Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Are you Writing Much These Days?"

My father asked me that question yesterday. I replied, "I'm writing my Catholic Voice articles and my Open Door articles."

"That's not much, is it?" he asked.

It occurred to me that he was right, and that I haven't even been writing much on this blog.

The truth is, I have been in a period of withdrawal. Partly, in terms of this blog, it's because I wrote a lot of posts that expressed some of my deepest and oldest ideas, and I felt rather cleaned out in terms of blogging.

But partly it's because I've had my own struggles. This blog expresses all the things I believe in, all my ideals; but I fall miserably short of those ideals. I used to post prayer requests at difficult times, but I stopped doing it, because I felt I was worrying people. I would get concerned emails, which I always appreciated, but which made me feel bad for causing anxiety and seeking attention. (And seeking attention was exactly what I was doing.)

If I ever seem like I am sermonizing in this blog, I realize I am the last person who can afford to sermonize. Please pray for me to overcome my faults, most especially pride and fear. Or, more accurately, please pray for me to let God's grace overcome my faults.

I also want to thank everyone who's ever read this blog, and everyone who's commented, and everyone who's prayed for me. This blog has meant so much to me, especially the fact that there are no boundaries to what I can write about; the more I have pushed the boat out, the more I have been delighted that people continued to read it, and to respond. 

I cannot ever remember a time, from my earliest boyhood, when I didn't have the urge to express the things that excited my imagination in written words (and, back then, in pictures). I remember once, watching a TV programme about Def Leppard, my enthusiasm must have been so obvious that my older brother said: "Maolsheachlann will be writing about a heavy metal band called Blind Cheetah next." That's the kind of thing I did. It's so wonderful when somebody is there, on the other end, to be an audience. It makes all the difference.

So thank you, and please pray for me (as I pray for you), and don't go away-- this blog is a going concern.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Unpaid Advertisement

I had a request from to publicize their business, which makes shirts for clergy. And here is the link:

I don't know how many clerical readers I have (though I can think of at least two), but it may be of interest to some.

Now and again I get these kind of requests. I'm happy to oblige (unless I forget about it). Trying to run a business, or indeed, trying to start or pursue any (or almost any) kind of venture at all, is a laudable activity. I think it's only right to facilitate it where possible.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Ireland I Had Dreamed Of (VI)

I'd rather abandoned this series, not sure where to take it next, but recently I've been reading a book called Ireland: A Social and Cultural History 1922-79 by Terence Brown, which suggests a few thoughts. Though really it's nothing I hadn't said already.

Brown is of the conventional school of Irish historiography that holds that the 'humanism' (to use his word) of the 1916 Rising and the Irish Literary Revival was betrayed by a narrow-minded, stultifying, conservative establishment after the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922.

I can't agree with this. I believe that the vision (cultural, rather than political) of the Irish Free State was exactly what the Irish people, as a whole, had been seeking during the struggle for independence. I believe it was a fine vision, and I'm sorry it was abandoned.

I'm not going to comment too much on the economic aspect. Brown believes that the first governments of the new State were excessive in their determination to balance the books and limit public spending. This may be the case. Certainly, their slowness in tackling the overcrowding problem in Dublin-- where, as Brown points out, there were 22,915 families living in one room dwellings-- seems lamentable. He admits that there was some anxiety about whether the new State would be economically or politically viable, and that the new rulers were entirely unused to holding the reins of government and were understandably cautious. But think of all those people living out either the best years of their lives, or the last years of their lives, in such overcrowding. (Children, on the other hand, tend to be more buoyant, and most of them would have encountered better conditions later on.)

Personally I am in favour of pretty extensive government spending. I don't think microeconomics and macroeconomics are the same, and I think a government has much more latitude than private individuals and private companies in running up debts and borrowing. There are many parts of the world, like Germany and Scandinavia, that seem to have high levels of public spending and do just fine. As for Greece, in my recent reading of Evelyn Waugh's diary, I came across an entry from the 1920's where Waugh complained that it was always a bank holiday in Greece and nobody did any work, so I think that their problems are very long in the making.

