Friday, July 31, 2015

Chesterton and Ireland

A comment from Roger Buck on my series of posts about an ideal Ireland-- in which he wondered about the Chesterbelloc's connection to Ireland-- has led me to repost this little talk I gave to our Chesterton Society five years ago. For some reason the italics stopped working about half-way through, so that's why book titles are unitalicized:

Since this is the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland, there could be hardly a subject more appropriate than Chesterton and Ireland. Unfortunately the subject is a vast one, and far beyond my capacities, so all I can offer here is a few observations.

Ireland played an important role in Chesterton’s life. His most famous literary creation, the detective-priest father Brown, was based upon an Irish Catholic priest, Father John O’Connor—the very priest who received Chesterton into the Catholic Church in 1922. The ceremony took place in a shed with a corrugated tin roof, since Battersea—where Chesterton lived—had no Catholic Church of its own.

Another Irishman who played an important part in Chesterton’s life was George Bernard Shaw, who was an intellectual opponent and a much-esteemed friend. Chesterton and Shaw admired each other immensely, though they disagreed on almost every subject imaginable. Shaw said of Chesterton: “He was a man of colossal genius.” Chesterton said of Shaw: “ It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

W.B. Yeats was another Irish writer who Chesterton admired immensely and often quoted, often in passing and without attribution—which is surely the best form of tribute to any writer. He described him as “by far the greatest poet who has written in English for decades”.

And to borrow the title of one Yeats’s works, it may be argued that Chesterton viewed Ireland as 'the land of heart’s desire'. Ireland was, it may be said, an embodiment of everything he admired—it was a piously Catholic country, it was a land of small farmers that had been relatively untouched by industrialisation and big business, and it was small.

To take the first point first. Chesterton had a love of smallness that is a running motif throughout all his work. In probably his greatest book, the little volume of apologetics called Orthodoxy, he complains of those scientifically-minded secularists who rhapsodise about the size of the universe, saying:

These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

In his much-admired novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—incidentally, this was said to be a book that Michael Collins admired—he evokes a London divided into tiny principalities, and his pleasure in describing the flags and heraldry and cermonies they employ is obvious. He was a staunch defender of the family, and a lifelong enemy of Imperialism. One of his famous tropes was the story of St. George fighting the dragon. His famous long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, describes the battle of King Alfred against the Danes. It is perhaps significant that this occurred at a time when Christian England had shrunk to a portion of the country, the rest of it occupied by the Danelaw of the pagans. It is irreverent to suppose that Chesterton secretly wished to trim a dozen or counties so from the edges of England, but he was a lifelong Little Englander—in the best sense of that term—and he was opposed to the Empire not only for the oppression it inflicted on other peoples, but for the unwelcome grandeur and pomp it bestowed on his own country. To Chesterton, the true England was the England of Chaucer, not the England of Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt. It should be remembered that his opposition to Imperialism, which we presume would be de rigeur to an intellectual, came at a time when British Imperialism was highly respectable amongst the cultured classes—even progressive writers like Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw often supported imperialism, seeing it as a step towards the collectivism of their dreams.

Chesterton came to prominence during the Boer War, when he went against the current of national opinion—both the Liberal and Conservative parties, along with most intellectuals, supported the war. Chesterton, an unknown young journalist at the time, hated the jingoism and triumphalism that the war unleashed amongst the English people. He believed that moneyed interests had driven England to go to war against the South African republics. The parallels with Anglo-Irish history are obvious—and it should also be noted that Chesterton was raised in a liberal family who would have been firm supporters of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule.
This love of smallness might seem in contradiction to the second aspect of Ireland that Chesterton admired—its Catholicism. Catholicism is anything but a minority faith, and Protestant England could successfully pose for many centuries as St. George against the Dragon of Catholic Europe.

Even though Chesterton, as I have mentioned, did not convert to the Catholic Church until 1922—when he was forty-eighy years old, and after about two decades of championing Christianity against all comers—all of his works are so Catholic in tone that Catholic readers might be surprised to realize that his road to Rome stretched so long. He had a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which his biographer and Maisie Ward described as “chronic”, writing odes to her even in his Unitarian boyhod. He was an outspoken admirer of England’s medieval and pre-Reformation past.

When he first became a Christian, Chesterton assumed a position much like C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”. In Orthodoxy, written in 1908, he wrote: "These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed.”

But that question is inescapable, and it seems surprising that so bold a thinker as Chesterton remained an Anglican, since all his instincts seemed to propel him towards the Catholic Church. There has been almost as much speculation on the reasons for this hesitation as there has been on Hamlet’s tardiness in bumping off his uncle. Many say that the principal reason was his beloved wife Frances’s Anglo-Catholicism; Chesterton feared his conversion would grieve her. In fact, she followed him into the Church some years later (entirely on her own initative, she insisted). Another reason given is that Chesterton—who for all his willingness to castigate his home country, even writing a book titled the Crimes of England, was passionately patriotic—considered Catholicism to be an unEnglish religion. (If we find this a rather feeble reason, we may note that the English writer Peter Hitchens, whose recent book The Rage Against the God has been well-reviewed in Catholic circles, has given much the same reason for remaining an Anglican, despite his dissatisfaction with the modernising spirit in Anglicanism.)

In any case, the point is that even before his eventual conversion, Chesterton was an essentially Catholic writer, and here is another fascination that Ireland held for him. But it wasn’t just the majority denomination of Ireland that appealed to him. It was the piety of the people. All his life Chesterton praised and appealed to the common man above all cliques and elites—one of his anthologies of essays even bears the title The Common Man. But he was well aware that the common man in England was, already by the time he was writing, not a practicing Christian. The common man of Ireland, on the contrary, was.
In his critical study of Chaucer, Chesterton lamented this difference between medieval England and modern England—a degeneration from an objective, public religion held by all to a subjective, private religion held by some. He wrote:

"This is perhaps the deepest difference between medieval and modern life, and the difference is so great that many never imagine it, because it is impossible to describe it. We may even say that the modern world is more religious, because the religious are more religious….But we may be practically certain that if there is a modern man like the Miller of the Reeve, he has not got any religion at all. He certainly would not go on a religious pilgrimage, or perform any religious duty at all…the modern problem is more and more the problem of keeping the company together at all; and the company was kept together because it was going to Canterbury."

However, in 1932, Chesterton attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and witnessed a living display of popular piety. In a slim volume on the subject, titled Christendom in Dublin, he wrote:

"Nobody who was been in Dublin for a week as I have been during the Eucharistic Congress can doubt that Ireland is passionately religious; and especially that the Irish populace is passionately religious….Nobody who has lived in England all his life, as I have lived in England, can doubt that modern England, with its many manly and generous virtues, has become largely indifferent to religion."

