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.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

My Article on Wacky Pastimes, and Fr. James Russell


The September special of Ireland's Own features a two-page article on strange and quirky pastimes, and opens with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton.

It also features my article on Fr. James Russell, a "healing priest" who was most associated with the parish of Kilcommon in Tipperary, and who died in 1957. People are still reporting favours from his intercession, and his memorial Mass is well-attended every year.

Friday, September 1, 2023

The End of Summer

There is something very bittersweet about the end of summer. For me it's imbued with the atmosphere of God-knows-how-many coming-of-age books and films. For instance, Goodnight Mr. Tom and The Way Way Back. They are often set in summer or else the climax is at the end of summer. Usually the protagonist has achieved some breakthrough or insight which gives them new enthusiasm for the future, but they know are leaving an enchanted interlude behind.

The end of The Tempest (my favourite Shakespeare play) is rather similar.

I also associate it with my childhood summer holidays on my aunt's farm in Limerick. As the holiday ended I knew it was the return to Dublin, school and growing up. (And the British soccer season resuming, which was important to me back then.) There was excitement but also regret, mingled into one emotion. I especially think of dusk and looking at bats flutter against the twilight. This to me has become a symbol of all these things.

I'm beginning to think one secret of happiness in life is always to focus on new beginnings, however old you are.

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

My Article on the Book of Kells

This week's issue of Ireland's Own has as its cover story my article on the Book of Kells.

I put a huge amount of work into this article. I'm quite happy with it. I'd never actually seen the famous book before I did my research for this piece.

It's hard to think of anything more quintessentially Irish than the Book of Kells. Certainly, when I contemplate its pictures and decorations, I have a sense of being spiritually at home in a way that's hard to compare to anything else. But I mean "home" in a certain sense-- home not as a resting place, but as a horizon.

Anyway, buy it if you can! Even if you don't like my article (and I hope you will), you'll like others!

Monday, August 28, 2023


What fills you with wonder?

Lots of things fill me with wonder. Words, for instance. I saw a guy silhouetted in a window this morning and found myself thinking of the word "silhouette", one of my favourites. I suppose the wonder of words boils down to the wonder of consciousness. But I don't want to boil it down, particularly.

Candlelight fills me with wonder. Eyes. Memory. Stories and storytelling. Playing cards. Books.

Wonder is a funny thing. It doesn't mean curiosity and it doesn't mean surprise. It's hard to "cash out" analytically. I mean, given the existence of a world, it had to be one way rather than another. It's hard to see why billions of galaxies are more wonderful than five.

Anyway, what fills you with wonder? I'm interested.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Another Depressing Stage In the Dehumanization of Everyday Life

Check out this post on the Some Definite Service blog, regarding the monstrous proposals to close pretty much every ticket office in the British rail system.

The public consultation process has been extended until September the first. I beg any readers in Britain to participate in it. The link is here.

Monday, August 14, 2023

In a Café

What light-years you have travelled to be here,
With me,
At this café table, in the morning sun.
What a race you have run
From the vast abyss beyond your memory--
The neonatal dark, the primal light--
From the savage jungles of the infant soul
Where monsters might uncoil from every bough
But paradise is never far from sight.

What epic treks you've made through countless lands
Mapped and unmapped; childhood, and childhood's end;
Growth, grief, first love, the blazing desert sands
Of loneliness, the finding of a friend.
What dungeons, torture chambers, furnaces,
You crawled through, all alone, where none could aid;
What limitless horizons were displayed
Only to you, on mountain-tops of bliss.

I see my face look back from out your eyes--
Those oceans limitless;
Those windows to a world other than this;
Those starry starry skies.

And from so far, for you to be so near--
So very near--
As near as ever time and space allow;
The morning sunlight playing on our tea
With me,

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Walking With Fr. Vincent by Andrew McNabb: A Review


I am awarding "Walking with Vincent McNabb" full marks because it entirely achieves what it sets out to achieve. If you are interested in Fr. Vincent McNabb, you will lap this up. If you are interested in G.K. Chesterton or Hilaire Belloc, you will be fascinated. If you are simply a Catholic or Christian reader, perhaps one interested in the social teaching of the Church, it will absorb you. If you are a general reader, with none of the above interests, you will still find it stimulating and perhaps even inspiring. It is written by the great-grandnephew of Fr. Vincent, and so gives an unabashedly affectionate and appropriately reverential picture of the great man.

I read this book as a longstanding fan of G.K. Chesterton, one of Fr. Vincent's most famous associates. Both were involved in the movement rather awkwardly called Distributism, which was an attempt to find a "third way" between big business and big government. It was also an attempt to follow the social teaching of the Popes.

