Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Poetry and Humanity

The title of this blog post is as pompous as it gets. Its theme is very simple, though. Here it is: I believe that one of the great virtues of poetry is that it helps preserve our humanity. By "poetry", I mean reading poetry, reciting poetry, and (especially) writing poetry. I've written on this topic before, but I feel drawn to it again.

Of course, we are human from the moment of conception to the moment of our death. Even after we die, our bodies are called "human remains". So you could say that the phrase "preserves our humanity" doesn't actually mean anything, that we can't help being human anyway.

But surely only a very tiresome person would pretend not to understand the phrase. Humanity isn't just a species, it's a quality. It's impossible to describe, but we all know what it means. We understand expressions such as: "I want to feel like a human and not a machine", "That bank treats its customers in a very human way", "She has written and recorded a very human album", "I'm only human", etc. etc.

The nature of humanity has been a favourite theme for poets and writers through the ages. One of the most famous meditations is from Alexander Pope:

Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great...

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Hamlet's words are no less famous: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

There are many, many other examples. Again and again, when writers reflect upon the human condition in its broadest sense, they tend to focus upon one particular feature : that man, although a limited and fallible being, has effectively infinite potential. As a priest of my acquaintance likes to say, man is a "self-transcender".

I think few (if any) human activities reflect man's infinite potential so well as poetry.

Why poetry? Well, to be blunt, you don't need any talent to write poetry. Of course, you need talent to write great poetry. But anyone can write a poem.

Poetry is as flexible in its subject matter as it is in its form. Nothing is off limits. Time, space, and possibility are no boundaries. It's a form in which the fullness of our humanity-- emotional, imaginative, spiritual, and so on-- can be expressed without any hindrance.

I love great poetry. Great poetry is one of the things that has meant most to me in my life, especially in my teens and twenties. In more recent years, however, I've developed an interest in poetry from a different point of view: not necessarily as a fine art, but as a form of self-expression.

Why should anyone hesitate to write poetry? Or to read their poetry to others? Why is this so taboo?

Society has always been complex, and perhaps modern society is particularly complex. We can't avoid compartmentalizing our humanity-- and the humanity of others. In a single day, we fill many roles: driver, passenger, pedestrian, parent, customer, employee, manager, patient, spectator, applicant, and so on through an endless list of other roles.

This is inevitable, in my view, but it does rather diminish our humanity. Even if you love the ordinary and the mundane, as I do, there are depths in every human being which cannot be fully expressed in a supermarket queue or a trip to the dentist. We are being squeezed all the time.

I wish poetry played a bigger part in everyday life. I often fantasize about this.

Sometimes I imagine a scenario in which a newly-published collection of poetry is the first item on the evening news. In this scenario, there is a studio discussion of the themes and imagery among a panel of literary critics and general "pundits". Over video-link up, somebody gives his theories on the poet's creative influences. Why should such an idea be so unimaginable, almost comical?

Or imagine if friends in a pub or café simply read their poems to each other, that this was considered natural and normal. Can you imagine if you were meeting a friend and you casually remarked: "I've written a poem and I'd like to read it to you"?

Or can you imagine if workplaces had poetry days, where the employees took the day off to participate in a poetry workshop, to compose poetry, read it, and discuss it? Does this thought make you cringe? Why should it?

I love hearing about people writing poetry. I love hearing about people reciting poetry. I love hearing about people framing poetry and putting it on their bedroom walls and making it a part of their daily lives. Every time I hear about something like that, it seems to me like a little triumph.

I think the world needs more poetry, to remind us of our humanity, and the humanity of other people.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Into the Amazon

For the next while, I'm going to be posting reviews on Amazon-- first, of all the things I've bought on it over the years, and then of other stuff-- books and films mostly.

I'm doing this to promote my own book. It's an idea suggested by a book about plugging your book, which was recommended by a friend. (Thanks, Roger!). It seems like a fairly painless way of doing it.

I'd posted some Amazon reviews already, over the years (only a handful), but under the alias Mally Malone. I've changed that to "Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, author of Inspiration from the Saints". This is perfectly OK, according to the book, and indeed Amazon let me change it to that, so it must be OK.

The hope is that people will say: "Wow, what a well-written review. I'm going to order his book right now!".

If you want to read my reviews (anything is possible), this is where to find them. I plan to add many, many more over the next while.

(I'm shocked eight people marked my review of the album Meet Jim Dale "helpful"! Even after eight years, that seems like a lot...)

Thursday, September 27, 2018

What Makes a Good Horror Story?

I've been reading a lot of ghost stories recently. As I've mentioned before, I'm a member of a horror club, which is comprised of a very cultured group of gentlemen-- indeed, it's rather like being in the Inklings.

