Tuesday, March 31, 2015

About my Father

In recent weeks, I asked for prayers for my father, who was seriously ill. Readers were kind enough, not only to comply, but to express considerable interest in his condition, and to ask follow-up questions.

If my father had died (which really did seem on the cards at one point, whether that was an alarmist diagnosis or not), I would undoubtedly have written an appreciation of him here. Now that he is out of hospital, and apparently improving, I think I will go ahead and write it anyway-- with many thanks to St. Anthony, my father's go-to saint, to whom I went myself in those grim hours and days.

My father won't see this. The internet is a foreign country to him. (He only recently acquired a mobile phone.) I did write a few lines of tribute to him in one of my Catholic Voice columns, which he reads. Even writing it was quite difficult; my father is the least demonstrative person I know, and that makes anything of an emotional nature rather embarrassing. Nor did he comment on it after reading it. But when he was ill in hospital, he told my wife Michelle how much he appreciated his children "openly telling me they loved me", or some such phrase. I don't think I've ever heard anything that flabbergasted me more, even if I only heard it second-hand.

He is so undemonstrative that, in his memoirs (which I typed) he makes this remark, after describing how a consultant told him that my mother did not have TB: "I could have hugged that consultant, though I am not a man for hugging people, even my own children". (I've inherited this disinclination, by the way; I could hug Michelle until the cows came home, and indeed until they went back out to pasture, but I baulk at the prospect of hugging anybody else).

My father is also a writer and a poet. As with Chesterton (who isn't really his cup of tea), writing has always been a means to an end for him. For many, many years he single-handedly wrote a crusading community magazine called The Ballymun News. At one point (before my time) it was a monthly publication that was sold in the community. By the time I was growing up, it was an annual publication which was mailed to journalists, TV presenters and what my father describes as 'movers and shakers', in an attempt to influence them. He spends a lot of time claiming that various ideas or institutions, which have become huge successes, had their genesis in the pages of The Ballymun News. This may sometimes be fanciful but I have no doubt that it's not all fanciful.

There is a veteran Irish broadcaster named Gay Byrne, who is without a shadow of a doubt the most successful broadcaster in Irish history. Every Christmas on his radio show, he reprises a comedy routine of a man explaining how to make a Christmas fruit cake, while getting drunker and drunker from the alcohol used in making it, until he is incoherent. My father insists that he came up with this scenario in The Ballymun News, a copy of which would have regularly been mailed to Byrne. (I would hesitate to publish this claim if I thought there was any chance of Gay Byrne reading this blog-- after all, my father never kept back issues, so there is no way of substantiating it.)

My father also has the distinction of being one of the very, very few people who predicted that the great Irish recession of 2008 was going to happen. This was long after the Ballymun News ceased publishing, so it was in private conversations. In fact, he became such a bore about it that, at one point, I asked in frustration: "Where is this recession you've been predicting for so long?" Famous last words! At one stage, much to my amusement, he compared himself to Winston Churchill before the Second World War: seeing the imminent catastrophe but unable to get anyone to listen. He kept phoning radio current affairs shows about it, but rarely got put on the air (I'm not sure he ever got through, actually). He also ran up a massive phone bill, not realising how much the calls cost.

(Comparing himself to Winston Churchill is far from the only example of his flair for the grandiose. When we were travelling to the funeral of my aunt Kitty, RIP, there was a great deal of confusion and miscommunication between the various cars taking different family members to the church. My father-- once again failing to appreciate that time is money when it comes to telephones-- became frustrated that people kept on hanging up and having to dial again. "Keep the lines of communication open!" he urged, waving his hands in the air, every inch the commanding general. This has passed into legend.)

I mentioned that he is a poet. So he is, though he only writes poetry occasionally. These days he pretty much confines himself to satires and elegies. The elegy he wrote for my cousin Billy, who recently died of lung cancer at a tragically young age, is a good example of his style. (The reference to jet planes is a nice touch; the cemetery where Billy is buried is beside an airport, and many low-lying planes did pass as we made our way to the grave.)

