Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Domesticity of the Dead

Recently, I learned that my wife is Irish.

Well, not completely Irish. But her researches into her ancestry have taught her that, despite her Sicilian maiden name, the blood that streams through her veins is predominately Irish.

I'm surprised how much this means to me. I always liked the fact that she comes from America, since I am an admirer of that great nation. (And I think there is something uniquely attractive about a woman who speaks with an American accent. It's so peppy.) But to learn that she does, after all, belong to the same people as me seems to add a whole new dimension to our relationship.

She's also come upon some old photographs of her family-- for instance, her grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day. Looking at the picture of the handsome couple, and remembering having stood by her grandmother's grave only this year, has only deepened a conviction that I've been feeling a lot lately-- that family folklore, family traditions and family memories are something precious beyond words.

What is depressing about a graveyard? Not so much the presence of death, I would venture, as the absence of memory. The names and dates upon the tombstones are so bald, when they can even be made out. They tell you so little about the people who lie beneath them. And how many of them are ever visited?

I think that the dead live on, not so much in tombstones and epitaphs, as in the stories and anecdotes and sayings that survive in the mouths of their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. (Or those of their surviving relatives, if they didn't have children themselves.)

It seems strange to me that we tend to look only a couple of generations back. How many of us know anything about our great-great-grandparents? And yet we wouldn't exist without them. Their bodies and their efforts and their sacrifices gave us life. Our sense of affinity with our kindred is so intense, why should it evaporate at so few removes?

Another thing I find fascinating about family folklore is its evanescence. Most of the time it isn't written anywhere. It's not in any archive or library or chart. When it's gone, it's gone. And it belongs to nobody except its possessors; it's entirely in trust with them.

There is also something quite fascinating about the concept of a family-- I mean, an extended family. It may be ridiculous to think like this, but I find it interesting that there is no central bureau or authority for an extended family-- there is no headquarters for all the Millers in the world, or all the Donovans in the world, or all the Coopers in the world. We live in such a bureaucratic world that this actually seems odd to me. I take pleasure in thinking about it. Nobody owns a family name, and yet it's an affinity much more real than being a member of any corporation or club.

I could write so much more on this subject. I could write about my own family background, and my strong sense that my own life is only the latest chapter in a story which features so many other actors, so many other episodes, stretching back beyond the horizon of memory. But, for now, I'm savouring the fact that it turns out my wife was Irish before she even met me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I Don't Know If I'm Right, But I'm Dead Sure You're Wrong

I like the song 'Extreme Ways', which is played over the end credits of all the Jason Bourne saga films. I was listening to it on one of my movie soundtracks albums, and I felt the whim to read a little bit about its composer, Moby.

I was interested to learn that he considers himself a Christian (sort of), but that-- of course!-- he abhors the Religious Right. What I find interesting about this is that he is, theoretically, rather disarmingly anti-dogmatic about his own beliefs, or inclinations towards belief. He even says "I certainly wouldn't crticize anyone else's beliefs". Except the religious right. That goes without saying.

If I have to choose between the church-going Christian whose life is in flagrant defiance of all he professes in church, and the solo Christian who is convinced he knows what Jesus really meant and everybody in 'conventional religions' is wrong, I would choose the first without a moment's thought. There is far less pride at work in the first case.

Here are the relevant paragraphs from Wikipedia:

In a 2003 BBC interview, Moby spoke about his encounter with the Gospels: "In about 1985 I read the teachings of Christ and was instantly struck by the idea that Christ was somehow divine. When I say I love Christ and love the teachings of Christ, I mean that in the most simple and naïve and subjective way. I'm not saying I'm right, and I certainly wouldn't criticize anyone else's beliefs." In an interview with, Moby said, "I can't really know anything. Having said that, though, on a very subjective level I love Christ. I perceive Christ to be God, but I predicate that with the knowledge that I'm small and not nearly as old as the universe that I live in. I take my beliefs seriously for myself, but I would be very uncomfortable trying to tell anyone that I was right."

In a September 20, 2006 audio interview with Sojourners magazine, he says, "I read the New Testament, specifically the gospels and I was struck at their divinity, feeling that humans could not have figured this out on their own. We're just not bright enough."[74] He also discusses his faith on his own blog. On January 19, 2007, in his reaction to seeing Alexandra Pelosi's Friends of God, a film about evangelicalism in the United States, Moby writes, "The movie reminded me just how utterly disconnected the agenda of the evangelical Christian right is from the teachings of Christ."[75] At times, he has been reluctant to use the word "Christian" to define himself, due to its ambiguity, but has self-identified as a Christian in interviews related to his faith.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Louis MacNeice on Art

Hundreds of millions of words have been written, spoken and (probably) mimed on the nature of Art. Indeed, speculating and pontificating and blabbering about the nature of Art is all good clean fun, and does no harm, as long as nobody forgets to check on the casserole.

But I don't think anyone has ever written more sensibly on the subject than Louis MacNeice did in these lines from 'Autumn Sequel', a long poem that occasionally reaches heights as sublime as anything in poetry. I first came across it in one edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, where one section was printed as an epilogue to the entire book. Some lines from this section were quoted, and indeed become a plot point, in an episode of the BBC comedy Rev (which follows the vicissitudes of an inner-city Church of England vicar).

You may not have heard of Louis MacNeice. He was a Northern Irish poet who spent most of his life and career in Britain. He lived until 1963. He was left-wing without being silly about it. Actually, a distaste for ideology was one of his themes. He wrote radio plays and other programmes for the BBC and the last one aired as he lay dying. He was fond of the booze and the ladies. His poetry is notable for its range of references-- he had a formidable classical education, but he was just as interested in all the banalities of twentieth-century life as he was in fifth-century Athens. Like Auden and Eliot and many others, his flights of genius are mixed up with a lot of wilfully obscure modernistic rubbish. His best poem is probably 'Snow'.

