Friday, December 17, 2021

Beannachtai na Nollag!

I don't expect I'm going to be posting again until after Christmas, so I wanted to wish a very happy Christmas to all my readers.

Thank you for reading, for all the comments, for all the prayers, and for all the kindness in general.

And now over to good old Gilbert...

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected, and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Thank you!

Many thanks to whoever sent me the latest copy of The Brandsma Review! I have been enjoying reading it, especially the discussion on the Church in Germany, whose situation is far more intricate and nuanced than I imagined.

My only personal experience of Catholicism on the European continent was a Sunday Mass in Innsbruck. I was surprised at the size of the congregation (the church was almost full, I seem to remember), given that I had come to think of European Christianity as completely moribund.

I was also very interested by the review of Martin Scorsese's Silence, a film I watched rather reluctantly (all the reviews called it slow-moving and ponderous), but found far more entertaining than I expected.

I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing. Kudos to everybody involved!

Monday, December 13, 2021

Burn, Baby, Burn!

This blog is all about tradition, and it's time for another of this blog's own beloved traditions-- beloved by me, if nobody else!

I give you that timeless Chrismas classic, St. Robert Southwell's Burning Babe! 

Ben Johnson is reputed to have said that he would have gladly destroyed many of his own poems if only he could have written this one. I think it's a little marvel.

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

With God Things Really Do Change

I hope you are all having a rewarding Advent journey. (That sounds a bit corny, but I'll let it stand.) We put up the tree a couple of days ago. We had Christmas songs playing as we decorated it. It seems odd to me that, for such a saturated market, it only takes about two hours to run out of classic Christmas tunes! I'm afraid I am an incorrigible defender of Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade, not to mention Wonderful Christmas Time by Sir Paul. I may have alienated three quarters of my readers just by writing that.

Is there anything more beautiful than a Christmas tree? I'm not sure there is. They seem to combine and reconcile so many opposites; domesticity and collective social experience, art and nature, time and timelessness, convention and creativity, Christianity and paganism, light and darkness, jollity and melancholy, and any number of others.

Well, after praising Slade, I will redeem myself by some spiritual uplift. I very much liked this passage from the homily Pope Francis delivered in Athens, earlier this month:

By calling us to conversion, John [the Baptist] urges us to go “beyond” where we presently are; to go beyond what our instincts tell us and our thoughts register, for reality is much greater than that. It is much greater than our instincts or thoughts. The reality is that God is greater. To be converted, then, means not listening to the things that stifle hope, to those who keep telling us that nothing ever changes in life, the pessimists of all time. It means refusing to believe that we are destined to sink into the mire of mediocrity.  It means not surrendering to our inner fears, which surface especially at times of trial in order to discourage us and tell us that we will not make it, that everything has gone wrong and that becoming saints is not for us. That is not the case, because God is always present. We have to trust him, for he is our beyond, our strength. Everything changes when we give first place to the Lord. That is what conversion is! As far as Christ is concerned, we need only open the door and let him enter in and work his wonders. Just as the desert and the preaching of John were all it took for Christ to come into the world. The Lord asks for nothing more.

Let us ask for the grace to believe that with God things really do change, that he will banish our fears, heal our wounds, turn our arid places into springs of water. Let us ask for the grace of hope, since hope revives our faith and rekindles our charity. It is for this hope that the deserts of today’s world are thirsting.

Happy Advent!

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Buy the Brandsma Review!

Any readers in Dublin might consider buying the latest issue of The Brandsma Review, which is now available in the Veritas bookshop in Lower Abbey Street.

I have never actually read this magazine myself (unfortunately), but I've posted for many years on The Irish Catholics Forum, which is a sort of hub for some of those involved in the publication. They are all serious, committed, sane, intelligent Catholics so I have no doubt it's an excellent read.

Producing a magazine is a heroic feat, especially today when everything is online.

If I'm in the vicinity of the Veritas shop, I might buy a copy myself, although to be honest four euro is quite a splurge for me so I might not.

Friday, December 3, 2021

The Marlborough House Saga

I've never really written at length about the Marlborough House saga here, although I've mentioned it in passing. It was perhaps the most dramatic episode in my father's dramatic life. And it remains relevant, because until the day he died he was concerned with having the truth established on the official record. This challenge remains to me and the rest of his family.

I think I'll leave it to my father to explain the story in his own words. This is a letter he wrote to the Minister for Education in 2017.

Dear Minister

I have the distinction of being the only person who worked within the child detention system to have publicly exposed the Dickensian conditions in which children were held in custody, on behalf of the State. And for that I paid a very heavy penalty.

