Friday, June 21, 2019

Irish Christian Poets and Writers on Facebook

I've mentioned my desire to set up a Christian writer's group before. Although I hope this to be a group where people actually get together, I thought Facebook would be a good springboard for it.

If you're on Facebook, and you want to join the group, go to this link and send a request to join. You don't have to be Irish.

Dom Gregory Dix on the Celebration of the Mass

I was very moved to discover this passage, quoted in an article by Dwight Longenecker on Corpus Christi. It is taken from Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican liturgical scholar:

"Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God."

Accommodation Query

If anyone knows of cheaply priced accommodation in the Dublin area for a Catholic couple, feel free welcome to contact me at Even a room would do.

This couple are having all kinds of accommodation woes.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Chinese Whispers: A Poem

This is a poem I wrote in 1997, but (strangely) never blogged until now. I actually think it's pretty good. The poetry of my late teens and early twenties was actually better than most of the stuff I wrote when I was older. I was much more painstaking about it. I'm quite proud of the would-be-Keatsian flourish at the end of this one.

It's interesting to me to read back on this twenty-one-year old poem, and to see how the same themes that preoccupy me now, also preoccupied me back then. Most obviously, a fascination with dreams and the dreamworld, in all the many meanings of the word "dream". I've written about that in many blog posts, but especially in this one about The Wizard of Oz. As well as this, a fascination with history and tradition and the living past, and with mystery. And then there is the dialectic of memory and oblivion, which I was writing about very recently.

Chinese Whispers

The morning lights the room as dreams disperse.
I climb into my clothes in awkward haste
To chase the morning bus I've often chased.
But from forgotten dreams strange spirits hang
Like half-remembered lines from an old verse
And fill the world with an elusive tang.

Where do dreams come from? What mysterious zone
Cut off within the dark side of the brain?
And why do these vague vestiges remain?
No answer-- so I shove the questions down.

But as I move my thoughts don't seem my own.
They frolic as the bus moves into town.

And suddenly the streets become a dream;
Their concrete blocks and Georgians facades
Seem unconnected thoughts some dreamer adds
Together in a surrealistic brew.
I feel life come unstitched at every seam
And everything I see, I see anew.

And as I disembark into the crowd
I think of how old times, long since played out,
Live on in noises made in every mouth.
All history becomes one ancient day.
I look around the street, absurdly proud
Of man, as if I watched from worlds away.

These streets, these channels of a common mind,
What were they raised from? Wilderness and waste.
There is no province man has not embraced.
His thumbprint lies on everything I see.
Where did we come from? Nowhere I can find
The footprints fade into antiquity.

And let them fade-- my head begins to swim,
This many-coloured morning wracks my brain.
Let life's exquisite mystery remain,
Leave unrevealed the roots from which we clamber!
What is a dream, but life, confused and dim?
Where is the past, but locked in living amber?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Claustrophobia in IKEA

IKEA came to Ballymun (where I live) in 2009. It was a big deal. There was even a play anticipating its arrival in the local arts centre, called Waiting for IKEA.

Other than putting my head in once, I'd never shopped there until this year. Since then I've made shopping trips to it, and I've had several dinners and breakfasts in its restaurant.

Níl me ar tí caitheamh anuas ar IKEA (I'm not going to start bitching about IKEA). IKEA is fine. It sells handsome, affordable furniture and household goods. The restaurant is cheap and tasty enough (and I even rather enjoy the cafetaria atmosphere). I understand the company treats its employees well. I have no beef with IKEA per se.

But every time I've eaten in the IKEA restaurant, and very often when I've shopped in IKEA, I've found myself falling into a strange and unpleasant mood. It's a mood I've experienced elsewhere (in airports, for instance), but it seems especially vivid in IKEA.

"Claustrophobia" is one way to describe it, although it should be understood that I'm using the term very loosely.  

It's a social and cultural sort of claustrophobia, rather than the more literal sort. Somehow, sitting in that flat and grid-like restaurant, and watching the other diners carry their trays to their tables, modern society seems painfully homogeneous, prosaic, utilitarian, dull and conformist to me. I feel as though I'm suffocating.

Now, I'm well aware of the many responses that could be made to this-- and I accept that they have considerable merit.

Has any society ever really been anything except conformist? We can romanticize the Eskimos or the medieval Gaels or the maypole-dancing denizens of Merrie England, but surely they were much more conformist than we are. When everybody danced around the maypole, what was unusual about dancing around the maypole? 

Don't we have our own cultural forms, such as the cinema and the car booth sale, which are quite picturesque in their own right? 

Don't we now romanticize cultural forms which were seen as drab in their own time? G.K. Chesterton never tired of mocking the frock coat and the top hat (or stovepipe hat, as he called it). He saw them as horribly prosaic, and compared them unfavourably with the dress of previous ages. But we see them as elegant and picturesque today.

As for utilitarianism, isn't it perhaps fair to say that people have always been utilitarian, but they simply believed in supernatural agency in the past and no longer do so? Folk cures or local superstitions that seem quaint or delightful to us, may simply have seemed as straightforward as filling out an application form to them. And even the most ardent defender of Christendom would have to admit that the priesthood and religious orders were very often pursued as a means of advancement, rather than as spiritual vocations.

When people told stories about Robin Hood or Fionn MacCumhail in the long winter nights, weren't they simply using the entertainment that was available to them? How do we know they wouldn't all have chosen to watch Top Gear if they could have?

