Sunday, April 26, 2015

Have you Ever Considered Becoming a Priest?

That is the question a priest suggested that his congregation might ask young men they know, yesterday evening. (And not-so-young men, he might have added, since middle-aged men also become priests. I've met some of them.)

Today is Vocations Sunday. The Mass was a vigil Mass on Saturday, in Merrion Road. It was a church I'd only been in once before, for a special Mass to mark the feast day of St. Josemaria Escriva. I had actually decided to pop in for a quick prayer, since my bus would not be arriving for a while. I noticed Mass was beginning and decided to stay for it-- even though I was running late and, as it turned out, the priest took it very, very slowly-- including a long, long homily.

He said many vocations are pursued because somebody asks this critical question. I have readers out there who are qualified for the priesthood, but have never thought about it? Well, think about it!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

International Catholic Blogging Ring-- My Latest Crazy Idea

OK, here's another of my crazy ideas. I thought it might be fun to have an international Catholic blogging ring-- that is, an association of Catholic blogs from different countries.


For the heck of it. As a demonstration of Catholic universality. So we can share information and ideas. So we can broaden our horizons. So we might occasionally guest blog on each others' blogs, or write on similar themes. And for the heck of it-- did I mention that?

This is my idea:

1) The ring will contain ONE blog from each country. So Ireland is already covered.
2) Any Catholic blogger in another country who reads this post is welcome to leave a comment joining the blog ring, and should then follow this up by posting a similar post to this one. It will be fun to see how far it will go.
3) They don't have to be English language blogs.
4) When this gets off the ground to any appreciable degree, we could publish a central site giving links to all the blogs.

 Don't be shy! Please get in touch! This will be one ring to end them all!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Propaganda on Campus

Today on social media, there was some excitement and indignation about this photo of a voter registration drive in University College Dublin (where I work), ahead of May's referendum to introduce same-sex marriage to Ireland, which apparently showed a member of the gardai giving out 'Vote Yes' badges. At least, she was sitting at a table littered with them.

So there may be some interest in this correspondence I had with the Welfare Officer of the Student's Union and the staff of UCD's 'Equality Unit', which is supposed to oversee equality on campus.

To understand my irritation, you should understand the extent of the UCD Student's Union Vote Yes campaign. There are scores of posters mounted all over campus, showing mugshots of various students with quotations supposedly (or, for all I know, actually) from them. The quotations are mostly platitudes, but some border on offensive to those of socially conservative views, as I mention in one of my emails.

I decided to drop the matter after the last email. I have also decided to omit the names of my correspondents, since I did not announce any intention to make the correspondence public. 

(I'm sorry about the formatting, I can't seem to fix it-- the lack of line breaks in my messages and the tiny font of the Equality Unit's reply. I've tried several times.)

Dear Equality Unit
A plasma screen has been erected on the stairway from the Student's Union shop to the ground floor of the library building. This plasma screen is being used entirely to promote the 'Yes' campaign in the upcoming marriage referendum, employing a variety of emotive slogans.
This is a stairway used by many students and by staff who work in the library and in UCD. Sometimes it is the only means of entrance to the library. I do not think it is fair that it should be the venue for such propaganda.
If a spirit of diversity and equality do not apply to beliefs-- such as the belief in traditional marriage-- then what meaning does it have? The UCD Equality & Diversity Unit's website says: "The Equality and Diversity Unit is a dedicated resource in the University to promote equality and diversity in its activities." Given that mission statement, can UCD sanction its buildings being used for one-sided political propaganda? UCD is already an unfriendly environment to anyone with traditional social beliefs.
I think that the plasma screen should be moved to a dedicated Student's Union space, or that it should give equal time to promotion of the 'No' campaign.
I am copying the Student's Union equality officer on this.
Many thanks
Maolsheachlann, Library


Reply from Equality Unit:

Dear Maolsheachlann

This particular plasma screen is controlled and operated by the Students Union and is part of their shop. I suggest that you follow up with them in relation to your query and they can discuss this with you.

Organisation Design, Diversity and Policy Specialist
UCD HR Strategy and Development
University College Dublin


Dear M

As my initial email made clear,  my complaint is that it is exhibited in a non-Student's Union space; that is, a staircase used to access the library and the Newman Building. It is not like the poster boards which contain posters for many different events and causes; its dedicated to one particular topic. So I do not in fact accept that the Student's Union have a right to broadcast propaganda here because they happen to own the screen.
However, I appreciate the reply.
Many thanks
From Student's Union Welfare Officer:
 Dear Maolsheachlann,

I hope this email finds you well. 

With regard to your complaint ,the Students' Union owns the screens in question and use them to promote events, campaigns and issues on which the Union has a mandate. On February 11th & 12th 2015 the Union received an overwhelming mandate of 97% in favour of the union campaigning in support of Marriage Equality.

The Union therefore uses all available channels to it to promote the campaign for Marriage Equality, this includes; postering, the use of social media and the screens that we own around the Students' Union shop.

If however, you wish to file a complaint, you may do so via the Independent Appeals and Disciplinary Board (IADB). This body deals with complaints on Union policy and activity. They may be contacted via email on . I hope this clarifies the process for you.


Reply from me:

Dear M---

Thank you for your reply. I am well, as I hope are you.