This extract is new to the internet, as far as I can tell. I hope the MacNeice estate consider it fair use; and, if they don't consider it fair use, I hope they don't notice it. (The poem is written in the demanding format of terza rima, the stanza form used by Dante in his Divine Comedy. If you don't see what's so demanding about it, try writing thirty lines in it yourself.)

Minx or mother, old witch, young coquette
And often as not a nun, the Muse will never
Conform to type, she uses a finer net

Than the fishing laws allow, she is not clever
So much as cunning, she often walks alone,
Sleep means as much to her as high endeavour,

And she can stare for hours at a polished stone
And see all heaven in the grain of a table;
At times she is monolingual, monotone,

At others mistress of the Tower of Babel;
She prefers the halt and the blind, the fanatical ones
And the simple-minded to the merely able,

She favours dying kings and setting suns
But also the egg that hatches, the lips that kiss.
She loves the drone of bees and the thud of heavy guns,

She will pirouette on a wire over the last abyss,
Is equally prone to cast the truth in your teeth
And slip it aside in a gabbled parenthesis.

Nor is she the best of employers, it being beneath
Her pride to pay on the day or sometimes at all.
She can pay a thousandfold with a funeral wreath.

Anyhow, it is employment, stand or fall.
And all I am fit for now, which is saying little
But claiming almost everything; life may pall,

She can restore its savour; it may be brittle,
She can prevent it breaking; it may be blind.
She can touch and cure its eyes with clay and spittle.

Post-script, written a day later: This post has received three views, according to my statistics. Very discouraging.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Togetherness and Difference

Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one, a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other, an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on far quests and fight for lost causes. -- Patrick Pearse

Pearse's words came to me this morning, at Mass, as I looked at the familiar faces in the communion line, and as I found myself thinking of two conflicting-- or apparently conflicting-- emotions in my own heart. I will try to describe them in turn.

I am always (or often) struck by the intense sense of togetherness during Holy Communion-- a togetherness in which differences seem to be, not obliterated, but transcended. "Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."

And I found myself thinking of the intense longing for togetherness that exists (I believe) in all people. It may seem a banal reference, but the film that always comes to mind when I ponder this topic is The Breakfast Club. Even though this is a fairly cheesy teen drama, I don't think I've ever seen a film that is more cathartic as an experience-- because it is an extremely accomplished example of that timeless dramatic theme, the theme of a group people, who seem utterly different, finding that they have far more in common than they ever suspected. In the movie, in case you don't know, a nerd, an athlete, a punk, an eccentric and a glamour girl spend a Saturday in school detention. Probably every viewer identifies with one or the other-- I always identified with the nerd. But, by the final scenes, you identify with every one of them, and the final freeze frame-- where the punk character, who initially seemed utterly detestable, punches his fist in the air as he walks away from the school- expresses the viewer's own sense of euphoria.

Surely everybody has had the same experience, when they have had a long conversation with someone they didn't know very well, or even someone who they positively disliked, and come away amazed at how much affinity, how much common human feeling, is still possible between them. Very often, we only realize that we only disliked the person because we suspected he or she disliked us. Whenever I've had this experience, the sense of emotional release is always intoxicating.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, suggested that tragedy (the dramatic genre) moves us as it does because, through the emotion of pity and fellow-feeling, it releases us for a moment from the prison of individuality and plunges us into the sea of common humanity-- as he put it, it rips away "the veil of Maya". (A Hindu term. As far as I understand, it means the illusion that holds us back from union with the Absolute).

So I feel, as I believe everybody feels, this deep yearning for communion with others-- but, like Patrick Pearse, I am constantly aware of another emotion that seems in complete opposition to this one. That is an exultation in diversity and difference, and a protectiveness towards diversity and difference, and an anxiety that diversity and difference will be eroded. I cherish to an extreme degree the difference betweeen the sexes, and the difference between national cultures, and the difference between youth and age, and different occupations, and different ways of life, and (almost) every other sort of difference.

But the funny thing is...although these two emotions seem in contradiction, I feel a strong faith that they are not. I feel a strong faith that there is a true universalism which is deeper and more meaningful than the shallow kind of universalism, the sort that wants to do away with all ethnic loyalties and gender differences other and social distinctions.

It seems to me that this harmony between the particular and the universal is one of the things that story-telling and other forms of art try to achieve, consciously or unconsciously. The Breakfast Club is only one of many, many examples.

And, in turn, one of the sources of my religious faith is the perception that life has depths such as these. There is simply too much 'going on' in the human condition for me not to believe that there is a deep artistry in evidence there.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Excellent Letter in The Irish Times

Time and time again, a comparison is being drawn between those who oppose same-sex marriage and those who opposed the African-American Civil Rights movement. A letter from Maria Mhic Mheanmain in today's Irish Times provides a much better counter-comparison.

Arguments of the form that X (which is controversial) is just like Y (which is universally condemned) are rarely sound. Any two situations are generally very different.

Sir, – Peter Dunne (July 12th) draws a comparison between the denial of service of African Americans in the southern states of the US in the 1960s and the Ashers bakery controversy. This analogy is incorrect. The customer was not denied service, nor was he denied it on the basis of his sexual orientation. There is no evidence that Ashers bakery was even aware of the customer’s sexual orientation. The bakery merely refused to write a political slogan that went against its beliefs and supports something which is contrary to the law of the land. I would suggest a more accurate analogy would be the refusal of a bakery in a loyalist area to provide a cake with the slogan “Tiocfaidh ár lá” for a nationalist customer. – Yours, etc,



Glen Abhainn Park,


Co Meath.

(Another letter on the same page mocks Breda O'Brien for calling Bert and Ernie Muppets. I never really watched either Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, but it only took about two seconds' research on the internet to find out that Muppets appeared on both shows. I would feel embarrassed for the writer if the tone of the letter was not so smug and patronising.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I've Just Watched Inception...

...for possibly the eighth or ninth time (at least), and for the first time I felt I actually understood everything that was going on and understood how the different layers of dreams related to each other.

It's funny to realise, just from looking at the dates involved, that I had started corresponding with my wife about a month before the film was released, and it would be several months before we met for the first time. (I saw it in the cinema at least twice, and perhaps three times). I didn't remember that at all.

