Saturday, December 31, 2016

Tom, Dick and Harry

Thinking about this phrase, I came across this little snippet of knowlege on Wikipedia:
The phrase is a rhetorical device known as a tricolon. The most common form of tricolon in English is an ascending tricolon, and as such the names are always said in order of ascending syllable length. Other examples of this gradation include "tall, dark and handsome", "hook, line and sinker", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"; and so on.

I found myself wondering if there have ever been three friends actually called Tom, Dick and Harry. Well, there must have been. It must happen all the time. Probably three brothers, too.

Thinking about tricolons got me thinking about words in general.

Some weeks ago I was manning a service desk in the library with a colleague who directed a student to the "device" beside the self-service machines where she could pay her fine with university credit. (There is an internal system of credit which can be purchased with cash and which can then be used to pay library fines, print, photocopy, buy stuff in the university shops, etc. Indeed the café directly below the library, a private venture, accepts this credit but not credit cards or debit cards.)

I found myself wondering why my colleague had used the word 'device' instead of 'machine', 'booth', 'kiosk', or any of the other terms that could have been used.

I think about this quite a lot. Why do we use one word rather than another, when there are a multiplicity of words that could be chosen? Why did I use the word 'multiplicity' in the last sentence, and not 'abundance' or 'embarrassment' or 'plethora'?

This questions puts me in mind of the philosophical dilemma (or perhaps the philosophical joke) of Buridan's ass. The form in which I first encountered it was this; if a chicken is equidistant between two pieces of grain, rationally it should remain rooted on the spot forever since there is no reason to go towards one rather than the other.

If somebody is writing a poem or an essay, and mulling over every word choice, then it's not too surprising that he or she will prefer one rather than another. But I'm more interested in the case of spontaneous, unreflective speech. We very often choose one term rather than another without even pausing for thought. What is happening in our minds at such moments?

This became particularly interesting to me this year, since I was trying to improve my Irish. A learner of any language finds himself constantly returning to the question: "Would a native speaker say this? How is this language actually used?".  I remember a French teacher advising us not to use the term 'boum' for party, since "only thirteen year olds would call a party a boum". (Indeed, I just did a bit of research, and found that even French teenagers won't thank you for using the term.)

But here we come to an interesting twist, in that it's the privilege, perhaps even the hallmark, of a native speaker to break both the rules and the conventions. We're always doing it. We use nouns or names as verbs, even if they're never used in that way. We revive archaic usages ("are you going to join me for luncheon?"). We mispronounce words for the heck of it.

More ordinarily, we simply choose words in a slightly unusual way for the sake of finesse. A well-spoken person might say she is "none-too-sanguine" instead of "not that confident", simply for the sake of variety, or for dramatic understatement, or for some such consideration.

It's funny to think of the drama that's being played out every time we open our gobs.

Indeed, the mystery of choice, or free will, or whatever you mean to call it, never ceases to entrance me. I wonder why someone is reading that book, or listening to that song, when they have an indefinite number to choose from. I wonder, too, how allegiances and beliefs are formed, and when exactly the inner Rubicon is passed and somebody becomes committed to a particular belief system.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Calling All Men

I'm happy to announce that I wil be talking at the 2017 Faith in Men conference in the Apollo Hotel, North Brunswick Street, Dublin. Mark your calendars for 5th March, 10:00 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The Faith in Men conference is a rallying point for Catholic guys who want to be better men and better Catholics. 

This is the programme:

10:00: Registration, tea and coffee, and warm-up activity of touch football.

11:00: "Hey, Why is This Church Full of Chicks?". Lecture by Amy Millicent, former feminist, home-schooling mom of three boys, and blogger.

11:30: "Jesus: The Perfect Guy". Lecture by Josh McSloane, author of Man up For Jesus.

12:00: "The Rosary is for Warriors!". Lecture by Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, blogger.

1:00: Barbecue lunch. (Vegetarian option available.)

2:00: "This Dress is So Not Me". Lecture by Anthony Sedakis, former transsexual

2:30: "Game Over". Lecture by Josh McGerald, former video game addict, author of Honey, Don't Walk in Front of the Screen.

3:00: Open discussion on the crisis of masculinity in the Church today, moderated by Ken Cookson, former soccer professional and Catholic speaker.

3:30: Tea and coffee.

4:00: "How To Take Her To Heaven". Lecture by Jessica Clarke, author of God's Gift to Women: A Catholic Guy's Guide to Dating and Beyond.

4:30: "Fight the Good Fight!". Keynote Address by Bishop Andrew Summerville, patron of Men of God lay association.

5:00-6:00: Closing Q&A and general discussion. Confession available.

Guys, hope to see you there! Women also very welcome! Registration details available soon.

More on Keith Waterhouse

Let's face it, Christmas gifts are often not very good. People try their best, but very often a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and a vague awareness that somebody likes hororr movies (exempli gratia) might lead somebody to gift a discerning horror fan with a DVD of the latest semi-pornographic slasher flick.

This year, however, I got some extraordinarily good Christmas gifts. One was City Lights and Streets Ahead, two Keith Waterhouse memoirs in one volume. I've written about Keith Waterhouse here and here

I thoroughly enjoyed Waterhouse's account of his upbringing in Leeds, and his early efforts at writing and becoming a journalist. However, when he does become successful (and he became hugely successful at a young age, not oly as a journalist but also as a novelist, dramatist and screenwriter), the book becomes rather dull-- for my taste, at least.

While I find reminiscences of the streets, markets and daily life of Leeds to be fascinating, I find stories from the clubland of London-- Peter O'Toole's hellraising, champagne in hotel lobbies, the anecdotes of squalid afternoon drinking clubs full of bohemians, the quirks of legendary newspaper editors-- to be both tiresome and distasteful. I think I am irredeemably square. Glamour and glitz bores and irritates me.