And that's as much as I am going to say about economics-- aside from the admission that the Irish economic and social model of the time seems to have been dependent on enormous levels of emigration, and that economic modernization probably should have happened sooner rather than later-- a primarily agricultural country, where most of the farms were small and where inheritance generally went to the eldest son, didn't have a whole lot to do with the other kids (and though there was a great deal of celibacy in Ireland at this time, those who did marry had significantly bigger families than was the case in other countries).

But my whole argument is that economic modernization did not necessarily demand cultural 'modernization'. 

Brown seems to think otherwise:

"In the 1920s, it was the notion of the virtuous countryman that writers, artists and commentators accepted as the legacy of the Literary Revival period, rather than the heroic aristocratic figures of the mythological cycles. A vision of rustic dignity and rural virtue was popularized in speeches, poems, play and paintings...patriotic writers had produced countless poems in which peasants and farmers had appeared not to reveal human possibility but to exhibit the unspoiled simplicity of the essential Irish who for many centuries had endured the ravages of climate and opppression. Poems of this kind had exploited essential properties, such as the bog, hazel trees, currachs, the hearth, primitive cooking utensils, ploughing, sowing, and rough weather, employing a verse technique that owed its simple repetitions and structure to folk-song...They celebrated a vision of Irish pastoral, when rural life was a condition of virtue in as much as it remained an expression of an ancient civilization, uncontaminted by commercialism and progress.

The social reality of the countryside was more dynamic, unheroic, hardly bucolic, and involved in change in ways which were to disrupt in entirely...."

Brown actually admits that this traditional country life remained intact to a great degree, but then adds that the Irish countryman was "ready to use horse-driven threshing machines, prepared to experiment with steam, and in the 1930's he began to welcome the tractor, which would render the agricultural labourer increasingly redundant, into his rural world. By the 1920s the countryman had willingly accepted mass produced articles of clothing, boots and shoes....the bicycle had introduced a new mobility to the Irish countryside and life in the long dark winters was made more agreeable by the widespread use of commercially produced paraffin oil lamps which replaced the traditional rushlights."

Well, there you go. Farmers started using tractors and so pastoral became obsolete.

Does this strike you, as it strikes me, as being rather silly? Are the arts required to keep perfectly abreast of social change? Or are they not inherently selective?

It seems to me that the same argument would apply to any social ideal. I don't read any modern Irish literature or modern Irish poetry (because I don't read any modern literature or modern poetry full stop), but I see from the colour supplements in the broadsheets, and from advertising, and from various other sources, that twenty-first century Ireland holds up an imaginative ideal of itself that is every bit as unreal as the agrarian vision Brown complains about. For instance, in newspaper articles and in advertising I am always reading about wild office Christmas parties where a great deal of seduction and letting off steam and interpersonal bonding goes on. (And it's always office parties, because apparently everybody works in an office.)  I've been to lots of office Christmas parties (or library Christmas parties, anyway); they've always been pleasantly dull affairs.

Similarly, all the literature and journalism and advertising of our era-- in Ireland and elsewhere-- seems to suggest that most people are sexual promiscuous, whereas (from what I can tell) very few people are actually sexually promiscuous. 

You get the point I'm making. All art, all social aspiration, tends to be somewhat unrealistic. I would further say that every social vision tends to romanticize either tradition or change. Personally, I am all for romanticizing tradition. To some extent, surely, it must help preserve that which it romanticizes.

But the part of the book which really excited me-- I found it so moving, I was quite overpowered-- was the section about the idealization of Ireland's West coast. As you can imagine, it excited me in a way that Brown did not intend.

The West of Ireland at this time was seen as the bastion of unpolluted 'Irishness'. The biggest Gaeltacht areas (the term for an area where Irish is actually spoken as the language of the people) was in the West, as are the Blasket and Aran islands-- islands where a very traditional way of life survived, and which were a fashionable subject for artists and dramatists and poets during the Gaelic Revival. (Biographies by some of the actual islanders, in Irish, also became popular).