Thanks for directing me to the IADB, who I do intend to contact. As this seems to be mostly formed of ex-members of the SU, I have little confidence in their impartiality. I may pursue this issue through further university avenues, if time and energy permits.
I accept that the Student's Union owns the screen in question; my complaint regarding its positioning, facing a staircase used to access the library and Newman building. It is a trivial issue in itself but it is the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. The Student's Union has launched a massive publicity blitz on this subject; it seems wrong to me that a Student's Union that should be representing ALL students should take a political stance on a controversial matter that has nothing to do with the educational interest of students, but I am not a member of the Student's Union so I let that pass. When I visit the Student's Union centre or shop I realise I am entering Student's Union space and can't complain about being propagandised there. I may find the massive poster campaign around campus to be irksome; but, in theory, a 'No' campaign group could mount posters on campus, too. (If they dared.)
But I do object to being exposed to this propaganda on my way to and from my workplace, using a staircase which can hardly be SU property, and which is not a designated space for posters or publicity. One would think that, with such a massive campaign already in place, and having realized this was offensive to even one person, you would reposition the monitor somewhere else, or stop using it for political purposes, out of courtesy and respect for the views of other members of the UCD community.
Regarding the referendum in February that you mention, I would be very interested to know how many votes were actually cast. I am sure that there are many more than three per cent of UCD students who intend to vote 'No' in May. Do you feel it is respectful to those students, and indeed to UCD staff who disagree with you, to bombard them with slogans like, "It's a no-brainer" and "In twenty years we'lll be ashamed this was even an issue"? I find such slogans deeply patronising.
However, thank you for taking the time to respond.
(There was no reply.)

Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Odd Request

I have an idea that I want to keep semi-under-wraps, but that I think some blog readers-- those that live in Ireland, or have lived in Ireland previously-- might be able to help me with. It doesn't involve spending any money, going anywhere, or anything bothersome like that. But you might know something that can help me out. So, anyone who fits that description and feels like it can email me at

By the way, thanks for the prayers. They did the trick.

P.S. This is my nine hundredth blog post!The video is to celebrate that.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mystery Tour-- Chapter Five

Chapter Five

As they left the graveyard behind them, Laurence couldn't help feeling a certain tingle of excitement. He half hoped that the tour bus would be gone by the time they returned. For one thing, Ferryman-- or whatever his name was-- was beginning to disturb him.

But, more importantly, he liked the idea of being thrown into a common cause with Karla. And with Helen, too.

As he had sat in the train station café, mulling over his future, it had occurred to Laurence that he had no real friends. This came as something of a surprise. He wouldn't have said that he was unpopular. People laughed at his jokes-- more often than not, anyway-- and seemed inclined to enjoy his company while he was with them. He was invited to get-togethers regularly enough. The notebook in which he kept his list of telephone numbers-- he was rather proud of owning such a thing, in this era of mobile phones-- was quite full.

But as for blood brothers, or blood sisters, or bosom companions-- there were none. And when the darkness had descended, he had realised how alone he really was.

But now-- now, for a moment at least, he had comrades. And who knew what would come of it? Bizarre as the things he had seen this evening were-- the sudden storm, the hooded figure, the weird grave-- they made him feel strangely exhilarated, as well as disturbed. The world seemed full of possibilities, both dark and beckoning.

He wished he had been the first to respond to the scream, rather than the last. But now he had caught up with the two ladies, who were jogging more slowly along the country road. Screened as it was by trees on either side, it was impossible to see anything in the middle distance-- only a flickering of city lights in the distance.

The screaming would stop intermittently, and then begin again after a few moments. It was less intense each time.

"It's coming from this direction", said Helen, pointing diagonally from the direction of the road. "We're probably moving away from it. I hope this road branches off somewhere."

"Bloody phone still not working," said Karla, trying her own. "Yours?"

"Nothing", said Helen, after a few moments. "It's really weird."

"We just have to press on," said Laurence, taking the lead, still embarrassed at his previous shilly-shallying. "Come on!"

He couldn't help feeling a certain satisfaction in the fact that Karla and Helen seemed fagged out, while he had plenty of steam left. The only exercise he ever took were long walks, but he took a lot of them. Restlessness was a hound that had stalked him from his early teens.

Nevertheless, ten minutes later, even he was getting tired-- and Karla and Helen had fallen far behind. The lady had stopped screaming some time ago.

Then, around a bend in the road, the monotony of the long country road was suddenly broken. There was a row of three shops-- a dry-cleaners, a newsagent's, and a betting shop. They were all closed and shuttered.

There was also a long, illuminated billboard. Laurence recognised it instantly. It was an advertisement for the movie version of Lord of the Rings-- In Cinemas December 2015 read the caption at the bottom.

He halted to examine it. The artwork, the lettering of the title, and most of the advertisement's features were instantly recognisable. But there was one startling difference. The image on the billboard showed Gandalf, in near-darkness, using the point of his staff as a torch. But it was not Gandalf played by Ian McKellen. It was quite clearly the features of Patrick Stewart lit up by the eerie blue-white glow.

Baffled, Laurence stood there staring, only half-aware of Karla and Helen's panting in the near-distance, drawing closer.

His first thought was that it was a theatrical version. But now-- it quite clearly said in cinemas. Could it possibly be a remake? After one decade? For a movie so vastly expensive and elaborate? And how could he have not have heard any whisper of such a thing?

Once again, the notion that he had actually gone ahead with his suicide, that this whole evening's events were simply the hallucination of a dying brain, came into his mind.

Or perhaps-- perhaps he had gone ahead with his suicide, and this was what was waiting for him on the other side, a punishment for taking his own life?

"Or maybe it's just some kind of joke, Laurence", he muttered to himself, as Karla and Helen finally caught up with him. They were too exhausted to take any interest in the billboard-- both of them instinctively crouched forward, hands on their thighs, breathing in deep lungfuls of air. In all this time, no car had passed them.

"OK", said Karla, after a surprisingly short interval, "Come on!"

She seemed to have caught her second breath. She was ten yards away before Laurence had started to jog after her, still wondering about Patrick Stewart.