Inception captivates me for many reasons. Partly because it's simply an amazing film. But also because its themes are so very potent, at least to me.

There is the 'journey into the inner self' theme. At least two of the characters-- Leonardo Di Caprio's character and Cillian Murphy's character-- make this journey. There is nothing more exciting than the idea that the soul is a vast, deep and mysterious territory-- vaster, deeper and more mysterious than we can ever imagine. In The Interior Castle (a book I could never finish), St. Teresa of Avila says that, no matter how large we image the interior castle (which is our soul), we can never adequately picture how vast it is. And along with this idea, there is the related idea that in the depths of the self-- on some lonely beach, or on a mountain height, or in a sunlit attic, or (as in the film) at a father's death-bed-- you find your encounter with the ultimate secret of our soul. The cathartic pay-off is immense. (The same idea works well with horror, although here it is your ultimate fear-- which is not simply the thing that scares you the most.)

There is the 'interior drama' theme, which is related, but not quite the same thing. This is simply the idea of an imaginary world taking physical shape. It can be a rather horrific idea if it's purely solipsistic and confined to the prison of one's self. But, in Inception, it's a shared dream, which makes all the difference. There is a not unpleasant vertigo in the idea that mind and matter are the same substance-- and really, what philosopher has ever been able to separate them? Why does Prospero's "such things as dreams are made on" speech in The Tempest fill us with such a delicious melting feeling? I tried to write an "interior drama" story myself, with The Man Who Could Make Worlds, as serialised on this blog some time ago. (I must return to it some time.) Alas, not with a great degree of success.

Dream-within-dream stories are always a winner. A little known episode of the nineteen-eighties Hammer House of Horror TV series-- 'Rude Awakening' with Denholm Eliot, where a man keeps waking from a dream into another dream, and keeps getting arrested for the same murder-- is eminently worth seeing if you ever get the chance.

And finally, there is the "pure joy of creation" theme. Ariadne can't walk away from the job, even when she knows it's the sensible thing to do, because dream architecture is "just...pure creation". Is there any ecstasy in the world as complete as the ecstasy of creation? It's as though, when we create something beyond ourselves, we exist ourselves more than at any other time.

Even though Inception is far from being my favourite film, or even in the top flight of my favourites, it does have a rather unique power to stimulate this pure urge to create-- in me, anyway. (It stimulates the urge. I can't say it's ever actually spurred me on to any activity.)

And the men are all dressed so snappily, too.

Rarely has a film lived up to its hype as successfully as Inception does. Even an incorrigible contrarian like me couldn't find any reason to dislike it. And that's saying a lot.

(Afterthought: When you think about it, there is something dream-like about every moment of our existence. I suppose you could describe life as being 'dream-like' in many ways, but I mean it in a very particular sense right now. Life is dream-like because, at any given moment, we don't really know when or where we are, we have a very partial grip of reality. When I was a teenager, I always had a plan to study the encyclopedia and other books until I had reached a kind of plateau of perpetual awareness. I would experience every moment of my life with full awareness of its historical, scientific, cultural, geographical, and other factors. I would always be aware of the rotation of the Earth, the configuration of the stars, the historical epoch I occupied, the circulation of my blood, the source of the food I was eating, the clothes I was wearing, and so on. Of course, this never came to be. I live every moment of my life with very little understanding of how it fits into the great Scheme of Things. But, even if I had memorised the encyclopedia, the same thing would be true.)

And I Guess It's Gonna Be a Long, Long Time....

I've spent a lot of time on this blog (and elsewhere) complaining about modern hymns. It struck me today that I should see if I can do any better.

So I'm posting this just in case-- and it seems unlikely, but who knows?-- there's anyone reading who composes music and who could be Swann to my Flanders, Sullivan to my Gilbert, Elton John to my Bernie Taupin. And-- if you are such a person, and you come across this blog post some time in the future, and you're interested-- please contact me no matter how much time has elapsed.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What Can You Buy for Twenty Cent?

The Brothers Karamoz by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. At least, I did just that this morning, in a charity shop.

It seems like just another sign of the sad decline of the printed book. Even the book exchanges that are such a common sight these days, though a good thing in themselves, are really just a case of books being given away.

Peter Hitchens has just put out a book called Short Breaks in Mordor, about his travels in various dangerous and oppressed parts of the world. It is being released as an e-book because publishers didn't think it would sell as a printed book. That's depressing, considering Mr. Hitchens's prominence.

People who fret about Kindle and e-readers are generally dismissed as alarmists, and reminded that people worried about TV killing off both the radio and the cinema, neither of which came to pass. But why should we assume that two similar cases should produce the same outcome? And they are never exactly the same.

E-books won't kill the printed book. But then, human beings haven't killed off the tiger. Not quite.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Dream Come True

Somebody found this blog using these search words today: "Groundhog Day Catholic Analysis."

Where have you been all my life, reader? (Or at least since I started practicing my Catholic faith, and since I decided Groundhog Day was the best movie of all time. Which wasn't the first time I saw it, because I wasn't that impressed at first.)

My Letter in The Irish Times today

Oddly enough, my letter in The Irish Times this morning was pretty much on the same theme as my blog post yesterday. Here it is:

Sir, – Conor Farrell (July 8th) writes, “Surely those who wish to mark [Good Friday] in the Christian calendar can refrain from alcohol themselves without needing to impose a law banning it for both themselves and everyone else?”

Of course they can, and I don’t think the law should impose any religious duty or prohibition upon any one.

However, I suggest that the ban of alcohol on Good Friday is well worth keeping for cultural reasons.

In a globalised world where so many societies seem like replicas of each other, shouldn’t we cherish such little differences? And isn’t there something uninspiring about a society where everything is available all of the time?

The human spirit cries out for seasons and limits – and, yes, even for taboos.

I am all in favour of the Good Friday alcohol ban precisely because it makes no sense – that is, no utilitarian, rationalistic, obvious sense.