However, his accounts of his actual writing life (both on his own and with his writing partner Willis Hall) never fail to fascinate me.

When, as a child, I read a collection of Waterhouse's newspaper journalism, I relished the persona he projected in them-- a solid, rather provincial family man. That was the life, I thought-- bashing away on the typewriter in working hours, a pattern of family picnics, board games, old-fashioend pubs, and browsing in second hand bookshops the rest of the time. (As a matter of fact, his first wife divorced him because of the amount of time he spent at his work, and he admits he saw more of his children after the divorce than before it.)
I think this rather innocent subterfuge was deliberate on Waterhouses's part. I once read a set of guidelines he wrote for newspaper columnists, one of which ran a litlte like this: "If you write about your daughter's scholarship to Cambridge, you will only succeed in irritating all the parents whose daughters didn't get a scholarship to Cambridge."

What  prompted me to write this post was this anecdote in which Waterhouse writes about a teenage girlfriend who turned up when his film, Billy Liar, featured a character loosely based on her:

The character of Liz was based very loosely on a teenage girlfriend back in my Leeds days, who had abruptly vanished after I had become engaged to Joan. I heard she had gone to Canada. Thirty-five years then elapsed. One evening I was sitting at home watching television when there was a ring at the doorbell. There on the threshold stood a middle-aged, matronly figure whom, the years rolling back, I could just recognise as 'Liz'. I invited her in and gave her a drink and asked where she had been all these years. "Oh, round and about" said 'Liz', quoting a line used by the fictional Liz. It turned out that she had indeed gone to Canada and then had spent a good many years drifting about Europe, teaching English. But it also turned out that she seemed to identify herself totally with the made-up Liz of Bily Liar, that she imagined I was Billy and she was Liz, and that inside her plump frame was a Julie Christine [the actress who played Liz] trying to get out.

Why she had after all these years decided to descend upon me out of the blue she did not explain. She said she had read that I was now divorced, as she was herself, but that seemed pretty thin-- her source for this information was Who's Who, and her only pupose in looking me up in the first place must have been to find out my address. My belief is that she had arrived at some crisis point in her life and this seemed to her a way of dealing with it. At any rate, after that strange evening, 'Liz' kept on turning up in my life. I would be giving a talk in the City University when I would recognise her sitting in the middle of the audience, like some figure in a Charles Addams cartoon. I would be signing books at a literary fetival and there she would be in the queue of purchasers. I would be catching my weekend train to Brighton and there on Victoria Station she would be not so palely loitering. And then, after a few weeks of this, again she vanished, as abruptly as she had arrived. I toyed with turning my encounter with 'Liz' into a short story, but then I decided that if I delved into her motivations closely it would prove too sad to write.

Not only would that story seem too sad to write, but it seems strange to me that Waterhouse would include an anecdote like this in his memoirs. What are the chances 'Liz' read this book? How did she feel if she did? It seems uncharitable, unchivalrous, and cruel to me.

Still, it's a fascinating book, and provokes many thoughts. I may write more about in the future. These days, Waterhouse's writing fascinates me as much for what is missing from it as for what is there. Although I am a lifelong anglophile, it really seems to me as though something died in the English soul after the Second World War (though it took several decades to decompose). Perhaps I should call it the urge for the sublime, or the transcendental. 

One section in Waterhouse's memoirs concerns his efforts, as a teenager, to meet girls and sleep with them. To this end, he became a member of a whole succession of religious congregations, as well as attending meetings of various political factions (spanning the entire ideological spectrum). Of course, virtually all adolescent males have an overpowering interest in girls, although the conscious desire to seduce them seems to be more widespread in some periods than in others-- and the post-war period seems to have been one of those. But what really intrigues me is not the young Waterhouse's carnal urges, which are not at all strange, but the apparent absence of any flash of idealism, sparked by his time amongst Methodists and socialists and Congregationatlists. Mind you, he was idealistic in his own way-- he left the Daily Mirror when Robert Maxwell took over, despite Maxwell's determined efforts to keep him-- but it was a subdued, disillusioned kind of idealism. 

Where did it go, the visionary gleam? Why did the very strong tradition of 'non-conformist' English Christianity, with its corregated-iron-roofed chapels, its hymns, and its temperance drives, seem to disappear overnight? What happened to the dreams of Merrie England dreamed by William Morris and his disciples? When did Albion disappear into the UK? This question fascinates me, and I have no answer to it.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Thoughts on Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis

I feel the best way I can write this blog post is in numbered points:

1) OK, I am going to come right out and admit it-- until this very evening, I had not read Pope Francis's controversial document on marriage and the family, Amoris Laetitia.

I read Pope Francis's other major documents as soon as they were released. It wasn't intellectual laziness that kept me from reading this one. It was, in fact, fear. I was frightened of what I was going to read in it.

I have now read it-- carefully, slowly, and with an open mind. And I must say, I wasn't really surprised in any way. It was much as I expected from what I have read about it, and from the Pope's previous writings.

2) Pope Francis is the Pope. He is the Holy Father. He is the successor of Peter. I feel this point cannot be stressed enough.

One of the reasons I left Facebook was because I found the behaviour of both my liberal and conservative Catholic friends to be often upsetting. The liberal Catholics seemed infatuated with politics, and with hatred of Donald Trump and hatred of 'the right' in general. They just couldn't seem to get it into their heads that issues like the death penalty, immigration and the minimum wage are open for debate in a way that issues like abortion and euthanasia are not. Mark Shea, a writer I once greatly admired, seems to have completely succumbed to this mentality.

