Sunday, June 17, 2018

On the World Cup, and Sundry Related Matters

It's soccer World Cup time again! Reader, do you love this? Or do you hate it? Or does it leave you indifferent?

I love it, and I'll try to explain why in this blog post. There are several reasons, and I'll leave the one that interests me the most until last.

First of all, soccer is my favourite game to watch. I like how it flows. I much prefer it to spasmodic, stop-start games such as rugby, where stoppages seem more common than actual play.

I also like the rarity of goals. Nick Hornby wrote about this in his memoir Fever Pitch. (He's a hideously politically correct writer, but it's a good book.) A soccer match can easily be a nil-nil draw. Goals are not to be presumed. They are a big deal when they come along.

(Although not as big a deal as they are in the Eton Wall Game, where they are usually scored once a decade or so.)

Reader, this might shock you, but I was a massive soccer fan throughout my teens, and I had a slowly diminishing interest in it through my early twenties. I was such a huge soccer fan that my family (and others) sometimes complained that I was a soccer obsessive. My little brother was an even bigger fan.

We both became soccer fans during the 1990 World Cup in Italy, which was the first World Cup that Ireland qualified for. This was a watershed moment in Irish social history, and it was also a watershed moment in my own awareness of the world. My memory before the 1990 World Cup is patchy. After the 1990 World Cup, it's much more continuous.

The World Cup was a massive event in Ireland. The entire country seemed to be talking about it. I'd never experienced national unity of this kind, and it shaped many of my views about national consciousness and social solidarity.

But I get ahead of myself...

Some people, especially conservatives, are very grumpy about sports. Peter Hitchens (who I greatly admire in most things) often complains about the "cult" of soccer, dismissing it as "twenty-two men chasing a bladder around a field". The Australian novelist Patrick White was withering about the Australian love of sports. One of my lecturers, in college, once derided sport as "form without substance."

I can remember thinking even at that moment: "Well, you could say the same about so many things." You could say the same about classical music, non-representational art, fireworks, dancing, and any number of other prestigious activities.

Utilitarianism is one of the things I detest most of all, and contempt for sports is a manifestation of utilitarianism. I also think it's a form of philistinism.

I don't even like defences of sport which defend it on the ground of its incidental virtues. People defend sport because playing it keeps you fit, teaches you team-work and discipline, and so on. Sport as a spectacle is sometimes cherished as a tradition or a part of one's identity.

I'm all in favour of all those things, but I think it's important to insist that sport doesn't need any of those justifications. The clue is in the name itself: SPORT. It's done for the sport of it!

Once again, I have occasion to quote one of my favorite lines from G.K. Chesterton: "The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn." The whole created universe is an act of divine grace, utterly gratuitous and for its own sake. Why should sport not exist for its own sake?

I'm not saying all those other dimensions aren't important. I wish I enjoyed Ireland's major national games, hurling and gaelic football, since they are such important cultural traditions. But I don't-- partly because of the gameplay itself, and partly because of associations from my childhood that I can't shake off. I'm glad they exist, I'm glad they thrive, but I don't enjoy watching them.

On the other hand, I don't like that soccer is such an orgy of commercialism, and that it's the game of globalization. I'm sad to see it making strides in the USA (since this diminishes American exceptionalism). But there is a danger of seeing the cost of everything and the value of nothing-- which is Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic.

All of this makes it sound like I'll be glued to the television during the World Cup. But that's not the case. I've already watched a few minutes of it, and I might watch a game or two. On the other hand, I might not.

And here we come to the main theme of this blog post, the one that interests me the most.

I love the World Cup because, even if you don't watch a single game, it's still there. It's in the background, in the atmosphere. I love everything of that nature.

I love Christmas for this reason. I love Halloween for this reason. The same goes for general elections, parades, demonstrations, snowstorms, the seasons of the year, crazes of every kind, TV broadcasts that grip the nation, the liturgical year of the Church, big cinema releases, and so forth.

I love everything that's just there, in the background, and which gives flavour and character to a particular moment in time.

A good example of this is the refrain from "A Fairy-Tale of New York", the Pogues song:

The boys from the NYPD Choir were singing Galway Bay
And the bells were singing out for Christmas Day.

The simple addition of a background event makes the vignette so much more vivid. (Famously, the New York Police Department has no choir.)

Writers of all kinds love to add such backgrounds into their works, even when they have nothing to do with the main theme. For instance, Die Hard would be a much lesser film if it wasn't set at Christmas. 

(Mention of Christmas, however, leads me to my usual gripe about has too much of a monopoly when it comes to traditions, and also when it comes to this kind of backdrop in art and fiction. It's depressing that the two examples above are both Christmas examples.)

One of the things I love about these "backgrounds" is the scenery they provide to the "puppet show of memory" (to steal a wonderful phrase from Maurice Baring, a friend of G.K. Chesterton, who gave his autobiography this title.) When you remember a particular moment from your life, the presence of some background atmosphere such as the World Cup, or a hit single that was hugely popular at the time, or a snowfall, makes it so much more vivid-- and also richer. (Of course, this need not be a purely private pleasure. Such seasoning also flavours "Do you remember...?" conversations.)

Indeed, the same is true of things that happened before your birth-- the atmosphere of a particular historical moment gives added flavour to a photograph, story, film or other artifact from that time.

The World Cup has its own traditions. In previous blog posts, I've mentioned the book Don't Shoot, I'm Not Well! by Ted Bonner, a collection of very old-fashioned humorous essays from 1974. One article was full of advice for "World Cup widows", women whose husbands would be wedded to the television for the month of the World Cup. This was a fairly common World Cup trope until recently-- of course, political correctness is likely to discourage it. (An internet search quickly encounters an article denouncing its "sexism"-- by somebody I knew in college, I'm ashamed to say.)

I'm conscious that the theme of this post is rather similar to some of my recent posts. I suppose this sort of subject has been on my mind a lot recently. But the advent of the World Cup makes it topical.

I hope England win it. And failing England, Germany.