In his book on George Bernard Shaw, he could write, in the same vein::

"The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth."

How melancholy it is to read those words today, and feel the transformation that has occurred.

The third characteristic of Ireland that endeared it to Chesterton was its preponderance of small farms. We are so used to seeing this aspect of Ireland’s history satirised, as a source of greed, loneliness and narrow-mindedness—for instance, in The Field by John B. Keane—that it might be surprising to learn that Chesterton, along with many of his contemporaries, hailed it as the ideal economic system. For many years he edited The Distributist Review. The philosophy of distributism was sometimes compressed into the slogan “three acres and a cow” for every citizen. It was as hostile to big business as it was to socialism, and advocated the widest distributism of property feasible. In his book Irish Impressions, Chesterton describes travelling down a road in the North-West of the country, and noticing that the harvest on the right side of the road, which consisted of small farms, was neatly gathered, while the harvest on the left side of the road, a large modern estate, was “rotting in the rain”. He wrote:

"Now I do, as a point of personal opinion, believe that the right side of the road was really the right side of the road. That is, I believe it represented the right side of the question; that these little pottering peasants had got hold of the true secret, which is missed both by Capitalism and Collectivism."

But Chesterton’s solicitude for Ireland when further than mere admiration. As a patriotic Englishman, he admitted to a sense of vicarious guilt when it came to England’s past in Ireland. In his essay “Paying for Patriotism”, which argues that a patriot should feel shame for his country’s misdeeds as well as pride in its achievements, he ironically wrote:

"It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered."

But for all Chesterton’s generosity towards the Irish, he was not an uncritical admirer of this country’s political and intellectual life. One notion that drew his satire was the cult of the Celt, which was very fashionable at the time he was writing. In Celts and Celtophiles, he wrote:

"It is impossible to hear without impatience of the attempt so constantly made among her modern sympathizers to talk about Celts and Celticism. Who were the Celts? I defy anybody to say. Who are the Irish? I defy any one to be indifferent, or to pretend not to know. Mr. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish genius who has appeared in our time, shows his own admirable penetration in discarding altogether the argument from a Celtic race. But he does not wholly escape, and his followers hardly ever escape, the general objection to the Celtic argument."
To Chesterton, a nation was a spiritual entity, while a race was merely a pesudo-scientific construct.

Considering Chesterton’s sympathy with Irish national opinion, it might be a surprise to learn that his longest Irish-themed book, Irish Impressions, published in 1919, drew on Chesterton’s attemps to recruit Irish men into the British Army during the Great War. Chesterton was an enthusiastic supporter of World War One, and remained one until his death. Given Ireland’s massive hostility towards conscription, it is perhaps indicative of Chesterton’s popularity in Ireland that he was treated, as his book shows, with courtesy.

Chesterton himself described the idea of Irish conscription as “rank raving madness”; and yet he still appealed to the Irish to volunteer in what he say as a defence of European civilization. He wrote: “If the Irish were what Cromwell thought they were, they might well confine their attention to Hell and Connaught, and have no sympathy to spare for France. But if the Irish are what Wolfe Tone thought they were, they must be interested in France, as he was interested in France. In short, if the Irish are barbarians, they need not trouble about other barbarians sacking the cities of the world; but if they are citizens, they must trouble about the cities that are sacked”. Even today, despite the best efforts of historical revisionism, I think this is an argument that would find few sympathizers in Ireland.

He described the Easter Rising in the same book as “a black and insane blunder”, since the Irish had attacked the British Empire at the one moment when its cause happened to be just. “Does anybody”, he wrote, “want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side of the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten?”. Considering the verdict of history on World War One, we may now find a rather bitter irony in the rhetorical question.

But, like all great authors, Chesterton is doomed to be reduced to a handful of familiar quotations; and of all the books and articles he wrote upon Ireland, all that seems certain to endure is the puckish quatrain from the Ballad of the White Horse;

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (V)

At this point, as I launch into my third post on cultural and social nationalism, readers could be excused for getting frustrated. The title of this series is The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of, and here I am still probing the philosophy of nationalism. Why the heck don't I just write about what sort of cultural nationalism I would like to see, in its concrete particulars?

Well, I will get to that. And the truth is partly that my subject escaped from me, and that I got carried away. But it's also the case that, when it comes to nationalism (for want of a better word, and I have been struggling to know what word to use throughout) I care less about the concrete particulars than I do about the basic attitude. My ideal is an Ireland with a particular attitude towards its own national identity, and how that attitude then manifests itself is not that important to me.

My central question might be, how prominently should national identity loom in our collective consciousness? How much of our attentions should it occupy?

And my answer is: not that much. Not really. A very small percentage. I see it as something that is mostly in the background.

But I do think it should occupy some of our attention, and on a fairly regular basis. I think there are two basic attitudes to national identity, amongst those who think it matters at all. It's the same as the two attitudes to language amongst lexicographers. That is, there is a descriptive attitude, and a prescriptive attitude.

The descriptive attitude-- which is the fashion amongst lexicographers when it comes to language, and also amongst sociologists and cultural studies professors when it comes to national identity-- is that national identity is simply what it is. It's there. It is, in a way, as impersonal and matter-of-fact as the weather. It's something that has to be taken into account when formulating public health policy and business plans, or interpreting social trends. We might celebrate it or deplore it, but it is what it is.

The prescriptive attitude is one that seeks to preserve and shape national identity. It has a concerned attitude, rather than a scientific attitude. This, of course, is my attitude.

(Of course, these are both extremes, and most people are neither one nor the other entirely. Cultural studies professors, for instance, may be very open in their attitudes to language change or cuisine, but they will definitely be very prescriptive when it comes to political correctness, where this comes into conflict with some national characteristic-- as it often does, since political correctness tends to homogenize everything. And even the most totalitarian cultural nationalist could hardly have a programme for everything.)

How prescriptive should we be? How prescriptive can we be?

Once again, I don't think we can be all that prescriptive.

A nation is something intrinsically anarchic. Come to think of it, human society in general is intrinsically anarchic. Human nature is anarchic. Life is anarchic.

