Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Happy Christmas

As Advent draws to a climax, I think it's time to wish my readers Nollaig Shona Daoibh as I probably won't post again between now and 2024.

It's been a strange year. Much of it was occupied with accommodation woes which, when told about them, provoke many people to say things like: "You should write a book about that", "You should make a podcast about that", or even stronger statements which I won't reproduce here.

Thankfully myself and Michelle are now safely back under the roof where we began the year, after several weeks spent sleeping in a hallway some months ago. We were the beneficiaries of extraordinary kindness from neighbours and friends, for which I am very grateful.

The year also involved getting caught up in a riot in O'Connell Street, and soon after that, finding myself a guest in Áras an Uachtaráin. So definitely a mixed year.

The Francis Wars continue in the Catholic Church. For my part, I'm always going to be loyal to the Pope and the Magisterium, perhaps even erring on the side of loyalty. But I think we could all have a lot more charity when it comes to such debates. I think many people come to very different positions with equally good intentions, following their conscience in good faith and striving to be loyal to the teaching of the Church.

God bless Pope Francis, God bless those who feel called in conscience to constructive criticism of him, God bless those (on both sides) who have strayed into bitterness and acrimony, God bless all of us.

Meanwhile, in our troubled world, the carnage continues in the Ukraine and Gaza. May the year 2024 bring peace, or at least an improvement, to these afflicted lands. And thank God that (relative) peace holds in Northern Ireland, and that we haven't seen a return to the horror of the Troubles.

In Ireland, the government becomes ever more authoritarian, seeking to clamp down on free speech and civil freedoms and to impose their woke agenda on the country. We all need to push back against this as much as we reasonably can. Thank God for people such as Professor Gerard Casey who are leading the defence of freedom. You should follow him on Twitter (or X, if you prefer).

The library is closing on Friday. I always get a bit sad as the holidays draw in. In truth I probably like Advent more than I like Christmas. I like the trees, the lights, the chocolates, the strangers wishing each other Happy Christmas. I like the public aspect.

I'm going to end with a Christmas poem which was the first poem I ever sent Michelle, indeed one of our very first communications. It wasn't written anywhere near Christmas. It may not be a great poem but I like it for sentimental reasons, and also because I smuggled lots of my favourite words into it. I'm sure I've posted it before. Happy Christmas!

(The image below is the crib in the church in UCD.)

On a Christmas Bauble

Gaze into the flickering flame
Of a homely hearth
Gaze through the world-creating frame
Of any window on the Earth.
Gaze in a grey or a hazel eye;
Gaze all night at the spangled sky;
But gaze at last, for a greater joy,
At the glow of a Christmas bauble.

This is the very mirror of mirth;
A light to proclaim
A winter's tale of a Virgin Birth
Making the world a fantastic game.
"God is the giddiest thought of all",
Says the tinsel hanging on the wall
And the twinkling of that jolly ball,
The glow of a Christmas bauble.

The season that bears the Holy Name
Is sending forth
The tidings we were born to proclaim;
The infinite worth
Of the soul of man, and the world of things;
The wild delight of all carollings
For the happiest hymn to the King of Kings
Is the glow of a Christmas bauble.

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Burning Babe, with a Sting in the Tale

Anyone who reads this blog (and I'm grateful to them all) knows that I'm a sucker for traditions, and that the Christmas tradition on Irish Papist is to post St. Robert Southwell's great Christmas poem "The Burning Babe".

But tradition and innovation don't have to be mortal enemies!

This year, rather than simply posting the text, I am inviting my good friend Sting to give his rendition. Afterwards we are having mince pies and a sing-along. Dirk Benedict might show up as well. You can never tell with Dirk.

You can listen to it here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

On The Seventieth Anniversary of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Merrion Road

Our Lady Queen of Peace has been my local church for the last four years or so. Since it's fairly close to UCD I'd often attended it before that, as well. It offers a nine p.m. Mass on Sundays which is very helpful.

It was opened and blessed by the unfairly much-maligned Dr. John Charles McQuaid on the 13th December 1953. You can read its history here.

I wrote this sonnet on the commemoration the other day. I sent it to the parish and got a two-line acknowledgement. Oh, well. My blog readers might enjoy it.

Seventy years ago, the staunch McQuaid
Raised up a round tower as our forebears did
To boldly show the Faith our forebears hid
From Cromwell's soldiers and the Viking's raid.
But Satan never sleep; for in that hour
Of triumph, new and subtler foes waged war
On all our saints and martyrs suffered for
And now the land is darkened with their power.
The battle never ends; but neither shall
The grace the Triune God pours on us cease.
Amidst this strife, let us make festival
Trusting our Master Christ will bring increase
From every wound and woe and seeming fall
And let us praise our Lady Queen of Peace.

Friday, December 8, 2023

For The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

The first fall of snow.
A candle's pure glow.
The white morning mist.
A glory unguessed.
Bring us to your son
Oh, Immaculate one.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

My Poem in Totus Tuus


My poem "Father G" has appeared in the Christmas edition of Totus Tuus magazine, edition 35.

It's a comic-serious poem and all of it is taken from real life, down to the last detail.

Speaking of poetry...

A new colleague in the library said to me today: "There are some good books in the book return."

I was feeling a bit feisty so I said: "The only good books are poetry. Everything else is just entertainment."

