Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Broken Chancel with a Broken Cross: Why I Cherish the Irish Language, Despite All The Reasons Not To

The title of this blog post comes from one of my favourite poems, 'Morte D'Athur' by Lord Alfred Tennyson, a magnificent study of idealism and nobility in the face of despair:

So all day long the noise of battle roll'd
Among the mountains by the winter sea;
Until King Arthur's table, man by man,
Had fallen in Lyonnesse about their Lord,
King Arthur: then, because his wound was deep,
The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him,
Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights,
And bore him to a chapel nigh the field,
A broken chancel with a broken cross,
That stood on a dark strait of barren land.
On one side lay the ocean, and on one
Lay a great water, and the moon was full.

I always assumed 'chancel' meant a church, but Webster's dictionary online defines it as: "the part of a church that contains the altar and seats for the priest and choir". In either case, it always sticks in my mind as one of the most perfect lines of poetry I know, sublimely Gothic in its fusion of desolation and sacredness.

The whole poem has always exercised a magic over me. Both the Irish and the English have been accused of constructing a sort of religion of defeat. Certainly I've always had an affinity with the underdog (and I mean the real underdog; I'm not talking about the pecking orders of 'marginalisation' and of victimhood which have become so popular in our day). Nothing seems more inspiring to me than the spectacle of a hero-- or indeed, anybody-- encountering that over which he cannot triumph, before which he must go down.

Today I served as a reader at the Irish language Mass in Glasnevin, for the second time. I have only been attending the Mass for a few months. I was asked to read the very first day I turned up, which tells you something about how difficult it must be to find readers.

It is not a very well-attended Mass, and very many of the congregation don't seem to have even basic Irish, as they don't say the responses which are printed on the misalette. (All the more credit to them for attending.) Not all the priests give their homily in Irish.

I rush to the door of the Church immediately after Communion, waiting there for the final blessing, and leaving immediately. I don't want anyone speaking to me in Irish, as I cannot adequately conduct a conversation in Irish. Perhaps that's childish, but there you go.

In recent months I have felt a strong urge to improve my Irish, or to at least make Irish a part of my life in some way. This despite the fact that my irish is extremely bad and I would be unable to write a sentence in Irish that was not littered with spellling and grammatical errors, nor to sustain a conversation in anything but pidgin Irish-- halting pidgin Irish, at that.

I have been reading a lot of Irish language books, and I can now read books written in straightforward Irish with relative ease, and without the help of a dictionary.  Books written in more archaic, idiosyncratic or regional Irish are a different matter, as is poetry, which defeats me completely. My hope is that I will at some stage feel competent enough to speak in Irish, though I feel far from that yet.

Why should I bother? It's something I have often asked myself.

After all, I think there is one thing that Ireland needs more than anything else, and that is the Faith. The 'one thing needful', surely, is that Ireland will return to its altars, to the religion that sustained it for so many centuries. Eveything good, hopeful, joyous, healthy and noble is rooted in the Faith.

The one thing needful

Isn't the Irish language a distraction from that? After all, reviving the Irish language is really not going to have any practical benefts.

You can say anything you can say in Irish just as well in English.

Everybody who speaks Irish (and I doubt there is even a single exception) also speaks English.

The only reason to write a book in Irish is so that there will be another Irish language book in the world.

The Irish language may boast a wonderful literature-- I can't judge, since I think the appreciation of literature is far beyond my grasp of Irish. But I very much doubt that Irish language literature can hold a candle to English language literature. Anyway, there are already more great books and great writers than any of us can ever hope to read in English, or in any other widely-spoken language, for that matter.

From a personal point of view, it's hard to imagine that I will ever have anything but a mediocre grasp of Irish. All my life, the English language has been my friend. English was by far my best subject in school-- so much my best subject that there was no comparison with any other. My strength has always been 'writing'-- which means, of course, writing in English. I was never any good at any other language, although I took French and German.

The Irish language doesn't really present any opportunities for Christian evangelization, or for participation in the political, social and cultural debates of our era-- participation in which has always been one of my greatest pleasures (hence this blog). Nor does it present any personal opportunities to me.

The Irish State has pumped a vast amount of money (although many Irish language speakers would argue that it is, comparatively speaking, a tiny amount of money) into the revival of the Irish language, since independence. The Irish language is a compulsory subject in schools, which has been a bone of contention for decades. We still haven't come within an ass's roar (to use the Irish phrase) of reviving the language. It could be argued we haven't even stepped an inch in that direction.

