Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Starting Again with Jesus

In praying the Rosary, one of the mysteries I find most difficult to pray is Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the Temple. Somehow it doesn't quite stir my imagination like many other mysteries do (for instance, the Transfiguration, the Presentation, the Descent of the Holy Spirit).

I'm never very sure what the Finding in the Temple means, its significance. I should probably do some reading on it.

The meaning I generally assign to it is the constant need to "rediscover" Jesus. I don't know whether this is impious as it applies to Joseph and, especially, Mary. But I apply it to myself.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about the need to rediscover Jesus, to start again with Jesus. It's so easy to forget that Christianity is centred on the person of Jesus Christ. I think there is a constant temptation to make Christianity something else: a social and cultural legacy, a side in a culture war, a set of attitudes, an aesthetic sensibility, etc. etc.

More than anything else, there is a temptation to shoehorn our own beliefs, priorities, and hobby-horses into the Gospel. I have fallen into this trap many, many times and struggle to escape it.

I think that even the desire to grow deeper in our Faith, to learn more about it, can put us in danger of this. It's all very well to immerse ourselves in the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the teachings of the Church Fathers, the writings of the saints, the writings of the visionaries, etc. etc. But when these become pitted against the teaching of the Pope and bishops, we're in trouble. We get drawn into faction-fighting within the Church, looking inward rather than outward.

One particular temptation I struggle with is the temptation to overlook the importance of human suffering, especially that of the poor.

I have an aesthetic view of life. I tend to worry about things like the decline of poetry or national traditions, rather than homelessness or hunger or poverty.

But reading the Gospel, the Bible, and the lives of the saints-- and even bearing in mind our Lord's rebuke to Judas in the house of Simon the leper-- it seems clear that God cares much more about human suffering than about such rather airy matters.


Although I've known poverty myself, I lack the visceral concern for the poor exhibited by the prophets, our Lord, and the saints. I feel particularly bad about this because I should have inherited it from my father and grandfather, who were always working for the betterment of the poor. I'm currently reading the autobiography of Dorothy Day, and her own concern for the poor is both inspiring and chastening. (This means poverty of all kinds, of course.)

Again and again, I find myself having to "start again with Jesus", to realize how far I've drifted off into my own preoccupations, and to try to open my heart to what he wants from me.

Pope Francis is currently delivering a series of addresses on discernment, so hopefully that will help me with my own "re-centring".

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Tonic of Nihilism

This morning I found myself thinking about a poem by A.E. Housman, a translation from Sophocles that begins: "What man is he that yearneth for length unmeasured of days?" It's an extremely bleak poem, even nihilistic, one that is based on the "wisdom of Silenus" theme.

Put simply, Silenus was a Greek companion of Dionysius who, when a human enquirer asked him what the happiest fate for humans was, answered: "Never to be born, and failing that, to die quickly."

The Sophocles poem that Housman translates has also been translated by Yeats, and is even more savage in this version:

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best's a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

As most people will know, A.E. Housman's poems are full of this sort of nihilism. An epicurean college don who died of a good old age, he wrote many an ode celebrating the death of young men on the battlefield. Surprisingly, his poems were very popular in the trenches of World War One


What puzzles me is that this is the sort of thing I should hate. Although I'm of a melancholy temperament, my outlook is very much pro-life in the most fundamental sense. I think life is a good thing, a good beyond all words. I agree with Chesterton:

There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness; and it is the abyss of actuality, of existence, of the fact that things truly are, and that we ourselves are incredibly and sometimes almost incredulously real. It is the fundamental fact of being, as against not being; it is unthinkable, yet we cannot unthink it, though we may sometimes be unthinking about it; unthinking and especially unthanking. For he who has realized this reality knows that it does outweigh, literally to infinity, all lesser regrets or arguments for negation, and that under all our rumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude. That light of the positive is the business of the poets, because they see all things in the light of it more than do other men.

I believe this with all my heart. And yet, there is also a certain truth to this bleak, uncompromising verse of Philip Larkin, "Wants":

Beyond all this, the wish to be alone:
However the sky grows dark with invitation-cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flag-staff -
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites,
The costly aversion of the eyes away from death -
Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs.


Another example are the works of Samuel Beckett. As much as I dislike modernism, and especially the bleaker aspects of modernism, there's something in Beckett that draws me. Perhaps it's a sort of relief to have come to the very bottom. There's certainly a stark beauty in his plays (and even in photographs of the man himself).

My own view is that this sort of nihilism, occasionally indulged in, is a healthy tonic-- as long as we remember it's just a tonic. Life is wonderful and precious beyond all words, but it's also full of pain and suffering and grief. Every now and again, articulating the deepest darkness of life-- as the Bible itself does in Ecclesiastes-- is warranted, I think. Only to return once again to the light of gratitude and joy and affirmation.

Here is the whole of the Housman poem:

What man is he that yearneth
For length unmeasured of days?
Folly mine eye discerneth
Encompassing all his ways.
For years over-running the measure
Small change thee in evil wise:
Grief draweth nigh thee; and pleasure,
Behold it is hid from thine eyes.
This to their wage have they
Which overlive their day.
And He that looseth from labor
Doth one with other befriend,
Whom bride nor bridesmen attend,
Song, nor sound of the tabor,
Death, that maketh an end.

Thy portion esteem I highest,
Who was not even begot;
Thine next, being born who diest
And straightway again art not.
With follies light as the feather
Doth Youth to man befall;
Then evils gather together,
There wants not one of them all-
Wrath, envy, discord, strife,
The sword that seeketh life.
And sealing the sum of trouble
Doth tottering Age draw nigh,
Whom friends and kinsfolk fly,
Age, upon whom redouble
All sorrows under the sky.

This man, as me, even so,
Have the evil days overtaken;
And like as a cape sea-shaken
With tempest at earth's last verges
And shock of all winds that blow,
His head the seas of woe,
The thunders of awful surges
Ruining overflow;
Blown from the fall of even,
Blown from the dayspring forth,
Blown from the noon in heaven,
Blown from night and the North.

Monday, September 12, 2022

De Alfonce Tennis (II)

The second part of this review has been cancelled due to lack of interest.

Friday, September 9, 2022

On the Loss of Queen Elizabeth II

Two verses come to mind today. One is Phillip Larkin's four-line tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. I can't easily find when it was written but I know it was in his later years, before his death in 1985:

In times when nothing stood
But worsened, or grew strange,
There was one constant good:
She did not change.

