Friday, December 23, 2022

Happy Christmas!

I don't expect to be blogging over the rest of Christmas and the New Year, so I wish you all a very happy, peaceful Feast of the Nativity.

Gregory of Nyssa, in his Christmas homilies, developed the same vision setting out from the Christmas message in the Gospel of John: “He pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1:14). Gregory applies this passage about the tent to the tent of our body, which has become worn out and weak, exposed everywhere to pain and suffering. And he applies it to the whole universe, torn and disfigured by sin. What would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation? Anselm of Canterbury, in an almost prophetic way, once described a vision of what we witness today in a polluted world whose future is at risk: “Everything was as if dead, and had lost its dignity, having been made for the service of those who praise God. The elements of the world were oppressed, they had lost their splendour because of the abuse of those who enslaved them for their idols, for whom they had not been created” (PL 158, 955f.). Thus, according to Gregory’s vision, the stable in the Christmas message represents the ill-treated world. What Christ rebuilds is no ordinary palace. He came to restore beauty and dignity to creation, to the universe: this is what began at Christmas and makes the angels rejoice. The Earth is restored to good order by virtue of the fact that it is opened up to God, it obtains its true light anew, and in the harmony between human will and divine will, in the unification of height and depth, it regains its beauty and dignity. Thus Christmas is a feast of restored creation. It is in this context that the Fathers interpret the song of the angels on that holy night: it is an expression of joy over the fact that the height and the depth, Heaven and Earth, are once more united; that man is again united to God. According to the Fathers, part of the angels’ Christmas song is the fact that now angels and men can sing together and in this way the beauty of the universe is expressed in the beauty of the song of praise.

Pope Benedict XVI, Christmas homily 2007

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The Foundation of the State Conference in UCD

This is a report on the Foundation of the State Conference in UCD which I attended earlier in this month. It was published in the library Staff Update. I may as well get a blog post out of it.

Foundation of the Irish State Conference, 2-3 December

My great-grandmother stopped speaking to her own son because he married a Free Stater. My father, when he was a boy, sabotaged the public address system at an event where De Valera was speaking (and got a hiding from Kevin Boland for doing so—or so he said).

I don’t mention these snippets of family history because they are unusual, but rather the opposite. Many of us have similar stories in our background; grandparents and great-grandparents who were heavily invested in the struggle for independence or one or other side of the Civil War.

It seems such a shame, then, that the centenary of these events has aroused so little public or media interest. It’s true that Covid occupied a large swathe of that period—although, since that meant we all had a lot more time on our hands, that hardly seems a good enough explanation.

Happily, UCD has been an exception to this lack of attention, and this month the Foundation of State conference provided one of the highlights of the Decade of Commemorations.

I attended both days of this two-day conference, and I’m happy to report that it was a triumph—a truly satisfying, many-sided, almost exhaustive examination of the Irish Free State’s foundation. The presence all the way through of sign-language interpreters was particularly admirable, as was the inclusion of a whole session completely in the Irish language.

The first day was held in the O’Reilly Hall, which looked very impressive with an enormous Christmas tree in the corner. (The Finnish ambassador to Ireland Raili Lahnalampi, who spoke at one point on the parallels with Finnish independence, joked that we must have put it there to make her feel welcome, since spruce is so widespread in her country. She also put the bloodiness and divisiveness of our own Civil War into perspective—thirty-nine thousand people died in the four-month Finnish Civil War in 1918). The second day was held in the Fitzgerald Chamber in the Student Centre.

The conference was opened by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin. The Taoiseach is a history graduate, and his personal interest in the subject was obvious. He gave an excellent speech in which he asked wgy the 6th of December—the date the Constitution of the Irish Free State was ratified and came into effect in 1922, and indeed the date the Anglo-Irish Treaty came into effect the year before—has never been a focus of celebration, either for the country in general or for any single political tradition within in. The answer, he said, was that nobody was particularly happy with the circumstances of independence, even the strongest supporters of the Treaty. He suggested, however, that there was much to celebrate in the foundation of the Irish State—for instance, the foundation of the Garda Síochana and the public legitimacy they enjoyed, the preservation of democracy, and the fact that extreme left- or right-wing movements never gained traction here as they did in much of Europe.

Speaker after speaker over both days emphasized the difficulties involved in setting up the new state. Bláthna Ruane, of the School of Law, in answering a question as to why Ireland preserved the Common Law tradition in framing its new legal system, said it was a “no-brainer”; there was simply no time to do anything else. John Fitzgerald emphasized the importance of advice from the British Treasury in the Free State’s economic survival.

Many speakers emphasized the achievements of the new State. Joseph Brady of the School of Geography praised Marino, which was the first local authority housing estate in the country, as still the best example of public housing in Ireland. (In my view, Dr. Brady’s was the most interesting of all the talks.) Of course, not all was rosy in new Ireland. Mary Daly’s contribution was a sobering reminder of how very far 1920’s Ireland was from a welfare state.