The conservatives, on the other hand (and I am a conservative), often spoke about the Holy Father in a way that was extremely disrespectful. They often referred to him brusquely as "Francis", or even "Bergoglio".

Now, I am not an ultramontanist. I understand the limits of infallibility. (Here is a good blog post from Edward Feser on the subject.)

But how, as Catholics, can we simply see Pope Francis as the incumbent-- the chairman of the board-- a kind of placeholder on the throne of Peter?

Though Popes can indeed err, surely our assumption should be that the Holy Father is indeed guided by the Holy Spirit? Surely our attitude should be one of docility, receptiveness and filial love?

3) This is not to say that I don't read Amoris Laetitia with considerable trepidation. I do. In fact, I believe those cardinals, archbishops and theologians who have challenged it (or some interpretations of it) are acting according to their consciences and fulfilling a solemn duty.

4) The whole kernel of the matter seems to be well expressed in this paragraph in the Catechism:

 Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors. 

In other words, although we can say when a situation is objectively sinful, it's very difficult to say when someone has committed a mortal sin because we don't know the state of their soul. The argument that the Church can preserve doctrine while adapting pastoral practice would seem, on the face of it, legitimate given this principle. I can see how, applying this principle, it may be the case that not every 'irregular situation' can be assessed in the same way. 

5) G.K. Chesterton famously wrote: "We don't want a Church which is right where we are right. We want a Church which is right where we are wrong."

I have often quoted this dictum in defence of Church teaching that other people found challenging.  In all consistency, I have to apply it when I find teaching challenging.

6) I found an excellent article on this subject on (of all places) the Irish Jesuit page. To be honest, I found it using the search terms "Amoris Laetitia" and "casuistry"-- since it occurred to me that the document went in for a casuistry that could unravel the Church's moral teaching, not only on sex and marriage, but on absolutely everything.

The article is by a chap (not a priest) called Dermot Roantree and, like every good article, it anticipates the objections of the reader.

In particular, Roantree anticipates the very question that was in my own mind as I read the document; that is, would Pope Francis be so willing to apply this distinction between objective sin and moral culpability to some 'social justice' field such as pollution or economic exploitation?

Roantree argues that the same principle does, in fact, apply, and that this is not simply special pleading to accommodate the sexual mores of our time:

The big point of Amoris Laetitia, in fact, is precisely that these same considerations hold in all moral cases, of whatever hue. What we’re seeing, I think, is the rehabilitation of casuistry in the Church’s approach to practical ethics – a return to the practice of circumscribing the judgement of universal laws and absolute principles by paying close attention to the concrete circumstances of particular cases. If this is true, it’s a good thing. Casuistry was unfairly (if brilliantly) dealt a death blow by Blaise Pascal in his mid-17th century Provincial Letters, in which he used the excesses and abuses of some casuists to ridicule the whole practice. But, as modern casuists have been quick to point out, casuistry may be open to abuse, but that is not an argument against casuistry, only an argument against its abuse. The way this is put by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin, co-authors of The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (1988), which did much to revive interest in this approach, is that there is a difference between “good casuistry, which applies general rules to particular cases with discernment, and bad casuistry, which does the same thing sloppily”.

7) I absolutely get the objection that confessors, Catholic teachers, priests and pastors are already too lax, very often, in intepreting the teaching of the Church-- at least in the developed world. (Perhaps it is different in other countries.) And yes, giving them even more rope seems like it could be a mistake. This seems to me like something that has to be taken into consideration.

8) As recently as September, Pope Benedict said he saw "no contradiction" between his pontificate and that of Pope Francis. I don't believe the conspiracy theories that Benedict has been drugged or intimidated into compliance. This is a man who, I believe, would suffer martyrdom for the faith. His words must be taken seriously.

9) Having said all this, I must also acknowledge that the brilliant Catholic philosopher Edward Feser-- who played a huge part in my own acceptance of the Catholic faith-- takes a much grimmer view of the situation, and he makes a very strong case in labelling this a 'doctrinal crisis'.

What then? What is my conclusion?

I am not sure that Amoris Laetitia is not dangerously confusing, as its critics claim. I do very much see the arguments that are made against it.

However, Pope Francis is the successor of St. Peter. Popes have been in error, but it's extremely rare. If we begin to question the authority of the Pope willy-nilly, where does that leave us?

I don't believe the Church can ever apostasise. I believe the guarantee our Lord made to St. Peter. Those cardinals, bishops and moral theologians who have reservations about this document are, in my view, entirely justified and to be applauded in challenging it, or in seeking clarifications. They may, indeed, be the instrument by which the Holy Spirit is at work.

In the meantime, I will continue to read the words of the Holy Father as written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as instruction and not as a text to be critically assessed, or to be filtered through my own private judgement.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

RIP Anthony Cronin

The Irish poet, biographer, social critic and all-round public intellectual Anthony Cronin has died aged eighty-eight.

RTE says in its report on his death In part it was due to his indignation that another poet of genius, Patrick Kavanagh, as well as many of Kavanagh’s contemporaries in other arts, such as the composer Frederick May, were reduced to poverty and treated as little better than outlaws. Oops. I don't think that's what they meant to say. I wonder how long it will take them to spot it?

Anthony Cronin wrote an excellent biography of Myles Na Gopaleen, one of my favourite writers, and a memoir of the literary clique to which they both belonged entitled Dead as Doornails, which I've read twice. (Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh and J.P. Donleavy were also members.)

In Dead as Doornails, Cronin tried to de-romantize an era and an environment that has passed into Irish folklore-- the era of the hard-drinking literary set who loitered in Dublin pubs in the nineteen forties and fifties. Of course, he only succeeds in making it even more romantic.