The other is a verse from "The Mountains of Mourne" by Percy French, one that always makes me a bit dewy-eyed. The song is in the form of a letter home from an Irish emigrant to London:

I've seen England's king from the top of a bus
And I've never known him, but he means to know us.
And tho' by the Saxon we once were oppressed,
Still I cheered, God forgive me, I cheered with the rest.
And now that he's visited Erin's green shore
We'll be much better friends than we've been heretofore
When we've got all we want, we're as quiet as can be
Where the Mountains o' Mourne sweep down to the sea.

RIP Queen Elizabeth II. God save King Charles III, and long may his line continue.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Hail to my Namesake

A thousand years ago today, Máel Seachnaill mac Domhnaill passed away, after a long and energetic life, which you can read about here.

It's from him I take my name, so I want to salute his memory now-- even though I rather suspect he would despise me as a wimp who never once swung a sword in battle.



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Some Reasons I Love Trains

I thought of titling this quick, impromptu blog post "Ten Reasons I Love Trains", then remembered how much I dislike this modern phenomenon of arbitrarily numbered lists.

Anyway, I love trains. Who doesn't? Breathes there a man with soul so dead...

But the appeal of the train is so specific, so many-sided, I feel compelled to write about what it means to me.

1) First off, a train is a sort of solid metaphor. A metaphor for what? For all sorts of things. For some reason, trains seem to be an inexhaustible source for analogies and figures of speech. Full steam ahead, off the rails, whistle-stop tour, the wrong side of the tracks, end of the line, one-track mind....I'm sure you could come up with a much longer list of train-related phrases that have entered the lexicon.

As a kid, I was wildly excited by the title of an wee-hours radio show called Night-Train. (My ambition was to listen to it all night, but I'm not sure I ever listened to a single minute of it.)

"Bye Bye Miss American Pie" (one of the few pop or rock songs my father liked) draws on railway imagery for its last verse, in a very memorable way:

And the three men I admire the most
The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
They took the last train for the coast the day the music died.

Then there is "Slow Train Coming", a song and album by Bob Dylan, the Guns 'n' Roses song "Locomotive" (and indeed, "Night Train"), and...well, any number of others.

Trains also seem ideal for dramatizing the human situation. Recently, I watched the final episode of a series which dramatized one of the main characters' deaths by showing her taking a journey on a mysterious train, filled with all the people she'd known in her life. I'm sure a thick, thick book could be filled with similar examples.

2) The chug-chug-chug sound in the background. It's a rather pleasing sound, and it reminds you every moment that you are on a journey.

3) The fact that every train and every train-station is linked to a nationwide network of railways and railway stations. This creates a delicious awareness of the country around you, all the different cities and towns as part of a greater whole, a sense of opening horizons. The part, however, is not swallowed up in the whole. Each train station has its own atmosphere and identity. What a difference between a sleepy country station and a bustling city centre station!

4) A train isn't really a part of the environment through which it passes. It doesn't get caught in traffic or have people stopping it to ask for directions. This gives it a strangely disembodied, even dream-like atmosphere. You're there, but you're not there.

5) A train is a truly public transport. You are sharing a space with complete strangers, a space which invites rather than repels interaction. This might, admittedly, be a mixed blessing at times. But it makes possible protracted conversation between strangers, in a way that is almost impossible anywhere else except on a plane. And even if you don't talk, just sharing a carriage with others has a sociable element.

6) All the announcements, both in stations and on trains themselves. They are usually read by well-spoken people, and the elocution, pronunciation, and formality is a pleasure in itself. There is the poetry of place-names, as well as the poetry that settles on very ordinary phrases when they are used over and over: "Mind the gap" is probably the most famous example.

One of my favourite book titles of all time is The Ghost Now Standing on Platform One, an anthology of train-related ghost stories. The title obviously wouldn't work if the phrase was not such a familiar one.

7) A very particular idea, one which may be unique to me. I've noticed that whenever I'm reading a book of history, or any book where social and cultural trends are discussed, the image of a train always comes into my mind. History itself seems like a train, as well as all the constituent streams of history.

This image especially comes to my mind when I'm reading about the lead-up to the 1916 Rising, the Russian Revolution, or some similar great historic moment. (I mean "great" neutrally, of course.) When events are moving with great speed or momentum, the train seems like the only adequate metaphor.

Perhaps crucial to this association is the sense of strain. Trains always seem to be straining forward. I associate this same sense of strain with the events of history, which we might either be resisting or assisting. Perhaps it is my Irish nationalist background, but any history that is not the history of a struggle seems dull and uninspiring to me.

I could go on and on, but I might as well get off here.


Monday, August 22, 2022

De Alfonce Tennis by J.P. Donleavy (1)

Today, my inter-library loan order of De Alfonce Tennis arrived. I'm looking forward to reading it. Not only is it a book that meant a great deal to me at one stage of my life, but I'm expecting it will be something of a "time capsule" of my early-to-mid teens.


The full title of the book is De Alfonce Tennis: The Superlative Game of Eccentric Champions. Its History, Accoutrements, Rules, Conduct and Regimen. A Legend by J.P. Donleavy. (I have added punctuation to the title. Donleavy's frequent disregard of punctuation is typical of his eccentric writing style.)

De Alfonce Tennis is a very strange book. The first part purports to be the history of a game called-- you guessed it-- De Alfonce Tennis. The central character is J.P. Donleavy himself (referred to as Jay Pee in the story, whereas Donleavy was actually known as "Mike" to his friends).

The history is obviously fictional and tongue-in-cheek, full to the brim of dramatic and improbable events. More on that anon.

The book gets even odder once the story part is over. The rest is a sort of guide-book for De Alfonce players, going into great detail on rules, exercise, health, lifestyle and various other miscellaneous aspects of being a De Alfonce player. It's all very entertaining, but that doesn't take away from the strangeness. It's one of those jokes that are prolonged way beyond what you expect, that amuse (if they don't annoy) by their very audacity.

As I've already mentioned, this book came into my life in my teens. I think I was about fourteen. I've never been able to ascertain where it actually came from. It just appeared in our flat. Since our flat was full of books, and books were always coming and going, this wasn't all that strange. But it did add to the book's aura of weirdness.

It was also my introduction to J.P. Donleavy. I was a Donleavy nut in my teens and my early twenties. I can't claim to have even read most of his books, but I read everything I could get my hands on. (This was before the internet. Libraries had very limited Donleavy holdings, and I rarely had any money in those days.)

