Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Belfast Memories and Reflections

Back in October, I travelled to Belfast to give a talk based on my book, at a Legion of Mary young adult's conference. The text of the talk can be read here. Someone suggested in a recent comment on another post that I should write about my impressions of Belfast. It's a good idea, so I'm happy to oblige.

I have done very little travelling in recent years, so my trip to Belfast was a big day for me. It was also my first time north of the border, hard as that may be to believe. In fact, I found the entire experience so stimulating that I spent most of the next day writing it up in my diary-- both the trip itself, and the reflections it prompted.

Before going any further, I should say something about my unusual relationship with geography. First off (and to repeat something I have often said on this blog), I have a lifelong fascination with the idea of place, and a deep yearning for distinctive and special places-- I mean, for their very existence. Whether this fascination came from anywhere is impossible to know-- I don't see why it needs an explanation. But, in any case, it was certainly fed by stories of fantastic journeys, whether that was The Lord of The Rings, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, or Ulysses 31, the Japanese cartoon that transposed Greek myth into space.

But my actual sense of place is catastrophically bad-- so bad, I will struggle to convey it to the reader. When people ask me if I know such-and-such a place in Dublin, and I say I don't, it often draws the response: "Are you a Dubliner at all?". I remember, in primary school, the teacher used to pull down a huge laminated map of Ireland, and try to get us to memorize the counties, rivers, lakes, and so forth. To me, this seemed as impossible as walking on the ceiling-- none of it would stick at all.

And I still struggle with this. For more than a year now (easily), I have been taking an online Irish geography quiz every few days. In this quiz, one has to place various counties on the map. There are fifteen questions, and I usually get twelve to thirteen of them right-- this despite the fact that are only thirty-two counties in Ireland, and I have taken this quiz innumerable times by now.

And this incapacity to remember places dogs me even on the smallest scale. I am very often unable to give people very simple directions-- even within the walls of the library, where I have worked for close to eighteen years. When someone asks to be shown the music shelves, for instance, I have to bring them there, rather than give them directions. So even when I know how to get somewhere, I'm unable to describe how to get there.

I am making a big effort recently to develop a better sense of place-- of actual places. This involves constant conscious effort, like noticing street names when I pass them, and not mentally filtering place names out of news stories, films and books.

I'm not complaining. Perhaps this handicap adds to my sense of wonder, my sense of the mysteriousness of space and time.

Finally, when it comes to my sense of place, there is another contradiction to be taken into account. I have worried about globalization all my life, long before I even knew the word. Even when I was a small child I was worried that there was nowhere left to explore, and ardently wished there were more than five continents. By my teens I was fretting that everywhere was becoming homogenized. And yet, I am insensible to many of the things that do differentiate place from place. I have a very poor eye for nature, wildlife, architecture, car design, fashion, and many other aspects of everyday existence. I have a poor ear for accents, and a poor tongue for cuisine. 

So whether there is any value to an account of my trip to Belfast might fairly be doubted!

Here is my account of the journey from Dublin, drawn from my diary. As you'll notice, scupltures especially caught my eye, since I have become more and more interested in public sculpture:

I was amazed at how long the Port Tunnel was. It just seems to stretch on and on. I enjoyed looking out at the landscape, as we moved out of Dublin. No matter how little of Ireland I feel is left, the landscape endures, and that's something. Now, however, it seems like a spurned idyll.

We passed a sign for Mellifont Abbey, and signs for various rivers I've never heard of. I saw a mesh sculpture of a bull with its head down near a sign for Dundalk. (It's at the Cooley Peninsula, it's called An Tarbh Donn, and it was put up when the M1 was built-- it represents the Cattle Raid of Cooley.) 

I was so happy to see cows and sheep in fields, though the sight does rather make me guilty for eating meat. There was another sculpture near a sign for Bernish Viewpoint-- a kind of scrap-metal woman by a scrap-metal house. There was a Hunger Strikers memorial in Newry-- ten white crosses and the date 1981, stark and impressive. Newry was very republican, it seemed. There was one sign which showed drawings of the 1916 leaders and the text: "We salute the "men of violence" of 1916." In fact, there were a great many tribal symbols in Newry and Belfast-- tricolours and Union Jacks in about equal measure, murals in Belfast (not all sectarian, but there was one showing Bobby Sands). I also saw a sign that said UDF [Ulster Defence Force, a loyalist paramilitary group]! I was also surprised by Protestants buildings which reminded me of those I saw in America, big Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist and other chapels, some called Gospel Halls, with the same sort of big signs saying things like: "Jesus Died for Our Sin". Unlike in England, they looked very much in use and for their original purpose. There were a lot of Republican anti-Brexit signs. Belfast is a real industrial or post-industrial city, lots of chimney and cranes, and redbrick buildings.