There's another response which could be made to this claustrophobic reaction of mine, one that comes from my own soul rather than one I anticipate from other people.

The thing is, I love ordinary life. I've always felt ferociously protective of the things that make up the common round of living for most people--- having breakfast, going to the movies, playing a board game, reading a library book, taking a bubble bath, standing at a train platform, and so on. 

Groundhog Day is my favourite movie because it's all about the wonder of ordinary life, of the routine things we too often take for granted. G.K. Chesterton constantly wrote on this same theme-- one of the reasons (perhaps the main reason) he is my favourite author.

 Image result for groundhog day

And yet, as we've seen, Chesterton never hesitated to decry a given social or cultural change-- for instance, the transition from fireplaces to central heating, or from social singing to passively listening to other people singing.

How do we remain loyal to a primordial sense of gratitude, a love of the ordinary and everyday and actually existing, without falling into the quietism expressed in Alexander Pope's famous formula: "Whatever is, is right"? Chesterton himself was aware of this problem, and wrote about it.

Life is wonderful. We can never exhaust the wonder of a single moment of life, or feel enough gratitude for it. The world is indeed a wonderland.

And yet-- there is better and worse. There are things worth preserving, worth defending, and other things are worth resisting. Il faut cultiver notre jardain (ní mór dúinn ár ngairdín a shaothrigh).

So what do I mean when I complain about modern life being homogeneous, prosaic, dull or conformist?

It's hard to describe, because it's a vague feeling.

When I look at the people streaming through IKEA, or through the concourse of an airport, I find myself craving something different. I find myself yearning for the sight of some eccentric, dressed all in tweed and wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses, carrying a huge sheaf of mysterious papers under his arm.

Or a Scottish man in a kilt.

Or a priest, or a nun-- not in civvies.

Or a barrel-chested Irishman with a huge bristly beard, an Aran sweater, and a cloth cap, humming a street ballad.

 Image result for the dubliners

Or two nerdy-looking young chaps sitting at a table playing chess, their fish and chips shoved to one side.

Or two old guys having a loud discussion about the English Civil War, or Keynesian economics, or the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, or Freud.

Or a Hasidic Jewish family in their dark clothing, the father sporting a wide-brimmed hat and a long beard. Or a Sikh in his turban.

Or two clean-shaven Mormon missionaries in pressed white shirts and dark slacks, their name-badges improbably proclaiming them to be "elders".

Or a hippy. Or a hipster. Or a Goth. (Yes, I'll even take such sub-cultures over bland conformity.)

Or a self-proclaimed poet bearing a black-thorn stick and with his collar open at the neck, selling copies of his self-published pamphlet The Mysterious Window and Other Poems.


Well, you get the point. Something different. Something distinctive. Something for the mind and imagination to seize upon, something that makes life seem as rich and flavourful as a currant cake or a Christmas stocking. A character that might turn up in a Dickens novel or a situation comedy.

Perhaps this isn't fair. Perhaps I should look past the surface. Perhaps, if I could turn invisible and visit all the different tables in the IKEA restaurant, the conversations I overheard would be as startling and as intriguing as any eccentric individual that would turn heads in the street.

But the thing is-- and I feel a little bit bad admitting this-- I don't think this is the case. You see, I do overhear conversations in restaurants and pubs and cafés. It's unavoidable. And what I hear rarely leaves me with the feeling that the interior of everyday life is much more varied or surprising or picturesque than the surface.

 Image result for dirk benedict
Instead, I have a depressing image of vast crowds of people wearing jeans and sweatshirts, pushing trolleys through the aisles of shops whose air is filled with bland pop music, talking about Downtown Abbey and soccer and Donald Trump-- whatever is in the headlines at the moment.

That's a caricature, but (like all caricatures) I think it bears some resemblance to reality.

I'm always frightened of my own tendency towards nostalgia. But is it really the case that "things were ever thus?"

What about dress? I don't have much of an eye for dress, and miss the subtleties of fashion. But when I look at old photographs, it occurs to me that clothing was less globalized and homogenized in the recent past. For instance, virtually all Irish women seem to have worn headscarves up until the nineteen-sixties at least. And this seems to have been particular to Ireland.

I think there was more variation within countries, as well-- based on class, region, and profession. Take, for instance. the famous "class" sketch from The Frost Report, in which three comedians represent the upper class, the middle class, and the working class-- each one recognisable from their clothing. Once again, I get the impression from the footage and photographs I've seen that this is a reasonable, if exaggerated, representation of how different classes dressed. (This is one of the reasons I don't believe class is necessarily a bad thing-- I think it can add colour to the spectacle of life.)

Image result for two ronnies class sketch 

I've worked in a university all my life. I'm delighted that the stereotype of the tweedy, elbow-patched professor still endures. Once I even saw such a figure puffing on a pipe. I felt like walking up to him and shaking his hand. Sadly, I rarely see students wear the coloured college scarf-- at least not with the ends draped jauntily over each shoulder, in the time-honoured manner.

I also suspect there is an erosion of high culture, and especially of poetry, which has drained some of the picturesqueness out of everyday life. It's hard to measure such things, since they are based on scattered impressions over many years, but it seems to me that people have become (over several generations) less and less likely to sprinkle quotations from Scripture, poetry, history, and literature into their ordinary conversation. They are more likely to draw on movies and TV and rock music. I don't despise those sources, but they don't seem quite as rich or elevating.