Friday, June 15, 2018

In Season and out of Season

The title of this blog post is, of course, taken from the Second Letter to Timothy: "Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season".

The word season is a magical word to me. I have mentioned this before in previous posts. I love the "Unto everything there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes, and I fully understand why it's so popular.

The very existence of seasons has always seemed like a gift to me. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" much less we would value those mists and that mellow fruitfulness if they were there all year round!

I can easily imagine a world with no seasons. It's a horrible thought.

The word "season" itself delights me. Ireland's current President, a Marxian intellectual named Michael D. Higgins, is also a poet. One of his poetry collections is called The Season of Fire. The poetry is dreadful, but I adore the title.

In fact, the very names of the seasons are poetry to me. The first time I heard the phrase "Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer", I thought it was the most evocative phrase in the whole world. Similarly, the title of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale bewitches me.

So I love seasonality. I love the cycles of nature and the cycle of life. I love the liturgical year. 

And yet, some months ago, I became aware of an apparent contradiction in my own thought, and in the thought of conservatives (and fogies) in general, which gave me some cause to ponder. I tried to write about it on Facebook and on the Irish Conservatives Forum, but I don't think I was very successful. I'll try again, in the comparative leisureliness of this blog.

At the time this contradiction occurred to me, I was reading academic articles about Idylls of the King, Lord Alfred Tennyson's epic narrative poem. One of the perks of my job is that I have access to various online databases and the electronic holdings of various academic journals, many of which have had their whole archives digitised. So I printed off about a dozen articles and took them home to read.

The articles were drawn from various different decades, and I was struck by their frequent references to academic currents. For instance, many authors compared Victorian idealism to mid-twentieth century cynicism. Loftiness and otherwordliness were celebrated when Tennyon was writing The Idylls, while disillusionment and anti-romanticism were more prized between and after the World Wars. And many authors referred familiarly to the academic fashions which were dominant at the time they were writing their articles.

Now, I've generally considered myself an implacable foe of intellectual fashions. When I was in college (and even before) I raised my banner against post-modernism, post-structuralism, and all those other fads. I viewed them with utter contempt, and railed against them.

And I still do, for the most part. They seem to me like a sickly and feverish manifestation of intellectual fashion.

But might there be a healthy sort of intellectual fashion, and literary fashion, and artistic fashion?

Why not? After all, there have always been fashions in these things. Schools of architecture and art and poetry are clearly identifiable down through the centuries.

In fact, when you really think about it, it would be strange if there were no such intellectual fashions. The world changes and we change with it. Surely the arts and culture of a society will be shaped by historical events, technological changes, social changes, discoveries, and so forth?

Even without those changing conditions, surely a change of mood and emphasis is inevitable. We can't even repeat the same word or phrase over and over without using different intonations as we go along.

The problem with modern intellectual fashions, it seems to me, is that they are so exaggerated and self-conscious. And just downright silly. I wouldn't dismiss postmodernism out of hand, especially as a diagnosis rather than a programme, but it has been a justification for any amount of nonsense.

I'm not talking about those extremes here. But, outside those extremes, might conservatives be too dismissive of the "spirit of the age", of the zeitgeist, and even of fashion?

Why are we appreciative of character and diversity when it comes to geography, but not when it comes to time? Every conservative is happy to discover a local custom or a regional tradition, and wishes to keep them alive. He is usually even more anxious to preserve national and regional character. So why are conservatives so unappreciative of "character" in the order of time?

Of course, the truths of religion and morality should be a constant. But how much lies outside of those!

I even think that my beloved G.K. Chesterton was sometimes too dismissive of his own zeigeist. He very often complained about frock coats and top hats, which seem like delightful period pieces to us now. (At the same time, I think the vast bulk of his criticisms of his era were spot on, including criticisms of such intangibles as mood and atmosphere.)

I've been a contrarian all my life. I grew up with a marked antipathy to any kind of fashion or trend. I admired people who were self-consciously archaic and sought to carry the atmosphere of a bygone age around with them. But are we missing something if we do this? Should we enter into the spirit of the age, as we would enter into the spirit of Christmas? Or, if we cannot enter into it, should we at least be more tender towards it?

Or perhaps we might grant that the spirit of the age is a good thing, something that makes life more interesting...yet, at the same time, insist that fogeys also make life more interesting. We can appreciate the frock coats and top hats of Chesterton's era today, but it doesn't give us any less appreciation for his own epoch-defying cloak and swordstick.

Whatever the correct attitude might be, I hope you might also find this subject ponder-worthy!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Review of my Book

My book had a review in print today! On the books page of The Irish Catholic. It's reviewed along with another book about saints.

You can read it here.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Blessed Solanus Casey

One of the saints I featured in my book Inspiration from the Saints (which you can buy at the Amazon link to the right!) was Blessed Solanus Casey, a Capuchin friar and priest who lived in America and died in 1957. His beatification came just as I was writing the book. (Obviously, as he has not been canonized, I am using the term "saint" loosely.)

Blessed Solanus is an extraordinarily interesting figure. I only learned about him relatively recently, through an Aid to the Church in Need pamphlet which I borrowed from a Legion of Mary stall a few years ago. But he's become one of my favourite saints already.

I've just finished reading a book about him, Father Solanus Casey by Catherine Odell. It was originally written in 1988, and updated for his beatification last year. It's a good book, although it does suffer from the besetting sin of all saints' biographies: speculation about what the saint "must have" thought and felt on such-and-such an occasion. Stick to the facts, please!

I read the book because I was hungry for more information about Fr. Solanus. I'd read and watched everything I could find on the internet (including through my library's online resources), but I kept coming across the same few details over and over again. I wanted more.

Fr. Solanus was renowned as a miracle worker, and it's impossible to read accounts of his life without believing that he was indeed the conduit for many, many miracles. While I find this fact extremely interesting as an indication of his holiness, I have very little interest in the specifics of the miracles (to the extent that I was tempted to skip over them, when reading the book). Therefore I won't linger on them here. His miracles mostly involved miracles of healing, but also foreseeing the future.