An exaggeration, of course, but not an entirely unjustified one. There followed my usual twenty-minute spiel on the decline of poetry (can be extended on request, or even without request).

Long before TikTok or reality TV or Beavis and Butthead, cultural decline had already well set in. Give the poor millennials a break. We are all savages these days.

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Few Recent Facebook Posts

It's funny the influence a book can have on you. When I was in my early twenties I read The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. (Only volume one, the library didn't have volume two.) Ever since then I've never wavered in my belief in liberal democracy, and especially that, in POLITICAL life, "freedom from" has to be more important than "freedom to".


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.

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 don't know why people are so down on Black Friday. I try to get into the spirit. I put up pictures of Gordon Gekko, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman, hang wreaths of tinsel dollar signs from the ceiling, and play classics such as "Ding Dong, Dividends are High", "Away in a Merger", and "Closing Bells". It's great.

I've noticed that conversation seems to flourish best between the extremes of subjectivism and objectivity (or perhaps absolutism).

It seems to me that no conversation is duller than a conversation about food, because once you've said you like or dislike a food, where else is there to go? I suppose you could talk about nutrition or foodways or cooking, but just talking about the experience of eating, in my view, is deadly dull after a minute or two.

That's pure subjectivism, but pure objectivity (or the delusion thereof) is just as bad. Talking to someone who thinks he knows all the answers is insupportable. Or there might be the other sort of "objective" conversation: matter-of-fact discussions about commuting routes or itineraries or whatever. Some people have an endless fascination with these, unless they are just making conversation.

But pleasurable conversation lives in the temperate zone between the two extremes, in my view.

Over the past few days I've been reading ecclesiastical history, broadly construed. First an excellent little book about martyrs of the Third Reich. Also a lot of stuff about Irish priests in the last few centuries.

I find ecclesiastical and Catholic history extremely satisfying. I sometimes think it could be the focus of my leisure reading.

It's so SOLID. So much of religious and Catholic discourse is so vaporous. I've often finished flicking through some Catholic newspaper or magazine (obviously not any publication any of my Facebook friends are involved in) and thought: "There was nothing in that. I learned nothing".

And, in the few years, so many of the things that seemed certain have become unsettled. I'm not assigning any value to that right now. Perhaps there was too much conservative triumphalism and intellectualism before 2013. Perhaps not. Time will tell. I'm applying the Gemaliel principle.

Anyway, history is solid, beyond the inevitable debates about particulars. It's like the laboratory of the Holy Spirit in action. Now if I could develop some idea of where the Irish diocese are located I'd be doing well...

I generally dislike ostentation in worship, like long theatrical silences from the altar. But sometimes it's impossible not to be moved. There has been a young woman in UCD church the last two days who bows low with her forehead on the ground, in the front pew, for much of the Mass. She crawls to receive Communion on her knees.

This afternoon, after Mass, the Eucharist was exposed and the priest said Exposition would go on till five. This was after 12:05 Mass. I decided some time with Jesus was what I desperately needed right now. I went on my afternoon break at four. As I was entering, someone was leaving and the church was empty. I thought: "Isn't the exposed Eucharist meant to be accompanied at all times?"

Then I saw the girl was still there, kneeling on the ground before the altar, so low she had been blocked from my view by the front pew.

There is a subject so immense, so consequential that for some thirty years I have been limbering up to write about it. This is it: music playing in shops.

I'm entirely serious. This subject fascinates me, so much so that when I was in my late teens I spent months putting together a poetry collection called "Ambience Music".

Tennyson said that, if he could understand the little flower growing in a crack of the wall, "I should know what God and man is". I feel as though, if I could get to the heart of my fascination with music playing in shops, I would articulate much of what has preoccupied me all my life.

The thing about music playing in shops is that possibly nobody is actively listening to it, by its very nature. And the funny thing about this is that, to me, this has always given it a sense of plenitude, of presence, rather than of emptiness or absence. This reaction is involuntary.
Hearing a song played in the background gives it (as I instinctively feel, and always have) a prestige far greater than any amount of hype or attention could.

But that's rationalisation. More irrationally, when I hear some song playing in the background, it actually seems to me like the expression of some spirit-- the spirit of the people, the spirit of the period, something like that.

And, although I'm not just using background music as a metaphor, it certainly is that. A metaphor for so many things.

It's such a hard theme to get to grips with, and then there's the question... Is this private fascination of any potential interest to anyone else?

Friday, November 24, 2023

A Dark Night in Dublin

I was caught up in the madness in Dublin city centre yesterday. Thankfully I avoided injury. I was just trying to make my way to IKEA! (Which I did.)

It's the second riot I've unwittingly walked into in Dublin. The first was the Love Ulster riot in 2006. That was nothing compared to this one, though.

Pictures courtesy of my wife.

I pray for safety for all of us on the streets of Dublin, and Ireland.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Filler Poem: Final Call

Things are crazy with me right now, so here's a poem from my archives to keep the blog ticking over. I wrote it in 2005, which was a bad year.

It's a sad poem, so sad I've rarely re-read it. It wasn't expressing an actual experience. I wrote a lot of poems back then which were my attempts to imaginatively project myself into other peoples' situations. I now regard this as a mistake. Others can do it. I can't.