(Pop culture can add to the picturesqueness of everyday life, however. I treasure the day I saw a fully-suited Imperial Stormtrooper walking down O'Connell Street, at the time Star Wars: The Force Awakens was first released. It was a moment of visual poetry.)Image result for stormtrooper on the street

But what about me? Am I adding to the character of everyday life? Am I relieving its blandness in any way? (An bhfuil mé ag thabhairt faoiseamh ar bith in aghaidh an leimhe seo, mé fhéin?)

This has been a lifelong anxiety of my own. I feel guilty about it. I've always felt a strong inclination to cultivate eccentricities. Perhaps one could say this was from a desire for attention. But I actually believe it was much more motivated by the considerations I've outlined here. I don't remember doing it for attention.

In school, I went through a craze of writing the word "Homestead" on my class-mates' copy-books. Homestead was a brand of household goods. This was a self-conscious form of zaniness on my part. Someone eventually jumped on the bandwagon by writing "Cadbury's" instead.

One day, I heard a member of family describe how his friend, on buying a book in a bookshop, had taken the book out of its paper bag, and proceeded to eat the paper bag in front of the shop assistant. I thought this was the most wonderful thing I had ever heard, and felt it was imperative to emulate it. Within an hour, I had walked into my local shop with a half-a-dozen clothes pegs attached to my hair, and casually asked for milk (or something like that). I reckon I was about ten or eleven at at this time.

Even today, I feel this urge. I feel it especially when it comes to my reactionary and unfashionable beliefs. A few years ago, I made a large badge displaying the Chi-Ro symbol. I already had the badge-making kit, which I used to make a "Vote No to Save Marriage" badge during Ireland's gay marriage referendum. (I had to make my own badge in that instance, as nobody else seemed to be making them.) It aroused considerable interest and speculation. I was aware it might be seen as ostentatious and excessively pious, but I was confident that my motives were not self-congratulation or boastfulness. I wanted to evangelize, and to push against the secular tide. And I also wanted, in the spirit of this post, to add my own dash of picturesqueness to everyday life. (I eventually lost my nerve and stopped wearing it, though.)


I have examples from other peoples' lives-- although the first is actually from someone else's death. A few years ago, I attended the memorial service of a woman who had loved frogs. Everybody knew she loved frogs, that she was the frog lady. Her cremated remains were held in a frog-shaped urn, and there were many other frog references throughout the service. I admired this, and rather envied her.

On another occasion, in America, I visited an elderly woman who had en entire bedroom devoted to cowboy memorabilia. She was a perfectly sane and normal person, but she had another eccentricity as well-- she handwrote little TV listings magazines, listing the imaginary schedules of imaginary channels. Once again, I was admiring and somewhat envious. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about. That and much more.

I hope that makes sense. I hope it makes some sense. My thoughts are running more and more on this theme recently, so I will probably return to it again before long.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Thank You

Today I found myself feeling very grateful towards the readers of this blog.

Some of you have read this blog from its beginnings back in 2011. Some are more recent readers.

I'm very touched and very grateful for the kindness of my readers; reading, commenting, emailing, praying, and many other gestures and generosities.

I do pray for my readers, as well.

Some people can write without caring whether anyone ever reads what they write. I'm not like that. Although the act of writing is extremely enjoyable in itself, writing without anyone to read what you've written (to me) would be like cooking and throwing the food in the bin.

Even when I write my diary, I'm writing for myself in the future, and also with the hope that someone else may read it some day.

I'm not a very self-confident person and I greatly appreciate encouragement. It means a huge deal to me that people read this blog. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Grief Unobserved

I'm going to write a little about losing my father, which has obviously dominated my mental landscape recently.

It was not a surprise, although it happened sooner than predicted upon his initial diagnosis. When we learned that he had a terminal illness, we were told he might have six months left. We hoped that prognosis was too pessimistic, especially given my father's ability to cheat the Grim Reaper on previous occasions. However, it turned out to be over-generous by many months.

His health had been in decline for several years before that.

My father chose not to speak about his imminent demise. He knew the reality of the situation, as he had been told it by doctors. The priest who performed the Last Rites also told me that he was very aware of what was happening. But, around his family, he never spoke about cancer, death, funerals, or anything like that. Life went on as close to normal as possible, given that he was bed-bound for his last weeks. He watched sports and TV and murder mysteries as usual. His hearing had badly declined, so I spent a lot of time sitting wordlessly at his bed-side, watching TV with him. I wondered if murder mysteries were not a little bit morbid, given the circumstances, but this didn't seem to bother him at all.

Our parish priest once told a story about a monk who was raking leaves. He was asked by a visitor to the monastery what he would do if he heard the world was going to end that very day. He said: "Finish raking these leaves". I suppose that was my father's attitude, too.

Is it cowardly of me that I am very glad he took this approach? I have always found farewells almost unbearably sad, even when they are only temporary. How do you say goodbye to someone you'll never see again in this world? I'd fretted about this for years. In the end, I never had to say goodbye. I realize many people would say I never got to say goodbye. But that's not how I look at it. I'm very grateful there was no goodbye. Some things are just too big for words.

I have always had a rather romanticized notion of a "death bed", based on a hundred newspaper cartoons of a character lying under a bedspread, propped up on pillows, and his family sitting around attentively. I assumed real death wasn't like this, that it was much less graceful and poetic. Surprisingly, I was wrong-- in this case, at least. My father went gently into that good night. It was just like the death-beds I'd encountered in cartoons, jokes, films, and TV shows.