I've never really considered myself a Distributist. Its ideals are admirable, but seem unrealistic. The author of this book is clearly aware of this tension himself, and writes a lot about his own efforts to reconcile Distributist ideals to the reality of twenty-first century capitalism. He never really comes to a definite conclusion, which I consider a strength rather than a weakness. The book lives in the tension rather than trying to neatly resolve it. The world is too full of people with easy answers.

What can be said for sure about Fr. McNabb is that he lived his ideals to the fullest. How many people really do this? A believer in a materially simple life, he slept on the wooden floor of his monastic cell with only his arm for a pillow, and only his habit for bedclothes. He walked everywhere, eschewing motorized transport. And he put all his energy into proclaiming his belief in Jesus Christ, and into promoting what he believed was a Christian way of life.

Andrew McNabb is a most companionable author, and the book is written in a warm and anecdotal style, with no fussy formality. Some readers might possibly find the style a little too fluid. McNabb interweaves his own experiences, relationship with the memory of his great-uncle, and family life with his ongoing narrative of Fr. McNabb's life. Personally I enjoyed this, although perhaps others might prefer a more conventional structure.

I greatly enjoyed this book. It's called Walking with Father Vincent, and it frequently returns to the theme of this great priest's dedication to walking, in the simplest and most literal sense of that verb. Appropriately enough, I read a great deal of this book while walking. It was that compelling. I hope Fr. Vincent would approve.

You can buy the book here.

Trials and Tribulations

That has been the theme of my life for the last two weeks. I might write about it here at some future date, but I don't have the time or the heart for it now.

It's been a crazy, crazy time. Myself and Michelle have encountered both the worst and the best of human nature in that interval. People who had legal and moral obligations to us, failing those obligations in the most callous manner possible. Other people, who we didn't even know a month ago and who have no obligation to us, going way beyond the call of duty. I've experienced kindness that truly humbles me-- from Christian and non-religious, Irish and immigrant, and even complete strangers.

Please pray for us, and also pray for either conscience or justice to overtake those who have left us in the lurch. Apologies for being mysterious.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Facebook A Go-Go

I post a lot on Facebook and I'm getting steadily less apologetic about this.

I have a lot to say. I get along best with people who have a lot to say. The people I find hardest to get along with are those who are reluctant conversationalists and who restrict themselves to small-talk. 

I'm not talking about shyness. I know all about shyness. I was excruciatingly shy for most of my life and I still struggle with it. I'm talking about people who are not at all shy but still make no effort. (In fact, I've noticed that some people are out-and-out extroverts, always in company, always eager to engage others in conversation...and still have nothing to say.)

I'm not saying they are bad people. Some of them might be saints for all I know. I just find it hard to interact with them.

I'm not saying I'm any better than anyone else for having a lot to say. Maybe I'm just a tiresome gasbag. The Bible is full of exhortations to silence and reserve in speech. But it's just the way I am. I put it down to being very shy and withdrawn in childhood. I was forced to develop "a rich inner life", as the personality profile of the INFJ puts it.

Anyway, I have a lot to say and Facebook is a good channel for saying it. Many of these little snippets are so miscellaneous that they're not exactly the kind of thing I could say out of the blue to a friend, colleague, or stranger. Some of my Facebook friends have been kind enough to say my Facebook page is a home for interesting discussions.

I also think it's good writing practice, as long as you're not just getting into tiresome flame wars and the like. (I don't do this.) If you're writing something that takes some effort to express, I think it can be good writing practice.

At its worst, it's a good filler for my blog when I'm too busy to write a blog post.

Anyway, judge for yourself! Here goes. (Regarding the post on titles: I realize I've written on this subject before and mentioned many of these specific titles before. What the heck.)

If Irish people just made an effort to say "Dia dhuit" and "slán leat" regularly, that would increase the use of Irish in daily life about a million per cent.

As I've said before, I have mixed feelings about the website Where Peter Is, especially how far it is embracing the language of identity politics. But I do often look at it-- as I often look at Edward Feser's blog, the Catholic Herald, Fr. Dwight Longenecker's blog, and the many other websites that are generally on the opposite side of the "Francis wars".

One feature that is very interesting is "Which Pope Said This?", a series of quotations from Popes of the past which appear to reinforce the "hermeneutic of continuity". Here is a quotation from St. John Paul II which is most interesting. We could obviously go all around the houses on infallibility, etc. But it's still interesting. He said it in Mexico 1979.

The thing that caused me most distress in Francis's pontificate was the fear that Amoris Laetitia contradicted Veritatis Splendor. I've overcome this, but I do have sympathy with both sides in the Francis wars, as long as the discussion is conducted with respect for each other and the Holy Father.