However, I feel a little bit out of my depth there sometimes. My horror knowledge is quite extensive by normal standards, but these guys are walking encyclopedias of horror. This is especially true when it comes to the written word. My knowledge of horror movies is much more extensive than my knowledge of horror fiction. So I've been trying to expand it.

I've been confronted once more with the fact that many of the horror stories which are considered classics of the genre don't appeal to me at all. For instance, I can't really enjoy the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, a Dubliner of the nineteenth century, who is considered one of the masters of the genre. I derive rather more enjoyment from the stories of M.R. James (an English writer who died in 1936), but not quite as much as his reputation would seem to warrant.

I've realized that I have my own criteria when it comes to the enjoyment of horror stories, and many of the most celebrated stories just don't fit them.

Here they are.

1) The main criteria is that I like horror stories to have a supernatural element, or at least a potentially supernatural element. (Sometimes, it's left ambiguous.) I generally don't like horror stories with no supernatural element, although there are exceptions. I tend to dislike stories with an apparently supernatural element which turns out to be non-supernatural.

2) I like horror stories to be set in a world which is familiar to me, in some way. My favourite sort of horror involves the otherworldly intruding into the ordinary-- so the more ordinary, the better.

"Familiar" can have various meanings, though. Victorian England is a familiar enough world-- unless it's a story that sets out to present it in an unfamiliar way (which I won't enjoy).

Generally, I don't like stories which are set much more than a century in the past, or in non-English speaking countries, or in some kind of sub-culture such as organised crime or show business. I'm a very provincial person indeed.

Dirk Benedict in "Mark of the Devil"

3) I want the protagonist to be likeable. This is true, not only of horror stories, but of all stories. Who enjoys spending time in the company of someone they don't like?

4) I like horror stories to be cosy. "Cosy", like "familiar", is a relative term. It comes down to this: I have no interesting in reading a horror story (or any story, but especially a horror story) which is unrelieved bleakness from beginning to end.

I say "especially a horror story", because one of the reasons I enjoy horror stories is for this very reason. Horror and cosiness seem to go together, strangely enough. Many of the settings of horror are both spooky and cosy at once; lonely moors, old cottages, stormy nights, well-fitted bedrooms with four-poster beds, old churches, campfires, night trains, and so forth.

5) This point is similar to the previous one. I like horror which is seductive in some way. Horror where the horrific element is entirely repulsive is rarely appealing to me. Many people see the debonair, glamorous Dracula of movie tradition as a vulgarization of Stoker's Count Dracula, who was considerably less romantic. However, I like debonair vampires.

The point applies not only to the villains, but to the situation itself. The situation should be appealing in some way; if not to the person trapped in it, then to the audience. Take, for instance, the setting of the movie The Wicker Man: a Scottish island whose entire population has taken up paganism . Modern life is so alienated, rootless, and homogeneous that the thought of such a place is rather pleasing.

6) I like a horror story to mean something. This is a tricky one, however. I sympathise with the views of J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously wrote: "I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations." A story (at least, a story whose principle purpose is the enjoyment of the reader) should exist for its own sake. One cannot help resenting a story which is simply a dressed-up message of some kind, in the same ways one resents a "sponsored feature" in a magazine.

Horror is probably the genre which is most fertile in deeper meanings, perhaps because it probes our anxieties. Is Invasion of the Body-Snatchers about McCarthyism, or communism, or the fear of conformism in consumer society? Well, none of these hidden meaning seem to have been intended, but once can't help sensing their presence. Good horror tends to do this. Sometimes I encounter horror stories which seem to have no possible application to anything outside the story, and I don't enjoy them much. 

Winston Churchill is supposed to have once commanded: "Take away that pudding-- it has no theme". That's how I feel about horror stories. The movie An American Werewolf in London is an example of this. It's a well-made movie, but it seems flat to me, because it doesn't suggest anything beyond itself.

7) I don't like stories which involve damnation, or even the danger of damnation. The reader might point out that, according to my own beliefs, life is a story featuring the danger of damnation. So it is. But I'm talking about horror stories in which the character barters his soul to the Devil, and so forth. The idea of eternal punishment is so awful that it takes all the relish out of the story, for me. And I felt like this before I became a believing Catholic.

The same is true of unspeakable and unending torment even outside a Christian cosmology. Sometimes horror can just be too stark.

8) On the more positive side, I like horror stories which involve the protagonist caught in some mysterious situation, one where reality itself seems to have turned against them. I dislike the influence of mythology-makers such as Anne Rice, because they make the world of the horror story too defined, too prosaic, too humdrum. I prefer horrors where there is no map, no compass, no guidelines, and the ground under the protagonist's feet seems to be giving way.