I can think of so many illustrations of this anarchism. Stepping into a back garden that has been neglected for a while is one that is particularly vivid. The sheer tropical abundance of the weeds and nettles is startling. When did they spring up? They grow so quickly, it seems silly you can't actually see them growing as you look. It's as though they do it when your back is turned. And then there are the critters crawling, creeping, hopping, and sliding all around you, blithely indifferent that this is somebody's property. And that spade that's leaning against the back of the house, how is there rust on it already? And that chocolate bar wrapper that must have blown in through the gate, how are the dyes faded on it already so that it is almost white?

I could almost write a whole article (or a poem) about this phenomenon, life's tendency to surprise us with its own abundance. History and experience, custom and memory, pile up far quicker than we expect them to. I don't want all my illustrations to suggest entropy and decay and wilderness. This applies as much to production and achievement as it does to decline and fall. It's like the moment when you realise you've gone from being a neophyte at some activity to being something of an old hand at it.

(Or take the internet. When did the internet cease to be new? When did everybody get an email address? When did 'cyberspace' cease to have a futuristic sound-- insofar as anyone says it at all? It just seemed to happen one night, while we all slept.)

Life is an anarchy, and the last thing that any nation can be is an intentional community (the academic term used for hippy communes and utopian societies and the like).

The twentieth century, as we never cease to be reminded, saw the catastrophic failure of social engineering on a grand scale. Italian fascism and Nazi Germany tried to legislate all social and cultural activity. (The Nazis called this Gleichshaltung, a word that appeals to me, and that means 'coordination'.) Marxist regimes, along with social and cultural engineering, tried to bring about a 'command economy', whose disastrous failure we all know about.

W.B. Yeats, who was intrigued by Italian fascism at the beginning, eventually rejected it decisively with the withering comment: "Only dead sticks can be tied into convenient bundles." (The term 'fascism' comes from the 'fasces', a bundle of wooden rods which signify discipline and control.)

My argument would be that there has been an over-reaction to the failure of these regimes, that the stigma of fascism or communism or totalitarianism now hangs over every aspiration towards collective identity, or every appeal to collective identity.

I like liberal democracy. I like its messiness. I like its "incorrigibly plural" nature. I like its tendency to give rise to sub-cultures and factions and fads and every sort of eccentricity. I don't want a suffocating sameness.

But I think there is room for shared identity and for pluralism. And I'm not talking about a watered-down, minimalistic, 'civic patriotism'-- which seems to me a contradiction in terms.

The only sort of patriotism that interests me is a patriotism that is particular, that is rooted in particular traditions and memories and associations.

As I said earlier, I think it should be something that is mostly in the background-- like the weather, or like Christmas.

In my ideal Ireland, Irishness would matter to the vast majority of the Irish people. Not all of them. I would not want a society devoid of determined cosmopolitans, or of the sort of people who are so besotted with some other culture that they identify with it, or indeed of ethnic minorities. In my ideal Ireland, however, there would be little support for the idea that minorities should be perpetually resentful of the majority, or that the majority (or the State) should be inhibited from celebrating national culture at the risk of excluding minorities. That's all nonsense.

Of course, some people would be more exercised about Irishness than others, and most people would get hotter and colder about it at different times, and the nation as  whole would go through similar phases. But there would always be a background commitment to cultural and social nationalism-- one that would be several notches higher than what we have today. (Though, since I started writing these posts, I've been noticing that there is rather more of it about than I usually think.)

The analogy with Christmas is a good one in this regard. Some people are Christmas nuts, others are rather dutiful about Christmas, other people are madly enthusiastic about it some years and dutiful about it other years, but nearly everybody participates to some degree. I would like Irish cultural and social nationalism to be the same. This same analogy shows that it doesn't have to be suffocating or stifling. Do people only do festive things all Christmas long? Of course not. Similarly, it doesn't take much to create a Christmas atmosphere; a few strings of tinsel are enough.

(While I'm talking about Christmas...I've mentioned this before, but one December a female friend of mine, who was recovering from a traumatic break-up, told me that she was going to ignore Christmas completely that year. Being a big Christmas man, I was shocked. Subsequently, though, this particular image has grown to be of far more consequence to me than she would have ever imagined. I like the idea of somebody ignoring Christmas one year. I like the fact that life is so rich we can sometimes be blasé about it. As I said in a previous post; I don't think you're living your life to the hilt if you spend all your time whitewater rafting or swimming with dolphins or writing poetry. Some of it at least should be spent watching DVD box sets in your pyjamas, all day long.)

So I would like most people to make some kind of effort at a self-conscious Irishness, regularly enough.


Well, by naming their cats after Irish mythological figures, of course.

Not just cats, though, and not just mythological figures. The same applies to houses. I don't mind people naming their houses St. Rita's or Padre Pio or Tivoli or anything they like. But, in my ideal Ireland, rather more people-- more than half, maybe-- would name their houses St. Colmcille's or Iona or St. Brendan's or Cois na Farraige (By the Sea).

And by giving their children Irish names, which is actually very popular these days.

And by singing Irish songs at parties-- and going out of their way to learn them. (There is a magazine called Ireland's Own and its lyrics page has the caption, "If you feel like singing...sing an Irish song!" I've just learned that this was a catch-phrase belonging to an Irish radio presenter.)

And by entrepreneurs giving Irish names to their companies and products and corporate headquarters and hotels and bed and breakfasts. And by the same entrepreneurs using Irish imagery (Celtic crosses, Celtic knotwork, round towers) in their marketing and design. (It doesn't matter if it's cheesy. That's absolutely fine.)

And by Irish rock musicians using "Celtic" themes in their music. There was a vogue for this in the seventies and eighties, led by the splendid band Horslips. They made several concept albums based on Irish folk epics. The genre itself is sometimes given the witty name "Sham-rock".

And by Irish people buying more postcards (and playing cards, and mugs, and tea-towels, and calenders) that show thatched cottages and portraits of Irish writers and scenes from country fairs of yore. It always makes me sad when I hear that these things are produced for the "tourist market".

And by more documentaries and seminars and debates about the soul of Ireland in the 21st century-- but not debates about whether national identity and national distinctiveness even matter. This should be a given, the starting point for most participants. (Please remember this is my ideal Ireland.)

And by the national anthem being played more often-- on TV, radio, and at social events-- and by the Irish flag, along with provincial and regional flags, being flown more often. (Let it be said that I don't particularly like our national anthem, and I rather dislike the Irish tricolour. That's not the point.)

And by those of a musical bent learning how to play more Irish folk tunes.

And by those of a dancing bent learning Irish dancing.

And by those of a bookish bent reading more Irish poets and novelists and writers, especially older and less well-known ones.

