Friday, November 30, 2012

My Favourite Non-Catholic Religions

In this month's edition of First Things (an American inter-religious magazine), there is an article about Eastern Orthodoxy and its growing influence in the West. It got me thinking about other religions (both Christian and non-Christian) and which ones I could most easily imagine subscribing to, if I was not a Catholic.

What drew me into this train of thought was the awareness that Orthodoxy has a strong appeal to many Westerners of a conservative, traditionalist persuasion. It seems even more anti-modern and anti-progressive than Catholicism.

As the article (entitled "The Orthodox Renaissance") tell us: "To simplify the frequently invoked dichotomies, the allegedly individualistic, legalistic, rationalistic, positivistic, and anthropocentric Western religious thought was contrasted with the allegedly communitarian, holistic, mystical and theocentric Orthodox thoughts...often it is this sanitized picture of Orthodoxy that has the greatest appeal to Western inquirers."

Of course, the Catholic Church does not exist as a haven from modernism or progressivism (nor does the Orthodox Church). Anyone who embraces any form of Christianity in a purely reactionary spirit is misguided. Having said that, none of us are entirely uninfluenced by such "pull factors". I found myself wondering why I felt no pull towards the Orthodox Churches, since I have such a powerful bias in favour of tradition and conservatism myself.

And that got me musing about what religions, other than Catholicism, seem the most appealing to me. And the winners are....

1) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, to give them their preferred name. I am fascinated by Mormonism, and have read quite a lot about it. I never entertained the possibility it was true, but I can enter into the mind of a convinced Mormon easier than I can enter into the mind of a convinced Anglican or Buddhist. The very boldness of the Mormon creed gives it a certain counter-intuitive plausibility. ("I believe it because it is ridiculous".) Besides, the fact that it has its own body of (supposed) revelation also makes it compelling. The stories of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, the great Trek to Utah, and all the other narratives of Mormon history make facinating reading. And as for their theology-- the Trinity as distinct persons, the idea that even the Deity is a material being, the belief in baptism of ancestors-- its very weirdness lends it a certain glamour.

I also admire Mormons because they tend to be socially conservative and dedicated to their faith.

(I hasten to add that I put Mormonism at the top of my list only because I find it interesting. I have sometimes encountered the sardonic expression, which people sometimes apply to theories that are way off, "not even wrong". Well, I consider Mormonism to be "not even a heresy". But I do find it fascinating, and I respect the fact that its practioners take their own beliefs seriously.)

2) Judaism. I went through a "Jewish" phase. It wasn't that I believed Judaism was the true religion (I didn't believe anything was the true religion back then), but I thrilled to its thousands-year-old history, its traditions, and its aesthetic appeal. I read Paul Johnson's History of the Jews with avidity. I especially liked the Jewish people's dedication to study and knowledge, their esteem for marriage, their ritualism, and their particularism. (The universalism of Christianity seemed rather dull to me at this time.)

I retain my fascination with Judaism. Recently I visited the Irish Jewish Museum, which has a synagogue (no longer in use) upstairs. I heartily recommend it, not only because of its subject, but also because it is very far from being one of these awful, modernistic, multi-media-besotted and installation-filled museums.

3) Anglicanism; that is, the Church of England. Because I am an anglophile, and because the Church of England is such a weird hybrid. How do rapping lesbian vicars share a church with Daily Mail-reading retired colonels? It seems clear to me that, although many members of the Church of England only pay lip service to historic Christianity, others do genuinely consider it to preserve the apostolic succession and to be one branch of the universal Catholic Church. The Church of England contains, fossilized within it, so much of the history of England. The fact that it survives as an established chuch in an increasingly anti-Christian country is rather amazing, and I am intrigued as to how this will play out in the coming years.

4) Confucianism. Is it a religion? Perhaps not. But I think its emphasis on honouring ancestors, preserving public order, and dedication to study is admirable. Passages from the Analects often come into my mind. "He has not lived in vain who dies the day he is told about the Way."

5) The Amish, the Mennonites, the exclusive Plymouth Brethren, and other religious groups who boldly separate themselves from modern society. (I am aware that the term "Amish" and "Mennonite" covers a broad range of different groups. But you know the ones I mean.)

This list is just for fun. I respect every religion, pretty much, and I think they all contain glimmers of the truth-- some more than others.

But, to me, the only real options were always either atheism or the Catholic Church.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

I am Rightly Rebuked

On the letters page of The Irish Catholic this week, a Pat Mullin of Drumcondra takes me to task:

"Dear Editor

In The Irish Catholic of October 25, Maolsheachlainn O'Ceallaigh makes reference to the street preachers of various denominations on O'Connell St. on Saturdays and bemoans the absence of Catholic preachers on the streets.

May I suggest that he extend his walk to Henry St/Mary St or to Grafton Street in Dublin, where he will see Legion of Mary personnel speaking with shoppers about their faith and the need to practise it. In additions its personnel visit the sick in hospital as well as visiting people in their homes encouraging them to practise their faith.

I am sure that his local branch of the Legion would be very happy to have him as a member and any friends he might care to bring along."

Well, I deserved that. As a matter of fact my letter was edited and, in one of the missing sentences, I admitted that I would be no good at street preaching. (I am so nervous about approaching strangers that I will wander for ages, hopelessly lost, before asking anybody directions.) Also, the letter was about evangelization in general, rather than street preaching in particular.

But even still, I don't really have a right to complain about a lack of street evangelization if I am not willing to do it myself.

(Incidentally, I wonder why people constantly spell my Christian name with an "-ainn" at the end rather than an "ann"? I never spell it like that. It must look more intuitive or something.)

This Link Gives me a Kick...'s from the website of urban legend expert Jan Harold Brunvand.

Where Life Has Been

On a battered Monopoly board;
On a dog-eared deck of cards;
In football boots that have scored
Four thousand goals; on yards
Where generations have played and passed, like changing guards.

In a chipped Coronation mug
In a letter-filled biscuit tin;
In the teddy you used to hug
And the bed that you slept in
When life was a drama waiting to begin.

In the pounded, muddy path
That the cows come home along;
In a battle’s aftermath
Of ruin, and tale, and song;
In an empty dancehall dreaming of its scattered throng.

In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why is the Phrase "The War on Christmas"...

....only applied when it is called Winterfest, or when "Happy Holidays" is used as a greeting, and not also applied to the tacky and crass commercialization of the season, and to the promotion of merchandise such as sexy lingerie and ultra-violent DVDs as Christmas gifts?

All that aside, I am happy to see that we still have a crib in O'Connell Street, and also in the General Post Office.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Abortion and Liberalism

I've been thinking a lot recently about abortion and the right to life-- hardly surprising, given the headlines in Ireland at the moment. It struck me today-- as I was drying my hands, which seems to be when a lot of things do strike me (maybe because hand dryers are so bloody slow)-- how crazy it is that we think of pregnancy as a hard case, a kind of aberration, when it comes to the rights of the person.

I had been thinking how difficult it is (in terms of argument; in terms of right and wrong, it seems crystal clear to me) to disentangle the rights of one person from the rights of another, when one of them happens to be inside the body of the other, and uttterly dependent upon the other for its existence.

Then it occurred to me how ridiculous it was that I was, unthinkingly, looking at the situation as a kind of chance, one-in-a-million occurence, like the philosophical thought experiments about half of one person's brain being grafted onto half of another person's brain.

It struck me how easily we become trapped in a mental system. Our entire outlook, when it comes to the theory of rights, rests upon the assumption that the ethical subject is an autonomous individual who makes informed decisions and gives consent.

Of course, this ignores (or at least begs the question) that every human being on the planet spent a considerable amount of time as an individual who was utterly dependent upon another individual for his or her existence, and indeed contained within her body.

And not only that, but that every single human being on the planet then spent a period of years being incapable of giving informed consent or acting as an autonomous agent.

And furthermore, that every human being on the planet is quite likely to spend at least some period of time having passed beyond the stage of being able to make informed consent or act autonomously.

Our entire way of talking about rights is based on the assumption that human beings pop into existence, their mental and physical faculties fully formed, and then pop out again when they feel like it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

How to be Objective About Faith

One of my favourite sites on the internet-- come to think of it, it's probably my very favourite-- is As you almost certainly know, it's a site devoted to the subject of urban legends, misinformation, and rumours. It's not just a "debunking" site. It tries to say something about the themes and psychology behind the various tall tales that get passed about in schoolyards and coffee mornings and sleepovers.

I like pretty much everything about the site. I like its colour scheme (which is pleasantly bright and clear). I like the length of the articles, which are just right. And I think Barbara Mikkelson, the woman who does most of the writing, is a wonderful stylist, with a superb light touch.

Another thing I like is the site's attitude to religion. Since most of the stories analysed on the site are shown to be untrue, and since those relating to religion tend to be of the more hysterical variety, it would have been easy for the site to have an anti-religious tone. But in fact the treatment of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is deeply respectful and tactful. The miraculous and the supernatural are never ruled out in principle. I find this especially admirable because I get the impression that the site is written from a left-liberal and secular perspective (though I could well be wrong about that).

I think Snopes could be a model for how to write about religion in a neutral tone.

Our Avenue

For the first twenty-three years of my life, my home was an apartment on the seventh (and top) floor of the Ballymun Flats. The concrete stairwells, whose walls were covered with graffiti and from which any other trace of ornamentation had long been ripped, seemed to me as mysterious and full of possibility as the caverns of some fantasy world. (In fact, when I saw the Mines of Moriah in Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring film, my sense of awe was moved in the same way.)