On the other hand, all three speakers in the Irish language sessions emphasized the huge achievement that had been made in saving the native tongue from extinction. Regina UÍ Chollatáin, chair, said she had no doubt that compulsory Irish in school had played a crucial role in this.

The conference ended in a fascinating and lively discussion between Diarmuid Ferriter, Marie Coleman, and Brigid Laffan. The importance of archives for commemorations was emphasized.

The conference wasn’t without its weaknesses. There was, for my money, rather too much emphasis on fashionable identity politics. On the whole, however, it was a fitting retrospective of a crucial moment in our history, and I left with a deeper appreciation of the huge efforts and sacrifices involved in creating the new State.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Bachelor's Walk

Yesterday, I attended Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Bachelor's Walk. I've been going there more frequently recently. There is a church right across the road from where I live, but I've been increasingly reluctant to go there for various reasons. One is the aggressive nature of their hawking for donations. In fairness, this church is open considerably longer than office hours seven days a week, which is very rare, and I realize that electricity and heating cost money. But even still, it sticks in my craw. (There are stickers plastered all over the pews given QR codes for instant cash transfers, as well as a "tap and go" machine.) Anyway, that's not the only reason.

So several times recently we've gone to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Incredibly, I'd never been in this until this year, when I attended an exhibition it held on Blessed Carlo Acutis and Eucharistic miracles (based on the website that he created). It's run by the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and there's a small statue of St. Peter Eymard behind the altar.

The Blessed Sacrament Chapel is not at all beautiful, by any standards. It's a long, low room painted a rather unappealing yellow colour. It's a bit dingy. Decoration is minimal and quite modernistic. (The crucifix behind the altar has a highly attenuated, stylized Jesus.) It's very bright. The music is mildly hippy-ish. ("Give me joy in my heart, keep me praising...")

I must admit I like all this. I prefer places of worship that are simple and humble. (Even the word "chapel" appeals to me.) I realize that many people will answer that we should give our best to God, that we should glorify Him through beauty, etc. I'm not arguing with that. But my own taste runs quite to the opposite. Beauty can point to God, that's true. Is it sometimes a distraction?

The atmosphere also appeals to me. The congregation is very diverse. As it's a city centre chapel, they don't seem to be from any particular place or demographic. There's a very random mixture of ages and ethnicities, although I do hear a lot of accents I would call "working class", if that has any meaning today. (I consider myself working class.)

Although I probably shouldn't judge people from looking at them, I always get the impression of very straightforward piety from the congregation. There isn't much chatter and there's always an intriguing air of expectation and intentness about the place. Am I imagining that? I don't know.

The preaching whenever I have been there is always very simple and pious, which also appeals to me.

I also enjoy walking out from Mass into the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Mass is the Mass is the Mass. That's what I've always believed. Whatever language or form it's celebrated in, it's still the making present of our Lord's sacrifice. That's the important thing.

But I think it's legitimate to have tastes and preferences. My own is for simplicity, plainness and humility-- and also, not to be bombarded with demands for donations.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

There's a Baby on Fire!

Well, I'm all about tradition, and once again it's time for this blog's Christmas tradition: "The Burning Babe" by St. Robert Southwell SJ, the Elizabethan martyr.

Here it is:

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised 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 vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

I've said a lot about this poem in previous years. Check out here and here for some commentary on it.

Reading it just now, the line "So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood" appeals to me particularly. It's so vivid, so visual, almost lurid. The juxtaposition of fire and blood is particularly powerful. It's a suitably potent image of what Christmas is all about, the drama of the Incarnation and indeed the Crucixion.

I'm increasingly preoccupied with poetry, and my view of its importance grows and grows. Conservatives find fault with so many aspects of modern society, but they rarely comment on its indifference to poetry. Indeed, conservatives are complicit in this. Shamefully so, since they should know better. I'm somewhat worn out making this argument to my fellow conservatives (mostly on social media). They agree with me, but don't show any inclination to take poetry as seriously as they take music, cinema, fiction, liturgy, architecture, and all the other activities they actually value. They'll applaud my general points about poetry, but whenever I try to get a discussion going about a particular poem or poet....the big silence falls.

If I sound bitter, it's because I am. And this isn't just the bitterness of a frustrated poet. Yes, I do write poetry myself, and yes, I am frustrated at my inability to get it published and read. But my frustration goes far beyond the personal.

I now have this quotation from Arthur Griffith, one of the founders of the Irish state, as my "pinned post" on Facebook: " In every properly governed and sensible community the people would spend half their time in making, reading and comprehending poetry". How different, how very different, from the home life of our own dear Irish nation...