This time they didn't have long to run. Quite suddenly, there was a dip in the road, and the lights of a building were visible in the middle distance. A minute later, they could see that it was a pub-- a rather large pub, with quite a few cars parked outside.

"Oh you sweet little thing!" shouted Karla.

Both of them slowed and then came to a halt, almost automatically, seeing that they had so little distance left to cover. Helen was nowhere to be seen.

"I'm going to contact the police about that bastard in the mask" said Karla, viciously. "What a bastard!"

"I saw something weird back there" said Laurence. "It was--"

"Never mind that," Karla said, breaking into a run again. "Come on!"

It was all downhill. A few more moments told them that the pub was called Casey's; and a minute or two later stepped inside.

It was bright and spacious, though its space was divided by low walls and frosted-glass panels. It had comfortable-looking upholstered couches rather than the stools and wooden chairs that were usual in country pubs. An open fire smouldered a few feet away from them. There were two people standing at the bar-- a bald man in a pink shirt, and a girl who looked like a college student. They looked up as Laurence and the women entered. There were a handful of customers here and there-- none of them turned to look at the new arrivals.

"Are you OK?" asked the barman, in a Dublin accent. He had kind, concerned eyes, and he had noticed their air of agitation.

"We're fine" said Karla, quickly. "We heard a woman screaming, not far from here. Screaming like she was being--- well, like something awful was happening."

"We heard that too" said the man. "At least, Shauna was outside having a smoke and she heard it. We phoned the guards. They said they'd look into it right away."

"But I didn't hear a siren," said Karla.

The barman shrugged. "They hardly need one around here, do they?" he asked.

"And maybe they didn't want to scare anyone away" said the girl behind the bar. She was pretty, with black hair and pale skin, but excessively thin.

For a few moments there was silence, Karla and Laurence panting and leaning against the bar, their heads bowed.

"What happened?" asked Karla.

The barman looked surprised. "How would I know?"

"Well, can't you find it? Can't you at least ask?"

The barman nodded, and took his phone from his pocket. Laurence was surprised both by its size and its shininess; it was a rather lurid purple.

Laurence looked at Karla. The anxiety written on her face made him feel rather guilty. He was not taking this situation nearly as much to heart as she was.

"Frank?" asked the barman, in a rather embarrassed voice. "I have a couple of customers here who heard the screams earlier....I hope you don't mind me asking but could you tell me...."

He fell silent for a few moments as the faceless voice on the phone buzzed; then, suddenly, he smiled and said: "Seriously? I've heard it all now. OK, Frank. Thanks a million. Talk to you again."

Putting his phone away into his pocket, still smiling, he looked up at Karla and Laurence and said: "You'll never guess what it was all about."

Neither Karla nor Laurence spoke, so he continued: "A nightmare. A nightmare! Mrs. Hanratty down the road having a nightmare!"

By now some of the other customers were watching the conversation, and there was a ripple of laughter across the pub. Somebody even clapped.

"I find that hard to believe" said Karla.

"Me too" said the barman, with obvious sincerity. "But there you go!"

"Well, how do we know she isn't lying? Maybe she's being pressured to keep quiet?"

"By who?"

"I don't know. Her husband."

"Mrs. Hanratty is a widow. She lives on her own."

There was a television screen behind the bar, with the sound turned down so low it was barely audible. Laurence happened to glance at it at that very moment. A video of Osama Bin Laden, addressing the viewer in grainy footage, with an AK-47 propped behind him, occupied the screen.

The caption read: "New Footage Suspected Genuine."

Laurence pointed at the screen, and Karla's gaze followed her finger. Her eyes widened.

"That's nuts", she said. "Is this the National Enquirer channel or something?"

The barman looked over his shoulder. "Looks like him to me", he said, shrugging.

"It looks like him?" asked Karla. "If that's him, who did the Americans shoot?"

"Now you sound like the one reading the National Enquirer", said the barman, grinning. "What conspiracy theory is this? What are you talking about?"

Karla looked at the barman, and then at Laurence, and then at the screen, her mouth open. She looked very frightened.

At that moment, Helen appeared behind them. She was out of breath, red-cheeked, and agitated-looking.

"He wasn't lying" she said. "He really did it."

"Who?" asked Laurence.

"Ferryman. Or whatever his name might be. As I was walking up here the bus passed me and drove away."

"It did?" asked Karla, now beginning to sound panicked.

"He saw me, too" said Helen. "He slowed down, slid down the window, and said: Don't forget your Monstrous Mystery Tour card for literally thousands of concessions. Exactly those words. Then he just smiled at me, and the bus drove away."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Mystery Tour Chapter Four

It's been a while since I wrote any of Mystery Tour, the horror novel I started serializing last year. Dipping back into it now. Chapter one can be found here, chapter two here, and chapter three here.

The story so far: Laurence is a twenty-something fellow who has lost his job as a teacher and broken up from his girlfriend. He doesn't take this well and decides to jump off a bridge. But just as he's about to do so, a horror-themed mystery tour bus turns up and offers him a free ride. Bad idea, right? Well, he doesn't know he's in a horror novel. He postpones his suicide indefinitely and gets on the bus. The tour-guide is an overbearing fellow in a skull mask called Ferryman (or so he claims). The only other passengers are a middle-aged lady called Helen and a young lady called Karla-- Irish despite the name-- who Laurence thinks is very yummy-looking. The tour-bus runs into a sudden storm which makes it impossible to see outside-- uh, oh!-- though at one point Laurence is sure he sees the sky turn green and a hooded figure walking towards him. Now the bus has stopped at the tour's first sight-- an old cemetery beside an abandoned church-- but just as they are about to enter, they hear a woman's scream in the distance...