He had no great pain (or so I was told), although he struggled with his breathing. He was asleep for the last few days before death.

I was in the house (it was my brother's house) when he died. He simply stopped breathing. His oldest and best friend was with him when it happened. He came out with a grim face and said, tactfully: "His breathing is very low". A few of us hurried in. It was obvious that the end had come.

Did I see my father die? I was out of the room when his breath stopped, but I'm told he had  a faint pulse for some time after. I was present as it ebbed away to nothing. If this is seeing somebody die, it's the first time I've seen somebody die. It wasn't traumatic, or dramatic.

(Even the famous "death rattle" I had heard about-- a rasping sort of breath, frequent in the last hours of life-- wasn't at all upsetting or sinister.)

I actually asked myself, as I sat by his body, whether my religious faith and my belief in the immortality of the soul seemed any weaker or stronger, at that moment. I have heard reports of both reactions, in the face of bereavement. But I found that neither was the case. It didn't seem to change anything.

However, I was determined I was going to spend as little time as possible looking at the body. After a little while, I left the death room and didn't go back into it. When he was lying in repose in the funeral home, I averted my eyes from the coffin whenever I was around it. I was frightened that the memory of his face in death would superimpose itself over my memories of him smiling, laughing, pontificating. This did happen to some extent with my memories of my mother, who died at the turn of the millennium. (I was also told that the embalming had left him almost unrecognizable-- but even if that wasn't the case, I didn't want to look.)

After he died, the house was full of family and friends. People were drinking tea and whiskey in the kitchen, and hugging and consoling each other in the hall. I went out to the street to pray a decade of the rosary at one point. Everything seemed so ordinary. The world went on, one second at a time.

Hours after his passing, I said to my wife: "Let's go home and watch television. Anything." We did so, although I fell asleep quickly.

I feared that a locomotive of grief was coming down the tracks, with me tied down helplessly. My father is easily the person who influenced me the most. I'd always struggled to even imagine a world without him. The prospect had always seemed apocalyptic to me.

To my surprise, this grief hasn't arrived-- at least, not yet. There is undoubtedly a huge sense of loss. But the icy, overwhelming grief I'd always dreaded...this hasn't overtaken me. I feel very calm and peaceful about it all.

For many years, I'd feared and expected the loss of my father. Every Christmas, every New Year, every St. Patrick's Day, I asked myself: "Is this the last one?". I was conscious of this in every conversation I had with him, and every moment I spent with him. I deliberately avoided doing or saying anything, in my relations with him, which I thought I might regret in the future. This consciousness lay very heavily on me, but I'm grateful for it now. 

Even in little things, I was aware of this. His conversational style often leaned towards the monologue, but I listened very patiently, even when I had heard the monologue many times before. I'm glad I did. (Of course there are things I regret, but not nearly as many as there might have been.)

Since June 2015, I have kept a diary, never missing a day. I am grateful for the many conversations and interactions with my father that I recorded in it. I was especially careful to write down any fragment of family folklore he passed on.

I can't think of anything I wish I'd said to him, that I never said to him.

Seventy-nine was a very good age for him to reach. His lifestyle was anything but healthy. At one point, he smoked sixty cigarettes a day! (Later, he switched to e-cigarettes). He'd been very sick on several previous occasions, and lived to fight another day. I'm grateful he was given so many years, more than I ever expected-- more than he ever expected, as I know from various remarks he made down through the decades.

The last sweet shared tradition we had together was watching Frasier. It became our routine. We would watch three episodes at a time (recorded from TV), and we did at least three complete "laps" of all eleven series. We often had the same reaction to the show, too; sometimes we would agree "This episode is too embarrassing to be enjoyable". (But we would still watch it.)

Another time, when a particularly unpleasant character was getting his come-comeuppance, I said: "I don't like watching this. I hate to see anyone humiliated, even if they deserve it." My father agreed. That is something I took from him. But I took so much from him.

(A related memory: my father lost all respect for a particular Irish athlete, an Olympic gold winner, because he turned to sneer at his opponent in the moment of victory. This despite the enormous importance he placed on Irish success at sports, to the extent that he couldn't even watch the Ireland rugby and soccer internationals, from sheer nerves. Bringing honour to Ireland was important-- but it was even more important to remain a gentleman, or a gentlewoman.)

My biggest regret is that his memoirs, which took up a lot of his attention in his last years, were never published in his lifetime. I hope to see them published eventually. Even as a slice of Irish social and cultural history, I think they deserve to be.

Recently, I had the idea of writing down my memories of him, while they are fresh. My wife thinks this is a good idea. That is the thing I feel most; not grief, but a deep desire to remember him and keep his memory and legacy alive.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Society and the Irrational

This truth seems obvious to me: everything that gives character and colour to a society is irrational, or is at least easy to dismiss as irrational from a utilitarian perspective.

I'd go further; everything that gives character and colour to the constituent parts of society, to the "little platoons" of family, local community, school, university, sporting clubs, groups of friends, and so on, is "irrational" in this sense.

Monarchy is the most obvious example. Once again I will quote C.S. Lewis on the subject:  "It would be much more rational to abolish the English monarchy. But how, if by doing so, you leave out the one element in our state which matters most? How if the monarchy is the channel through which all the vital elements of citizenship—loyalty, the consecration of secular life, the hierarchical principle, splendor, ceremony, continuity—trickle down to irrigate the dust bowl of modern economic statecraft?"

C.S. Lewis

People often defend the English monarchy on practical grounds; it generates tourism, it provides a brake on political power, and so forth.