But enough of that. I'm writing this beside a Christmas tree, enjoying its lights, and also enjoying the Christmas chocolates that are floating around. Whenever I deplore or lament this or that aspect of modern society, I feel I should contrast it with the ever-increasing Chestertonian wonder I feel in life itself. Just to sit in a room, to breathe the air, to see light and colour, to explore memory and imagination, is a blessed state. Even more so if you are sitting beside a Christmas tree and eating chocolate.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Depressing News

There is no longer a majority of self-described Christians in England and Wales.

I think this is something to mourn, for several reasons.

One reason is that I'm a lifelong and fervent anglophile. I particularly have a soft-spot for the Church of England, as I wrote about here.

Another reason is that I think cultural Christianity is important. Christianity obviously has an elevating and ennobling influence on culture-- for instance, the Christian doctrine of the sanctity of life, or the importance of humility.

Cultural Christianity is also important for individual salvation. It spreads the net wider for potential converts. It makes any given person more likely to encounter Christianity.

Is there anything to be said on the other side? Now that Christianity has become a minority religion, might that be of benefit in some way? For instance, might it give the Christian faith the appeal of an "alternative lifestyle", something that is counter-cultural?

Probably. But I think this is outweighed by what has been lost.

Do some Christians get too hung up on the idea of "Christian cultures", to the extent that they seem to forget that Christ's kingdom is not of this world?

Yes, I think so. But that doesn't mean cultural Christianity isn't important.

It's a dark day. God grant that the tide turns soon.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Another Dip into Facebook

I post on Facebook a lot. Is this good or bad? Sometimes I feel it's bad, thinking I've been swept up in a terribly modern habit, despite all my pretensions to fogeydom.

Other times I think it might be a good thing. I have a lot of thoughts in the course of the day and Facebook is a good outlet for them. It's very user-friendly-- more so than this blog, which really requires a desktop computer to write. I tap out my Facebook posts on my phone, in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, here are some of my latest ones. They may be of interest. Buckle up...


Here's a possibly odd question. How important is atmosphere to you? I mean it in the colloquial rather than the scientific sense.
I'm so preoccupied with atmosphere that it often strikes me as abnormal. I attach atmospheres to times, places, people, activities etc. and have to remind myself that these atmospheres are (most often) private constructions of my own and not "out there". I get as upset about this (repeated) realization as a kid might get in learning the secret of Santa. I don't know how normal or abnormal that is. I have to remind myself, for instance, when I look at an inky, granulated photo from the seventies, that it wasn't actually inky and granulated in reality. In the same way, perhaps, that historians remind us that the milky white statues we associate with ancient Greece were actually painted.
My fear is that reality is, after all, just a grid of points in time and space, none of which are really any different from each other. That this is the awakening that awaits; "the desolation of reality", as Yeats said. It feels like sitting in a bath and slowly feeling the bathwater go cold. Except in this case you only ever imagined it was warm.
I went to an Irish language primary and secondary school. There's lots to be said about that and I'm grateful for it, otherwise my poor grasp of Irish would be no grasp at all.
But recently I've been musing on it from another perspective. English-speaking was forbidden in these schools. Although widely flouted, the mere existence of such a ban gave a certain flavour to my school days. Watching films and shows about school life on TV, where the kids openly spoke English, always seemed very weird, bare and somehow primitive.
I think taboos are good in themselves, within reason. They create an atmosphere, an environment. One of the many reasons I could never be a libertarian though I am often in agreement with them.
I used to watch Open University programmes a lot. For my American friends, they were educational programmes which were shown in the early hours on British TV. The idea was that you could video-tape them and watch them at your leisure. They were a part of a distance learning initiative which could lead to actual qualifications.
Anyway, one such programme was a whole documentary on the short poem The Tyger by William Blake, which went into great detail on its meaning and possible associations. I was very excited by this.
That's what I mean when I lament poetry's place in modern culture. The lack of that sort of thing. As opposed to the very occasional mention of poetry in general on some arts show.
If the coverage of the arts (in the media but also in general social intercourse) were to be compared to sports coverage, poetry would be equivalent to badminton or volleyball or fencing. I think it should be equivalent to rugby or soccer or cricket instead.

I've often found myself thinking about how many of my values and beliefs were absorbed from what I THOUGHT were the values and beliefs of my background and environment, even though I have subsequently realized I was quite mistaken about this.

I've sometimes considered writing a short story which would be a kind of allegory of this experience. It could be a story about a guy who is hugely inspired by a schoolteacher and goes out and lives the beliefs and ideals this teacher instilled in him. He seeks the teacher out thirty or forty years later, only to find that the teacher is puzzled and unimpressed by everything the pupil has done, and tells him he had the wrong idea about him (the teacher) all along.

Anyway, this is definitely my own experience with Irish nationalism. I had an ideal of Irish nationalism which I absorbed in my childhood, and which I sometimes embraced and sometimes consciously reacted against. But the extraordinary thing is that it seems to have been my own ideal even when I was reacting against it.

