Saturday, October 28, 2017

My Step-Grandfather's House

My step-grandfather was my mother's step-father. Aside from my paternal grandfather, he was my only grandparent-- both my grandmothers died before I was born, as did my mother's father.

He lived in Croom, which is in county Limerick. Croom is a town but his front garden looked out onto a field with cows in it. It was surrounded by roads but there were cows in it. I think I am remembering that rightly.

My step-grandfather and my mother didn't have the best relationship. In fact, my family generally seemed to have a low opinion of him. I've always felt rather bad for him, on account of this, and remembered him in my prayer more often than I might have otherwise.

Me and my brothers liked his house because it included an airing cupboard which ran from one bedroom to another. A passage between rooms, like in so many kid's stories! And it was big enough for us to clamber down.

Another thing I remember vividly from the bedroom was the holy picture, or holy pictures, on the wall. This memory is an extraordinary one because, while I have no memory whatsoever of the pictures themselves, I can very vividly remember how they made me feel. However, this feeling is harder to convey into words. "Solemn" is the simplest aspect of it, but it goes beyond that. "Particularity" is the more subtle aspect. I don't know what scene of sacred history they represented, but I was impressed (without really thinking about it) by the fact that these were people who lived in a faraway time and place, and yet they were somehow ancestral to me. That seems essential to the "flavour" of Christianity, at least in my mind. I could write volumes on this theme. Perhaps I will some day.

More simply, I have an impression of gloom-- dark greys and dull browns-- which has influenced my taste in Christian art.

My step-grandfather was a forbidding old man. I have a memory of him telling me how, when he died, the Devil would cry to him: "I have you now!", and how he would burn forever in Hell. I asked him if he wouldn't burn until he was all black, and I had a very vivid image of a human being reduced to cinders. "No", he said, "I will burn forever". I have no idea if he was serious or not, but I was quite awe-struck.

Perhaps he was not serious, because I have another memory of him listening to St. John Paul II on the television, and saying: "Lies, lies and more lies". (I can just about remember that this was a saying of his.)

I saw a spider in my step-grandfather's bath once, and this is also something that lingers with me. I don't think it frightened me at the time, and the memory is a pleasant one. I've always liked spiders. I think they are very graceful creatures, and the webs they spin are a symbol of the traditions and customs which I value so much in human life. As with so many other memories from my childhood, this one is superimposed with another memory; a villain in a comic-book called Tarantula. But it's still a pleasant memory. I was always more drawn towards the villains in stories, if they were sufficiently stylish and mysterious (Darth Vader, Sauron, etc), than the heroes.

Another vivid memory connected to my step-grandfather is a picture of him on his First Communion day. It was framed on a wall, but I can't remember if it was his wall or somebody else's wall. I was very struck by this picture; the fact that there was a photograph of this old man as a child seemed extraordinary to me. Over and over again, in my life, I've been astonished by the realization that time is a continuum; that the past may be a different country, but that it has no definite border.

More fundamentally, it was in my step-grandfather's house that I was most struck by the solidity of the world. He rarely had the television or the radio on, in stark contrast to my own home, and the relative silence somehow made his house seem especially real. This is something that strikes me in retrospect, rather than something I was aware of at the time. This awareness of the world's solidity, however, was not oppressive but rather ecstatic-- the sheer joy of things being what they are.

Most memorable of all my memories from my step-grandfather's house is the morning I saw all the crows. I've often mentioned this on my blog before, so I won't linger on it. It was a very early morning, and I was awake before anybody else (something most unusual, then or now). The sky was grey, or perhaps it was a dim white-- I can't remember exactly. The bedroom was gloomy. Against one wall was propped a halved brown and white flag-- I don't know what it represented, but I found it most attractive, especially the vague notion that it was an obscure local flag.

And then, outside my window-- I can't remember if it happened suddenly or gradually-- there appeared a vast amount of crows, so many that I was astonished. They seemed to fill the sky. I can't really put into words what this vision meant to me. "The profusion of mundane beauty" is perhaps the phrase that express it best.

I've never ceased to be haunted by this sight. Over the years I'd come to assume that there was nothing really remarkable about it, and that my memory has magnified it. But perhaps not. My father told me, a few years ago, that he'd heard a radio discussion concering strange starling formations in Croom. Croom is not a place you often hear mentioned in any context. So perhaps the bird life there is out of the ordinary, for whatever reason, and I did witness something remarkable after all.

Monday, October 23, 2017


Well, I turned forty over the weekend. It sucks!

But I was cheered (amongst other things) by a birthday poem from Sweden and a couple of nice messages from Australia! Just posting this to acknowledge.

Thank you!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Snow Issue of Transformers

Once upon a time, long ago, I read the Transformers comic. There have probably been quite a few Transformers comics, so I should be more specific; I read the British Transformers comic which was published in the eighties. I think I read it from 1986 to about 1989, but that's a rough guess. I do remember it had a time-travel story titled Target: 2006, suggesting that I was reading it by 86, when I was nine. The year 2006 seemed extremely remote. I guess it was, really.

