Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In Memoriam William McGonagall

William McGonagall (1825-1902) is often described as the worst poet of all time. He was a Scottish handloom weaver who felt the vocation to be a poet when he was in his fifties. His poetry is extremely naive and artless. He tended to write memorial poems and poems about disasters-- 'The Tay Bridge Disaster' is his most famous work. He was often mocked in his lifetime, even pelted with fruit, but he seemed completely unaware he was a figure of fun. He once walked to Buckingham Palace to recite before the Queen. (He was turned away.)

I wrote this poem in 2003. I had a lot of fellow feeling for McGonagall in my youth, when my burning ambition was to become a poet. First of all, I thought that anyone whose poetry was printed, sold and remembered was more more to be envied than the vast majority of humankind. Secondly, I felt that McGonagall's case was only an exaggeration of the case of any poet who did not have Nobel Prize or a poet-in-residence position to justify his or her versifying. As I've written before, I was wretchedly aware of the mockery often doled out to would-be poets, and in fact I greatly exaggerated it in my own mind. (McGonagall himself encountered kindness as well as cruelty. His friends often arranged sales of his poetry books to ward off his poverty.)

The poem is written in the style of McGonagall, whose lines were highly irregular in length, and who never worried much about scansion. I call him 'sober' because he was a temperance advocate.

The figure of the "holy fool" has always been a potent one in my imagination.

Perhaps McGonagall has had the last laugh. His poems have never gone out of print. I remembered this poem yesterday evening, when I happened across a reference to the great man, and decided I may as well blog it.

Oh, sober bard of the silvery Tay!
Alas, I am very sorry to say
That many great names of your age have passed away
While yours-- never great but in jest-- stays with us today.
Until relatively recently a Scottish pub bore your name
And second-hand bookshops attest to your rather dubious fame.
Does the mockery you were deaf to in life now sting you in death?
Or does McGonagall's ghost keep his holy innocence yet?

That ignorance, my bonny Wiliam, that not every smile showed a friend;
That innocence (just like your lines) that seemed all but powerless to end.
You only saw kindness in cruelty, only touched paper to praise;
What man of the times did you fail to lament at the end of his days?
No genius doubted his genius as little as you doubted yours
Though you drank to the dregs all the woes that the man of the muses endures.
You were poetry's bastard son; but even the truest of heirs
Have tasted the scorn that you tasted. It waits upon each man who dares
To mould words to beauty, forge phrases that speak of a soul to a soul;
Dear ghost, it is only the worthiest things that a cynic finds droll.
They have no mocking words for the river of newsprint that endlessly flows;
And why? Is a folly in verse to be cursed more than venom in prose?

The last words we leave to the world are some stanzas carved into a stone
And no man so poor and so beaten but harbours a dream of his own.
And every street corner, and coffee shop table might hear unimpressed
The flash of a phrase, that the ages might happily hold to their breast.
But nobody knows where to look, when you go about baring your soul,
For to feel is indecent, and silence a little like bladder control,
We like words that deepen the soul. It's not your crude lines that offend
But your hankering after the wondrous, William; your thirst to transcend.

As the boy with the gentle bright eyes must be beaten by sullen-eyed louts
His soul clouded over with fear, and his dreams choked with dreads and with doubts,
So the world tried to punish you, William, for keeping a hold of your dreams;
But their dull worldly wisdom can only make weary. Your folly redeems.

Does your spirit still pace those long paths, from the Tay to the Thames,
In search of your fugitive fortune, sack stuffed with your Poetic Gems?
Or has God lent grace to your yearning, and granted what man has denied;
To stand in the ranks of the poets, and sleep upon Shakespeare's right side?
Rest now from your wandering minstrel; a vison's a troublesome thing.
The prophet does not choose his truth, or the poet the song he must sing.
The heavens had marked you for folly, but better a fool than a knave;
And Westminster's ghosts lost a comrade, when you filled a pauper's mean grave.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Visual Memory

I was interested to come across this paragraph on the Wkipedia page for Aldous Huxley:

American popular science author Steven Johnson, in his book Mind Wide Open, quotes Huxley about his difficulties with visual encoding: "I am and, for as long as I can remember, I have always been a poor visualizer. Words, even the pregnant words of poets, do not evoke pictures in my mind. No hypnagogic visions greet me on the verge of sleep. When I recall something, the memory does not present itself to me as a vividly seen event or object. By an effort of the will, I can evoke a not very vivid image of what happened yesterday afternoon ..."

I suffer from this lack of a visual memory or a visual imagination to an extent that it's hard for other people to believe. I hate descriptive passages in novels, because pictures simply don't form in my mind. Sadly, descriptive passages are usually the passages other people like the most, quote the most, and discuss the most.

Very often, I imagine scenes in novels as happening in places I have been, even when it's a ludicrous setting for the scene.