Essentially it was a belief that there had been some kind of collective decision, made about the end of the nineteenth century, that an independent Ireland was going to go in a very different direction from Britain, America, and the other developed countries. Instead of commerce, cities, technology, modernity etc. it was going to embrace tradition, folklore, myth, culture, rural life, handicrafts, "the things of the spirit."

I took it as read that all the office-blocks named Setanta House and the monuments to the Children of Lir etc. were only the BEGINNING of this collective adventure. I think I really expected we were going to go back to thatched cottages and stone-walls eventually.
Obviously, this idea didn't come from nowhere. There's a little bit of Pearse, Yeats, De Valera, and others in it. I didn't realize that this ideal was abandoned (insofar as it had ever been embraced) way before my birth, and often by people who had fought in 1916, devoted their lives to the Irish language, etc.

It's been a long and painful loss of this illusion. My nationalism has been cauterized. But the ideal is still sublimated into other things.
Chesterton wrote a lot of indifferent poetry, but he wrote some great poems and this is one of them. Although, personally, I would rather the theme of decrepitude wasn't in it. It would have been just as good if it was simply about the burgeoning sense of wonder.
Anyway, the line "the first surprises stay" definitely speaks to me. I can never get over "the first surprises" and have indeed found that "things grow new" and seem "too solid to be true,".
The things Chesterton mentions in this poem have this effect on me, certainly, but other things too,: time and place, which seem endlessly strange and wonderful to me; consciousness; stories, even of the simplest kind; history; masculinity and femininity; the human body, and the beauty of the human form in itself; accents; work; memory; every form of collective identity, from a family to a club to a nation; everything that people get excited about. I take pleasure simply contemplating such things and feeling gratitude for their existence, and indeed astonishment.
I loved the line from the TV series John Adams: "I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there."
Anyway, here's Chesterton. (Sometimes I feel like appealing to people to forget that a Chesterton quotation is Chesterton and to come to him without the baggage of the Chesterton passage, of the hearty polemicist. It's so hard to read him "fresh".)
A Second Childhood
When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.
Wherein God’s ponderous mercy hangs
On all my sins and me,
Because He does not take away
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road
That are and cannot be.
Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for wine,
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine,
Changing my chamber’s dust to snow
Till I doubt if it be mine.
Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
The first surprises stay;
And in my dross is dropped a gift
For which I dare not pray:
That a man grow used to grief and joy
But not to night and day.
Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for lies;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Enormous night arise,
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes.
Nor am I worthy to unloose
The latchet of my shoe;
Or shake the dust from off my feet
Or the staff that bears me through
On ground that is too good to last,
Too solid to be true.
Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Hung crazily overhead
Incredible rafters when I wake
And I find that I am not dead.
A thrill of thunder in my hair:
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.
Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
Wide windows of the sky;
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I:
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die.
In a previous post, which drew a gratifying amount of responses, I pondered on the ideal of Irish nationalism that I internalized as I grew up, and how-- in retrospect-- it seems to have been as much my own invention as it was something I took from my environment.
Someone asked me some good questions in the comments. I thought my reply might be worth a new post. I said (I'll only use one set of quotation marks, at beginning and end):

"I don't have time to give a proper reply to your questions. Indeed, I could easily write a long essay about them. Thanks for showing such interest.
Was the ideal of Irish nationalism I absorbed/invented wholly illusion? No, because it did indeed draw on aspects of Irish nationalism that really existed. However, I think I was badly mistaken in assuming that the PARTICULAR aspects of Irish nationalism I seized upon were shared by a great many people. By the particular aspects I mean my romantic, poetic, agrarian, "folkish" interpretation of Irish nationalism, the sort of Irish nationalism expressed in the poetry of Pearse and the famous St. Patrick's Day speech of De Valera.
What gave me this illusion? Lots of different things. My father was the biggest influence on me and he very much tended towards the romantic, the poetic, the culturally conservative. When I grew up a bit and noted that even his Irish republican friends were much cruder, crasser, and more modern, I was shocked. Their nationalism didn't really seem to boil down to more than "Brits out". It was Brendan Behan nationalism, Shane MacGowan nationalism-- urban, anarchic, taboo-smashing, even vulgar. Things like the Irish language, cultural Catholicism, Irish mythology etc. were really just used as tribal badges, two fingers to the Brits. Kathleen Ni Houlihan was ridiculous and sexist, etc. etc.
I think Lord of the Rings, strangely enough, also had an influence on me. I transposed the high fantasy, refinement, and elven dignity of LOTR onto Irish nationalism.
Then there was my Irish language school, which put an emphasis on mythology, Irish sports, the Irish language (obviously), Irish music and dance, and all those "cultural" things. I didn't realize that most Irish people only had a very abstract interest in reviving Irish culture.
Why do I come to the conclusion that I was deluded in thinking this ideal was ever widely held? So many reasons. For instance, I have access to the Irish Newspapers Archive, an online portal of most national and regional Irish newspapers from the early twentieth century onwards. From browsing editions from the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties, it has become obvious to me that, from very soon after Irish independence, Irish people lost much interest in national or cultural ideals and became absorbed in the bread-and-butter issues of everyday life, entertainment, consumerism, etc. This is plain not only in the articles but in the letters pages.
How has my romantic nationalism been sublimated? In my approach to the Catholic faith, and also in my approach towards other causes I care deeply about, such as poetry-- the revival of traditional poetry."