Brown quotes this very interesting account of a visit to the West from the Irish writer Séan Ó Faoláin, which seems very typical of the self-conscious artist's horror of all things romantic and populist:

 It was like taking off one's clothes for a swim naked in some mountain-pool. Nobody who has not had this sensation of suddenly 'belonging' somewhere-- of finding the lap of the lost mother-- can understand what a release the discovery of Gaelic ireland means to modern Ireland. I know that not for years and years did I get free of this heavenly bond of an ancient, lyrical, permanent, continuous immemorial self, symbolized by the lonely mountains, the virginal lakes, the traditional language, the simple, certain, uncomplex modes of life, that world of the lost childhood of my race where I, too, became for a while eternally young.

Now, what was Ó Faoláin so afraid of? Why spurn something like that? I can understand the restlessness of the artist, the desire to break out of a box, the need for new horizons and new subject-matter. But need there be a conflict? Does it have to be all or nothing, every artist and poet and novelist restricting himself or herself to writing about the Blasket islands, or all serious artists discarding the theme completely? Is there not an infinity of ways such an ideal can be featured in art, in the same way that Christian art has found an infinitity of ways to meditate on the Cross and the Resurrection and the scenes of the gospel and the lives of the saints? Can it not inform urban and 'modern' life, as well as rural life?

And if some artists had an allergic reaction to this, and had to let their imagination roam free in some completely different atmosphere, did artists as a whole have to rebel?

And if artists had to rebel, why should the people rebel?

Indeed, the people never did really rebel. To a great extent, the myth of the West and of a primordial Irishness remained popular, in advertisements and tourism and popular art and in all the things aesthetes disdain.

I've never been to the Aran Islands (the Blasket Islands are now uninhabited). I'm not personally particularly keen on literature and art from the West of Ireland. But I do cherish the kind of idyll that found its fullest expression there, and I think there was no need to assume it was played out or stale or obsolete. I could easily imagine hanging paintings of West of Ireland landscapes in my home or office.

Terence Brown himself shows an almost amusing fear of the West's hypnotic power as the cradle of the race:

"In the 1920's a number of literary works were published which attempted a more realistic treatment of the western island and the Gaeltacht, in a tradition that had begun with the short stories of the Irish language writer Pádraic O'Conaire and Seumus O'Kelly. Novels such as Peadar O'Donnell's Islanders (1928) and Adrigoole (1929) and Liam O'Flaherty's Thy Neighbour's Wife (1923) are works therefore not of romantic discovery but essays in rural naturalism and social criticism..."

And yet! "In both O'Donnell and O'Flaherty's writings there are passages of epic writing therefore which obtrude in their realistic settings. At such moments class politics and social analysis give way before an apprehension of the west as a place of fundamentally natural forces, of human figures set passively or heroically against landscapes of stone, rock and sea in a way that makes their work less radical than they perhaps thought they were. There is implicit therefore in their writings a sense that Gaelic Ireland in the west is the authentic heroic Ireland in a way that confirms rather than contradicts the conventional image of the west as 'certain set apart'. The power of this conventional image was perhaps so great that it affected as intelligent a social commentator as Peadar O'Donnell and overwhelmed the turbulent anger of Liam O'Flaherty's social criticism. "

On the next page, Brown quotes what seems like a most erudite insight from 'an English visitor':

The West is different. Its spirit was used by the intellectuals in the late struggle [for national independence] but it was never theirs'. It seems to come from some primitive elemental force which smoulders on, like a turf fire, long after such movements have spent themselves. It is a permanent factor to the existence of which no Irish statesman can safely shut his eyes.

Indeed, this 'primitive elemental force' has haunted Ireland-- intellectual included-- long after it was supposedly debunked. Certainly Irish artists have never found an equivalent matrix of images and ideals.

I think the human imagination is drawn instinctively to something timeless, to folklore and 'elemental energies', to some kind of dignified simplicity. Personally, I find this in the practice of the Catholic faith. I am a Catholic because I believe Catholicism is true; but I do think that, in the rhythms of the liturgy and the rosary, and the cycles of the liturgical calendar, and the treasury of saint stories, and the timeless unity of Catholic life, I also find what artists and tourists and so many others sought in the West of Ireland.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

My Weird Appetites

Today I found myself thinking about something that I've often thought about in the past, but that recent circumstances have given me particular cause to ponder. And that is, how bizarrely specific our appetites and desires and inclinations can be.

When I say "recent circumstances", I mean my own experience, as this has happened to me quite a lot in recent weeks.