Here is an example which is all too real: the history of AIDS. AIDS is terrifying enough now. But think how terrifying it must have been at the very beginning, when doctors knew next to nothing about the disease.

However, in the case of the horror story, this mysteriousness isn't just terrifying. It's also strangely exhilarating-- at least for the reader!

Well, that's my list. I know it seems so specific that not very many horror stories could hope to satisfy me. However, I'm far from rigid. I can't imagine enjoying a story that failed to meet any of these criteria, or even most of them. But I don't expect any story to tick all these boxes.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Spoken Word

Back in February, a script I submitted was broadcast on an Irish radio show. I'm not going to name it, as I'm going to be mildly critical of it here, and I don't want its staff coming across this blog post. I'm not going to give my piece's title or link to the recording, for the same reason.

I reproduce the script below, in the form I submitted it. (It's very short). But before you read it, I want to say that this is a very heartfelt piece. The ideas and emotions it expresses are very strongly held. In fact, this is why I've been thinking about the subject today-- the atmosphere of the sort of shop I'm describing here keeps coming into my mind. Well, goes:

The term “Hallmark holiday” is a term of disparagement. So is the term “chocolate box”, when it’s used as an adjective—“chocolate box emotions”, for instance. And yet, for all that, I never walk into a greeting card shop without falling into a mood of deep serenity, or even of tenderness. I think they are much underpraised, and deserve to be defended.

The aroma that fills the air of greeting card shops is the most immediately distinctive thing about them—an aroma of scented candles. Scented candles are funny things. They don’t actually give off much scent when they are lit—when you are trying to smell their scent, it’s hardly there. But when they catch you by surprise—like when you walk into a greeting card shop, or when you remember some moment you spent in a greeting card shop—the scent seems overwhelming, flooding your memory and soul. This could be a metaphor for so many things, from national character to romantic love. 

I like greeting card shops because I like looking at the shelves and reflecting that every single purchase in them is going to make somebody feel happy, or loved, or at the very least remembered. Even people who pretend to be indifferent to birthday cards, to Valentine’s cards, to Christmas cards, or to Thank You cards, are—I firmly believe—lying, even if they are lying to themselves.

Gestures are the currency of love, the currency of respect, the currency of belonging. I remember, in my teens, crying over a passage in Oscar Wilde’s essay De Profundis, when Wilde wrote about the occasion—after his conviction—when he was surrounded by a hostile crowd, in the midst of which one loyal friend raised his hat to him. Years later, when I read King Lear, I felt a ferocious sympathy with Lear himself, when he divides his kingdom amongst his three daughters, and asks each of them to tell him how much she loves him. His youngest daughter Cordelia, not wanting to flaunt her love for the sake of reward, refuses to match her sisters’ extravagant claims—and the entire tragic series of events that make up the plot of this darkest of plays is set in motion. Cordelia is the play’s heroine, but I think that generations of readers have wondered why she had to be so cruel, why she couldn’t just give the old man the words he craved.

Of course, there are more than greeting cards in greeting card shops. There are teddy bears, chocolate boxes, mugs, helium balloons, and all manner of merchandise which a cynic could call overpriced trash. Many of the trinkets bear mottoes or quotations of the inspiring kind: “A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”, “Believe in the magic of your dreams”, “Love me when I really need it, because that’s when I most deserve it”.

Now, I love classic poetry. I love Lord Alfred Tennyson and Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats. I realise that subtlety and restraint and ambiguity are the stock-in-trade of the poet, that the poet strives to communicate timeless ideas in a fresh and original way. I realise that there is a difference between “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love” and “believe in the magic of your dreams.”


But I can’t help it—in fact, I don’t really want to help it. The slogans that I encounter in greeting card shops often reduce me to tears. Whenever I’ve admitted this to anyone, they think I’m being provocative or ironic or contrarian, when I’m telling the God’s honest truth. And I think there’s an important point at stake.

Here is the important point. It’s understandable, and it’s desirable, that poets and writers and others should wish to express themselves in an original way, and that they should seek original ideas to express. But I think that we are in a perpetual danger of straying too far from the primary emotions, the simple truths, the obvious sentiments—what I might call the daily bread of humanity. This isn’t just a danger for poets and writers, but for all of us.

Greeting card shops seem to me like a huge fireplace where we can warm ourselves on that obviousness, that simplicity, those elemental emotions. Yes, they deserve far more praise than they get.

Well, there is the script.

My father encouraged me to submit scripts to this show. I was rather reluctant. He said: "Do it for six weeks and, if nothing happens, you can say you tried." So I did pretty much exactly that. Most of my scripts weren't very good. It was many months later that I got a call from the show. They asked me to come in (the next day!) and record it.