Billy: A Memory

Billy, we met one night down Santry way
And paused a while to talk of this and that.
A chance encounter at the close of day
And small talk dressed up in a friendly chat.

Or so I thought; but that was not to be;
Your mind did not give shelter to the trite.
No room for verbal mediocrity
Your conversation soared from height to height.

I see you now, beside the garden wall,
And hear your calm voice in the summer air.
The passion in that voice as I recall
Your vision for a world more just, more fair.

Last week, as jet planes scarred the silent sky
And thoughts of you were fresh in every mind
We did not come to wish a last goodbye:
For you live on in those you leave behind.

My father has had far more influence on my view of the world than anybody else. Aside from any particular opinions, I derived from him the assumption that a man should have opinions, and should both assert and defend them. I grew up thinking of life as a crusade, first and foremost. Even now I find it hard to understand people who have no strong convictions of any sort.

To say that he is an Irish patriot would be a bit like saying Stalin was rather left-wing. I have never met anybody as patriotic as my father (though some of his friends and associates come close). Love of country is the very air he breathes. Most people would probably admit to an element of favouritism when it comes to their country; they love it because they happened to be born it, or to have grown up in it, or to belong to it in whatever way they do. This would not satisfy my father. He sincerely and passionately believes that Ireland is the greatest country in the world, that the Irish people are the most remarkable of all peoples, and that they have suffered injustices greater than any other.

There is a well-known book titled How the Irish Saved Civilization. Long before that book appeared, my father was making the same claim; indeed, he would go futher, and insist that the Irish built a great deal of civilization. We built America; we built Australia; we gave the world rugby, cricket, soccer and chess; we gave it jazz, country music, blues and the Beatles (at least three of them Liverpool-Irish); Irish hurling is the fastest game in the world; Irish soldiers built the British Empire and Irish rebels initiated its demise; the Irish invented brandy, the submarine, Dracula, Halloween, boycotting, and a thousand other institutions; world famous gourmets have declared that bacon, cabbage and potatoes is the most delicious dish they have ever tasted; seventy million people worldwide claim Irish descent; JFK, the Irish President of America, literally saved the world at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and is furthermore a direct descendant of Brian Boru, the most famous High King of Ireland, who died at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014); and so on. Reader, you think I am exaggerating for comic effect. I'm not. These are all claims that my father has made in all seriousness (and, indeed, some of them are solid facts, while others are preposterous). And they are only a fraction of the claims he makes for the Irish.

Writers, intellectuals, and social scientists have spent a great deal of time and ink analysing 'Irishness'; sifting it, explaining it, debunking it, rebunking it, rationalising it, romanticising it; but always treating it as an idea, a culture, or a tradition. To my father it is quite simply in the blood, in the genes. It is a fact.

Rather comically, he can't watch bear to watch the Irish soccer or rugby team, or indeed any Irish international team, playing a competitive fixture, as it's simply too stressful for him.

As well as being an Irish nationalist, my father is very definitely a Roman Catholic. But he hardly ever goes to Mass. He usually makes it into a church at some point over the Easter Triduum; but not every year. You might think from this that his faith is naive and nominal, perhaps a mere extension of his Irish patriotism. Not a bit of it. He is extremely knowledgeable about Catholicism and is quite the armchair apologist; he will happily debate with atheists and anti-Catholics for hours on end. The Old Testament is a closed book to him (not such a strange thing for any Catholic, unfortunately) but he can quote copiously from the Gospels, and he does.

I can't remember us ever going to Mass as a family. My mother would intermittently take myself and my brother to Mass. (I hated it, mostly because it was usually on Sunday evenings and thus signalled the end of the weekend.) My father never took us to Mass, but whenever he brought us into the city centre (to buy one of us a birthday present, for instance) he would take us into the cathedral to light a candle. (I found it embarrassing.) Some Christmases, he would make a Christmas crib. He always spoke highly of nuns and priests (unless it was a priest that had annoyed him, as sometimes happened). He was never conventionally devout, but always very clear about his beliefs.