The first strange hankering I want to mention concerns the American show The Office. (After Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, which I tend to lump together as one show, this is my favourite television programme. I'm not sure I can even yield the supremacy to Star Trek. I like them in different ways.)

There is one excellent episode of The Office called 'Business Trip'. (The scriptwriters of The Office had a difficult time spinning storylines out of such a restrictive set-up, which was simply the life of a paper merchants and its employees. They often stretched the premise too far into wackiness. But 'Business Trip' is pleasingly simple, and it's hard to believe that it took them five seasons to use the storyline of a business trip.)

The story-line of 'Business Trip' involves Michael Scott (the office manager and central character of the show, played by Steve Carrell) and two other characters (Andy, a preppy salesman who is engaged to one of the office accountants) and Oscar (a gay, Mexican accountant) all going on a business trip to Winnipeg in November. Michael is boyishly excited about the trip, but it doesn't turn out to be very exciting.

(David Wallace, their CEO, mentions at one point that: "It's pretty tough to find somebody who wants to go up to Winnipeg mid-November." The lack of glamour in the business trip and its location is a big theme of the episode. This is part of what I find appealing; as I mentioned a few times previously, I like all things provincial. I don't know if Winnipeg is 'provincial', but you know what I mean.)

The scene that excited me particularly was one involving Andy and Oscar. They visit a local bar, one that is portrayed as being not particularly excitin
g. They get drunk and Oscar starts asking Andy what he can possibly see in his fiancee. Andy mentions that they haven't yet had sex (and in a modern comedy, of course, two engaged people remaining chaste is seen as bizarre-- though Oscar does ask, "Are you guys waiting to be married?" and Andy says: "Honestly, I don't know what we're waiting for!", so at least the concept of premarital chastity is acknowledged). Oscar drunkenly persuades Andy to phone his fiancée and ask her to explain herself, which he does.

It's a reasonably funny scene, and quite a sweet episode. (As Andy says at the end: "I had to go all the way to Canada to get to know a guy who sits twenty feet away from me".) But the point of my story is that, weeks after watching this episode, I suddenly found it coming into my mind over and over again. It was the pub/club/bar atmosphere that excited me. It had been a lon
g time, a record time, since I'd been in any drinking spot.

Then, one evening, on a bus that was passing through the suburb of Phibsborough in Dublin, I looked at a particular pub and thought: "I'd really like to visit a pub, just to be in one." The desire grew and grew, and I hopped off the bus a few stops later, and went looking for a suitable tavern.

But the point is, I couldn't find one. I'd gone too far into the suburbs. There was only one rather sleepy suburban pub, full of regulars-- the kind of pub I would usually prefer. But that scene from The Office had got into my head and I wanted a pub that wasn't sleepy, and that wasn't full of regulars-- something with a bit of animation, just like the pub in the scene, and where there would be a flow of different and new people (not that I intended to talk to any of them).

Eventually, I satisfied my craving by visiting a local hotel lounge. It was on a Saturday morning, but there were lots of people there from the nearby hotel, so it wasn't just regulars.

What I really wanted was to visit a bar in Winnipeg in November, on a business trip.

More recently, I became completely fascinated with the idea of days. Yes, days. It's something I've written about on this blog several times, though I've always struggled to express what I mean exactly. I'm fascinated by the fact that human life is divided into days. I'm fascinated by their texture, their pulse, how they are remembered. I'm always fascinated to hear people talk about particular stretches of their lives ("I spent three days in bed with the curtains closed...I tramped the streets for a week...we spent a month discussing the idea...") The past imperfect thrills me.

So I suddenly wanted to read a good diary. But every diary I contemplated reading seemed to lack what I was looking for. What about the famous diary of Samuel Pepys, the naval secretary who witnessed the Great Fire of London and whose diary is a goldmine of seventeenth century social history, as well as a much-lauded work of art? I'd tried reading it before, and there was a little bit too much bureaucracy and statecraft for my liking. Besides,  it was so old-- I wanted something more recent, so that I could relate to it better. The diary of his contemporary John Evelyn was out for the same reason.