In 1971, I worked as an attendant in Marlborough House, a remand home for boys between the ages of seven and sixteen. (Seven was the age of criminal responsibility in the Republic.)

At Christmas of 1971, the staff of the House had cleared the pleace of all detainees in order that they might hold a Christmas party in the Home. They achieved this every Christmas with the cooperation of the Gardai. I made an excuse not to attend the party; they, my co-workers, were not the sort of party-goers with whom I would wish to celebrate Christmas.

On St. Stephen's Day of that year a Garda called to my flat in Ballymun with a request that I call down to Marlborough House and meet with the Matron of the House.

When I called on that elderly lady I was met with a woman who was in a near-panic. She told me that the Gardai in Limerick had sent a boy of twelve or thirteen to the House, thus disrupting the revelry. She said that members of the staff had taken the boy from his bed in the early hours of the morning, tied him to a pot-bellied stove (not to burn him, simply to make him sweat) then brough him outside to the rough ground, and had given him 'the clatters' at the back of the garden. She knew that they were threatening to repeat the performance that very night and worried that they would do the boy serious damage.

She asked me would I assist her in getting the boy out of the House that night. I readily agreed.

That night I reported for duty and found only the Matron and the boy in residence. Later that night the Head Attendant arrived, blindingly drunk, and after threatening the lad, returned to his upstairs flat.

Later that night I left the House and walked a short distance up the street, the matron released the boy from the front door of her flat and I met him, and took him to my flat in Ballymun, while my wife Patricia and my sister M------- took him in charge.

Next morning I told the lad that Patricia and M------- would bring him to Heuston Station and Muareen would put him on the Limerick train. I advised him to go to the Garda station once he arrived in Limerick, and show the Gardai there the damage that had been done to his face (a detail I forgot until my sister reminded me that his eye was badly damaged) and let the Gardai take it from there. The young lad did just that, though not in Limerick, he left the train at an earlier station and went into the Garda Station in that town.

The morning after the 'escape', two officials from the Department of Education arrived at Marlborough House to interview the staff. When my turn came to be questioned I pre-empted their queries by at once admitting my part in the matter. The interview ended there.

Word came later that day that the boy was once again in police custody. The other attendants, who had gathered for a Council of War, were positively salivating at the prisoner being returned to Marlborough House and the threats that filled the air were bloodcurdling. Not, surprisingly, because the boy had escaped, but because in doing so he had taken the Chief Superintendent's keys.

When I had met the lad the previous night he had at once handed me those keys, explaining that he had gone up to the drunken man's room and taken the keys from his bedside table in order that he might create the impression that he had escaped through his own efforts and thus avoid having the blame attached to the Matron and myself.

The courage and the honour of a young boy who had never had much of a chance in life. I felt humbled.

Listening to the threats I know at once that the only way I could protect the boy was to go public. And I know that the best chance I had of doing so was to go to the two ladies who were responsible for the Women's Page in The Irish Press: Mary Kenny and Rosita Sweetman. I was right.

After a night spent in argument with the newspaper's lawyers, the story appeared in the next morning/s edition of the paper.

That night I received a call (by Garda messenger? Probably) telling me to report to Marlborough House at once.

On arriving at the House, I was ushered into the dormitory and the door was locked behind me. The Chief Superintendent, three sheets in the wind, was standing at a writing bureau. He at once offered me two thousand pounds if I would retract my story, following which he would retire from the Civil Service and sue The Irish Press. I refused.

He opened the desk and produced a small revolver, placing it on the desk. He did not threaten me with the gun, but it sat there on the desk as, or so it seemed to me, a symbol of where the power lay.

Believe it or not, but I was held in that room for well over an hour, during which time he became ever more maudlin and kept on repeating the same phrase: "You can change the inscription on a monument, but you can't change the monument". Its meaning eluded me then, it eludes me still.

For the next few weeks I became something of a minor cause celebre. Newspaper articles, letters to the editor, questions in Dáil Éireann. When Dr. John O'Connell carried on a debate with the Minister for Education Padraig Faulkner, as to his justification for my sacking. All of which was crowned by the hour-long interview with Bill O'Herlihy on the flagship RTE Seven Days programme.

A Peadar Kelly support group was formed, consisting of journalists, legal people, trade unionists, and religious, which began picketing Marlborough House. After a few days of which the Superintendent, in a fit of choleric rage, sacked me on the spot. My sacking, which up to that point had been provisional, was now reality.