The Irish are very often criticized (notably by the contrarian journalist Kevin Myers) for their hypocrisy and their lip-service regarding the Irish language. Few of us use it, or have any serious intention of ever using it. And yet, opinion poll after opinion poll shows a broad support for the Irish language amongst the Irish people. I think this is not a case of hypocrisy, but rather of Mark Shea's excellent coinage 'eupocrisy'-- being better than your principles, or your behaviour.

Kevin Myers-- rare critic of Irish revivalism.
From a personal point of view (and I will not dwell on this, since I have dwelt on it often before), I have a lot of stored-up resentment towards the Irish language myself. All of my schooling was in Irish language schools-- the fact that I am still so bad at Irish makes me embarrassed. Fairly or unfairly (and to be honest, I think it's a mix of the two) I developed an intense dislike of the Irish language and of its supporters until I was well into my twenties. Even now, this is my visceral reaction on hearing Irish spoken, when I am not expecting it.

This is not all that unusual. There is a symbol of the Irish language called the 'fáinne', or ring-- a kind of badge one wears to signal that one is an Irish-speaker. I did a Google search for 'fáinne-wearing', and you only have to glance at the results to see that many people share my reaction. To be fair, sometimes it's even Irish language enthusiasts making fun of themselves.

(A quick aside: I often think there should be a single word to express the frequently used phrase: 'in spite or because of'. I'm going to go ahead and coin one: despause.)

Despause of all this, the Irish language seems more and more important to me.

Why despause? Becase the very things that militate against the revival of the Irish language, seem to me to give it a special claim on our attention, and on our loyalty.

I believe in chivalry. Chivalry is about a lot more than holding doors open for women. Chivalry is about reverence towards frailty and vulnerability. Reverence, not pity or mere kindness. Old things have a special claim on chivalry.

The fact that there so few hard-headed, utlitarian arguments to make in favour of the Irish language only makes me feel a deeper reverence towards it.

I have spent a lot of time in recent years studying the currents within conservatism-- American conservatism, especially. It grieves me to see how libertarianism is increasingly dominant, along with (more recently) opposition to multiculturalism and Islam. Social and cultural conservatism seem to be very much in abeyance.

It's easy to be a libertarian because it's such an easy argument to make. "Freedom" is a straightforward concept. It's easy to evaluate anything on the ground of whether it 'either picks my pocket or breaks my leg', as Thomas Jefferson put it.

And really, I'm not knocking libertarianism. I've developed a lot more respect for it in recent years, especially as I have come to realise it is not necessarily anti-tradition or anti-custom or anti-community. And, indeed, the simplicity of the libertarian 'test' is in some ways a good thing.

Nor, indeed, am I necessarily knocking the anti-multiculturalist outlook, which runs a whole gamut from UKIP (at its most benign) to neo-Nazism (at its horrible worst). I have sometimes thought that a certain form of multiculturalism might be the best way to preserve cultural differences, in the reality we inhabit. But I am entirely sympathetic to the struggle against globalization, against homogenization, and against the destruction of national and cultural differences. How you balance this with the claims of humanitarianism and international solidarity (which are also important) is a difficult question.

But the real point I'm trying to make is that these forms of conservatism are all rather 'hard-headed'. They appeal to realism, and abhor naiviety. They tend to use the bludgeon of a very simple test. Such as: Why should someone else be allowed to tell me what to do? Or: where has multiculturalism ever been anything but disastrous, in the long run?

Glenn Beck, libertarian pundit

Social and cultural conservatism, on the other hand, has no simple test. It is much harder to argue for, most especially because it calls for reverence rather than irreverence. It seeks to promote, not a principle, but a finely-spun fabric of institutions and traditions which are difficult to reduce to a scheme. It is studded with apparent contradictions, such as the contradiction between the scepticism social conservatives tend to show towards political correctness and psychobabble, and the reverence they tend to show towards ideas which might seem just as easy to rubbish-- religious beliefs, romantic nationalism, nostalgia, childhood innocence, and so forth.That is just one example.

It is relatively easy to argue for 'hard-headed' versions of conservatism. It is much more difficult to argue for social and cultural conservatism. It's hardly any wonder that so many people opt for the first approach rather than the second.

And yet, I have a very deeply rooted intuition that the things that are harder to argue for are nearly always more valuable than the things it is easy to argue for. This post is already very long, and a defence of this theory would make it even longer.