Transformers was a good comic. The stories were mostly written by a guy called Simon Fuhrman. Even as a kid I remember realizing how grown-up his writing was, both in terms of ideas and of vocabulary. They were kids' stories, but they weren't as childish as most stuff aimed at kids. I learned a lot of new words from the comic. "Via" is one example, as in "I heard it via the radio". I can't remember any of the others.

There was a very memorable "Snow Issue" of the Transformers comic which was published to coincide with a snowfall in the Dublin area. I can still remember the cover, in which snow was falling on a scene containing the various giant robots. I wish I still had that issue.

OK, not really. There was no "Snow Issue" of Transformers. A British comic would hardly issue a special edition because it snowed in Dublin. But I did have a dream about a "Snow Issue". I can't remember if it was during an actual snowfall or if the snowfall was just in my dreams. Snow is a rarity in Dublin, and it was still more rare in my childhood. When it happened, it was a very big deal.

I've been thinking about that Snow Issue a lot recently, dreamily. I wish I still had it. It seems symbolic of so much, but it would be hard to say what...

I loved Transformers. It was mine. Well, my brothers read it, too, but it still felt like my special comic. There was a letters page called Grim Grams, edited by a Transformer called Grimlock. Grimlock was a Dinobot, one of the Transformers who took the form of a dinosaur. What use is that? Well, they arrived on Earth during the era of the dinosaurs-- or something like that. Anyway, he answered the letters. There was a picture of him opening a letter with his sword. I liked the letters page because it had a pleasant "club" feeling.

There was a comic strip about a military-obsessed boy, Combat Colin, and his friend, Semi-Automatic Steve...who had a beard. Maybe they weren't boys. It was pretty good.

My favourite part of the comic was the "next issue" section on the very last page. This would show an image from next week's comic, with a little blurb of text underneath it describing what the next week's stories would be. What I liked most was that the picture was surrounded by a frame of futuristic symbols, making it look as though it was being seen on a screen. It reminds me of a favourite Chesterton quotation, one I've quoted often on this blog-- that every wilderness looks bigger seen through a window. I remember lying in bed one night, in the dark, talking to my brother, and picturing the subjects of our talk as an image in that "next week" box. I guess it was the beginning of my life-long infatuation with such frames-- cinema screens, Viewfinder slides, stories, etc. etc-- and even more, with the magic of the mind and the imagination.

It's so long ago now that it's hard to believe. But, at the same time, it seems like yesterday... that far-off time of AIDS, Gorbachev, Reagan, Amstrad computers, Halley's comet, Kylie Minogue, video nasties, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer, Live Aid... all vanished now, forever.

I wish I still had the Snow Issue of the Transformers, though. If you ever come across a copy, email me.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Excellent Blog Post from Edward Feser on Catholic Social Policy

Read it here.

I'm fairly confident there's nothing I've ever written on this blog which isn't in keeping with the philosophy outlined here.

I like this passage: Just as one can be excessively attached to one’s own family or nation, so too can one be insufficiently attached to them. This vice is exhibited by those who think it best to regard oneself as a “citizen of the world” or member of the “global community” rather than having any special allegiance to one’s own country. It is the idea of a “world without borders” and a “brotherhood of man” – hence fraternity construed as an ideal of universal brotherhood to replace family loyalty, patriotism, and other local allegiances.

This is what Feser has to say about social justice, the deity of so many Catholic today:

The currency of the term “social justice” originated in Thomistic natural law social theory. It is often attributed to the great Jesuit natural law theorist Luigi Taparelli. It has to do with the just or right ordering of society as defined by strong families and cooperation between husband and wife in carrying out their respective roles for the sake of children and elders, solidarity and cooperation between economic classes and other social groups, and scrupulous attention to subsidiarity in the state’s relationship to the “little platoons” of society.

What today goes under the label of social justice – what self-described “social justice warriors” agitate for – is precisely the opposite of all of this. It entails sexual libertinism and abortion on demand, the feminist demonization of “patriarchy” and of traditional family roles, the incessant stirring up of tensions between economic classes and racial groups (e.g. the daily Two Minutes Hate directed at “one percenters,” “white privilege,” etc.), the relentless smearing of one’s country and its history, socialized medicine and socialized education, and so on. This might be liberty, equality, and fraternity after a fashion, but it is the destruction of subsidiarity, solidarity, and family and country.

When will true social justice be achieved? Only when this evil doppelgänger is defeated. Indeed, one is tempted to parody the line famously attributed to Diderot, and reply: only when the last socialist is strangled with the entrails of the last sexual revolutionary. That’s meant as a joke, of course. Revolutionary bloodlust is itself yet another malign legacy of the French Revolution, which every conservative and natural law theorist ought to condemn. But all the same: Écrasez l'infâme.