And by those of a writerly bent introducing themes from Irish history, folklore and literature into their own writing (something that is becoming less fashionable of late).

And what about the Irish language? Well, that is such a big subject that it deserves its own post. (I don't know if I have enough energy left to give it one, though.)

The truth is that I am an English speaker. All the poems, books, words and phrases that I love are English. I cannot find it in my heart to really wish for the Irish language to be the de facto national language of Ireland. My ideal Ireland would be English-speaking-- but with a bigger Irish speaking minority than we have now, and more people who are proficient in Irish, and more people using Irish more regularly. In my ideal Ireland, Irish-language greetings and phrases and quotations and so forth would be much more widely used. (Right now, you are much more likely to hear someone speak Polish or Spanish or Italian than Irish. I doubt I hear anyone speaking Irish in public, in an everyday setting, more than once a month. In my ideal Ireland, it would be a daily occurrence.) The ceremonial use of Irish (on signs, at official events, and so forth)-- something people complain about today, as a waste of public money-- would not only be retained but increased.

And that's enough about the language for now.

All of these are traditional expressions and displays of Irishness. But, of course, new expressions of Irishness are much to be desired. I would only wish for them to be in harmony with the existing ones, and not a radical departure. (No "new definitions of Irishness" seminars, please.)

All of this sounds like a lot. But it's really not a lot. I'm not for a moment overlooking the fact that people have a bewildering array of other interests. I'm not implying some kind of treason in an Irish person listening to Indian music or reading French novels or calling her dog Gandalf. I don't for a second think that the Irish people should be thinking about Irishness all the time, or even half the time, or even one hundredth of the time. I'm not saying that a patriotic Irish person who hates Irish music (for instance) should force himself to listen to it.

But in all the massive activity and aspirations of several million people, it only takes a little change of direction to make a very big difference.

So that's enough on cultural nationalism for now-- though I may revert to it, incidentally, in future installments of this series. Yes, there's more to come!

Meanwhile, some readers may be interested in (even amused by) these Irish TV ads from the eighties. I've been watching a lot of them recently and they have been shaping my thoughts on this subject-- they certainly should not be taken as expressive of my ideal, but they have fed into it in some ways. Especially in my increasing feeling that cultural nationalism is not only compatible with commercialism and corniness, but that they are even an essential part of it. (In many ways, the 'cultural nationalism' I detect in these ads is on a subtle level, like the voice-overs, which seem to me more gentle and formal than voice-overs on Irish ads today-- and I think gentleness and formality was a characteristic of Irish culture, one that has waned. Of course, anyone outside Ireland would never pick up on that, and I'm sure plenty of Irish people would challenge me about it and accuse me of a baseless nostalgia.)

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (IV)

I started writing about Irish cultural nationalism in my last instalment, and really it's such a big subject that it's hard to know how to get a handle around it. But one entry-point that suggests itself to me-- especially given how my own thoughts on both nationalism and other topics have been drifting in recent times-- is the matter of identity, the persistence of identity, and how anything can be said to remain itself over time.

We live in an era that is hostile to the notion of any fixed identity. 'Essentialism' is seen as naive, crude, simplistic. This especially comes out in the matter of gender. Ireland recently passed a law that makes it possible for someone to simply decide their sex, and have this reflected on their birth certificate. Even this is rather too essentialist for some; it is almost orthodox thinking amongst the progressive intelligentsia (who have their feet well under the table in academe and other power centres) that gender itself is infinitely fluid.

But gender is only one example. This solvent is applied to all things.

In this meditation on snowglobes I tackled this subject. I admitted that I don't really know how to decide the question between essentialism and nominalism, which is one of the oldest of philosophical debates. But essentialism seems far more rewarding, far more interesting, far more fruitful to me than nominalism. The easy, glib thing to say is that we are what we make ourselves and there is no fixed identity. Easy; but boring.

I'm sure my reader can see where I'm going with this. It's a standard argument against any sort of nationalism that national character, and indeed the very idea of the nation, is historically contingent anyway. For instance, it's commonly said that the ancient and medieval Irish who belonged to a profusion of petty kingdoms would not have seen themselves as belonging to an "Irish nation"; they belonged to their own tribe, their own petty kingdoms, and they were perfectly willing to ally with the Normans or Vikings or English against their fellow-Irish in order to pursue their own goals. The Battle of Clontarf in 1014 was traditionally seen as the battle where an Irish High King drove the Vikings out of Ireland; more recently, it is seen as a complex battle with Irish and Vikings on both sides. They also claim that Brian Boru (like his fine successor Maolsheachlann) was not the High King of Ireland, since Ireland never had a High King.

There is, inevitably, a great deal of truth to such claims. And it's a truth I not only acknowledge but whose force I feel myself. Irish nationalism of the nineteenth and twentieth century tended to see a continuous identity from the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland all the way down to the Irish of the day. This idea was echoed in my own schooling-- more in its atmosphere than in anything anyone actually said. When we went to the National Museum of Ireland and looked at the reconstructed skeletons of the Great Elks, we were looking at something that belonged to us, that was a part of us.

But, in my most fervently nationalistic phases, I had to acknowledge the limitations of this idea. When I read about the medieval Irish, for instance, their culture seemed both exotic and alien. I will exemplify this in one example; the institution of the Irish bard, the file. The Irish bard was very different from an English poet. He was a person of considerable standing, one who had been given a rigorous (and very formalised) training, one who had a prestigious place in the court of the chieftain. He was more than a poet; he was a genealogist who was valued for preserving the records of the tribe in verse form. And his poetry tended to be written to a very precise and stylized format, and for very specific purposes. All this is described in Daniel Corkery's famous book The Hidden Ireland.

Daniel Corkery, a fervent nineteenth century cultural nationalist, was in no doubt that the Irish bard was a higher and more noble type than the English poet. But as for myself...try as I might, I was rather left cold by all of this. I loved English poetry more than anything in the world; I loved its lyricism, its personal nature, its amateurism (it might be written by a knight of the realm or an impoverished governess), its preference for creativity and originality over form and rigid tradition. (Obviously, I'm not talking about the sort of modern poetry that abandoned form and tradition completely, which I couldn't stand.) The Irish bards seemed to write mostly occasional verse (verse written to mark a particular occasion) and satire (usually when their patrons let them down). I had a marked dislike of both.

So, when I really looked at ancient and medieval Ireland, I might take pride in a highly civilized and advanced culture, and lament its disappearance, but I had to admit that it had disappeared. It was foreign to me.