(I may be in error on the chronology of these events, but they all occurred within the space of a hectic few weeks.)

I was invited by letter to a meeting with officials at the Department's Headquarters. When I arrived I was ushered into the gate lodge, the door locked behind me, and I was confronted by two very large detectives.

Without very much preamble, I was given the ultimatum: "Recant publicly or you will face a jail term of four years for having broken the Official Secrets Act."

I told them that I had in my possession a copy of a letter from the Superintendent of Marlborough House to the Minister of Education in which he requested permission to build an interrogation room at the rear of the House. A room that would be sound-proofed and fenced in with barbed wire. This for the questioning of boys between the ages of seven and sixteen who were on remand.

The interview ended abruptly with the threat that I would never again work in a job where government could prevent my employment.

That threat held good as late as 1985 when a local committee invited me to manage a 'Teamwork' scheme for young boys and girls aged eighteen plus. The Department Official in charge of the Teamwork scheme, Mr. ***** ********, sought an informal meeting with the local committee in Ballymun Shopping Centre (outdoors!). There he told them that he had been instructed by his superiors that Peadar Kelly was not to be given the job, but he intended ignoring that instruction and hiring me. Which he did. That year-long scheme was a success.

For many years I wrote to successive Ministers for Justice and Education, requesting that my sacking be investigated, without any joy. Then when I broadened my appeal to other public representatives, Jim Higgins MEP persuaded Batt O'Keeffe, then Minister for Education, to open up a departmental inquiry. The letter I enclose is the result of the inquiry.

Padraig Faulkner, Education Minister at the time

Padraig Faulkner, Minister for Education at the time

I felt that I had achieved as much as I could when I received that letter until, a mere few weeks later, the Dunne Inquiry [actually, the Ryan Report] was published. It contained the outrageous suggestion that the boy had been helped to escape from Marlborough House by "two drunken attendants". That lie is now on the public record.

I would ask you to read the account of the Marlborough House incident in the Dunne Report to confirm what I say.

I am now making a claim for unfair dismissal. I trust that you will make a decision in accordance with the facts. And in making that decision I would ask you to consider my claim in light of the facts (they were never disputed by anyone) and by looking through the file on Marlborough House which you have at your command. In addition I add the following.

An in-house inquiry of my case at the time of the incident found that there was no complaint about my work before that fateful night.

I was sacked on the spot without notice of any kind and an army motorcycle rider arrived at my flat with my P45 and backpay before I even arrived home after my sacking.

If there were even the least vestige of justification for my sacking then it would be necessary to explain away the following.

Why did a group of professional people (all of whom have had their reputations enhanced sinec 1972) form a support group to protest at my sacking?

Why did a leading politician, namely, Dr. John O'Connell, persist in protesting against my sacking in the chambers of Dáil Éireann?

Dr. John O'Connell

Why did RTE devote two programmes of the prestigious Seven Days current affairs in my sacking?

Why is it that the two women who used the Women's Page in The Irish Press to expose the dreadful conditions inside Marlborough House all those years ago, both of whom are still earning a living with the pen-- all still supportive of my claim? Why indeed?

I appreciate that you are a relative newcomer to the Irish political scene and thus are unlikely to be familiar with the events of which I write and so I am relying on you to appoint a member of your staff to examine, from the records, the truth of my account.

It has been a long and frustrating journey from the events of 1972 to the present. A bewilderingly long search for justice. If this letter meets with no success then I am not sure how I proceed from here.

One thing I know is that at the age of 77, and with four medical conditions, I am not likely to be a recipient of the Presidential centennial bonus. [He died two years later.]

I leave my claim in your hands.

Yours respectfully

Peadar Kelly

The Neglect of a Centenary

Monday is the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was the birth of what eventually became the Republic of Ireland. The two major political parties in Ireland originated in different attitudes to the Treaty. It led to a brief but bloody Civil War whose tremors were felt for decades later. Even though the Civil War was brutal there were acts of tremendous sacrifice and idealism on both sides. For instance, Erskine Childers, the head of propaganda on the Anti-Treaty side, shaking the hands of all the members of his firing squad before he was executed, and getting his son to promise to do the same thing when he grew up (which he did).

Astonishingly, this centenary has been almost completely ignored in Ireland. I'm sure there will be a flurry of lectures and ceremonies and documentaries this week, but that's really nothing in comparison to the historic importance of the event. There surely should have been a whole year of discussion and commemoration. I'll admit it crept up on me, too.