I had the good fortune to interview J.P Donleavy in 1998. I wrote a letter (enclosing a review of one of his books that I wrote for a college newspaper) asking for an interview, and to my surprise he agreed. He explicitly told me when I met him that one of the reasons he granted me the interview is that I mentioned De Alfonce Tennis in my letter, a book that he considered unfairly neglected. (Maddeningly, I lost the tape of the interview.)

I also learned that De Alfonce Tennis is a real game-- or at least, that it was. Donleavy told me that he did play it with his friends. Whether it's still played, after his demise in 2017, is another question.

And so, now I've given an overview of the book, back to the story part.

Much of the story takes place on an ocean cruise to America, a setting that gives the book much of its unique flavour. The game of De Alfonce itself is full of naval terminology (for instance, the right and left sides of the court are called "Starboard" and "Port"). This idea appeals to me a lot.

Considering I've never been on an ocean cruise, stories involving ocean cruises have had a disproportionate influence on my life. Well, two stories, to be precise: De Alfonce Tennis and Brideshead Revisited. The ocean cruise section in Brideshead Revisted motivated me to begin the diary I've more or less kept up since 2015. It got me excited about the flavour of each particular day, the days it described on the cruise being especially distinctive. (Ocean cruises also excite me, dramatically, as one of the few relatively self-contained social situations in our uber-connected world.)

I won't go into detail about the complicated backstory of De Alfonce Tennis. It's a blatant leg-pull, involving things like a missing yacht called Hiyathere (carrying the original Fourteen players of De Alfonce Tennis's predecessor game Bangokok), a police detective named AKA Alias, and a Founder who commits vicarious suicide by having an assassin shoot him with a diamond-tipped bullet-- just before he was scheduled to reveal the mystery of the Hiyathere on a TV talk-show.

It's all delicious hokum, and you can sense how much Donleavy enjoyed writing it. I can understand the appeal. I derived a similar sort of fun from writing about the Unicorn School of poetry, an exercise in fantasy that pleased me much more than anyone who read it, I suspect.

Our hero Jay Pee becomes the heir to De Alfonce Tennis, in a passage I can't resist quoting:

On the eighteenth floor in a corner office looking upwards along Madison Avenue and with the sun beaming in, I was handed a key to unlock a large gleamingly polished leather box resembling a shotgun case. Which lid upon coming open produced the strains of the 'Capriccio Italien' in all its simple muted harp strumming beauty. And set in the brocaded emerald velvet interior were four bright yellow balls and two strange racquets.

The scene then shifts to the ocean liner voyage to America, where Jay Pee makes the acquaintance of Laura, a stunningly beautiful and brilliant Englishwoman, who is always followed about by the aristocratic lout Lord Charles. Laura has some connection with the Hiyathere mystery, and was a friend of the Founder, but remains mysterious about it.

I fell in love with Laura. I think she was one of the two great literary crushes of my youth. The other was Pandora Braithwaite in the Adrian Mole books. This is how Jay Pee describes Laura, who he meets on the ship's squash court:

She, even in her purpoesful athletic gear, was an appetizingly curvaceous classically beautiful raven haired variety of an English rose who conveniently was also an awfully large shareholder in the present steamship line... not only could this irresistibly amusing lady devastate me at squash but her unquenchable curiosity and questions and my somewhat embroidered answers, fanned the mystery of the 'Hiyathere' into nearly nightmarish proportions... Having lived in Katmandu and among the Sherpas and monks of Tibet, she also spoke fluent Sherpa and Nepalese. And had the distinction of being the one female ever permitted to study the Buddhist sacred books.

My kind of girl! I envisaged her as a similarly raven-haired beauty a few years above me in secondary school, whose name I never learned but who I adored from afar.

I would cast Kate Beckinsale as Laura

Scanning through the book, I have been unable to find the ocean-bound passages which appealed to me so much, but which I know are there. I will have to resort to quoting other passages to illustrate Donleavy's great gift of painting atmosphere. Here he is having landed in New York:

Bathed in my rather overly ornate pink marble bath and dressed in a thick tweed suit and cap, college scarf around my neck and galoshes on my feet, I went as the snow continued to fall, down Fifth Avenue. Feeling the excitement again of this city. The park a great white apron spreading distantly under the grey stark branches of the trees. Citizens sporting ear muffs in the dry cold and a girl sped by me on skis. My nose was dripping, ears stinging but it was always warmly cheerful to be greeted in the lobby of the Game Room by its old retainers. A familiar face being always so reassuring in this so anonymous city.

My favourite passage comes towards the end of the book. Jay Pee has just received some shocking news, while reading in the Game Room library:

The heaving of my breath made me stand up. To walk in the hushed emptiness of the room to the window. The wind howling outside, driving swirling thicknesses of snow in a great white veil sweeping down over the park. Blue bolts of lightning striking from the sky. Traffic slowing stopped in the streets. The glass of the Game Club library shaking with the claps of thunder. Cars far below, white little heaps abandoned. People staring from their windows. Dark tiny figures struggling into the wind. Under the pearly blanket, the noises of the city muffled to alabaster silence.

But I don't have time to do justice to De Alfonce Tennis in one post. I'll have to return to the subject, once I've actually re-read the book.

Monday, July 25, 2022

A Facebook Post From Two Years Ago

 I want more tradition, but I want it to pervade ordinary life. I am for the traditionalism of Tuesday morning on a workday. The traditions, customs and rituals that can fill the most ordinary moments are the ones that count to me, not the "big ticket" traditions that happen once a year or every now and then, and require great expense and planning. They are important, too, but they seem far less important. What is the point of cramming all our traditions into weddings, funerals, baptisms, Christmas, big sporting occasions, etc., if ordinary daily life becomes completely drab and humdrum?

For the same reason, I'm not attracted to the idyll of living in some sleepy, old-fashioned village. I want to be in the belly of the beast. I want to take contemporary life at its most soulless and utilitarian and try to make the most of that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Getting Outside

After a fair amount of very conventional posts, including an honest-to-God book review, I'm going to indulge myself in one of those idiosyncratic pieces which give this blog its unique flavour (or so I like to think).

In recent times, my mind has been much on the idea of getting outside, as I put it in my blog post. And, in particular, the sensation of "getting outside".

What do I mean by getting outside? In simple terms, the psychological experience of seeing something from another perspective, a larger perspective, and the sense of strangeness and (very often) liberation that stems from this.