So I'll just give an example. I have some interest in the American conservative radio host Michael Medved (which began with one of his books about bad movies). His book Hollywood vs. America, often mentioned on this blog, was important to me at a certain point. It was a plea for more responsibility and sensitivity on the part of the entertainment industry. I also read his autobiography, Right Turns, in which he describes his efforts to found an orthodox synagogue in an area with very few practicing Jews. At the start they had to comb the beach looking for Jews (I forget how they recognised them).

Both of those things seem much nobler to me than his defence of big business; which, essentially, is that Starbucks is generally better value and a better experience than a local independent café, and that every small business wants to be a big business; and so on. This seems to me like the mere worship of success. Seeking to protect or nurture something that is imperilled, or neglected, seems to me much more inspiring than boosting that which needs no boosting.

(I am not saying successful institutions never need to be defended, mind you; the primary purpose of this blog is to promote what is arguably the most successful institution in the world. It's all a matter of context.)

However, let me return to the actual topic of this post, the Irish language. The Tennyson poem I mentioned contains this very moving passage, part of which is quoted by Kevin Costner in the film JFK. The words are spoken by the fatally-wounded King Arthur, when his last remaning knight Sir Bedivere has twice failed to throw Excalibur into the water, as he instructed him:

To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
"Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widow'd of the power in his eye
That bow'd the will."

I don't know about you, but I find the line "authority forgets a dying king" so poignant I can hardly bear it. Lost causes and dead kings and tattered banners have always been irresistible to me.

The Irish language pulls at my heart, but not because of its treasures of literature and poetry, and not because it preserves a particular way of looking at the world, and not because of the noble and courtly and bardic society that once used it. It pulls at my heart because, for centuries, it was the language of the ordinary people the length and breadth of this island-- the language of the peasantry and the poor, of the household and the hearth, of the fire and the well. The language of the common people whose blood runs in my veins. That, to me, is romance enough.

(Indeed, it would seem from this blog that Irish was spoken even in some parts of Dublin right up to the twentieth century.)

From a wider perspective, I think Irish is important-- as every indigenous language, custom and tradition is important-- as part of an international struggle against cultural globalization. I am fond of the statement by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones: "The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels I shall paint."  I think that is the right spirit. From this perspective, (almost) every argument in favour of jettisoning a cultural heirloom becomes an argument for preserving it instead. The more difficult its preservation, the more important that makes it, and the better a counterbalance it is to the great global tide of sameness.

The Morning of the Resurrection by Edward Burne-Jones
I also like this quotation, from St. Josemaria Escriva: "Do you entertain a spirit of opposition, of contradiction? Very well, exercise it by opposing and contradicting yourself." I have thought a lot, and written a little, about contrarianism. I think it can be a good thing. In fact, I think there's a sense in which all virtue is contrarianism, in which all life is a kind of contrarianism against death. But, without even getting so exalted, I do feel a healthy contrarian pleasure whenever I read an Irish language book or pray my Rosary in Irish. I feel that I am at least pushing in the right direction, however feebly.

In fact, attending Irish language Mass is a double contrarianism, since it is a defiance of both secularisation and globalisation. (I suppose someone will point out that we should concentrate on what we are for, and not what we are against. Well, bite me.)

I am never going to have excellent Irish, but-- along with everything I have written already-- there is a certain pleasure to reading books in Irish. In a way, it is like seeing the world newborn, since it is looking at life through a completely new filter. This has always fascinated me. One of my favourite things in the world has always been the reflection in a coloured Christmas bauble. I also like photographs that are filtered through a coloured lens:

I have often written of my love for snow-globes on this blog. Well, when I savour the Irish word for snow-globe-- 'cruinneog sneachta'-- it is almost like seeing a snow-globe for the first time.

Cruinneog sneachta
When we think about frontiers, we tend to think about the future, and about faraway places. But I think the most exciting (and challenging) frontier is in precisely the opposite direction; in the past, and at home. Here, too, we can break into wild and uncharted horizons.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Pro Deo, Rege et Patria!

The real Queen of Ireland is not a man dressed up as a woman who goes around perpetrating puerile sexual innuendoes (which I presume is what all drag queens do; I haven't seen the documentary in question, and I won't). The real Queen of Ireland is our Blessed Mother, and a book of that title was written by Professor Helena Colcannon in 1938.