Some of the diaries I came across were first-hand accounts of important moments in history; diaries by senior politicians, for instance. But I didn't want anything so specialised, or so dramatic. I didn't want war, or high politics, or expeditions in far off lands. The craving I felt was for the whole rich tapestry of life; dull days, busy days, sick days, red letter days, dark days, holidays, and every other sort of day. I wanted a diary that had as much of the mundane as the picturesque; more of the mundane, for preference.

So how about The Diary of a Country Parson, by James Woodforde, who died in 1803, and who lived a rather uneventful and routine existence? It's had fans since it was published in 1924. However, I found Woodforde's rather plodding account of dinners and expenditures and other daily incidents to be a bit too plain and lacking in reflection or introspection.

Next I tried the diaries and letters of John Henry Newman. The university where I work, University College Dublin, is the descendant of the Catholic University that John Henry Newman founded (though he only really got it started, before trouble from the Irish bishops forced him to leave). This fact, and the mere fact that it was the first dedicated Catholic university in Ireland, means that we have a huge amount of Newman material in the library, including a complete run of his collected diaries and letters-- over thirty volumes. (Newman kept everything.) I started on the first volume, knowing in my heart that there was no chance I would read them all, but rather taken with the idea of doing so. (I always love the idea of going off the beaten track.)

I managed to keep it up for almost a whole volume. Newman was certainly more stimulating company than the Rev. Woodforde, and lived life at a higher pitch, both intellectually and spiritually. was a bit too high of a pitch. Newman lived a life of heroic dedication, and it's rather exhausting even to read about.

Besides, he wasn't much of a diarist. He jotted down the events of the day, but he didn't expand upon them. The meat of the volume was much more in the letters than the diary, and these were indeed much more of a chronicle of his reactions, anxieties, hopes, impressions, and all the other things we expect from a diary, than was his diary proper. But even here, the obliqueness of the thing became frustrating. I was always pleased to come across a letter to his mother or one of his sisters, where he tended to pour out his heart, but one might just as easily find oneself wading through a long and dry correspondence with some distant acquaintance.

I gave up on diaries for a few days, reading a book about Shakespeare instead, but the hunger overtook me again. And I seemed to have found exactly what I was looking for when I discovered Evelyn Waugh had kept a diary for most of his life. (He destroyed some parts of it, but most of his life is represented.) And even better-- it was much more than just a record of events. He put down his thoughts and ideas and reactions and emotions, too. This seemed like the jackpot. And he was a Catholic, to boot!

But even here, I felt frustrated. It was pretty good as long as he was at public school (for my American readers, this means a private boarding school; they feature heavily in much English writing and many English memoirs of the time, but Waugh was-- as the introduction pointed out-- pretty much the only writer to keep a diary of the experience as it happened.) But then he goes to Oxford-- he destroyed his Oxford diaries, probably because of homosexual experiences recorded in them-- and graduates to a boozy and party-filled young adult life that, despite the presence of many eminent friends, is surprisingly tedious to read about. In fact, the most interesting passages are the ones where he is working as a teacher in a rather obscure school. Too much freedom, I have always noticed, makes everything dull.

I was looking forward to his conversion to Catholicism, which came after his career as a novelist took off, and after the failure of his first marriage (all of these events are missing from the diaries themselves, since he also destroyed this sequence). Unfortunately, when the curtain rises on his successful years, his diary persona becomes blasé and cynical and impersonal (as the volume's editor admits), and the entries are shorter and less heartfelt. I jumped a decade and more, to the end of World War Two; then, when I found him bitterly listing his low opinions of his own children, I gave up on Waugh.

And on diaries, too, at least for the moment. My trawl through them had partly satisfied my hunger, and partly convinced me that I wasn't going to find what I was looking for. Perhaps I had been too influenced by fictional diaries, like The Diary of Adrian Mole (a favourite in my early twenties) and The Diary of a Nobody (a perennial favourite, and my candidate for the funniest novel in the English language). Or perhaps I had learned that the diary of a real somebody is less interesting than the diary of a fictional nobody.

My final strange appetite is the most recent, and the mildest. As I was reading that book about Shakespeare that I mentioned, I found myself (not for the first time) becoming infatuated with the title The Winter's Tale. I think it's one of the most evocative titles ever; and perhaps thinking about it at the height of summer (though it's not very summery in Ireland right now) adds to its charm.