They were both scary and strangely exciting. You never knew who you would meet; it felt a little like a dungeon or stone castle corridor in a computer game. I vividly remember the time a boy blocked my passage up the stairs with his bicycle and told me I couldn't pass unless I gave him ten pence. (Ten pence was the price of most chocolate bars and packets of crisps in the local van-shops.)

I remember, as a child, falling down the concrete stairs on many occasions. Even at such a young age, I found myself analysing the calm thought process that runs through your mind as you are falling: "I've done it now and I'm going to hit the landing in a moment." I also remember the time I dropped a Jelly Tot (a child's sweet) down the slit at the edge of the stairwell. Apparently I went into convulsions and even my mother's promise (we were coming home from the shops) that she would buy me a new packet couldn't console me. I wanted that Jelly Tot and no other. (I can well believe this story. The loss of the particular and irreplaceable still fills me with grief.)

There was a lift (an elevator, for my American readers) but it was very often broken. I lived in terror of the cable snapping and sending me plunging to the bottom. My brothers and sisters, and other kids, discussed this possibility avidly. There were two schools of thought on what to do if this happened. One recommended jumping in the air at the moment of impact. The other advocated hoisting yourself off the floor by pressing your arms and legs against the walls. I think I dimly understood that neither of these actions would be of much help. Thankfully, the cable remained miraculously unsnapped.

But the lift had other horrors to it. There were two metal doors, a silver-coloured inner door and a red-coloured outer door. Sometimes only the inner door would open and you would find yourself staring at the red door. For me and my little brother, the Red Door came to be as archetypal and haunting as Edgar Allen Poe's Red Death, or the Thirteenth Floor of so many horror stories. I can't remember how we got out when the dread Red Door did reveal itself.

Other times the lift would open between floors. I can't remember how this was resolved, either.

The lift, along with everything else in Ballymun, was regularly vandalised. Sometimes people would urinate on the floor. At one point, one public-spirited fellow decided to scrawl on the lift wall "SECUTIRY CAMERAS INSTALLED (sic)". It was anti-vandalistic vandalism, like the Dadaist's anti-artistic art.

I still dream of the flats constantly. I have dreams that I am trying to get home, trying to get back to number 62 at the very top, trying to get back to my mother and father and the snack that will be waiting for me after school. But in these dreams, the stairs are often missing, whole chunks of them having fallen away. When I take the lift (in these dreams) it often keeps rising into the air after we have passed the top floor, like the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When people visited us on the top floor, they said two things. "It's so hot!". (And it was; the central heating was out of our control. My father worried that me and my brother, who were not the most outdoorsy types, would end up having thinned blood "like the African soccer players who have to wear leggings when they play in England".) They also said: "What a wonderful view!". It was a pretty good view. You could see the mountains, the two huge chimneys of the Poolbeg generating station, and a little bit of the sea in the distance. At night, it was a forest of lights, which was even more magical.

But you can only look at a view for so long. (Incidentally, I remember, as a child, resolving to look out the window and catch the exact moment when day became night.) And it is probably a result of my childhood and teens, when the only thing that passed outside the window were seagulls, that hearing voices just outside the walls of my house seems unspeakably magical.

I live in a house now. There are eight houses in this row; four on each side of the avenue outside the sitting room window.

Right now, as I type these very words, little girls are running up and down the path between the houses, playing some game. I do not think there is any sound more beautiful than the excited voices of children playing. It seems strangely ancient and immortal to me, as though I am hearing, not just these children, but the eternal and deathless spirit of childhood.

But whatever sound it is that drifts from outside my sitting room window-- the hobbling of an old lady's walking-frame, the lifting of the latch of a gate, the furtive voices of teenagers-- it is more evocative to me than the tinkling of wind-chimes or the whistling of the wind through branches in the dead of night. Somehow it seems inexhaustably fascinating to me that they are out there while I am in here, even though we are within a whisker of each other.

The world begins in the avenue outside my garden. When I am presented with the vastness of the world in terms of statistics-- billions of people, hundreds of thousands of cities, hundreds of millions of Snickers bars sold per day, and so forth-- it repulses me. But somehow, when I see the vastness of the world through the lens of something small-- like the avenue outside my garden-- the greatness of the world seems sublime rather than repugnant. Because it is a greatness made up, not of units, but of every sort of contrast-- sleepy back streets and bustling boulevardes, half-empty pub lounges, crowded public squares.

My daily commute is an extensive one, and it often takes me an hour to two hours to get home. I take two buses. I don't mind so much. I get to read on the bus (unless it's standing room only). I walk down Grafton Street every day, which I like, especially when the Christmas lights are up.

There are moments when I always try to stop and look and savour-- like when I cross over the Liffey, or when I come to a crossroards (which seems to me like a place of deep symbolic significance), or when I pass the rowan tree that was planted in memory of my mother, outside my old school.

But I always feel a special tingle when I make the final turn, onto the path that runs outside my garden, on our own little avenue. This is the smallest part of the public world that I can call home. It is even more home than my country, or my city, or my neighbourhood. It is where my ship pulls into harbour. In terms of the J.R.R. Tolkien song-- "The road goes on and ever on, far from the path where it began"-- this is the path where all roads begin, the roads that lead to the ends of the Earth.

I wish people were more patriotic about the rows and avenues and crescents that they live on. I do think a man should be a citizen of the world. I do think he should be a patriot. I do think he should be a proud son of his city, and feel a sense of belonging towards his neigbourhood.

But why stop there? What is wrong with being a patriot of places so small, they don't even have names on the map? In my ideal world, every little avenue would have a flag and an assembly and a festival of its own.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

On Being a Library Assistant

"Granted the departure from the primitive condition in which everyone makes things for himself, and granted, therefore, a condition in which many work for others (who will pay them), there are still two sorts of job. Of one sort, a man can truly say, "I am doing work which it is worth doing. It would still be worth doing if nobody paid for it. But I have no private means, and need to be fed and housed and clothed. I must be paid while I do it." The other sort of job is that in which people do work whose sole purpose is the earning of money; work which need not be, ought not to be, or would not be done by anyone in the whole world unless it were paid.

"We may thank God that there are still plenty of jobs in the first category. The agricultural labourer, the policeman, the doctor, the artist, the teacher, the priest, and many others, are doing what is worth doing in itself....The opposite extreme may be represented by two examples. I do not necessarily equate them morally, but they are alike by our present classification. One is the work of the professional prostitute..My other example is this. I often see a hoarding which bears a notice to the effect that thousands look at this space and your firm ought to hire it for an advertisement of its wares..."

C.S. Lewis, "Good Work and Good Works"

I often wonder which of the above categories by own job would fit into. Is the work of a library assistant a noble avocation? (Not a librarian, mind. People always confuse the two. A librarian has a qualification in library science. A library assistant is the unqualified dogsbody who assists these mandarins.)

I've worked in the Main Library (latterly the James Joyce Library) of University College Dublin since 2001 (apart from one unhappy year working in UCD's Veterinary Library). It's pretty much the only job I've ever had.

Sometimes I wonder why I've been so blessed. When I was a child, and a teenager, and a student, I dreaded working life with all my heart. I expected it to be a daily slog, to fritter away my soul day by day, to leave me with no life left over to call my own. I literally had nightmares (well, at least one) of being trapped on a factory floor.

Well, my fears have been ungrounded (so far). I think few jobs must be less irksome than mine. Even when it is very busy (as it can be), it's rarely stressful or tedious.

I remember when I was applying for the job, there was a form on which applicants had to list their reasons for wanting it. One of the reasons I put down was, "I want to work in one of the great centres of Irish public life". Whoever read it almost certainly thought it was a spiel. But I really meant it.

I love that I can say those three syllables, "U-C-D", and everybody in Ireland knows what I mean. I love that so many prominent intellectuals and public figures work in the same place as me (and often come to the library issue desk). I love that a huge swathe of the Irish people pass through the gates of my university, and that their years there will be amongst the most memorable of their lives. I love that I am so close to one of the major dramas of human life, which is university education. If I had a huge office and a secretary and a hundred people working under me, but I was devoting half of my life to the sale and manufacture of bubblegum, I am sure the banality of my work would bother me.

I love the whole university atmosphere. The posters, the crowds, the infectious excitement of youth, the wooden plaques that list the names (going back decades) of the various chairmen of student societies, the rhythm of term and holiday and term and holiday, the restaurants and cafés buzzing with conversation, the clipped greens, the whole sense that the university is a little world of its own; I love all of it.

Students are wonderful people to work for. I assumed that dealing with the public (since I work on the issue desk) would involve lots of hassle and aggravation and arguments. It doesn't. The vast majority of the students are so polite and friendly and calm that it almost beggars belief. Unfortunately, the exception are the mature students. Most of the mature students are fine, but if you do come across a difficult and demanding and aggressive student, it is very likely to be a "mature" student.

When it comes to academic staff, this phenomenon seems to work in reverse. When you encounter an unpleasant academic-- usually a bullish, go-getter type-- he or she is usually a younger academic. The senior academics, the ones who seem to have grown up in a university atmosphere, are remarkably easy-going, even serene. They often wear a quizzical smile, and (if they are men) chunky sweaters and sticking-up hair. I always think that these are the ones who have a genuine love of knowledge. The younger academics (at least the aggressive ones) seem to be more like careerists, who took up medieval history as they might have taken up moped repair.