I'm interested in Fr. Solanus for a few reasons. The main one is that he is so close to me in time and space. I'm much more interested in recent saints than in ancient or medieval saints, and I'm much more interested in the saints of the English-speaking world than I am in saints from continental Europe, or Africa, or Asia. I'm a very provincial person!

Don't get me wrong. I rejoice to be a member of the universal Catholic Church, and I rejoice in its rich history. But I'm happy for that to be backdrop, when it comes to my own particular interests.

Blessed Solanus, of course, was Irish-American. Both of his parents were first-generation immigrants from Ireland. He never came to Ireland, but he seems to have had a strong sense of Irish heritage-- he wrote a letter to the newspapers in 1922 in which he claimed that lovers of Ireland should oppose the Irish Free State simply because Britain supported it. (Like many Irish-American nationalists, he may have taken a rather simplistic view of the conflict. I have read in another source that Fr. Solanus lately wondered if he had gone too far in his nationalist rhetoric, but this book doesn't revisit the subject.)

He grew up on a farmer, with sixteen other children, some of whom also became priests and nuns. He worked as a streetcar operator, and he proposed to a girl whose mother discouraged the affair. She seems to have been his only girlfriend.

Although he was always pious, a few close encounters with death made him contemplate his life's purpose, and he entered a seminary for the diocesan priesthood, in Milwaukee. Here, he struggled, as the tuition was entirely through German (German immigration was high in this area, and there were language politics between German Catholics and Irish Catholics). His grades were actually quite good, but despite this he was told that he would not be equal to the academic demands of the seminary, although he was also told that he did indeed have a vocation and that he might be better suited to a religious order.

He visited the Capuchins in Milwaukee, but was rather discouraged by their way of life, and especially by the long untrimmed beards that they wore.

He prayed a novena for guidance with his mother and sister, and he also made a private vow of chastity at this time. (He was twenty-five.) During the novena, he felt God urging him to go to Detroit, where the Capuchins had another branch.

The story of his journey to Detroit is magical, one of my favourite saint stories of all. I am going to take the liberty of transcribing Odell's account in full:

In the midst of a blinding snowstorm, he left Superior on December 20 and headed southwest for St. Paul on the 11:00 p.m. train. From St. Paul, his train then headed east, pulling along slowly through drifting snow to Milwaukee. After a brief stayover there, during which Barney [his birth name] stayed with Capuchins for the first time, he boarded a train again. Down through Chicago and over through Michigan, his train headed for his goal-- Detroit.

On Christmas Eve, the train pulled into the station in Detroit at last. Barney located a streetcar and headed for Mt. Elliott Avenue. There, at 1740 Mt. Eillott, the young man finally arrived, well after dusk. Exhausted, he refused the offer of dinner. He was too tired. Upstairs, on the second floor, he was shown to his room; a simple, stark little space with a wooden door latch. The sight of it immediately renewed his fears of this Capuchin austerity. But, spent with the strain of travel, he pulled off his shoes and heavy coat, still wet with snow, pulled a blanket up over himself, and soon fell into a heavy sleep.

Just before midnight, he awoke to the sound of hand chimes and the voices of men singing. They were singing Christmas carols in German. It was Christmas Eve! As the voices grew louder, Barney could hear other men getting out of bed and coming down the corridor to join their voices with the little group of carolers. Barney joined them, and his heart was lifted. The gloom over his decision to follow Our Lady's orders and "go to Detroit" left him.

Down and around, through the darkened corridors, the carollers moved. Carrying candles, they roused the other Capuchins who then followed down into the chapel for Christmas Midnight Mass. It was a moving, joy-filled occasion and initiated a week or more of fesitivites.

That story has it all! Trains, snow, Christmas carols, a sudden change of is my favourite part of this saint's life story.

Solanus's troubles were not over, however. He also struggled in this seminary, as well, so much so that his superiors hesitated over whether they should ordain him. He was made to sign this humiliating document:

I, Frater [Brother] Solanus Casey, declare that I joined the Order of the Capuchins in the Province of St. Joseph with the sure intention to follow thus my religious vocations. Although I would wish and should be thankful, being admitted to the ordination of a priest, considering the lack of my talents, I leave it to my superiors to judge on my faculties and to dispose of me as I think best.

I will therefore lay no claim whatsoever if they should think me not able or not worthy for the priesthood and I will always humbly submit to their appointments.

Eventually, Solanus was ordained a simplex priest. That meant that he could celebrate Mass, but he couldn't hear confessions or preach. (He was allowed to give short exhortations called "feverinos", but no more.) He was thirty-three at the time of his ordination. He had been twenty-one at the beginning of his studies for the priesthood.

The director of the seminary realized his great holiness, and even predicted that he would be another St. Jean Vianney, a similarly challenged seminarian who eventually became the patron saint of parish priests.

Fr. Solanus was given a potentially humiliating job in his first friary, in Yonkers, New York. He was the sacristan, the person in charge of the altar boys and the preparation of the church for Mass. This job was usually given to friars, not priests. However, Fr. Solanus took it very seriously, as he took all the other jobs he was given through the years. Throughout his career, he was moved to various different postings; New York, Detroit, Indiana. This was a normal part of Capuchin life, but there was an additional motive for it in Fr. Solanus's case, which we'll come to soon.

It was when working as a porter-- the person who answered the friary door-- that Fr. Solanus really came into his own. He quickly gained a reputation as a holy man and a miracle worker. He listened patiently to the problems of visitors to the friary, and urged them to pray to God with confidence. He also took to enrolling them in the Seraphic Mass Association, a Capuchin initiative whereby, for a small fee, a member's prayer intentions would be prayed for by the worldwide Capuchin community. In the case of very poor people, Fr. Solanus would waive the fee. (He was quite careless about money. In later years, he had a secretary who would frequently find banknotes used as bookmarks in his books. On one occasion, the secretary found 153 dollars scattered through Fr. Solanus's room, in this absent-minded way.)