Socially, I have seen him journey from a moderate liberalism to a decided conservatism. When we were growing up, the 'n-word' was strictly forbidden (even as a joke). At one point, my father helped to found and run a community centre, and he allowed Irish Travellers to use it as a halting site. He was always vocal on the subject of prejudice against Travellers. He voted in favour of the introduction of divorce to Ireland in 1986, something a Catholic could do in good conscience.

More recently, he has come to believe that the pendulum has swung too far; he's very critical of multiculturalism and mass immigration, thinks political correctness has become corrosive, and believes that a new and destructive spirit has taken hold in the Travelling community. It would be easy to see this as a stereotypical drift to the right with advancing age, but I think that his analysis of most of these trends is completely accurate.

On many matters-- like sex, culture, dress, and social mores-- he was always deeply conservative. He never curses, ever, not even in a moment of self-forgetfulness or rage. He uses plenty of colourful exclamations, but never a curse-word. (My mother, who died in 2001, was just the same. When people cursed around my parents, they would look embarrassed and apologise straight away.) He has always dressed in a dark suit, a white shirt, and a tie, which often leads people to assume he is a politician or a businessman. And he has always been withering about modern popular music-- to his mind, everything after Frank Sinatra is rubbish, with very few exceptions. (He likes 'Bye-Bye Miss American Pie' by Don McLean and 'A Fairy Tale of New York' by Shane McGowan.) We had hours and hours (and hours and hours) of debates about popular music when I was growing up-- I've pretty much come around to his view on its lack of merit, but I still listen to it and still enjoy it, rather furtively.

One of the things I most appreciate about him is that he constantly recited poetry (and nursery rhymes) to us when we were growing up. I'd like to think I had a natural taste for poetry anyway, but this must have nursed it. I can vividly remember him quoting the famous 'Tomorrow, and tomorrow' and tomorrow' speech from Macbeth-- surely one of the greatest flights of lyricism in the English language, and one whose philosophical depth struck me even as a child. He bought me Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses when I was very young-- I think I may have been ill at the time, because I remember receiving and reading it while lying in bed. I also remember he inscribed the flyleaf with a verse of his own, the last line of which was: "...that poetry is magic". I forget the rest, and I lost the book long ago.

When it comes to poetry, I have one memory that is especially tender. At one point, in my late childhood, I happened to be reading The Oxford Book of Irish Verse. My father, either taking an interest in what I was reading himself, or because I drew his attention to it, recommended that I read 'Easter 1916' by W.B. Yeats. I found it, and said-- anyone who has read my writings on poetry here will appreciate the irony-- "That's written in rhyme, though. I thought that serious poetry was written without rhyme and was more difficult to understand". (Or something like that. Of course, I don't remember my exact words.)

My father simply replied, very gently: "I think the best poetry is written in rhyme and metre."

I have often looked back at this moment, wonderingly. Such a reply was somewhat out of character for my father, in many ways. I've concentrated on his many good qualities here, but he could certainly be gruff, and I can easily imagine him responding to my innocent comment with a guffaw and a withering response. Since I was an extremely sensitive child, I have a strong intuition that such a response would have killed my nascent interest in poetry stone dead. Maybe not. But somehow it has always stood out as a critical moment in my memory.

I can also remember the moment that he realised I could read. (I was a very slow developer in many ways, but I was a precocious reader-- in fact, I was so eager to be able to write that I seriously considered inventing my own alphabet!) We were sitting watching television and, just before an ad-break, I read out loud the caption on the screen: "End of Part One". He was astonished. He wrote some words on a piece of cardboard, and asked me to read them. They were the exact same words I had just read aloud-- "End of Part One"-- and I repeated them, wondering why he hadn't chosen something different.