Reading a book about the Church of England from 1945 to 1980, because I have a real soft spot for the C of E. 
The chapter about the sixties is interesting. When social conservatives look back at the sixties we tend to deplore them for their liberalism. However, contemporary church spokesman of all denominations seemed to put more emphasis on the rise of materialism, though they certainly deplored liberalism too. It's interesting that the hippies were also reacting against materialism.
Has materialism become invisible to us by now?

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

It's That Time Again

Do you have World Cup fever? Then you'll want to read my four-year-old blog post on the subject.

Do you detest everything to do with the World Cup and want to go into hiding until it's over? Then you'll want to read my four-year-old blog post on the subject.

And while you're out at it, check out Baddiel, Skinner, and Brodie's impish updating of their now-traditional classic. (The Lightning Seeds are one of my favourite bands.) It could have been awful, but I think they pulled it off.

A Laudable Inititative

I was contacted by someone who has set up a new online encyclopedia called The Saint John Chrysostom Encyclopedia.

He explains his reason for the venture thus: "If one really looks on the Internet for information, one ultimately ends up with the conclusion that there really is no unbiased, realistic, and true, encyclopedia on the internet, that all (or at least the vast majority) websites promising such a thing are either clearly deceptive (that is, are clearly hateful of the truth or are run/managed by those who are against it), or detail only a few subjects.

"The Saint John Chrysostom Encyclopedia was created as a response to that, so that one may truly have an unbiased and true source in all knowledge of life, whether it be religious, mathematical, scientific, historical, etc. One might already say, "how could an encyclopedia that already has a religious nature be unbiased?", yet that is an ignorant proposition as all men are religious, whether they acknowledge it or not, and all men are biased, simply for the truth or against it.

"Simply put, the goal of this encyclopedia is to learn the truths of life, so that we may follow it to wherever it may lead to, without looking back."

You can access it here. He is also seeking volunteers to help build it up.

I wish all the best to this new venture. 

(I'll be a bit curmudgeonly for a moment and admit that sometimes I'm irritated at how the word "truth" is often brandished in Catholic circles. I was having this debate with a Catholic friend just yesterday. Yes, I believe in the truth of the Catholic faith. But Catholics don't have a monopoly on truth (the Pope is not an authority on philately, for instance), and truth-seekers of good faith exist in every religion, and also among non-believers. But there, that's me being a grump.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Thoughts on an Open Day

On Saturday I spent three hours manning the library stand at the UCD Open Day in the O'Reilly Hall. I enjoyed it greatly. That kind of event appeals to me in a way that's hard to explain. I decided that trying to explain it might make a good blog post.

First and most obviously, the sound of an open day is my favourite sound in the entire world: the hum of voices in the air, blended into each other so that individual voices and words can hardly be heard.

What can I say about this sound? To me it has always been the sound of excitement, of life, of hustle and bustle and activity.

But it goes deeper than that. It seems evocative of so many things of the things I love; tradition, folklore, legend, proverb, collective memory, community, and so forth.

Vox populi, vox Dei. "The voice of the people is the voice of God". This proverb might not be literally true, but I like its grandeur. I like everything that has been hallowed by multitudes over generations; sayings, nursery rhymes, fairy stories, customs, and so forth.

I love the television coverage of general elections precisely because it so often features this sound, especially when it comes to reports from election centres. It's also an example of what makes this sound so exciting. It's the sound of humanity making history, making stories, working out its destiny. It's the sound of the battle of ideas, the dance of ideas.

Another reason I enjoy open days and conventions is because of their free-form, "buffet" format. I like how people can move from stand to stand, stall to stall, exhibition to exhibition according to their own preference. I savour the atmosphere of many things happening at once.

Like most conservatives, I spend a lot of time lamenting things we have lost, looking backwards. But one thing I do like about modern society is its sheer variety and diversity. Yes, modern urban and suburban life can be very alienating and lonely. Like many people, I'm nostalgic for a time of close-knit communities where everybody knew everybody and shared a common culture.