I was very excited. I'd never been inside a working radio studio and it was an experience I felt I'd missed out on. I'd been in a few television studios in recent times, but no radio studio. Also, I was pleased at the idea of having my work broadcast on a national broadcaster-- it was a confidence booster. 

The studio was only a short walk from my workplace, so I took a few hours off and headed down.

I sat behind a glass window, with the producer and the sound engineer sitting opposite to me, and the producer speaking to me through headphones. (Actually, at one point she advised me to take the headphones off, since I would still be able to hear her voice coming through them, and wearing headphones impedes how we speak.) And so we fell to recording the script.

We did take after take. Sometimes the producer asked me to repeat particular paragraphs or sentences, over and over again. And her directions were always the same; speak faster, use more emphasis, highlight the humorous passages with a more comical tone.

I admit I was a bit disappointed. It might be a bit vain to write this, but people have often complimented me on my voice. Once, at Mass, a woman turned around in the pew in front of me and said: "You have a lovely voice." I always thought I had a good radio voice, and a good radio delivery. The producer obviously thought I was some distance from her ideal! Also, I'd gone into the studio with one idea foremost in my mind: to speak slowly. I was convinced the temptation would be to race through it. But even when I deliberately spoke faster, it wasn't fast enough!

However, I assumed the professionals knew what they were talking about, and that I would hear the proof of this in the end product.

Well, as you can guess, that's not how it happened at all. When I listened to the broadcast, I winced all the way through. I hated how I sounded on the radio! And it wasn't just a case of cringing at the sound of my own voice, as we all do. I specifically hated the way I delivered the piece-- how much emphasis I put into it, how exaggerated it seemed to me. I've never listened to it again, though it's available on the internet, and I doubt I ever will.

I have my own views on the proper reading of literary texts. I started reading poetry in a serious way when I was about fourteen. I would read anthologies of poetry slowly, reading each poem to myself over and over and over again, and often covering the name of the author so I wouldn't be influenced by reputation. 

As I did this, I "heard" the voice of the poet in a very particular way, though I only realized this years later. The voice I heard was a male voice (although, come to think of it, I might have heard a female voice when it was a female poet). Male or female, it always spoke in the same tone-- steady, formal, neither slow nor fast, and almost without emphasis. And it always spoke in standard English, not with any particular accent. (I utterly detest dialect poetry.)

The voice in my head, reading poetry, always paused for line breaks, even for run-on lines. That's still how I read poetry.

I can't bear listening to a poet or actor reciting a poem and making heavy weather of it. It makes me cringe. Actors are particularly culpable in this regard. They want to put their stamp on a poem, to make it a performance.

Is this just a personal preference of mine? Perhaps it is, but it's not a random one. It reflects my underlying view of poetry, which was well expressed by John Stuart Mill:

Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or uttering forth of feeling. But if we may be excused the seeming affectation of the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener...

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy. It may be said that poetry, which is printed on hot-pressed paper, and sold at a bookseller's shop, is a soliloquy in full dress, and upon the stage. But there is nothing absurd in the idea of such a mode of soliloquizing. What we have said to ourselves, we may tell to others afterwards; what we have said or done in solitude, we may voluntarily reproduce when we know that other eyes are upon us. But no trace of consciousness that any eyes are upon us must be visible in the work itself. The actor knows that there is an audience present; but if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill. A poet may write poetry with the intention of publishing it; he may write it even for the express purpose of being paid for it; that it should be poetry, being written under any such influences, is far less probable; not, however, impossible; but no otherwise possible than if he can succeed in excluding from his work every vestige of such lookings-forth into the outward and every-day world, and can express his feelings exactly as he has felt them in solitude, or as he feels that he should feel them, though they were to remain for ever unuttered.

I believe this. I believe it holds true even in the case of dialogue poems, and poems which by their very nature would seem to require a more declamatory style. 

I also dislike the use of heavy regional accents in poetry recitation. I realize this might put me under suspicion of being a snob, but I don't care.

Don't get me wrong. I love accents. I rejoice in the diversity of accents in the world. I don't think anyone should suppress their accent.

But, in recent times, we seem to have seen (or rather, heard) a cult of regional accents which is altogether excessive. It seems as though people are actually exaggerating their accents as some sort of socio-political statement.

I'm against this because it's ugly. No matter what your accent, you can modulate it. There is a proper way of pronouncing words. Shapeliness is generally considered beautiful, while distortion is considered ugly, and I think it's true of speech. There is such a thing as being "well-spoken" and I think poetry should be recited in a well-spoken voice.

Given all that, I was rather disappointed with my solitary airing on radio. And doubly disappointed, since the subject is one close to my heart. My script was prose, not poetry, but I think the same principles apply, especially as it was a very introspective sort of prose.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

On Public Sculpture

Over the last few years, I've been become fascinated by public sculpture. The fascination is hard to put into words, but I'm going to try.