Mystery Tour: Chapter Four

Laurence had never heard a scream like it. It seemed to come from the very border of sanity and insanity. He'd never heard anyone scream like this in real life, only footage of disasters and terrorists outrages on TV. It had an awful wrongness about it.

"What the hell?" asked Karl, looking towards Ferryman. "Please tell me that's part of the tour."

Laurence had suspected this might be the case when he looked at the tour guide, as he was the only one of the four who seemed-- from his posture, since his face couldn't be seen-- entirely relaxed. The others had stiffened like frightened cats. But he said, "Nothing to do with me. Nothing to do with us."

Karla looked at him suspiciously, then said: "Well, if it's really nothing to do with the tour, we can't just ignore it. That woman was in trouble."

"I repeat" said Ferryman-- slowly, but without any hint of irritation-- "it has nothing to do with us."

"It is something to do with the tour, isn't it?" asked Karla. But her face was still frightened.

"Nope", said the tall tour guide, turning back towards the churchyard gate. "But I wouldn't worry about it. I think I know who it is and I can tell you she's very exciteable."

"You know this area that well?"

"I am the proverbial much-travelled man", said Ferryman, stepping through the gateway of the churchyard. There was no gate, but nettles and brambles swarmed in the opening. "Now follow me. Our business is with the dead, not the living."

Laurence and the two women stood outside, looking at each other. "It's all part of the show, isn't it?" asked Karla, with no assurance in her voice.

"Probably" said Laurence. "I don't think he'd really..."

As Laurence and Karla stood there, hesitating, Helen walked towards the gate and began to push through the growth. A moment later, they followed her. It was almost entirely dark now; the beam of Ferryman's torch glowed vivdly ahead.

He had already gone a surprising distance away from them, and he was still moving purposefully. They followed him without hurry, as the ground was uneven and the gravestones were clumped closely and irregularly together. Helen had taken Laurence's arm, but Karla-- much to his disappointment-- had not.

Eventually, they came to where Ferryman was standing, now waiting and looking towards them. The glow of his own torch made his skull-face mask shine creepily.

His hand was extended towards a low-gravestone, and the beam of the torch was shining directly upon it. When they were close enough to make out the inscription, Laurence saw that it marked the grave of one Nellie Robertson, born 1833, died 1854. There was no other information or decoration.

And yet the headstone was far from ordinary. Uniquely amongst the nearby stones, it was surrounded by flowers-- or perhaps weeds. Both the darkness of the evening and the glare of the torch made it difficult to tell, and Laurence had never been much of a botanist anyway. He could recognise a rose and a dandelion, but that was about it. But these flowers or weeds did give off a sweet, rather musky scent.

As well as this, there were three small birds on the top of the stone, warbling lustily. They seemed to be the only birds in the graveyard.

"Who is Nellie Robertson, then?" asked Karla.

Ferryman smiled. He waited so long to reply that Laurence expected Karla to impatiently butt in. But then he said: "It's a pretty story. She's a martyr to virginity."

"How so?" asked Helen.

"She worked as a maid in Campion House, yonder", said Ferryman-- and was he gesturing towards the source of the scream? "One day the eldest son of Lord Campion, maddened by her beauty, sought to press his attentions upon her-- to ravish her, in plain language. She fled from him, and he chased her onto a balcony. The fair but virtuous maiden leapt over, perhaps hoping to grab hold of one of the braches of a nearby tree, but plunged to her death."

There was silence for a few moments, filled with the singing of the birds. Then Karla said: "Yeah, right"

"You doubt the veracity of the story?" asked Ferryman, in an ironic purr.

"You bet I do", said Karla. Her voice echoed in the empty graveyard.

"Well, you would be correct" said Ferryman, laughing. "The real story is rather less elevating. Nellie Robertson was a serving maid who stuck a knife into the heart of her employer, Lord Campion, and was hanged for it."

The silence seemed to grow deeper.

"He probably deserved it", said Karla.

"Not by all reports he was a model employer. A philanthropist. He founded a school for the local poor."

"Doesn't mean he wasn't bothering the maids, though."

Ferryman laughed bitterly.

"It's extraordinary, isn't it?", he said. "The psychological need to believe that the cosmos rewards goodness and not evil. What if this act of violence is the very reason that her grave is such a blessed place?"

"It's only a gravestone with a few weeds and birds, and a name that could be anybody's", said Laurence, pretending to be less impressed by the sight than he was. The gravestone certainly had an aura about it. "Some chemical in the soil, maybe. I think you're going to have to do better to impress your paying customers, in the era of Xbox and IMAX".

"Ah, ever the technophobe, Mr. Cahill", said Ferryman. "But I think I have something better, a little distance away. Follow me."

The group turned to follow the guide, and trudged in silence along the uneven ground of the graveyard. It was very quiet. Far away, the engine of a motorbike whined.

Laurence even liked the way Karla walked; hands folded across her breast, head down. A little like a charging bull, but somehow lady-like.

"Cop a load of this, as they say these days" said Ferryman, pointing the torch-light at another grave.

"Good grief!" exclaimed Helen.

"Holy moly" said Karla.

The gravestone at which the torch-light was pointing, which was close to the wall of the cemetery, had no name written across it-- at least, no name in recognizable letters. Symbols that bore no relation to any alphabet Laurence had ever seen across the top. There was something uncanny about their very shape.

The grave-stone itself was tall, and grey, and far less decayed than the ones around it. But the image that was engraved upon the stone was what made the two women cry out.

It was a drawing-- not crude, but very stylized-- of a face...screaming? About to devour something? Its mouth was open so wide that it filled most of the surface of the grave-stone, and its teeth were finely pointed.

The face, though highly simplified-- it was impossible to tell its sex, or even whether it was human-- conveyed an impression of insane rage. It was such a ferocious face that it made Laurence feel a little cold.