I haunted libraries when I was younger, and I had rather a romantic view of them. I can seriously remember being shocked (and at not such a young age) when I heard a library assistants in Ballymun Public Library talking about Oasis (the rock band). I really expected (at least deep down) that library assistants should talk about Yeats and Dickens and Salvator Dali and the Holy Roman Empire all the day long.

It's not really like that, of course. People who work in libraries might (might!) be a little more bookish than the man in the street, but not by much.

One of the things I like about working in a library is that everybody knows what a library is. Even a five year old has a mental picture of a library (as opposed to an advertising agency or a stockbroker's firm). They have been one of the abiding institutions of civilization.

I say "have been", because I really worry whether libraries, as we know them, have had their day. When I say I work in a library people picture shelves full of books, and trolleys full of books, and a woman wearing a cardigan and square-framed glasses putting her finger to her lips and telling chatterers to "Shush!". And, happily, that picture still bears a strong resemblance to the working life of a library. We still deal with books all day long. We still loan them out and take them back. We still tell people to be quiet.

But now-- the computers, the computers, the computers! Every day, their total conquest of the world grows nearer, their infiltration into every human activity and moment of life becomes more disturbing. (I realize the irony of writing this on a computer.)

In my library (as in almost all libraries, no doubt), we are as dependent upon our computer catalogue and library software as Stone Age farmers were dependent upon the sun and the rain. We spend our lives supplicating with the priests of the digital age, our harried and hurried IT workers, who rush from catalogue computer to printer to the automated turnstiles that control entry and exit from the library, and who minister unto them.

We loan out laptops, which are hugely popular. We desperately try to work out why a student phoning from Tipperary can't access our online journals and databases. We try to soothe researchers who have one hour to print out a bibliography but who can't get the blessed printers to print. We fight with photocopiers. And the amount of time we spend doing all this seems to grow month by month.

Worst of all, there are the self-issue machines, on which customers can loan books to themselves, and also return and renew them. I've hated these with a passion from the moment they came into my life. Not because I fear they will make me redundant, but because I fear they will make libraries as we know them a thing of the past.

I think lots of library customers must dislike them too, because a huge amount of our users still prefer to come to the issue desk. Occasionally, somebody explicitly tells us that they prefer to deal with a human being. But I fear that, in most cases, people simply find the self-issues machines too slow or too erratic or too intimidating-looking. But they'll get better, and more reliable, and more user-friendly. No doubt about that. (A lot of people complain about modern gadgets being slow or always on the blink. To me, that is their one redeeming feature.)

Most people who work in libraries don't have a romantic or sentimental attitude towards them. Sometimes it seems to me that a lot of librarians actually dream of the day when books will be abolished, or relegated to cavernous and unbrowseable store-rooms. Their attitude seems to be that the only good book is an e-book, and that humans are there to serve the public only as a kind of last resort, when all mechanical aids have failed.

I know one librarian who rhapsodised about her experience of using an airport when, as she put it, "I didn't have to deal with one human being from beginning to end." (Not her exact words, I'm sure, but pretty close.)

I guess I'm grateful I got in before the end. Maybe in twenty or thirty years (and maybe much sooner) kids will watch movie scenes set in libraries with shelves full of books, and feel as wistful for them as we feel for old sweetshops, or for horse-drawn carriages.

It's true that, a couple of years ago, I found a book on a second-hand bookshop called The End of Libraries...which was published in the early nineteen-eighties. It's easy to laugh at that kind of failed doom-mongering, but I can't help remembering the joke about the hypocondriac's epitaph. It read "Do you believe me now?"

The Savita Halapannavar case

Readers may think I am deliberately ignoring the Savita Halapannavar case, which has dominated Irish headlines and broadcasting for the last week or so.

It's not that I'm ignoring it, though I do find the fact that this private tragedy is being used as a political tug-of-war to be extremely distasteful.

What is there left to say, though? It has been pointed out, over and over and over, that we simply don't yet know the cause of this tragedy, we don't know if it was preventable, we know that Ireland is one of the safest countries in which to have a baby, and that the European Court of Human Rights (whose decisions are non-binding anyway) did not rule that Ireland must legislate for abortion.

David Quinn, in this article for the Irish Catholic, says it all.

May God receive the soul of this poor woman, and her poor baby, and may He bring comfort to her grieving husband and relatives.

And may He keep Ireland free from the terrible scourge of abortion.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Our Discussion on Nationalism Continued

This is the latest instalment in my friendly discussion on nationalism (in general) and Irish nationalism (in particular) with fellow Irish Catholic blogger Young Ireland. Previous instalments can be found here, here, here and here.

Young Ireland makes so many interesting points that I simply can't write everything that comes into my mind in response. So I think I will concentrate on some specific matters.

I agree with much of what he writes, but I find myself in disagreement with this particular view:

"I think it is possible to be patriotic and not be a nationalist. I would define patriotism as obeying just laws, taking an active part in community life for the sake of the common good, et cetera. . I don't think it should be confused with nationalism, which especially in the Irish context, often demands assent for immoral acts like 1916, and the belief that your particular country is infallible."

This reminds me of the time that one of my colleagues saw the little tricolour flag I have hanging in my office and said (unprompted) that she thought paying your taxes was a patriotic act. This whole definition of patriotism just seems too dispassionate to me. I think the virtue that Young Ireland and my above-mentioned colleague refer to might better be described as good citizenship, or public spiritedness. It seems more about duty than love or sentiment or loyalty.

Patriotism, in my view, is an affair of the heart. It is a way of looking at your nation as a kind of extended family. This doesn't negate the concept of the brotherhood of man, but it does mean that you feel a special kinship to your compatriots. And, like all families, this is as much a matter of exasperation, frustration, heated discussion, and painful memories as it is a matter of pride and loyalty.

A nation is a big family, with all the same aspects of the family writ large; a family tree, running jokes, family anecdotes, family squabbles, shared living space, even (to some extent-- I don't want make too much of this) shared genes.

OK, so you might say, "This is a pretty way of looking at things, but what is it based on? You can think of the nation as a big family if you like. Why should anyone else think of it like that?"

I think we not only can but should look at nationality this way because otherwise, national consciousness-- or even just public life-- becomes based upon a kind of lowest common denominator. We become so frightened of imposing a particular identity, or a particular idea of national culture, that we end up with nothing at all, or something even worse than nothing at all. We are stuck with a kind of bland, featureless universalism, a pallid pluralism.

Take the Spire of Dublin, for example. Here is a monument that nobody could accuse of being sectarian, or divisive, or jingoistic, or any of those things. But then, nobody could accuse it of anything much-- except of being ugly and characterless. But it seems to me a symptom, even a metaphor, of what happens when you studiously avoid any kind of nationalism. (To my non-Irish readers who might not know about the Spire, it's the most recent monument added to Dublin's main street, O'Connell Street. And what is it? A four hundred foot stainless steel spike with a light at the top. Literally that, and nothing more.)

I have noticed the same thing with "The Gathering", the attempt this year to lure the so-called Irish diaspora back to Ireland as tourists. If this had happened forty years ago it would have drawn heavily on traditional, Gaelic Revival images of Ireland-- roundtowers, harps, Irish wolfhounds, the Book of Kells, Celtic knotwork, uillean pipes, and so forth. And the advertising campaign would have had a certain sobriety and even solemnity to it. But the actual ads for The Gathering, presumably in an effort to avoid any hint of leaving anybody out, have just been facetious and insipid. The one I've seen most often involves a picture of a flaxen-haired lass in a plastic, horned Viking helmet pouting beside a seashore. In the online ads, the plastic helmet floats on and off her head. I can't see how that would draw anyone to visit their ancestral land, or inspire any sentiment in their hearts at all. Why should they care about Irishness, if we don't care about it?

And a final example is an ad for the National Census that I saw some years ago. The central image was a young man with Asiatic features, possibly Chinese or Korean. Now, I know that somebody of Chinese or Korean ancestry, or any other ancestry, can be just as Irish as me. I've had the surprising experience, in my work as a library assistant in University College Dublin, of serving students whose facial features and names (I see their names when they hand me their student cards) make them seem Indian or African, but who then go on to speak to me in a strong Dublin accent. I am not a racialist in any way. But it seems to me slightly perverse to pick a face with Asiatic features as representative of Irish people. Wouldn't red hair and freckles be more iconically Irish, even though red-heads are a minority here, too?

What has all this got to do with promoting a culture? Well, to a certain extent, we have to promote some kind of culture. Every country has streets to name, stamps to issue, festivals to organise, monuments to build, holidays to proclaim, and an educational syllabus to organise. In other words, we can't do without symbols, and we can't avoid those moments and occasions when we make some statement about who we are.

I accept that the Gaelic, Catholic identity we proclaimed on those occasions, in the past, might have been rather jingoistic, biased and even (sometimes) cheesy. The streets and train stations named after 1916 leaders, the public buildings named after saints, the national anthem ending a day's broadcast on RTE, the St. Bridget's Cross that the station used as its symbol in its early days, occasions such as the Tailteann Games...I understand why some people might have reservations about some or all of those symbols (in the same way that a secularist might object to the Angelus bells being broadcast on RTE).

But isn't it better to have some kind of national iconography, even if it does not express your own beliefs, than none? Doesn't its use express the idea that a nation entails more than a few million people breathing the same air and using the same water, airports and energy grid?

Take the example of England. If I go to England, I could take offence (as an Irishman) at the lions in Trafalgar Square as a symbol of British imperialism. I could take offence at the Irish harp used in the English royal coat of arms, which is to be seen on so many buildings. As a Catholic, I could take offence at Guy Fawkes night, since it celebrates the capture and burning of a Catholic, and has historically been used to express strong anti-Catholic sentiment. I could pout about poppy-wearing on Armistice Day.