People will point to Covid, but I don't think it's Covid. I think it's a profound anti-nationalism and globalism which pervades our whole political, media and other classes.

This historical amnesia is really depressing. The two great themes of Irish history are the religious question and the "national question". Generations of Irish people cherished the aspiration for an independent Ireland, a distinctive Ireland. Not only did many people die for it, but many, many people worked for it their whole lives, not just in the political arena but also in the cultural sphere-- reviving the Irish language, Irish sports and music, and so forth.

I can't believe the indifference of today's Irish to this heritage. Surely SOME appreciation of it is appropriate. Even if you think armed rebellion was a mistake (a very reasonable position), whatever attitude you take towards 1916 or the War of Independence or anything else, it baffles me that today's Irish can be so dismissive of the whole subject.

After the abortion referendum I heard quite a few Irish conservatives essentially renouncing their Irishness. I don't think it works like that, though. A nation is like a family and even when you profoundly disagree, you are still family. And yes, my Catholicism is far more important to me than my Irishness, but that doesn't mean the latter should be UNimportant. Religion and nationality are different things.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Great Christmas Debate, and Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Christmas annual of Ireland's Own is now on sale, and it contains my two-page article "The Great Christmas Debate". I put a lot of work into the article and I'm very happy with. It's all about the different opinions various people have expressed on the subject of Christmas. The cast includes C.S. Lewis, Charles Lamb, Washington Irving, Hugh Leonard, George Bernard Shaw, American columnist Erma Bombeck, and English sociologist Kate Fox.

This edition of the magazine must sell very well, as there seems to be at least a dozen copies on sale in most of the places I've seen it. It's over a hundred pages long and full of cosy nostalgic festive spirit, so it might be a good accompaniment to your mince pies.

My first article in St. Martin's Magazine is out now, too (though I haven't seen it yet). It's the conversion story of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and it's hopefully the first in a series of conversion stories. The second, which I've already submitted, is on Malcolm Muggeridge.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

To a Shopping Channel Presenter

I'm sincerely sorry that I can't afford
To buy your non-stick frying pan.
But listening to your evangelical zeal
Makes me strangely happy.

We seem to live in an age without belief;
An age, it often seems,
Where socialists don't believe in society
Liberals don't believe in freedom
And Christians don't believe in God.

But you!
You believe in this non-stick frying pan
(And the free spice rack, if you phone in the next hour)
More than anyone has ever believed in anything.

I get the impression, hearing your excitement,
That if everybody bought this non-stick frying pan
All the wars of the world would cease
Dandruff would go away
And teenagers would never fight with their parents again.

Alas, alas, I cannot afford to buy it.
And the agents who are just waiting for my call
Are destined to wait
And wait
And paint their nails
And look out the window
And say to one another, mournfully,
"I don't think that he is ever going to call."

Friday, November 12, 2021

Three Types

I know it's easy to classify the human race into whatever divisions you want, and that such classifications are more or less unfalsifiable. But recently, I've been musing over a tripartite division of people that makes a lot of sense to me, and is the fruit of lots of thinking. I believe it has some validity.

I think one could divide the human race into people whose outlook on the world is primarily moralistic, people whose outlook on the world is primarily aesthetic, and people whose outlook on the world is primarily cognitive.

People whose outlook is primarily moral tend to be humanitarians, activists, or otherwise directly involved in the effort to reduce human suffering and increase human happiness. They might be hugely misguided in their idea of what would achieve this, but they are still sincere. I think Socrates is probably a good "house philosopher" of this group.

People whose outlook on the world is primarily aesthetic tend to be, well, aesthetes. I fall into this category. They worry about issues like preserving historic town centres, old customs and traditions, landscape, and so forth. Even when it comes to morality they tend to be more focused on moral beauty than on ethics pure and simple. They aren't as focused on eliminating suffering as the moralist, they tend rather to see some suffering as justified if it leads to greater meaning and beauty. Like the man who said: "The right to suffer is one of the joys of a free economy." Nietzsche is undoubtedly the "house philosopher" of this group, who declared at one point that the only thing that justified life's suffering was to provide a drama for the gods.

People whose outlook on life is primarily cognitive tend to be careerists, go-getters, and scientists. Their highest conception of joy is to think, to cogitate, to solve problems. They put a huge value on work and education and they tend to be news junkies. To them, the drama of history is man exploring the universe and achieving progress. Their favourite term of disparagement is "backward". Their house philosopher is probably Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill or something like that.