I saw a metal sculpture which had an aviation theme to it-- I only glimpsed it-- and subsequently learned it's a monument to Harry Ferguson, a pioneer of flying. When I reached Belfast, the city centre had a kind of globe-within-a-globe sculpture, which I see is called RISE and has been nicknamed "The Balls by the Falls". It's the kind of meaningless, non-controversial sculpture similar to the Millennium Spire.

We reached Belfast at 9:56.

I won't describe the conference itself. I didn't get into many conversations, not being talented at speaking to strangers. The young people all struck me as being dedicated Catholics, very upbeat and positive.

I gave my talk twice. The first time was from the back of the hall, the second was from the podium:

Then I had my talk. S------ called the three of us who were giving simultaneous talks to the mic, to describe what they were about. There was one by a priest about Mary, there was one by B------- about Catholic social action, and then there was me. I was very brief.

Then I went to the back of the hall and waited. This was the hardest part, quite nerve-wracking. Would anyone come? It looked like they wouldn't, at first, but in the end there was about eight or nine, I think. N----- stayed, and so did the nun who had just spoken.They were both very attentive and encouraging in their expressions, which was a huge help. Blank faces and lack of attention is so discouraging. Happily, people's interest seemed to pick up as I went on.

I was suddenly very nervous, much more nervous than I expected. I was expecting to be speaking from a podium, but I ended up speaking to people sitting right in front of me, like an informal conversation. This is far more nerve-wracking to me. I was trembling and my voice was shaking, although I rallied at times. 

Even though there were so many blank faces, I got a round of applause and some nice comments at the end. Sister Elaine told me she asked Our Lady which talk to attend and she told her to attend mine. I said: "I'm glad you did. I was frightened nobody would." She asked me who my favourite saint was, and I said it was Solanus Casey, and that I first came across him on a pamphlet at a Legion of Mary stand.

This is my description of the second time I gave it:
After that, I was giving my talk again. S----- asked me did I want to give it from the top of the hall this time, at the podium. I was very glad he suggested this. I wonder did he see my discomfort the first time around, or hear about it from someone else, or perhaps hear how bad it was. I went straight to the podium. R---- and K---- sat up front, much to my satisfaction. A friendly face is much to be desired when giving a talk. There were many more people this time around than last time around. I always overestimate numbers, but there might have been twenty or thirty. Some were inattentive, but most were listening.

I felt MUCH more confident this time. I felt extremely comfortable and in control. I found myself thinking, later, of this reflection, which I wrote on the feast of Aloysius Gonzaga last year:

Everything seems to come to me through way of the imagination. I find security, shelter, and seclusion exciting to think about-- but, at other times, I find various sorts of daunting experiences exciting. I love that line from Airport '79, when Jack Lemon and Christopher Lee are going to open a pressure door and the plane is underwater: "When that door opens, you're going to think the gates of hell have opened." Or when I was reading the Isaac Asimov book of jokes and he recalled challenging Harlan Elison (or someone else who was heckling him) from a podium: "Why don't you come up here, Harlan?". The idea of "up here" being such a distance from "down there" excited me, with my love for variation of space and time, and for atmosphere. But pondering it, I realize that it's often the things I hate-- embarrassment, pressure, self-consciousness, etc. etc.-- that makes it possible for a podium etc. to be a long long way from a seat mere feet away.

I couldn't stay long after the conference. I had to hurry to the station to get my bus back to Dublin, so I didn't see much more of the city. I noticed a whiny feminist sculpture (to forgotten female workers) outside the station, but that's pretty much all. I was reading A Very Short of Introduction to Russian Literature by Caitriona Kelly on the bus home. My trip and my reading on the trip, together, prompted these reflections in my diary:
Whenever I do anything new-- travel, or meet new people, or anything like that-- I'm suddenly thrown into contemplation of the rawness of life, the indeterminacy of life. And, instead of being exhilarated with the richness of its potential-- although this sometimes happens, like at my horror club meetings, or when I went on a visit to the art gallery and Christchurch and St. Patrick's Cathedral with my brother and my father in childhood-- more often I'm struck by the thinness of life, or its potential for thinness. Life in the raw is not splendid, but meagre-- that's how I feel. Life is rich not on its own resources, so much, but because of tradition, custom, the arts, folklore, narrative-- human things-- especially everything that is cumulative and contains memories.

I thought this, as well, visiting P------- in hospital-- and also, visiting M------- . How pleased I was to have anything to talk about, like the stories in the newspaper, or anything that would get them going and take our minds off the situation. The world, if it was shrunk to that hospital ward, was a small and empty place indeed.

I have two images in mind, two hypothetical vignettes, which have haunted me since then, or perhaps since M--------'s hospitalization. One is the image of somebody terminally ill, or just seriously ill, who has never really had any interests beyond keeping busy and the business of the day. He or she has nothing in that situation. Nothing to think about, nothing to be interested in, nothing except lying there and waiting to die or hoping to recover. While somebody who is interested in something larger than themselves remains a spectator of life's drama to the final moment, even if he is sidelined or on the way out.