Not the Queen of Ireland.

The real deal.

I have just started reading it, and I was very moved by the following passage, which describe some of the banners carried into battle by the forces loyal to the Confederation of Kilkenny,. My previous post was about the Romance of the Faith; the following passage is an excellent example:

When our forefathers went to battle during those tragic but stirring years, they had Our Lady on their blue standards. Among the Wadding Papers, Cardinal Moran found a list of the christian symbols depicted on the flags of the Confederate troops. They all depict in a graphic and striking way what the Irish people were fighting for [translations from Latin via Google Translate]:

1. On white flags, flecked with blood drops, a Crucifix with this inscription: AEQUUM EST PRO CHRISTO MORI. ["It is right to die for Christ"]

2. On green flags, an image of the Saviour bearing His Cross with the inscription: PATIOR UT VINCAM. ["I suffer to triumph".]

3. On gold-coloured flags, the Resurrection of the Saviour with the inscription: EXSURGAT DEUS ET DISSIPENTUR INIMICI EJUS ["let God arise and let him enemies be scattered"]; or a globe surrounded by a dark cloud through which the sun begins to break and the inscription: POST NUBILE PHOEBUS. ["After clouds comes the sun".]

4. On red flags, the HOLY NAME with this epigraph; IN NOMINE JESU OMNE GENU FLECTETUR ["At the name of Jesus every knee should bend"]; or two arms emerging from a cloud, one bearing a Chalice with a Host above it, and the other a sword defending them, with the inscription: PRO DEO, REGE ET PATRIA ["For God, King and Country."].

5. On blue flags, an image of the Blessed Virgin, with the infant Jesus in her arms, treading the serpent under foot with the inscription: SOLVIT VINCULA DEUS ["God has broken our chains".].

6. On saffron coloured flags; an image of the Saviour liberating the patriarchs from Limbo with the inscription: VICTOR REDIT DE BARATHRO ["The Victor returns from the abyss".].

[The soldiers] had Mary's Rosary around their necks, and the invocations of Her Litany on their lips when they faced the foe. SANCTA MARIA was their battle cry at Benburb, and their Chaplain-General, the Franciscan Boetius MacEgan, intoned the Litany of Loreto for them when they charged the troops of Monroe. Their great General, Owen Roe O'Neill, himself a devout client of Our Lady, reminded them to put their trust in her in his allocution to them before the engagement.

In a week when a Catholic priest was martyred in Western Europe, and the very principle of Catholic education is under attack in Ireland, it is good to remember that Our Lady, Queen of Ireland, is the Lady of Victories (even when the immediate battle is lost). Our Lady of Victories, pray for us! 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Romance of the Faith (I)

I have been keeping an online diary for over a year now (on the excellent website Penzu-- I really do recommend it). As well as serving the usual purpose of a diary-- chronicling my life, including things we are usually inclined to forget such as dreams and conversations-- it has been a good place to marshall my thoughts, to let them grow and develop.

I went to see the movie Warcraft: The Beginning a few weeks ago. It's a fantasy movie taken from a popular computer game franchise (I've never played the game). I've seen three movies in the cinema during the time chronicled in my diary; this is a very sharp decrease on the amount of films I'd seen in the previous years. I've always loved the cinema environment, so my lack of exposure to it may have given me an artifically heightened appreciation of the movie.

This is what I posted on Facebook (and recorded in my diary):
I went to see Warcraft. I had a strong intuition from the KIND of bad reviews it was getting that it was going to be good. One critic quoted on Wikipedia wrote: "There are too many mysterious proper nouns being thrown into conversation and at least 12 major characters competing for space". This is the opposite of the kind of criticism you expect of a film taken from a computer game. You expect them to be action-heavy and plot-light (like Doom, one of the worst films I've ever seen). Also, Mark Kermode gave it a contrarian good review, and I respect him.

But I was still surprised. Bearing in mind it's a computer game adaptation (and I've never played the game, as I don't play computer games), it's extraordinary how talky, complex and dramatic it is. And it looked amazing, which is what I did expect. A real cinematic feast!

To me, movies are about creating a world. That world doesn't have to be a fantasy world-- it can be the real world. It can be a street, or a house, or a room in the real world. But fantasy is certainly an opportunity to create a world (or worlds) in the most literal sense. It seems a shame to me that critics are so down on such an inherently cinematic genre, even after Lord of the Rings.