Of course, people tend to be a mixture of all three, but I think most people would favour one of these three divisions. It becomes noticeable when you hear people discuss some issue and their different value systems become obvious-- the moralist can't understand why the aesthete would want to keep a rickety set of old houses instead of build a hygienic and soulless housing estate; the thinker can't understand why the moralist would find space exploration a waste of money; and so forth.

I have been musing on this for a few days, at least, but this morning it occurred to me that these three faculties might fit neatly into the injunction of Scripture: "You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind."

Thursday, November 4, 2021

More Facebook Fun

Social media gets a terrible press, and mostly deserves it. But it's good for publishing one's random thoughts and having people comment on them. Every now and again, particularly when I don't have time to write a proper post, I like to put a selection of my Facebook posts on my blog.

I'm trying to learn more about Irish geography. It's incredible how little I know about it. I don't even know about the geography of Dublin. I don't know where I am half the time.

For some reason, all my life, I've filtered out place-names whenever I read or listen to anything.

I look at a map of Ireland and I've never even heard of most of the towns and villages.

It's actually hard for me to really intuitively understand that there are other places in Ireland than Dublin. A while ago I found myself wandering through Laytown in county Meath at night, when only a very occasional headlight lit the darkness. The fact that there was such an extent of dark roadway seemed strange and surprising to me. I found myself thinking with wonder of all the country roads stretching all over Ireland.

People say outer space is mind boggingly huge. Certainly. But the earth is bigger than I can grasp. Ireland is bigger than I can grasp!

I have an ailment, lifelong and possibly incurable, where I have to find meaning and redemption in everything, not just "special" things. For instance, I need to find some kind of meaning in supermarkets and faceless suburbs and motorways and office blocks. I can't just mentally block them out and concentrate on picturesque beauty spots or historic town centres or whatever. That just seems like escapism to me.

Even in my teens I was writing poems about escalators, traffic islands and boiler rooms for just this reason.

The Church alienates many people by not emphasising its socially controversial doctrines on homosexuality, abortion, divorce, contraception, original sin, Hell, the demonic, and so forth.

It alienates other people by emphasising them even to the extent that it does.

It would alienate even more people, possibly, if it emphasised them more.

I'm not trying to draw any conclusions, but I think we have to accept the complexity of the situation. Whatever the Church emphasizes it is going to alienate people. I'm sure people have stopped practicing their faith because they felt the Church lacked clarity and confidence. Others have stopped practicing because they felt the Church was too conservative or they weren't welcome. It's a difficult balancing act and I have sympathy with the bishops in trying to strike it. Which is not to say that some of them haven't simply been craven or worse.

This is a statue of Daedalus in Killiney, Dublin, which I encountered yesterday. It suddenly occurred to me, looking at it, why myth and sculpture seem to go so well together. Nothing is more airy than a myth, which is timeless and exists only in the imagination. By contrast nothing is more solid and particular than a sculpture. The combination of opposites is satisfying. I wonder is this why sculptors so often turn to myth and legend for subjects?

This is a passage from my father's (unpublished memoirs) which I really love, describing himself and my mother taking the ferry to England, when he emigrated in the sixties. There's something archetypal about the image at the end.

"The night we chose to travel was the night when cars were blown from the docks of the ferry and yachts broke their mooring and smashed to pieces on the rocks of the Irish coast.

"Shortly after we left harbour at Dun Laoghaire a gale got up that reached ten on the Beaufort scale. The waters of the Irish Channel were in ferment. I comforted myself that at least I had a bed to sleep on.

"Had a bed, was the operative term, for when Patricia came back, she told me that she had met a woman with a young baby and no place to sleep. So she volunteered my bed.

"Volunteering was something Patricia did for me many times in the years to follow. So I resigned myself to a night in the lounge, passengers getting sick all around me.

"When I did venture out immediately in front of me was a fellow with a sup taken and a freshly pulled pint of Guinness. To get from the lounge to the deck you had to descend a short flight of iron steps; as soon as this fellow put his foot on the first step he came a cropper - both feet went from under him and he bumped his way downwards. At the bottom, he rose to his feet, the pint held out triumphantly in front of him, and not a drop spilt."

I had occasion to fly across the Atlantic fairly regularly a few years ago and I always liked flying US Airways. I liked their aesthetic; their livery, their announcements, their passenger videos, even the design of their packets of pretzels. They no longer exist, being amalgamated by another airline, but I do have this model airplane which I take pleasure in. Even if it lost a tail fin somewhere along the line.

Attachment is a strange thing.