But identity is a mysterious thing. After all, I can't remember being a baby, and I know for a fact that baby Maolsheachlann had a very different set of priorities and anxieties to 37-year-old Maolsheachlann. But that baby was still me. And I have no doubt that, under the surface, many of my deepest preoccupations and predilections must remain. For instance, I can never remember a time when I did not get excited at the sight of snow; I would not be surprised to hear that this was true even when I was a baby. Another instance; I am very drawn to the fashions (I mean the everyday fashions) and music and whole cultural atmosphere of the seventies. I was only three when they ended. I can't help thinking that my exposure to the seventies as a baby has something to do with that.

And when I look back into the depths of Irish use the cliché (because I like it) into the mists of Irish prehistory....I do feel a sense of affinity. For instance, the Irish have always had a fascination with the supernatural, with death, and with all things mystical. The Irish fascination with death runs from Newgrange (an elaborate underground tomb, which is older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids, and which I've visited twice) right to the modern-day Irish wake. The Irish invented Halloween. We have the story of the banshee, the otherworldly woman who wails when a member of a particular family dies (and I have heard this told as true story). I was told in my childhood not to pick up a comb that was lying around in the street because it was a banshee's comb. I was told this as a joke, but it shows how the legend still lived on in some form. Irish folklore is full of tales of journeys to fantastic places, like the Land of Youth. I know that all national folklores are full of supernatural elements, but Irish folklore seems to have a particularly otherworldly tendency. Given my lifelong interest in horror, and the supernatural, all of this obviously feels native to me. (But I want to emphasize that I don't know very much about all this folkore. It's an impression, a blurry horizon, more than anything else.)

Or take the famous frontispiece of the Book of Kells:

Now, maybe it's because I have seen this reproduced all my life, in so many contexts, and with the message that it was quintessentially Irish. But I really do look at this image and feel a tremendous sense of belonging. More than anything else, it is the earnestness of the image that appeals to me; the stiff, gaunt, dignified solemnity of it. But the colours, the knotwork, the unique dark-brightness, and the sense of timelessness and eternity also seduce me.

So this is the point I want to make; I think we see our national identity (and maybe our family identity and even our personal identity) through a series of removes, and this doesn't invalidate it in the least. I see ancient Ireland through the lens of nineteenth century romantic nationalism, and I see nineteenth century romantic nationalism through the lens of twentieth century romantic nationalism, and I see all of it through the lens of nineteen-eighties Ireland, the time when I grew conscious of my surroundings. It's like growing up with a mountain range on the horizon, a mountain range that was often seen through mist and that you rarely or never visited, but that was always there, in the background.

But ultimately, my nostalgia is for the Ireland of nineteen-eighties; which I fully realize was only yesterday. That sort of cultural nationalism is my ideal, if only because it's what I remember from my childhood.

Ireland in the nineteen-eighties was already very modernized and secularized. In fact, I think it was more modernized and secularized than I realized at the time, coming from an unusually traditionally-minded background. In some ways, the Catholic Church was in a worst state than it is now-- this was the high noon of the 'trendy priest'. (Today they have mostly died, converted to Buddhism, or become bitter writers of newspaper opinion pieces.)

But, essentially, this period is congenial to me because it's very recognisable while still being essentially Catholic and nationalist. I can't imagine living in ancient Ireland or medieval Ireland or even nineteen-fifties Ireland. It's just too different, too unknown. (And to be honest I think I would miss my modern conveniences.)

But there are significant differences. For instance, we are currently in a situation where tens of thousands of Irish people are emigrating every year. This was also the case in the nineteen-eighties. But it seems to me (and I think I'm not imagining this) that the attitude towards this emigration has changed. I remember, when I was a kid, emigration was treated as an unalloyed tragedy. People wrote ballads and songs and poems about it. It was presumed to be heart-breaking.

Today, there is much discussion of the emigrant experience, but the tone is much lighter. Emigration is seen by many as a lifestyle choice. Even those who regret is don't seem to treat it as any kind of tragedy.

Another difference is the visibility of nationalism. Back in the eighties, and even into the nineties, the Irish national broadcaster RTE played the national anthem at close of broadcasting, over a video of rather Arcadian imagery. Similarly, I think images of Irishness were evoked more often in television and magazine advertisements, and used in commercial trademarks and shop names and product names and so forth. (Using the bit of Gaelic for company names was more common, too. Recently, the Irish gas board has announced an imminent name change from Bord Gais to Gas Networks Ireland.)

More generally, I remember (and I do not think I am merely inventing this) a rather cosy feeling that Ireland was a little (but overachieving) country in a big, big world Out There. We were very conscious of the difference. When we looked out at the world, it was as if through a window, and we saw the frame of the window. And, as G.K. Chesterton said (it was actually the very first of his prose sentences that really struck me): "The largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

This sensation (which I think must be unique to small countries) hasn't gone away. One sad instance of it, recently, was the death of several Irish students in Berkeley University, when a balcony collapsed. The entire nation seemed to be in mourning; there was much talk of their bodies 'coming home'. Many people actually commented on the sense of the nation coming together.

It's this "family" feeling that, to me, is perhaps the most marked sign of cultural and social nationalism. Of course, the family isn't really a family writ large. (I sometimes think that the defining characteristic of the family is that, when a member of family comes to you for help, you can't say no-- and they can't say no to you.) Anyone sleeping on the street might laugh at the idea that the nation is a family writ large.

And a sense, it is. The people in a nation share a living space, common memories, common experiences, common reference points, common practical arrangements like trains and schools. To a greater or lesser extent, they may share common values and beliefs. I suppose I am nostalgic for my childhood because it seemed that a critical mass of the Irish people did share certain values and beliefs which made them distinctive-- Irish Catholicism (even if it was lapsed Catholicism) and Irish nationalism-- while today, if there is a shared belief system, it's in a progressive philosophy which has nothing distinctively Irish about it.

I said the subject of cultural nationalism would be daunting...I realize haven't really described the sort of cultural and social nationalism I would like to see in my ideal Ireland. Hopefully I will get to that in my next post.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (III)

I am very pleased and gratified at the reaction so far to my "Ireland I Had Dreamed Of" series of posts. A comment from Roger Buck (who blogs at Cor Jesu Sacratissimum) looked forward to my treatment of cultural nationalism. Of course, along with Catholicism, that is at the core of my vision of an ideal (not perfect) Ireland. However, it is also the most daunting part of such an outline, which is why I rather delayed coming to it.

