made a huge impression on me. The fact that the church was bright, colourful and lively also impressed me, since I had formed the impression that churches were inevitably dim, dull and depressing. To this day I have a preference for bright colours and broad spaces in church interiors.

I also remember-- and I can only very vaguely remember-- seeing a picture in my Catholic secondary school, perhaps on a poster or a banner, in which a highly stylised tree was used as a symbol of Christian life, or perhaps the Christian community (I can't remember exactly). Sounds pretty trite, doesn't it? And yet for some reason this image spoke to my depths, where other spiritual images didn't. (For instance, I can remember on the day of my First Communion, looking at a display beside the altar in which all of my class-mates' names were being borne aloft to heaven by cartoonish angels, or something like that. I also remember the contempt I felt, even at that young age, for the image's banality.)

Another keen memory is the December evening, some time in my twenties, when I happened to hear the lines, "Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the king of Israel", as sung by Frank Sinatra, drifting from a shop in Grafton Street. I remember being struck, as though by an elephant's foot, by the realisation that Ireland was now a post-Catholic country and that the loss was an immense one. (This is when I was still an agnostic slipping in and out of atheism.) I think I had this reaction because suddenly encountering the words "King of Israel" confronted me with the historical reality behind mere "Christmas cheer".

But I don't intend to launch into an exhaustive list of moments in the history of my spiritual imagination. Today I am thinking of a particular book title that spoke to my imagination, a book that I happened to find on a shelf at home and that I once started to read but never finished. It is a biography of the Irish priest James Christopher O'Flynn, who was celebrated for his approach to speech therapy and his acting classes, and its title was Like a Tree Planted.

I find that title coming to my mind again and again, ever since I first came across it several years ago. Like a Tree Planted. There is something about it; something that seems to speak volumes about the society and time from which it comes, the kind of society in which a celebrated priest might have a biography written of him and that biography might be entitled Like a Tree Planted. (The book was published in 1967. The reference is probably to the first Psalm: "He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruits in season and whose leaf does not wither.")

Compare its title, for instance, to several more recent titles of Irish memoirs, biographies and collections of articles. Take Fergus Finlay's Notes From The Margins, for instance, which strikes me as being smug and self-congratulatory. Ditto Against the Tide by Noel Browne. Bob Geldof's Is That It? is at least witty and memorable, and shows evidence of spiritual yearning, but seems rather ungrateful in tone. Mary Robinson's new autobiography is entitled Everybody Matters, and while the title's sentiment is worthy enough it seems something of a platitude. Confessions of a Sewer-Rat by Ciaran Carty, no matter how ironically meant, speaks for itself.

Against all these-- and I truly believe that is a representative cull of examples--the title Like a Tree Planted stands out like candlelight against darkness. Most people would guess that it is a Biblical quotation, which gives it an elevation and a dignity straight away.

It is a rather passive and humble title-- how many prominent figures today would like to be compared to a tree, a life-form singularly lacking in activity and drive and attitude? The title's associations of fidelity and constancy are very far from the more bullish or grandiose undertones of the titles quoted above.

The title is also very gentle in tone-- and I think this is what appeals to me the most. I don't see or sense much gentleness in modern Ireland. For all the many flaws of the Catholic Ireland which has recently passed away, it does seems to me to have been a society in which there was room for gentleness. Perhaps this was simply a gentleness of rhetoric and aspiration, rather than a gentleness in reality, but even that is lacking today.

I will try to illustrate this idea. I attended a Catholic school in which the standard of our religious instruction, and the conviction with which the school proclaimed its Catholic identity, left an awful lot to be desired. I have often wondered how many of the teachers were serious Catholics themselves.

But how far even a little Christianity went! What a difference a Catholic atmosphere made, no matter how diluted it might have been! I can remember, in one class about mental illness, a teacher telling us that the traditional Irish term for a mentally disabled person was duine le Dia (a person with God). She said it with a straight face. It didn't seem corny. It seemed only a little patronising. It made perfect sense, in the context of that school and its vaguely Catholic atmosphere.

Similarly, when teachers spoke about the sanctity of life or the glory of creation or the dignity of the individual, it made sense. It didn't jar. It seemed rather high-flown, of course, but it didn't seem like mere verbiage, or like a stage magician's "Abracadabra". We were being educated in a context where such ideas were taken seriously, where they had a theoretical foundation.

But I wonder what pupils in (say) a secular comprehensive school would make of a teacher talking about the dignity of the individual or the specialness of the mentally disabled. Surely such words would seem like utterly hollow rhetoric, since the pupil would see that everybody in practice treated education as a race for qualifications, careerism as an assumed value, and life as an exercise in self-fulfilment. The idea that people have a value in themselves, regardless of their accomplishments or attractiveness or market value, would seem like a nice idea that few people would actually contradict, but that nobody would really take seriously-- even in theory.

And as a matter of fact, as Ireland slides deeper into secularism, I find myself breathing exactly this atmosphere, and feeling nostalgic for the Catholic ethos that still pervaded Irish society until very recently.

And when I come across a title like As a Tree Planted, I feel an especial pang for the "Catholic Ireland" that we have lost. I do realise that a nostalgia for a particular moment in history is not the same thing as Christianity, that Christ's kingdom is not of this world, and that Irish Catholicism (like every other form of Christianity) has always fallen drastically short of its ideals. I know furthermore that such nostalgia, if indulged uncritically, can become a form of idolatry, a focus upon created things rather than the Creator.

But I do think that the seasoning I taste in that title-- Like a Tree Planted-- is the "saltiness" of which our Lord spoke, the salt which brings out the unique potential of every culture and individual, and which was responsible for all that was valuable in Catholic Ireland.

I miss Catholic Ireland, for all its faults. I miss it.