What do I mean by public sculpture? Well, simply sculpture in public places-- excluding museums and art galleries. I mean all kinds of sculpture-- a cigar store Indian or a plastic Ronald MacDonald as much as a centuries-old bronze monument.

On the simplest level, I can express my fascination with public sculpture in three words: it's just there.

It's just there, on the street, or in the shopping centre, or wherever else it might be. Life is going on all around it. Someone might be looking at it, or nobody might be looking at it. Anybody can walk up to it at any time. In most cases, you can touch it and interact with it. It's part of the environment, of daily life. You're not even looking for it and suddenly-- there it is.

Why should that be so fascinating? Well, I can't exactly say. But it is to me.

Another reason I love public sculpture is because it's so anti-utilitarian. It sounds a bit negative, but I sometimes think "anti-utilitarianism" might be the core of my social philosophy. "Curtains make a house a home" is the sentence which sums this up for me. (I came across it in a ghost story as a child.) A statue fulfils no purpose except to commemorate, to beautify, to divert. As well as this, it's usually making some kind of statement, a statement of belief or ideals.

I'm rather fortunate in where I work, in terms of public sculpture. The Belfield campus has a surprising amount of them, many of them built in recent years. I'm on the committee that (among other things) plans the annual Library Staff Day, which mostly involves talks on library and general interest. A couple of years ago, I suggested a talk about the various pieces of sculpture on campus. It went down well, but I didn't hear it myself-- I can't remember why. Perhaps I was chairing another session (there are different "tracks" in the afternoon).

The above might be my favourite, and was very recently erected-- the Sutherland School of Law itself was built in 2013, so it's at least that young. It's called The Judgement. I like the drama of the scene it represents.

It brings to mind something else I like about public sculpture-- when they are representational, they suggest a whole backdrop, a context. These two figures obviously belong to another place and time, one which they carry with them as an invisible atmosphere-- and yet here they are, in the cold of twenty-first century Dublin.

I find a lot of sculpture creepy-- pleasantly creepy. Statues of human figures, or indeed of animals, always seem to me as though they are going to step off their pedestals. There is something abidingly strange in the sight of a figure apparently frozen in motion, stone or copper in the place of flesh and blood.

I'm not prejudiced against non-representational sculpture, though. This is a piece of sculpture I pass every work day. It stands outside the main restaurant in UCD, and it bears the name Iphigenia. I've read the text on the pedestal many times, but I still can't remember who Iphigenia was-- some chick in Greek myth, I think. I like it. I like how mysterious it is, how cryptic.

As one might expect, I have a particular interest in public sculpture on religious themes. A church is a public place for the purpose of my definition, but I'm more interested in religious statues outside church grounds.

Recently, I found this gorgeous shrine to the Sacred Heart in the Coombe, Dublin.

Ireland is dotted with shrines like this, many of them erected in the Marian year of 1954. I love these because they were erected, not by government or wealthy philanthropists, but by ordinary people-- and because they are so often located in very humdrum surroundings.

Being such a fan of statues, I'm very much opposed to knocking them down. I got some harsh criticism for supporting the protest in Charlottesville last year (at least, I supported the cause of the protest-- which was the removal of a statue of General Robert Lee). But I'm just as much opposed to knocking down statues of communists and other unsavoury types. I regret the toppling of statues to Lenin and other communist dictators that occurred when the Soviet Union fell (although I do understand the motivation).

I like the solution found in one case, though-- to transform ole Vlad to Darth Vader (not a huge stretch). This happened in Odessa, Ukraine:

Actually, I'm keen on statues of pop cultural characters. The fact that they are fictional makes their solidity and their presence in the real world more evocative. Here is a forty-foot statute of Optimus Prime, from the Transformers franchise, outside a car factory in Yunan, China.

Which in turn puts me in mind of this funny statue from Berlin:

Here's something I learned recently: most of the tallest statues in the world are statues of Buddha. And most of them were built recently. It's become a craze in the Asian world, to build massive Buddha statues, in order to attract tourists. Here is the tallest statue in the world: the Spring Temple Buddha in Henan, China, which was finished in 2008, and stands 420 foot.

But let's get back to Dublin. I remember myself and my brother being very intrigued by this statue of Socrates in the Botanic Gardens, before we even knew who he was. One is somewhat surprised to find him showing up here, the connection between Socrates and botany being an elusive one, at best. And yet, why not? As the kids say, "That's so random!".

Who's this fellow? That's me, that is! At least, it's one of the two High Kings of Ireland that have borne my name. It stands in Trim, County Meath. I've never been there, but I intend to go.