Huge numbers of people began to seek out Fr. Solanus's help. His superiors moved him several times to avoid a "cult of personality", but it made no difference; people travelled huge distances to see him, and he became something of a celebrity in the cities where he lived and worked.

Fr. Solanus was known for his dedication to a devotional work called The Mystical City of God by Venerable Mother Mary Agreda. This huge work, which was written in the seventeenth century and purports to have been in part dictated by Our Lady, was at one time placed upon the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books. Fr. Solanus's superiors were not wild about him recommending it so often, and they forced him to cease contact with a study group which had formed to read the book, inspired by him.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about the Blessed Solanus is his simplicity. When he did give his short talks, he had very little to say. Above all else, he urged people to give thanks to God, in every circumstance. His journal is filled with the words, "Deo gratias" repeated over and over again. When he was not dealing with callers to the friaries where he worked, he spent long hours in Eucharistic adoration.

Some of the background details of his life are colourful. He enjoyed playing the violin, but was notoriously bad at it-- so bad that a fellow friar once pointedly raised the volume of the radio in order to drive him out of the recreation room. He had a strange breakfast habit-- he would mash all his breakfast, including coffee and orange juice, together in a single bowl. He was a fan of the Detroit Tigers basketball team and he was "ruthless" when it came to billiards.

I was rather relieved to come across a story in which he simply laid aside the receiver, when a particularly voluble woman was seeking his counsel over the phone, picking it up every now and again to make some listening noises. At one point, he even mouthed to the people around him, "She's still talking!", to much laughter. Reading about the saints' attentiveness towards others can be intimidating; it's nice to know that even a saint can sometimes resort to such tactics.

Indeed, the Odell book is interesting as much for the insights into Capuchin life as it is for its insights into the life of Fr. Solanus. His brother Capuchins seem to have treated him as just another friar, despite being well aware of his gifts. I suppose nobody is a saint to those who live with them!

When Blessed Solanus died, in 1957, over twenty thousand people came to pay their respects to him. When he was exhumed as part of the canonization process, in 1987, his body was found to be substantially incorrupt. Miracles have continued to be reported after his death.

A final reason I love Fr. Solanus; he's a contemplative saint, saint whose outward life was very simple. Nearly all my favourite saints are contemplative saints, mystic saints. I have next to no interest in a very active saint such as St. Joan or Arc or St. Columbanus. It is saints such as St. Bernadatte, St. Gemma Galgani, and St. Solanus that fascinate me. But then, one of the glories of the Catholic Church is that, amidst all its profusion of saints, spiritualities and traditions, there's something for everybody!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Why I Went to a Poetry Reading, and What I Heard There

In his "Cruiskeen Lawn" Irish Times column of the mid-twentieth century, the humourist and professional cynic Myles Na Gopaleen expressed a typically caustic view of poetry readings:

I was once acquainted with a man who found himself present by some ill chance at a verse speaking bout. Without a word he hurried outside and tore his face off. Just that. He inserted three fingers into his mouth, caught his left cheek in a frenzied grip and ripped the whole thing off. When it was found, flung in a corner under an old sink, it bore the simple dignified expression of the honest man who finds self-extinction the only course compatible with honour.

Very funny, of course. But lampooning poetry readings is the cheapest of cheap shots.

Anyway, today I found myself in attendance at one. In fact, I went considerably out of my way to attend it.

Today (a Saturday) was the day of my university's Festival, a day-long festival which has been held in the university where I work for the last few summers. Various different events are held all around campus. I'd never attended before, and I felt guilty about this.

Why did I feel guilty? Because festivals are supposed to be part of what I'm all about, as a traditionalist conservative. "Curtains make a house a home"...that's the slogan I've often used on this blog, to sum up my social philosophy. It might be a little obscure as a slogan, but basically, it means that the "house" of society can only be a "home" when it's softened and domesticated by ritual, ceremony, tradition, custom, and so forth. Well, festivals are certainly a big part of that "so forth". Festivity is deeply conservative.

Not only that, but I'm all in favour of the Festival on account of its paternalism. I love working in a university, a place that seems a little world of its own. I like the idea that a workplace should be more than somewhere you pick up a pay-cheque, that it should have a social and community aspect to it.

One of the reasons I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was growing up was because the crew always seemed to be attending each other's amateur dramatics, concerts and other cultural activities. It's also why I enjoy reading provincial novels, set in the pre-television era, where everybody always seems to be attending charades or a recital in somebody else's house. It's very appealing to think that a community would get at least some of its culture and entertainment at home, especially in these days when we are all plugged in to television and the internet.

Commander Data in a production of Macbeth

As I said, there were events happening all over campus. There was, for instance, a "philosophical café" event in the philosophy department. However, I decided to stay on my own patch, and attend the poetry reading in the library. (There were some other things happening in the library, too, like a "trip down memory lane" of the library's history, and a manuscripts exhibition in the Special Collections section.)

I feel a kind of protective instinct towards poetry. Not only have I loved poetry all my life, but I always think it's one of the things of which there is always too little, which is always being sidelined.

And thereby hangs a tale... The truth, of course, is that poetry itself (or rather, the poetry "establishment" of our era) is far from blameless in this regard. Poetry has been in a slump, and worse than a slump, for at least fifty years. In my view, the last great English language poet was Philip Larkin, and he himself (along with his contemporary John Betjeman) was a throwback. Free verse has ruled the roost for decades.

Can we exculpate the public for this? I don't think so. If there was a public demand for proper poetry, for traditional poetry that rhymes and scans and makes sense, a supply would undoubtedly have risen to meet this demand. But there isn't. There are still excellent traditional poets, such as this young Catholic Englishman. They deserve better of the reading public. It is very hard to develop as a poet without an audience, an audience that is both appreciative and critical.

I knew full well that I wasn't going to encounter this kind of poetry at the poetry reading. And yet, I wasn't too bothered about this. The truth is, I can often enjoy mediocre free verse. In some ways, mediocre free verse is easier to enjoy (in an immediate context) than good traditional verse. Good traditional verse is always demanding of the poet, and often demanding of the reader. You have to let its rhythms and cadences settle into your mind, swirl around in your memory.