But I don't actually take offence at any of these things. I wish the English nation cherished its traditions more, not less-- even those traditions that are imperialistic and anti-Catholic, or otherwise controversial. Because those things are part of what made England what it was, and what it is. Exchanging the realities of history for a pluralistic, secular, post-historic non-identity seems a crying shame to me.

What do you think? Do you see any merit in those arguments at all? (Be honest!)

I have concentrated on the matters where I disagree with you, rather than on those where I agree. I certainly agree with you strongly on many things-- such as the danger of nationalism becoming a belief in your country's superiority over other countries, or the undesirability of one-sided versions of national history. And to some extent, this is a discussion with myself as well as a discussion with you, since my feelings on these matters are rather mixed and unsure.

Our Discussion on Nationalism-- Young Ireland Replies

Having patiently waited for me to finish rabitting on, Young Ireland has kindly responded to the set of questions I put to him at the end of my last post. This is as a part of our ongoing friendly discussion about nationalism (in general) and Irish nationalism (in particular), previous instalments of which you can find here, here, and here.

His responses (and I agree with a lot of what he writes) give me a lot to think about. I will be back soon with my own thoughts. For ease of reference, I have put my questions before Young Ireland's answers.

My Question: My first is something of a rhetorical question. I can't imagine you answering "no", but I will put it anyway. Would you be grieved at the prospect of the various nations, their languages, customs, cuisines, art-forms etc. being replaced by one world-wide culture with a common language, political system, legal system, sport, and so forth?

Young Ireland's Answer: To be honest, my feelings on this are mixed. On one hand, I do think that diversity is a good thing and that people should not be coerced into adopting a particular culture. On the other, if there is no interest in a particular culture or (secular) tradition, I think it is best to let it die out gracefully. Forcing it upon people, I think is a sure way to make certain that it is not revived in the future.

My Question: In a less drastic vein [to the previous question], are you perturbed at the idea of different national cultures becoming less distinctive-- do you find anything to regret in cultural globalization?

Young Ireland's Answer: Not really. I think that globalisation is generally a good thing, but not without its flaws. Nevertheless, in the last 20 years, as the Western world has become more interconnected, it has also become more stable and peaceful. I would recommend that your readers look up this link about the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which states that two countries will not go to war if McDonald's has a presence in both countries.

My Question: If you do prefer the continuance of different national cultures, do you think this is a goal that we should consciously pursue (for instance, by trying to protect national traditions, sports, languages, and so forth) or should we simply let history take its course?

Young Ireland's Answer: In these matters, I think the best course of action will be to let history take its course. Cultures will only survive if there is a genuine will on behalf of its proponents for it to survive.

My Question: You object to compulsory Irish in the Irish education system (and you may be right). Would you draw a distinction between efforts to preserve and strengthen national cultures that are voluntary, and those that are imposed by law?

Young Ireland's Answer: I would. I believe that promotion of any culture is best left to private organisations. There is a risk that if the State gets involved, especially regarding the use of coercion, it will be morphed into something jingoistic that will end up generating resentment, apathy and possibly the death of the culture being promoted.

My Question: How important do you think this whole subject is, in the grand scheme of things?

Young Ireland's Answer: Finally, I think that it is important, because most Catholics in Ireland are nationalists of varying hues and I think it is important that an objective discussion on this needs to take place to see if we are going wrong somewhere. I think it is possible to be patriotic and not be a nationalist. I would define patriotism as obeying just laws, taking an active part in community life for the sake of the common good, et cetera. . I don't think it should be confused with nationalism, which especially in the Irish context, often demands assent for immoral acts like 1916, and the belief that your particular country is infallible. Also, Mel Cormican of the Brandsma Review group on Facebook made a good point when he said:

"On the relationship between the Church and nationalism, the two are incompatible. Patriotism is a virtue, but nationalism the narrow love of country to the point of hating foreigners is condemned in the strongest terms when he sets up the Samaritan up as the good guy in a story about loving your neighbour. I have always considered it a deep wrong that Catholic schools have given such a biased, nationalist angle on history, which undermined its expressed support for the Church's social teaching. This contributed to the extremism that gave terrorists succour for decades when they should have been roundly condemned."

I am in no way saying that you agree with the views outlined by Mel, however, many nationalists, especially Catholic nationalists, do.

I look forward to your response.

To be continued....

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Some Questions for Young Ireland

OK, OK, OK. After my last post, I realize that I have to be strict with myself if this friendly debate on the question of nationalism is not going to degenerate into a long monologue, with poor Young Ireland unable to get a word in edgeways.

Therefore I am going to skip past the account of how my views on nationalism developed from the days when an Irish flag had become, in my eyes, like a red rag to a bull. This is a grievous sacrifice, since such an account would be of absorbing, compelling, gripping interest-- to me, that is. Unfortunately it might be so boring to everyone else that the Minister for Communications would shut down this blog, drawing wild cheers from everyone, including all the libertarian groups and committees for free speech.

So I'll summarise. Basically, I came to appreciate my Irish nationality, and to become a cultural and social nationalist, by looking at it from the outside. It was a little like the astronauts on the moon looking back at the glowing marble of the Earth and realizing, only then, just how precious it really was.

I was an Anglophile and a lover of all things English. It grieved me when Irish people insulted England. However, it grieved me even more when English people insulted England, or even spoke dismissively of her. It seemed like a betrayal. And slowly it dawned on me that I was doing the same thing to my own country.

And, when I took a wider view of the world, the same emotion struck me, except with even more force. I realized how much pleasure it gave me that there were so many different nations in the world with their own languages, customs, sports, foods and historical memories. Wasn't every single one incredibly precious-- including Ireland? This realization was a little bit analagous to the moment when a teenager discovers, with a thunderclap of astonishment, that his parents are people, too.

So what if nationalists exaggerated the role of national culture? What if we did all go to pretty much the same supermarkets, watch pretty much the same TV shows, listen to the same music, and wear the same clothes as people in America or Canada or Australia or Germany? Did that make nationality more contemptible-- or more precious? If national distinctiveness was imperilled, wasn't that all the more reason to cherish it and protect it? Wasn't abandoning it when it was in danger like putting your dog down when it got a broken paw?

Besides this, I was increasingly struck with a sense of trusteeship. It wasn't just my own parents and grandparents (on both sides) who had poured so much of their efforts and hopes and lives into the dream of an Ireland that was (as Patrick Pearse wrote) "not Gaelic merely, but free also; not free merely, but Gaelic also." It was hundreds of thousands of my Irish ancestors who had done so; millions, even. The virtue that the Romans called pietas seemed to me a natural one; it was also enjoined on us by the Fourth Commandment.

Of course, there were dangers. Nationalism, both political and cultural, had led to millions of deaths in wars down the ages. It had also played an enormous role in the various heresies and schisms that had riven Christianity, especially the Great Schism between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and the Reformation of the sixteenth century. But "abuse does not negate use". Wife-beating does not invalidate the institution of marriage.

So these are my questions for Young Ireland, and I am genuinely interested in his answers:

1) My first is something of a rhetorical question. I can't imagine you answering "no", but I will put it anyway. Would you be grieved at the prospect of the various nations, their languages, customs, cuisines, art-forms etc. being replaced by one world-wide culture with a common language, political system, legal system, sport, and so forth?
2) In a less drastic vein, are you perturbed at the idea of different national cultures becoming less distinctive-- do you find anything to regret in cultural globalization?
3) If you do prefer the continuance of different national cultures, do you think this is a goal that we should consciously pursue (for instance, by trying to protect national traditions, sports, languages, and so forth) or should we simply let history take its course?
4) You object to compulsory Irish in the Irish education system (and you may be right). Would you draw a distinction between efforts to preserve and strengthen national cultures that are voluntary, and those that are imposed by law?
5) How important do you think this whole subject is, in the grand scheme of things?

I hope those questions are not too restrictive or point-missing. Feel free to answer them in any way you like-- and to ignore any that seem beside the point to you.

I apologize for writing at such great length in these posts. I rather let my subject carry me away!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thoughts on Nationalism-- a Response to Young Ireland

In the post immediately below this one, my fellow Irish Catholic blogger Young Ireland has described his attitude towards Irish nationalism, and the experiences which shaped it. I have to admit that my own experiences, and the evolution of my opinions on this subject, have been remarkably similar to his own.

Young Ireland has described his childhood in the area of North Kerry, which was a bastion of traditional Irish culture, and also of republicanism. I, too, grew up in a solidly republican and nationalist background. From my earliest days I can remember being steeped in Irish rebel ballads, heroic stories of the Easter 1916 Rebellion, and Irish mythology and history. Somebody once said, in describing the famous school St. Enda's that was founded by the Irish insurrectionist and educationalist Patrick Pearse, that Cuchalainn (perhaps the central figure of Irish mythology) was like a ghostly member of the school staff. Something like that was true of my own childhood. If you had asked me, back then, if Cuchalainn, Finn McCool and the Tuatha De Danaan (the "fairy folk" of Irish mythology) had ever actually existed, I would have said "no"-- but somehow they seemed to flicker on the very edge of existence, perhaps not fully real but not entirely unreal either.

Cecil Rhodes is supposed to have said that to be born English is to win the first prize in the lottery of life. I felt the same way about happening to have been born in the most remarkable and extraordinary little country in the world. I couldn't believe my luck. All those millions of kids in China and Brazil and Russia had no idea what they had missed out on!