In my diary, however, I continued:

But it was more than that. I was completely galvanized by the high romance of the thing-- the banners, the horses, the hierarchy, the sorcery, the whole trimmings.

Recently-- in the last few days-- the romance of my own faith has been vivid to me again. A confluence of the relative popularity of my 'Catholicism without Apologies' blog posts on my blog, reading Ciall agus Creideamh [an Irish language religion text book], and watching the Robert Southwell documentary. My faith is a way of life steeped in tradition, ritual, continuity, sacrifice, idealism, and everything else that belongs to high romance. It is lapped by the ancestral waves of devotions and liturgy.

Romance. It's really all about romance. My view of the world is inherently romantic, and it always has been.

Isn't everybody romantic? That's a difficult one. I've noticed that nearly every view of the world tends to be soaked in romance, unless it's quite deliberately anti-romantic. Only yesterday I was listening to a lecture by Noam Chomsky, in which he was nostalgically recalling the radical tradition of his youth; anarchist book-sellers, veterans of the Spanish Civil War, and so forth. Marxists have their red flag, their anthems, their socialist saints like Joe Hill, and so on. 'Progressives' have Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, the Stonewall riots, the 1968 riots, and so on.

Noam Chomsky. You knew that.

My problem with progressive and Marxist and left-wing romanticism is that it seems like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. The philosophies themselves are not romantic; they are utterly anti-romantic. The materialistic dialectic that lies at the heart of Marxism-- where all ideals are illusions, and it's the clash of material interests that propels history-- is the most chillingly anti-romantic (and anti-humanistic) philosophy imaginable. To be fair, 'softer' forms of leftism and progressivism are not quite so hard-headed, but they still guide us towards a world where technocrats and social engineers are more and more important, while the ordinary instincts of humanity are brought under control, labelled 'populism', 'nationalism', 'sexism', 'racism', 'anti-intellectualism', 'nostalgia', and so forth.

But what are the ordinary instincts of humanity? Well, that's the nub of the question, isn't it? 

Is nationalism, for instance, an unnatural perversion of the ordinary human disregard for borders? Is it something we learn-- something in which we are indoctrinated, perhaps, to distract us from our real interests?

Is the acquistiive and competitive instinct that fuels capitalism natural, or are mankind naturally cooperative?

Are sexual shame, monogamy and the desire to build a family natural? Or is the desire to have sex with as many partners as possible, and in as many ways as possible, natural?

Is regard for authority and tradition natural? Or is rebellion and transgression natural? The idea has grown up in our society that teenagers and young people 'naturally' seek to rebel. Do they really? It seems to me that teenagers and young people are not naturally rebellious, but naturally idealistic and high-spirited. Eagerness to sacrifice one's life in war seems as typical of youth as burning draft cards and going on protest marches. (I'm not saying it's better, necessarily. Standing by the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington was one of the most wrenching experiences of my life.)

I have often thought that a a political or social position stems as much from a particular anthropology, as it does from a particular set of moral principles. What, at bottom, do we believe that mankind wants? What do men want? What do women want? What do children want?

It seems to me that there are several positions one can take:

1) Your view of the good society might well be in tension with your view of human nature. You can admit that people are nationalistic, acquisitive, prejudiced, aggressive, etc, but that we have to do our best to overcome these tendencies.

2) You can deny that there is such a thing as 'human nature'. Gender roles and ethnicity and national feeling and hierarchy and the nuclear family are all 'learned behaviour', and we can jolly well unlearn them. You don't really have to go as far as to deny the existence of human nature altogether-- you can acknowledge it exists, but that it is much more plastic than it is usually taken to be.

How plastic is human nature?

3) You can accept that there is such a thing as human nature but that it has been bent out of shape by patriarchal, oppressive, prejudiced institutions-- the doctrine of the noble savage in another form.

4) You can accept that there is such a thing as human nature and that social institutions which have evolved over generations tend to fit it pretty well. Of course, you are instantly confronted by the problem of evil institutions: "What about slavery?" "What about prostitution?".

My view is the fourth view; and I would add that institutions such as slavery and prostitution are the legacy of original sin. As to what traditions have been brought about by healthy human instincts, and what traditions are the result of original sin-- that is a case-by-case discussion, one which cannot be answered by a formula.