I honestly don't know if there's any value to straightforwardly sad poems such as this one. I never listen to "She's Leaving Home" or "Eleanor Rigby" because they're just too sad. If poetry and art doesn't uplift and encourage, I don't see any point to it. I'm a melancholic by temperament, and an optimist by philosophy.

On a technical note, I'm proud of the short line in the middle stanza.

The hardest thing to bear of all
Was her father making plans
On the morning of her final call.
The whirring of those fans
The shadow of the last brick wall, 
The doctors, and the scans,

Were little things compared to this;
An old man’s childish smile
And eyes alive with the hope of bliss
In a little while.
The see-you-tomorrow in his kiss
So innocent of her guile.

He wouldn’t want to know. But still
Those eyes watch her all night.
His voice repeats we will, we will
His eyes fill with delight
Seeing the world just past the hill
Where things will all come right.

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Our Lady of Zeitoun

I'm a regular listener of the podcast Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World (although I tend to follow it intermittently rather than constantly, as I do with many blogs, podcasts and YouTube channel).

The latest episode is a real cracker. It examines the Marian apparitions in Zeitoun, Egypt, which began in 1968...and went on for three years!

I've heard very little about these apparitions in the past, and it's amazing stuff. Give it a listen.

Monday, November 6, 2023

Happy Feast of All Irish Saints!

Today is the Feast of All Irish Saints, a feast that was introduced by Pope Benedict XV in 1921. I wonder if the timing had anything to do with the War of Independence that was raging at the time?

I only learned about this feast in recent years.

There was an extraordinary dearth of Irish canonisations between the days of sainthood by acclimation, and when St. Oliver Plunkett was raised to the altars in 1975. Thankfully, things have picked up since...

Personally, I must admit, I have very little interest in most of the Irish saints. I'm mostly interested in modern saints. Ancient Irish saints are shrouded in a fog of legend, folklore, and supposition. All wonderful things in their own way, but I'd rather read about saints who are documented and in clearer focus. I find it easier to relate to them.

None of this means I don't appreciate the tradition of Irish sanctity. It's a shimmering horizon against which we live our faith lives, and I'm very grateful it's there. I am grateful for all the obscure saints who lend their names to our villages, churches and neighbourhoods, including St. Pappan who is (sort of) the local saint of Ballymun.

Saints of Ireland, pray for us!

Deo Gratias!

Proposals to abolish most of Britain's train ticket offices have been abandoned, after a huge public outcry.

Read about it here.

This is a wonderful victory in itself. But imagine if it was the beginning of a fightback against the increasing automation and dehumanization of daily life.

A similar public reaction stopped a recent plan by Allied Irish Banks to make cash unavailable at seventy out of their 170 branches.

People power works! Let's not forget it!

Friday, October 27, 2023

Day of Prayer and Fasting for Peace

Pope Francis has called for a day of prayer and fasting today, to petition God for peace in the Holy Land and elsewhere.

Every human being is infinitely precious. How horrible that, instead of caring for each other, some of us are trying to bring irreplaceable human lives to an end.

I don't want to trivialize the issues. They are obviously complex and real.

But I can't help thinking of something written by Carl Sagan (not someone I usually agree with): "If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another."

Send our troubled world peace, oh Lord, and remove hatred and strife from our hearts!

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Villains in the Wax Museum, the Wicker Man, and a Swedish Astrochemist

The Halloween special of Ireland's Own, now on sale, contains my articles on villains (based around waxworks in the National Wax Museum) and the fiftieth anniversary of The Wicker Man.

The November issue of St. Martin's Magazine contains my article on Karen Öberg, a Swedish astrochemist who converted to the Catholic faith through reading C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.

Monday, October 23, 2023

The Ballad of Ballymun

A good few months ago, I published this "ballad" (though it's only the lyrics, and there's no music) on the Tribute to The Old Ballymun Facebook page.

Tribute to the Old Ballymun is an extraordinarily active Facebook page. There seem to be multiple posts every day, and the common refrain is that the old Ballymun-- that is, Ballymun before the regeneration, when it was mostly tower-blocks and apartments complexes-- was a great place to live. Certainly there seems to be tremendous nostalgia for it.

As per the refrain, I really am glad I grew up in Ballymun. I like how distinctive it was.

It occurs to me that nearly everything in my life experience has been unusual. My name is highly unusual. Ballymun was an unusual place to grow up. I went to all-Irish language schools, and that was quite unusual. No wonder I'm a contrarian.

Anyway, this ballad was a bit of an experiment, a test-balloon. Regular readers (God bless them) will know that I write poetry, and also-- absurdly ambitious though this is-- that I aspire to somehow assist in a revival of traditional poetry.

The first and biggest hurdle is getting your poetry read in the first place. And getting it read is quite separate from getting it published. It might be published and not read. It might be read and not published. Does anyone read literary magazines?

I'm trying to think of strategies to get my poetry read. One is to write on a subject that people car about. Another is to write in a ballad format, which is less threatening than many verse forms, being repetitive and predictable. (I don't say that in a disparaging way.)

Anyway, the experiment was very successful. The readers of the Tribute to the Old Ballymun Facebook page were highly enthusiastic about my poem, and said lots of kind things about it. It got hundreds of "likes" and comments and shares.

Good or bad, here it is.

I grew up in the Ballymun flats
We weren’t exactly aristocrats
But I saw from my living room all the way
To the Wicklow Mountains and Dublin Bay.
We had wider horizons than anyone
And I’m glad I grew up in Ballymun.