Cronin, to a great extent, was an opponent of everything I hold dear in Irish history and culture-- he was critical of the Gaelic Revival and of romantic nationalism, of the Catholic Church, of populist views of art and literature, of censorship on the ground of public morals, and so forth.

And yet he was an example of that creature which was common enough in Irish life, but which is almost extinct now-- that is, the 'public intellectual', a person who was as interested in literature, philosophy and ideas in general, as he was in politics. Irish public intellectuals were nearly always anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic, but the very fact that they took things like religion (or 'spirituality'), literature, national culture, and so forth, so seriously enriched our national life. Fintan O'Toole is a living example-- I disagree with everything he writes, but at least he has some sense of intellectual and cultural seriousness, one that goes beyond sloganeering.

Anthony Cronin was also a fairly accomplished poet, and he took poetry seriously. He wrote articles on great poems for the newspapers, and he had good taste in poetry-- despite his anti-bourgeois rhetoric, they were very often traditionally popular poems. So he was a champion of poetry in mainstream life, which is much to be applauded.

Finally, he was a newspaper columnist, a person who commented on The State of the Nation. Such people always impress me. His collection of columns An Irish Eye was one of the books that gave me my abiding love of the essay format-- since newspaper columns are essentially essays.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Irish Nationalism and Irish Catholicism

I mentioned many months back that I had collected my columns for The Catholic Voice newspaper, for which I wrote for about two years, into a book to which I had given the title Catholic Without Apologies. I was posting the articles here one by one, and also sent the manuscript to a publisher. They told me that collections of newspaper columns rarely sell. I lost interest in the book after that, though I keep the original articles in my files (as I keep copies of almost everything I've had published, and even some of my English exercises in school). If anybody wants the file of Catholic Without Apologies, I will be happy to send it to them. Just email me at

Anyway, one article that I thought might be worth posting here is my article on Catholicism and Irish nationalism, written a little bit after the Scottish independence referendum. The subject, as any longtime reader of my blog will know, is of longstanding interest to me. This article drew a few nice comments from people, so perhaps readers of the blog will like it.

A National Debate

The referendum on Scottish independence has led to much talk about nations and nationhood. We are used to hearing that we live in a globalised world, a post-national world—a global village, in fact. (The phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan, a Catholic.) However, it would seem that a lot of people still haven’t ‘got the memo’, to use the piquant modern phrase. In the Ukraine and in many other parts of the world, bitter wars and conflicts are being fought over the claims of nationhood. And the referendum in Scotland, which was passionately contested and only narrowly defeated, shows us that the idea of nationhood still stirs the blood even in our own corner of the world, ultra-individualistic and ultra-materialistic as it has become.

In Ireland, the relationship between the Catholic Church and Irish nationalism has long been one of intense debate, lofty speechifying, desperate hand-wringing, fat academic dissertations-- and no consensus whatsoever. In some quarters, ‘Catholic’ has been used as a synonym for ‘Irish nationalist’. In other quarters, the bishops have been execrated as the enemies of Irish freedom. Modern-day Sinn Féin seem to take pride in opposing the Catholic Church at every juncture. What are we to make of all this? 

Marshall McLuhan

Before going on to that, I would like to describe my own view of Irish nationalism, which has changed drastically (and repeatedly) since my childhood.

In my thirty-seven years, I have passed from an ardent Irish nationalism, to a bitter hostility towards Irish nationalism, and back…and back and forth again…and I’ve gone through many stages in between. Part of this, of course, was simply the posturing and attitudinising of a boy. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think I had, not good reasons, perhaps, but understandable reasons for reacting against Irish nationalism. These included disgust at the terrorist outrages in Northern Ireland, rejection of the left-wing liberalism of so many Irish nationalists, dislike of the anti-Englishness so often attached to Irish patriotism, and, finally, irritation at the attitude of many Irish language enthusiasts. These last often seemed bent on taking offence at every perceived slight to the language, and all-too-eager to inflict embarrassment upon those who did not speak it, or who spoke it poorly.

Ultimately, though, I have come to consider myself—very definitely—an Irish nationalist, though more of a cultural and social nationalist than a political nationalist. I believe that, in a world where globalisation is threatening to inflict a deadening sameness upon us all, it is more important than ever for every country to protect its traditions, customs, heritage and everything else that makes it distinctive. Indeed, I believe that these things should not only be protected, but fostered, and revived where they have fallen into disuse. I think this is a matter for ordinary people in their everyday lives, but also for government legislation. And I think it is a matter of the first importance.


In attempting to answer that, I feel a sort of helplessness. Everybody holds certain beliefs that are as innate to them, and as incapable of being set aside, as the colour of their eyes or hair. In my own case, some of these beliefs are; the crucial importance of tradition (every kind of tradition) for its own sake; the importance of special times and places; and an urge to protect that which is unique and irreplaceable. This is what makes me feel a boundless delight in the sight of a Christmas tree or a Halloween bonfire, what makes my heart lift at the discovery of some obscure local slang-word, and what depresses me when I hear about any custom—Wren boys, or Guy Fawkes nights, or Corpus Christi processions—dying out. 

I could make arguments on behalf of these beliefs, but I no more require arguments in their favour than I need a motive to breathe. There would even be something false in such a rationalisation. If you don’t see the value of such things, nobody can explain it to you. Thankfully, I think most people do see their value—though they are rather too inclined to overlook it.