This trivial hardship is well worth holding on to, because it reminds us that we are a nation and not simply an aggregation of individuals. – Yours, etc,



Sillogue Gardens,


Dublin 11.

The problem with this argument is that it appeals almost entirely to intuition. If someone doesn't feel this, then it's impossible to convince them. Nonetheless, I think most people do feel it. They just don't realise it. I think most people do feel it because people dwell so lovingly on little restrictions or frustrations, at least in retrospect. "Do you remember how we used to have to...." Witness also the fascinated way people discuss local restrictions, such as the chewing gum ban in Singapore. To me, almost anything that creates local character or seasonal character is good. (Within limits. Human sacrifice should not be encouraged as a picturesque idiosyncrasy, etc.)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pure Conservatism

My brother is a Marxist. He's also a very good guy and we get on very well. We rarely get into discussions about our differing views of the world, and when we do, they are not head-on but usually about some incidental or secondary question. We both try to be gracious and respectful-- me about his Marxism, him about my Christianity.

Recently, he mentioned a lecture on Youtube delivered by a Marxist, and sent me the link. (We both like long lectures on Youtube. It's funny how 'lecture' and 'sermon' are both words that have taken on a pejorative connotation, and yet I like both formats.) I've only watched about fifteen minutes of the lecture so far, and I don't know if I'll watch the rest. The lecturer was avuncular and pleasant enough, and it was obvious that he was trying to avoid shrillness or tub-thumping. But, as is always the case when I listen to Marxists-- even Terry Eagleton!-- I couldn't get past all the assumptions and question-begging assertions that he indulged in. (I'm sure Marxists and others feel the same way about Christians.)

The question-begging moment that really stood out was when he mentioned the need for conservatives, and society in general, to justify inequality. My immediate thought was: Why does inequality need to justified? Isn't it just there?

Let it be understood that I am not a cheerleader for inequality, by any means. I think equality is a good ideal, in many ways. I believe everybody is of equal worth.

But I don't feel any sense of outrage that some people are wealthy while other people are not, or that some children have advantages that other children don't, or even that some groups are privileged in a way that others are not. The fact that people are homeless is a scandal, and the fact that children are undernourished or without prospects is a scandal, and active discrimination by public institutions is a scandal.

But the fact that some people are orders of magnitudes richer than others, and that some children have more opportunities than others, and that private people and institutions have (and act upon) prejudices-- I've never been able to feel that there was anything especially amiss about this kind of thing. In fact, it simply seems like the spice of life to me.

My bewilderment with the Marxist attitude goes deeper, though. I don't understand-- in the sense that I can't sympathise with-- the unspoken assumption of the Marxist, and of the radical in general, that every social institution, and every social custom and social practice, and pretty much everything, has to be justified if it is not to be thrown on the scrap-heap-- that the most logical attitude is simply to wipe the slate clean and start again.

The conservative-- the traditionalist conservative, at least-- cherishes an institution, or a custom, or a state of affairs, because it exists. They tend to be in love with the actual.

Because it's messy. Because it's old. Because it's inherited. Because it's irrational. Even because it's absurd or archaic or inconsistent. That seems more organic, human and interesting than an artificially constructed social order, no matter how rational.

I was reading a George Orwell essay today, one in which Orwell discusses spelling reform, putting forward various practical reasons why he doesn't think any system of spelling reform would work-- for instance, because most people don't want the bother of learning it.

It seemed so bizarre to me that he didn't mention the principal objection to the various schemes for spelling reform (which are usually forms of spelling rationalisation and simplification)-- that is, that spelling is a sort of fossilised social history, and of fossilised cultural history. Every silent letter tells a story. Why would anyone want to throw that away?

And the same could be said of so many other institutions; the nation, the family, art, the political system, humour, and so on.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Once More Without Feeling

I've started going, every weekday as far as I can manage, to the 5:30 Mass in Clarendon Street church, which is just off Dublin's busiest shopping street. It always has a respectably-sized congregation, and it's remarkably mixed congregation in terms of age, sex and every other factor.

I don't like the church. I go there because it's convenient, and because there's no daily Mass in the UCD university church during the summer. It's a Carmelite church and I find it far too florid and overdone. I don't like how baroque the statues are-- if they were really baroque they would pull it off, but they're just baroque enough to be gaudy. They look like oversized plastic action figures. It leaves me completely cold.

In fact, this is the theme of this blog post, such as it is-- being left completely cold. Today I attended Mass and-- as happens fairly often-- I felt nothing. In fact, I kept dozing off (that's because my sleep pattern has been shot to hell recently).

I felt no awe before the Eucharist. I did not feel the presence of the angels and the saints. I felt no sense of communion with my co-religionists in the pews, around the world, or through the ages. It felt entirely like going through the motions.

Maybe those are the liturgies that actually mean the most. I don't know. I just feel like putting it on record. I have been practicing my faith for only a few years, but there are times when I feel very little interest in spiritual things and my interest is entirely in worldly things.

My faith is unaffected by this. Prayer and worship feel rather like play-acting, but intellectually I don't doubt the truth of my religion. Emotionally and imaginatively, though, there's just a hollow.

I don't really have a moral or a message to this post. It just seemed like an interesting and significant thing to remark upon. I wonder if it is common?

Here's a Subject for a Domestic Drama

Teenager comes out to his two Daddies as an orthodox Christian.

All the clichés in reverse!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Give Yourself a Round of Applause

I was shelving poetry books today when I felt a surge of gratitude that the readers of this blog (you!) have been open to the inclusion of poetry-- both my own, and the discussion of poetry in general.

This is rare, I can tell you. The world's indifference to poetry is something that has bothered me for at least two-thirds of my life. I'm not talking about my own poetry. I mean poetry in general.

If a person has tried poetry and never liked it-- that's understandable. I commend their honesty. But it bothers me that so many people who consider themselves cultured and well-read seem to feel they can just do without poetry, and don't seem in the least bit ashamed of it.