I am unable to draw a detailed picture from memory, or to give a visual description from memory, of places where I have been thousands of times, or for hundreds of hours.

I frequently get lost, and even when it comes to places I can navigate with no difficulty whatsoever, I can rarely direct other people there. This is quite an impediment in the library, where giving directions (both to parts of the library and places around campus) are a major part of the job. Very often, if it's within the library, I need to bring the person there as I don't know how to direct them. If it's outside the library, I often simply have to ask a colleague to give the directions instead.

I have often been unable to remember the simplest details about something I have looked at innumerable times-- its colour, for instance.

I am rubbish at identifying flowers, trees, birds and cars.

I guess it's a small impediment as impediments go. But it's nice to hear it didn't hold Aldous Huxley back.

Thank you So Much

Many thanks to everybody for all the emails and comments. I really appreciated them. I had an emotional weekend. I wrote a long blog post explaining and then deleted it, thinking it was too moany. The world seemed a harsh, uncaring place last night, so it meant a lot that people cared enough to email, and made me feel so much better. Thank you!

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Feeling Blue

I was up until five a.m. yesterday morning arguing with a whole room of people who believe religion is delusional, Catholicism is sexist, abortion is a human right, etc. etc. A floating audience of young people (teens and twenties) each started out by declaring they didn't believe in religion or God, and each eventually announced they believed in "something" spiritual.

At a bus stop today, I listened to two Romanian charismatic Christians discussing Jesus and God with three Irish people. They all agreed the Catholic Church was a swindle.

I met two friends in the Gresham Hotel today and both of them told me they believe in a higher power and that they admire Jesus, but they don't believe in Christianity for various reasons (dsagreements between the gospels was one).

I'm not feeling blue because of my failings as a Christian evangelist, or because of the widespread rejection of the Faith in our society, but for more mundane reasons. If anyone feels like sending me a chatty email at Maolsheachlann@gmail.com it would be appreciated.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

War Song of the Saracens by James McElroy Flecker

I found some lines from this poem drifting into my head today. I encountered it in one of the many editions of Palgrave's Golden Treasury when I was about seventeen or eighteen. At that time I was reading a little bit of poetry early every morning. It's very Chestertonian, although Chesterton would not have been writing from the point of view of the Saracens. Like the poetry of Rubert Brooke, it seems to come from an era when Europeans felt their culture had grown decadent and over-sophisticated, and looked wistfully at war, discipline and sacrifice. (A reaction I've never felt myself. There are plenty of things I don't like about modern society, but its relative peacefulness is not one of them.) Whatever the poet's motivations, and although we would certainly be less inclined to romanticise its subject today, it's a very fine poem.

We are they who come faster than fate:
We are they who ride early or late:
We storm at your ivory gate:
Pale Kings of the Sunset, beware!
Not on silk nor in samet we lie,
Not in curtained solemnity die
Among women who chatter and cry,
And children who mumble a prayer.
But we sleep by the ropes of the camp,
And we rise with a shout, and we tramp
With the sun or moon for a lamp,
And a spray of wind in our hair.

From the land where the elephants are,
To the forts of Merou and Balghar,
Our steel we have brought and our star
To shine on the ruins of Rum.
We have marched from the Indus to Spain,
And by God we will go there again;
We have stood on the shore of the plain
where the Waters of Destiny boom.
A mart of destruction we made
at Jalula where men were afraid,
For death was a difficult trade,
And the sword was a broker of doom;

And the Spear was a Desert Physician
who cured not a few of ambition,
And drave not a few to perdition
With medicine bitter and strong:
And the shield was a grief to the fool
And as bright as a desolate pool,
And as straight as the rock of Stamboul
When their cavalry thundered along:
For the coward was drowned with the brave
When our battle sheered up like a wave,
And the dead to the desert we gave,
and the glory to God in our song.

Friday, February 24, 2017

My Nineteen Year Old Poem about the Irish Language

Here's a bit of an oddity. In a recent post, I wrote a little bit about the Irish language school I attended in my teens, and the conflicted attitude I felt towards the Irish language, Irish culture and Irish patriotism. Briefly summarised, this is how I felt (although I would have struggled to express it):

I was attracted towards Irish nationalism, if it was the full Gaelic Revival programme to revive Irish traditions, in a romantic, nostalgic, ruralist, and poetic mode. But the Irish nationalism I encountered around me wasn't romantic or poetic or reverential. It was bullish and progressive and urban and hi-tech and all the rest of it. Irish nationalists, and particularly Irish language enthusiasts, were quite emphatic about how up-to-date and progressive they were. They were interested in the future, not the past. They weren't "reactionary" or backward-looking, no siree! They were open to punk rock, sexual liberation, drugs, modern art, anti-clericalism, and all that jazz. The Pogues are probably the best exemplars of this attitude.