The Catholic Church also has a high regard for tradition. We see this in the rhythms of its liturgical year, in the accumulation of devotional practices over the centuries, and in the Church’s promotion of special times (such as feast days) and special places (such as pilgrimage sites). We see the Church’s respect for tradition, as well, in its insistence (since Pope Leo XII) that the sacred traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches should not be Latinised; in Pope Benedict XVI’s Anglican Ordinariate, whereby Anglicans entering into communion with Rome were permitted to retain much of their distinctive style of worship; and in Pope Pius XII’s resolution of the long-running ‘Chinese Rites’ controversy, whereby it was decided that traditional Chinese ceremonies of ancestor veneration were fully compatible with Catholicism. 

‘For the Glory of God and the Honour of Ireland’ 

As for patriotism, there are solid reasons for Catholic to regard it as a duty. The Catechism tells us that “The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity” (CCC, 239). Christ’s tears for Jerusalem seem to indicate that the Saviour himself could harbour a special love for his native people. St. Paul tells us that “I could pray that I myself might be accursed and cut off from Christ, if this could benefit the brothers who are my own flesh and blood”—that is, the Jews.

Of course, it is true that the nation, when it usurps the place of God, can become an idol, as in the case of Nazi Germany. But the same is true of all good things.

In the case of Ireland, it is my contention that the Catholic Church has always been the staunchest champion of Irish’s traditions and nationhood; that the golden eras of Irish history have also been high tides of Irish Catholicism; and that Irish nationalism only ever became disordered and perverted when it strayed from the guidance of the Catholic Church, as occurred with the campaign of the Provisional IRA.

The two eras that are most recognised as ‘golden ages’ in Irish history are the early medieval period, when Irish monasteries kept the flame of civilization alive through Europe’s Dark Ages, and the Gaelic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the Irish people were seized with a collective enthusiasm for their native traditions, along with an intense determination to rediscover and revive them. This Gaelic Revival, which threw up such an astonishing effusion of literary and artistic talent, and which transformed Irish society so profoundly, was also deeply indebted to the Irish Catholic Church. 

A book in which this debt is laid bare is Catholic Churchmen and the Celtic Revival in Ireland 1848-1916 by Kevin Collins (Four Courts Press, 2002). Collins’s thesis is a blunt one: “There never would have been a Celtic Revival in Ireland, of the kind there in fact was, without the agency of Roman Catholic ecclesiastics.”

As Collins explains: “Both the Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language and the Gaelic Union, founded in 1876 and 1888 respectively, owed their existences to the efforts of Canon Ulick Bourke. Priests created two new literatures; Peter O’Leary (1839-1920) was responsible for initiating a modern literature in Irish [with his novel Séadna]; two priests, Patrick Sheehan (1852) and Canon Joseph Guinan (1863-1932), along with a former priest, Gerald O’Donovan (1871-1942), were responsible for creating a new literature in English. It was aimed specifically at Catholics and was intended to give them a literature of its own. Moreover it was the truly popular literature of its time, far more influential on the Irish public than the now better-known work of Yeats and his fellow Anglo-Irish writers.”

Nor is this all. As Collins continues: “The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884. Crucial to the success of the organisation was the support given to it by Archbishop Thomas Croke of Cashel. Priests were also essential to its success at parish level…The Gaelic League, too, founded in 1893, was brought into being through the efforts of a priest, Fr. Eugene O’Growney. This was also a period of educational reform, which saw the establishment of the Christian Brothers as a major influence in the nation’s schools. Their emphasis on Irish history and the Irish language shaped the world-view of important sections of the public….Taken together, [these developments] represented a cultural revolution which paved the way for the political revolution that created an Irish state.”

A Very Catholic Revolution

But it was not simply the prominent role of the clergy in the Gaelic Revival that gave it a Catholic character. The entire movement was steeped in a Catholic atmosphere. Professor Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of Gaelic League, and one of the leading lights of the Revival, wrote that: “No course of events injurious to religion can possibly be helpful to the cause of spiritual nationality of which the [Gaelic] League is the champion”. Daniel Corkery, whose book The Hidden Ireland was one of the central texts of the Revival, wrote that Ireland’s religious consciousness was “so vast, so deep, even so terrible a thing…that when one begins to know it, one wonders if it is possible for a writer to deal with any phase of Irish life without trenching upon it.” 

Eoin MacNeill

The political revolution that led to the creation of the State was also deeply Catholic—in the minds of the revolutionaries, at least. Mary Kenny in her book Goodbye to Catholic Ireland describes how each of the executed leaders of the 1916 Rising went to their deaths in a spirit of Catholic martyrdom: “Even the hardened old Fenian Tom Clarke—who had a long-standing quarrel with the Church, which had so repeatedly condemned the secret Fenian brotherhood—like James Connolly [a Marxist], apparently died a Catholic death”. As for Connolly, she writes: “The night before Patrick Pearse died, what was most on his mind was the question of James Connolly’s reconciliation with the Lord. “Thank God!” Pearse exclaimed, when he heard that Connolly had seen the priest and received Communion. “It is the one thing I was anxious about”.”

Whatever your views on the moral legitimacy of the 1916 Rising, it cannot be denied that it was the single event which did most to bring about the creation of an Irish State. It further cannot be denied that it was suffused by a spirit of Catholicism. If this was not obvious from the stories of the executed leaders, it would be obvious from the five opening words of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic: “In the name of God…” When today’s newspaper columnists appeal to the Proclamation, usually to evoke a liberal-secular ideal of republicanism, they tend to ignore that dedication—as well as the first words of its conclusion, “We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most High God.”