Perhaps the most impressive public sculpture in recent decades, at least in this part of the world, has been the Angel of the North in Gateshead. It's very striking even in photographs-- it must be an even more impressive sight in reality.

Finally, though I generally avoid anything gross and especially anything scatalogical (being of a fastidious nature), I can't help mentoning the "caganer" statues of Catalonia. These are statues of figures from nativity scenes which are...well, click on the picture, if you can't make it out at this size They are quite a venerable tradition in Catalonia at this stage. (And of course, once something earns the glorious term "tradition", I'm almost certainly going to be in favour of it.) Don't say you never learned on this blog.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Rider's Quest: A Unicorn Poem

"Oh rider tell me why you ride
So endlessly, so urgently?
They ask throughout the countryside
Or if you hunt, or if you flee.
Now linger here a little while
And whisper it into my ear
The thing that drives you many a mile--
Or is it far, or is it near?"

"My gentle host, I cannot say--
I have not seen it with my eyes
Or by the common light of day
Or under any earthly guise.
I seek it, yet it seeks me too.
I seek it, yet I somehow flee.
Good host, I cannot give to you
The answer to this mystery."

"Poor rider, linger yet a while;
And warm yourself beside the fire.
We cannot live without a smile,
Enraptured by some one desire.
You miss the music of the day
You miss the poetry of night.
You must not yearn your life away--
Poor rider, what a sorry sight!"

"Dear host, the things you say are true;
The world is broad, the world is wide,
And full of wonders, old and new.
And yet-- it pales unless I ride.
The merry festivals I see
Seem merrier, the more I speed--
And the untasted revelry,
While still I ride, is sweet indeed."

"Rider, your words are strange, but fair.
The hall seems brighter while you stay.
You seem to carry some quaint air
From long ago, or far away.
Stay yet a while. And tell me true--
Is your lone quest to silence sworn?
I think I know what you pursue--
I think you chase the unicorn."

"The unicorn? Perhaps I do.
I cannot say, my gentle host.
Sometimes I fear, to tell you true,
I chase the phantom of a ghost.
I am not sworn to silence stern,
Nor do I riddle you for sport.
The thing for which I hunt and yearn
Is something of the strangest sort."

"Still stranger than the unicorn?
Oh rider, do you mock at me?
Is this a costume to be worn,
An outward show of mystery?
Perhaps you merely seek a name?
And yet-- I cannot think it so.
Oh pardon me!-- I see with shame
Your heart is purer than the snow."

"Good host, my pardon will I grant
Most readily. Your words are fair.
But mockery and teasing chant
Follow behind me everywhere.
"The man is mad", the children sing,
"He plays some trick", their mothers say.
I hardly hear their chattering.
I smile on them and go my way."

"Good rider, tell me why you stare
So keenly at that candle's flame?
I've marked you often looking there--
All candle-light is much the same.
A candle is a common thing,
A thing unnoticed by the world.
What magic has its flickering
For one on such a mission hurled?"

"Of all the things the world contains
This flame is closest to my prize.
This flicker that the world disdains
Is a kind beacon to my eyes.
Of every worldly thing the most
Unworldly is its gentle gleam.
Here is my secret, worthy host:
I seek the light seen in a dream."

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Attending the Irexit Freedom Conference

Today, I attended the inaugural conference of the Irexit Freedom Party, a new Irish party in favour of Ireland leaving the European Union. It was followed by the party's first Annual General Meeting, but I left before this, since I didn't want to join the party itself (though I'm not ruling this out in the future).

The conference was held in the Bonnington Hotel in Swords, Dublin. It had a good turn-out; several hundred people, at any rate. There were very many young people at it, and quite a lot of women.

As an Irish nationalist, I am opposed to the European Union on principle. Even if the European Union was everything its most fervent supporters claim it is, I would still be opposed to it. I don't see how E.U. membership can be anything except a diminution of Irish nationhood, and further "integration" can only mean further loss of nationhood. I want us to get out as soon as possible, and I would very much like to see the whole project collapse. I support a world of nations rather than a world of supranational institutions. I also believe that globalist institutions such as the E.U. have a strongly secular and liberal agenda, especially when it comes to life issues and the family--- and that this will only become more pronounced over time.

The event was chaired by Kate Bopp, a tall lady who I recognize from her work defending the traditional family. It began with some music by a young guitarist who seemed to be combining rap and traditional music. Not my cup of tea, but painless enough.

The view from my seat

(In my report on the conference speeches, I can't avoid repeated use of the phrase "he said". I'm sorry if this becomes monotonous. Trying to vary it would be too contrived and artificial.)

The first speaker was Professor Ray Kinsella, an economist who has been almost a lone voice amongst his profession in calling for Irish secession from the E.U.