I think it's a fairly obvious point that instincts can be perverted, for whatever reason. The obesity crisis in Western society is a case in point. It is perfectly natural for us to want to eat, and to eat for pleasure. It is also perfectly natural for us to want to physically exert ourselves. But for some reason, in our society, the first desire has got out of hand and the second desire seems to have become dormant, in many people. (Of course, there are other factors at play, like the nutrition value of our food.)

Obligatory G.K. Chesterton picture
As a lover of Chesterton, I have to admit that his trust in 'the common man' is another victim of this process. G.K. Chesterton was not the only writer who assumed that the working-classes were the great bastion of traditional values which the 'liberal elites' had abandoned. This no longer seems to be the case; at least when it comes to ideals of family, respectability, politeness, childhood innocence, veneration of the elderly, and decency. It may still be true when it comes to patriotism, as the Brexit referendum indicates.

Of course, there is nothing new in any of this. Few of us, no matter how bad we are, would wish to attend the Circus Maximus or a public execution, or (we hope) would be whipped into a murderous frenzy of anti-semitic hatred, as happened in Nazi Germany. And there are plenty of other examples of perverted human nature throughout history.

What has any of that to do with romance? Well, I'll get back to that in the next post.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Who's Out There?

After a strange couple of posts, I find myself once again wondering who reads this blog. I'm happy to know some people who read it already, and to have corresponded with them (or met them). But I do wonder who else is out there, and if there are any new arrivals. Where they are (geographically, ideologically and in the journey of life), who they are, and which posts interest them (some at least must interest them if they do read).

I recently discovered that the National LIbrary of Ireland lists this blog as a significant Irish website in their web archive! That was a while ago. I must say it shows excellent taste on their part.

Anyway, feel free to drop me a line at

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Soft Bonds: A Revolutionary New Sociological Concept

Sometimes my blog posts are so quirky that I feel quite abashed. Recently I was reading a book of Latin phrases (a very enjoyable and entertainingly written tome) and I came across this phrase: cacoethes scribendi, 'the itch to write'. I am well-acquainted with this itch; and the twenty-first century must be the golden age for those who suffer from it, with an effective infinity of blogs, internet forums (or fora, if you like), comment boxes, Facebook threads, Twitter feeds, and a million other platforms, all of them guaranteeing an audience of some kind for one's scribbling.

(Incidentally, notice the phrase I used there: 'an effective infinity'. I propose this as a replacement for 'a near infinity'. The latter phrase has always bothered me, since you can never come any nearer to infinity. Pedantic, I know, but there you go.)

My own itch to scribble is not so much an itch to scribble for its own sake, but an itch to express particular ideas, atmospheres, opinions, and so forth. The more arcane these are, the more of an urge I have to express them.

All of that is by way of an apologia, of course.

In this post I wanted to write about a concept to which I have given the name 'soft bonds'. I find myself thinking about them more and more, and indeed fascinated by them more and more.

What is a 'soft bond'? That is easily explained. If I see someone wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt, that is evidence of a 'soft bond'. If someone names her dog after Horatio Nelson, that is evidence of a 'soft bond'. If somebody cheers for a particular soccer or hockey or basketball team despite having no personal connection to that team, that is a 'soft bond'.

I would put it like this, more or less: soft bonds are all those bonds which don't follow necessarily from our circumstances in life, or from our basic beliefs, or from our big life choices.

I'm not talking about a person's national identity, or their ethnic identity. I'm not talking about a person's religious beliefs, or political beliefs. I'm not talking about family bonds, whether they are the bonds that you choose or the bonds that you don't choose. I'm not talking about one's political commitments, such as support for a particular political party or a particular political outlook. There's nothing 'soft' about any of those; at least, one would hope not. A person might change her political and religious beliefs, but one would assume that this would be a life-changing and deeply pondered step.

'Soft bonds' are bonds that could, in principle, be thrown off without any great difficulty, inconvenience or moral scruple, at any time. To go back to one of my original examples, someone could stop listening to Iron Maiden without any sense of crisis or abandonment, and without accusing himself of fickleness.

What is interesting to me about 'soft bonds' is their utterly voluntary nature. And I mean, really vountary. There are precious few things in our life that are really voluntary. We wake up in the morning and go to work of our own free will, but (unless we are mad) we would rather stay in bed. We vote for a particular candidate in an election, but most of us consider our candidate the best of a bad lot. We meet up with our friends when they suggest it, but we don't always feel like it; however, it would be rude to say no, and we wouldn't have any friends left after a while if we kept saying 'no'.