It didn't make sense to me. Why try to hold onto anything if you were going to take progress as your watchword, if you weren't going to at least be favourable towards old and venerable things? Obviously we can't live in the past, but can't we at least honour the past and treat it with reverence? How does it make any sense to cherish selected traditions while gleefully bashing others? If you're going to hitch your wagon to the notion of permanent revolution, why on earth would you expect your favourite institutions to get an exemption?

Progressive nationalism still baffles me. I recently read that the pioneering Welsh nationalist, Saunders Lewis, insisted (against many of his fellow Welsh nationalists) that nationalism had to be conservative. Of course. Isn't it obvious? And yet most Irish nationalists today are left-wing and progressive.

I mentioned that I wrote some poems expressing something of this attitude. I wrote at least two; I've lost one, but one (which I wrote in my college years) was published in The DIT Examiner and I still have it. I include a photograph. It was published in April 1998. More than nineteen years ago now! I was twenty years old. I think it's pretty accomplished for a twenty year old.

As will be obvious from the poem itself, I took a very dim few of business-people at this point. I pretty much viewed them as criminals and public enemies. I hated them. I wrote another poem about two business-men looking at a public park and talking about the office blocks they could build on it. Any appeal to "market forces", in my view, was nothing other than naked greed. I had an apocalyptic vision of a corporatist future where even the streets were privatised and human life was commercialised to the utmost degree. And this despite the fact that I was always a cultural conservative and strongly anti-Marxist.

Of course, this all seems rather embarrassing to me now. Although I've never become a zealot for the untrammelled free market, I've come to agree with Peter Hitchens that "capitalism" is simply a word used by people who think you can change human nature. Where I once believed that commerce and consumerism bulldozes over tradition, I no longer think this is necessarily the case. I've come to think that commerce, like chips, goes with everything. "Capitalism" doesn't have an ideology. It's just lots of different people trying to make a buck (like most of the rest of us).

This poem was obviously sparked when I read some article about a campaign for greater use of the Irish language in business (which seems like an entirely laudable objective to me now). Note the positive reference to priests, back at a time when I didn't practice any religion (and wouldn't for many, many years). "Gaeilgeoir" is pronounced "gwale-gore" and means "Irish language speaker", and usually, "Irish language advocate" as well. "Ochone!" is an Irish expression of lamentation, pronounced "ock-own!. The Fenians were an Irish nationalist movement in the nineteenth century and is generically used to mean an Irish nationalist.

Reading it nineteen years later, I think my instincts were healthy but my interpretation of them was wrong. I was right in celebrating "the poet, priest, and bar-stool Fenian", and insisting that there was no point in trying to preserve or revive a tradition if you didn't have a traditionalist mentality. I was right to champion romanticism and sentimentality. But I was wrong to take business and commerce as the enemy.

As for "the eternal disposessed", this was mostly my romantic attachment to the underdog and the outsider. I had this idea that one should always be on the side of the underdog and the outsider. This was long before I read Chesterton and started to think more clearly. I still feel a chivalrous regard for the underdog and the outsider, but I now realize that, if you believe in something, you have to support it even when it's winning. Abandoning your cause at the moment of victory is no better than abandoning it at the moment of defeat. Christ accepted the cross and the crown of thorns; he also accepted the palms and the jar of perfume.

I contributed poetry to the student newspaper for much of my student years. (I'm glad I did, and that I still have many of them.) The editor was more than happy to accept them, since few people contributed to the college newspaper. We would have rather cosy chats in his office every month. He was an Irish language speaker himself, and he now presents a radio show on an Irish language station. Perhaps this is why I wrote it in the first place, since I had precious little interest in the Irish language at this time. (My threat to "turn my face away from it" in the last verse is rather amusing to me now. I could hardly have turned my face away from it any more than I had already.)

I liked it better, when the businessman
Used other tongues to follow his vile quest;
When Irish-speaking had its own quaint clan
Who Trade saw as pariahs of the West;
The poet, priest, the bar-stool Fenian,
And all of the eternal dispossessed.

"Our mother tongue is not mere propaganda!",
The modern Gaeilgeoir cries, fist in the air.
"We left that lefty stuff behind with granda!".
Well, let him leave it; but how does he square
His task of linguistic Save-the-Panda
With business's crusade of laissez faire?

Why sell the yuppy Gaelic, when his creed
Is not to buy what can't be quickly sold?
Why think the hearts of profiteers will bleed
For the unwanted, profitless and old?
The market first! The market must be freed!
If Gaeilge PLC folds, let it fold!

But if it sells its soul, I'll turn my face
Away from it, without one short ochone!
A tongue untainted by the market-place
That lures trade's troops to be Hibernophone
And sells out from the poor, the only race
That everyone is eager to disown.