Unlike Young Ireland, though, I grew up in a Dublin suburb, and the contrast between the people around me (who were all plugged into English and American popular culture) and my family and their circles (who also watched English TV and American movies but who seemed to have another, higher existence on the aspirational plane of Irish culture, sport, mythology and history) penetrated deep into my soul. It is still there. Instinctively, I tend to see the world as a place where fragile, precious, old-fashioned things (like Irish culture) are threatened by brutish, tawdry, new things (like TV and popular music and supermarkets).

I never went to an Irish summer school like Young Ireland, but all my schooling was received through the Irish language. This meant that Irish was spoken all day every day in both my primary and secondary schooling, at least after the infants' classes, and aside from English class.

This should have made me a fluent Irish speaker. Instead, and through no fault of my teachers, I have a grasp of Irish that is mediocre at best. (Like Young Ireland, I took honours Irish in the Leaving Cert, but this was almost automatic in our school.) Not only this, but my long experience of Irish-language schooling filled me with a strong dislike-- even a hatred-- of the Irish language, by the time I was in my teens and well into my twenties.

It's easy enough to see how this happened. As Young Ireland has said, having something forced upon you tends to turn you against it. Add to this the fact that I could never really master the language-- the nuts and bolts of its grammar, especially-- and perhaps it is unsurprising that I came to detest Irish.

But I think it went beyond that, and I do think the Irish language movement is to some extent culpable for the anti-Irish language reaction of people like myself and Young Ireland. Unfortunately, enthusiasts for the revival of the Irish language have too often resorted to the tactic of making themselves objectionable. Sanctimoniousness, anti-Englishness, an apparent eagerness to be offended, a siege mentality, and a generally confrontational attitude have (I believe) characterised the Irish language revivalist movement, and the language has paid the price. Not only did the enthusiasts for Irish resort to a kind of emotional blackmail ("shame on you for not speaking your native tongue!"), they were quite willing to take full advantage of the fact that Irish was the official first language of the nation, and to make an issue out of their formal right to service in Irish from post offices, government departments, state bodies, and so forth.

Of course, the Irish language's standing as the State's first language is a polite fiction-- it is mostly ceremonial, and the vast majority of public servants would be unable to conduct a conversation in it. Nevertheless, Irish language speakers like to assert this right from time to time, deliberately embarrassing hapless receptionists and secretaries and others. I can hardly think of any behaviour more obnoxious, or more calculated to breed dislike of Irish.

Even today-- unfair though this may be-- my instinctive reaction to hearing Irish spoken is one of hostility. My considered opinion today is that the revival of the Irish language is a worthy national goal, deserving of all our support. But I forget that in the instant that I hear those guttural syllables. In that moment, twenty years of having my teeth set on edge comes flooding back.

Not only did I develop an antipathy to the Irish language in my teens and twenties, but I became virulently anti-nationalist-- even anti-Irish, bizarre as that may seem.

Why? There were lots of reasons. Partly it was because I felt lonely and left-out at school, and I therefore positioned myself in opposition to its values. (Not only was my school an Irish language school, but it also promoted elements of Irish national culture like Irish dance, Irish sports, Irish music and so forth). Partly it was because I was, and I still am, a very enthusiastic admirer of England and English culture. As Young Ireland has said, in Irish history as it was often taught in Irish schools, England was inevitably painted as the Big Baddie, almost the source of all ills-- not just a national enemy, but one that was seen as being inferior to Ireland (though nobody would have actually said that out loud). A wit once remarked, quite perceptively, "It isn't enough to be Irish-- you need someone to be Irish at." Not only did this make Irishness seem like an identity based on bitterness and hatred, but it was bitterness directed against a nation I loved and admired.

All this might seem very immature, but I would like to think there was more to my anti-nationalism than a mere emotional reaction. And I truly think that there was.

I just didn't see why having a particularly-coloured flag flying on our public buildings was supposed to make such a huge difference. I remember greatly approving of Yeats's couplet about the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man
"Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone."

Really, the whole thing seemed rather fake and overblown to me. We were meant to be so different but in reality, everybody just bought the same products, watched the same television, drove the same cars, and listened to the same rock and pop music as did pretty much everyone else in the Western world. What difference did a bit of Irish dancing make to that?

I have written at greater length than I intended, and I am still at the stage of describing my adolescent and young-adult hostility to nationalism-- I haven't even begun to describe how my attitude came to change. Nor have I even touched on the part that the murder campaign of the IRA played in my distaste for Irish nationalism.

I think I will have to leave it to another post. If Young Ireland would like to respond to what I have written, he is most welcome, although he may wish to wait until I have brought my little story up to date. Suffice it to say for the moment that I can certainly identify with much that he wrote in his initial post.

To be continued, then!

A Friendly Exchange of Thoughts on the Subject of Nationalism

This post is something a little different. Through posting on the Irish Catholics Forum, I have had a few (pleasant) exchanges with a fellow Irish Catholic blogger Young Ireland, whose blog Telling It as It Is can be found here. I have been pleased to encounter someone who, while remaining faithful to the teaching of the Magisterium, is obviously both independent-minded and open-minded.

One of the many prejudices against the Catholic Church is that it is a kind of intellectual retirement home, a place people go when they are tired of thinking for themselves. (The idea that a person could rationally arrive at an acceptance of an orthodoxy, rather than a rejection of all orthodoxy, seems to be-- well, a modern orthodoxy of its own.) But, of course, this prejudice is unwarranted. Faithful Catholics both can and do disagree on many subjects, while remaining true to the authoritative teachings of the Church.

I was interested to notice that, while I strongly agree with Young Ireland on most subjects, we have differing views on the subject of nationalism, and Irish nationalism in particular. I contacted him and asked him if he was amenable to the idea of a friendly exchange of thoughts on this subject, and was very pleased when he agreed to the idea.

He has also agreed to get the ball rolling, and here is his first contribution. (I will respond soon.) Thanks, Young Ireland!


That is what I would like to discuss in this post, both from a personal and a political perspective. I would like to thank Maolsheachlann for his generosity in allowing me to guest blog on Irish Papist, and I hope this post will do his blog justice.

Anyway, as for myself, I grew up in a quite nationalist family in a very republican area in North Kerry. Traditional music, GAA, and the pub were (and still are ) an important part of the local culture. As a child, I remember taking a keen interest in the GAA and traditional music. What I was not so keen on was the Irish language. For about an our each day, our class would parrot off sentences as Gaeilge about various topics. If you are a ten-year-old boy, that is a sure way to be turned off Irish culture. Still though, I was generally happy to go with the flow as it was then.

Now those of you living in the Limerick area (as I do now) may have heard of the Irish College at Ballybunion. In 2006, when I was done with primary school, the College was a 5-minute drive from my house, so unsurprisingly my parents booked me in there as a day student. Looking back, I can safely say that the three summers I spent there were pivotal in the development of my understanding of Irish nationalism, and not for the better. The methods used in teaching Irish were very similar to those in the school I had just left. We were roared at and punished as a group for reasons we were often never told about. Three words of English was enough to send you home (though interestingly one could sing in English and not get in trouble at all). The songs sung at the "Claisceadail", as it was known, had a distinctly republican bent, such as "Oro se do bheatha bhaile" and "Se mo laoch mo ghile mear". The national anthem was sung last thing at night, every night. There was one leader there though who I have great respect for, even today. He was very kind to us and would try to make conversation with people in Irish. Still, I only went the last year at the wishes of my parents. After that, my mind had been made up as far as Irish was concerned.

Amazingly given how much I disliked the subject, I did Honours Irish up to Leaving Cert. In fifth and sixth year, there was only two people in my Honours class, including myself, and my stance towards Irish, though always strongly against compulsory Irish, softened somewhat. I especially liked the discussions on current affairs as Gaeilge and we would often watch clips of TG4 if there was a spare class. One less inspiring thing about LC Irish for me was the late unlamented Stair na Gaeilge. Its uncritical and one-sided version of Irish history presented it as a simple battle between the perfect Gaels and the heathen Galls. It even criticised Daniel O'Connell for not promoting the language and presented 1916 and the Gaelic League in a totally biased manner. All that particular part of the course did was confirm me in the belief that the Irish language was something only for Gaeltacht-dwellers, civil servants and republicans, a belief that I now know to be rather dubious.

Ever since I left the Honours Irish exam for the last time, admittedly the only time I have taken an interest in the Irish language is to criticise it, at times rather unfairly. When I started the "Telling It As It Is" blog nearly a year ago, one of the initial aims was to critique Irish language, nationalism and culture. Though a lot of my early posts on the subject were strident, I always maintained that I was only attacking the use of the GAA and the Irish language for political ends (a la Sinn Fein). It was only around the same time that I learned how interwoven certain sections of Irish Catholicism were interwoven with nationalism and sovereignty. I was surprised at this because even though I wasn't exactly a nationalist, especially during the time of my Leaving Cert, I was strongly Eurosceptic and genuinely believed that the EU was bad for Catholics, thanks the the exploits of Coir. It was only when I read the eloquent comments of Hibernicus on the Irish Catholics Forum about the failings of Coir and the CSP that I learned that I had been duped and that the EU was NOT the gargoyle it was made out to be. After lurking on the forum for a couple of months, I signed up around February and the rest is history.