On the notebook I took to make notes today, I wrote the word THICKNESS in large letters. Everything I saw and encountered today made me think of THICKNESS, of its desirability, and experience generally DOES make me think of this.

For instance-- the last time I went to the art gallery, before the last horror club meeting, I found myself realizing just how fertile, how full of possibilities, cultural nationalism is. It gave a flavour and an atmosphere and a horizon to all the art of that time. It was the opposite of a dead end, or stifling. What strikes me is that, when art is supposedly liberated from any tradition such as nationalism or Christianity or romanticism, it simply becomes banal and empty. Tradition gives life, growth, depth, resonance.

Connemara Girl by Augustus Nicholas Burke. Trite, chocolate box, clichéd, stale, etc. etc.

Whenever I travel, I'm desperate to find something distinctive, something special, in the places I go. I was so pleased, when I was on my sculpture trek [a journey I took around Dublin to find public sculptures), and I found a house which was completely decked out in the Dublin Gaelic football colours, with various banners and so forth hanging all over it. It gave the otherwise drab street some character, some identity, something to engage the mind. And that is what nationalism does, and religion too. When you find a monument that has some nationalistic or folkloric aspect, like the mesh bull I saw today, it evokes a whole spiritual territory beyond itself. Whereas that steel globe meant nothing beyond itself. 

How often postmodernist artists find themselves re-discovering religious and (to a lesser extent) folkloric tropes...there's something there....there's something to build upon, to create, to deepen...

The Russian literature book I was reading was also feeding these thoughts. I am so much a Slavophile and such a supporter of Slavophilia. Slavophilia is distinctive, special, promising, creative. Westernizers are trying to make Russia and the world less interesting, distinctive, and diverse. Insularism is more creative than cosmopolitanism.

But it's not just that. It's the idea of a national literature, even of literature itself. Books have always seemed to me like the bastion of life, of soul, of meaning. "Outer" life is thin and barren compared to the compressed, heightened "inner" life of books, history, traditions, ideas, and so forth. And that includes any kind of tradition. This is why I love that picture [a still from the movie School of Rock] of Jack Black standing in front of a blackboard showing all the different developments and genres in popular music-- it's something to get stuck into, something deep, something THICK. I crave THICKNESS of this sort.

And the book also wrote about monuments to Russian writers, and the veneration of Russian writers in Russia, especially in the Soviet era. I greatly admired this-- I like the piety and veneration, even if it was Marxists doing it. Indeed, the only thing that ever mitigates my hostility to political correctness is that it's a kind of reverence, of earnestness, of piety.

When it comes to Catholicism, I love the "thickness" of devotions, the liturgical calendar, Catholic history, Bible exegesis, saints stories, etc. etc.

Such were the thoughts that my trip to Belfast inspired in me. This is how my mind works. Seeing new things sends me scurrying to the shelter of books and traditions. God help me! And yet, I think I might be onto something here.


  1. "Life is rich not on is own resources, so much, but because of tradition, custom, the arts, folklore, narrative-- human things--especially everything that is cumulative and contains memories."

    Get out of my head Ballymun. That is the most astute line of yours I have ever read. Do you ever have the chatsies with someone and you want to yell "thank you!!!!" at them when they click with your line of thinking? That's me now at you. I love that tarbh sculpture. The Cistercians are great at Mellifont. You should send that line to Guinness re their latest apology over racist grandparents. Morons. Glad you're still writing Mal.


    1. Well, thank you very much for that very kind comment! In all honesty I was much pleased with it myself. And sure isn't everybody racist sexist homophobic transphobic otherkinphobic now....I am glad you're still reading! Mal.

  2. Have you ever read anything of Macaulay's? I love his essays and the History of England, which is much mroe sympathetic to the Irish than I had thought.

    1. Never! What brought it to your mind?

    2. I read the History of England on Peter Hitchens recommendation and have been astonished at it. His essays are probably the best prose in the English language. Amazing stuff, gorgeous beyond belief. You might like this from his essay on Rankes Popes:

      "There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's."

    3. I have often encountered the passage quoted in Catholic apologetics.

  3. Yes, interestingly he's been criticsied for being anti-catholic, which sometimes shows, but quite often he has interesting insights into human psychology:

    "Touching God and His ways with man, the highest human faculties can discover little more than the meanest. In theology the interval is small indeed between Aristotle and a child, between Archimedes and a naked savage. It is not strange, therefore, that wise men, weary of investigation, tormented by uncertainty, longing to believe something, and yet seeing objections to every thing, should submit themselves absolutely to teachers who, with firm and undoubting faith, lay claim to a supernatural commission. Thus we frequently see inquisitive and restless spirits take refuge from their own scepticism in the bosom of a church which pretends to infallibility, and, after questioning the existence of a Deity, bring themselves to worship a wafer. "

    1. It never occurs to people who make this argument that it is likely that God would have provided an authoritative channel to Him and it's a matter of choosing the most likely candidate.