"Who is that?" asked Karla, no longer blasé. She stepped a little closer and, tentatively, reached out towards the stone and ran her fingers along the face of it. Laurence was impressed by her boldness.

"I don't know", said Ferryman.

"Well, aren't there...records? Somebody must know!"

"There are parish records in a neighbouring parish, but nothing that seems to pertain to this."

"It must be a joke", said Karla, a little hotly. "There's no body under there."

"I perceive no note of levity", said Ferryman, staring at the stone. Only his words gave any hint of sarcasm-- his tone and his bearing were utterly solemn.

"Some cult", said Helen. "There were a lot of weird cults in the nineteenth century...Freemasons and the like. How did you find out about this?"

"Simply by coming across it", said Ferryman, shrugging. "The first time I noticed it, I--"

But he stopped speaking then, for once again a scream rang through the evening air, making Laurence and the three girls jump. It only took a moment to recognise it as the woman who had been screaming previously.

But this time, the screaming did not stop after a few moment. It just went on, and on, and on.

"We have to find out who that is!", said Karla, already moving towards the graveyard gate. Almost instinctively, the other two followed her.

But Ferryman had not moved. "We don't have time for this", he called after them. "I have a very strict schedule."

Karla stopped, and looking over her shoulder at the tour guide, said: "Are you serious?"

"Deadly serious."

"Is this all part of some elaborate game?"

"Absolutely not."

For a moment, the girl looked at Laurence, as if seeking a cue. Not finding one, she turned back to Ferryman, and shouted: "We're going to have a look and you're going to stay here and wait for us."

"Not happening", said Ferryman. "We live in ten minutes, as per schedule."

"Screw you!" shouted Karla, and began to jog out of the graveyard, almost stumbling several times. A moment later, Helen followed her.

"Leave them, Laurence", said Ferryman, who had almost caught up with Laurence now. "Don't get caught up in this tomfoolery."

"Aren't you the tiniest bit concerned?" asked Laurence, feeling strangely spooked to be left alone with the masked tour guide.

"I am concerned about much bigger things than some silly woman screaming."

"But what if she's being-- raped, or murdered, or kidnapped?"

"What if she is?" asked Ferryman, shrugging.

"This better not be a sick joke", said Laurence, turning and beginning to run after the two women. He hoped with all his heart that it was a sick joke. But somehow, he felt sure that it wasn't.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Prayer Request

Can I ask readers to pray for me. I'm really struggling with things at the moment and I need the Holy Spirit to guide and sustain me. Please pray especially for me to know the right thing to do and to see the direction forward.

I know you will, as you always do, so thank you.

The Russians are Coming!

Or, rather, they're already here. Every day for the past couple of weeks this blog has had a huge amount of traffic directed from websites with the suffix .ru. These sites look so dodgy I daren't even click on them to check them out.

However, just in case there are some REAL Russians here, perhaps surprised to find themselves here, let me just say how much I admire your culture and history. I could listen to someone speaking in Russian all day long, and I value the 'Russian idea' in history and civilization. Nobody can really say what the 'Russian idea' is, which makes it even better. I'd like to go there some day.

The only Russian I can remember meeting was Alexander Baburin, the highest ranking chess player to play for the Irish chess team. He is ethnically Russian and grew up in the Soviet Union. I interviewed him for a student magazine in a McDonald's in Blackrock once. He was very charming.

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Meditation on Snow-Globes

I love snow-globes. Who doesn't love snow-globes? If such a person exists, it's probably not someone you'd like to have with you on a desert island.

I would guess that I'm even fonder of them than most people are, though. I have two snow-globes on my desk in work. One was given to me by a colleague as a Kris Kindle gift (the same colleague just passed and said hello; yes, I'm writing this at work, but I'm manning a service desk so that's OK.)

The other snow globe was given to me as a Christmas present by my wife, and it's my favourite Christmas present ever.

Both of the snow-globes on my desk are Christmas snow-globes. The one my colleague gave me shows Santa's workshop. The one my wife gave me shows a nativity scene. The Santa's workshop one is battery-operated and, when supplied with batteries, will perform a light show and play music. The Nativity scene has no such bells and whistles but is much bigger, more solid, and more handsomely produced.

Snow-globes are a popular motif in cinema and story-telling, though now I come to think of it only one example comes to mind; the most famous example, the snow-globe that Kane drops at the beginning of Citizen Kane, while uttering his dying word: "Rosebud!".

Since I wrote that sentence another example occurs to me; the snow-globe in the final scene of the medical drama St. Elsewhere, a television show I've never seen, but whose final scene I've read about. If you don't want to know what happens in that final scene, skip to the next paragraph. For everyone else, here it is; it is suggested that the entire series was a prolonged daydream in the mind of an autistic boy, based upon a snow-globe containing a model of the hospital at the show's centre.

In both of those examples, the snow globe seems to stand for two things; immense wistfulness, and a kind of ultimacy. 'Rosebud', in Citizen Kane, is assumed by the journalists investigating Kane's life to be the key to his story. And, of course, the entire series of St. Elsewhere, in a sense, happens in the snow globe.

When I think of snow-globes, wistfulness is the dominant atmosphere in my own mind. Perhaps this is because snow-globes are usually connected with childhood. They are toys as much as ornaments, and they often contain scenes appropriate to childhood.

Childhood itself seems to have a certain wistfulness native to it. I don't remember being a child. I have flashes, but they're only flashes; they are like the friezes from Pompeii. I do, however, remember being immensely nostalgic and wistful about childhood even when I was a child. I know I'm not the only person who feels this. The horror writer Clive Barker made much the same claim.