One thing that has been a constant throughout has been opposition to militant republicanism, which is surprising given that it is very popular in my home parish. I believe it is wrong to force anyone's language and culture on anyone else, and thus I oppose compulsory Irish (except in Gaeltacht areas) as I have said or opinions like "You're not Irish if you do not do (for example) play traditional music". 1916 is rather problematic for me as well. Did innocent people going about their daily business really need to be mowed down without mercy? Would Ireland have gotten independence anyway without a single drop of blood being shed? Is it moral to force a language on somebody that they will probably never use, and possibly even dislike because of it? Was it right to sneer at people critical of certain aspects of Irish nationalism, (like the Language Freedom Movement) as "West Brits"? That the Christian Brothers treated "foreign games" as almost sinful? Only God knows the answer to those questions.

That said, I am happy to be proud to be Irish in less problematic areas. St. Patrick's Day in particular makes me feel more patriotic than I would normally be. In particular, I take great pride in being a Kerryman and being from Ballybunion. When I come home from college every Friday, the first thing I do is read the previous Wednesday's Kerryman to see what happened in the county during the week. I take a very keen interest in local issues in the North Kerry area and would like to run for election in the future. So I am not opposed to nationalism or patriotism per se. What I do oppose is people trying to impose their own opinions on others (Note: I am referring to matters of prudential judgement here, not of dogma).

To be fair though, my views towards nationalists (not republicans) have mellowed somewhat, even if I don't necessarily agree with them. I have found people like Peadar Laighleis and Maolseachlann here to be very tolerant and open to debate on what it means to be Irish. I mean, I would be quite happy to vote for someone like Dana, Ronan Mullen or Kathy Sinnott with whom I may disagree on this issue. Maolseachleann said himself that he was anti-nationalist at my age as well. So who knows, in fifteen or twenty years time, I may come to love Irish language and culture. In conclusion, I suppose I could say that at the moment, I am proud of my country, just not in the way that people usually define patriotism.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Church of England Precariously Hangs On.... some resemblance to historic, orthodox Christianity, and rejects the ordination of female bishops.

It's the laity wot won it (or at least, stopped it), since the clergy were overwhelmingly in favour. (The general synod of the Church of England has a tricameral system, with one of the three houses being a House of Laity. I didn't know that until tonight.) Presumably this last-ditch stand against theological revisionism will gain only another five year's grace, when the issue will be put to another vote and pushed through.

Then, hopefully, those who have lost all faith in the Church of England will follow in the footsteps of Newman, Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Ann Widdecombe and so many others.

If I seem to strike a note of Schadenfreude, it's really not intended. I am both an Anglophile and, in many ways, an admirer of the Church of England-- the Church of John Betjeman, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Samuel Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and T.S. Eliot. Not to mention the millions of ordinary folk, down the centuries, who truly believed that they remained within the Church established by Christ.

I fall back on C.S. Lewis himself, who wrote an essay called Priestesses in the Church? in 1948.

"We begin to feel that what really divides us from our opponents is a difference between the meaning which they and we give to the word 'priest'. The more they speak (and speak truly) about the competence of women in administration, their tact and sympathy as advisers, their natural talent for 'visiting', the more we feel that the central thing is being forgotten....The Church claims to be the bearer of a revelation. If that claim is false then we want not to make priestesses but to abolish priests. If it is true, then we would expect to find in the Church an element which unbelievers will call irrational and believers will call suprarational...If we abandon that, if we retain only what can be justified by standards of prudence and convenience at the bar of enlightened common sense, then we exchange revelation for that old wraith Natural Religion."

Monday, November 19, 2012

Peter Hitchens Debates with an Atheist Professor...

..and does very well indeed.

In fact, this post is the latest in a series of exchanges, all of which arose from a debate at the Oxford Union, which (goody goody!) is eventually to appear on Youtube.

Hitchens makes some excellent points, including this one:

"There is no comparable choice [to the choice between theism and atheism], whose effect extends into all eternity. On the choice between living in a just and purposeful universe, and life in an accidental, pointless chaos, all else in life and thought hinges, including charitable and political choices."

I remember deciding, when I was still very young and religiously undecided, that neither believers nor unbelievers really behaved consistently according to their cosmologies. Atheists act as though there is some intrinsic purpose to life, and some metaphysical traction to morality. Religious believers, even more surprisingly, act as though this world was more important than the next one. Ultimately, I think atheists are generally better than their beliefs, while religious people (for the most part) fall short of their beliefs.

Though Hitchens certainly acquits himself well in the debate, the atheist Professor quite validly complains that he keeps dragging the question of psychological motivations into the discussion. This is a favourite theme of Peter Hitchens, one pursued at length in his excellent tract The Rage Against God.

This is how Hitchens puts it in the post:

"Let me say it again. It is the whole purpose of my argument. We cannot know. We must choose. We choose on the basis of what we desire. We then find evidence which supports our choice. I have said all this quite clearly before. I am very interested that, though I have said this so clearly, he has not understood it."

Now, I think it is almost certainly true that in most matters of belief and conviction-- not just those pertaining to religion-- we tend to pick a side first and come up with rationalisations later. However, this isn't always the case. I see no reason to doubt C.S. Lewis when he described himself as a reluctant convert to Christianity. Others, like the philosopher George Santayana, have been reluctant unbelievers. (Interestingly, I read recently that the celebrated Irish radical and Spanish Civil Warrior Frank Ryan, according to one girlfriend, "would like to disbelieve in God but couldn't".) I was myself, once upon a time, a reluctant unbeliever. I do not attempt to hide the fact that my current beliefs comport with my deepest desires.

However, for the purpose of debate, we must set the question of motivations aside. The argument ad hominem is regarded as a fallacy for a good reason. The tit-for-tat game of speculating upon each others' motives could go on forever, and delay a proper debate forever, and there is no way of settling it. If you don't believe me, read any text dominated by the "hermeneutics of suspicion", for instance, most feminist and most Marxist theory. The general drift of these is: "Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? He's a male chauvinist pig (or a capitalist swine, or more probably both)."

Not that we can never sally into this field-- for instance, C.S. Lewis's argument from desire is premised upon the human yearning for God. But this is a specific argument. To drag the question of motivation into an argument where it is not strictly relevant is quite a different matter.

I am a big fan of Peter Hitchens, even though my few gingerish forays into the comments section of his blog have been greeted with a rather Wellingtonian bark. Still, that's what we love him for. And for wonderful witticisms like this one: "If it walks like a dogma, and barks like a dogma, and is shaped like a dogma, I think it needs a dogma licence, and I shall call it a dogma."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

From a Speech by Justin Welby, Soon-to-be-Archbishop of Canterbury

"We also face deep differences over the issue of sexuality. It is absolutely right for the state to define the rights and status of people co-habiting in different forms of relationships, including civil partnerships. We must have no truck with any form of homophobia, in any part of the church. The Church of England is part of the worldwide church, with all the responsibilities that come from those links. What the church does here deeply affects the already greatly suffering churches in places like northern Nigeria, which I know well. I support the House of Bishop's statement in the summer in answer to the government's consultation on same sex marriage. I know I need to listen very attentively to the LGBT communities, and examine my own thinking prayerfully and carefully. I am always averse to the language of exclusion, when what we are called to is to love in the same way as Jesus Christ loves us. Above all in the church we need to create safe spaces for these issues to be discussed honestly and in love."

Isn't there a certain contradiction between the first sentence I italicized, and the second? How can you avoid the language of exclusion if you insist that you can have no truck with homophobes?

Am I supporting homophobia? No. I am in fact complaining about the stupid use of the term "exclusion". It is not a helpful word. It performs no useful work. Christians should of course be loving and open to all their fellow men and women, but the very fact that a Christian Church is Christian and not Buddhist, secularist or Rastafarian immediately entails exclusivity.

The good Bishop is also rather behind-the-times in his use of "LGBT". Apparently it is now "LGBTI", as "intergender" folks hitch a ride on the caravan. Isn't it rather insensitive and brutish to yoke lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intergender people together in one crude category, anyway?

I accept this is all rather carping. Justin Welby seems like a very sincere and zealous Christian, after his own conscience. I wish him well. I would love to see a revival of the Church of England, and also a return of the Church of England towards historic Christian orthodoxy.

From Studies magazine, Winter 1963

An excerpt from the article "Irish Television: a Compromise with Commerce" by Maxwell Sweeney:

"The televising of Benediction has been criticized: the criticism is justified because the average viewer is embarrassed by an act of worship being projected into the home at an hour which conflicts with family activities (preparing very young children for bed, the family tea hour). He is in doubt as to what response to make to the programme; should he kneel, put out his cigarette? There may be homes in which the response is as reverent as in a church but the substitution of some less formal acts would be more acceptable to the majority. On major occasions the transmission of High Mass would be appreciated, possibly evening Mass, but Benediction as a regular programmie feature for Sundays has not been justified."

Reading old copies of Studies (a publication of the Irish Jesuits) always makes me sad. I realize that I am inclined to nostalgia and to idealization of the past, and I do try to take off my rose-coloured glasses when I look backwards in time, but I can't help it-- the Ireland of the mid-twentieth century seems to me, at least based upon my reading of books and articles and journals written at that period, to have been far more intellectually and culturally serious than the Ireland of today.

We hear a lot about the clericism of the time, and perhaps Ireland was too much of a "priest-ridden" country. Perhaps we had too much deference for the clergy. But one upshot of that, it seems to me, is that Ireland had a whole intellectual class that it lacks today. Priests, through temperament and training, tend to be of a scholarly disposition. At that time, since there were so many priests in Ireland, they would probably have had considerable leisure for reading. And since a priest's work tends to expose him to the whole broad drama of human life-- birth, marriage and death, the secrets of the confessional, and so forth-- he is bound to have a wider appreciation of humanity than an executive who sits through endless meetings about toothpaste sales or an academic who sits through conference after conference on postcolonial theory.