There weren't very many people at the poetry reading, but there was a respectable amount. Many were library staff, of course.

A young man punctuated the poetry with songs, accompanying himself on guitar. I thought he was a hipster, but he mentioned being a member of UCD's Newman Society in his time in the university. The Newman Society is a Catholic society. There were some oblique references to Catholicism in a nostalgic song inspired by the folklore collection. There was also a version of "Down by the Sally Gardens" by W.B. Yeats which included Irish language lyrics supplied by the Irish poet Gabriel Rosenstock. In my own college years, I had an animated debate with Mr. Rosenstock in a pub, arguing for the need for rules in poetry. His counter-argument-- that free-verse had its own internal rules-- was one that didn't impress me much then, and it doesn't impress me now. But he was a nice fellow.

The first poet was a young American woman, a black lady with a shaven head. She was one of the "featured poets" at the reading. (The featured poets were those who had been invited to the festival, poets who had achieved some kind of public profile. But anyone could apply to read.) 

Philip Larkin

I didn't enjoy her poetry at all. Even mediocre free verse is only enjoyable if you can follow it, but her poetry was a potpourri of random imagery and phrases. Some of it made some sense-- the first poem gave advice on how to help a depressed "partner". Perhaps this is prejudiced of me, but when I saw her cropped hair I expected she would have nothing good to say about men. However, the poem was quite warm-- it even spoke of "mothering" him. Later on, however, there were some angry feminist moments.

Her other poems included one on the subject of synaesthesia-- in particular, her tendency to associate particular colours with particular people and ideas. A promising idea, but the poem was a mess. Then there was a poem about writer's block. I think it's always a mistake for writers to write about writer's block, and this particular work showed a rather annoying resentment towards the audience who were patiently listening to her and applauding her.

After that, a mature student stepped up to the podium-- a housewifely kind of lady. (Indeed, she arrived with her children.) Her appearance endeared her to me, and I hoped the poetry might be a little more...well, bourgeois. However, I was disappointed. There was one poem about a traffic jam which was coherent enough, but a poem on the theme of "nature" repudiated (rather predictably) the whole idea of nature, and especially of femininity.

Then a young male student stepped up. His first poem was the only decent poem of the day, a work in which he imagined somebody (a woman, I assume) walking towards him. In each verse, she walked towards him on a different "level"-- molecular, historical, romantic, etc. In the last few lines of the poem, the refrain (which was something like "You walk towards me") was shortened word by word, until the final line was simply: "You". That was quite heartfelt and simple, though not at all accomplished. The use of repetition gave it more structure than any of the other poems. However, his other poems were poor.

The last poet I heard was an established Irish poet, an elderly man whose poetry had been published by The Irish Times and Carcanet Press. He began by announcing that he belonged to an older generation and he wrote an older sort of poetry than the previous poets (towards whom he was most complimentary), but to my ears it sounded like just the same sort of free verse, undergirded by the same sort of social and cultural attitudes. As an old fogey, he was a disappointment.

His poetry had, at least, an interesting gimmick-- to my mind, at any rate. All his poetry was about party politics. He announced himself as a partisan of Fianna Fáil, the party who dominated Irish politics until very recently. He claimed that "hegemony" was necessary to culture, in that it provoked a reaction against it. It was the most interesting thing said on the podium all afternoon. (At the same time, it should be borne in mind that party politics in Ireland are rather meaningless-- the two major parties are centrist parties, and the centre has been shifting in a socially liberal direction for decades. So a Fianna Fáil hegemony was certainly not a "conservative" hegemony.)

One of the poems drew heavily on the image of election posters-- and, indeed, I think election posters are very poetic, since they capture a particular moment and atmosphere. The day after the abortion referendum, I heard several of my colleagues agreeing that they should be banned. I can't even understand that attitude.

At this point, there was a sort of half-time break, and I decided I'd had enough. Although the poetry was disappointing, I was still glad I came.

Before I went, I stepped into Special Collections to look at the manuscript display. They were manuscripts from Ireland's Gaelic tradition. They were all written in the Irish language, or at least in Irish and English, and they were very elegantly handwritten. Looking at them, I felt a familiar pang for my own cultural traditions-- but, recently, I've come to the very reluctant conclusion that national traditions are doomed, and that only Catholic traditions are worth actively holding onto.

I walked back through the campus towards the bus-stop. It was a very sunny day and the campus had filled up. Food tents were selling ice-cream, burgers, and other treats. Some children were playing a game of life-size chess. National flags from every country were festooned between the lamp-posts. (One previous year, I noticed the Vatican flag, though I didn't see it this time.) I found myself reflecting, far from the first time, on how I love everything which provides a background; elections, Christmas, Halloween, snow, the Catholic liturgical year...

I'm sorry if this seems a mean-spirited post. I can't pretend that the stuff I heard today is poetry, in the way I understand the term.'s something like poetry. It's better than nothing. And, yes, I'm glad I went.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Bondi Beach

That's the June scene on the Australian calendar very kindly sent me by a reader of this blog. Thank you again!

The name is quite evocative. I first knew it as the name of a night-club in Stillorgan. Not that I ever went there (I've been in precisely two night-clubs in my life, and both visits were ghastly), but I remember UCD students talking about it a lot, and I'd often pass it when I was living there.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Comfort of Situation Comedies

To turn from the tragedy that has befallen my country, here are some musings on a lighter subject...

I've been watching a lot of Frasier recently. I've watched the whole series at least twice, and I'm currently making a third lap. My favourite comedy, up till now, has been The Office (American version). Now I think that it would have to share the honours with Frasier.

I'd avoided watching Frasier for years, because I assumed the show itself would be as pretentious and upper-middle-class as its protagonist. I didn't realize that the humour is often quite broad and farcical, and that the snootiness of the two central characters isn't typical of the whole cast.

Interestingly, one of the minor characters, a smug food critic named Gil Chesterton, was based on a real person called Gilbert Chesterton-- a teacher of journalism, as it happens.