I recently offered readers an "e-book" (i.e., Word file) collection of my poetry entitled While The Wind Howls on a Winter's Night. The title comes from this verse:

In an old, old story spoken
By a low fire’s dying light—
Of promises made and broken
Or old wrongs put to right;
That hushes the room, while the wind howls on a winter’s night.

I have to admit I'm pretty proud of that line. I quote it now to try to explain what magic I find in the title The Winter's Tale. (Not that it's needed, I'm sure. I mentioned in a recent post a Youtube video of old Irish ads that I was watching over and over. One is for a sherry called A Winter's Tale, and it seemed to be evoking the same kind of idyll.)

I'd already read throu
gh A Winter's Tale not long ago, motivated by the same fascination;  I liked it well enough, being a product of Shakespeare's later mellow and dreamy phase. But I like The Tempest better, for the same reason. All the same, I found myself seeking out another edition of The Winter's Tale, purely for the sake of the title. I would, I told myself, read the introduction at least. By the time I had finished the introduction (thoroughly enjoying it), I was already interested in something else....

Yeats once wrote:

Hands, do what you're bid;

Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.

 Should that be my attitude too (though Yeats himself is obviously ambivalent in this poem)? Or should I let these fancies flow freely? One way or the other, I think the mind's tendency to suddenly be attracted to a bizarrely specific idea is quite fascinating.

And more that fascinating; I think that it is very often the seed for works of art and other enterprises. I'm very interested in the creative process, and it's amazing how often a song or a film or a book grows out of one image, one character, or one atmosphere. I also think that a person's philosophy of life very often has such a genesis; something speaks to that person's depths, in such a way that it influences their entire lives, and it can very often be something as madly specific as the things I list here.

Monday, August 3, 2015


This is a poem I wrote years ago, when I was an agnostic (if not an atheist). I obviously wouldn't stand over all the sentiments now, especially the assertions of cosmic meaningless. I don't think I'd really agree that "the people who order a shape to their lives, have ice where their eyes should be, use words like knives" etc. (Then again, it wasn't me saying it. It was the honey-haired teacher. That is the good thing about writing poetry from the point of view of a character; you can always distance yourself from its content. Frankly, I can't remember if I would have agreed to all this back then or not).

I think this is one of my better poems from back in the day. Maybe because it has ideas in it. I like ideas to be dealt with directly in a work of art-- explicity. If you are going to have a novel with a religious theme, for instance, let's have actual discussions about religion in it, rather than the religious themes being approached solely through metaphor, symbolism and dramatisation. Perhaps it is more artistic to be oblique, but it's also tiresome.

The themes of this poem have been much on my mind lately. I still rejoice in the wildness of life, even if I no longer believe that "the cosmos is chaos".


A little boy piecing a picture together
Confined to the class-room in wintry weather.
The honey-haired teacher looks on him, and dreams
Of boys that grow up, and their infinite schemes:

Stop trying to make a mosaic of it;
A thousand pieces, and none of them fit.
Thousands of days, and a handful remembered,
The picture you started with scrambled, dismembered.

The people who order a shape to their lives
Have ice where their eyes should be, use words like knives,
Are spooked by their own dreams, enraged at delay,
And know no third option to growth and decay.
Their soul is a timetable, hopes are a plan,
And they end up exactly the way they began;
A purpose incarnate, not woman, not man.

The cosmos is chaos; the stars do not dance
To any grand tune but the music of chance.
But chance is not everything. Some kind of choice
Is ours, and all things are not spinning of dice.
Words have many meanings, and still they must fail
To capture the essence of life’s much-told tale
For essence there is none; no ultimate why,
Just a madness of stars in a meaningless sky.

But finish your jigsaw; a world of its own.
Outside is the world of the vast and unknown
A little bit vaster and less known for you
But only a little. Do what we all do—
Built delicate webs in the infinite space,
A moment of time and a corner of place,
And fill them with voices and faces you know.

But always remember your mirror will show
A face back to you that will always seem strange;
The soul is a kingdom we cannot arrange.
And when sleep arrives, you must leave what you’ve made
And enter that wilderness, rapt and afraid,
All order forgotten, all purpose betrayed.