Grey grey concrete and green green grass
Flickering lights in the underpass.
We had no money but lots of fun
And I’m glad I grew up in Ballymun.

In Ballymun our shop was a van
We had Alien Spacers and Desperate Dan
And Barry McGuigan and A-Team snacks
And we guzzled our way through packs and packs.
We ate such junk, but we’d run and run
So we didn’t get fat in Ballymun.

Grey grey concrete and green green grass
Flickering lights in the underpass
We had no money but lots of fun
And I’m glad I grew up in Ballymun.

I’d lie in bed past the witching hour
And stare at the light over Connolly Tower
The red light that kept us safe in bed
From low-flying airplanes overhead
I thought it would glow as long as the sun
But it’s gone with the rest of the old Ballymun.

Grey grey concrete and green green grass
Flickering lights in the underpass.
We had no money but lots of fun
And I’m glad I grew up in Ballymun.

Miss Mary’s and Tommy’s, the Penthouse, the Towers
All names that conjure a world that was ours.
The sky-scraping bonfires at Halloween
The biggest bonfires I’ve ever seen
Now “Help the Halloween party”’s gone
And they go trick-or-treating in Ballymun.

Grey grey concrete and green green grass
Flickering lights in the underpass
We had no money but lots of fun
And I’m glad I grew up in Ballymun.

It wasn’t all pretty, it wasn’t all nice,
God knows there was vandalism and vice
The lifts would be broken, the chutes would be full,
But how could you ever say it was ever dull?
I was proud as a peacock that everyone
In Ireland knew all about Ballymun.

Grey grey concrete and green green grass
Flickering lights in the underpass
We had no money but lots of fun
And I’m glad I grew up in Ballymun.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Happy Friday the Thirteenth!

Well, it's Friday the Thirteenth! I'm not superstitious, because it's bad luck, but I do like the idea of Friday the Thirteenth. I love all holidays, observances, commemorations, traditions, and special dates, as my last post attests.

To mark the day, you might want to read this post from ten years ago (yikes-- that's scary in itself!) on spooky television title sequences.

Speaking of spooky things, I actually watched a horror movie last night: Burnt Offerings, a sort of haunted house film from 1976, starring Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Burgess Meredith. I remembered it from my childhood; for years, myself and my brothers had a memory of the "smiley chauffeur", an unspeaking character who makes a few brief (but very memorable) appearances in the film, and who terrified us. We didn't even remember the title, which I only worked out recently. The film is pretty good.

Incidentally, I was recently corresponding (for work purposes) with an academic from Sacramento, who recognised my name from reading this blog! That cheered me up, since I'm increasingly unsure whether anyone reads it. The blog statistics have never been very helpful; I think they mostly track bots.

I rarely get comments any more. I won't go on moaning about this. I know one reader has been unable to leave comments for a long time and others may had this issue.

I'm wondering if I've alienated some of my former readership. There has been a lot of polarization in the Church recently and, unlike many of those who share my general outlook, I've refused to align with the Cardinal Burke/Archbishop Schneider/Cardinal Sarah camp. Not that I don't share many of their anxieties. I do. But, at the same time, I believe that the Holy Spirit is still very much in charge of things. I'm also unhappy at the manner in which this faction has increasingly embraced a sort of surly oppositionalism, and even questioned the validity of Vatican II. I'm not going down that road. I'm a JPII boy all the way.

Or maybe it's not at that at all, and I'm exaggerating the importance of my opinion to anyone.

In any case, this blog has been going so long that, in my mind, it's become a tradition of its own, and I hope to keep it going as long as I can.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Ivy Day 2023

Finally, after several years of intending to do so, I made it to the Ivy Day wreath-laying and oration in Glasnevin ceremony.

Ivy Day is the day when Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), the former leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, is commemorated. He came close to achieving Home Rule for Ireland, but his career fell apart when he was revealed to be having an extra-marital affair. The scandal created fault-lines in Irish society between "Parnellites" and "anti-Parnellites".

Most of the Catholic clergy (though not all) were anti-Parnellites. After his fall, Parnell was something of a hero to the more modernizing and secular strands of Irish society. I don't really know his own views on social issues. He seems to have been intensely focused on the issue of Home Rule. I'm more sympathetic to the anti-Parnellites.

Nevertheless, Parnell was a great man. He's not really a popular hero in Ireland today, but then, neither are the vast majority of patriots and statesmen of our past. Irish people today are more interested in garden centres and shopping expeditions than anything dull like heritage or citizenship.

My main reason for going to the commemoration was my tenderness for old traditions. I don't really think we can have enough traditions.

There was an oration from Martin Mansergh, a former Fianna Fáil TD. It was eloquent, but it reflected the sort of civic patriotism that leaves me rather cold. I don't really see the point of an independent Ireland, or a united Ireland, unless it's a vehicle for a revived native culture. It can still be pluralistic and diverse.

The piper played "Raglan Road" and other tunes, as well as the National Anthem at the end.

There were about thirty people there. They all seemed to know each other, though I may be wrong about that. They were very welcoming. I hope to attend in future years.

Friday, October 6, 2023

"Though You Hunt the Christian Man..."

G.K. Chesterton was a very variable poet, and much of his verse (in my view) doesn't rise much above the level of accomplished doggerel. But at his best he was first-rate.