Here's something funny. I mentioned it was my twentieth work anniversary a little while back. One of my colleagues kindly gave me a helium balloon that says "Happy anniversary". I've had it floating by my desk since.

A few times, as I've been walking to my office, I've done a double-take as the balloon looks (from a distance) a bit like a head jutting over my computer screen, as though someone is sitting at my desk.

Well, today, I was walking a little distance away from my office and one of my colleagues asked: "Who's that in your office?". I smiled and said, "It's a balloon." She gave me a funny look and walked away.

When I walked into my office a few moments later, I saw that a woman I don't know was in there, talking to the guy I share it with, whose desk is across from mine. I hadn't seen her from the cursory look I'd taken. There are glass windows but they are narrow and partly frosted.

My colleague must have thought I was nuts. I don't know whether to correct her or whether it's more amusing just to leave it hanging (or floating).

I can't believe my desk diary is so po-faced it doesn't even mention that tomorrow is Halloween, but it does think I need to know 14 November is the birthday of the Prince of Wales. Limeys! And I say that as an anglophile and a (moderate) monarchist.

I've asked for a page-a-day desk diary for Christmas. (I use them for journalling, not organization.) It's been tough fitting a week into two pages. Lots of tiny writing. But if I write my diary in copybooks or Word documents it expands to an unreasonable length. I've tried not keeping a diary but then I find myself wondering what the point of experience is if it's not written down, especially when I'm having a happy experience. Nothing seems real to me unless it's written down. I can only "live in the moment" if I imagine the moment as a story or a poem or an article. Or a photograph, which admittedly isn't the written word.

If a cliché keeps its nerve it becomes a proverb.

Liberals are loyal to their time, conservatives are loyal to their place.

I've been trying to read the Bible more regularly. I've been reading the Ronald Knox version, which I'd only ever glanced at before. I like it. It's not as bland as the modern translations, but it's not as heavy going as the Douay Rheims-- which is certainly beautiful, but which gets tiring very quickly. There are many passages in the Knox Bible that are reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon poetry, although I didn't make a note of them.

Speaking of Bible translations, I've often wondered if it's really so bad for Catholics to read the King James Version. I'm sure the doctrinally iffy passages are very few in number. And if you are alert to them, what harm? Aesthetically it's unsurpassed. For instance, it seems pure affectation to use any other translation of "The Lord is my shepherd" or "Unto everything there is a season".

Even though I am an Irish nationalist to the core, I feel more sympathy for the unionists today than I do for most of the Irish, especially when it comes to recent talk of a united Ireland. I get the impression that most of the Irish commentators today don't actually want a united Ireland on traditional nationalist grounds. They want it out of a hostility to borders per se. A united Ireland is simply a step towards a united Europe and internationalism.

The unionists, on the other hand, actually care about preseving their traditions and identity. Many criticisms could be made about both, but at least they have some positive ideal they are defending.

I watched Love Actually again the other night. I can't help getting weepy at the end. It's interesting watching it with my American wife and hearing about the differences. The Christmas number one (in the music charts) is not a thing in America. She also expressed surprise that public schools have Nativity plays, since American public schools can't have anything so religious. It's funny that secular Britain has Nativity plays and America, way more Christian in the simple sense of religious observance, doesn't.

I'm reading a book of literary criticism, about British poetry of the eighties and nineties. All the references to regionalism make me think about Dublin, where I've lived all my life. I've never felt a strong sense of belonging to Dublin. When I would visit my aunt's farm in Limerick on my summer holidays it always seemed to me like "the real Ireland", and more of a place.

Dublin has always seemed like a non-place to me, just generic suburbia. Obviously this isn't true of the city centre and and it wasn't true of Ballymun in my childhood, which was almost world famous and immediately recognisable on TV or in photographs. But Dublin the conurbation seems like nothing to me, apart from accents and slang.

Am I too close to see it? If I lived elsewhere would I miss the thing I can't even see now? 

Or is it really just a soulless, globalized no-place?

I've had this idea for a comedy sketch for years. Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw are 
taking the ceremonial first "trip" ever in a lift/elevator. (Never mind whatever anachronisms are involved there). They regale journalists with witticism and repartee before they step inside. Then they do step inside and the door closes. Their smiles fade and their eyes glaze over. GB Shaw looks up at the ceiling. Oscar Wilde looks down at the floor. GB Shaw opens his mouth as if to say something, coughs. Oscar Wilde says: "Quite slow, isn't it?". Etc. Haven't thought of a punchline.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Read Me in the Ireland's Own Halloween Annual!

