Saturday, June 24, 2017

In Praise of Folly

I have a recurring fantasy of taking a cross-- perhaps a large, cardboard cross, reaching above my shoulder-- and carrying it through the suburbs of Dublin, or perhaps even further afield. I wouldn't just stick to the important thoroughfares, the busy city streets. I would drag that cross through every sort of residential area, industrial estate, and shopping centre in the greater Dublin area.

I really think I might do this one day. It might not be a cross. It might be a sign bearing a verse from Scripture.

I wouldn't say anything, unless people approached me. Then I would tell them the purpose of the sign, and try to evangelize them.

I love this idea. Perhaps I would chicken out of doing it, when it came to the crunch. I'm not sure. Do you remember my Kung Fu Buffet song of some months back? I eventually decided to visit that distinguished establishment, accompanied by a friend. I'd aired the possibility of reading my lyrics out loud to the staff. When it came down to it, I kept them in my pocket. I told my friend I'd decided against it, and he said: "Yeah, I knew you would." I didn't know I would. 

So maybe I wouldn't really follow up on my "fool for Christ" idea. But I love the idea.

I've always liked playing the fool, and been very drawn to it. When I was in school, I would go out of my way to cultivate a reputation for eccentricity. When I was about ten or eleven, I would write the word "Homestead" all over my class mates' copy books. Homestead were a brand of economy Irish groceries. Another time, I heard a family member describe how his friend had started eating a paper bag in a bookshop (the bag he was given for the book). I immediately felt I had to top this, and so I went out to a shop with clothes-pegs in my hair.

This wasn't just to get attention. Actually, I don't think it was about looking for attention at all. I wanted to make the world more interesting.

The funny thing is that I'm intensely self-conscious and prone to embarrassment about ordinary things-- such as walking through the wrong door, or pushing a door that pulls open. But when it comes to things that are "off the scale", I rarely feel self-conscious at all, and even relish whatever derision is involved. This is especially true if it has anything to do with beliefs or convictions. I never feel happier than when I'm arguing with a whole room in favour of some unfashionable opinion, or even being laughed at by the whole room. A few months ago, almost everyone in a television studio was laughing at me because I said the Catholic Church has apologized too much. This sort of thing just energizes me.

I like the idea of being a fool for Christ for several reasons:

1) Paradoxically, I think the world only takes something seriously if it sees people are willing to behave foolishly for it, to lose their heads for it. Or, to put it from the opposite perspective, we have an intuition that any given belief system is only vibrant when it produces its share of crackpots.

2) Eccentric behaviour adds to the poetry and colour of life.

3) I would like to add something to the folklore of Dublin, to the city's distinctiveness. 

4) If you are willing to play the fool, you become immune to criticism. It's always best to get the moment of crisis over with as soon as possible. In the same spirit, I always tell new colleagues that I'm a "right-wing nutcase" soon after meeting them for the first time, to get it out of the way, and spare them any shock when I don't agree with their liberal bromides.

But it's more than this, that attracts me to the "fool for Christ" idea. It's hard to describe what I'm trying to get at here.

The big winners in the recent British election were the Democratic Unionist Party. As my non-Irish readers may not know, they are a party founded by Ian Paisley, a rabble-rousing Presbyterian who never apologized for mixing politics with religion. Many years ago, my brother described to me a series of speeches made by DUP leaders, after a similarly impressive election showing. He told me that the first speech was as fiery and impassioned as anyone could ask for; that the second speech took it up a notch or ten; and that he then found himself wondering, as Ian Paisley made his way to the platform, how this living legend could possibly top the two previous speakers. But Paisley didn't say a word; instead, he launched into a hymn without a word of preamble.

It must be at least fifteen years since I heard that story, but I've always remembered it as an example of the phenomenon I'm describing in this post. Because, although I laughed, my reaction was not: "These guys are buffoons". My reaction was: "These guys are serious."

It's still more than that, though...this thing I am trying to describe...

This entire post came out of a train of thought some hours ago. I was thinking about Ireland retaining its Irishness, and whether we really had a national character any more.

And an image came into my mind. An image of a man-- not a particular man, but a composite picture. He was a middle-aged man with fuzzy red hair, and a long fuzzy red beard. He's wearing an Aran sweater, or some other thick and colourful sweater. He's also wearing enormous jam-jar glasses, and staring into the camera with a toothy smile. He's either in a pub, or at some kind of public meeting or book launch. He speaks Gaelic, listens to traditional Irish music, and is willing to launch into a long earnest speech on our national heritage at the drop of a hat. He's a walking clichĂ©, a walking joke, and while he lives Irish Ireland is safe. Alas, I have not seen so much of a photograph of such a man in many many years.  


  1. one eccentric that added colour to Dublin was certainly Brendan behan. i was trying to locate the stations of the cross he mentioned once. if they're still there. somewhere near howth. he got the high fives during mass because of them. he realised that he knew the artist and also the model for Christ who he'd just had a few drinking sessions with.
    I supposethat would be funny at the time

    1. But not that funny.

      He's certainly a Dublin character and bohemian and part of the very distinctiveness and folklore I'm talking about. He was very religious underneath his leftist veneer.

  2. Molly, I seem to have accidentally deleted your comment, but I had an email notification about it so I can paste it here. I appreciate the Joyce Kilmer poem, he was a friend of Chesterton (which will surprise nobody):

    Talk of folly always makes me think of Pearse's poem, of course. But also this:

    (For A. K. K.)

    What distant mountains thrill and glow
    Beneath our Lady Folly's tread?
    Why has she left us, wise in woe,
    Shrewd, practical, uncomforted?
    We cannot love or dream or sing,
    We are too cynical to pray,
    There is no joy in anything
    Since Lady Folly went away.

    Many a knight and gentle maid,
    Whose glory shines from years gone by,
    Through ignorance was unafraid
    And as a fool knew how to die.
    Saint Folly rode beside Jehanne
    And broke the ranks of Hell with her,
    And Folly's smile shone brightly on
    Christ's plaything, Brother Juniper.

    Our minds are troubled and defiled
    By study in a weary school.
    O for the folly of the child!
    The ready courage of the fool!
    Lord, crush our knowledge utterly
    And make us humble, simple men;
    And cleansed of wisdom, let us see
    Our Lady Folly's face again.

    Joyce Kilmer

  3. It was kind of you to excavate that out of your email! I am ashamed to admit, I had no idea that Kilmer and Chesterton knew each other, but I'm glad they did!

    1. Now I look for a citation I can't find it. Perhaps they didn't know each other. I thought Chesterton had written an introduction to a collection of Kilmer's, but can't find that either now.