But the flip side of this is the richness of modern life, especially in the era of the internet. There is a bewildering number of interest groups, sub-cultures, activities, ideological currents, and so forth. Pluralism is a good thing in itself. How to get back to tight-knit communities without losing this benign pluralism is a challenge for the future.

I'm rather lucky in my own job, since UCD is a sort of tight-knit, self-contained community of its own, one that also reflects almost every aspect of human life. I'm vey grateful for it.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Sky and the Ground

Sometimes I think the greatest pleasure in life, after chocolate, is contemplation. I think some distinguished people have suggested this before me.

In recent months, or perhaps recent years (it's hard to tell), I've been taking tremendous pleasure in contemplating one aspect of life. I think the best way I can describe it is the contrast between the almost-infinite freedom of the human soul and the intractability of circumstances. I take pleasure in both these things, and also in their collision, or marriage, or whatever you want to call it.

First of all, the freedom of the soul. Lots of people have rhapsodised about this. "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage". "I could be bound in a nutshell, and consider myself king of infinite space." Or the line from the Shawshack Redemption: "You get busy living or you get busy dying". There are so many stories of how people have transcended imprisonment, concentration camp, paralysis, etc. etc. to achieve something great or just affirm life. Stories like those of Helen Keller, Christy Brown, etc. Every moment offers infinite possibilities, even in the realm of consciousness and imagination. Louis MacNeice wrote about how Rembrandt made "the little world he knew world without end."

But then, there is just the opposite; the objectivity and reality of the world, all of the circumstances that we can't change no matter how much we want or how much we try. True, these are often simply tragic: tumours, mental illness. But mostly it strikes me as a very joyous and bracing reality. No matter how smart or rich or charismatic or dreamy you are, whether you are Napoleon or Leonardo Da Vinci or William Blake or anyone else, you can't remake the world in your image. We all live in history, time, place, background, etc.

The idea I'm trying to describe is very hard to articulate, but I think Chesterton put it best in "Wonder and the Wooden Post": "I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes."

I remember feeling this joy when I was a kid visiting my aunt's farm and I had to walk about a mile to get to the nearest shop. 

The image that always comes into my mind is a merry-go-round, history and life as a merry-go-round and all of us, great and small, going up and down on the horses of circumstances. I also think of the title of the Anthony Powell novel sequence I found so disappointing: A Dance to the Music of Time.

But, again, it's the combination of these things that brings me the most joy. The sky meeting the ground.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

All Souls' Day

The days grow short. The dead seem very near.
Today we pray for the souls that we hold dear.
And whatever love we lacked, in the days of old,
We can show them now, increased a thousandfold.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Book of Faces

Life has been quite hectic recently. I turned forty-five on Saturday. It feels strange. I don't feel any older than twenty-five.

Although I haven't had time to blog, I'm always posting on Facebook. I generally post on Facebook several times a day. It's just so user-friendly. My mind jumps all over the place all the time, I have a lot of thoughts, and it only takes a few minutes to tap out a Facebook post.

Here are some of my recent ones. They may be of interest. At least they'll keep the blog ticking over.

* * * *

The world is changing so quickly that I have a strange sensation of perpetually living in the past. The technology we are using today will be vintage almost instantly. This consideration makes me cherish it rather than resent it. The same applies to social forms and institutions. I already think of libraries full of books, for instance, as survivals on the verge of extinction. Or the phrase "ladies and gentlemen". Or a hundred other things.

* * * *
I've resolved to "follow" all my Facebook friends. I'm intrigued by the people who write post after post full of rock-solid polemical certainty. How can anyone be so sure about everything? And so sure other people are just plain wrong?

I mean, I'm plenty opinionated, but the things I feel sure about seem like a small island of light in an ocean of darkness. I'm not even sure I'd like to live under floodlights that illuminate as far as I can see in every decoration. Through a glass darkly seem more appropriate for the human condition.

* * * *

The new British Prime Minister represents Richmond in North Yorkshire. It's one of the few places in the world I've been. The second place outside of Ireland that I went to, after London.

I was watching History of Britain by Simon Schama and admiring all the hilly country he showed in it. I had a hunger to go to some hilly part of England, went to my map, and picked a town in a hilly place. It was Richmond. It took two trains and a bus to get there.

It was picturesque but not much to do there. I spent most nights sitting in an almost-empty hotel lounge looking out at an almost-empty town square, drinking brandy and Cokes and reading DH Lawrence. I was increasingly in revolt against modern life and Lawrence appealed to me for that reason. I was reading his Apocalypse, the last book he wrote, a commentary on the book of the Bible. It contributed to my growing sense that all roads lead to Christ, though I wasn't there yet. I still remember the barman giving me a free brandy and Coke one of the nights.

Wikipedia tells me that "Richmond in Yorkshire was the origin of the place name Richmond. It is the most duplicated UK place name, with 56 occurrences worldwide." I was destined to spend a lot of time in one of them.