National identity is a subject I have dealt with again and again in the four years I have been writing this blog; I'm a little bit scared of boring my readers about it. It's a subject I have been thinking about my entire life, and my attitude towards it has shifted radically, not only once but again and again. In truth, questions of national identity have preocuppied me for much more of my life than have matters of religion.

As a phenomenon, national identity-- and patriotism, and nationalism, and everything else connected with national identity-- is the most maddening of subjects. Sometimes, nothing seems more nebulous; at other times, nothing seems more solid and real. It's always there, but it's rarely in the foreground-- only at times of national crisis (and more fleetingly, when there are major international sporting triumphs, or defeats).

Despite having reacted strongly against my Irish nationalist background in the past (and that background was far more than just a family background; it was extended family, community, school, and more), I have very much become a believer in nationalism. I like to specify that it's cultural and social nationalism I believe in, to distance myself as much as possible from the terrorism of the IRA during the the last forty years or so. (I have nothing but contempt for the murderers of the IRA; incidentally, their political wing, Sinn Féin, are the most secular and anti-Catholic party in Ireland).

Why am I a believer in nationalism? For many reasons; but I think it boils down, like many other of my social and cultural beliefs, to my fundamental anti-utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, as you know, is the belief in "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"; its most famous proponent, Jeremy Bentham, insisted that the pleasures of pushpenny (a kind of game) and the pleasures of poetry were, effectively, the same. You can't weigh one sort of happiness over another, in other words; if round-the-clock reality TV brings more happiness to society than art galleries, than round-the-clock reality TV should be chosen over art galleries.

Now, that is the most bullish variety of utilitarianism, and other utilitarians (John Stuart Mill, notably) have tried to soften it and to take higher and lower pleasures into account. In any case, the utilitarianism that I am 'anti' is not so much the philosophy (though I am anti-that, too), but utilitarianism understood in the simple sense of putting the most value on what is useful rather than on what has no obvious use.

Everything I'm passionate about, in terms of what I value, is anti-utlitarian; it has no obvious usefulness. Nationalism is useless. Tradition is useless. Community is useless. Poetry is useless. Ritual is useless. Ceremony is useless. Masculinity and feminity are useless. Public monuments are useless. Of course, an argument can be made for the usefuless of all these things; but it would have to be a roundabout argument. Their utility is not obvious.

Christianity is a profoundly anti-utilitarian religion. It insists that God created everything from pure love; He didn't have to create anything. Furthermore, Christ redeemed us even though we didn't deserve it.

Undoubtedly (to my mind) the greatest anti-utilitarian text of all time is the story of the woman pouring the jar of perfume over Jesus, in the house of Simon the leper. The disciples (or just Judas, in John's gospel) complain that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. We all know Jesus's response: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me with you."

More concisely, during his temptation in the wilderness, he tells Satan that "man does not live by bread alone", which phrase is often used to express this idea of anti-utilitarianism.

In our own time, the Catholic Church is constantly attacked for its "pomp and ceremony"; which is really just the voice of Judas in the house of Simon echoing down the centuries. It's always a good sign when the Church is attacked for its "pomp and ceremony".

Of course, that does not bear directly on the question of nationalism. In fact, it seems to me that the Catholic Church has said very little authoritative on the subject of nationalism and patriotism; and what it has said is open to considerable interpretation. So I will not dwell on it.

There is an obvious danger of the nation becoming an idol, of nation-worship. This is such an obvious danger that I almost resent having to mention it, but I suppose I should. I think it was best expressed by C.S. Lewis, who said: "A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive sense live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering unto Caesar that which of all things most emphatically belongs to God: himself."

Who is really in danger of this, though, in our modern Western society? Patriotism is at such a low ebb that it's hard to think of anybody who is tempted to idolise the nation. A kind of over-reaction to the Nazis, Italian fascism and imperialism is partly responsible for this, I think.

How important do I think patriotism should be, and what role would it play in my ideal Ireland?

The best way I can put it is this: in my ideal Ireland, the soul of Ireland is a subject for regular public debate; a subject that people take very seriously, in the way they take water charges and hospital waiting lists seriously. It should be, perhaps not a burning issue, but a live issue. The maintenance of Ireland's distinctiveness, the preservation of its traditions, should be something that ordinary people worry about-- not all the time, but a good deal of the time.

This raises the problem of cheesiness-- at least, to other people it raises the problem of cheesiness. My international readers may have heard terms such as "plastic Paddy", "stage Irishness" and "Paddywhackery". These are pejorative terms for an ideal of Irishness, which is (supposedly) often harboured by those of Irish extraction, amongst others. This ideal, we are told, is overly romantic, sentimentalised, and reliant on stereotypes. Stage Irishness bothered W.B. Yeats to the extent that he insisted none of his books should be bound in green cloth, and he used the word 'trefoil' in preference to 'shamrock'.

In deference to Yeats as the greatest poet of all time, and the greatest secular Irishman of all time, I find this sort of thing more than a little tiresome. Everyone frets about 'authenticity' when they are in their teens. When they grow up, they stop worrying about it so much; not because they become any less idealistic, but because they outgrow the simplistic dichotomy between 'fake' and 'real'. They realise, for instance, that there is nothing brave or noble about rudeness, and that there is nothing necessarily shallow about cheerfulness. Along with this, hopefully, they learn that there is difference between a romantic ideal and a lie.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Irish people subscribed to a romantic ideal of themselves that was agrarian, lyrical, rather isolationalist, high-minded, exceptionalist, rugged, and so forth. Its iconography featured such images as round towers, Celtic crosses, Irish wolfhounds, thatched cottages, Celtic knotwork, shamrocks, St. Bridget's crosses, and the like.

I am very comfortable with this sort of iconography. Intellectuals and aesthetes may scoff at it, preferring a more complex and nuanced vision of Irishness, one reflected in the ambiguities and self-questioning of high art.

But high art is always a minority pursuit. The soul of a nation is not, for the most part, shaped by poems and plays. The soul of a nation is shaped by popular songs, advertisements, commercial art, shop signs, magazine covers, logos, street names and place names, and so forth.

When I think of cultural nationalism, I always think of a particular school copy-book that was widely sold in my childhood. On the back of the copy-book, there was a map of Ireland. On the front, there was a round-tower. The name of the copy-book was written in uncial script, similar to the script used in the Book of Kells. My vision of cultural nationalism is that crude, and that vulgar, and that populist. It really is!