I don't know if you ever had the experience, in your childhood, of trying to step outside your consciousness and look at it from outside. We can all do this to some extent. We call it "self-awareness" and it seems to be a step up from simple awareness. A drunk who knows he is drunk has self-awareness. Someone who knows his judgement is clouded by emotion is self-aware.

You can, somehow, look at the operations of your own mind. But what is this "you" that is looking at the mind? It has to be something outside that mind, in some sense. At least, a part of the mind outside the rest of the mind.

And then, when you find yourself thinking about that, it must be some other part of the mind looking at that part, which is looking at all the rest...it seems as though we can never directly "catch" the gleam of consciousness.

The thought is a bit giddy, like looking at the corridor of images created when one mirror is pointed at another, and a human figure is reflected again and again down the whole corridor. Or like the visual creations of M.C. Escher. Or the thought of waking from a dream, which turns out to be a dream, which turns out to be a dream..


There's always another "outside", whether we are talking about human consciousness or anything else.

When you get out of your bed, you still have to get out of your bedroom. And then out of your house. And then out of your neighbourhood. And then out of your city. And so on.

I thought I could best explain the point by appealing to this idea of successive "outsides". But the sequence is not the important thing, not the thing I'm trying to evoke.

I'm trying to evoke the feeling of "getting outside", and how peculiar and unique it is. It can be dizzying, liberating, intoxicating, unsettling, or all of the above. I'll try to give some examples.

There is a popular Irish TV show called Reeling in the Years, which I like. The premise is ingeniously simple; it's a collection of TV footage from a particular year, shown against a soundtrack of music hits from that same year. There is no narrator, only a series of captions.

When it comes to episodes on those years that I actually lived through-- the nineties, for instance-- I'm struck by a very strange sensation indeed. I remember all (or most) of the scenes that I'm watching, but I never saw them as a whole like that. When we are living through a particular period, we are immersed in one thing at a time. We don't think of them, particularly, as being a part of that year-- any more than we now thinking of the war in the Ukraine when we are discussing the Top Gun sequel.


Stepping outside of the flow of events, seeing it as a unity for the first time, gives you an entirely different perspective. It's like looking at your home town from the top of a mountain.

I've noticed the same shift in perspective, the same sense of getting "outside", occurs when I read a biography, particularly a biography of a writer or an artist or some sort of creator who has drawn extensively on their own life.

For instance, C.S. Lewis (despite his avowed hatred of navel-gazing) is a writer who wrote about himself a lot, as in his autobiography Surprised by Joy. Lewis seems so self-aware, so self-critical, so insightful, that it's easy to take his account of events as definitive. He is such a confident, forceful personality that the reader is lulled into agreement.

So it's a surprise to learn, for instance, that Lewis's account of his boarding school days seems to have been strongly distorted by his prejudice against the place. His brother, and other contemporaries, hardly recognized his description. The same is true of George Orwell and his own account of his schooldays.

Reading a biography of a beloved writer always has this quality of startled outsideness. While we were reading this author's books, his voice seemed like the voice of God. We are taken aback to find that God is just another guy, one with blindspots and naivety and gaps in his knowledge. At least, I am.

Of course, we find ourselves stepping outside once again when we are shown the biographer's own prejudices and blinkers.

We have the same reaction even more forcefully the moment we realize, towards the end of childhood, that our parents are not infinitely wise, nor are they right about everything.

Another example: I have this sense of "outsideness" when I unexpectedly find myself outside a particular discourse, a particular set of assumptions.

For instance, we are all so habituated to political correctness today-- even those of us who detest it-- that we get a jolt whenever we find ourselves in a non-politically correct discussion. I imagine a similar reaction must have been felt when the citizens of the Soviet Union heard Marxist-Leninism being openly questioned for the first time.

Another example, from my own experience: returning to Dublin after a New Year spent in London, and suddenly feeling a strong awareness that Dublin was a relatively small city, and just one place in a much bigger world. Of course I knew this, but I'd somehow never really appreciated it until then.

I could continue in this vein forever, but perhaps I have made my point. I'm not trying to make any moral or ideological point. I simply think that this sense of "outsideness" is something worth pondering, something that adds much to the flavour of life. And perhaps it does have a moral or philosophical significance. I suspect it does, but I don't insist upon any.

Monday, July 18, 2022

A Facebook Post From 2020

These old posts come to my attention through Facebook's "Memories" feature. Anyway, these are still the things I worry about three years later.

These are the things that strike me as important and imperilled as I enter into my mid-forties, in 2020.

1) Cultural diversity-- the real sort, not the nominal, skin-deep sort. That specialness and character should be preserved against the tide of sameness. I worry about this all the time, incessantly.

2) Poetry. Poetry seems ever more important to me. Poetry seems, not only essential in itself, but the necessary corrective to all that is utilitarian, banal, and dehumanising in society. And it seems to me that poetry has never been more marginalized in the life of society than it is today.

3) Something I can only evoke by a term such as "folklore", or "oral tradition". Ballads. Parlour games. Campfire tales. Local legends. Everything that is not commercialized, commodified, passively consumed, or mass marketed.

I am always preoccupied by these subjects. I don't claim they are more important than others. But they feel most urgent to me.

And what about the Faith? Of course, the Faith. But the more I learn of the Faith the calmer and surer I feel of it. Our Lord's promise to St. Peter is a sure rock we can rest on. We need the Church to save us, not the other way round. That victory has been won already.

 (We still need to evangelize, of course.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Book Review: The Life of Gregory Zilboorg

The Life of Gregory Zilboorg, 1890-1959 (two volumes), by Caroline Zilboorg
Routledge, 2022

I'd never heard of Gregory Zilboorg until a few months ago. I encountered his name while reading about Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk and author of The Seven-Storey Mountain. Zilboorg played only a passing role in Merton's life, when Merton had developed a typically dilettantish interest in psychoanalysis and came to him for advice. However, the article where I came upon Zilboorg's name mentioned that he (like Merton) was a convert to Catholicism, and my antennae tingled.

Luckily for me, a comprehensive two-volume biography of Zilboorg has been published this very year, and I read it avidly.

I love conversion stories, and I've read quite a few books about Catholic converts. As far as I can remember, I've never seen Zilboorg mentioned in these books.



Who was he? He was a Russian-Jewish psychoanalyst who moved to America after the Russian Revolution, and who became a national figure, even appearing on magazine covers and in cartoons. He analysed various famous people, such as the composer George Gershwin and the author Lillian Hellman. He was a prolific writer, particularly noted for his History of Medical Psychology. He also translated Russian plays and novels into English (including We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian novel which predates both Brave New World and 1984).