My father likes to boast that I read Lord of the Rings when I was seven. I'm not sure that I was seven at the time, and I didn't really understand it very well, but it's true that I did read the book when I was very young. On the other side of the ledger, I was also the last kid in my class to learn how to tie his shoe-laces-- I had to get a class-mate called Marcus to tie them for me, for a considerable time.

Possibly the most noteworthy event in my father's life, at least from a public perspective, was his role in having a detention centre for juvenile delinquents shut down, back in the seventies. He was given a job as an orderly in this detention centre (or 'boy's remand home', as it was called.) He soon learned that it was a den of sadism, cruelty and neglect-- on the part of the adult staff. The boys who were sent there were mostly 'guilty' of trivial offences. One particular boy drew the special ire of the other staff-- for the crime of interrupting their Christmas party-- and my father, fearing for the boy, helped him to escape. He then persuaded a newspaper reporter to expose what was happening in the place, stealing some incriminating documents as leverage.

The detention centre-- which was called Marlborough House-- was indeed closed down, but my father was told that he would never work in the employ of the State again (a threat that was fulfilled). More importantly, a report into child abuse in State institutions, decades later, claimed that he had been drunk on the job when the boy escaped. (The alias 'Jacob' was used in the report.) This, which is a downright lie, galls my father bitterly, especially since he had only a few years earlier received a letter from officials in the Department of Education, after he had lobbied them on the subject, acknowledging that he acted from the best of motives. His memoirs were written in an effort to clear his name-- although the very fact that they deal with such a controversy has made it difficult to find a publisher (as one publisher frankly admitted, when turning them down).

This is only the most notable of his 'crusades', however. As I mentioned earlier, he helped to found a community centre called the Ballymun's Workman's Club in the eighties. It was eventually destroyed by vandals, although my father believes ulterior forces had a hand in its demise. He was one of the organisers of a major (and successful) rent strike for tenants of social housing. He was prominently involved in a protest when plans for a public swimming pool in Ballymun were dropped in favour of an underground car park. My father and others would turn up on the construction site after the diggers had finished each evening, and fill in the holes they had made, using shovels and spades. Eventually, the underground car park was abandoned, and the swimming pool was built instead

He was also one of the people who founded an Irish language school in Ballymun, though he doesn't speak Irish himself. Irish language schools are quite rare in Ireland, and tend to be located in more affluent areas, not working-class areas like Ballymun. If I hadn't attended this school, I wouldn't have even the very bad grasp of Irish that I do. It did turn me against the Irish language right into early adulthood-- Irish language speakers can be the most insufferable people on the face of the earth, and children hate to be force-fed anything-- but I finally came to appreciate it.

So you can see how, even though he doesn't go to Mass very often, I consider my father a far better Christian than I am-- and a far better man, in general.

If this makes him seem like an Atticus Finch type, all public causes and earnestness, that would be an unfair picture. (One of his own favourite quotations, from Twelfth Night, is: "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?")  He was a regular pub-goer until relatively recently, when he had to give it up for health reasons. He likes to get a sing-along going at parties, and he seems to know scores, if not hundreds, of Irish ballads off by heart. He is an assiduous reader-- he restricts himself to detective novels these days, but in his time he has read very widely. The Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys was a special favourite, as were P.G. Wodehouse and Charles Dickens. And he has always been something of a television addict. (This is one of the reasons he is so well-informed. He is actually the most formidable debater I know. I don't think I've ever heard him beaten in a debate. Mostly this is on the strength of argument alone, though force of character comes into it, too. Goldsmith's description of Samuel Johnson applies to him: "There is no arguing with Johnson: for if his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it.")

More than anything else, he is a family man. This goes even deeper than his Irish patriotism, come to think of it. I don't even know how to describe just how deep his loyalty to family runs.

Some time in my mid-teens, for my birthday, he bought me a small laminated poster that showed a unicorn, rearing up on its hind legs, in a mountainous and misty landscape. The caption was: "Believe in the magic of your dreams." And on the back he wrote: "To Maolsheachlann, the world's champion dreamer. Never stop dreaming." I don't have it anymore, but tears come to my eyes whenever I think of it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well!

Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well!
Ted Bonner
Gill and MacMillan, 1974

I work in a library that houses over a million books. And these books, of course, are only a fraction of the all the books that were ever written. I read recently that it would take fifty thousand years to read all the books that were ever printed. Longer for me, because I'm a slow reader (though I might speed up after the first thousand years or so, through dint of practice).

Of course, some books are 'classics' and the expectation is that everybody who wants to embrace our cultural heritage should read these. Virgil, Plutarch, Thomas Malory, Miguel de Cervantes, The Arabian Nights, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner....I've left all of these classics unread, and I don't feel any pressing desire to rectify that. (When I was fifteen, this indifference would have appalled me.)

On the other hand, I find myself (as do you, gentle reader, I'm sure) re-reading books which have no great claim to literary eminence but which happen to please some particular appetite of my own. One of these is Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! by Ted Bonner, a slim book of humorous essays by the Irish journalist and broadcaster, Ted Bonner, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 85. (Rather curiously, one of my colleagues-- to whom I happened to mention the book-- became the owner of Bonner's laptop after his death. Ted Bonner is far from being a household name in Ireland-- he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, that infallible barometer of fame--  so I was mildly surprised my colleague knew who he was, never mind that he owned his laptop).

This is the kind of book I find myself reaching for when I'm in the mood for comfort reading-- when I'm feeling tired, or fed-up, or listless, or mentally unadventurous.

Some months ago, I wrote a whole essay about the book's dedication, which I find extraordinarily moving: "For anyone, anywhere, with whom I have ever shared a laugh".

I won't pretend Mr. Bonner is a particularly gifted writer (though anyone who can write something that anyone else wants to read is doing something right). The essays in this volume are not outrageously funny. They are, to be frank, examples of a particularly laboured sort of humour that other people find unbearable but that I find strangely appealing.

Why shouldn't humour be laboured, anyway? I understand that there is a certain finesse involved in achieving an effect without appearing to strain after it, but surely this only one way in which humour can appeal. Isn't there a certain pleasure to be found in humour that makes a meal of things, that actually relishes a punch-line instead of trying to smuggle it in inconspiciously? Ted Bonner was, as the dust jacket of this book tells us, an accomplished after-dinner speaker, and Don't Shoot I'm Not Well has a very 'after-dinner speaker' air to it, one that I find appealing. You can almost smell the cigars and cognac.

There aren't very many 'laugh out loud' passages, if there are any at all. But I don't think humour has to make us laugh to justify its existence, or to warrant the name 'humour'. Humour is an atmosphere, like horror or tragedy.

I only have to list some of the subjects of these essays to show you what kind of a book this is. 'Four Closed Minds in an Open Car' concerns a holiday taken with three friends in France, in the course of which the holiday party meet a whole series of mishaps, most notably a broken lift; 'Encore-- with Feeling' is about the ridiculous questions that TV news reporters ask those who are caught up in human interest stories, and features the author's fantasy of how he would treat a news team who called to his house; 'The Communications Gap' is an epistolary essay, comprising a series of letters between the author, a car company, and the various departments within the car company, in which the author becomes more and more frustrated in his efforts to get his car repaired. (Bonner was a motoring correspondent.) "Come Fill the Cup" is an essay about an upcoming World Cup Finals, and a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the rules of the game for the benefit of the ladies ("it is a brave woman who will interrupt this concentration other than to bring her man the proteins he needs to keep his viewing strength up, and even then she'd better not pass between him and the screen"...)

You get the point. Not exactly alternative comedy, and that's a lot of the reason I like it. There is something very soothing in such familiar conventions. My liking for such things probably has something to do with my mother forbidding me from sucking my thumb when I was four. (An event I don't remember; I deduce that it must have occurred, though.)

One of the pleasures of this sort of gentle comedy, and gentle writing, is what it doesn't involve. It doesn't involve explicit sex jokes, or brutality, or anything gross. I admit that's a negative way to look at it, but does negative always equal bad? Such gentle comedy is also unlikely to deal with tragedy, or death, or heinous evil. There is a sense of relief in that, too.

