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, caf├ęs, 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'.


  1. Hurriedly, briefly: All very interesting. Something I am curious about is Dublin homelessness in the past. It was so much better in Britain prior to Thatcher. I wonder how it was here?

    I am also greatly looking forward to your thoughts regarding protecting Irish culture. This includes the language, but is of course much wider than that.

  2. Thanks Roger!

    I don't actually know if homelessness has got worse in recent times. I don't remember the homeless problem being as bad when I was a kid as it is now, but maybe I just notice it more now. My father, who is in his mid-seventies, said there was little or no homelessness in his childhood.

    I'll have a lot to say about Irish culture, including the Irish language!