And, of course, he was a Catholic convert. He was received into the Church late in life, just five years before his death, but he had been moving towards Catholicism for a long time before that. The break-up of his first marriage and his subsequent marriage to an Episcopalian, who had no intention of becoming Catholic, delayed his reception by many years.

In terms of conversion stories, Zilboorg's is somewhat unusual. As a young man he was a revolutionary, acting as a secretary for the Ministry of Labour in Kerensky's moderate government, which came to power in February of 1917 and was toppled by the Bolsheviks in October of that year. He fled from Russia in fear of his life.

This background, combined with the knowledge that he converted to Catholicism, might suggest that Zilboorg became a reactionary conservative, a Cold Warrior who renounced the utopianism of his youth and embraced a die-hard Republicanism. But this isn't what happened. Zilboorg remained a lifelong socialist, a humanist, and very much an Enlightenment thinker. He was an ardent opponent of the death penalty and something of a feminist, decrying the more misogynistic assumptions of early psychoanalysis.


He was also, however, a critic of scientism (as we would call it now), and a champion of the individual against the standardizing forces of modernity-- forces he saw operating in Western society as much as in the USSR. Like John Henry Newman, he rejected the notion that education, science, and "progress" would improve the human condition on their own.

In a lecture in Montreal, he said: "Ours is a civilization that spurns tradition and insists on pragmatic, mechanical routine, whereas the remedy in our civilization lies in restoring  the continuity of humanism, and of abolishing pragmatic, materialistic routine." 

The biography is a truly impressive piece of work, wonderfully researched but never sacrificing readability for a morass of detail. Although it's written by Zilboorg's daughter, it's definitely a biography rather than a memoir, aside from the occasional first-hand anecdote, and it doesn't idealize Zilboorg (who was often a controversial figure).

A picture emerges of a man who was driven, idealistic, epicurean, often high-handed, and weighed down with a sense of responsibility to the world, his profession, and his extended family.

Zilboorg was born in Kiev in 1890. Although the book mentions that Ukrainian nationalism was a force during his own lifetime, he never seemed to consider himself as anything other than Russian. Perhaps the pogroms he witnessed in his childhood inhibited any sense of Ukrainian patriotism. Ultimately, however, he seems to have been more an internationalist than anything else.

His father was a deeply religious man, but Zilboorg announced at an early age that he did not believe in the Torah and was not going to practice his childhood faith. Despite this, he continued to identify with his Jewish heritage. In 1938, he published a pamphlet entitled I Won't Apologize, taking his fellow Americans to task for not speaking out more decisively against Hitler's persecution of the Jews.

Zilboorg attended medical school in St. Petersburg, despite economic hardship and quotas against Jews in university education. The Russian Revolution broke out during his years there, and he found himself working as the secretary for the Ministry of Labour in Alexander Kerensky's provisional government. The history of the twentieth century, and even our own, might have been a much happier one if Kerensky had retained power, and if Lenin had been prevented from replacing him. Zilboorg worked energetically to this end. The account of the Russian Revolution is one of the most vivid and exciting parts of the book, and Zilboorg deserves great credit for his efforts to prevent the Bolshevik cataclysm.


Having failed in this, and realizing his life was in danger as an opponent of the Bolsheviks, he fled westward-- to Vienna, Germany, and the Netherlands, countries in ferment as World War One came to an end. He supported himself by lecturing and writing, and managed to live in high style even as he had no dependable income. Eventually, he got to New York in April 1919.

He stayed with his brother James who had emigrated to America years before. The relationship of Gregory and James is a running thread throughout the biography, as indeed is Gregory's relationship with his whole birth family, most of whom (including his parents) moved to Mexico between the wars. Gregory continued to send financial support from America. The passages featuring Zilboorg's birth family and in-laws have a certain flavour of situation comedy to them, with their domestic dramas serving as a sort of sub-plot to Zilboorg's career.

Soon after his arrival in America, Zilboorg worked as a guest lecturer with a kind of intellectual roadshow, the Chautauqua, a "travelling tent" company which took educational lectures, drama and music around the country. (It's always chastening to read about the popularity of public lectures and public meetings in the days before we all became glued to the television and, later, the internet. Zilboorg himself was quite withering about pop culture such as the music hall and the cinema, much preferring the theatre. He was, however, a big fan of boxing.)

Eventually Zilboorg gained admittance to Columbia University's medical school. This took some effort, as his Russian qualifications didn't translate directly to the American academic system. His enemies in the psychoanalytic profession would later use this fact against him. Columbia University at this time required every student to pass a swimming test; indeed, it still does. Zilboorg got a friend to pass this on his behalf. He was never hesitant about asking favours.


Even before going to Columbia-- indeed, only seven months after arriving in America-- Zilboorg married Ray Liebow, a Jewish-Russian emigré herself. The marriage never seems to have been a happy one, although they did have two children together.

After Columbia, Zilboorg went to work in Bloomingdale, a psychiatric hospital in New York. Before long, however, he was drawn to the burgeoning psychoanalytic movement, and indeed became an official in the New York Psychoanalytic Society, setting up its library and bookshop. Controversy dogged him here, too: at one point he resigned from the Society because of questions about his account-keeping. The controversy, which seems to have been a storm in a teacup, eventually passed. The psychoanalytic profession seems to have been plagued by petty internecine quarrels, and this was not the only time Zilboorg would fall victim to them.

It would prolong this review unduly to follow Zilboorg's subsequent career in detail. He went into private practice as a psychoanalyst, but he continued to act as a part-time lecturer for various institutions (some of them Catholic, in his later years). He also wrote books (including a history of psychiatry which occupied him for many years, and was very well received), translated books and plays, gave lectures, involved himself in various professional organizations, and much more. Indeed, reading the biography, I found myself astonished at how much Zilboorg managed to accomplish. How did he find the time, never mind the energy? It's true social media had not been invented yet, but that only goes so far in explaining it.

And he still found time for hobbies. Learning the hobbies and past-times of the great is one of my favourite parts of biographies. Zilboorg's hobbies included boxing, photography, and cooking. There are many charming accounts of his "cooking retreats" with his friend Henry Siegerest, and indeed reproductions of the handwritten and hand-decorated menus they would make on such occasions.

Controversy hit Zilboorg again when some of his psychoanalytic colleagues became convinced he had acted unethically with a particular patient: accepting gifts (which he didn't deny) and making a business proposition (which he did). As the biography explains, the ethics of analyst-patient relations were much looser in those days, and psychotherapists would often accept gifts from patients, and even go on holiday with them. The account of the professional enquiry into this episode occupies many pages, but is quite gripping, with many of the sessions lasting well past midnight. Eventually, Zilboorg was acquitted by the vast majority of his colleagues.