I must admit I'm left rather cold by these arguments. Even if there wasn't a single practical argument for retaining the English monarchy, I would very much be in favour of retaining it. I'm a romantic monarchist. To me, the benefits of monarchy can't be quantified, but can only be expressed by rather vague terms such as "continuity", "pageantry", "personification", "nationhood", and so forth.

The idea that the English people would even consider throwing away a tradition that has endured for so many centuries, and which is a central vein through so much of their history, politics, art, literature, folkore, and their national story in general, is repugnant to me.

Republicans baffle me. When I argue with them, they generally argue that it's unjust for one person to be given privilege solely on the grounds of their birth.

The argument seems bizarre to me. Privilege is everywhere in our society (and, indeed, in every society). The genetic privileges of intelligence, health, good looks, and so forth, seem no less arbitrary than any social privilege. And yet we celebrate these privileges all the time. We praise and reward people for their looks, intelligence, and talents. Nobody seems to find anything outrageous about this.

HRM Queen Elizabeth II
Social privileges also abound, on every level of society, and even in the most egalitarian societies. Who gets to choose their parents, their upbringing, their education, their opportunities, or any of the other personal circumstances that determine so much of their experience in life? Nobody. A society that somehow managed to equalize all social opportunity (and why stop with opportunity?) would require such thoroughgoing intervention that it would be a dystopian hell, even if the social engineers were entirely benevolent and pure-hearted (which they wouldn't be).

So how baffling is it that, out of the innumerable privileges that pervade every corner of society, republicans should seize upon one instance of privilege to protest-- and the most ceremonial and harmless one at that? (Doubtless some republicans would argue that they are "getting round" to abolishing all the other privileges, but nobody really expects that to happen.)

But even this is to put the case too mildly. When I tell people that I am a monarchist, and they make the argument that nobody should have special privileges on account of their birth, I feel as though I've asked somebody if they've seen such-and-such a film, and I've got the reply that they don't want to waste their time looking at actors pretending to be people who never existed, and doing things that never happened. The reply is so point-missing, so lacking in imaginative sympathy, that I feel like I'm talking to an extraterrestrial.

A similar example, in the Irish context, is the Irish language. It's the easiest thing in the world to ridicule the Irish language and the Irish people's inconsistent attitude to it. (It's so easy, in fact, that one would think this very ease would give pause to those making the argument, to ask themselves if they are not missing something.) There's no real practical argument to be made for reviving the Irish language. Various practical arguments are attempted, but they're not at all convincing.

Dr. Douglas Hyde, first President of the Gaelic League
Besides, it's quite obvious that practical arguments made for the Irish language, or the monarchy, or similar institutions, are generally factitious. The supporter of such institutions supports them for romantic or sentimental or emotional reasons, but is reluctant to defend them on such grounds, fearing ridicule. So he casts about for practical arguments, and doesn't convince anybody (though his arguments may be taken up by those who already agree with him on sentimental and romantic grounds).

Conservatives sometimes accuse liberals of being ruled by emotion rather than reason. I'm not too fond of this accusation, since I believe emotion has a rightful place in politics, and in social life. Indeed, I fear emotion has been unduly sidelined in our public discourse.

Surely every "rational" (or rationalised) society would resemble every other rational society, and surely that is an argument against rationalisation for its own sake. If we were to remove anything which can be dismissed as a historical accident, or an irrational preference, what will remain to distinguish one society from another? Climate? Topography? Industry? Those things might give some savour to a society, but they seem little enough in themselves.

When you come to think about it, almost every institution and practice which gives life flavour is irrational. Birthdays are irrational. Christmas revelry is irrational. Greeting cards are irrational. Organised games are irrational. Cheering is irrational. Shaking hands is irrational. Opening doors for ladies is irrational. Visiting graves is irrational. A minute's silence is irrational. Waving flags is irrational. Clinking glasses is irrational. Making toasts is irrational. Modesty is irrational. Politeness is irrational. Commemorating the dead is irrational. Family ties are irrational. Blue for a boy and pink for a girl is irrational. Hanging a picture of your idol on your wall is irrational. Fancy icing on cake that you're just going to cut up and eat anyway is irrational.

I could go on. A completely rational society? Sounds pretty depressing to me.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Poetry Tuesday: Pádraig Ó Conaire by F.R. Martin

For Poetry Tuesday, here is a poem which would be somewhat well-known in Ireland, but (I imagine) completely unknown elsewhere.

Padraig O'Conaire was an Irish language writer, who died in 1928. F.R. Higgins was a minor poet.

I think this is a wonderfully accomplished poem, with many haunting lines. I like the wistful, evocative half-lines at the end of each verse. The unabashedly romantic view of Ireland and Irish culture, devoid of all irony, is also admirable.

Padraic O'Conaire

Pádraig O'Conaire

They've paid the last respects in sad tobacco
And silent is this wakehouse in its haze;
They've paid the last respects; and now their whiskey
Flings laughing words on mouths of prayer and praise;
And so young couples huddle by the gables.
O let them grope home through the hedgy night -
Alone I'll mourn my old friend, while the cold dawn
Thins out the holy candlelight.

Respects are paid to one loved by the people;
Ah, was he not - among our mighty poor -
The sudden wealth cast on those pools of darkness,
Those bearing, just, a star's faint signature;
And so he was to me, close friend, near brother,
Dear Padraic of the wide and sea-cold eyes -
So, lovable, so courteous and noble,
The very West was in his soft replies.