(By way of analogy, I don't understand or appreciate classical music. I've listened to Mozart's Requiem Mass three or four times, most attentively, and it left me cold. I've tried the same with other classical music masterpieces. The piano quintents of Dvorak held some mild appeal for me, but that's about it. I feel bad about this. I know I'm missing out on part of what it is to be human.)

I'm not being unwontedly idealistic here. Very few people, I imagine, read poetry in the way that they read fiction, or the newspaper, or history. I certainly don't, and never did. Poetry is something that one reads in small doses, at intervals. It's a cordial, not a beverage.

But...even a tiny, tiny increase in our consumption of poetry, as a society, would (I am convinced) make a huge difference to our civlization. It would make us more civilized-- not by virtue of any effects it had (though it might have some effect), but simply in itself.

Our culture is quite willing to quarry Yeats and Eliot and Housman for quotations, and epigraphs, and captions for tea-towels and tee-shirts. Writers of blockbusters and thrillers are quite willing to filch titles from great poets, but their publishers and agents wouldn't even give a second glance to a poetry manuscript that arrived in their offices. That's what Faber and Faber is there for, after all.

But where do people think poets like Yeats and Frost come from, if there is not a culture of poetry reading and poetry publishing?

I'm not just talking about literary life. I'm talking about social life. Why should you be looked at like you are an eccentric if you propose poetry as a topic of conversation, in an ordinary social situation?

So I thank you. I've thrown all sorts of stuff on this blog, and I'm always surprised how willing its readers are to follow my rambles. But the fact that the poetry gets a hearing....that's very rare, and much to be prized.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

This is an Interesting Site

All about Father John Sullivan (1861-1933), Irish Jesuit and Servant of God. He only came to my attention recently, when someone mentioned him at a Belloc meeting. His life is interesting. His mother was a Catholic but he was raised a Protestant. His father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. He converted to Catholicism at the age of 35 and started training as a Jesuit at age 40. After that, he lived a life of intense self-denial and service. He had a reputation for healing which continued after his death.

Here is the site. The video 'The Boy from Eccles Street' is worth watching. (So is the other video, but it's not quite as good and repeats a lot of the same material.) I really like the narrator's voice and method of delivery. It's the kind of educated, urbane Irish accent that was very popular for such presentations until recently. It still is, but to a lesser extent. The announcement on Irish rail are made in such an accent. (The late Colm Murray is another example.)

The Irish accent is very fashionable these days. When I went to America, they loved it. (Really.) But I don't think all Irish accents are nice. I think some are horrible, though I diplomatically won't say which. (Mine I would consider rather unappealing.) But I love the kind of accent I've described above. It makes me nostalgic because it's the kind of accent that would be used to narrate educational videos that I'd watch in school, or on school trips to museums and so forth. I guess I've been feeling nostalgic a lot recently.

Soccer and Me

As the World Cup rumbles on, I've found myself thinking of my relationship with soccer.

This is a simple, stylized description of my attitude towards soccer through my thirty-six years. Up until the age of twelve, absolutely no interest at all. From around thirteen to seventeen, a passionate and even excessive interest. From about seventeen to twenty, a diminishing interest. Since then, a very casual interest indeed.

I do remember the 1986 World Cup, held in Mexico. I remember the Panini World Cup stickers and Pique, the cartoon pepper wearing a sombrero who was its mascot. (I never realised he was a pepper. I only found that out right now.) I didn't watch any of the matches. I just remember the hype.

Then, when Jack Charlton became manager of the Irish national soccer team, I began to take an interest, partly because my little brother became utterly fascinated by it. In fact, the 1990 World Cup in Italy (which was the first for which Ireland ever qualified) stands out in my mind, not only as the beginning of my continuous memory (before that I only have erratic flashes), but-- and I know this seems like a grandiose claim-- as a landmark moment in Irish social history.

I don't think it's a matter of cause and effect, but it seems to me that, before and up to the 1990 World Cup, Ireland was still just about a Catholic, nationalist, rather old-fashioned country. In retrospect, it seems like the Indian summer of innnocence. (Amongst other things, the wave of clerical sex abuse cases that rocked the Irish Catholic Church only really hit us in the nineties.)

This perception seem like a mere quirk of my own mind, but I've heard other people make similar claims. See this link from the Irish Mirror. (The link is interesting in itself-- being taken to Mass is listed as Irish peoples' happiest memory!) Also, see this link for a more erudite analysis of the event's importance in Irish history.

Ireland reached the quarter finals, where they were knocked out by a single goal from Italy. It's hard to describe the hysteria that gripped the nation. It was everywhere. One could be cynical about this, but I prefer not to be. I have only fond memories of Italia '90. I'm a cultural and social nationalist and it was a rare example of the whole nation coming together-- feeling like one huge extended family, which is what I believe a nation should be.

Jack Charlton also took Ireland to the 1994 World Cup in Italy. There was just as much excitement this time around-- perhaps even more, in a way-- but somehow, it felt less spontaneous and special. It felt like we were deliberately trying to rekindle the magic of Italia '90. But, of course, it's never the same. After an amazing victory over Italy in the first game, we limped out rather dispiritingly in the second round, losing two-nil to Holland.

Between those two World Cups, I had become a bit of a soccer fanatic. I was a fan of Liverpool Football Club. (Irish soccer fans tend to take an interest in English teams rather than Irish teams, because the Irish soccer league is terrible.) I even wrote away for their autographs. I became an enthusiastic player of Subbuteo. My bedroom wall was bedecked with soccer posters. I read the Roy of the Rovers comic. I even invented my own fictional team, Redburn F.C. In all this, I was joined by my even-more enthusiastic younger brother, who was (and is) a soccer encylopedia. (He has an encyclopedic knowledge of other things, too.)