In 1940, Zilboorg hired a secretary named Margaret Stone (nicknamed "Peg"), with whom he fell in love and began an affair. In 1946 he divorced his first wife and remarried Stone, with whom he had three children (including his future biographer). Neither Zilboorg nor his first wife had been baptised at the time of his marriage, and his second wife was an Episcopalian who had no intention of becoming a Catholic. This complicated his eventual reception into the Church for many years.

In the 1920's, Zilboorg had begun to attend Quaker meetings, although he doesn't seem to have regarded himself as a Quaker. In the mid-forties, he made the acquaintance of Noel Mailloux, a Dominican priest and psychology professor in the University of Montreal. After this, he began to move in Catholic circles, particularly those of the Dominican Order in Canada. He read Jacques Maritain and Thomas Aquinas. At one point he had a ten-minute audience with Pope Pius XII, and he became a friend of Archbishop Montini of Milan, later Pope Paul VI.



Zilboorg wrote frequently on the subject of psychoanalysis and faith. He became something of an intermediary between the two, defending psychoanalysis to his Catholic friends and defending religious faith to his psychoanalytic colleagues. "The spiritual level cannot be taken away from the human being", he wrote, "any more than you can take the human mind away from him and leave him still a human being". Psychoanalysis, he insisted, was not a replacement for sacramental confession. Nor was psychoanalysis a philosophy of the world or of life, it was simply a scientific theory of the human mind. It did not argue against free will, nor did it read sex into everything. (Zilboorg insisted that Freud's "eros" was more the equivalent of Aquinas's "sensuality" than it was "sex".)

Zilboorg was eventually received into the Catholic Church in 1954, by the Archbishop of Montreal Paul-Émile Léger. As the biography puts it: "During the service, he and Peg were then married and he was confirmed at the altar where the took his first communion. They day managed to include five of the seven holy sacraments, and there was surely immeasurable joy in everyone's hearts at the final 'ite, Missa est.' "
 
In the same year, he came to Dublin to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. There is a photograph of the ceremony in the biography. My eye quickly picked out the austere features of our own Dr. John Charles McQuaid. J.R.R. Tolkien was similarly honoured on the same day.

Zilboorg was to die five years after his reception into the Church, and so sadly never lived to see the Second Vatican Council, which would surely have been a welcome development to a convert so steeped in the Catholic humanist tradition.

The Life of Gregory Zilboorg is highly recommended. It's perfectly accessible to the ordinary reader who has (like me) no knowledge of psychoanalysis, and will be of special interest to those (also like me) who are interested in stories of Catholic converts.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

The Michael Sugrue Channel

I just want to make a quick recommendation of the Michael Sugrue channel on YouTube. I've watched hours and hours of material on this channel already.

Michael Sugrue is a retired philosophy professor who recorded a series of lectures in the nineties, which have today become something of a YouTube sensation. The lectures are mostly philosophy but also include forays into literature, myth and religion. Sugrue is himself a Catholic. There are quite a few videos about the Bible.



It's easy to see why they've become so popular. Sugrue is fluent (he rarely stumbles or hesitates and doesn't use notes), incisive, and funny.

Sadly, he is suffering from cancer today. Eleven years ago he was given five years to live. I wish him many more years, but it's wonderful that he lived to see his life's work become so popular.

Recently, to celebrate ten thousand subscribers, the channel posted some of Sugrue's own aphorisms, which included two corkers: "Always choose self-respect over self-pity" (a salutary reminder to me), and "He who kills time injures eternity."

Worth subscribing to!

Monday, July 4, 2022

Longing for Retreat

I haven't been on a spiritual retreat since my pre-marital course in November 2012, four months shy of a decade.

I wrote about that course here.

I'm surprised how much it has remained with me. I very often draw on it for spiritual sustenance. It had a strangely Pentecostal atmosphere, a group of Christian couples preparing for the adventure of life and marriage-- along with the presenting married couples, and the priest who was also in attendance. It was like basic training before being shipped into enemy territory.

(I remember the priest told us that he was drawn to the priesthood for the "romance" of the thing, which he illustrated with the words: "Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.")

After the retreat, me and Michelle went to a big shop nearby that had a huge inflatable snowman outside. It was a general store which had, among other things, lots of mugs and tea-towels that bore the words: "As for Me and my House, We Will Serve the Lord." Michelle bought me a selection of American sweets (or "candy") which we ate in the car park (or "parking lot") outside.

Today is the 4th Of July. America has its critics, and American religiosity has its critics even among Christians-- inside America, as well as outside. Nevertheless, it brought me great joy to see a general store selling mugs that said "As for Me and my House, We Will Serve the Lord". It wouldn't happen in Ireland, even though Mass cards are sold at the till in many shops.

Ever since then, I've wished for a mug with these words on it.

But more recently, I've found myself longing to go on retreat. I'm not sure how to go about it. I've looked at Catholic retreats in the Dublin area. Many of them seem a bit kooky or New Agey or whatever. There are also practical obstacles.

I've thought of suggesting to the chaplaincy in UCD that they run a retreat for staff, but I wouldn't want to attend without my wife and that might be asking too much.

Anyway, maybe you can spare a prayer that I get to go on retreat some time this year. I love everyday life and the ordinary but the hamster wheel is becoming more than a little wearing.

Explore Gothic Glasgow!

A friend of mine who is now living in Glasgow is offering walking tours of the city that focus on "the creepy, strange and spooky history of Glasgow".

He previously worked on the Dublin Ghost Bus tour of Dublin.

This chap has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of horror, and is very entertaining and funny, so I definitely recommend this tour if you ever find yourself in Glasgow. You might mention it to any friends in Scotland, or friends visiting Glasgow.

Here is the link.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

My Turn to the Contemplative (III)

I have come to the conclusion that, for me, contemplation (or contemplativeness) is as much about repetition, or perhaps "revisiting", then it is about silence or slowness or simplicity. My mind is always racing and I like to have activity around me. Seeking out silence and seclusion and all those other "s"'s only seems to make my mind even more restless. (Sometimes I envisage my mind like a table-tennis rally, or a ping-pong rally as our American friends say. Sometimes I envisage it as a microwave full of popping popcorn.)