* * * *

The famously complacent, triumphalist, bad old Catholic Ireland (below). From what I've seen of old magazines and other publications, this sort of self-questioning was the norm rather than the exception.

* * * *

I see a lot of memes like this (below). I find myself wondering who exactly is being "gotcha'd" by this? I have never met a single person who put themselves on Team Emotion over Team Facts. Progressives certainly don't. They think conservatives are anti-science and anti-truth, just as conservatives think liberals are the same.

So if your response is: "Well, liberals think men can be women just because of how they'll FEEL", I can produce you thousands of liberals who think that conservatives are heartlessly ignoring scientific evidence that transexuals need to be treated as the opposite sex because, well, depression, suicide, supposed hate crimes....I don't believe any of this stuff, but the point is that both sides are appealing to facts or supposed facts. The PRINCIPLE is not in dispute.

* * * *
My aunt, who was a farmer's wife, had a picture of the cows coming home (literally) in her parlour. It was quite a broad landscape with the cattle as relatively small figures in it, very rugged terrain. And once, when I was lodging in a house in Stillorgan, there was a picture halfway up the stairs showing geese or ducks or something flying over marshy land.

I often think of those pictures and feel a sense of calm and tranquility, even all these years after they left my life.

Noel Coward famously said: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Ditto cheap art. These were both the kind of paintings you might buy in a charity shop or sale of work or some such place.

* * * *
Reading the Letter to the Corinthians and indeed all the epistles always gives me a strange feeling. They have a unique aura of naivety combined with authority. They seem ancient in a way that can't be measured in centuries, primordial. I always feel I am looking at the undergirding of our whole culture and civilisation.

My Carmilla article in Ireland's Own

I was delighted that my article on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla was chosen to be featured on the cover of the Ireland's Own Halloween Special. Beautiful painting illustrating it by Steven Brown.

You can read the opening of the article on the Ireland's Own website here, but if you want to read more you'll have to subscribe!

(Despite the typo on the web version of the article, I am no relation to Le Fanu!)

The issue also contains my profile of Fr. John O'Connor, the Irish priest who received G.K. Chesterton into the Catholic Church, and who also provided the inspiration for his Father Brown character.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

No Comment

"Dear blog reader, how did you like my latest posts?"

"No comment."

"Too vague? Too eccentric? Too dreamy?"

"No comment."

"Should I do more book reviews?"

"I must repeat I have no comment at this time."

"Just a few lines, dear reader. One line. A few words."

"I'm very sorry. I have absolutely no comment at this time."

"When will you have a comment?"

"No comment."

"But it's so discouraging. It's like talking into the void."

"Cry me a river, buddy."

"First world problems, I get it. But it would be nice to know somebody was out there."

"I can't comment on that either way."


"OK, that's just hysterical."

"Was that a comment?"


"Could you make it a comment?"


"But Edward Feser gets DOZENS of comments. Why does he get dozens of comments?"

"Because he's a Thomistic scholar who makes actual arguments. There's something to get hold of. What am I supposed to say when write long rhapsodies about snowglobes and the wonders of everyday life? Half the time I don't know what you're talking about, and I suspect you don't either."

"I see your point. But you see, I'm trying to steer clear of controversy. Controversy is so easy. All I'd have to do is bash the Pope, or bash the people bashing the Pope--"

"Ah, so I get it. You want to avoid anything resembling clickbait or pandering, but then you complain that you don't get feedback. See the contradiction?"

"I guess so."

"By the way, that wasn't a comment."

"Yeah, I get it."

Monday, October 17, 2022

Moses and His Arms

Excellent homily from Bishop Robert Barron.

It's of special interest to me because I've just been reading the Book of Exodus. (I'm trying to spend much more time reading the Bible.) The passage where Moses has his arms held up, as the Israelites fight the Amalekites, seems slightly weird and inexplicable. Bishop Barron's exegesis is fascinating, and reaffirms to me the depths of Scripture.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Dorothy Day on Organized Religion

I had heard many say that they wanted to worship God in their own way and did not need a Church in which to praise Him, nor a body of people with whom to associate themselves. But I did not agree to this. My very experience as a radical, my whole make-up, led me to want to associate myself with others, with the masses, in loving and praising God. Without even looking into the claims of the Catholic Church, I was willing to admit that for me she was the one true Church. She had come down through the centuries since the time of Peter, and far from being dead, she claimed and held the allegiance of the masses of people in all the cities where I had lived. What if they were compelled to come in by the law of the Church, which said they were guilty of mortal sin if they did not go to Mass every Sunday? They obeyed that law. They were given a chance to show their preference. They accepted the Church.

Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Interesting Thoughts from Dave Cullen

I've been following the YouTuber Dave Cullen for a good few years now. Back when he was an atheist, I prayed for him to discover faith, and I was delighted when this happened.