The Catholic Church Needs to be the Daddy

Along with Star Trek: The Next Generation, my joint favourite television show is The Office. (The American version. The British version, though a work of genius, is too cringe-inducing and doesn't have the same heart. Besides, there are only two short series and one Christmas special of the British version, so the viewer doesn't enter its world in the same way.) 

There's one scene in The Office that came into my head today, when I was replying to a comment on the previous post. I've mentioned this scene before, on this blog and in a Catholic Voice article, but I'll mention it again.

Michael and Erin in a different scene
It features the central character, office manager Michael Scott (in his forties), and the ditzy office receptionist Erin (in her twenties). Erin grew up in foster homes and there are frequent funny-but-poignant references to this. She's dating another character called Gabe, who nobody likes (either in the show or, as became increasingly apparent, amongst the audience. They eventually dropped him, and none too soon).

This is the transcript of the scene. I find it touching and profound. (The dialogue is confusing without knowing that they get into Michael's car at one point.) They've left a viewing party in Gabe's house and Michael had earlier sabotaged Gabe's cable box:

Erin: [Michael is outside fixing the cable box] You did this?
Michael: No I was just check- Yeah. Yes I did, yeah yeah.
Erin: Why don't you like him?
Michael: What is there to like? He's just, he's a weird little skeevy guy with no waist, why do you care whether we like him or not?
Erin: I care if you like him.
Michael: Why? I'm not your father. [Erin looks sad] All right.
Erin: Okay...
Michael: Go to your room.
Erin: What? [confused]
Michael: Go to your room young lady!
Erin: [slowly getting it] Uhm, I'm not going to my room.
Michael: You listen to me. You listen good. You are are not, to see that boy, anymore.
Erin: You listen to me. You are not to tell me what to do.
Michael: As long as you are living under this roof you are going to do what I say.
Erin: I hate your roof!
Michael: Oh do not raise your voice to me!
Erin: I'll raise it how I want! I'll raise the roof!
Michael: Gahh, I will pull this car over!
Erin: I hate it! I hate your car!

Obviously (as should be apparent even from the dialogue, without the visual cues) Erin is delighted to have found a father figure; someone to to advise her, admonish her,  watch out for her, care about her. Not to mention someone to rebel against.

I honestly believe that the Catholic Church fulfills this role in Christian and post-Christian societies, even for non-Catholics and non-believers. How often are parents warned that they shouldn't try to be friends with their children, and the last thing they should ever be is pushovers?

I'm frightened that, today, the Catholic Church is trying to be friends with its children, and even becoming a pushover Daddy. And no kid wants that. Even the ones that say they want it and might even think they want it.

Indeed, the Church is all-too-often becoming the embarrassing Daddy that tries to be 'down with the kids' and speak their lingo. Which does nothing but makes the kids bite their fists with embarrassment.

I believe that liberals want the Church to be Daddy. Feminists want the Church to be Daddy. Non-denominational Christians want the Church to be Daddy. Broadsheet columnists want the Church to be Daddy.  Atheists (is anyone entirely an atheist?) want the Church to be Daddy.

Does being Daddy mean being tyrannical and cruel and uncaring? No, but it does mean being firm, consistent and principled-- maybe even stuffy and old-fashioned.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker says something similar in this post

Fr. Longenecker mentions the power of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Indeed, I can rarely hold back tears when this reading comes up at Mass.

Yes, indeed-- I think we all want the Church to be Daddy.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Does Dialogue Achieve Anything?

I was watching this conversation between Andrew Sullivan (a liberal Catholic) and Ross Douthat (a conservative Catholic) from 2012. I found myself taking a certain pleasure in its geniality and lack of point-scoring.

However, the predictability and shallowness of Sullvan's arguments grated on me. Jesus rarely mentions sex, so Christians must have exaggerated its importance. (It doesn't seem to occur to him that the Gospels are short documents, and that Jesus is very emphatic when he does mention it.) The Church used its teaching throughout the centuries to bolster its power. (Then why was it so keen to preserve its doctrine? It could have easily cut its cloth to fit the demands of power at any given time.)

It's when the conversation turns to the subect of religion and politics, and when Sullivan says that his model of Christianity in politics is the civil rights movement, that a sense of utter weariness descends upon me.

Genial discussion can be very pleasant. It's nice to be nice. It's nice to be liked. But does it actually achieve anything? Does honey really catch more flies than vinegar? I'm not so sure that it does.

But I might be wrong, so I'm not saying it's not worth trying.

Wearing my Library Hat

I'm credited as co-author of an academic paper on the development of an 'Academic Integrity Style Guide' (basically, an online guide telling students how to cite and use footnotes) in the latest issue of Sconul Focus, a library science journal.

My involvement in the actual writing of the article was minimal. The main author invited me and my other colleague to read her draft and make any critiques or contributions. I made hardly any suggestions as it seemed fine to me. So I felt bad to be getting so many plaudits in work. (Getting published in an academic journal is a big deal in the library profession. My other writing isn't even on my colleagues' radar!)