Perhaps this is because the idealized childhood that we all would have liked-- and I'm not criticizing that ideal, because ideals are important-- is rather rare. Or perhaps childhood, just like a snowglobe, can only be seen from the outside-- and even a child has to step outside his own experience to look at it. Unselfconsciousness is the very essence of childhood-- and when a child becomes self-conscious about his own childhood, he becomes an adult for a moment.

Or perhaps snow-globes make us feel wistful for that very reason-- that we can never get inside them. We can never enter the world of the snow-globe, except imaginatively. We can't touch the figures under the glass, unless we were to smash the glass.

This is also part of the charm. The snow-globe is a little world of its own, out of bounds but also unchanging. It inspires us with the same feelings that Keats expresses in "Ode to a Grecian Urn" (which is, in my view, a candidate for the greatest poem in English language):

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

(Having quoted this, though, it strikes me that its air of grandeur and loftiness is rather out of keeping with the atmosphere of most snow-globes, which are picturesque rather than grandiose. And there is a big difference between Keats's urn and a snow-globe; a snow-globe is not entirely immobile, but is somewhat kinetic, since you can shake the globe and the snowflakes whirl. That, after all, is its whole appeal.)

To me, snow-globes evoke not only childhood but the past in general. The poignancy of the past is that it is completed. Nineteen-eighty-five is as inaccessible as Ancient Egypt. You can't go there. Everything back then was as solid and real as it is today, but it has now disappeared completely. The Mount Everest and Westminster Bridge and Stonehenge of nineteen-eighty-five no longer exist. All the eggs that were hatched that year have been eaten; all the school timetables are completely irrelevant now; all the business plans drawn up have either failed or succeeded. Despite all the videotapes that were made, all the diaries that were kept, all the sound recordings in archives from that time, the overwhelming majority of moments in that year are irretrievably lost, even to those who experienced them. You can look at a photograph taken in 1985 and know that something real and tangible lay just beyond that corner, just behind that wall, just through that window; but nobody can look now to see what it was. At the time, everything was up in the air; now everything is fixed in place forever.

(And yet, as I said above, a snow-globe isn't entirely immobile-- you can shake the flakes-- and neither is the past. We don't see the past in freeze frames, we see it as a drama in which things happen-- though they can only ever happen one way, the way they actually happened. So a snow-globe's combination of fixity and motion is a perfect metaphor.)

As well as being a symbol of the past, I find snow-globes to be a symbol-- or maybe even an example-- of wholeness. Wholeness is something that we strive towards in life, but we never attain-- though sometimes we attain a kind of working approximation of it. But even this is rare and fragile.

All my life I have been haunted by the questions; What is a moment, and what makes it a whole? What is a story, and what makes it a whole? What is a thought? What is a journey? How can we ever pluck one of these wholes out of the all-encompassing flux?

The easiest answer, and one that leaves me both unsatisfied and rather queasy, is: "There are no wholes. There is only the flux." Not only does this seem to be refuted by how we talk and act, every day, but it's a singularly horrible idea. An opposition to this idea has become one of my guiding principles, one of the ways I judge the world and its inhabitants. The more a person or a school of thought is infected with the idea that "there is only the flux", the less I like them (or it). This might seem harsh, since it seems like a purely philosophical idea. But I think it's more than philosophical. I think it reflects a desire, and an ignoble desire. We know the rhetoric loved by these kind of people: "Childhood is a modern idea...gender is a social construct....Irishness is a cultural fiction...Catholic doctrine has changed over the centuries...X is fluid, Y is indeterminate, Z is imaginary..."

Against all this gooeyness, and this all this decadent love of gooeyness, I prize that which is distinct and whole and separate; even if it is not perfectly distinct or whole or separate. I don't see why we can't cheer for one side, instead of the other. Nor do I see that nominalism-- the doctrine that there is nothing but the flux-- is any more obviously true than essentialism-- the belief that things are real and have an essential nature. I am in favour of man and woman, and childhood, and the nation, and stories, and moments, and journeys, and the integrity of each thing being what it is and not something else.

And this is part of what a snow-globe symbolizes for me; something that is itself, rather than a mere episode in the flux; whether it is the elves in Santa's grotto, or the Holy Family caught in a fleeting and eternal moment on the first Christmas.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wit and Wisdom Not Wanted

Well, that may be an overstatement, but the website where I put all the articles from my 'Wit and Wisdom of G.K. Chesterton' column hasn't exactly taken off like I hope it would, with a tiny dribble of visitors. Shoot. Somehow I thought that would be a winner.

Anyway, I've been updating it since-- here is the latest article.

And here is the site itself, in case you hadn't seen it before.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Prayer

Last year, I made an 'Easter prayer' at this time. I think it might be a custom worth following.

My first prayer is for my beloved Michelle, and a prayer of thanks for a course of study she just completed with flying colours. I have other personal intentions that are right at the top of the list, but that I don't want to make public (though they are perfectly ordinary and not at all unusual). Still, I mention them because I never want them to lack precedence.

My second prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving for my father's recovery and apparent convalescence. He has had to make some drastic lifestyle changes and, though he is making no complaint, I know he is finding it hard. I pray that he will be strengthened in this.

I pray for all my family members who are not Christians (or believers at all) to be given the gift of faith.

I pray for the children and the adult who were baptised at the Easter Vigil in Ballymun last night to persevere in the faith, and to enjoy earthly happiness and security. I pray also for the woman who approached me after Mass, asking me to pray for an intention which she kept confidential (and who asked me what country I came from, saying: "You don't have an Irish accent"!)

I pray that traditional marriage may be upheld in the referendum to be held in Ireland in May.

I pray for all the Christians now being persecuted and living in fear all over the world.

I pray for the Jewish people all over the world.