In the last few years, he's travelled deeper into Great Reset theories than I'm willing to follow him. But he still has a lot of interesting things to say, especially about popular culture and entertainment.

In a recent video on a new YouTube phenomenon called "The Backrooms", which is interesting in itself, Cullen has this to say about the last few decades of our cultural life: "When you look back at footage of decades part, you can clearly recognise that the nineteen-sixties was visually, stylistically different from the nineteen-fifties... You can observe noticeable distinctions between fashions and musical styles in the seventies, eighties and nineties... But at some point, during the first few years of the 2000s, music just stopped innovating...The same is true of films and television shows, and fashion became derivative...a person from 2005 could be transported to a busy city centre in 2022, and aside from the noticeable ubiquity of smartphones, they would probably think they were still in the same decade..."

This is interesting to me given I've often felt the same thing. I think I might have touched on it in my series on the "atmosphere" of different decades. I'd always suspected, however, that it was simply a case of me growing older and less receptive to the world around me. But maybe it's not just that, that the stagnation is something real?

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Daily Bread

Once again, I find myself embarking on a rather fanciful and airy post, yet another attempt to convey the appeal of a particular idea or impression.

Is there any value to these posts? I tell myself that they might help people appreciate life, and thereby have a positive impact. I hope so.

In my non-blog writing, lately, I've been very much preoccupied with facts and solid information. For a year now, I've been writing 900-word long profiles of Catholic converts for St. Martin's magazine, and for even longer I've been 750-word profiles on great Irish priests for Ireland's Own.

The converts so far are: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Alec Guinness, Malcolm Muggeridge, Dean Koontz, Ronald Knox, G.K. Chesterton, St. Augustine, St. Justin Martyr, Gregory Zilboorg, Adrienne Von Speyr (a Swiss mystic and theologian), Thomas Merton, and most recently the American gymnast Dominique Dawes.

My priests so far are: Fr. Nicholas Callan (inventor), Fr. Tom Burke (preacher), Canon Sheehan (novelist), Fr. Eugene O'Growney (language revivalist), Fr. Willie Doyle (military chaplain), Fr. James Christopher Flynn (involved in amateur dramatics and speech therapy), Fr. Aedan McGrath (Legion of Mary missionary and prisoner of Communist China), Fr. Patrick Peyton, Msgr. Pádraig Ó Fiannachta (Irish language writer and Bible translator), Fr. James Coyle (Irish-born American priest shot by the KKK for marring a non-Catholic WASP to a Puerto Rican Catholic), Msgr. Patrick Carroll-Abbing (who founded a series of self-governing "Boy's Towns" in Europe after World War II, for homeless boys and girls), Fr. John O'Connor (the model for G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown), Fr. Theobald Matthew, Msgr. Luke Wadding (super-cleric in Rome in the seventeenth century, and the man who put St. Patrick's Day on the liturgical calendar), and Canon John O'Hanlon (historian and hagiographer).

Although these are relatively short articles, I've put a huge amount of research into them. They are meaty, dense and information (I hope). I'm quite proud of them.

So when I turn to my blog, I feel inclined to unwind a bit.

Recently I've been reading a book entitled Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television.

I've been taking pleasure in the sheer plenitude of the subject. Do you find that surprising? I did. One wouldn't think that Christmas-themed horror film and TV would be a huge field. And it's not huge, but it's bigger than one would expect. Even a fairly dedicated horror fan like myself wouldn't have heard of (let alone seen) most of the works listed in it.

There is so much of everything. I know that's an awkward way to put it, but I can't think of a better way.

Life is always bigger than we can take in, and although this might be overwhelming in some ways, it seems primarily joyous and jubilant to me.

I take particular pleasure in those aspects of life which are continuous, regular, daily, incessant.

Film and television are a good example. Every single day there is new programming, on a plethora of different channels. It all piles up. Most is forgotten by most people, some is cherished by this or that cult audience, and some enters into the cultural bloodstream.

Everything that has this perpetual feed has something sublime in it.

Some examples: politics, business, transport, religion, sport, food, cinema.

Take religion, since this is the Irish Papist blog. I'm always thrilled by the thought of all the liturgies taking place all over the country on any given day. In town centres, sleepy villages, monasteries, cathedrals, chapels of ease, and any number of other places. The internet tells me that there are 1,087 Catholic parishes in Ireland. Nobody could remember that many.

The same applies newspapers, radio programmes, train journeys, soccer matches, 

In fact, this gets to the essence of what I'm trying to describe: anything bigger than you can take in.

If you stand in a dark space which is wider than your arms on every side, in a sense it might as well be infinite.

In all these fields I'm talking about, there's always more and there's a deep delight in that. There's always more both in the sense that there's already more than you can take in, and also in the sense that more is always being made.

I think it's something worth remarking upon, worth giving thanks for.

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.