I think these verses from The Ballad of the White Horse express why I am a Christian, in a way, better than anything else. Christianity at its worst (and not perverted into something else entirely) seems better than anything else at its best. Even invoking the name of Christ seems to carry an atmosphere of white light and morning air and opening horizons. And all of the movements and philosophies that seek to destroy Christianity seem moribund even in their hour of triumph.

The speaker is King Arthur, disguised as a minstrel, replying to the Danish invaders who are mocking Christianity.

"But though I lie on the floor of the world,
With the seven sins for rods,
I would rather fall with Adam
Than rise with all your gods.

"What have the strong gods given?
Where have the glad gods led?
When Guthrum sits on a hero's throne
And asks if he is dead?

"Sirs, I am but a nameless man,
A rhymester without home,
Yet since I come of the Wessex clay
And carry the cross of Rome,

"I will even answer the mighty earl
That asked of Wessex men
Why they be meek and monkish folk,
And bow to the White Lord's broken yoke;
What sign have we save blood and smoke?
Here is my answer then.

"That on you is fallen the shadow,
And not upon the Name;
That though we scatter and though we fly,
And you hang over us like the sky,
You are more tired of victory,
Than we are tired of shame.

"That though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side,
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.

"That though all lances split on you,
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.

"Your lord sits high in the saddle,
A broken-hearted king,
But our king Alfred, lost from fame,
Fallen among foes or bonds of shame,
In I know not what mean trade or name,
Has still some song to sing;

"Our monks go robed in rain and snow,
But the heart of flame therein,
But you go clothed in feasts and flames,
When all is ice within;

"Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly,
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

"Nor monkish order only
Slides down, as field to fen,
All things achieved and chosen pass,
As the White Horse fades in the grass,
No work of Christian men.

"Ere the sad gods that made your gods
Saw their sad sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale,
That you have left to darken and fail,
Was cut out of the grass.

"Therefore your end is on you,
Is on you and your kings,
Not for a fire in Ely fen,
Not that your gods are nine or ten,
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things."

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

My Hy Brasil article in Ireland's Own

My article on the mythical Irish island of Hy Brasil is the cover story of the Autumn Special of Ireland's Own, and it also contains my article on Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh, the parish priest of Knock who tragically missed out on the apparition.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Pray for the Synod

I know there has been a lot of cynicism about the Synod on Synodality, and I'd be lying if I said that I've been terribly enthusiastic about it myself.

I went to one of the consultations in my local parish. There were two, but I had Covid when the second one came along. The one I attended wasn't terribly inspiring, but there was nothing objectionable about it either. It felt like a bit of a non-event, more than anything else.

Of course, I understand the anxiety that this process is being controlled by sinister forces in the Church. But ultimately, the Holy Spirit is in charge. There's a danger of becoming completely soaked in negativity.

In any case, nothing can be lost by praying for the Synod, as our bishops have urged us to do.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Eternity or Five Years: The Threat of a Digital Dark Age

This was my entry to the 2023 CONUL Library Assistant Blog Post Competition. (CONUL is the Consortium of National and University Libraries in Ireland.) I've just heard that it came nowhere. The competition is held every two years; I've entered four times and come in third place once, four years ago.

I'm quite despondent about this as I'd hoped to be placed this year. It wasn't to be. Anyway, here is the blog post.

On the 22 May 2013, the National Public Radio website published an article headlined: “The First Web Page, Amazingly, Is Lost.” It described the creation of the very first webpage, which occurred at CERN laboratories in 1991. Perhaps no event in recent history has had a greater effect on our everday lives. This historic web page, however, has been lost.

As the article explains: “Berners-Lee and his colleagues were so busy trying to convince people to buy into the concept, they didn't keep track of their early Web pages, says Dan Noyes [CERN’s web manager]. "I mean the team at the time didn't know how special this was, so they didn't think to keep copies, right?"

This is a familiar pattern from media history. Dan Hofstede, a television historian, put it like this: “Would you like Johnny Carson’s first Tonight Show? Or perhaps the first Super Bowl? Well, you’d better settle for a Perfect Strangers return, because to the best of our knowledge those events no longer exist. Sure, somebody taped them when they happened, but some time later, whether it was weeks or months or years, the tapes were either thrown away or used again, and as a result what would now be considered historic broadcasts have most likely disappeared forever.”

Another example is the 1984 Domesday Project by the BBC, recording the geography and social life of Britain 900 years after the original Domesday Book. The information was recorded on LaserDisc and the project cost twenty-five million pounds. However, in 2002, the Observer newspaper announced: “Digital Domesday Book Lasts Fifteen Years Not 1000”. It explained: “The special computers developed to play the 12-inch video discs of text, photographs, maps and archive footage of British life are– quite simply– obsolete. As a result, no one can access the reams of project information - equivalent to several sets of encyclopaedias - that were assembled about the state of the nation in 1986.” Thankfully, software was later developed which could retrieve the information.

Although it predates digitization, the phenomenon has been dubbed “The Digital Dark Age”. Jeff Rothenberg, a prominent advocate for digital preservation, expressed it wittily when he said: “Digital objects last forever– or five years, whichever comes first.”