I think, too, that the fact that civil service positions were more sought-after than a career in business had a lot to do with the higher intellectual calibre of the time.

It is interesting that Fintan O'Toole was a sometime contributor to Studies magazine in years past. Talk about nourishing a viper in one's bosom.

-Ize or -Ise?

Readers of this blog may have noticed that I bob hopelessly between using the "-ize" form and the "-ise" form of verbs. In other words, sometimes I write "realize" and sometimes I write "realise".

Partly that is sheer sloppiness (or linguistic variety, as I like to think of it), but mostly it reflects a struggle within my own mind.

I find it more natural and aesthetically pleasing to use the "-ize" ending. Shakespeare (or rather Kent in King Lear) may have famously thundered: "Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter!". But I like the letter zed (or the letter zee as our American cousins pronounce it). I like how it looks. I like how it sounds. I also like the idea of it being used more often, since it seems rather forlorn there at the dusty end of the alphabet.

But there is a commonly held idea that -ize belongs to American English, and -ise belongs to British English. Now, this is an extremely questionable view, as this excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary's site explains:

"Many people visiting the World (non-US) version of our website ask us why we spell words such as realize, finalize, and organize with ‘-ize’ spellings, rather than ‘-ise’. There’s a widespread belief that these spellings belong only to American English, and that British English should use the ‘-ise’ forms instead, i.e. realise, finalise, and organise. [Where does that leave the Irish, I wonder?]

In fact, the ‘-ize’ forms have been in use in English spelling since the 15th century: they didn’t originated in American use, even though they are now standard in US English. The first example for the verb organize in the Oxford English Dictionary is from around 1425, from an English translation of a treatise on surgery written by the French physician Guy de Chauliac."

So why don't I just go with the Oxford English Dictionary and stick to my whoreson zeds?

Well, because I am also a strong believer in regional and local character. I think it would be a sad state of affairs if Shaw's witticism that the Americans and the English were two peoples divided by a common language ceased to be true. So part of me feels that I should go along with this rather arbitrary "American -ize and British -ise" division, simply in the interest of preserving linguistic difference.

(Having an American fianceé has been a rather interesting experience, given my commitment to cherishing language differences. Both of us feel the same way; I don't want her to start saying "waistcoast" instead of "vest", and she doesn't want me to start saying "candy" instead of "sweets". It will be interesting to see how that plays out!)

Ultimately, though, for all my appreciation of different regional usages, I have decided I am going to stick with -ize. I just think it looks nicer, and it comes more naturally to me. And since I am quite the fogey, and I am sure that -ize was the more usual usage up until recent decades, it is another opportunity to indulge in my pig-headed anti-modernism.

So please don't anathematize me for using -ize, or dogmatize about the correct version, or sermonize to me about Americanization. I realize what I am doing, and I realize why I am doing it. And if you take me to task about it I might just come through the computer screen and poke out both your -ize.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Best Search That Found my Blog Ever...

...I like to see what search terms bring people to this blog, and today I was delighted to see that somebody came upon this site through entering the search terms: "Mormons in Gweedore".

Sometimes, you can't really explain why something is funny. It just is. (For my non-Irish readers, Gweedore is a bastion of traditional Irish culture and not a place I would immediately associate with Mormonism. But even that doesn't explain it.)

An Intriguing Report from the Irish Catholic Newspaper

The headline is "Nuncio gets Rapturous Dail Welcome":

"It was one such meeting in Leinster House [the Irish legislature] on Wednesday of last week which turned into an impromptu ovation for Archbishop Brown [the Papal nuncio to Ireland]. He had been in the house meeting some backbench TDs when a division was called meaning that deputies had to quickly go to the chamber to vote. The papal nuncio was shown to the public gallery where he happily took his seat to observe the vote. However, a sharp-eyed member of the Seanad noted that the papal nuncio was there and informed the head usher who immediately swung Dáil protocol into action. The nuncio was immediately escorted to the ‘Distinguished Visitors Gallery’ when he took up a seat next to the Government benches. The Chief Whip Paul Kehoe quickly sent a note to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle [Deputy Chairman] Michael Kitt who promptly made an announcement that Archbishop Brown was present. TDs from all parties and Independents rose to their feet and began a period of sustained applause for the nuncio. When Deputy Kitt suspended the sitting a few minutes later – at almost 9.30 at night – deputies queued up to greet the nuncio."

Why do I find this so very intriguing?

Because I am constantly baffled and in wonder at the world's attitude to the Catholic Church. Those of us who remember the response to Enda Kenny's infamous Church-bashing speech, in which he used such phrases as "the swish of the soutane" and "the gimlet eye of the canon lawyer", might be surprised that Archbishop Brown was received so warmly. The Plain People of Ireland, and especially the political classes, seemed not only to agree with Kenny, but to outdo him in their anti-Rome ardour. And now Irish TD's give a standing ovation to Rome's representative in Ireland.

Now, Archbishop Brown seems like a very personable fellow, and perhaps he has simply impressed the TD's in private meetings and audiences. But by any sane logic, they should be especially hostile to him, since his actions in Ireland seem to have been the opposite of what the media and political classes here are looking for-- for instance, deciding that the seminarians in Maynooth should be more sequestered from the ordinary students.

It is a symptom of something that always confused me about the Catholic Church and its relations to the world, even when I was an agnostic-cum-atheist. For instance, I remember reading an essay written by Jean Paul Sartre about existentialism and choice, in which he referred repeatedly to a hypothetical young man approaching a priest for advice. The tone was not especially sympathetic, but why should a writer like Sartre even mention the Church, except contemptuously? I also remember a book about the ultra-radical French philosopher Michel Foucault, in which his views were regularly contrasted with (amongst others) the views of Christian humanists, which would seem to be so utterly disparate from those of Foucault that they are impossible to put side by side.

Why do intellectuals of all hues feel it is their duty to have a substantial understanding of Catholic theology and history? And why is there such an odd respect for solid Catholic teaching even amongst its worst enemies?

Why are we never surprised to hear that somebody like Socialist Party TD Joe O'Higgins was a seminarian in his youth? Why are we not taken aback that the supposedly awful and anti-intellectual Archbishop John Charles McQuaid was a very sympathetic patron and supporter of Patrick Kavanagh? Why does it not seem utterly bizzare that George Bernard Shaw was an avid reader of the Bible, and had many different copies and translations in his home? Why does it seem perfectly natural that Nietzsche's last book was called Ecce Homo, and preoccupied with the figure of Christ? Why did Orwell, a declared non-believer, go to church in the last years of his life?

My bemusement even goes so far as to wonder why totalitarian and authoritarian regimes are so relatively restrained towards Christianity. Anyone who makes an unbiased study of the relations between the Nazis and the Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Church, must realise that Hitler (despite having some admiration for Catholic liturgy and, for want of a better word, showmanship) despised the Church and was infuriated by its criticism, especially the encylical Mit Brennender Sorge. The Nazis did indeed murder priests and persecute the Church, but not nearly to the extent one might have expected. The same strange situation pertains in communist Russia and contemporary China. Although both persecuted Christians, the full horror of their brutality never seems to have been unleashed. The Chinese authorities do seek to exert control over the Catholic Church in China, and they do arrest priests and bishops without explanation, but the fact that the Church is allowed any breathing space at all in such an environment amazes me.

Only now and again, it seems to me, does the full force of Satan's fury descend upon the Church-- for instance, during the Spanish Civil War or in North Korea in the middle of last century. At other times, I am reminded of John 3:70: "They sought therefore to apprehend him: and no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come."

Why is this? Why do even the most anti-Christian regimes show a strange caution in dealing with the Church? Why does Christianity, and orthodox Catholicism especially, seem to retain a strange respectability in academic and intellectual and cultural circles, no matter how often its highbrow enemies seek to push it beyond the pale? Why do atheists and secularists actively seek debates with Christians, rather than simply dismissing them loftily? How did Tony Blair get away with even being suspected of Catholic leanings, when he was leader of a Labour Party that was hurtling ever further towards the liberal left?

I even notice this odd phenomenon-- what Richard Dawkins rightly calls a "weird respect"-- in my day-to-day interactions. I am always expecting more hostility towards my religious beliefs than I actually encounter. I don't know whether that simply comes from peoples' fundamental decency, or from a sensitivity to the fact that my religious beliefs are so important to me, or simply because they want to avoid an unpleasant argument. By all rational standards, many of my beliefs should be as objectionable to liberal orthodoxies as are those of a white supremacist. In the same way, my belief in miracles and angels and the Second Coming should really place me in the wacky category, for many naturalistically-minded people. Why am I not treated as a bigot or a weirdo, as a matter of fact? Is it simply the fact that my supposed bigotries and barminess are venerable and widely-held?

In fact, to say that I encounter an unexpected tolerance of my beliefs is putting it too mildly. I have noticed that even my most left-wing and rationalistic friends and acquaintances seem to have a strangely respectful and even admiring attitude towards my Catholicism. I don't know how to explain that. Perhaps it is an opportunity for them to demonstrate their broadmindedness, or perhaps there is a part of them that wants the door of the transcendent held open in case they ever decide to walk towards it, or perhaps the strain of being politically correct and right-thinking becomes exhausting and they are pleased to enjoy a vicarious holiday from their mental universe. Who knows?