There can be no doubt, either, that popular opinion in the founding decades of the State was solidly Catholic. Historians like to shake their heads in disapproval over the protests against Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, the introduction of laws against divorce and contraception, the strict censorship of books and movies, and the Constitution’s (now removed) reference to the “special position” of the Catholic Church as “the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizen”, as well as its invocation of “the Most Holy Trinity”. But taken together, all these facts prove that, if the newly-independent State was a ‘theocracy’, it was a ‘theocracy’ by popular demand. The common claim that the revolutionary idealism of 1916 and the War of Independence was betrayed by a later counter-revolution, led by the Catholic Church, doesn’t stand much analysis.

The moral is clear. Ireland will only rediscover its former greatness—indeed, its very soul—when Ireland rediscovers its Faith. Seek ye first the kingdom of God…

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Back to Shippea Hill

The excellent Some Definite Service blog revisists (though not literally) Shippea Hill, the least visited train station in the UK.

The author of the blog visited Shippea Hill some years ago, which made him one of only twenty-two people who stopped there that year.

Shippea Hill is such an out-of-the-way station that you have to request a stop there, and the only reason to stop there you can say you stopped there. It sounds good to me. I would love to go there.

I've always been fascinated with places that are unfrequented, ill-attended or sleepy.

I found myself thinking of this during the last weekday Mass in the UCD Church before the Christmas break. The term had ended and there were only five or six people in the church at the opening blessing. The priest remarked upon it. (More people sauntered in before Communion. I'll never understand why people are so casual about punctuality, especially when it comes to Mass.)

As I walked back to the library, looking around the all-but-deserted campus, I meditated on how much I love such days in UCD-- out-of-term days when hardly anybody is around, and the campus seems to be half-asleep. I also recalled how much I'd loved days in school where the same situation pertained, for one reason or another. It often happened in P.E class, since the teacher was very laid-back about excuse slips. Sometimes there were only half a dozen people participating. I was always one of them, since I loved P.E. class.

Part of this is a love of seasonality. I love the ebb and flow of life. The 'unto everything there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes is (I think) one of the most moving texts ever written.

But I also particularly like half-deserted, or nearly-deserted, or entirely deserted places and events.

A crowded pub is the last place I'd ever want to be. (This is why I try to avoid ever going out on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, or at Christmas.) A sleepy, dreamy pub, on the other hand, is a delightful place to be.

A crowded cinema can be fun-- though not so much if you're sitting in the middle of the aisle. But I've always preferred deserted screeenings. Indeed, on at least three occasions, I've been the only member of a cinema audience.

Only yesterday, I was savouring one of my favourite scenes in Groundhog Day, where Phil and his two ne'er-do-well drinking buddies are hanging out in a near-empty bowling alley, with the song "Take me Home Again" in the background. (I always thought it was a cover version of 'Words' by the Bee Gees-- thanks to the inimitable Robert Black and his Groundhog Day Project blog for the correction.)

For much the same reason, I've always had a fascination with films nobody watches, books nobody reads, and songs nobody listens to. I sometimes seek out library books which seem unlikely to have had any readers at all for decades. (The poetry shelves are the most likely source for these.) Opening them feels like walking into the garden in The Secret Garden-- a favourite book of my childhood.

There's even an equivalent to Shippea Hill in my own life-- sort of. I take the route 4 bus to and from Ballymun every working day (and many other days).  'Harristown' is the terminus displayed on its destination board. "Where's Harristown?", I've heard at least one local wonder aloud. Harristown, apparently, is pretty much the terminus and nothing else. It's beside the airport. I've sometimes thought of staying on the bus all the way to the terminus just to see this place which is not a place. (How did it even get a name?) In fact, although I'm not much of a map reader, I sometimes enjoy poring over the map of Dublin and looking at places (such as the poetically named Fox and Geese) which seem to occupy quite a lot of map surface but which I never hear anybody talk about, ever.

All this from Shippea Hill-- what a wonderful place it is!

The Quotations at the Foot of this Blog

I sometimes wonder if anybody ever looks at the quotations I've put at the foot of this blog. They've been there for a long time now, and I feel that they sum up my religious views pretty well (though, of course, they could be expanded greatly). Here they are:

One thing in this world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized and (when recognized) most violently hated or loved. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it is the night.-- Hilaire Belloc

It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. ..To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.-- Chesterton

From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery. -- Newman

I have come to bring fire to the Earth-- Our Lord, Luke 12:49

Reading over them I was struck especially by "I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of relgion", which-- to me-- expresses the matter perfectly. Newman's prose, which seemed fussy and over-ornate to me when I first read it, increasingly strikes me as a marvel of precision. In our time, we absorb the prejudice that fewer and shorter words are always better, and more to the point; but sometimes (often?) an idea needs to be expressed in more rather than fewer words, abstract rather than concrete words, polysyllables rather than monosyllables.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Good King Wenceslaus

Today is St. Stephen's Day!

At least, in Ireland it's St. Stephen's Day. In the UK, it's Boxing Day, an appellation the Irish have always considered barbarous. (At least, as long as I've been alive.) 

Last year, I had an amusing encounter with an old lady in the porch of our local church. She was fuming because the roster for extraordinary Eucharistic ministers had the 26th of December listed as Boxing Day. (One of our priests is Nigerian. I think this explains it.) She asked me if it was unreasonable for her to be so upset. Since it seemed like a rhetorical question, I said I understood it but I didn't think any offence was intended.

I told my father the story, expecting him to be amused. But he was also highly indignant. So, anyone from Commonwealth countries who comes to careful of the nomenclature you use for this day!

Of course, the day is associated with a Chritmas carol whose quatrain is far more famous than the rest of it (indeed, I think I read the rest of the lyrics for the first time just now):

Good King Wenceslaus looked out
On the feast of Stephen
While the snow lay all about
Deep and crisp and even...