I did, however, do a lot of work on the project the article is describing, so maybe I shouldn't feel so bad.

I'm not wearing my glasses in the photo because they kept reflecting the flash of the camera. I like my glasses. I'm a proud speccy.

I had actually tried to write a blog post on the project, for an inter-library blog post competition, but it was hard to make it interesting. I personally find libraries fascinating, but the nitty-gritty of library work is something that it's hard to write about for a non-library audience. So I wrote about something else in the end, the book exchange outside the library. (I didn't get anywhere.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Particularism and Universalism

Earlier today, I found myself listening to an Irish soccer commentator who was commentating (not a mistake) on a soccer match between and English and an Italian team. Before play began, he made some remarks about the stadium. The Irish national team had played there before and he referred familliarly to some of those games, expecting the viewer to remember them, and referring to "us" throughout.

This felt deliciously cosy to me. This is what I like about national identity. Shared memory; shared experience; a window on the world, with the world outside and us inside.

Then I fell to thinking about universalism, and it struck me that one of the reasons I am so hot for particularism is that, in a certain sense, you can't really have universalism without particularism. At least, you can't have it in the same way.

Think about something that is truly universal, like some great speech from Shakespeare. I'll take my own favourite, Prospero's famous speech from The Tempest (which I first read in a bookshop aged seventeen, and instantly loved):

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.

Art like this speaks to all of us, transcending all barriers and circumstances, going to the heart of the human condition itself. We seem to be gazing over a panorama of centuries as we meditate upon it. As Chesterton wrote, of a similarly universal author: "In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody.”

When we come such across great universal art-- or something that makes us more than usually aware of the universal human condition-- we feel as though we have emerged into some vast space, there is a sense of enlargement and of the sublime. I experience a similar feeling when I walk from Dublin's Westmoreland Street towards O'Connell Bridge, a great cross-roads full of milling crowds, where there are no longer buildings on either side of me and I am struck with a sense of space and scale and openness.

Well, my point is that, in order to fully experience such a sense of the sublime in the universal, we have to have the particular to contrast with it. Where would be the praise in saying that an author speaks to readers of every culture, if there is no difference between cultures anyway?

I call myself an anti-globalist, but I'm not really. I accept that the earth is a globe (although I admire the heroism of Flat Earthers). I enjoy air travel. I like the internet.

More relevantly, perhaps, I accept that the our common humanity far outweighs our national, ethnic, sexual, and other differences. We are all much more alike than we are different. Human solidarity is essential.

When it comes to art and literature, I've always preferred literature that addresses universal themes. I'm not much interested in a book or a poem that is full of intellectual parlour games for academics or bookish people. I've always detested dialect poetry, although this might be irrational or an overreaction.

And, of course, I am a member of the universal Catholic church, whose mandate from our Lord is to make disciples of all nations.

The reason I call myself an anti-globalist is because:

1) Although I believe in a universal human nature, one dimension of this universal human nature (in my view) is a profound desire to belong to something more specific than the human race. In fact, I think we have a series of such belongings. We want to belong to a family; we want to belong to a circle of friends, allies, and colleagues; we want to belong to a people. Particularism is universal.

2) The extent of globalization in our modern world horrifies me. I fear that the universal is gobbling up the particular, that the international is gobbling up the national, that the national is gobbling up the regional, and so forth. I think life should be a balance of the particular and the universal, and the balance has swung far too much in the direction of the universal. For instance, it is estimated that a language dies every three months, and forty-six per cent are in danger of dying. That, to me, is horrifying. And language death is only one aspect of homogenization.

Another point. I have used the term 'particularist' in this post. I usually call myself a nationalist. This is partly out of tradition, partly to defy the people who are trying to make 'nationalist' a dirty word, and partly because I do believe in the ethno-nationalist ideal. However, my nationalism is just one manifestation of my particularism. I accept the arguments that the the nation is a historically and culturally contingent phenomenon. African nations, for instance, often seem to be a conglomeration of a huge amount of different ethnicities and people.

The whole phenomenon of nations may become obsolete, sooner or later. I hope not, but it might. In that case I hope ethinc and national traditions survive in some form, as peoples rather than as polities. And even if ethnic differences die out, I hope and believe humanity will continue to express their urge towards particularism in some form or other. (One of the reasons I like Star Trek is because ethnic differences and  traditions are shown as surviving into the twenty-fourth century!)

Incidentally, the phrase "particularism is universal" gets no hits on an internet search. Perhaps I should trademark it!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Too Close To See

My secondary schooling (ages thirteen to eighteen) occurred at an Irish language school run by Dominican nuns. It was called Scoil Caitríona, that is, St. Catherine's.

I found myself wondering a few days ago who it was named after. (Or named for, as my American readers would say-- and come to think of it, it makes more sense.) St. Catherine of Siena?