The term “Digital Dark Age” may well have been first used by Terry Kuny, then a consultant to the National Library of Canada, at the 63rd IFLA conference in Copenhagen in 1997. There, he said: “As we move into the electronic era of digital objects, it is important to know that there are new barbarians at the gate and that we are moving into an eara where much of what we know today, much of what is coded electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages; consequently, much as monks of times past, it falls to librarians and archivists to hold to the tradition which reveres history and the published heritage of our times.”

Terry Kuny

It’s not only changing technologies or indifference which leads to the loss of digital records. Copyright and licensing are also a major factor. As Kuny put it in the same talk: “Increasingly restrictive intellectual property and licensing regimes will ensure that many materials never make it into library collections for preservation. These will be corporate assets and will not be deposited into public collections without substantive financial and licensing arrangements that few libraries will be able to afford.”

In his book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2018), Trevor Owens of the Library of Congress puts forward sixteen guiding digital preservation axioms, which include:

* Nothing has been preserved, there are only things being preserved: “Preservation is the ongoing work of people and commitments of resources. The work is never finished.”

* The answer to nearly all digital preservations is “it depends”: “Deciding what matters about an object or a set of objects is largely contingent on what their future might be.”

* Accept and embrace the archival sliver: “We’ve never saved everything. We’ve never saved most things… The ideology of “the digital” makes it seem like we could or should attempt to save everything. However, this comes from the mistake of thinking that digital preservation is primarily a technical challenge instead of a social and ethical one.”

Perhaps an image we could turn to for inspiration is the White Horse of Uffington, a chalk figure in Oxfordshire, England. Although it dates back to prehistory, the figure has been “scoured” and remade countless times over the generations. The task of preservation is never over, and the task is inherently a collaborative one.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

J.R.R. Tolkien and the Evangelization of the Imagination

 Many thanks to Dominic N for alerting me to this excellent article, "Tolkien: Fifty Years On"

There's many points of interest in it. I had to smile at the sentence: "There is even, improbably, an ongoing attempt to make the poor man a saint, which one can only hope goes nowhere." That's putting it a little strongly, but calls for Tolkien's canonization do seem a little batty.

More seriously, there is this passage: "The often ferocious response of many critics perhaps stemmed from the apparent anachronism of the book, combined with its massive popularity. It was published in 1954, at a time when literary modernism was dominant and pervading the academy. Modernist writers were obsessed with interiority, broke with prior literary convention, and traded in irony, ambiguity and convoluted psychology. Literary critics of the time were taking up the “New Criticism”, which dispensed not only with the previous generation’s fascination with historical context in favour of close reading, but also with the traditionalist concerns for beauty and moral improvement, which were regarded as subjective and emotionally driven. Spare, complex prose, focused on the darker side of society, was in vogue. Into this context dropped 1,200 pages of dwarves, elves and hobbits in a grand battle of good and evil. They were greeted with the sort of enthusiasm one can imagine."

G.K. Chesterton received (and receives) the same kind of patronising response, as does Tolkien's contemporary C.S. Lewis. (I often ponder how surprised a patron or barman of the Eagle and Child might be if they realized that the two unremarkable-looking gentlemen sinking beers in the corner would eventually sell hundreds of millions of books between them.) They're all right in their way, but they're so naive and child-like, there's nothing complicated or ambiguous about them.

Of course, the accusation that Tolkien was a crude proponent of black and white morality is untrue. There are morally ambiguous characters in Lord of the Rings: Boromir, for instance. The difference with fashionable highbrow literature is that good and evil themselves are relatively straightforward concepts in the book-- as indeed, they are in real life.

It seems to be a constant in the history of literature that, every once in a while, a writer comes along who is sublimely indifferent to the literary developments of his (or her) time, is very successful, and is despised for it. A.E. Housman is a good example when it comes to poetry: Housman didn't so much react against the poetic modernism of his time as completely ignore it.

Interestingly, Tolkien is said to have enjoyed the writings of Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer whose views could hardly have been further from his own. Asimov was an atheist, a humanist, a progressive, and an apostle of technological progress (even if he sometimes expressed disquiet about aspects of it). But he had as little time for literary experimentation as Tolkien. (Conversely, some of the most enthusiastic champions and practitioners of artistic experimentation, like Ezra Pound or D.H. Lawrence, were self-professed conservatives.)

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Happy Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross!

 A good day for quoting the opening lines from The Dream of the Rood, the great Anglo-Saxon poem ("rood" means "cross"):

Listen! I will speak of the sweetest dream,
what came to me in the middle of the night,
when speech-bearers slept in their rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
raised on high, wound round with light,
the brightest of beams. All that beacon was
covered in gold; gems stood
fair at the earth’s corners, and there were five
up on the cross-beam. All the angels of the Lord looked on;
fair through all eternity; that was no felon’s gallows,
but holy spirits beheld him there,
men over the earth and all this glorious creation.

A Medley of Miscellaneous Musings

Pretty much every day, I post stuff on Facebook. Thoughts about this, that and the other. I've done this for at least seven years.

Sometimes my posts are just one-liners or throwaway comments, but sometimes they are little meditations or even little essays.

Every day, Facebook throws up "memories" of what I wrote on that same calendar day all through the previous years. Recently, I've been thinking it's a shame to let all these musings go to waste, since (if nothing else) I put a lot of thought to them. So I've been copying and pasting the (arguably) more interesting ones into a file.

The file so far might make a reasonable blog post. Here it is.