 


This is the strange contradiction I've noticed in my own life: although I'm the further thing from a contemplative in terms of behaviour, the happiest moments of my life have almost all been contemplative moments. I can understand why so many philosophers believe contemplation to have been the highest good, or at least the highest happiness.

What is contemplation? I suppose there could be any number of definitions, but one that it occurs to me is that it's enjoying things rather doing anything with them. Although it might well be simultaneous with doing things, as I contend here.

There are any number of contemplative moments I could draw on, throughout my life. They usually come out of nowhere.

Here's one example, one I've mentioned on this blog. It was during my fourth or fifth year in secondary school, when I would have been about sixteen. It was a free class, or a study class as teachers prefer to call them. I was sitting in the study hall in my secondary class, which was the hallway and centre of the whole school. A quiet had descended on the school, the day's classes were almost done. There were very few people in the hall.

I was studying my history book, and suddenly I became aware of history as a continuous stream. Until then, I suppose, I had thought of history as a stage, with changes of scenery and dress between scenes. Of course, I knew that time was one long stream, but it had never really struck me so powerfully before.

There was a sort of balcony corridor running above one side of the study hall, and there was some kind of wrought iron screen along one stretch of it-- or perhaps it was a gate. In any case, I found myself looking at the patterns in the wrought iron, and thinking of the patterns of history, underlying day-to-day life. I felt a powerful sense of the sublime.

Another memory is the day after the Republic of Ireland soccer team's 1-1 draw with Northern Ireland, in 1993, a game in which the Republic just squeezed into the World Cup Finals with a late and spectacular goal. To a teenage boy at the height of the Jack Charlton era, this was a big, big deal.

My memory is of sitting in the kitchen in our flat, reading the coverage of the match in next day's Irish Press with my brother and cousin. We were swapping pages of the paper back and forth. After the high drama of the previous evening, the sense of calm and quiet celebration was delicious. Contemplative moments, in my experience, are often "in betweeny" moments.

More to come...I haven't really expanded on the role of repetition in my experience of contemplation, which was my goal when I started writing. It will have to come in the next post...

Monday, June 20, 2022

Cornish Yarg

Cornish Yarg is a semi-hard cow's milk cheese made in Cornwall, United Kingdom. Before being left to mature, the cheese is wrapped in nettle leaves to form an edible, though mouldy, rind. The texture varies from creamy and soft immediately under the nettle coating to a Caerphilly cheese-like crumbly texture in the middle

Although made according to an historic method, Cornish Yarg is actually the product of the British cheesemaking renaissance in the 1980s while its roots are inspired by traditional British Territorial cheeses. The original recipe is thought to date back to the 13th century. (From Wikipedia.)

Although I'm almost forty-five
(A good long time to be alive)
I don't think I shall ever thrive
Till I have tasted Cornish Yarg.

Enough of cheddar, feta, brie,
And all such tired fromagerie.
The only real cheese for me
Is Britain's finest, Cornish Yarg.

Although I've never tasted it
I somehow know, surpassing wit,
I need to munch that tasty Brit
That cheese of cheeses, Cornish Yarg.

Before King Henry chopped a head
It flavoured Anglo-Saxon bread.
The Frenchies ran away in dread
From yeomen fed on Cornish Yarg.

Then in the eighties, (which is when
The British made cheese great again)
It sailed back into common ken
That lordly vittle, Cornish Yarg.

It's made with nettles and with mould
A cheese for spirits brave and bold.
It fed the Merry Men of old
Without a doubt, this Cornish Yarg.

I know not when, I know not how,
But (if the grace of God allow)
Between my final hour and now
I shall partake of Cornish Yarg.



The Unspeakable, Unthinkable Horror of an AC/DC T-shirt at Mass

Over the weekend I was really irritated at this video from Brian Holdsworth, the Canadian Catholic YouTuber. He complains about a member of the congregation, one of the people who brought the gifts to the altar, wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. (He backtracked a bit in the comments, but not very convincingly.)

Before I launch into my rant, let me concede that I don't think it's a good thing to wear a heavy metal t-shirt to Mass. I've never worn a t-shirt to Mass myself, as far as I can remember.

I go to Mass wearing work clothes. There was a time I used to attend Sunday Mass in a suit and tie. Right now that's not very practicable for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that wearing a suit every week is going to wear it down.

Enough about that. What really upsets me about the video is the sheer negativity it reflects-- not only on its own, but in a pattern with so many videos by so many other YouTubers, bloggers, and professional Catholics. It's become endemic among the Catholic commentariat.

It almost seems as though many people go to Mass primed to be offended by something that somebody else doesn't or doesn't do. If they can find one person wearing an AC/DC t-shirt, or doing something else they can gripe about, they fixate on that.

It really seems a way of taking the liturgy, which should be joyous as well as solemn, and weighing it down with angst, sourness and bitterness. Isn't this what Satan does-- taking something good and poisoning it?

I completely sympathise with what Pope Francis said recently: "It’s not possible to worship God while making the liturgy a battleground for issues that are not essential, indeed, outdated issues, and to take sides starting with the liturgy, with ideologies that divide the Church."

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Happy Corpus Christi!

"To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and his blood. The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened. The Eucharist is both a mystery of faith and a “mystery of light”. Whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “their eyes were opened and they recognized him”

 St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia

Monday, June 13, 2022

Growing Up in Ballymun (II)

Another thing that was notable about growing up in Ballymun-- at least, growing up in the Ballymun flats-- was the central heating. The residents had no control over the central heating. The Corporation would turn it off in summer and turn it on in winter, no matter how hot or cold it was. This must have been a fairly well-known feature of Ballymun life, as I remember Joseph O'Connor (Sinéad O'Connor's brother) making a passing reference to it in a humorous newspaper article.

As it worked out, we were far more often overheated than we were cold. People would very often comment on the heat when they visited the flat: "It's like walking into a sauna!", they would exclaim. I became, for some reason, quite irritable and defensive about all this. I was very much a homebody and, at least until my mid-teens, I didn't go out much. I can even remember my father worrying that I would suffer from unnaturally thinned blood because I so seldom left the flat and I spent so long in the oppressive heat.

On the other hand, we had hot water whenever we wanted it, which is the exception rather than the rule in Ireland (as this famous Des Bishop sketch celebrates). I spent hours and hours and hours in the bath. I love being in water, and more than anything else I liked listening to the tapping and whistling in the water pipes.