They'll miss his heavy stick and stride in Wicklow -
His story-talking down Winetavern Street,
Where old men sitting in the wizened daylight
Have kept an edge upon his gentle wit;
While women on the grassy streets of Galway,
Who hearken for his passing - but in vain,
Shall hardly tell his step as shadows vanish
Through archways of forgotten Spain.

Ah, they'll say, Padraic's gone again exploring;
But now down glens of brightness, O he'll find
An alehouse overflowing with wise Gaelic
That's braced in vigour by the bardic mind,
And there his thoughts shall find their own forefathers -
In minds to whom our heights of race belong,
in crafty men, who ribbed a ship or turned
The secret joinery of song.

Alas, death mars the parchment of his forehead;
And yet for him, I know, the earth is mild -
The windy fidgets of September grasses
Can never tease a mind that loved the wild;
So drink his peace - this grey juice of the barley
Runs with a light that ever pleased his eye -
While old flames nod and gossip on the hearthstone
And only the young winds cry.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dirk Benedict

Occasional visitors to this blog may be baffled when they encounter some random picture of Dirk Benedict. Regular readers will be used to it.

Dirk Benedict is an American actor who is best known for playing loveable rogues, especially in the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica (1978-79) and the adventure series The A-Team (1983-87).

Why does this chap's picture appear without explanation in many of my blog posts? Here is a numbered list of reasons:

1) Because I have a rather silly sense of humour, and I enjoy the irrelevance, as well as the idea of people being baffled by it.

2) Because I love traditions, and posting irrelevant pictures of Dirk Benedict on this blog is now a tradition.

3) Because "Dirk Benedict" is the coolest name ever.

4) Because there is something very likeable about the chap.

5) Because I think it's a good idea to include pictures in longer blog posts, to give the eye some relief from a monotonous block of text, and sometimes I can't think of any other picture to use.

I'm hardly a dedicated Dirk Benedict fan, or anything like that. I watched a lot of episodes of The A-Team when I was a boy, but only because my brothers were watching them. I found it hard to follow and a bit tedious. (I watched some episodes again quite recently, and enjoyed them more as an adult.)

I preferred Battlestar Galactica. I have happy memories of watching this on Saturday mornings. The otherwordly visuals stirred my sense of wonder. Sadly, my experience in this regard has been the exact opposite of my experience with The A-Team. I tried to watch it again in recent years and found it almost unwatchable. I'm not a big fan of the remake, which ran from 2004 to 2009. But it had its moments, and it was undeniably better than the original.

Dirk Benedict himself wrote an essay which mauled the remake, and which I found very entertaining. You can read it on his personal website here. A brief passage will show that he has his heart in the right place, whatever he might be wrong or right about when it comes to specifics: 

Witness the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica. It's bleak, miserable, despairing, angry and confused. Which is to say, it reflects, in microcosm, the complete change in the politics and mores of today's world as opposed to the world of yesterday. The world of Lorne Greene (Adama) and Fred Astaire (Starbuck's Poppa), and Dirk Benedict (Starbuck). I would guess Lorne is glad he's in that Big Bonanza in the sky and well out of it. Starbuck, alas, has not been so lucky. He's not been left to pass quietly into that trivial world of cancelled TV characters. [Benedict was particularly annoyed that the character he played, the roguish fighter pilot Starbuck, had been "re-imagined" as a woman.]

"Re-imagining", they call it. "un-imagining" is more accurate. To take what once was and twist it into what never was intended. So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith, and family is unimagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy our civilisation. One would assume. Indeed, let us not say who are the good guys and who are the bad. That is being "judgemental". And that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne and, well the original Battlestar Galactica.

Despite his views on the remake, he did have a picture taken with the actress who plays the new Starbuck. In Starbucks. A somewhat famous picture which, perversely, I've never actually used on this blog.

A lesser-known Dirk Benedict appearance, but one which made a big impression on me in my childhood, was "Mark of the Devil", an episode of the Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense TV series. In this episode, a man murders a tatooist and finds an uncanny tattoo spreading on his body. Although this programme stuck in my head, I forgot that it was Dirk Benedict who played the murderer, until I watched it again in my twenties.

Dirk Benedict made a personal appearance in University College Dublin, where I work, some years ago. I think he was receiving honorary membership of one or other of the university societies. One of my library colleagues attended (he was a student at the time). He said that the excitement was at fever pitch before Mr. Benedict appeared, with audience members (who had mostly grown up in the eighties) drumming on the tables and humming the A-Team music. He also said that DB was very charming and funny. When one student asked him if he would sign his metal plate, he simply replied: "I'll kick your ass." The lecture theatre was packed out, and DB also spent some time talking to those students who didn't get into the main event.

Anyway, that's the story of Dirk Benedict and me. 

I have no plans to discontinue the tradition of him popping up without warning in unrelated blog posts. (I can't actually remember when I started doing this, which gives it the misty provenance of a sure-nuff tradition.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Perils of Dialogue

I am going to try to make a bigger effort to put out regular YouTube videos. Here is my latest.

Poem to my Father

For Poetry Tuesday (a tradition I am determined to keep going), here is the poem I read on the day of my father's funeral. (The picture shows him at my wedding.)

For My Father

You taught me to appreciate
The old and true and lasting things.
You taught me hunger for debate

And that words could be given wings.

You tutored me in chivalry,
To rally to the nobler cause
Not heeding popularity

Or comfort, or the world’s applause.