The best consequence of my soccer mania was that I became more social. For most of my childhood, I had no friends and hung around the house all day, living in my own imagination most of the time. From the age of about thirteen, I began to play street (or rather, field) soccer with local kids. These are some of my most glowing memories. I still dream about those games (and the kick-arounds we would have in the school yard in school). They were sheer exhilaration. I also cherisih the memory of the ghost story telling sessions that would sometimes take place afterwards, when it was too dark to play on. (I don't know how often these actually took place, or if it was even more than once. Memory plays tricks, and dwells on the happy parts.)

As I entered my twenties, my interest in soccer began to radically diminish and I even turned against it. By the time Ireland (this time no longer managed by Jack Charlton) reached the 1998 World Cup, I consciously avoided watching any of it. Everybody else in my workplace was absorbed in the Irish games, while I did my best to look disdainful at any mention of them. I let myself take some ironic interest in the big bust-up between our top player Roy Keane and the manager Mick McCarthy, eruditely commenting on the parallels between it and the wrath of Achilles in The Iliad.

My increasing conservatism was part of my hostility to the game. Soccer seemed to embody so many things I hated. It was rampantly commercial. It was completely media-led. More than anything else, it was the sport of globalization. At a time in my life when I was agonizing about the erosion of national and local cultures, soccer seemed an example par excellence of this phenomenon.

But I always had to admit-- I liked the game. When rugby replaced soccer in the affection of the Irish people, I couldn't feel the slightest enthusiasm. Who could get excited about a sport that was so spasdomic, that happened in five-second bursts? At least soccer flowed.

Similarly, though I am, in principle, far more in favour of Irish Gaelic games than I am in favour of soccer-- Irish Gaelic games being Irish, amateur, and rooted in local communities-- I could never real take much of an interest in the sports themselves. I just don't find hurling and Gaelic football entertaining or aesthetically pleasing like I do soccer.

And now...well, now I'm in a bit of a limbo. I still have concerns about globalization and the transormation of sport into big business. However, I'm not sure there's much point wailing over these things. I've watched a lot of the World Cup games with my father, though my interest in them is rather desultory.

One thing I've never liked is the dismissal of sport per se, which is sometimes indulged in by intellectuals and would-be intellectuals of every hue. We are told, by such people, that soccer and spectator sports are mere bread and circuses, serving to distract the populace from important social and political issues. But is life to be all politics, all earnestness? And who actually lives like that?

I had an economics lecturer who dismissed sport as 'form without content'. You could say the same thing about classical music, abstract painting, or dancing. I doubt he would have been as contemptuous of all those things.

Peter Hitchens-- who is probably my favourite contemporary writer-- decries soccer as a 'moronic cult' and 'twenty-two men chasing a bladder around a field'. It would be easy to caricature any human activity in such a reductive way. For Peter Hitchens to sneer at soccer in this way seems as philistine to me as some high-powered businessman calling poetry a waste of time, or a bullishly materialist physicist laughing at philosophy.

What's the point of anything, anyway? Surely we should rejoice in the diversity of human activity, rather than begrudge it?

So there I am. I still think local and indigenous and amateur sports are better than sports that are money-making engines of cultural homogenization. But I've become less solemn about this. I think the social and family bonding that the World Cup brings about is a good in itself. And I think soccer is a great game to watch, and to play.

And I hope Germany wins the World Cup.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Where are the Heirs of Chesterton and Lewis?

This is the first of my articles that appeared in the Catholic Voice. That was in September of last year and I've been writing for it since then. In fact, I'm just about to start writing this issue's article.

I chose to keep my articles in the Catholic Voice exclusive to print at first. But since it's been almost a year now, I think I'll start putting the older ones on the blog, keeping a respectable delay between them.

“This book will change your life”. It’s a claim often made, to the extent that it has become a joke, but it actually happened to me.

I can still remember standing in the post office queue in University College Dublin, reading the first chapter of the book in question, and becoming more enthralled by the second. At that time, I was an agnostic in search of God, but none of the books I read even began to answer my questions, or to convince me intellectually.

This book was different. It tackled my questions head-on, rather than skirting around them, or gliding past them. The book was Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, first published in 1908. I am a slow reader, but I had finished reading by nightfall, and—although it took some further reading to overcome all of my reservations—it was this book that propelled me towards accepting the truth of Christianity.

This is not an unusual story. As readers of The Catholic Voice will know, G.K. Chesterton was an English writer of the early twentieth century who produced an incredible mass of journalism, poetry, detective fiction, and Christian apologetics. (Originally an Anglican, he converted to Catholicism in later life.) He was a wit and a character, his massive frame, famous absent-mindedness and unforgettable aphorisms making him a celebrity of his day. The list of well-known people who converted to Catholicism through reading Chesterton would probably fill this whole page.

Prominent amongst them would be Marshall McLuhan (the communications theorist who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”) and the English priest and detective writer Ronald Knox, who wrote a much-respected set of rules for detective writers.

Another colossal figure who was drawn towards Christianity through reading Chesterton was C.S. Lewis. Most people know of his children’s books The Chronicles of Narnia, which are amongst the best-selling books of all time. His books of literary criticism and Christian apologetics also remain very popular, and he too has been responsible for many conversions to Christianity—important examples being the Oxford academic Alister McGrath and the American scientist Francis Collins, who led the team that mapped the human genome. Lewis (though not a Catholic) was also very important in my own coming to faith.

Chesterton died in 1936. Lewis died in 1963 (on the same day, incidentally, as John F. Kennedy was assassinated.) Although both men’s work continues to speak to modern readers, the question has to be asked—where are their equivalents today? Why are they still posthumously spearheading the defence of the Christian faith in the modern world?

Of course, it’s true that there are still many writers and broadcasters who defend and proclaim the Gospel. But how many of them could really claim to be household names, as Chesterton and Lewis undoubtedly were? Chesterton’s weekly column for The Illustrated London News ran for thirty years, and he regularly debated some of the most famous intellectuals of his day, such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, and a host of others. C.S. Lewis, for his part, became a national figure for his radio broadcasts about Christianity during World War Two.