If the central heating was a drawback, the view was definitely a blessing. From our sitting room window, we could see all of Dublin city centre, and indeed all the way to the Wicklow (or Dublin) Mountains. We could see Dublin Bay, and the red-and-white striped Poolbeg power station chimneys. (Although we had our own red-and-white striped chimney in Ballymun.) This view was impressive enough in the day-time, but it became magical at night; a forest of street-lights and other lights, appearing to twinkle the further away you looked and the closer together they seemed. As with the heat, visitors always commented on the view.

We had three bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom (with a bath) a living room, an L-shaped hallway, and a balcony. I didn't have my own bed until my teens. On the other hand, we had a telephone, which many of our neighbours lacked. They would visit us to make calls, often leaving some money to pay for it. It's a strange thought, now that children are issued with mobile phones upon exiting the womb. We got out first home computer in 1994 (which led me to start seriously writing poetry).

Remarkably, I can remember my mother washing clothes in the bath-tub well into the eighties. Our television was black and white for much (maybe all) of the eighties. My father would watch snooker on it. He said you learned to distinguish the colours of the balls pretty easily.

We only ever used the balcony for storage. I always felt nervous there, anyway, imagining falling over the balcony wall and plunging to my death. I've been afraid of heights my entire life, so this isn't surprising. We shared a landing with four other apartments and there were two balconies on each landing. Sometimes, when I was lying in bed at night, the thought of that seven-storey drop would suddenly frighten me and I would resolve to creep past the balcony opening with my back against the far wall, in future. Of course, I never did. Some kids actually hung off these balconies for fun, a dare which seems utterly incomprehensible to me.

The windows in the flat were unusual in that they slid up and down rather than opening outwards. I was warned innumerable times of the dangers of sticking my head out the window, and told cautionary tales about the raised window panes coming down on peoples' heads like a guillotine. There were three panes and you could push the middle one up, or the top one down. Sometimes, when the top one had been pulled down a bit, one of the many cats we owned down the years would perch precariously on the top of the pane itself. As far as I can remember, we always managed to get it down safely.

More to come...

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Two Interesting Links

Here is an excellent article by Greg Daly in which he lists quite a few instances of Pope emeritus Benedict endorsing the papacy of our current Holy Father, Francis.

The article is two years old, but I've only become aware of it now.

And, given that yesterday was Pentecost, here is a collection of links to St. John Paul II's catechesis on the Holy Spirit, given in his Wednesday audiences between April 1989 and July 1991.

I'd never come across this blog, which is called Totus2us, and which has a UK internet suffix. It looks good, and I look forward to exploring it further.

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Growing Up in Ballymun (I)

At the suggestion of someone who commented on a previous post, I'm going to write a series of autobiographical sketches of various places and environments I've known through my life.

I've noticed a funny phenomenon in this regard. Whenever I try to describe any particular environment I've known-- be it a school, an area, or a workplace-- it doesn't seen all that remarkable or interesting. But once I see it through the lens of my own experience, it suddenly becomes (I believe) much more so.

And I don't think this is just because I'm particularly interested in myself. I think this phenomenon holds true no matter who the narrator is. A potted history of a school is almost the driest reading imaginable. But a first-hand account of school life (like that of C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy) is nearly always gripping. Everything achieves a certain grandeur when it's magnified on the cinema screen of personal experience.

I will begin, then, with my upbringing in Ballymun, the suburb of Dublin.


Saying that I "grew up" in Ballymun is a huge understatement. I've spent the vast majority of my life in Ballymun. It's only in the last few years that I've moved out, apart from brief interludes lodging in other places (and, for much of those interludes, I was spending a lot of time in the family home anyway). All of my childhood, teens, twenties and thirties were spent in Ballymun. I'll never spend as much time anywhere else, most likely.

Ballymun was originally a "satellite town" (the very term now seems quaint), built in the mid-sixties, designed to relocate working-class families who were living in dilapidated and often hazardous tenements in the inner city. The architecture was Scandinavian and brutalist; fourteen-storey concrete towers, seven-storey and four-storey concrete "flats", and conventionally drab houses. There was lots of green space, fields and hills. Before it became a satellite town, it had been agricultural country with very little history (although the church St. Pappin's, which is now a nursing home, is one of the few Irish churches built during the Great Famine, and has its own ghost story).

Ballymun was built four miles from Dublin Airport. My father believed that it was intentionally put there so that visitors flying in to Ireland would see it as they landed. At this time Ballymun was seen as a model community, the way of the future.

I don't want to dwell on the political aspects of Ballymun. Irish readers will know how, over decades, the buildings deteriorated, many of the promised public amenities were not built, and vandalism, crime and drugs proliferated, until the towers and flats were knocked down in the late nineties. It's hardly a unique story. In fact, the horror author Clive Barker described a similar (fictional) high-rise estate in Liverpool, in the brilliant opening line of his short story "The Forbidden": "Like a flawless tragedy, the elegance of which structure is lost upon those suffering in it, the perfect geometry of the Spector Street Estate was only visible from the air." That would be a bit of an exaggeration in Ballymun's case.


My brother Turlough wrote and directed a whole film on this subject, which does concentrate more on the political aspects, but which also serves as a wonderful archival record.

The "bad days" in Ballymun came, as far as I can tell, in the eighties, when I was growing up. The early days were much better. Photographs from the sixties and seventies show a much cleaner environment, smiling faces, a general air of vibrancy and respectability. You can actually see the grime and social alienation in photographs from the eighties and nineties. I don't think this is all down to the bleaching properties of black-and-white photography.

Of course, I believe much of the deterioration had to do with the declining influence of the Catholic Church, family values, and all those good things. But, as I say, I don't really want to get into that discussion.

The problem in writing about Ballymun is trying to capture all the little details that are likely to elude me. For instance, on Facebook today, I found myself mentioning the "lollipop" beacon light that protruded from the roof of each of the seven towers, on top of a candy-striped rod. This glowed orangey-red at night. I often lay in bed looking at it, taking comfort in its permanence and otherworldly glow. This detail would have slipped my mind if I hadn't mentioned it on Facebook, I'm sure.

There were the "vans", which were van trailers converted into shops. These are described as "travelling" on Wikipedia, but I don't actually remember them ever moving. Indeed, I seem to remember that they were often propped up on concrete blocks. They sold basic household groceries, as well as cigarettes and sweets. Kids would hang around outside them pestering passing adults for "tempence for a chocolate bar". I used to think they were unique to Ballymun, but I've subsequently learned that they existed in other parts of Dublin.

There is much more to say about Ballymun, and my experience of Ballymun. I will return to this topic soon.