I found myself thinking about Lord Alfred Tennyson this morning. He is probably my favourite poet after W.B. Yeats. He's never fallen out of the front rank of English poets but he's been distinctly unfashionable for a long, long time now. There is an oft-quoted passage from Samuel Butler's diary in which he wrote: " Talking it over, we agreed that Blake was no good because he learnt Italian at sixty in order to study Dante, and we knew Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran him, and as for Tennyson—well, Tennyson goes without saying." Obviously, there's an element of self-satire in that, but it reflects a very real prejudice. (I read The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler in my twenties. It was very dull.) Then there is Joyce's frequently quoted: "Lawn Tennyson, gentleman poet". 

But the caricature of Tennyson as the bearded patriarchal Eminent Victorian is completely wrong, or completely right in the sense that Victorian England was a battleground of very contrasting beliefs and ideals. Like Yeats Tennyson is always writing from different viewpoints, arguing with himself, dwelling on ambiguities, etc.

I was thinking especially of one my favourite poems of all time, the blank verse "Ulysses", which I believe will be remembered long after James Joyce's novel has become a period piece and a curiosity.

What amazes me about this poem is how such simple language and simple thought manages to be so unforgettable. And it IS unforgettable, since it's constantly quoted and alluded to. Take these lines, for instance:

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.

There are no great fireworks of linguistic virtuosity here. The language is about as simple and plain as it could get. There are hardly any similes or metaphors and those that are there are very commonplace, other than the great symbol of the arch. There is nothing in this passage that might not have been said by anybody. And yet it's one of the greatest flights of poetry in the English language. It defies analysis. I've especially always found the line: "Manners, climates, councils, governments" to be electrifying. But it's just a string of nouns! (The same could be said of Milton's "Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues, powers," or-- a less famous example-- "WIne and oil and honey and milk" from "The Wanderings of Oisin" by Yeats.)

I was looking through a catalogue of movies and I was depressed at how many centre on violence. I think it's fair to say that most films have violence or crime as central themes.

Don't get me wrong. I love Quentin Tarantino. I love horror films, which often feature violence. I have no problem with violence in stories per se. I'm not talking about graphic violence here, just violence as a plot device.

It just seems like a failure of human imagination. Is life so boring to us, as a species, that most of our stories have to involve the destruction or threatened destruction of human life?

This is why I have such a high regard for situation comedies, which are generally about ordinary life-- the broad sweep of daily life with its routines and variety. I would like to think that ordinary life is worth living, and worth celebrating. That it's not only the extremes of life that are interesting.

This is why Groundhog Day is my favourite film. It has a supernatural plot but it's all about the beauty of ordinary life.

For a long time I've been a ferocious critic of political correctness. I imagine people who see me in the street think: "There goes Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh, the ferocious critic of political correctness." However, more recently I've been troubled by a kind of contradiction in my own Thought.

This is it: I tend to believe that taboo, reverence, and piety are good things in themselves. Don't get me wrong, I wish all those things were directed towards their proper objects, but even IN THEMSELVES they seem admirable to me.

And all those things are abundantly present in political correctness. People who trip themselves up constantly trying to use the correct epithets are, in a sense, showing a sort of piety, a sort of reverence. It's misdirected but it's real. And I don't have the slightest problem against censorship on the grounds of public morals; I think Mary Whitehouse was a hero. But isn't this just what the PC brigade are pushing for, according to their own lights?

My gorge still rises at political correctness, don't get me wrong. And I still consider it a mortal enemy. But there is a little part of my mind that asks: "Are you being completely consistent here? Shouldn't you acknowledge a healthy impulse even in your enemy, "to honour as you strike him down' "? Perhaps Nietzsche was onto something when he said "you may have enemies you hate, but not enemies you despise."

(I would like to think this is the most pompous Facebook post ever.)

For a long time I've pondered the problem of clichés. It seems unreasonable that a happy turn of phrase should become shopworn after a certain amount of time. Why should proverbs be cherished when "clichés" are scorned? I love turns of phrase like "a walk down memory lane" or "in the cold light of day" and see no reason why they shouldn't be used again and again. I see no reason why language should be constantly mown like a lawn.

I was listening to someone talking the other day and she used such a phrase--I forgot what-- but I noticed how listlessly she used it. She drawled it out. Perhaps that's the difference? Perhaps clichés become lifeless because we use them lifelessly, or apologetically, or half-heartedly? Perhaps "clichés" remain fresh if we use them with as much relish as they were used when they were coined?

I like to fantasize about imaginary places. Recently I've been daydreaming about a gigantic indoor space, made mostly of glass, with winding spiral escalators taking people up and down. This space has many swimming pools layered one on top of the other, each one glass-bottomed, the water a delicious blue green. There are also powerful fountains on each level. The air is full of echoes, voices and splashes.

There are other features, although I hadn't thought of them. I guess restaurants, saunas, indoor soccer courts, plazas, that kind of thing.

I don't know if such a place is even possible. I did read that spiral escalators are real. Mitsubishi are the only company that make them.

Do other people daydream about imaginary places? I do this quite a lot.

Here's an interesting thing. Grafton Street is Dublin city centre's "showcase" street and it's pedestrianized. A few weeks ago I was taken aback when I realized the paving stones on Grafton Street are grey, rather than the pinky-red I'd always seen in my mind. In fact, they have been grey since 2015. But I've mentioned this to a couple of other people (both Dubliners) and they both said: "What, they're not red? I thought they were." As Sherlock Holmes would say, we see but we do not observe. Certainly I don't! But I'm even more surprised when it's others, too.