The funny thing is that I don't remember ever wondering this during my years in the school. Not once.

I currently work in the James Joyce Library in University College Dublin. I probably say the words 'James Joyce Library' several times a day. But a picture of James Joyce, or a thought of James Joyce, never comes into my head. It just slides off the tongue now.

I liked Scoil Catríona, but the Catholic environment didn't impact on me much at the time. I had a brief but intense religious conversion on my summer holidays, after my first year, and I remember looking approvingly at a statue of St. Francis (or was it St. Anthony?) when I returned. That passed, however.

I'm quite pleased that I was never anti-Catholic. I quite liked the school's religious pictures, statues, etc. and I didn't mind the prayers before class at all. I hated religion class but we didn't learn very much religion in it. It was mostly personal development and pop psychology and other fuzzy stuff.

I was anti-Irish language, though, and anti-nationalist. Not all the time. I passed through different phases. I had several things to contend with. As I've mentioned before, I was (intermittently) very drawn to romantic nationalism that was agrarian, traditionalist, revivalist, sentimental, and so forth. But the Irish nationalism around me (I don't mean in Scoil Caitríona, but in Ireland in general) was none of these things. It was urban, anti-traditionalist, anti-sentimental, quite often anti-religious, and usually cynical. That confused me and made no sense to me, although I wouldn't have been able to articulate this confusion.

Come to think of it, one of the many reasons I was anti-Irish language was because its supporters were so vague about why they wanted to revive Irish. "We're Irish and we should speak our own language", they'd say. But why should Irish be our language? Why not English, after all? It does the job.

It didn't make any sense to me that they were revivalists and traditionalists when it came to the Irish language, but they weren't noticeably so in any other regard. They seemed entirely modern and progressive and hardheaded in other respects. Again, I wouldn't have been able to even think this through, certainly not express it. But it was undoubtedly there, and I even expressed something close to it in some satirical poems.

(Yes, I was a weird kid even to be thinking about this stuff. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For me, it's not so much not worth living as simply impossible, and this has always been the way for me. I've always needed to be consistent.)

I still don't really adhere to the 'matter-of-fact' nationalism that so many of my contemporaries seem to espouse. Why should any particular territory have its own government? What's so obvious and necessary about that? If we're not going to care about reviving traditions in general, why revive a language? If we are going to accept globalization and homogenization ("become cosmopolitan and outward-looking"), why get perversely sentimental about Irishness when it comes to the World Cup or when we're making movies and albums? How can we emphasise our traditions and distinctiveness when it comes to seeking the tourist dollar, but cringe at them all the rest of the time? 

I didn't intend that rant. I was only going to remark on never having wondered who St. Catherine was. Maybe I should write more about my schooldays.

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Correspondence with the UCD Vice-President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

I'm reproducing a correspondence I've had with the above university official, prompted by a circular email I received promoting 'equality' events. (I suggest you skim that message, which is the first one.) I don't see anything wrong with publishing it here, but I've omitted the person's name, out of a sense of delicacy. My first response was prompted by irritation at receiving so many of these propagandistic messages.

I think we need to do this kind of thing more often; to challenge assumptions of neutrality and assent, not to let them pass without challenge or at least question. I think I was perfectly polite. The 'political badges' refers to the Yes Equality badges which were all over UCD during the time of the Irish gay marriage referendum.

Dear Maolsheachlann,
In my new role as Vice-President for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion I would like to bring to your attention three events coming up shortly that celebrate the UCD community.

1. Launch of the UCD LGBTI Staff Network – Wednesday, 22 February 

This new network works in partnership with colleagues and students to create a safe, inclusive and diverse culture where everyone in UCD regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity can reach their full potential. 

We have made great progress in recent years to advance equality for LGBTI staff in UCD, including raising the Rainbow flag in Belfield for Dublin Pride in 2016 and the establishment of an LGBTI sub-group working to the UMT EDI Group.  To mark these significant achievements, we are honoured that the Network will be launched by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017, 6-8pm
Atrium of the UCD O’Brien, Science Centre

The event will feature “The Road to Equality” exhibition which celebrates the 40 years of activism that reshaped Ireland culminating in the introduction of marriage equality and legal gender recognition in 2015.  The Dublin LGBTI choir GLORIA will enchant guests with beautiful vocals and food and refreshments will be provided.

If you would like to attend the event, please register at: Eventbrite Registration LGBTI Staff Network Launch

2. Strictly UCD – Saturday, 4 March

Strictly UCD will be a fun-filled night which aims to engage, build community and inspire creativity across UCD, while supporting two very worthwhile causes, UCD Volunteers Overseas and Gorta Self Help Africa.  Over 40 amateur dancers from our UCD community will perform on the night.