I pray that the arts, entertainments and manners of our society will reflect more gentleness, idealism, chivalry, respect and wonder. I pray especially that childhood innocence will be protected and valued, in this era when there are so many forces ranged against it. I pray, too, that our societies will come to have a greater honour and esteem for old age.

I pray that the national traditions of every nation, the regional traditions of every region, the folk traditions of every people, and the family traditions of every family will be strengthened and celebrated. I pray especially that the Irish people will come to a greater love of their own traditions and distinctiveness.

I pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and for all our priests and our seminarians.

I pray for everybody who feels lonely, unloved and inadequate-- that they will find companionship, love and a sense of their own worth.

I pray for all my blog readers, those whose names (or aliases) I know, and those whose names I don't know.

I pray for Pope Francis, for the Holy Catholic Church, and for all Christian churches and communions around the world.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Even Odder Than Usual

Some readers have been kind enough to reassure me that my 'rambling essays' are not the worst thing in the world, after I resolved to give them up recently. I'm glad to hear it, because I do like writing them! I also like putting ALL my thoughts on cyber-paper, even those not immediately related to anything Papistical.

So I am going to write about something idiosyncratic even by my standards. The video above, as a matter of fact.

I have quite a fascination with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the controversial Premier of Queensland from 1968 to 1987. (I first heard about him through a satirical song by the English band The Stranglers, which intrigued me.) He was a right-wing populist who grew up in a poor farming family, became a very wealthy farmer through his own efforts, and then entered politics. He was a partisan of low tax and put a huge emphasis on economic development. He also had an authoritarian streak; he declared a state of emergecy to deal with protests against the South African rugby team playing a competitive game in Queensland (this was in the Apartheid era, obviously). He permitted the demolition of a very historic hotel in Brisbane, having it done at night to avoid protests. He also had little respect for environmentalists or for the aboriginal rights lobby.

He was a devout Lutheran, although he was more likely to have the Christian churches in Australia opposing him than supporting him. But he did take his faith seriously, in his own way; as Wikipedia puts it: "He demonstrated a strong moralistic streak, banning Playboy magazine, opposing school sex education and condom vending machines and in 1980 proposing a ban on women flying south for abortions. In May 1985 the government conducted a series of raids on so-called abortion clinic." (This is certainly a lot more of a genuinely conservative social policy than Margaret Thatcher, another politican who was seen as economically liberal but socially conservative. She wasn't really very socially conservative, apart from rhetoric.)

The first thing I should say is that I don't hold up Joh-Bjelke Petersen as an admirable figure. I find him fascinating, and he certainly annoyed a lot of the right people (including The Stranglers, even though I like their songs), but there is too much in his career and his whole attitude that I couldn't agree with. His hostility to unions and his enthusiasm for strike-breaking is not an attitude I share, though I can see that unions (especially in industries that are public utilities) can abuse their power. Nor do I think that tearing down a historic hotel is something that should be celebrated. There were also accusations of gerrymandering and corruption in his regime, which seem quite well-founded.

Nevertheless, I have always had a fascination with people who fly in the face of fashionable opinion, who ruffle feathers, and who are only ever mentioned with scorn by the sophisticated and right-on. I can't help a sneaking admiration for such people, most of the time.

He's also a colourful character. He had famous catch-phrases like, "Don't you worry about that!" (the title of his memoirs). I've always wanted a catch-phrase so I envy that. He is said to have slept in a cow-shed six nights a week for ten yeas, when he was working his way up to wealth as a small farmer.

Here are some of the reasons I find both Joh-Bjelke Petersen and this video fascinating:

1) Australia is another world to most of us. This blog has more readers in America than anywhere else, as I see from my blog statistics. After that, most of its readers are in Ireland and England. Some are in mainland Europe. I don't know if anyone from Australia reads this (please say hi if you do!). The notion of 'the Anglosphere', a cultural community formed of English-speaking nations, has become fairly well-known recently, but the truth is that people in America, Ireland and the UK share a cultural world that rather excludes Australia. We don't know about the ordinary life of Australians in the same way that we know about the ordinary life of Americans and British and (to a lesser extent) the Irish; we don't know about their pop culture references, TV shows, politics, advertising, current affairs, and so on. And yet, they are so similar to us; English-speaking, predominantly white and of European descent, Christian or post-Christian, liberal democratic, and so forth. Whenever I do find mself interested in any story from Australia, this contradiction is part of the fascination.

2) I don't share Joh Bjelke-Petersen's free market views, but I find them strangely poetic and romantic. The older I get, the more centrist I become in my economic views, and the less time I have for people who use either 'capitalism' or 'socialism' as dirty words (or rallying cries, for that matter). I believe in private enterprise and the profit motive; I also believe in government regulation and social welfare.

But the romance of the free market...there is something thrilling about it, as an idea. The idea that work, thrift and initiative, if freed from regulation, would bring about a better society on their own is very appealing. Partly this is in account of its simplicity. Partly it because it promises to free us from a lot of guilt and concern about poverty and homelessness and exploitation and things like that. How liberating it would be, to feel we could in good conscience ignore all the lectures and sermons on these topics! Besides, the idea that anyone willing to work hard will get ahead, or at least stay afloat, is a very encouraging thought. (Unfortunately, I believe there are lots of people who do work hard and practice thrift but who sink anyway-- or who barely keep their heads above water.)