I have two articles in the Halloween annual of Ireland's Own: a two-page article about Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and a single-page article about Fr. Willie Doyle, the military chaplain from Dalkey who was killed in World War One.

In December, I should have an article on the conversion of Gerard Manly Hopkins in the St. Martin Magazine, the first instalment in a series on notable Catholic converts.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Hurray! It's my Blog Birthday!

 Well, today it is ten years to the day since I launched Irish Papist! I'm very glad I did.

I hadn't been a practicing my faith long when I started writing it. In fact, the blog I had before it (for a short while) was called Practicing to be Catholic!

I'm very grateful to God for preserving my faith for that decade. I came to faith late in life, and with considerable difficulty, so the fact that it has endured is something to be appreciated.

And, of course, I'm grateful to my wonderful readers-- YOU!-- for giving the blog a purpose for existence. Thanks for reading, for the comments, for the emails, for the prayers, and for all the ways you've interacted with me and encouraged me.

Today is also, by a remarkable coincidence, my twentieth anniversary in UCD Library. I've been here so long it feels like home. I love working in a place that is a little world of its own. One day I hope to be known as the Swan of Belfield. If nobody else calls me this, I'll just use it myself. (Belfield is the name of UCD's main campus, where I'm located.) It would be quite appropriate as the lake in Belfield actually does have swans.

Special mention goes to the colleague and friend, who also reads my blog, who brought me in an anniversary balloon, chocolate, and card. How awesome is that? Very awesome. Benedictine, I'd say, in the Dirk sense.

Also to my wife Michelle who made these delicious cupcakes for me to bring in.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Idea of Thickness: A Blog Post from 2020

Today, continuing my countdown to tomorrow's ten-year anniversary of this blog, I'm going way back to 2020 for my final re-posted blog post. This is one of the posts that meant most to me on this blog, since the concept of "thickness" is never far from my mind.

An idea that keeps coming to my mind, as I look about this world and explore my own feelings about it, is the idea of "thickness". I've found myself invoking this idea several times, when talking to friends, and I've struggled to express it adequately. I'm going to try to put it into words here. 

Although I've struggled to express it, I don't want to make out that there's any great mystery to it. I don't think there is. But I would ask the reader to think in very fundamental terms. For the moment, forget about Catholicism, religion, conservatism, Ireland, or anything else you might associate with this blog. I would ask them, too, not to assume I mean something lofty or noble. Not necessarily. "Thickness" can be vulgar and tacky.

By "thickness" I mean something like "distinctiveness plus depth". And again, not depth in a lofty sense, but in a simple sense.

I think Christmas might be the best example for "thickness". Christmas is in many ways my ideal for everything.

You can't walk through a city centre in mid-December without realising it's Christmas. Christmas is everywhere; in the lights, the decorations, the carol singers, the pine trees, and a hundred other details. There are countless Christmas songs, Christmas films, Christmas recipes, and so forth. Christmas is very distinctive-- for all its multiplicity, it has an inescapable "flavour"-- and it's very, very deep. There's a lot of it. It's bottomless, in fact. It's so omnipresent, at that time of year, that if becomes a backdrop to everything.
Here's another example of thickness-- parliamentary history. You could take any recondite field of knowledge, but parliamentary history is a personal favourite of mine. I have an idyll, a poetic vision, of a parliamentary history uber-nerd, sitting up in bed, in his pyjamas, with a copy of Hansard (the record of British parliamentary debates) in one hand and a steaming mug of cocoa in the other. (My uber-nerd-- let's call him Harold-- is always English, since Westminster is "the mother of parliaments".)

Harold knows all about the Rump parliament, the Barebones parliament, the Khaki election, and the West Lothian question.  He can tell you who the Speaker of the house was for any year you mention. He knows how constituency boundaries have shifted down the years. In short, he is neck-deep in the "thickness" of parliamentary history-- a subject that is both distinctive (with its own procedures, vocabulary, rituals, and so forth) and deep-- again, effectively bottomless.

Would you like to run into Harold at a party? Personally, I would. Such people are often classed as "bores", although I've never understood why. Surely somebody who has a limitless fund of conversation on one subject is the opposite of a bore? Harold has much to say about something, at least. The true bore, to me, is someone who has nothing to say about anything, or (perhaps) a little to say about everything-- which is generally platitudes, popular opinion, and the fruits of casual reading or viewing. Harold is possibly a bit socially awkward, but would you really rather be trading tiresome and aimless banter with the social butterflies?