Saturday, 4 March 2017, doors 7pm, show 8pm
UCD O’Reilly Hall

Details of the dancers competing and a link to purchase tickets online are available at www.ucd.ie/strictly. Tickets are also available directly from the dancers and I encourage you to offer any support you can through buying tickets or sponsoring our contestants.

This is a collaborative event between the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion committee, Culture and Engagement – UCD HR, and UCD in the Community. 

3. International Women’s Day – Wednesday, 8 March

UCD will join organisations across the globe in marking International Women’s Day again this year. This year’s theme is “Be Bold for Change”.  Through conversation and celebration, we will be pledging our support to help forge gender equality on International Women’s Day and beyond. For further details on events and actions you can take, watch this space, http://www.ucd.ie/equality/newsandevents/

I hope to meet you at these events.
Best wishes,
Prof. S-----------
Vice-President for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Dear Mr. S----
Thank you for your email on events that promote identity and inclusion in UCD.

Are there any initatives to foster and protect diversity of opinion, rather than diversity of identity, in UCD?
Many thanks

Dear Maolsheachlann,

Many thanks for your message. I would say that fostering diversity of opinion is rather central to what we do as a University, supported by academic freedom, and we have many events on the campus at which a wide range of opinion is to be found, organised by schools and Colleges and also by students societies. Did you have something particular in mind?

Best wishes,

Hi ------

Thanks for your reply.

In terms of events you could hold, perhaps some lectures on threats to religious freedom and freedom of conscience in Irish society would help balance the ledger. You might contact Dr. Mark Dooley, former philosophy lecturer in UCD, and ask him to give a lecture on the plight of the conservative academic in Irish humanities and social science departments.

I rarely attend events in UCD, because of my commuting time, so the likelihood is that I would never attend such events anyway. But it would be nice to see something different on the programme. Although I certainly can't complain about the provision of religious facilities in UCD-- Catholics are excellently served, as I believe are other faiths-- I do feel the climate in the university is inhospitable for anyone with opinions at variance with the liberal left. Yes, much of this is simply a by-product of academic freedom, and I accept that, but it seems to me also an area for any diversity policy to address.

One thing I think you could work on is to examine the appropriateness of political badges in the workplace. I have no desire to strangle freedom of expression, but I do feel political badges are inappropriate when they are worn by university staff on duty.

Thanks again, and best wishes,

That was last week. No reply as yet...

Happy Feast Day of St. Robert Southwell!

Another opportunity to draw your attention to "The Burning Babe", one of my favourite poems.

May we emulate the courage and witness of this great Jesuit saint!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Great Words for Great Things

I was just thinking of Yorkshire pudding and I realised it's one of those instances where I love a term and the thing it describes just as much.

Some others:

1) Brandy

2) Kaleidoscope

3) Amber

4) Formica

5) Silhouette

6) Winter

7I Turkish delight

I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of them.

Here's a case where I like the thing the word describes, but not the word itself: poetry. I think poetry is a very unpoetic word.

I've noticed that many diseases and medical conditions have beautiful names, even though the things themselves are not so nice: rubella, scarlatina, tinnitus, tonsilitis, whooping cough, gonorrhea, sciatica, meningitis. How lovely!

No Alliance with Secularists or Atheists

That is what I would advocate.

Yes, political correctness is a menace. Yes, free speech is precious. Yes, the freedom to ask questions is precious. Yes, militant Islam is a danger and we should be allowed to discuss it without being called Islamaphobic.

But I'm worried to see how some religious conservatives are making common cause with atheists and secularists as a result of all this.

I'm not (as I've said before) talking about the sort of atheist who just happens to be an unbeliever, but who respects religion. I'm talking about bullish atheists and secularists, those who speak disrespectfully of religion and even attack it.

I feel much more affinity with Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons, Jews, Jehovah's Witnesses and any other variety of religious believer, and with every other person and faction who believes religion is of central importance to society, than I do with Bill Maher or Sam Harris or any other God-basher.

If someone is wrong about the most important question, how can that do anything but warp their other views? Everything rests on the First Commandment.

I don't even want to be friends with anyone who attacks religion. Yes, I have plenty of atheist friends, but they are all respectful towards my faith, and faith in general.

"The Wild Fingers of Fire are Making Corruption Clean"

This has now become my all-time favourite line of poetry, taken from "The Burning of the Leaves" by Laurence Binyon.

And the blog post that's meant the most to me, of all the posts on this blog, is "A Short History of my Priggishness", where (amongst other things) I discuss what I find fascinating about this line. The spiritual atmosphere that I try to evoke in that post is crucially important to me, to the extent that I often re-read it for my own inspiration.

Could such very personal meditations be of interest to anybody else? I don't know. Writing seems to be a balancing act between drawing on what moves you the most, which will always be intimate and subjective, and trying to address the human condition and themes that are universal (or at least, of public interest). How do you draw from the well of your own soul without falling into it? That's the question.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Dream

I dreamt I met the mother of my birth
I'd never met before. Her house was dark.
Her looks were strange. Her accent made it hard
For me to understand her.  The same blood
Ran in our veins, but oh, how far apart!