Ray Kinsella
I was expecting his contribution to be focused on economics, but it wasn't. He complained that the E.U has drifted from its original Christian Democrat vision-- that it has become a "hegemonistic, militaristic behemoth" controlled by a Franco-German axis. He said the risks of continued E.U. membership are enormous. (We are more used to hearing about the risks of leaving.)

He quoted a Harvard Commencement Address by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in which the Russian writer complained that "we turned our backs upon the Spirit and embraced all that is material with excessive and unwarranted zeal." 

He referred to the failed effort to introduce a European Union Constitution, which was rejected by European voters in several countries. He called it a secular Constitution designed to crowd out everything that Europe had been about. He claimed it had been introduced by the "back door" of the Lisbon Treaty (a Treaty rejected by the Irish electorate in one referendum, but ratified in a second referendum, after considerable media and government pressure).

He complained about the "macroeconomics of austerity", and of European elites dismissing populist resistance to this as "right-wing reaction."

Professor Kinsella said there was a flawed monetary system at the heart of the European Union, which puts an unfair burden on debit countries. He said the transfer of power to the "troika" (the European Commission, European Central Bank, and IMF) in Ireland after its bailout in 2010. 

He turned from economics again when he said that the question we should ask of any country is what makes it special, and how that specialness can be affirmed. He said there was greatness in the initial European vision, particularly the Christian values of founders such as Konrad Adenauer, but that this had been lost. He asked how many present had read the Paris Statement, issued by the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton and others. Nobody raised their hand. (I hadn't even heard of it.) He advised us all to read it, saying that it opposed the "true Europe" to a "false Europe" now being proposed by the E.U.

He reminded us that the E.U. had cut the ground from under Ireland in its hour of need (referring to the 2008 recession). He said that it was the IMF, not the European Union, which had advocated against the harshest measures at this time.

What was most interesting to me in Professor Kinsella's speech was the moment when, bemoaning the general direction of government policy in Ireland, he said: "I mourn for a country that facilitates the killing of innocents." This got a huge round of applause, the most sustained round of applause of the conference. There was no doubt but that it was a solidly pro-life audience.

He finished by saying that dependency is never healthy, whether in a marriage or in a political union. Rather mysteriously, he urged us to be humble, and reminded us that, before we renewed our country, we had to renew ourselves.

The second speaker was Ray Bassett, a former ambassador to Canada, who began with a few words in the Irish language. His speech was less focused on abstractions, and more on the E.U. gravy train upon which many of its most ardent supporters are riding, or hoping to ride in the future. As someone who had worked for the government in the past, he said he very much valued the ability to speak his mind now, and said that virtually all academics who produced pro-E.U. papers were being funded by the European Union. (He added that, when people said something was "paid for by the E.U.", they did not realize that this ultimately meant it was paid for by the Irish tax-payer).

Ray Bassett
Mr. Bassett claimed there was a huge European Union industry in Ireland. He said that he once suggested, as a civil servant, that any Irish politician should be debarred from a job with the European Union for five years after they retire, and that this proposal was greeted with horror. If people are such believers in the European Union, he asked, (paraphrasing the British politician Aneurin Bevan). why did their mouths have to be stuffed with E.U. gold?

He said that his knowledge of the Irish government was that it was extremely sensitive to criticism of the E.U. in Ireland, not at all as confident in Irish support for membership as conventional wisdom would suggest. He said he had been told by Irish government Brexit negotiators that Britain was not very important to Ireland, and that Ireland would be on "team E.U." no matter what Britain did. The Irish government, he said, believe we have to be enthusiastically pro-E.U. to free ourselves from any suspicion of sympathy with Britain.

He asked why the Irish government had not used the mechanisms provided in the Good Friday Agreement to negotiate directly with the British government after Brexit, insisting on negotiating through the E.U. instead.

He mentioned an episode after Ireland's most recent recession, in which the Canadian government had been poised to allow special emigration to Canada for Irish people who couldn't find jobs in Ireland. This, apparently, had been squashed by the E.U., who did not want any privileges for Irish people that were available throughout the E.U.

He said that, over many years in Irish public service, he had seen the attitude of the E.U. change from friendly cooperation to imperial arrogance, and that they now viewed the Irish government as similar to a county council.

"I get criticized for a lack of patriotism when I try to stick up for national sovereignty", he said, "while those trying to sell it off wrap the green flag around themselves." This got a huge round of applause.

He said that the Irish government was now allying with the British House of Lords to thwart British democracy, a hundred years after the same House had tried to thwart Irish democracy.