I got into Frasier through watching Cheers. Somehow, I'd never seen an episode of either until very recently (though I did see a few scenes here and there, over the years). As it happened, the first episode of Cheers that I watched was the episode in which the character of Frasier Crane first appears! (See the value of keeping a diary?)

At this stage, for the sake of anyone who is completely lost, here is a lesson in comedy TV history. Cheers was an American sit-com which ran from 1982-1993, set in a bar in Boston. It was wildly successful, although it took a while to win the audience over. The character of Frasier Crane was a rather pretentious psychiatrist, a habitué at the bar. He got his own show in Frasier, which ran from 1993 to 2004. In this series, he has moved to Seattle and has his own radio show. Some people prefer Cheers to Frasier, but I think Frasier is clearly superior, though Cheers is also good.

I started watching Cheers because I had a hankering for a very low-concept, down-to-earth situation comedy, one as close to the routines of ordinary life as possible. And Cheers is certainly that. But I was somewhat disappointed, because a lot of the humour is very mean-spirited.

I suppose what I was looking for in Cheers was a thicker concentration of something I already find in ordinary life, in the sights and sounds of the city: a sense of the eternal in the everyday. We know that this world of lamp-posts and taxis and sports results is not going to go on forever, that one day it will be as utterly dead as ancient Rome. But it feels as though it will go on forever, and there's a certain comfort in that. Anything that you cannot see to the end of is effectively infinite.

I like to lose myself in the rhythms of the workaday world, to escape from myself, to become "depersonalised" in a pleasantly anaesthetic way.

There are some images and atmospheres which particularly induce this state of mind, for me. Strangely, the design of the Manhattan peanuts packet (an Irish brand) is one of them.

But there are others as well: newspapers stands, pub mirrors, the soft light of pubs, the news headlines rolling across the bottom of a TV screen, the coffee and tea shelves in supermarkets, newspaper strip cartoons, cinema marquees, and many many others...

In another way, however, I find the very format of situation comedies profoundly soothing.

The world of a situation comedy is a deliciously insulated world. Primarily this is because of the format. Every episode exists within a "frame" of half an hour or so. All the problems and complications of the plot will be resolved by then, and things will go back to normal. "Status Quo is God", as TV Tropes puts it.

Why should I find this comforting? I suppose I'm just the kind of person who has always found transience particularly disturbing. I remember, in school, an English teacher in school writing the word "transience" on the blackboard, during a discussion of Keats's poetry. It was a few weeks before the end of my schooling. I stared at the word, realizing that it was simply a word written in chalk, but that in a few weeks I would leave the school and that part of my life behind forever. The word seemed to crouch there like a poisoned snake. I remember how the summer sunlight glowed on the chalk.

But situation comedies are comforting other reasons, too.

I like the "wheel of fortune" aspect of situation comedies-- at least, the warmer and more upbeat situation comedies. (And Frasier is pretty warm and upbeat.) In any given episode, at least one of the characters is going to be having a particular run of luck, or a particularly good run of luck-- but it's always a passing thing. Of course, when they are down, every possible laugh is milked from it-- the crowded room falls silent before they drop their clanger, the microphone picks up their embarrassing confession, the person they tried to impress by a feigned knowledge of French literature turns out to be an expert in the subject, and so forth. Strangely, such comedic exaggerations make our own humiliations feel all the better for being acute-- nothing by halves, right? And besides, the message is that the wheel of fortune always turns again.

Another thing I like about situation comedies is the way the characters always respect each other, deep down. (Again, I'm talking about more or less sentimental shows here.) They'll laugh at each others' mishaps and indignities, they'll feud, they'll seek to outdo each other, they'll be maddeningly obtuse at times...but, ultimately, they are always there for each other. And more than that: they recognize each other's quirks and individuality (even if it's only by grumbling about them).

In Cheers, when one particular character walks into the bar, everyone always shouts: "Norm!". There's something very appealing about that.

There are particular plot types of sit-coms that I especially relish, and find especially comforting. For instance, the "sick day" episode, when somebody is laid up sick. It's quite cosy. Or any episode where events are told from several different perspectives (called a "Rashomon plot"). Or any "framed" narrative-- for instance, one of the characters telling an old story, which is then "seen in flashback". That seems even more "insulated". A "trip down memory lane" episode is a particularly cosy example of this-- for instance, "The One with All the Thanksgivings" from Friends.

Most "insulated" of all is any plot involving a dream-- for instance, "The Impossible Dream" in Frasier, where Fraiser is puzzled throughout the episode by a recurring dream.

As I finish this post, it occurs to me that it might be far too revelatory. How neurotic, how insecure, must I be, to take such comfort (a word I have used several times) in the fairy tale stability of situation comedies? 

But there you have it. After all, what is a blog without the occasional eccentric post such as this?

Monday, May 28, 2018

There Are No Words

After the Irish people voted to legalise abortion in Ireland, on Friday, I finished writing a post I'd been writing previously, and published that, rather than responding to the tragedy.

What is there to say? It is the most shameful day in Irish history. The scale of the "Yes" vote (two to one) startled everyone.

One pro-choice commentator on Irish TV said: "Ireland is the same place today that it was yesterday."

Yes...but then we did not know how bad things were.

This is a devastating blow, not only for Ireland, but for the pro-life movement all over the world. It is too enormous to even begin to take in just yet. I have no words for it. Not yet.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A Memory

A memory from my school days has been coming back to me a lot recently. It's a memory of a painting that hung in my secondary school. My schooling was all in Irish language schools, and the room where this painting was hanging was called the áiléar. That translates as "attic, loft, or gallery". It was more like a hall than a room. It was upstairs, as one would expect. It had a piano, and was laid out like a lecture theatre or a drama theatre, except that there were no desks-- just steps rising from the front to the back, with a small bit of flat foor at the front. There were mats to sit on, when needed. We would use it for choir practice and sometimes for watching videos.