I sympathise with the romance of commerce, too. There is something strangely reassuring and jolly in the sight of an 'Open 24 Hours' sign, of a shop where the lights never go out and there is always someone waiting to serve you. One of the things I like about staying in hotels is knowing that there is always someone on the reception desk, even in the middle of the night. Perhaps that relates back to a childhood hatred of bed-time and "lights out"; perhaps it goes back to prehistoric race terrors of night and winter. Intellectually, I am all in favour of a limited working week and of shared public holidays (and of the 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign in Britain); but I can't help but be depressed by the sight of a street full of shuttered shops and businesses, or the recorded voice message on a telephone telling you a business's hours of opening. (And not because either might be inconvenient; it goes beyond that.) We all find the phrase 'the city that never sleeps' evocative. That's the poetry I'm talking about.

(Before moving on from this point, such as it is, I should point out that my imagination can just as easily be stirred by the opposite. I love the movie Hot Fuzz, which features a high-powered London cop being exiled to a sleepy village, since he is showing up all the other police on the London force. I especially like the part where the Inspector in charge of the station announces (at 11:30 a.m.) that it's time for lunch, since it's the new guy's first day. I also love remembering the several days during Ireland's Big Freeze in 2010, when the library remained closed because of snow. It was such a delicious feeling, several evenings in a row, to get a text telling you not to venture out into the cold next morning! And I love to quote Chesterton's phrase: "The inn does not point to the road; the roads points to the inn.")

3) I like the video itself because it's a video of two men-- one elderly and snowy-haired, one very cosily middle-aged and avuncular-- chewing the fat over the old days. What could be more appealing? I like Joh Bjelke's sleeveless jumper and comfortable armchair. I like the interviewer's thick moustache and 'grizzled veteran' look. In fact, in trying to describe what I like about its atmosphere, I have found myself straining to avoid repetition of the adjectives 'avuncular' and 'cosy'. But why should I? Avuncular and cosy. Cosy and acunvular. Cosily avuncular. That sums up the appeal of the interview to me in two perfect words. (The interviewer, of course, is the avuncular one.)

But, most of all, I like the fact that they are looking back at events they both experienced first-hand. (The interviewer was one of Joh's 'chooks'-- the press pack he dealt with regularly.) To me, the past imperfect is a thing of great beauty. Whenever people fall into reminiscing about their own experiences, the sublime is not far away. "I remember the time..." is every bit as magical as "Once upon a time..."

Perhaps this is simply the mysteriousness of the past. The past is both real and unreal at the same time. It has no tangible, concrete existence, and yet-- there it is. It can be conjured out of nowhere, out of nothing. And, when we recall it, we are not simply 'playing it again' as though it was a DVD. It is a creative act, an act of storytelling, an act of re-creation.  When somebody tells you the story of their lives-- or even a story from their lives-- they are staging a drama, making a statement about the world, their view of the world, and the meaning of their own experiences. How can that not be thrilling?

 If anyone actually watches the video and finds it at all interesting, please do leave a comment. I suppose that all writing, other than purely informative writing, is an effort to get someone else excited about something that excites you. I'm always wondering how far I have succeeded, especially when it's something odd like this.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Holy Triduum to You All!

I came back from Maundy Thursday Mass a few hours ago. I posted this thought on Facebook, and it got a few enthusiastic responses:

One thing I like about the Catholic liturgical year is that it is independent of you. If you go to a Maundy Thursday Mass and you are not in a particularly 'spiritual' frame of mind, and maybe you are thinking of other things, and you can't concentrate on prayer....the sense of occasion and solemnity just carries you along, to some extent. And even if you're 'not feeling it' at the time, it sticks in your memory. It takes the pressure off, you don't have to be a spiritual athlete. In the same way, if you go to Mass every week, the prayers and the hymns and the readings enter into your memory and your soul by absorption. When people criticise organised religion for 'mumbled prayers' or mechanical spiritual exercises they have really hit on one of its strengths. I believe that it's the things that seep into us when we are not looking or thinking about them-- through the corner of the eye, so to speak-- that have the deepest effect on us.

I post this here because I feel I should post something for the Triduum, and that seems to fit the bill. And what else can you say about the great feasts that they don't already (so to speak) say for themselves? Chesteton expressed this brilliantly in The Everlasting Man: 

“Every attempt to amplify that story has diminished it. The task has been attempted by many men of real genius and eloquence as well as by only too many vulgar sentimentalists and self-conscious rhetoricians. The tale has been retold with patronizing pathos by elegant sceptics and with fluent enthusiasm by boisterous best-sellers. It will not be retold here. The grinding power of the plain words of the Gospel story is like the power of mill-stones; and those who can read them simply enough will feel as if rocks had been rolled upon them. Criticism is only words about words; and of what use are words about such words as these? What is the use of word-painting about the dark garden filled suddenly with torchlight and furious faces? ‘Are you come out with swords and staves as against a robber? All day I sat in your temple teaching, and you took me not.’ Can anything be added to the massive and gathered restraint of that irony; like a great wave lifted to the sky and refusing to fall? ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me but weep for yourselves and for your children.’ As the High Priest asked what further need he had of witnesses, we might well ask what further need we have of words. Peter in a panic repudiated him: ‘and immediately the cock crew; and Jesus looked upon Peter, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.’ Has anyone any further remarks to offer? Just before the murder he prayed for all the murderous race of men, saying, ‘They know not what they do’; is there anything to say to that, except that we know as little what we say? Is there any need to repeat and spin out the story of how the tragedy trailed up the Via Dolorosa and how they threw him in haphazard with two thieves in one of the ordinary batches of execution; and how in all that horror and howling wilderness of desertion one voice spoke in homage, a startling voice from the very last place where it was looked for, the gibbet of the criminal; and he said to that nameless ruffian, ‘This night shalt thou be with my in Paradise’? Is there anything to put after that but a full-stop? Or is anyone prepared to answer adequately that farewell gesture to all flesh which created for his Mother a new Son?”


So I will content myself with wishing all my readers a holy and peaceful Triduum. I often ask you for prayers; I keep you in mine, as well.