You taught me triumph counted less
(Far less) than honour in the fight,

That manliness and gentleness
Are two in one, like fire and light.

You taught me to love poetry
And books, and took me by the hand
To show me wonder’s treasury,

Imagination’s fairyland.

You taught me (though I learned it late)
The love of Ireland; to uphold
And guard and praise and celebrate
This birthright dearer far than gold.

You taught me to love everything
Original, and quaint, and odd;
To prize grace like a diamond ring,
And reverence the name of God.

If I have any cause for pride

It would be this: to have been true
To all you taught me, and have tried
To be as good a man as you.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Sad News

Yesterday my father died, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, at the age of seventy-nine.

I wrote this post about him several years ago.

Please pray for his soul, and for me.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

My Perfect Day

I enjoyed writing this post on the Irish Conservatives Forum, and thought it possible some of my readers might enjoy reading it.

In another attempt to relieve the gloom and doom we conservatives habitually dwell in, and out of interest, I thought I would ask: what would your perfect day be?

The only rule is that you can't go overboard on fantasy. So a Catholic, socially conservative party sweeping to power in an Irish general election would certainly make a wonderful day, but it's impossible to envisage any time soon. Cardinal Sarah walking out onto the balcony of St. Peter's would also be nice, but seems an outside chance. Similarly, having your favourite entertainer perform in your living room is taking the fantasy too far. It should be something reasonably plausible.

My perfect day would have to involve snow. It would be a day of thick, crunchy snow. I'd get up while it was still dark, have a hot bubble bath and an early breakfast-- a peanut butter sandwich and coffee, maybe. Then I would go to early morning Mass, which would be no more than twenty minutes long, and celebrated with simplicity and dignity, without the sign of peace.

Home, to a full Irish breakfast (yes, a second breakfast)-- lots of coffee and buttered bread, and conversation with my nearest and dearest. Then we would got out and make a snowman. Local kids would join in.

Then we would go to the cinema for a matinee screening. It would be a good film, visually impressive but with a strong story. Very few people in the audience, mostly empty seats. Basking in the cinema atmosphere, then back out in the snow. A medium sized cup of Coke to sip-- Coke tastes better in the cinema than anywhere else.

A visit to a second hand book shop, one with lots of surprising and idiosyncratic stuff on the shelves-- not more than half an hour. I find some obscure volume that pleases me enough to buy.

Then off to a pub to meet friends-- a clean, spacious, bright pub, which again would be mostly deserted. The lobby of a hotel would be even better. We would sit at a window and look out at the snowy scene outside. The company would not exceed three or four. The conversation would not be banter, or small talk, or overly dull and heavy, but heartfelt and wide-ranging and adventurous, the kind of conversation that leaves you exhilarated. It should involve some discussion of uncanny experiences, some sharing of memories, some discussion of films and books. I would drink coffee and Irish cream (separately), or perhaps a brandy and Coke.

We would stay in the pub/hotel until it was time for dinner. Dinner would be pub grub, hearty and unpretentious. I would order a steak and chips, with pepper sauce and mushroom and onions and peas. Dessert would be peanut butter and chocolate cake, with coffee.

Then we would visit a friend's house, for several games of Trivial Pursuit. I acquit myself honourably, but mostly enjoy the mental trek through human life and history, and the blasts from the past. (I think the Trivial Pursuit board is a work of art.) Coffee and chocolate biscuits.

A walk home through the still-falling snow. At home, we would have to engage in some kind of low-intensity activity, such as looking through old photographs or magazines, while there was something interesting on television, or YouTube, or while playing music.

For the day to be a perfect day, I would like to have SOME kind of good news story to cheer me up-- a populist party winning an election somewhere, for instance. I'm egotistical enough to wish my perfect day to involve something that makes me feel good in myself, too-- somebody paying me a nice a compliment, or some achievement like having an article or letter published somewhere.

Then a cup of hot chocolate while reading my book, and then bed, some time considerably past midnight, after more deep conversation. As for sleep, I always sleep soundly.

Monday, May 6, 2019


In post after post on this blog, I find myself seeking to convey some enthusiasm or other, usually some private and idiosyncratic enthusiasm. Readers, I worry, might become quite fatigued by this. "You may find this fascinating", I imagine them thinking, "but why should we?".

Perhaps this desire to articulate strange enthusiasms derives from the attitude I had towards poetry (both writing it and reading it), back in my teens and early twenties. I thought of myself primarily as a poet back then.

It seemed to me obvious that poetry should seek to convey some unusual or novel emotion or impression. Writing on well-worn themes seemed to be cheating. It's strange I thought like this, since so much of the poetry I loved related to the great constants of human life. But so it was. I spent a great deal of time trying to think of subjects no poet had tackled. It never occurred to me that a great poet like Wordsworth was capable of writing both an extremely original poem like his sonnet on Westminster Bridge, and also the millionth poem about flowers, when he wrote "The Daffodils". (For the pedants out there, I realise he never actually gave it that title.)

In any case, where I once strained after idiosyncracy, I now feel rather embarrassed by it.

On the other hand, perhaps striving to convey enthusiasm is a good thing. It seems to have been a lot of what my hero, G.K. Chesterton, was all about. It also describes some of my own favourite pieces of writing-- such as Keith Waterhouse's article on the Button Fairs of his childhood, or his rhapsody on a box of cheese he bought (and ate) while on holiday.