The picture that hung above the piano (some distance above the piano) looked rather like the picture above. I don't remember exactly what it looked like. I have a very poor visual memory. All that I remember was that it was a Madonna and child image, and the two figures were surrounded by darkness as in the picture above. The áiléar was a rather dark place already, which only seemed the heighten the darkness of the painting.

I've always loved darkness. Darkness is (so far as I'm aware) never a good thing in the Bible. "Men loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil". So I'm a bit wary of admitting that I like darkness so much.

It's not that I don't like light. I love everything that shines and glows. The Transfiguration is one of my favourite passages in the Gospels.

And yet, I love darkness. I find it peaceful, enveloping, comforting. I like dark winter mornings. I like cinemas because they are dark. I like the night sky.

I like Coca-Cola. It's one of my favourite things in the whole world. I like looking into its bubbles and swirls.

The darkness in the Madonna and Child picture, though, spoke to me of more than simply peace or repose or shelter. It always seemed to me to be a visual representation of love.

Catholic commentators like to make a very sharp distinction between love as a feeling and love as a virtue. To love is "to will the good of the other", as St. Thomas Aquinas put it. We often find this contrasted with the "chocolate box" notion of love in "the culture", which (we are told) is more focused on feelings and emotional rewards.

I'm not disputing this distinction, but sometimes I wonder if we are wrong to emphasise it so much. When I think of the people for whom I would sacrifice a great deal (for whom I have sacrificed a great deal, in some cases), they are the very people for whom I feel "the warm fuzzies" that are so lightly dismissed. Family and very close friends.

Much Catholic devotional art, at least in recent centuries, was very sentimental. The term "maudlin" derives from the name Mary Magdalen, and from very "maudlin" representations of her in art. Personally, I'm fine with this.

When I think about unconditional love (whether received or given), I think of the darkness in that picture of the Madonna or Child.

Boundlessness might be the most relevant term here. The dark backdrop in the picture was boundless; it might have gone on forever, like outer space. And this is how unconditional love feels. There is no end to it.

While the dark backdrop of the picture gave an impression of boundlessness, it also gave an impression of intimacy. The mother and child are surrounded by boundless darkness, but also sheltered by it. And this is also how unconditional love feels-- a feeling of unutterable closeness even when the person is not there.

But there is another aspect to it. In complete darkness, there is no "up", "down", "left", or "right". This is the characteristic that spoke to me to the most, although it is the hardest to explain.

I have such a deep love for everything that is particular, for particular times and places, atmospheres and occasions. And me, profound interpersonal love seems to exist in a state which is the opposite of all that. When you love anybody, somehow they exist to you in a way that is outside time and space, beyond all contingency or circumstance. 

That is what I saw in the picture of the Madonna and child; an unspeakable stillness, silence and sense of eternity.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Today, Ireland Votes on the Right to Life

I posted this on Facebook last night. I spent a lot of time trying to express exactly what this referendum means to me, and why "pro-life" is so much more than just a slogan. I was pleased with the phrase "a world inside looking out on the world outside".

I know you are praying for us, readers all over the world...thank you.

Tonight I go to bed very afraid. There have been so many words tossed around in Ireland in the last few weeks...choice, freedom, dignity, rights...but these are only words.

To horrible truth is that, if Ireland votes "Yes" tomorrow, thousands of human beings will be snuffed out of existence before they ever have a chance to live. They will never see the sunlight or the snowfall. They will never contemplate the wonder of existence. They will never laugh, make friends, hear a nursery rhyme, lie awake waiting for Santa, be given a nickname, or have a personal moment of triumph. Nobody will ever know what they looked like or hear their own unique take on the world.

There is a poem I like in which a painter is painting a potrait and suddenly sees:

A very obvious thing; the immense
Thereness of someone else; a man
Once only, since the world began.
Never before, and never again.

The sight of the Lascaux cave paintings always fills me with this same sense of awe, the knowledge that what left those marks is utterly unique and of infinite value-- the same creature as me, the same being with infinite possibilities, a world inside looking out on the world outside. The idea of extinguishing that marvel, when there is any other option, is unthinkable. You may think human beings are made in the image of God. Or you may think every human being is the product of millions of years of incredibly fortunate accidents, conscious beings rising against all odds out of inanimate matter. Or you might think it is both. Whatever the ultimate origin of a human life, it seems an insanely precious gift to throw away.

So I thank everybody for their prayers for Ireland tomorrow, and in case there is ANY chance I can sway anyone at this eleventh hour....please please please vote No, and make the miracle of life happen for so many others in the years to come.

Monday, May 21, 2018

On the Doorsteps

As you doubtless know already, Ireland is going to hold a referendum on abortion on Friday. The proposal is to remove the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which was introduced by referendum in 1983, and which guarantees the equal right to life of the mother and the child. The abortion legislation which is proposed by the government if they get a "Yes" vote is quite extensive, and will allow abortion for any reason up to twelve weeks, and for even longer periods in special cases such as "fatal foetal abnormality".

I haven't written much about this referendum on the blog, because I know all my readers will be pro-life already. I've concentrated my online activities on Twitter and Facebook.

Me and my pro-life posse

I've also been door-to-door canvassing since the middle of February. This is something I've never done before and it's more than likely that I will never do it again. It's a very big step for a natural introvert like myself, so I thought it would be worth writing a blog post about it.

I hate approaching people. I hate bothering people. Once I'm talking to someone, I'm not really shy and I can even be garrulous. But actually starting a conversation has always been difficult for me. Starting a conversation with a complete stranger is even more difficult. I'm the kind of person who will wander around in circles for ages before asking directions of somebody.

But this referendum was simply so crucial, I felt I had to make more of an effort than just writing letters to the newspapers or on social media. So I signed up as a canvasser at a pro-life conference, in early December. I didn't hear anything back, so a few weeks later I signed up as a canvasser for another pro-life group, online. I spoke to someone from the group on the telephone, on my last day of work before Christmas. He told me someone would be in contact with me about a canvas in Finglas, a suburb near my own suburb of Ballymun.