So couldn't it be said that everything is "thick", then? After all, you could immerse yourself in anything.
But I think there are real differences, and that "thickness" is an objective quality. For instance, take the contrast between Christmas and Easter.

Christmas is thick, in the secular world as well as in religious circles. Easter is not. Have you ever seen an Easter movie or read an Easter book? There may be any number of Easter hymns, but I know of no Easter songs. A person could easily walk through a city centre street and not realize it was Easter. I imagine that was possible even a hundred years ago.

Now, Christians know that the meaning of Easter is as deep and as distinctive as it could possibly be. And I imagine that distinctiveness, that depth, would be very evident in a monastery, or perhaps in some village with many pious traditions still alive, or even in a big and observant Catholic family. But, in contemporary Western society, Easter isn't at all "thick" in the sense I mean here. "The Easter spirit" doesn't roll off the tongue-- sadly. Easter doesn't form a backdrop like Christmas does.

(In fact, I've always had the desire for Easter to be made "thicker"...but that's another story.)

Another example of something that is not "thick", to contrast this time with parliamentary history. Let us take local history. Local history is very laudable, but in general, it's not "thick". It might be. I imagine, for instance, that the history of the Isle of Man is "thick", but I doubt the history of Watford is "thick". There must be lots of it, as with all history, but I doubt that it's very distinctive.

I crave "thickness" and I always have. And I have a certain affection for "thickness" even in contexts that might not seem particularly laudable. I've never been in a bingo hall, and bingo seems like a singularly mindless occupation to me. But I can't help feeling a certain affection for bingo halls, since bingo has its own slang, its own rituals, its own way of life.

"Thickness" can apply to anything. It can apply to transport, for instance. I've spent far more time in buses than on trains, but I've never found anything "thick" about bus travel. A bus is just a long car, for the most part. But air travel is very "thick", and train travel is as "thick" as you could wish. We've all heard about train-spotters and model train sets. Have you ever heard about bus-spotters or model bus sets?

Now I'm on the subject of travel, it occurs to me that age is not necessarily a guarantee of "thickness". Walking is the oldest form of human transport, but it's not particularly "thick". Not a fraction as "thick" as train travel, which came along the day before yesterday.
I would claim that even time-periods can be "thick" or not "thick". The seventies, it seems to me, were "thick". So were the sixties. But what about the noughties? Perhaps they will seem "thicker" in retrospect, but I doubt it.

So what is the importance of "thickness"? Well, it has a personal importance to me, since I crave it. But I think it is important for society, too. 

"Thickness" is always easy to mock, and is the habitual target of stand-up comedians. Christmas is a racket, the Isle of Man is inbred, train-spotters are pathetic, parliament should be modernized and streamlined, etc. etc.

But people gravitate towards "thickness" constantly, if only to mock and castigate it. It's something to grasp hold of, something to capture the imagination (in whatever way), a backdrop, a theme, a flavour, material for a joke or a caricature. "Thinness" is none of those things.

Let's turn to the example of Catholicism. We've all heard about the Catholic who has a "quiet, inward" faith, even though he might not get to Mass every week, and doesn't go in much for prayers and novenas. His faith is expressed in how he lives his life, he tells us-- or his obituarist tells us.

Very well. But I can't help feeling a lot more admiration for the old lady who goes to daily Mass, whose house is filled with holy pictures, who is always rattling off rosaries, and who goes on pilgrimage several times a year. Apart from anything else, she is constantly proclaiming the name of Jesus, while "quiet, inward faith" leaves it unspoken most of the time. But more than that--she fills the atmosphere, the little corner of the world she occupied, with the incense of piety.

The same applies to nationality. What is the point of being a patriot if you are not doing your part to preserve your country's traditions and distinctiveness? I've never had any interest in an Irishness which is confined to the depths of the psyche-- a quiet, inward Irishness, perhaps. Nationality that is not expressed in outward things is a feeble, wispy entity. But a nationality which expresses itself in song, story, language, dance, clothes, food and drink, and so forth-- that's a living and vibrant nationality. A "thick" nationality. Besides, I believe that, to a great degree, taking care of the "outward things" means that the "inward things" take care of themselves.

These are by basic thoughts on "thickness". It may not seem a terribly significant concept. But I find it coming to my own mind all the time. Generally speaking, I'm in favour of whatever fosters "thickness" and opposed to whatever diminishes it.

Losing my Father: A Blog Post from 2019

Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of this blog. I've been counting down to that anniversary by re-posting a blog post from each year. I've reached 2019, which is the year I lost my father. I wrote this blog post about it.

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.