Anyone who reads contemporary Christian apologetics (and the very word “Christian apologetics”, meaning the intellectual defence of Christian belief, has become rather disused), must be struck by the extent to which its writers quarry from Lewis and Chesterton. One encounters Chesterton’s aphorisms (such as “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”) with wearying regularity. There is also a heavy dependence upon many of Lewis’s arguments, such as his famous “Trilemma”—the insistence that Christ must have been a liar, a madman, or the son of God that he claimed to be, and that he could not have been simply the social reformer that secular culture seeks to make him.

Now, it’s perfectly true that both Lewis and Chesterton drew upon the long Christian tradition before them. There is nothing new under the sun, and Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today and forever”. But the point is that both of these giants of apologetics gave their unique stamp to the arguments they made, conveying them in words and terms that spoke to the readers of their day. (Lewis’s The Great Divorce portrays a busload of souls on a day-trip from Hell to Heaven.) Today’s apologists are still cannibalizing their legacy—which can’t help but leave a suspicion in the mind of an agnostic reader that Christianity is not a living cultural force in the early twenty-first century.

As well as this, both Chesterton and Lewis wrote, not only for a Christian audience, but for the general reader. Lewis wrote respected works of literary criticism, as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. Chesterton wrote a great deal of poetry and fiction, most notably his Ballad of the White Horse and the ever-popular Father Brown stories. All of these works were informed by the religious beliefs of the authors. Chesterton said that “nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true”, while Lewis wrote, rather puckishly, that “any amount of theology can now be smuggled into peoples’ minds under the cover of fiction without their knowing it.” Although there are still Christian undertones in many popular novels (for instance, the Harry Potter books) most Christian writing today is very much written by Christians for Christians. Outside the spiritual ghetto, as we might call it, Christian voices do not sound in popular culture. We are talking to ourselves.

What can be done about this? After all, Lewis and Chesterton were both geniuses in their own way, and you can hardly run geniuses off an assembly line. But I think there are some things that Catholics, and Christians in general, can do to encourage the emergence of contemporary apologists who will once again speak to the wider culture.

The first is to put more of an emphasis upon the imagination. Although both Chesterton and Lewis were masterful logicians, always willing to meet atheists upon the ground of pure rational debate, they were equally willing to appeal to the readers’ imaginations. The book that I mentioned at the start of this article, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, is a work that combines pure philosophical argument with a prolonged discussion of the inner truth of fairy tales. I believe that more hearts are won through the imagination than through argument. (Take the abortion debate in Ireland—all the rational arguments and medical evidence were on the pro-life side, but the country’s imagination had been seized by the Savita Halappanavar case and by pro-choice rhetoric.) I think ordinary Catholics can help achieve this revitalization of the imaginaton through more reading of serious poetry and literature, and through a general effort to cultivate our imaginative lives. Declining to buy Christian books whose intellectual and imaginative content is meagre—books that merely repeat platitudes—would also be a big help.

The other step ordinary Catholics could take is to bone up on philosophy. Philosophy is the only real frontier where the secular and religious mind can meet and argue. The historian Harry Crocker, in his book Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, points out that the ancient society in which Christianity was born was much more philosophically literate than society today. Philosophy liberates us from the idea that there is no knowledge outside scientific knowledge, that the brain is the mind, and many similar fallacies inflicted upon us by modern currents of thought. Perhaps philosophy should even be taught as a subject in Catholic schools.

Finally, I think ordinary Catholics should be more willing to assert and defend the truth of Christianity when it comes under attack, rather than simply pleading religious freedom or the right to have one’s opinions respected.

These steps, I believe, would foster a culture more likely to produce a modern-day G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis, so that Christians don’t have to keep trading on former apologetic glories. In the meantime, we can all try to follow their lead—by putting our whole heart and soul, rather than a few stock arguments, into the outspoken defence of our faith.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Room

Recently, the university library that I work in acquired a new store-room, outside the walls of the library itself. It's a very small-store room, not much larger than a living room. A door leads off into an even smaller store-room. It's described as being 'in the tunnel', which is rather an exciting description (to my mind). Really, it's in a small corridor that leads off from the 'tunnel', a covered walkway, that runs from the library building to the John Henry Newman building. The Newman building contains all the lecture halls and offices and class-rooms of the Arts Faculty.

There is nothing in the store-room except metal shelves, a few tables, a computer, a chair, a few dozen large volumes of old House of Parliament papers, and....I can't remember if there is anything else. Maybe a few boxes.

University College Dublin is a pretty busy campus, even in summer. But this corridor is something of a backwater. The Adult Education offices are at the end of it, through a pair of double doors, and every hour or so someone passes through them, shattering the silence for a moment or two.

Just outside the store-room, there is a photo-booth. I have used it myself, in the past. There was plenty of demand for a photo-booth in UCD until recent years, when the various departments and institutions started taking their own photos for ID cards, rather than asking people to bring passport-sized photos. (Although the library still asks this, sometimes, for external borrowers.) People sometimes ask where they can find a photo-booth, so it must still be in use, but I haven't seen anyone go into it for a long, long time. It has the almost-antiquated air of a public telephone box.

I'm fascinated by the pictures on it. The main picture is one of a pretty woman with dark hair beaming and raising a finger in the air. (I didn't notice the finger until I started working in the room. I used to think she was very cute, when I merely glimpsed at her as I passed through the 'tunnel', but now I've had a closer look she seems brash and less attractive.)

I wonder why pretty women are the almost-automatic choice for advertising anything, no matter what it is? To appeal to men? But then again, women's magazines and advertising aimed at women also use pictures of women, almost exclusively. And very often it's not a picture of the woman using the product or service-- she's just smiling. It's intriguing.

Other pictures on the photo-booth attempt to be quirky, advertising the 'fun photos' you can take using it. There is a photo of a man whose head is positioned in the middle of a dollar bill. There is a photo of a man with a thought bubble coming out of his head, in which is shown the torso of a bikini-clad woman. A similar photo has a woman dreaming of a muscular male torso. I always feel mildly embarrassed when I look at these 'fun' photos. I'm not saying I could come up with anything better, but they seem painfully unfunny to me, and I wonder who would buy them.