December turned into January and I didn't hear back. (I suppose these pro-life groups are mostly staffed by volunteers and it's difficult keeping for them to keep track of everything.) I'll admit that I wasn't too upset about this. But, in February, my conscience finally got the better of me and I decided to follow it up. I got in touch with them again and got the exact details of the next canvas.

We met in a supermarket car-park around 6:30. I was alarmed at how few of us there seemed to be, about half-a-dozen. I found myself talking to a male civil servant, around my same age, who was eventually assigned to me as a partner. We were given orange high-visibility vests to wear and a stack of leaflets to distribute. I was extremely nervous.

To my relief, my partner did all the talking on this first night. I quickly realized that there wasn't all that much talking involved. I'd envisaged heated and intense debates about the development of the embryo and technical legal points, and I'd done some cramming beforehand. But here was nothing like that. At least half of our knocks provoked no response, so we simply put our leaflets through letter-flaps and into mail boxes. 

When somebody did engage us, it rarely went beyond a few words. The vast, vast majority of householders I've spoken to have been perfectly polite, even friendly. I suppose I have spoken to a few hundred by now (though I'm bad at estimates) and there have only been about half-a-dozen angry or hostile responses.

Most people are rather cagey. They accept the leaflet and they smile, but they don't give any indication of their views. Some, however, are very effusive No voters who thank us for our efforts.

More people have declared themselves to me as No voters than as Yes voters, but I suppose that's only to be expected. I even wonder whether some of them are just telling me they are No voters to get rid of me. I've always been very wary of politicians' claims about the response they get "on the doorsteps", and actually canvassing door-to-door myself has made me more way. It's impossible to tell the real lay of the land, in my view. At least, I can't.

On the whole, I would guess that the areas I have canvassed (Ballymun and Finglas) have a majority of No voters, but I would only guess that tentatively. It should be borne in mind that these are both working-class areas. The stories I've heard from other canvassers indicate that more affluent areas are considerably more pro-choice. I've even been told stories of "abuse" from people in such areas (apparently this happens more with leaflet distribution on the street, than with door-to-door canvassing).

But let me return to my first night's canvassing.

I spoke to my partner as we walked along. He was also a Catholic, and held all the same same views as me. He was a very pleasant fellow and I rather envied the ease with which he chatted to the householders.

Around eight o'clock, we packed up. I was surprised how quickly the time had gone. More canvassers had appeared during the evening. I felt a sense of euphoria at having done it.

I canvassed in Finglas for a few more weeks. Each time, I was paired with somebody different. (It was nearly always a man, rather to my dissatisfaction-- I'd been told that the preference was to have a male-female pairing, which made perfect sense to me. Although I believe men have an equal right to an opinion on abortion, I can't help feeling more comfortable with a woman by my side.)

The number of canvassers grew every week. There were men and women, young and old, Irish and non-Irish. As far as I can tell, all of them have been Christians. One canvasser was a Slovakian woman who wept when she told me about the persecution of Catholics under communism, during her childhood. Another was a Pentecostalist who told me: "The Catholic Church is an old house in which many things have been forgotten"-- which seems a bizarre statement to me. He was a very nice fellow, though.

Sometimes, we would begin the day's canvassing with a prayer, but not always.

The only really bad experience I've had during canvassing was when a woman came out of her house, threw the leaflet we'd just posted through her door at us, and started shouting: "Scumbags!". She demanded we produce a permit to canvas or get out of the area. My partner that night (a bus-driver) was cool-headed enough to reply: "Fine, call the police." But there have been no similar incidents.

Most people, though polite, are not inclined to talk very much. However, I am often surprised at how eager some people are to talk. Usually, these are No voters, but sometimes they are people on the fence who are genuinely interested in what we have to say. It's a very strange sensation, and I always feel rather taken aback by it. Somehow, I'd simply assumed that the vast majority of people today believe what they are told on television. The fact that so many are eager to hear what a fellow citizen has to say, in a face-to-face encounter, is quite reassuring to me.

Sometimes, the people who come to the door seem eager to talk for the sake of talking. On the second night I went canvassing, I spent most of the night at one door. The householder was a Yes voter who believed men had no right to oppose abortion. He was, however, very friendly and gregarious. He told us he loved it when Mormons called to his house. I don't think he was deliberately trying to hold us up, to stop us from reaching other houses. He just wanted to debate. I kept trying to move on, but my partner that night seemed reluctant to break away. We were there for twenty minutes or so.

Eventually, a canvas began in Ballymun, my home suburb, so I left the Finglas canvas, and went from canvassing once a week to twice a week. This time, I found myself in the role of the "veteran", as the two people organising it had not gone canvassing before. The woman I partnered with that first evening was an American missionary's wife, a non-denominational Christian. She was nervous about talking, so I did most of the talking at first. It's funny how someone else's nervousness always seems to make us more confident.

One night, a few weeks ago, we were coming to the the end of the canvas and one woman had to go home. This led to a reconfiguration of our pairings, but we now had odd numbers. The husband and wife who had taken charge of the Ballymun canvas asked me: "Are you confident enough to go on your own?." "Yes", I replied, rather pleased that I could honestly say so. (However, this was on the "home stretch" of the evening's canvassing-- I would not be so confident if it was a full evening's canvas.)

I am canvassing again this evening, for the last time. I suppose I could have done much more-- many of the volunteers have gone "all out"-- but I feel I'm pushing myself already. (Indeed, one evening a few weeks ago, I just didn't feel up to it and stayed at home.) On Sunday, I distributed some leaflets at the gate of my local church-- I was sent them unsolicited by the pro-life campaign, with specific instructions to distribute them outside the church gate after Mass. Since most people left in their cars, I only gave out a handful.

It's been a very interesting experience, on the whole. The nerves have never gone away, though they've lessened. I felt almost sick with nerves for the first few weeks. Now I only feel mildly nervous. The camaraderie of the canvas has been very pleasant, and I'm rather sad that all these people will have passed out of my life next week.

Of course, the result of the referendum is the important thing. As I've said, I'm reluctant to extrapolate from the responses I've heard. I don't know what's going to happen. Please pray for Ireland on Friday.