(Yes, I've heard the joke about the pizza topping. Everybody has. I am just warding off any potential comment on that score.)

 I don't know if I've ever heard this song actually sung, in real life. I know it mostly from references, many of them tongue-in-cheek.

This would explain several misconceptions I had until very recently. I assumed King Wenceslaus was a medieval English king, like Canute and Harold. Actually he was a Duke of Bohemia (that exotic-sounding obsolete country which always makes me think of creamed rice), who was posthumously made a King and a saint.

I also assumed the song was set during the day-- maybe because I thought of St. Stephen's Day as quintessentially "the morning after the night before". I always envisaged the gleam of snow under morning sunlight, though the song specifies that it is gleaming under moonlight. (The actual story of the song is that King Wenceslaus and his attendant go out to give charity to a poor man, that the attendant can barely make it through the snow and suggests turning back, but that King Wenceslaus tells him to follow in his footsteps which are miraculously warm and navigable.)

Even though I only ever knew the first four lines,  I've always found them deliciously evocative.

First of all, there's the snow. I've always loved snow.

Then there is the cultural and historical atmosphere it evokes. I may enjoy swimming against the tide and being a contrarian, but-- like every Christian, perhaps-- I am not without an intense nostalgia for Christendom, a time when Christianity itself was "deep and crisp and even" all over the Christian world.

This especially applies to England, which was already thoroughly secularised by the time I was a child. Realising it had once been ardently Christian was always a shock, like seeing a photograph of your grandfather as a boy.

Even before I'd heard the term "Merry England", I recognised its atmosphere. (The first non-picture book I ever read  was Robin Hood and his Merry Men.) Perhaps the best evocation of 'Merry England' I've ever read is the refrain of the medieval drinking song I've quoted on this blog before:

Bring us in good ale, and bring us in good ale,
For our blessed Lady's sake, bring us in good ale!

I cannot omit another quotation I've frequently reproduced here, and which I reproduce again now, without apologies. It is Chesterton writing about Dickens:

Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England. 

But "Good King Wenceslaus's" opening four lines did the trick for me as well. It seems to call up a whole world of bells, spires, pilgrims, market crosses, ale, friars, petty kings, coronations, inns, coats of arms, and so forth. The atmosphere of Merry England, for me, was always one of piety and child-like gusto intermingled.

The very title of the ballad gratifies my sentimental attachment to both monarchy and democracy. I'm convinced that some kind of democracy has existed almost everywhere and always, whether or not the people had votes. How often in history books do we come across sentences similar to that in the Gospel: "But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, for they took him for a prophet"?

In the figure of a "good king" (or queen), a figure beloved by the populace, we have a perfect union of hierarchy and populism, one which shows that they are not necessarily at odds. (I realise now that Wenceslaus was 'good' because he was saintly; but I always took it to mean that the people loved him and he was a folk hero, both of which were in fact the case.)

The reference to 'the feast of Stephen' pleased me. I've always believed that measuring and marking should be done in homely rather than scientific terms. Decimelisation and the metric system were awful innovations. One of the most pleasing aspects of Christendom was its division of the year into feasts and solemnities.

(I use saints' days as titles for my diary entries, in the Penzu diary I've kept since June 2015. One might assume there are so many saints that every day of the year has a notable saint. This is far from being the case. Although there are several saints commemorated on every day, quite often they are obscure saints I've never heard of. But there is something pleasing in this, too.) 

Another thing that appealed to me in this quatrain was the aura of folklore. I guessed King Wenceslaus was a semi-historical figure seen through the mist of legend and anecdote, which I always found an exciting perspective, and still do.

I've just realised a final reason the quatrain appealed to me so much. I thought "King Wenceslaus" was the name of an English medieval king. It didn't seem too strange that it was such an exotic name, since medieval English history is full of strange names like Cynweful and Cnut. And this itself seemed symbolic of 'the exoticism of the ordinary', which has always enthralled me. Our own national history (English, Irish, or any other) is exotic, when we dig deep into it. Come to think of it, our own famiy history is exotic-- our own souls and minds and bodies are exotic. This is the exact sensation (both pleasant and disorientating) that I experience when I read or speak the Irish language. It's a strange language-- but it's more my language than the one I'm writing now. I've always felt a passionate conviction that the wildest, widest horizons are not distant but very near.

(I think this explains why the image of Lucy going through the wardrobe into Narnia has such an abiding power over the collective imagination. It also explains why I love the horror genre so much. Horror is full of strange, terrifying and haunting worlds which are only a footstep away.)

So much for the song. One last thing about this day. In the Irish language, it is known as 'The Day of the Wren', since it was the day 'Wren Boys' (children dressed in outlandish garb) would go from door to door singing:

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,
St. Stephen's Day was caught in the furze,
Although he was little his honour was great,
Jump up me lads and give him a treat.
Up with the kettle and down with the pan,
And give us a penny to bury the wren.

It's not a tradition I've ever witnessed myself. It only survives in some parts of the country. I hope it continues to do so for generations to come. Is it too much to hope it might enjoy a revival?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Yes, Virginia, There is a War on Christmas

It's become fashionable amongst 'sophisticated' Christians to rubbish the alleged war on Christmas. They say that Christmas should be a time of joy, not anger and offence-taking. The idea seems to be that if you get upset at 'happy holidays' you probably listen to talk radio all day, breathe through your mouth, and Duck Dynasty is probably your favourite show.

I used to go along with this, partly because I wanted to consider myself sophisticated. More recently I've realised that I'm never going to be sophisticated, so I've given up trying.

Christianity is a FIGHTING religion! Jesus may be the Prince of Peace, but Herod was actively trying to kill him even at the moment we celebrate with a million cosy Christmas carols.