So here goes. In this post, I am going to tackle my "chronomania", a passion for chronicles and chronicling which I have always harboured, but which has been particularly strong lately.

I have written a great deal about my diary on this blog, so I am not going to return to that subject here... much to your relief, no doubt.

Here are some things which arouse my chronomania. 

The very words "chronicles" and "annals". (How often these are used to evoke grandiosity!)

Whenever a sports commentator or political reporter says: "History is made tonight", or "So-and-so writes himself into the history books", or "I think you'd have to scour the history books to find etc. etc."

Any reference to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a chronicle of events in British history which was kept independently by various monasteries. (We have our own version in Ireland with the Annals of the Four Masters, as well as other works.)

Any reference (for instance in biographies) to the chronicles kept by individual monasteries.

Any reference to visitor's books in hotels and other establishments.

Any event which is annual, or otherwise regular, such as the Oscars, the Olympics, the World Cup, the Eurovision, the music charts, elections, etc.

Diaries and journals, (as long as they are not something boring and utilitarian such as a food diary).

The archives of newspapers.

Photograph albums.

"This day in history" columns.

The phrase "the annals are silent" or "the sources are unclear" as used when writing about history of some kind. This emphasises the preciousness of the record, and creates mystery.

In general, I don't get excited by chronicles that are too dry or utilitarian. Parish and school registers can be fairly interesting, but only as a source.  One imagines that ten minutes browsing one would satisfy most people, unless you were looking for something in particular. Similarly, I am baffled by the fascination that our distant ancestors seemed to have for genealogies and king lists, which seem so important in most pre-literate cultures.

The appeal of any archive, to me, is that it is not too narrow nor yet too overwhelming. It has to be, even in principle, capable of comprehension (if only in outline) by one person. The monarchs of England are a good example. An average person could hope to remember all (or most) of the monarchs of England, even if we go back to Anglo-Saxon times. Nor would this simply be a list of names, but it would inevitably include some biographical knowledge. Of course, this knowledge could be extended indefinitely, since whole libraries have been written on this subject. That is part of the joy of the thing. It's a paddle pool that can extend to the size of an ocean.

(As should be obvious from this example, I'm using "chronicle" to mean either a literal source, or a chronicle in a more abstract sense-- the chronicles of English monarchs, for instance, which are not to be found in any one volume.)

Against this there are archives so massive that only a computer could hope to comprehend them-- for instance, census returns. These are very interesting, but not in the way I'm writing about here. Mass Observation is another example.

Archives don't have to be deliberately created to give me this pleasure. For instance, the archives of newspapers are not deliberately created as archives. The archival aspect is incidental. Another example are the archives of websites. I rarely mention the Irish Conservatives Forum which I set up a few years ago, but I'm happy to report it's still going strong. I was delighted when I realised its archives formed a kind of tour of recent Irish and international history, seen from a conservative perspective.

This blog wouldn't work as an archive so well, since I tend not to write on many topical issues.

Why the fascination with chronicles? I've thought about this a lot and I'm pretty sure of the answer. Life is very messy, chaotic and enigmatic. The structure that a chronicle puts upon the flux of life is intensely pleasing.

To put it like that suggests that such a structure is simply a comfort blanket, an insulation from reality. However, I think the psychology of the thing is more subtle than that, and less pathetic.

I think its the fusion of flux and structure which is so appealing to me. The same appeal, I would suggest, lies at the heart of most art-forms. Take stories, for instance. Stories are pleasing because they are a fusion of life's messiness with the pattern of the narrative. If the story is too rigidly patterned, it takes away from the pleasure. A good story gives the impression of real life going on around the characters, of a solid world with its own preoccupations and business quite aside from the events of the narrative.

The same thing applies to poetry. Poetry (especially poetry that is rhymed and metrical) combines the spontaneity of speech with the structure of verse. A great part of the skill involved is making the verse rhyme and scan without losing the impression of natural speech, of how a person actually talks. Poetry that is too obviously contrived to fit into the verse is generally poor poetry. As Yeats put it, in lines I have quoted before:

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,   
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
The harmonious reconciliation of contraries seems to be something that gives human beings intense pleasure, in this and many other instances.

The pleasure of chronicles, I would suggest, also lies in another meeting of opposites; the interaction of memory and oblivion.

Memory cannot be understood aside from oblivion, from forgetting. Imagine if you could perfectly recall everything that happened in your life, down to the minutest details. Or if we somehow all had immediate knowledge of everything that had happened in human history from the beginning of the species. I don't know about you, dear reader, but that to me is a horrible thought. Would you really forego moments such as the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux? Or the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamen? Or the moment in your own life when you come across an old photograph, or hear a song that you had forgotten about and that brings a host of memories flooding back to you?

Annals and sources and chronicles, to me, are partly appealing because what is saved is only a fraction of what is lost. Scenes and figures stand out against a black background. This is especially noticeable in historical moments for which there are a limited number of eyewitnesses, and where we rely more than usual upon eyewitnesses. Examples of this are the final hours within the General Post Office during the 1916 Rising, the sinking of the Titanic, and the life and death of Jonestown, the cult which ended in mass suicide in 1978.

But chronicles in general have this characteristic of fragments rescued from oblivion, of shafts of light penetrating darkness. Obviously, this is more or less true depending on the nature of the chronicle, but it's true to some extent of them all. For instance, we know almost nothing about many of the early Popes other than their names.

Dear reader, has your imagination caught fire from mine, at this point? I hope so. If it hasn't, I don't think further words will do it.