I think I do know the answer, though. I think the various ideologies and orthodoxies and intellectual fashions that run through the world, though they infatuate it for a moment, can never really satisfy for long. And as soon as they cease to infatuate, they begin to oppress, and then to become unbearable. And, when that happens, the Church is there. It is solid ground, at least. It is breathable air, at least. It is room to stretch your limbs in, at least. When women are exhausted with fleeing from their femininity, the Church is there to bless them in their womanliness. When nationalists are tired of trying to make an idol out of their homeland, the Church is there to offer wider cosmic vistas. When executives are sick of the rat race, the Church is there to whisper: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light". When a rationalist is tired of denying his own free will, and trying to capture reality in the mesh of proof and proposition, the Church is there, holding wide the gate of Mystery.

Perhaps that is why the TD's in the Dail gave Archbishop Charles Brown such a thunderous welcome. Because, when all the hissy fits have been thrown, and all the poses struck, and all the jeers made, even hard-headed politicians are relieved-- deep down-- to know that the Church will still be there.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Thank the Good Lord

An Bord Pleanála (the Irish planning board) has told SIPTU they can't replace their current eyesore of a headquarters, Liberty Hall, with an even bigger eyesore. (SIPTU is an umbrella group of Irish trade unions, for my non-Irish readers.)

If you are not familiar with the skyline of Dublin, then you should know that it is blessedly low-rise and skyscraper-free. The only real exception is Liberty Hall, a hideous, sharp-edged, glass and concrete block that is an insult to all the beautiful city church spires that it outsoars.

I am a member of SIPTU. I even think that it is highly probable that I wouldn't have my current job without SIPTU. Nevertheless, that doesn't make me the first person to leap to the defence of trade unions. In this case, I think they have definitely forgotten that man does not live by bread alone, and that the quality of life is not the same thing as the standard of living.

Yesterday I read a review of Roger Scruton's recent book, The Face of God, based on his 2010 Gifford Lectures. Apparently, he argues that one of the reasons atheism and irreligion are so prevalent today is that our society has become increasingly alienating, impersonal, and faceless-- the brutalising tendencies of modern architecture being one of Scruton's constant bugbears. Since the world itself has less and less of a human face, mankind becomes less and less inclined to see the "face of God" reflected in it, and increasingly loses any sense of the sacred. I think there is a lot of merit in that argument.

And this story gives me yet another reason not to be a libertarian.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Penguins in Pyjamas: The Movie

A letter I sent to the Irish Catholic some weeks ago appeared today. I reproduce it below.

I look forward to getting the Irish Catholic every Thursday. I've developed my own little Thursday routine of buying it in Eason's on O'Connell Street after work, then taking it to the Bagel Bar in the Ilac Centre and reading it over a smoothie. I always used to get an Elvis smoothie, which is my favourite and a mixture of peanut butter, banana, honey and chocolate. However, they don't have it on the menu anymore. One of the girls who works there (and who used to giggle over the reliability of me ordering an Elvis) asked me recently why I no longer asked for it, and said they would be happy to make it for me even if it is not on the menu. So I still order it when she serves me, but otherwise I go for something else. Maybe I'm too timid.

I love sitting there drinking my smoothie, reading The Irish Catholic and looking at the passers-by in the mall outside. I can't really explain why, but I have always been fascinated by places that are simultaneously "inside" and "outside"-- like lobbies and concourses and corridors and halls.

I've loved the Ilac Centre since I was a kid. I remember when it had a fountain at its centre, with an enormous helium balloon (or perhaps several) that used to slowly rise and descend over the fountain. I also remember, as a child, being struck by the fact that it had huge banners hanging from its ceiling featuring lines from "The Daffodills" by William Wordsworth. I thought that must mean "The Daffodills" was definitively the greatest poem of all time. I saw those banners again recently.

I hope that The Irish Catholic is going to take a more orthodox approach with Michael Kelly as its new editor. There are signs of this. Today's editorial insisted on the importance of Trinity College's new department of Catholic theology remaining truly Catholic. The previous editor, Garry O'Sullivan, did (more or less) respect Church teaching, but his own leanings (which showed through every now and again) seemed to be none-too-orthodox. Of course, the reality is that huge amounts of professing Catholics in today's Ireland do dissent from Church teaching, so a newspaper that sought to serve Irish Catholics in general can't help reflecting that.

I especially like the columns by John Waters, David Quinn, and Breda O'Brien. The international news and some of the meatier feature articles also make good reading. Mary Kenny's back page column usually has some original angles on current news stories and debates, and the book page edited by Peter Costello is remarkably erudite. I skip over the articles by Father Ron Rolheiser, which seem little more than soapy-sudsy antinomian spirituality to me.

Anyway, here is my letter:

Dear editor

In his article about the final interview of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Michael Higgins (Irish Catholic, 25/10/12) hails the late Cardinal for enunciating such views as: "the bureaucracy of our churches is growing out of proportion", "the Church must recognise her own errors and pursue a radical model of change", and "the Church is two hundred years behind". He then criticises "right-wing bloggers" who (he claims) "feed the negative atmosphere many feel in the Church, a negative atmosphere bred by distrust of, if not hate for, progressives". It hardly seems necessary to point out that some people might consider Mr. Higgins's article itself to have rather a "negative atmosphere" about it.

Isn't it time for us all to stop using vague terms like "right-wing", "progressive", "radical", "negative", and "change"? I myself believe that the Church is the most "radical" force on Earth, and that it has demonstrated a capacity for self-renewal and necessary change which is unmatched in world history. I also believe that the Church is just as "progressive" as it is "conservative", insofar as those terms mean anything at all. But no discussion will get very far until we drop these slogans and code-words and say precisely what we mean. If we are in favour of changing the Church, what kind of change do we favour, and what Church practices and teachings (if any) should be immune to change? Where do we take ultimate authority within the Church to reside, humanly speaking? In what regard should the Church strive to be up to date and to what extent, if at all, should it refuse to move with the times? Let's have a real debate that gets down to brass tacks, not an exchange of slogans.

Yours faithfully

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

Update, 17/07/13: This post is the most popular post on this blog, and gets more hits than any other. I'm baffled as to why this should be. What brought you here, oh reader? It doesn't seem especially controversial or interesting. Please tell me!

A Blogger's Defence

"Perhaps, therefore, we're fascinated with political reporting, political commentary, and political partisanship in the same way we're attracted to pornography. We enjoy the emotional ups and downs as we think about our candidate winning or losing. We salivate as the political pugilists strike blows. For most of us, this serves no purpose. We already know which side we're on. Yet we still want to pant; we still want to groan. Bloggers engage in mock debates with imaginary adversaries, cheered on and heckled by strings of comments."

So writes R.R. Reno in the editorial of November's First Things magazine. Of course the reference to bloggers gave me pause for thought, and put me in defensive mode.

The stereotype of a blogger being a pasty-faced male sitting in his boxer shorts and spewing out bile through a keyboard is a common one, and perhaps not without some justification. It is one that John Waters (again, I specify, the Irish writer and not the American purveyor of cinematic bad taste) often invokes.

I do my best, on this blog, to avoid conforming with the stereotype. I hope my posts are passionate but bile-free. I try very hard to avoid demonising liberals, liberal Catholics, atheists or anybody else. I try not to use such terms in a derogatory way.

Bloggers are often criticized for hiding behind anonymity. I do feel I can acquit myself of this charge. Whenever I comment in any kind of public forum, I do so under my full name. My photograph, my address, and my place of work are readily discoverable on the internet.

As for the "mock debates with imaginary adversaries", I do also make a real effort to escape this trap, which I don't think is unique to bloggers. Anyone who writes an argument or apologia, of any kind, is tempted to erect straw men so that they can knock them down, and I'm sure I have succumbed to this temptation at times. It's inevitable. But I really do try to put the opposing case fairly, at least some of the time. (It's not always appropriate, of course. If I'm expressing my own emotions and responses, for instance with regard to modern Irish society or some element of Catholic liturgy, I am obviously not even trying to be objective. But that should be plain.)

As for the possible egocentricity or self-importance of having a blog in the first place, all I can say in my defence is that I both enjoy writing and reading the kind of writing that is usually found on blogs. The books I most enjoy reading are books of essays, collections of newspaper columns, treatises, polemics, and in general any book where I am being addressed directly by the author in his own voice. I especially enjoy such writing when the author is not locked into an academic style but is free to digress, joke, tell anecdotes, reminisce, and basically talk to the reader as he might if he was sitting with him over a drink or a cup of tea.

I think it is interesting that Peter Hitchens, one of my favourite writers and a staunch conservative, could well be the most active blogger that I know. He posts long, carefully-written pieces on his blog several times a week, sometimes even several times a day. So blogging, I think, is not necessarily anti-traditional, and not necessarily the preserve of modernizers and progressives. There is nothing inherently anti-conservative about the format.

Finally, as for why I blog...partly because I enjoy writing, partly to challenge the near-monopoly of liberal, left-wing, anti-religious opinion on the Irish internet, and partly as my own effort at evangelization. I'm too shy to go knocking door to door or to buttonhole strangers on the street, but I would dearly love to think that someone out there might come across this blog and that something I write might challenge their prejudices and preconceptions, or even their indifference. I think it's good for Christians to talk about their beliefs, and to bring them into their discussion of non-religious topics, since we never know what might stick in somebody's mind. Perhaps, where a head-on barrage of apologetics would be powerless, an incidental reference to prayer might have a surprising effect. I keep hoping, anyway.