She was so proud, so proud; stuck-up, perhaps.
She smiled at me, indeed, but said: "How long
It took you to come here!". "Well, here I am."

I thought about the land from which I'd come;
The rolling meadows, hedgerows, merry streams,
So long explored, yet so much more to see!
Its sights and sounds had seeped into my blood.
That dear dear land; my home...but not my home.

"Come see your ancestors", she said to me.
We went from wall to wall, and though she held
A lamp, I barely made each picture out.
"You see the kingly features in his face?"
She asked. "And her, is she not beautiful,
Surpassing all the beauty that you've seen?"
"Indeed", I said, but all that I could see
Were foreign faces in a lake of gloom.

"You have not seen the gardens yet", she said,
Sensing perhaps my want of eagerness.
"Come with me. Gardens, did I say? Far more!".

I walked with her through chilly corridors
Stealing a glance or two. How old she was!
And yet, a sort of beauty in her face.

She fumbled for a key, unlocked a door,
And out we stepped into the moonlit night.

"Behold", she said; and a horizon stretched
As far as I could see; we stood atop
A sort of peak; below, a wilderness
As vast and wild as my romantic heart
Could ever ask for. "Here is home!", I cried.
"Here is my home, at last! A whole new world!"

"Well, keep your head", she chuckled girlishly.
"This land is wild; you do not know its ways.
Heir of this land, possess your heritage!"
She pushed me forward, laughter in her voice.

I stumbled, fell, and hit the stony ground.
I rolled downhill. Above, my mother laughed
As blithely as a girl. I hit a tree.

I rose again. I fell again. The moon
Gave little light. The night was cold. It seemed
The trees themselves fought with me. Still again
I struggled forward. Still again I fell.

"Oh brave new world!", my mother laughed. "Perhaps
The happy hamlets and the rolling roads
You left behind you are your real home?"

"This is my real home", I shouted. "Laugh!
By God, this is my home, and I will be
Its dweller, let it break my bones to bits!"

"And you thought me the proud one!", she replied.
"Perhaps-- deluded too? Well, after all,
You are my flesh and blood." She stepped inside
And closed the door, still laughing like a girl.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thinking Along an Axis

The anthropologist Kate Fox wrote a book called Watching the English. In it, she mentioned a very interesting fact (I presume it's a fact) that I'd never heard before; that is, that the way people behave when they are drunk is specific to their culture. English people (well, some English people) get rowdy when they drink because they expect to get rowdy when they drink. In other cultures, this doesn't happen.

(A barely related experience of my own: I once left a pub after an evening out, and found myself staggering a little while crossing the road. It was only then that I remembered I hadn't drunk a drop of alcohol.)

I mention this observation because I've noticed that the way political (and other) opinions are formed seem to be often determined by the surrounding culure, even when the people with the opinions think they are entirely the result of personal experience and reflection.

I've noticed this in an American context. (Please understand that I'm commenting on the American context because I'm an outsider and I can see it from the outside. I'm not in any way judging American political thought. I think this applies to all cultural contexts.)

Last year I was talking to a left-wing American chap who was telling me all about the climate of fear and division in America. As he spoke about the issues, all of which were based on his personal experience (or so he said), I was intrigued that they happened to hit on all the American cultural flashpoints.

For instance; religion in public life. He had strong feelings about this, even though I think this is something that would never come into someone's head spontaneously. He told me about how instrusive religion was into his life and he seemed to have a real beef with it.

Nobody in Ireland talks about this, except for a minority of militant atheists. I mean, nobody you'd run into in ordinary life talks about it. Journalists do, but not ordinary people.

Another example is the role of government in society and the economy. I've read a lot of accounts of why various liberals became conservatives (and some accounts of why various conservatives became liberals). I'm very interested in opinion formation.

What strikes me is that in America, liberals often become conservatives when they decide that government causes more problems than it solves, or come to some such decision on the role of government.

In European countries, it's rather more likely for people to become conservatives because they come to a deeper appreciation of tradition or heritage or the family-- the issue of government doesn't, as often, come into it either way.

Again-- I'm not making any comment about American poltiical culture whatsoever. I'm just using it as an example for a phenomenon I've noticed. That is, that the debates and paradigms that surround us tend to affect how we organise experience, even when we're completely unware of this-- even when we would be willing to swear that we paid no attention to those debates whatsoever, and weren't even interested in the issues before they forced themselves on our attention.

(Yes, I accept that cultural context might have an effect on experience itself. as well as on our interpretation of experience-- for example, that the role of government might simply be a more important issue in America because of the way society is set up. But I don't think this explains the phenomenon entirely.)