Friendship is sharing boredom

Don't get me wrong; I'm not lamenting this. Commitment is a wonderful thing. In fact, one of the reasons I'm a traditionalist conservative is because I believe that sturdy bonds, ultimately, make for a better society and a better life. Patriotism and faith, family and marriage and friendship, are all meaningful precisely because we don't throw them off whenever they bore us or become irksome; because they often require sacrifice and loyalty. The joy (at least, the deep joy) usually lies on the far side of the irksomeness.

But that's not the whole of life. Life also has room for allegiances and affinities which are entirely free, in the most straightforward sense. And I'm very interested in those, in the role they play in our personality and our character. The funny thing is that these 'soft bonds' are often highly enduring. They often bring a surprising amount of meaning and fulfilment into our lives, and form a surprisingly large part of our identity.

I think of this especially when I go to funerals. I was at a funeral only last week, and once again I was struck by the 'gifts' that were placed on the coffin. In this particular case they included a Dublin GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) jersey and a newspaper. The dead man liked to watch Dublin GAA and read the newspaper.

I once attended a funeral service for a woman who was crazy about frogs. It sounds comical, but there were frogs all over the funeral parlour; not real frogs, obviously, but various items which depicted frogs in one way or another. Apparently, people could hardly think of this woman without thinking of frogs. When they thought of her life, they thought about frogs.

And really, it's not all that strange. Reflect, reader, upon the symbols and images that would sum up your life, your view of the world. If you are reading this blog, you are most likely a Catholic, so the Cross would probably be the first symbol that comes to mind. If you are a patriot (and I imagine most of my readers are), your national flag or some symbol of your nationality would probably come to mind. If you are married, your wedding band or a picture of your spouse might come to mind.

But pretty soon you'd come to images that seem a lot more trivial, but which express so much of what you are and what you care about. For me, some of them might be; a snow globe, a sepia-coloured silhouette, a frame from Groundhog Day. I could come up with suggestions for some of my readers, but I better not....

In fact, I think you could probably spend a pleasant five minutes thinking of what images could stand for you, or for the people you know. The pleasantness of such a reverie might explain why this subject fascinates me so.

One reason I find these 'soft bonds' such an interesting subject is because they are so unpredictable. We very quickly suss out the major facts about somebody, and the principal points of their view of the world, but we can often be very surprised by their literary tastes, their tastes in movies, their interests and loyalties in sports, the subjects which fascinate them, the personalities they admire, the places they love, the historical periods for which they are nostalgic, and so forth.

I also find 'soft bonds' interesting because they cut across lines of nationality, ideology, religion, sex, and so forth. I mentioned Groundhog Day. Every now and again I 'vanity Google' the name of this blog to see if anybody is quoting it. Hardly anybody does (booh), but once I found to my surprise that my review of Groundhog Day was quoted in a very scholarly article about the film. In fact, the entire website was about the movie, and it was written by a Groundhog Day nut. I began to follow this blog, and I quickly realized that its writer had a view of the world that was almost completely opposite to my own, especially when it came to religion and politics. But we both loved movies, and especially Groundhog Day, and that was enough of a connection. I thought that was pretty neat-- that a passion for a movie could make a connection between two people who were so totally different in other ways.

Another example of how 'soft bonds' operate in my own life is the horror club of which I'm a member. This is a Dublin based club for horror fans that has been operative, on and off, since 1999. I've only become involved with it recently.

I got involved in this club (which is strictly invitation only) through a colleague, who subsequently left. So now it is a part of my life that has no connection to any other part of my life.

Very often, when we are discussing an Edgar Allen Poe story or an obscure British horror film, I will look around the room at the four or five other gentlemen assembled and feel a sense of surprise that I am there at all. If it wasn't for horror, I would almost certainly never have met any of them. I always find myself thinking: "I was led here through all the horror movies I watched as a kid, the horror stories I read through sleepless nights as a teenager, and my own fumblings at writing horror. It has nothing to do with family, longstanding friends, work, G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic Church-- any of that. This is completely its own thing. And yet there is a sense of belonging here that, in its own way, is as real as any of those other dimensions of my life." It's always a very strange, pleasant feeling.

"When the saints go marching in..."
I think that these 'soft bonds' are particularly interesting when it comes to Catholicism, and the virtues of Catholicism.