Well, I said this was a big subject, and I'm far from finished with it. But I'll leave it there for now. I'm tired.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On Enigmatic Photographs

The above is a photograph that fell out of a book, or perhaps that was lying in a bookdrop, in the library where I work. I don't think I'm invading anyone's privacy scanning it and posting it, since part of its appeal to me is that there's no way of knowing who's in the picture or where they are. (Besides, if they cared so much, they shouldn't have lost it. If it belongs to you, send me an email and I might give it back to you.)

I have this photograph on my desk now (along with more personal souvenirs, I hasten to add, in case I sound like Robin Williams's creepy character in One Hour Photo).

I have a fascination with enigmatic photographs like this. You may say it's not very enigmatic; just a couple of people standing in a snowy landscape. No mystery there. It's not like a photo of a face looking out the window of a ruined house. Or a man in pyjamas standing in a busy street. Or a picture of someone looking horrified at something off-camera. I grant you, all of those with be most picturesquely enigmatic.

But, in its own way, I'm just as fond of this more workaday enigma-- a picture of nothing in particular, a picture of people caught off guard.

I wrote a post about a similar picture, that I took myself, of a beach on a cold day with a figure walking in the distance. In that post I wrote:

Nothing is haunting and evocative in quite the same way as photographs can be. And yet most of the photographs we take are too posed and stereotyped to really capture this special magic. In fact, the more artful the photo, the less likely it is that the magic will happen.

What I really value in photographs is usually what crept in by accident; the faraway look in the subject's eyes; the face in the background, not meant to be in the photo at all, rather spookily staring straight into the camera; the air of
event, or non-event; the billboard in the background advertising a discontinued product.

I think the reason I prize such photographs is because they heighten a characteristic which I think haunts all human life; a sense of its deep ambiguity. I wrote about this in my recent post about dreams, too.

"What's going on?" is a question that all of us might be asking at any time. It sometimes intrigues me to look at some scene-- let's say, a busy street-- and think of the multiplicity of things that might be said to be "going on" in that scene. It might be taken as a scene of life on the planet Earth. Or life in Ireland. Or life in Dublin. Or a scene of capitalism, or peace-time, or the public versus the private, or winter-time, or afternoon. We could be looking at the clothes of the figures, or the cars on the road, or the symbolism of the colours, or the architecture, or any number of things. You could fill a book with the amount of things that are 'going on' in that scene.

The same is true about life in general. What is life about? There is such a plurality of answers to that question that, to me, the amazing thing is that any kind of consensus emerges. But the fact that, for instance, great works of art retain their popularity through the ages shows that it does. (Of course, they don't always retain their popularity. Sometimes a poem or a play or a novel that has been popular for centuries passes into obscurity. I often wonder is this because our priorities, or view of what is important in life, has simply changed.)

The existence of any kind of consensus, of course, should not hide the fact that there is also a chaos of disagreement-- if you can even call something so disparate "disagreement". One example that springs to mind is one of the discussions that took place when Pope Francis began his pontificate. The new Pope, in his first communications, seemed to be emphasising God's grace and forgiveness and the availability of redemption. I heard some European commentators wondering if his South American background made him emphasise this, since the modern European does not really feel any need for redemption, or any great awareness of sin. I include myself in this. Many factors drew me towards the Catholic Church, but a sense of being oppressed by my sins was not one of them. (To quote the great Samuel Johnson, I am well aware that this was not "great fortitude of mind", but rather, "stark insensibility".)

Up until recently, however, Europeans did seem to feel this need. Hence people would say things like: "Poetry won't save us", or "Art won't save us", and the idea of redemption seemed a common idea, even outside Christian discourse. People still say these things, but less frequently. The need for salvation-- which was obviously present in early Christianity, and which seems to have been present in our own society-- seems to have at least receded into our subconscious. At least, this is an example of what I'm talking about.

In brief; the reason I like enigmatic photographs is because they seem to bring me face-to-face with the enigma that hovers over all human life; an enigma which, like horror, can be both pleasant unpleasant in different moods, and different circumstances.

I often wish to collect such photos, but don't know how to go about it. If you have any that you don't mind parting with, and you are kind enough to splash out on postage, feel free to send them to:

Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh

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James Joyce Library
University College Dublin
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Monday, July 20, 2015

The Ireland I Have Dreamed Of (II)

There is a tendency in all social commentary (a tendency which I have often criticized, but which is also present in myself), to concentrate upon government action. In the first post of this series, I veered more and more in this direction. It's difficult to avoid it, and its cause is a lack of imagination. It's easy to imagine passing a law; it's less easy to imagine a change in social customs. Nevertheless, changes in social customs do happen. 

They say "you can't change human nature", and I agree. Being a (Christian) humanist, I rejoice in the fact. But it's not that simple. Different aspects of human nature come to the fore in different situations. Besides, we have free will.

Personally, I am much more interested in social institutions than I am in political institutions, or in economic institutions. Of course, they are interlinked, but to a lesser extent (I think) than a Marxist or many others would claim. If I had the choice between living in a society that was not a democracy, but which had strong communities and families and traditions, and living in a democratic society that lacked all these things, I would choose the former-- despite being all in favour of democracy. In the same way, I am not particularly doctrinaire about the level of government intervention in the economy. I suspect that there is no formula in such matters, that the apparent success of the 'Scandinavian model' has a lot to do with the temperament of Scandinavians, and that the success of the American model has a lot to do with the unique nature of America.

With that in mind, let me press on...


I don't know how to cure homelessness, nor am I imagining an ideal Ireland without the homeless. Just as 'the poor are always with you', I fear the homeless are always with us. In my ideal Ireland, however, I do imagine homelessness kept to a minimum-- rather than the current situation, where morning commuters might see a dozen people sleeping in various doorways as they pass through the city centre.

I've never understood why there cannot be free, basic accommodation in city centres for anybody-- not just the homeless. I'm not talking about a hotel, or even a hostel. I'm talking about cubicles with beds, and washrooms. Of course, the critical factor would be security. There would have to be sufficient security that anybody-- man, woman or child-- would be happy to bunk up in such accommodation.

The whole point of such an arrangement would be that there was no stigma on taking shelter in this accommodation. People would as readily do it to spare the expense of a taxi as they would through being homeless.

The washrooms are an important part, as well. I strongly feel that there should be far more public bathrooms available.

Reading Aloud

I would very much like to reintroduce the practice of reading aloud. Every time I am eating alone, I wish I could have somebody reading aloud to me, as is the practice in monasteries, where one brother reads aloud in the refectory while the other brothers eat. (Reading while eating is awkward. Audio books may solve this problem, but they are terribly impersonal.)