I watched all the series of the "reimagined" Battlestar Galactica a few years ago, back to back. On the whole I found it poor. It was the anti-Star Trek and I much prefer Star Trek's idealism to Battlestar's cynicism. But some scenes have really stuck in my memory. Spoilers ahead...

First off, the sequence at the very beginning when the Cylons are attacking Galactica, wave after wave, relentlessly, and the Viper pilots are at breaking point trying to ward them off incessantly. This often comes into my mind when I feel overwhelmed.

Then there was the episode where Baltar was vindicated for cooperating with the Cylons under the occupation, since resisting would have caused much more loss of life. I'm generally on the pragmatic side of such questions, rather than the "liberty or death" side.

The scene where they discover Kolob is a post-atomic wasteland. Gut-wrenching.

And having some Luddite tendencies I loved the way it ended, when they decided to discard all their technology.

I thought the original BSG was the business as a kid. I watched it again recently and realized it was dire! Even if Dirk Benedict is always awesome.

Recently I watched a deacon bowing before a priest, who blessed him before he read the Gospel passage. I thought of what a beautiful gesture of humility it was, and how sad it is that egalitarianism is so often pitted against hierarchy. I do believe in egalitarianism, in several senses-- most importantly, that I don't think anybody is of inherently less dignity than anybody else. And I generally prefer everything that pertains to the common herd as opposed to elites of any kind-- cuturally and socially. But how can we do without hierarchy, not just as a necessary evil but as an opportunity for humility, reverence, chivalry etc? Why should we let a silly resentment take away the beauty of a layman kissing a bishop's ring, a commoner using a special form of address for an aristocrat, men showing chivalrous courtesies to women, the young respecting the old, etc? It's not about inferiority or superiority at all, and it seems to me that such ceremonial forms are a kind of 'brake' against seeing life in those terms. Once you see everything in terms of power or a competitive pecking order, you are using the logic of Hell-- whether that is understood in religious or secular terms.

Here's something odd. I've mentioned before my terrible sense of geography, all geography-- world, European, Ireland, Dublin, my own immediate environment.

But allied to this is a deep fascination with the concept of place which occasionally makes me want to get a better grasp. Not just place, but time. Those two things never cease to fascinate me. In particular, special times and places, and liminal times and places. The word "lobby" gives me endless delight.

We have to keep a log of all the questions we get asked in the library. There are different categories. Two are "Directional-- library" and "Directional-- campus". So if somebody asks about something that's JUST outside the library, literally a few paces (for instance, the Access and Life-Long Learning centre, in the same building) it's "Directional-- campus" instead of "Directional-- library". And every time I do this I feel a delicious frisson at that distinction.

 When I was about eleven, my class went to Ennis to participate in the Slógadh, an Irish-language festival of culture. (We won our category, incidentally-- we were an overperforming working-class school that put massive practice into such things.) Anyway, I remember we were sitting in the lobby (!) of a hotel past midnight, and I made a reference to tomorrow. "It is tomorrow", another kid said. And that sentence gave me so much delight I still remember it. Part of my mind sees time and space as this chaotic jumble, and another part is constantly delighted and amazed that it's not.

You wouldn't be up to me.

Do you have any examples of great final sentences/passages from books? They don't have to be novels.

What put this in my head are the last lines of Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov, which I must have read more than thirty years ago, but which have stuck in my mind all that time:

' "After all", and here Trevize felt a sudden twinge of trouble, which he forced himself to disregard, "it is not as though we had the enemy already here and among us."

And he did not look down to meet the brooding eyes of Fallom--hermaphroditic, transductive, different--as they rested, unfathomably, on him.' 

When I think of what I believe in, aside from the obvious answer: "Catholicism", it often comes down to the concept, "the preservation of differences."

It came into my mind just now as I was thinking of the preservation of the public and the private. There have been times in history when the public swallowed up the private.

Totalitarianism, for instance. Or you even see it today with people for whom EVERYTHING is political and who can't understand that some things should be kept free from politics. But, on the whole, I think our time is one where the private has swallowed up the public. People lives their lives with little sense of a greater whole-- I don't mean in a political sense (there is that, as the lockdowns showed, however ill-advised they were) but in a cultural, spiritual sense.

We also live in a time when the universal is threatening to swallow up the particular-- as though we didn't need both.

There seems to be a constant battle to preserve the different sides of man's existence. Discovery and tradition. Individuality and community. Equality and the need for hierarchy. So many others. (Of course, some people are fighting a battle to collapse man's many-sidedness.)

I always love it when someone says something like: "I learned my logic in a hard school", or "I was always taught to break things down into their simplest elements", or anything that harkens back to their training, formation, induction, etc. It can be anything; someone talking about a knack their parents showed them in the kitchen, or a professor saying, "As my old professor always used say..." I suppose at that moment I get an image of skills and habits and traditions being handed down from person to person, down a long tunnel of time. Or maybe it shows the human side to the academic, or the technical, or the professional, or whatever type the skill is. Or maybe it's that you realise that, even in something very demanding and precise, there is still room for personality and rapport. Well, I suppose it's all these things.

This is why I love movies and books about pupil-mentor relationships like The Karate Kid or Dead Poets' Society.