There is a great deal of debate between 'liberal' Catholics and 'conservative' Catholics on the necessity of dogma and orthodoxy. 'Conservative' Catholics insist-- and rightly, in my view-- that the Church is not a democracy and that, if you wish to remain a Catholic in any meaningful sense, you must subscribe to the orthodoxies that have been laid down. And Catholics who refuse to accept this are often labelled 'cafeteria Catholics'. (In Ireland, when I was growing up, the term was 'a la carte Catholics', but that seems to have fallen into disuse.)

The funny thing is that we are all 'cafeteria Catholics' or 'a la carte Catholics', when you think about it. And there's nothing wrong with being a cafeteria Catholic, in the right sense.

I think you probably guess what I mean by this, reader-- that, once you accept the required teachings and practices of the Church (and they are really very few, comparatively speaking), there is a bewildering multitude of other choices open to you. Saints! Devotions! Prayers! Lay Associations! Scapulars! Medals! Spiritualities (Ignatian, Franciscan, Benedictan, etc.)! Apparitions! Sacramentals! Pilgrimages! Roll up, roll up, roll up!

A huge convention centre

The Catholic Church is like a huge convention centre where you pay five bucks entrance fee at the door, and you then have your choice from hundreds of stalls inside.

And this is part of what I find so fascinating about it. I bet every one of my readers could give a different list of their favourites saints, their favourite prayers, their favourite devotions, their favourite spiritual writers, and so forth. These are by no means trivial choices, but they are entirely personal and discretionary.

My own list of favourite saints and holy people would probably look a bit like this:

St. John Paul II
St. Maximillan Kolbe
Blessed John Henry Newman
St. Josemaria Escriva
Venerable Matt Talbot
St. Bernadette Soubirous
Blessed Miguel Pro
St. Athanasius of Alexandria

Well, I could go on a lot longer than that, but you get the point...your list would be very different, I'm sure.

Catholicism may not be unique in this superabundance of variety-- Hinduism, I understand, affords something similar-- but, when it comes to historical forms of Christianity, I imagine it gives more scope for individual satisfaction than most.

Incidentally, I think this model of narrowness in the right place, and of wide-open freedom in the right place, is a good model for society, too. It's quite frustrating, sometimes, trying to explain to the world that there is no necessary clash between social conservatism and social pluralism. In fact, I think they go together. I think society needs things that are obligatory, and things that are entirely optional.

I don't believe it! Shipea Hill!
Amongst the things that are 'obligatory' I would include respect for a particular national culture. (For instance, in Ireland, the compulsory learning of the Irish language in school.) But I mean 'obligatory', not so much in that strict sense of compulsion, as in the sense that reading Shakespeare is 'obligatory'. I think it's entirely in order that social and cultural expectations should push people towards respect for their national culture, or for the national culture of their host country. I think the same should apply to religion. Perhaps it is significant that I can remember a time when some doffing of the cap to Irish national culture and the Catholic Church was required in Ireland. (And it's not just national culture and religion for which I think society has a right to demand respect. There are also certain ideas of decency, of civility, of convention, etc.)

But how much room is left for pluralism, after all that! How many things several million people get up to in a single day!

I'm not only interested in 'soft bonds' for their own sake, I'm fascinated by the way they interact with 'tough bonds'. We've all heard stories of marriages and careers that have begun because of a shared enthusiasm for a particular author or song or type of cuisine. I'm thinking, as well, of the massive benefits to tourism that come about through a TV show or a movie which is filmed, or set, in a particularly area. Or, more historically, we can think of influences like that of the 'Waverley novels' of Sir Walter Scott on British romanticism and Scottish nationalism, or of The Lord of the Rings on the counter-culture, environmentalism, and romantic conservatism.

One of my more eccentric interests, back in my twenties, was in the 'Cola Wars' between Pepsi and Coke. One of the fascination things I learned was that Coke and Pepsi have served as markers for all sorts of other allegiances, through the years. In his memoir Odyssey: From Pepsi To Apple, former Pepsi Vice-President John Scully said that there was a very clear Republican-Democrat cleavage that corresponded to the Pepsi-Coke cleavage. Pepsi executives tended to come from 'self-made' Republican backgrounds, while Coca-Cola executives were (as he put it) from more 'aristocratic' Democrat families.

Have I communicated my fascination? I rather doubt it. But I have (hopefully) at least managed to express it, and to explain what I'm talking about. I can always hope that 'soft bonds' will become a term in sociological research. I think sociology could do worse.

If Anthony Giddens is reading this, my number is 0834440464.