Friday, October 6, 2017


Well, I'm back on Facebook (for good reasons), and I've noticed that Facebook tends to sap my blogging energies, as it's much more tempting to fire off an idea in a short Facebook post than in blog form. I like the interactivity, too. However, today has been a reflective day-- in fact, this week has given me ample time for reflection-- so I'm going to take the opportunity to blog.

One of my colleagues lost his wife this week. I've worked with him for sixteen years and we've always got on very well. They were married for twenty-eight years. The funeral was today. The church was packed out. I was standing at the back.

Lots of library staff travelled to the funeral together, in two vans. On the journey out, I happened to mention that I'm the least observant person in the world and (later) that I'm a complete philistine when it comes to music. When I made the second statement, the woman sitting beside me linked it to the first, and said: "I think you have to work on your self-esteem". And she's right. I know conservatives like to scoff at the idea of self-esteem, but I do think there's a healthy sort of self-esteem, and it's one that I often lack. Constantly feeling bad about oneself, not in the sense of one's sins but one's capabilities and self-worth, can't be good. In recent months, I've been having particular difficulty with this and I've been despondent quite a lot. I've tried not to dwell on this on my blog. It can be debilitating.

Recently, a friend and fellow Catholic, who'd previously expressed concern about how far I was veering towards the populist right, urged me (again) to rethink my attitude. Actually, I'd already been rethinking my attitude. Regular readers will be familiar with my horror at political correctness and my conviction that it needs to be opposed with the utmost force. Well, I fear that my zeal for this cause became almost all-absorbing for a while. I became too focused upon the things of this world, on controversy and politics and "the battle of ideas". I lost sight, to some extent, of the Heavenly Jerusalem. And I found myself spending far too much time listening to voices who were right about some things, but horribly wrong about others

Well, I've turned away from all that in the last few while-- not because I'm no longer a populist or anti-PC (I am), but because I've felt my thirst of the sacred revive, and my preoccupation with the secular diminish.

All my life, even before I was a Christian, I've swung between a fascination with the diversity of the world, and a hunger for the Absolute, for the unconditional, for the permanent. I've had recurring dreams about swimming pools all my life, because swimming pools represent immersion and depth. One part of me, the part that thrills to the Louis Macneice poem "Snow", is in love with daily life and the giddy abundance of the world. Another part of me craves only what is timeless and abiding.

I guess the second part is in the ascendant right now. I've found myself losing interest in secular matters and wanting to immerse myself in the sacred. I've been reading Introduction to Christianity by Pope Benedict, a book of essays on the Protestant theologian Wolfgang Pannenberg, and other Christological works. And feeling that the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Cross are enough to absorb anyone for a lifetime, that they make all secular matters pale.

I've often felt that the Holy Spirit speaks to me through my imagination. The Christian mystery grips me most powerfully through the mediation of some image or story. I've written a great deal about these in my diary, but I feel a strange shyness in confessing to them here. One example that I encountered only recently, is the story of Soon-to-Be-Blessed Solanus Casey, the American Capuchin friar, arriving at his monastery for the first time, on a snowy Christmas Eve, after a long and arduous journey, just in time for Midnight Mass.

Or they can be actual visual images, such as these painted figures behind the altar of St. Benedict's Church in Richmond, Virginia, whose very stiffness and solemnity have entranced me from the first time I saw them:

I do find myself worrying, sometimes: is this genuine Christianity? Or is it merely making an idol of my own imaginative impressions? Is the Holy Spirit speaking to me through my imagination, or is it imagination pure and simple? Is it a mistake to draw inspiration from such impressions? What if they desert me, will my faith dry up and die?

Having said so much about my latest turn from the secular to the sacred, I've learned enough from previous "turns", back and forth, to realise some things are a constant with me. For instance: I will always be a nationalist, an Irish nationalist. No amount of reminding myself that "we have here no abiding city" can change the fact that I do care about Ireland, the preservation of its traditions and identity and distinctiveness. Globalization and cultural homogenization depresses me. I care very much about this, and I realize that I always will.

Even here, however, my attitude has shifted recently, at least in one particular. In the last couple of years, I've made the biggest effort of my life to improve my knowledge of the Irish language, and use it more often. I've reluctantly come to the conclusion that I can do relatively little for Irish. The one measure of the Irish language's health which is constantly discussed, and which (when you think about it) is indeed the most relevant one, is the extent to which it is spoken in everyday life. And there's really little I can do to help it here. There's nobody with whom I could speak Irish in everyday life. I could join Irish language clubs and go to Irish language events, but these would take me out of my routine, and I already have very little time left after all the commuting I do. Reading Irish language books and listening to Irish language radio is really doing very little; the spoken word is what matters. (It's no wonder that Israel is the only country that has successfully revived a dying language. The Israelis needed a lingua franca, so Hebrew filled a need. It got to be spoken in the hurly-burly of ordinary life, not in contrived situations. Without such a context,  I wonder if any language can prosper.) I'm not going to give up on Irish entirely, but at this stage I've given up my ambitions to make it a big part of my daily life.

Well, that's "where I'm at" right now. I told you it was going to be reflective.