The prose style is rather laboured; this kind of comic writer usually achieves his effect (such as he achieves it) by putting everything in an arch, eyebrow-wagging way. Here is a passage from 'Life in a Perfumed Mist', an essay about the new trend of male grooming:

 Consider-- if you think I paint too sombre a picture-- the case of the young, up-and-coming executive who is so with it he's almost past it. He springs from bed at the first clang of the alarm, dead keen to meet the challenge of the new day. After a few vigorous exercises to get the circulation up to cruising and the muscles pliant and rippling beneath the silky skin, he leaps into a bath. Carefully, he lathers himself all over with a soap that not only perfumes but purifies and cleanses for at least twenty-four hours and sheathes his skin in an antiseptic barrier against which virus and germ will beat in vain.

That kind of thing.

 Some of the essays are a little bit different in tone. "Mexico, Someone Says" is a five-page vignette of the author's experiences of that country. (Bonner was a business executive, as well as a journalist and broadcaster, so many of the essays are about international travel.) It's quite lyrical, and has a few rather poignant passages, including an encounter with a mestizo (a Spanish-Indian) and a visit to a squalid adobe suburb teeming with life. I like the opening paragraph very much:

I never cease to be amazed by the speed and facility with which one's memory can select and project mental pictures; even more amazing is how undiscriminating this process often is-- the computer in the brain makes it own choice and frequently remembers trivia, and persists in remembering trivia, to the exclusion of more important happenings. Which inevitably makes one wonder just where the memories of these more serious matters have gone. Have they been erased completely or do they lie buried deep in the mind awaiting the correct trigger pulse-- a word, a smell, music or whatever-- to bring them to the surface?

In fact, come to think of it, this is what is at the heart of the book's appeal to me-- this whole matter of anecdotes. An anecdote is a poetic thing, a mystical thing. At least, to me it is. Time, space and experience are mysteries. Often, when I hear someone telling an anecdote-- I mean, an anecdote of an event they have experienced themselves-- the realization that this happened in a different time and a different place strikes me as odd and wonderful. The only thing that we can really vouch for are our immediate surroundings, the present moment, the person in front of us. Everything else, in my view, is unutterably exotic and dream-like-- or so it is when I think about it, or when the thought strikes me out of the blue. The fact that every person you meet carries around with them an invisible galaxy of memories and experience is also something I can never quite get over.

Very well, you might say-- but doesn't this apply to every non-fiction book ever written?

I suppose it does, but it's the combination of the exotic and dream-like and the familiar and reassuring that pleases me. My problem with most books is that they are too exotic. This includes pretty much all contemporary fiction. I don't know anyone who behaves (or talks, or thinks) like the people I encounter in contemporary fiction; it misses the element of mimesis, of the simple pleasure in a make-believe reproduction of reality, the pleasure that a toddler indulges whenever he draws a swirl that is supposed to be a cloud. The preoccupations of contemporary novelists, short story writers and poets-- and of their characters, too-- seem further away from the life I know than the worlds of Trollope or Yeats or Chesterton.

Bearing all that in mind, a collection of anecdotes that uses such familiar tropes as 'World Cup widows', rainy fishing trips and needlessly bureaucratic hotel staff has a special appeal to it.

The fact that it comes from a particular period in Irish history-- just before I was born-- is also part of the charm. I've written before (far too often, no doubt) about my strange nostalgia for the Ireland of the nineteen seventies and nineteen eighties. (This book was published three years before my birth, but it's still more or less the same ambience.) As I've said before, Ireland was more or less monocultural at this time. It was still Catholic-- in a laid-back kind of way. Catholicism was simply the backdrop of existence. Ireland was still an agricultural country, too, whereas today (I've just checked) its primary industry is the 'knowledge economy'.

So the nation felt like a big family in the way that it doesn't now. Whatever the benefits of multiculturalism, secularism and the development of a modern economy, they do tend to weaken the sentimental bonds of nationhood.