Mr. Bassett said it was almost impossible to get accurate information about the E.U. from the Irish government, that it took a Freedom of Information request to learn that Ireland was a net contributor of a billion euro to the E.U. this year. He said he had to go to the British government to learn that Irish fishers only fish about twenty-five to thirty per cent of fish in Irish territorial waters.

He spoke about the importance of our connection with Britain. He said that one person in thirty-five in Britain is Irish, that ninety per cent of our goods for export travel through Britain, and that Britain is where many of our own people go when they cannot find jobs in Ireland, that we must not therefore lose the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK. Why, he asked, would we antagonised it? He said he did not want to see a border at the Irish sea and that a "backstop" is unworkable. (I admit I find this whole discussion difficult to follow.)

He said that people everywhere were falling out of love with the E.U., that President Obama said his biggest mistake was listening to the E.U. about Libya, that the "orange and green" dimensions of Brexit have clouded many people's judgement, but that the scales will eventually fall from their eyes.

The third speaker was Paddy Manning, a veteran Irish political campaigner who (Kate Bopp told us) has campaigned in every Irish general election since 1982. Paddy is a gay man who opposes gay marriage, abortion, and liberalism in general. He bounded onto the stage and gave a very exuberant speech, first of all mock-denouncing everybody in attendance for being "Trumpists, geriatrics, and Little Irelanders". He said that all parties in Ireland were agreed on a "grab bag" of liberal ideas, and that Irish journalists are "of one opinion."

Paddy Manning

He shared some research from the Edmund Burke Institute regarding the Savita Halappanavar case-- the case of an Indian woman who died in hospital in Ireland in 2012. This was presented as a case of a woman dying because she could not get an abortion, when in fact she died of medical malpractice and undiagnosed sepsis. The Edmund Burke Institute found that, of 15,600 mentions of Savita on RTE's website, 14,600 mentioned abortion while only .4 per cent mentioned the actual cause of her death. They found that The Irish Times, Ireland's most prestigious newspaper, had 853 articles about Savita, only sixteen of which mentioned sepsis.

He said that David Quinn, the most visible conservative commentator in Ireland, was treated by the meda like "Pol Pot ordained by the Westboro Baptist Church."

Paddy claimed that every journalism school in Ireland is a madrasa for liberals. Echoing Ray Bassett's argument about Irish politicians, he said that every Irish journalist hopes to become a government spin doctor and that there should therefore be a five-year moratorium on journalists working for the government after leaving journalism.

He said that Ireland's Minister of Finance was effectively bringing a massive wheelbarrow of money to the Central Bank to be burnt every year, while the E.U. printed money to raise inflation. (I didn't really understand this reference.)

Paddy advised that, if the new party were to succeed, it must create its own media, independent of both the "legacy media" and the social media platforms which are run by Silicon Valley and from which dissidents can be easily "disappeared". He mentioned the recent proposal by which the Irish government were proposing to subsidise the failing Irish media, a proposal he considered "fascist." (Somebody shouted "Traitors!" at this point.) He recalled the immediate aftermath of the abortion referendum, in which many voices in the media were calling for the silencing of dissidents such as the Iona Institute, saying it was an extraordinary situation in which the media were celebrating a government victory and urging the silencing of opposition-- that such a system had in many ways ceased to be democracy.

I was pleased that he quoted one of G.K. Chesterton's most famous aphorisms: "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

The final speaker was a young Irish man called Ben Scallan, an internet entrepreneur. I think Kate Bopp said he was only twenty-one years of age. He closed the conference with a rabble-rousing speech, in which he complained that the E.U. takes away both our national and personal freedom. He referred to the recent "article thirteen" controversy, a new E.U. copyright law that threatened fair use of copyrighted material, which he said sought to "take away our memes" or even "the memes of production".

Ben Scallan
He wondered why the E.U. was so threatened by populism, which the dictionary defines as "support for the concerns of ordinary people." He mentioned an incident in which Jean Claude Junker unveiled a statue of Karl Marx, implying that this revealed the Marxist DNA of the E.U. (I wondered if he made too much of this. I am pretty much in favour of statues of everybody.)

Ben received an enormous cheer when he said that the thing Irish people are best at is irritating foreign empires who wish to control us, and that we shouldn't be afraid of the E.U.-- that "we're not dealing with the Black and Tans", and "these people are incompetent." (I'm not so sure of that.)

He argued that freedom was the essence of the Irish character, and asked if we were going to be the generation to let the dream of Irish freedom die. He ended with the rallying call: "Erin go Bragh!", which was very enthusiastically received.

As I say, I didn't stay for the AGM. 

It was exciting to see so many people in favour of Irexit, but after the crippling defeat of the abortion referendum, and bearing in mind the many massive pro-life rallies I've attended, I am under no illusions regarding the hegemony of Official Ireland and the difficulty of challenging it.