Yesterday I saw a report from, the English-language Russian news station, reporting on the war on Christmas. It was so strange to hear the reality described in an unvarnished way, without the air of embarrassed flippancy and denial we are so used to from our native broadcasters.

(And, no, I don't idolise Putin's Russia-- a country where Catholic evangelisation is illegal. But I don't demonise it, either.)

The fact that today's and yesterday's Google doodles make no reference to Christmas is pretty clear evidence to me that there is indeed a war on Christmas.

Am I being over-sensitive? Shouldn't everyone celebrate in their own way!

Baloney! The holiday only exists because of Jesus. Sure, everybody has a right to celebrate how they wish and to use whatever form of greetings they choose. But I have the right to remind them it's about Jesus, and I'm going to indulge that right to the fullest!

Happy Christmas!


Saturday, December 24, 2016

Political Correctness and Chivalry

I've written a lot recently about political correctness, how fearful I've become of political correctness, and how I've come to approve (rather reluctantly) of polemic, ridicule and invective aimed at destroying political correctness. Drastic situations call for drastic measures.

However, not everything that claims to be a blow against political correctness really is. Sometimes, it's just somebody being a jerk.

See in this video (compiled and uploaded by a fan) how youthful conservative pundit Ben Shapiro portrays himself as a heroic crusader against PC. Around the forty-four second mark he says:

"I've spent my entire career fighting against political correctness. I'm the one who goes to public high schools with poor kids, and says to the poor kids: 'The reasons your parents are permanently poor is because they're bad with money and made bad decisions. Don't make those decisions and you'll do better'. That's politically incorrect..."

No, Ben. That's being a jerk and nothing else.

Shapiro is an orthodox Jew. As a member of that great people, one would think he would have more notion of the respect due to parents-- "honour your father and mother" is a command Jews and Christians both subscribe to. Indeed, in the ninth chapter of Genesis, Noah's son Ham sees his father's nakedness, tells his brothers about it, and suffers a curse upon all his descendants as a result. His two brothers who have covered his father's nakedness, and avoided seeing it, are blessed.

But do we really have to go to the Bible? All human culture, from Confucianism to today's teenage boys trading "your mother" taunts, understand the importance of filial piety.

If Shapiro had gone to schools and told poor kids that poverty is the result of bad choices with money and bad life decisions, that would be one thing. I don't really think it would be true even then. Free market conservatives (one of whom I am not) seem to believe that you can have a social ladder without a bottom rung, that everybody could in principle become an entrepreneur or a professional. But somebody is going to have to do the dirty and unrewarding work, aren't they?

Never mind all that, though. Let's just assume he's right. You still don't insult somebody's parents, especially a child's parents.

That's why I think we need to distinguish between political correctness and chivalry.

It's hard to define chivalry but you know it when you encounter its opposite.

Perhaps the first thing when we think of when we think of chivalry is men being gentlemanly towards women, and I do think this is important. In fact, it seems a real shame to me that the backlash against feminism has resulted in some men displaying a hostility towards the female sex in general. (I mean, men who wouldn't have been woman-haters anyway. Of course, there are natural woman-haters.) I'm strongly of the opinion that men should never speak ill of women in general, but rather the opposite. I have always liked the charming verse by Sir Charles Sedley:

All that in woman is adored
In thy dear self I find
For the whole sex can but afford
The handsome and the kind.

This is pure idealism, of course, but it's an admirable idealism.

Similarly I think women should not speak ill of men, considered as a sex. In neither case am I referring to the kind of affectionate teasing that has characterised relations between the sexes since time began.

Another characteristic of chivalry is that you don't hit someone who can't hit you back, rhetorically as much as physically. Ridiculing somebody who has no comeback is something that makes me squirm. I don't like seeing anybody 'crushed', even when it's someone touting a philosophy I find abhorrent.

I've spoken of my admiration for Milo Yiannopoulous here. There are some videos in which he takes on various progressive hecklers, and rips their argument apart. I see the value of that, as a demonstration of how poor these arguments (which, through sheer bluster, can seem so intimidating) really are. But I still don't like watching it. I prefer it when the arguments are torn apart, rather than a human being presenting them.

Another example comes to mind. My father is a terrible channel hopper. One day I was in the room with him when he was channel hopping, and he spent a few moments looking at a reality TV show which follows the investigations of the customs staff at an airport. I'm sure  you've seen these shows; various passengers are called aside and quizzed about the illegal contents of their luggage. Of course, they are caught red-handed and can't even take refuge in a lie. "I don't like seeing anybody cornered like that", I said, "without a leg to stand on". "Nor do I", said my father, changing the channel.

Another characteristic of chivalry is that you don't press an advantage, or gloat. As most orthodox Catholics will know, there is a whole generation of 'hippie' priests who are being replaced by a rising tide of more orthodox priests and seminarians. Sometimes I hear or read comments about this generation of hippie priests dying out and being replaced. I don't like this sort of gloating. It reminds me of Lenin telling the Mensheviks to go into the dustbin of history. There is a special chivalry due to a defeated opponent, or an opponent on the backfoot.

(Does this, for instance, apply to globalists after Brexit? No, I don't think so, because they are still extremely powerful-- indeed, they are still very much the dominant power.)

Of course, these matters are not straightforward. Minorities can be bullies against majorities. The weak can bully the strong, even if the prevalence of this is ludicrously overstated by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. Bullies often love to pose as victims. Emotional blackmail is an all-too-common tactic in our society ("validate my delusion or I'll cut myself!").

But even taking all that into account, I think it's important to remember that the battle against political correctness does not dispense us from the demands of chivalry-- or give us a charter to act like jerks.