(But why, you may ask, would I be nostalgic for such a comparatively recent time, if that's what I'm hankering after? Ireland in the 1870s would be much more Catholic, agricultural and monocultural than Ireland in the 1970s. But, once again, the element of familiarity is crucial. I can't imaginatively step back into the 1870s, or the 1880s. It's just too different. And, of course, the element of personal experience is also relevant.)

There aren't many actual mentions of religion in Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! I thought Ted Bonner had mentioned attending Mass in one passage, but searching through the book as I wrote this blog post, I could find no such mention. So the only reference I'm sure of is the punch-line to one essay, where a gymnastically-inclined beau of the author's sister, after unintentionally wreaking havoc in the family home, blithely and heedlessly asks the author's father whether it is a picture of the Virgin Mary or the Little Flower hanging on the wall. But even such obliqueness is appealing. Having a picture of the Virgin Mary or the Little Flower on the wall, in the Ireland of this time, is so ordinary it needs no explanation, and even a 'jock' would know it was one or the other.

One of things I like about the kind of 'family nationalism'  I'm talking about here is that, when an author is writing for his countrymen (and women), he can assume a great deal of shared knowledge and shared experience. For instance, there is one fairly amusing essay called "The Night They Moved the George Washington Bridge" in which Bonner describes his efforts, with an Irish friend, to locate the George Washington Bridge in New York. They are trying to get to Atlantic City and at one point the author recalls wondering if it even existed, writing: "Could it be that there is no such place as Atlantic City and that I am being treated, by the natives from whom I sought instructions, as might a tourist in Ireland enquiring where he caught the ferry for Hy-Brasil, the Isle of the Blessed?" (Hy-Brasil is a legendary island in Irish folklore.)

(Incidentally, there is at least one genuinely funny passage in this particular essay, in which Bonner is told that he 'can't miss' a particular car they are looking for in a car park. He replies: "When anyone says 'you can't miss it', an opaque shutter seems to fall in front of my eyes. It is therefore pointless for me to search and I suggest that you go and find it while I sit here quietly building up my strength for the voyage." So true! "It's right there in front of you" has the same effect on me.)

Of course, writers (especially in magazines and newspapers) still write for a national audience, and a regional audience, and assume a certain amount of shared knowledge and shared experience as they do so. But....I don't know. In Ireland, at least, this so often seems to be done either ironically or apologetically-- sneering references to Catholic guilt or Ballygobackwards or our various inhibitions, from a reluctance to advertise our sex lives to being insufficiently pushy about our career advancement. (At one CV-building workshop I reluctantly attended, the presenter recommended phoning up would-be employers who had rejected you at interview, and asking how you'd performed and what you could do better. "It's terribly un-Irish, I know", she said. Yes it is.)

I'm overstating the case, of course. Nations will survive, national cultures will survive, the experience of a shared history and shared TV and radio and shared political system, and so on, will continue into the distant future. As we are constantly reminded, there has been demographic and cultural change throughout history, but new forms of national consciousness emerge from the flux. America is possibly the most multicultural, socially diverse, and religiously divided nation in the world, and what national culture is more vibrant? All the same I can't help feeling a pang for the Ireland of only a few decades ago, when one could look out, cosily and wonderingly, at the great world beyond our shores, all the time taking for granted a rather backward and parochial and pious place we called home.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

My Open Door Articles, Together at Last!

Here is a website with all my 'Wit and Wisdom of Chesterton' articles from The Open Door magazine to date, and which will be added to each week. I have set it up so that they can be easily read in sequence.

I hope you like it.

P.S. If you DO like this site, I would be obliged if you passed it on-- as a few of my readers have very kindly done. Partly because I think people might well like it and find it useful. And partly because, well, right now I feel a need to win just one for the Gipper, somehow. (The Gipper being myself.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all readers of this blog!

If you would like to read St. Patrick's story in his own words (it's not long), you can do so here, at this excellent site.