And yet, I always feel strangely happy when I look at this photo-booth. It's just waiting to be used. Somebody designed it. Somebody must maintain it, and make a living from it. It exists to please, to serve. The pictures on it promise happiness. And fun.

There is an advertisment for the computer game Gears of War 2 on the wall of the corridor. It's a mounted advertisement, with a hard plastic cover over it. What it is doing there, I have no idea. But it pleases me that it is there, so bizarrely out of the way of anything.

My job in the store-room, one morning and one afternoon a week, is to make an Excel file of all the House of Parliament papers in the room, which date from the nineteenth century and all have to do with Ireland. I was told it would be interesting, and people keep saying "that must be interesting". It's not interesting. Bureaucracy is boring, whether it's from 1842 or 2014. Committee reports are dull, no matter what century they come from.

Still, I like the room very much. It used to be used as a store-room for the Student's Union shop, and a few Student's Union people still walk in, looking for something or other, and are surprised to see me there.

But apart from that, nobody comes in. Nobody is looking over my shoulder. Nobody is going to walk up to me with a query about a printer not working or a colossal overdue fine they're astonished won't be waived as a matter of course.

True, there's no companionship, either. But I can do without companionship for a couple of hours here and there.

It also has no window. I like that. Windows can be magical things, but a windowless room often stirs my imagination more than any glimpse of the outside world.

I like the smell of dust in the air. I like the bareness. I like the fact that I can get up and dance around the room or do stretching exercises-- and I often do both, despite the fact that the room is fronted by a hatch, with a metal grille that can just about be seen through from the corridor. I like the sound of far-away voices and footsteps from people passing in the tunnel outside. (The tunnel is only ten steps away, but it still seems a great distance.) I like the fact that the corridor is not completely deserted, only relatively deserted, and other people do pass through every now and again.

I've only been working in this room for a few weeks but I find it's rather haunting my imagination. Out-of-the-way and unregarded and purely functional places like this have a certain soulfulness to them. Boiler rooms, cellars, attics, warehouses, box rooms, changing rooms, post rooms...they're so unapologetic, so blunt, so uncomplicated. They cleanse and refresh the spirit-- or my spirit, anyway. And the silence they hold....well, I always find something in their silence that I can't find anywhere else. But I can't really describe it. Maybe I don't have to?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Deo Gratias

Yesterday I had some good news which relieved a major anxiety that's been preying on my mind for weeks-- and not a silly or imaginary anxiety, but a very serious and real one. So I want to offer thanks up to the Blessed Trinity this morning, for that and for everything.

For my life. For my dear wife Michelle. For my health. For my job. For my family and friends. For this blog and for everyone who's ever read my writing here and elsewhere.

For all the wonders of the world and the sense of wonder God gives us to appreciate them. For tea and snow and the cinema and jokes and poetry. For the sound of voices in the air, of the whistling of water pipes, and the background music hanging in the air of a supermarket. For the smell of musty books and the scent of pine needles. For old enigmatic pictures in hotel lobbies.

For Christmas. For Halloween. For harmless eccentrics. For nerds. For windswept, rocky beaches on cold days. For an old man's memories and a child's excitement. For decorative pub mirrors and for pubs with open fires. For Star Trek: The Next Generation. For the difference between men and women, between one decade and the next, and between one day and the next. And for all the gifts of Divine Revelation, the lives of the saints, the liturgy, and the infinite riches of the Catholic and apostolic faith.

Oh God, give me an ever-deepening sense of wonder before all your gifts, and let me never cease to feel more and more thankfulness for all the infinite treasury of love you lavish upon us all! Amen.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy St. Oliver Plunkett Day

Today is the feast day of St. Oliver Plunkett, the last Irish person to be made a saint (I think that's correct), and the last Catholic to be martyred in England.

I never pray to him. I wondered today why that is. I mentally apologised to him and promised to add him to my list of intercessors.

For such a famously pious country, Ireland has very few saints-- in the last thousand and something years, anyway. (We have millions of them from back in the days of saints by acclamation.) Not only that, but we don't make much of the saints we actually have. When do you ever hear anyone talking about St. Patrick, other than March 17th? Why is his statue in so few Irish churches, or anywhere else? We have lots of institutions and sports teams and churches named after him, but the syllables "St. Patrick's" or "St. Pat's" just roll off the tongue, without us ever thinking of the man himself.

Irish Catholics seem more drawn to non-Irish saints like St. Padre Pio and St. Therese of Liseux. Of course, I don't think there's anything at all wrong with a devotion to those saints-- you can't have too many saints in your life-- but it's a pity we overlook our own. Matt Talbot and Frank Duff, though not yet saints, are rare examples of modern Irish holy people who are venerated in their own country. Catherine McCauley, Nano Nagle, Hugh O'Flaherty and Edmund Rice are all household names, but there isn't (unless I'm mistaken) much of a cult in Ireland for any of them. (It's nice to get a chance to use that word in its proper sense. Next time someone tells you that Catholicism is a cult, just cheerfully reply, 'yep'. That will confuse them.)

But back to saints. I went to a Dominican school run by nuns, and Edel Quinn's picture was everywhere. So I've always felt a certain connection to her for that reason-- and, yes, her good looks help. (Don't tell me looks don't influence a saint's reputation. I think it would be naive to think that Pierre's Giorgi Frassati's popularity is entirely uninfluenced by his movie-star looks.)

But, in general, I share the strange lukewarmness towards our own Catholic past that is so common amongst Irish people, and even Irish Catholics. Why is this, I wonder? Is it too close to home? I have to admit-- with apologies to the memory of that saint-- that even the syllables "Oliver Plunkett" make me think of dilipidated housing estates, drizzle, salty cabbage, wispy moustaches, pimply schoolboys, red whiskey noses, emaciated ponies, and all the least pleasant associations of Irishness. (OK, pimply schoolboys are universal, and I was an impressively pimpled schoolboy myself. But somehow they seem especially Irish. Our unease with the human body seems to heighten things like that.)