I wish there was reading aloud in pubs, cafés, and other public places. I wish there was more reading aloud in families and private homes. I've always cherished the passages in How Green Was My Valley where the father of the family reads aloud from Boswell's Life of Johnson to the entire family.

(My own parents never read aloud to me, but I can't really complain, since my father would often recite poetry and nursery rhymes to me. I remember, when I was a kid, my sister started reading me and my brother A Study in Scarlet, and then interrupted it. We pestered her forever about finishing it. I don't think she ever did.)

Regarding reading aloud in public places, I can foresee two objections. The first is that it wouldn't make sense for a lector in a restaurant (for instance) to be reading a novel or a story aloud, since you'd have to hear the reading from the beginning to make sense of it. But this is not a fatal flaw. There is a multitude of ways this problem could be overcome-- shorter texts, occasional recaps, non-narrative reading material (like an anthology of poems).

The other objection is that it would be annoying-- background music is less obtrusive than somebody reading aloud. If you go to a restaurant to meet a friend, you want to talk to them (one presumes) rather than listen to someone reading aloud. This is a more formidable objection, but it doesn't seem fatal either. The pitch of the voice would be the critical factor here. Also, there are many venues (like a post office) where people would welcome the distraction. Of course, it wouldn't be very feasible (even in my ideal Ireland) for a vast army of lectors to be employed by various institutions, but surely it could be done here and there.


My views on education have completely flipped in the last ten or fifteen years. There was a time when I thought that education should be frankly and unabashedly vocational, and give up any pretence of being humanistic or 'rounded'. People go to school to get qualifications; everything else, in practice, is subservient to that; let's just be honest about it. Let's have no more schoolchildren being bored by (and learning to hate) poetry that they are only reading because they have to. Let 'personal development' (including the discovery of poetry and art and philosophy and all the finer things of life) happen outside of school, rather than being polluted by all the sordidness of examinations and study notes and "compare and contrast". 

As I say, I've completely changed my mind about this. The memories of school that really linger are all the things I might never have encountered if I had not encountered them a school setting; the excitement (which I never would have admitted at the time) of putting on a school play; looking at projector slides of great art, in a darkened art class; the sound of basketballs thumping on the floor of the gym; haunting adolescent voices singing "Yesterday came suddenly" in choir; spiritual retreats; and so forth.

I've arrived at the rather common-sense view that education should be a mixture of gaining qualifications and experiencing those 'personal development' moments that I remember with more and more fondness, as time goes by.

Even when it comes to poetry and literature, my views have changed. It's easy to claim that 'school made me hate poetry', or that 'school made me hate Shakespeare', or that getting students to write essays on Hamlet is taking all the joy out of a personal encounter with the play. We think of Mr. Keating ripping up the text-book in Dead Poets' Society.

But...I liked English class, and I have fond memories of it. I'm amazed at how much I can remember of my English lessons; very often, right down to particular things the teacher said about this poem or that passage in a novel.

Even more, I can remember the excitement of realising that poems and other texts could be studied as well as read, that more was going on under the surface than was immediately obvious. I can remember particular moments when this excitement was brought home to me, too-- and how palpable that excitement was. I remember, when studying Lord of the Flies, the teacher telling us that the character Simon was (in a sense) a 'prophet'. This blew me away. I also remember, when we were studying The Merchant of Venice, our teacher explaining the various ways a dramatists could reveal a characters' personality; dress, gesture, name, dialogue, actions, silences, vocabulary, and so forth. It had never occurred to me. This blew me away, too. I don't think analysis is necessarily deadening and soulless.

Now, English was a subject I liked, and at which I was good (although I didn't get an A in my final examination, much to my disappointment). I read poetry and other literature on my own initiative. And English class was still rewarding for me. How much more so the things I would never have experienced or encountered without school, such as languages!

All this to say, I think our current model of school (both Irish and, from what I know of it, Western in general) is pretty good.

One radical change I would make, however, is that I would abolish homework. I think homework is of little benefit, and I have come across research that supports this theory. (Then again, you can find research to support anything...) Let children do exercises in the class-room. As for secondary school students, perhaps homework can't be done away in their case but I would certainly reduce it.

The only other major difference I would make to school would be very intense anti-bullying initiatives. It is a good thing this is being taken more seriously in recent years. (Several teenagers committed suicide in Ireland as a result of bullying, not so long ago.)

My father had the idea that a school assembly should be called at the beginning of every school year, and a Garda (police) detective should address all the kids and leave them in no doubt of how seriously they will take bullying. 

I don't know if even that would be enough. It's a shame to over-supervise children and teenagers, but I really do think that greater supervision is necessary in many schools.  There's a savagery in many schools which is, in fact, all-too-reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. My own school was not the worst, but even that was pretty bad at times.

Of course, it goes without saying that, in my ideal (and Catholic) Ireland, Catholic schools really would be Catholic schools, and teach proper catechesis.


One big difference I would like to see take place in society-- and one I have already touched on in my "Reading Aloud" heading-- is a change from passive to active entertainment.

In the spirit of "be the change you want to see in the world", I do make an effort to do this myself. It's been a while since I was invited to a dinner party, but I attended a spate of them over a couple of years (amongst the same group of people), and I made a habit of reciting poetry at these. (The first poem I recited was 'The Raven'. If you think it would be easy to memorize 'The Raven', try it.) It always went down well.

I don't have anything against television or radio. I used to think it would be a better world if we eschewed all electronic entertainments, but I've changed my mind about that. All the same, I think that we can be too passive in our diversions, and it would be good to revive more participatory entertainments.

By which I mean; reciting poetry, singing songs, playing cards, playing board games, dancing (something I only did at my wedding, and to practice for my wedding), treasure hunts, riddles, charades, shadow puppetry, and so forth.

My niece was married in Geneva last year, to a Swiss gentleman. The groom's family put on a very impressive show, including a dormitory for guests to sleep in (I enjoyed that) and-- more relevantly to this section-- an amateur mime. A very long amateur mime.

It was....terrible. Painfully unfunny, and it went on forever. But I was very impressed that they did it. We don't have enough of that sort of awfulness in our lives.

As Chesterton famously said, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

Do people still have 'party pieces'? I've just asked my office mate (hey, I'm on a coffee break) and he told me his wife's family have them. My mother used to sing "Blue Moon", though I never heard her. My father could sing ballads all day long, and often complains about the lack of sing-alongs at parties.

This kind of thing happens, but I wish it happened more often. So, in my ideal Ireland, every party or get-together would have an element of performance, of improvised entertainment. I'll have more to say about this under the heading of 'Conversation'.