Also, please pray for Ruadhán Pádraig, who would have been one year old around today, if the Lord had not taken him before birth. We will be truly pro-life when we treat babies lost to miscarriage with as much dignity as we treat babies lost to abortion.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Blast (or a Sigh) from the Past

All today I've been watching Youtube clips of Irish TV ad breaks from the 1980s. I'm a sucker for nostalgia.

This one is particularly interesting for its "Night Light" Christmas Eve meditation, coming about two minutes and ten seconds into the clip. It is presented by a Fr. Martin Clarke, a typically bearded and typically avuncular eighties Roman Catholic cleric. (Sadly, I have just learned, he passed away a couple of years back. May he rest in peace.) He solemnly lights a candle at the beginning, talks about the Irish tradition of having a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, and straightforwardly remarks upon "our profound faith in Jesus Christ" as part of "our national character".

I may sometimes seem like a culture warrior on this blog (and elsewhere),  but in truth I am deeply nostalgic for this kind of gentle, genial Catholicism. It certainly had its faults, but I think it implanted the seed of faith in my own soul.


Calling Dublin Catholics

I'm interested in finding out what the best parishes in Dublin are in terms of liturgy, community, demographics (i.e., a good mix of generations, families attending together), Mass times, churches open outside Mass times, eucharistic adoration, activities, and so forth.

I'm not just interested in city centre parishes (every time I ask about churches here, the responses tend to be focused on the city centre) but suburban parishes as well. I'm interested in both.

I'm also interesting in hearing about the ones to avoid....and, really, any feedback is good. Anyone who worships in Dublin and who wants to report on their own parish or ones that they know about, please do comment or email me directly at Maolsheachlann@gmail.com. (I won't bother disguising that email address from spambots, as I don't think I can get any more spam than I get already.)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Whither This Blog?

First off, thanks for all the prayers and kind messages about my father's illness. He really looked to be in serious danger for a while but now he is discharged from hospital, and-- even though I think he was discharged too soon-- seems to be recovering. He was extremely heartened to hear of all the prayers being said for him.

Secondly, and to get to the main point of this post, I'm wondering what direction I should take this blog in. As I've said a few times, I began it in purely apologetic vein-- to respond to the various attacks on the Church in the Irish media and elsewhere. Later on, I began to include various reflections on matters secular as well as sacred, as well as my poetry, stories, serialised novels etc.

My justification for this was that I wanted this blog to be catholic as well as Catholic, and to show that Catholic faith is compatible with a broad view of life. (I feel arrogant even putting it like that, but I hope you know what I mean.)

On the other hand-- even though I have occasionally tried to distinguish between my views and Catholic orthodoxy, and to be careful nobody ever mistook my speculations for doctrine-- I do think there is a certain responsibility on anyone who uses the term 'Catholic' (or even 'Papist'!) to avoid any possibility of putting themselves in place of Christ.

My mind is turning more and more to the need for a Christian imagination. I feel I have erred in often trying to superimpose my own views, my own imagination, on the Christian gospel. I don't want to exaggerate this; I do feel there is room for creativity in drawing on and presenting the Christian gospel. But one has to be cautious about this and I don't think I have been cautious enough in the past.

So I am 'stock-taking' regarding this blog at the moment, along with other things in my life. Of course I am praying, but I am also interested in hearing what my readers have to say. What sort of thing do you like to see here?

I think the Catholic blogosphere is a wonderful gift and I am privileged to be a part of it. There can't be enough Catholic blogs! Every one is an act of witness, to some extent.  And the fact that Irish Papist has had a flattering response (almost a quarter of a million views, since I started in 2011!) inclines me to think that I am supposed to keep it going. I'm just not sure what direction to take it in-- but more rambling essays about my most fugitive thoughts is not going to be part of the plan.

Incidentally, I'm sorry I shelved Mystery Tour. I was excited about that story and I only shelved it because I didn't have time to continue it. I intend to revisit it some day, maybe several years from now!