As for the claim that we have to perform mental gymnastics to find an orthodox reading of Pope Francis's words, I don't put much stock in this. Protestants make the same accusation of Catholics; secularists make it of Christians. For instance, it seems obvious in the New Testament that the inspired writers expected Jesus to return in their lifetime, and I can understand how Arians felt they were on solid ground with John 14:28, "The Father is greater than I". 
You could hardly get plainer than that, it seems. This applies to the non-religious, as well. Atheists have to perform mental gymnastics to explain the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, and the stupendous "fine-tuning" of the universe for life. 

 As Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, orthodoxy is a balancing act where an inch is everything.

Anyway, here's the quotation:

"The Pope who visits you, expects from you a generous and noble effort to know the Church better and better. The Second Vatican Council wished to be, above all, a Council on the Church. Take in your hands the documents of the Council, especially “Lumen Gentium”, study them with loving attention, with the spirit of prayer, to discover what the Spirit wished to say about the Church. In this way you will be able to realize that there is not—as some people claim—a “new church”, different or opposed to the “old church”, but that the Council wished to reveal more clearly the one Church of Jesus Christ, with new aspects, but still the same in its essence.

"The Pope expects from you, moreover, loyal acceptance of the Church. To remain attached to incidental aspects of the Church, valid in the past but outdated today, would not be faithful in this sense. Nor would it be faithful to embark, in the name of an unenlightened prophetism, on the adventurous and utopian construction of a so-called Church of the future, disembodied from the present one. We must remain faithful to the Church which, born once and for all from God’s plan, from the Cross, from the open sepulchre of the Risen Christ and from the grace of Pentecost, is born again every day, not from the people or from other rational categories, but from the same sources as those from which it was born originally. It is born today to construct with all the nations a people desirous of growing in faith, hope and brotherly love."

[Facebook occasionally throws up "Facebook memories" that you posted on the same day years previously. Here is one from 2020.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know I bitch a lot about the banality and soullessness of modern life. What kills me is that it takes so little to mitigate it. I don't expect to live in Rivendell.

For instance, this backdrop in a Lidl on Talbot Street (I think) of old Dublin. A small thing that makes a big difference.

It's funny how evocative simple things can be. I spent a lot of my twenties in the cinema. Having gone to the cinema a grand total of seven times up to 2001, after that the floodgates opened and for about a decade I went hundreds of times, sometimes several times a day. It trailed off slowly. I think the peak was around 2005.

As ridiculous as it sounds, I was nervous about asking for a cinema ticket before that. I thought there was some mystique to it, like ordering in a fancy restaurant. How I persisted in this belief considering I had gone to the cinema once on my own, to see the terrible Irish film The General in 1998, I don't quite understand. All the previous visits were with my parents, mostly in childhood. (I vividly remember each one: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984, Young Sherlock Holmes 1985, Biggles 1986, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 1989, Batman 1989, Michael Collins 1997.)

People identified me with the cinema so much that the first thing they would ask me was "Have you seen anything at the cinema lately?". I got so self-conscious about this that I stopped going for months, at one point, in my contrarian way. I was also very self-conscious about going on my own. One of the ways the prevalent misandry of our time manifests are snide comments about men who go to the cinema on their own. On reflection I see how stupid I was to pay any attention to this. Going to the cinema in company has its own pleasures but going alone also does. You can disappear into the film in a way you can't really when you're accompanied. I did sometimes go with other people but it was never quite the same. I was always conscious of having to entertain that person.

Anyway, this Carlton ident really sums up this period for me, and fills me with nostalgia for it. It was apparently used in Ireland till 2014. It really expresses what's magical about the cinema: the sense of awe, wonder, magnification.

Of course my cinema-going was partly a religious quest, a search for meaning, that found fulfillment in the Faith, but I hate to reduce things like that. It wasn't just that. It had its own justification. The cinema is about the biggest experience you can have at a reasonable price, and it also makes life itself seem bigger, grander, more significant. (Life Itself is the title of both the biography and biographical documentary of Roger Ebert, the great film critic.) Of course, life is fully worthy of such awe, but the cinema helps us see it better.

Even now the image of a cinema audience expresses something for me that nothing else can. The background image on my phone and my Gmail account is a cinema audience, the light from the screen illuminating their faces.

A city is mostly its suburbs. That's where most people live. I get frustrated when cities are identified with their city centres. It's the suburbs that need to be beautified and celebrated and have events held in them. City centres have enough already.

I am trying to develop the ability to look at my environment-- even the places I'm most familiar with-- as somewhere I've never been before and may never be again.

I love evocative titles. I very often comes across them in the library. I decided to begin a cumulative list of titles I love. Here's a beginning. Many of them are for books I haven't read, films I haven't seen, etc. Suggestions welcome. I'm looking for evocative, not just strange or wacky or whatever.


The Jungle is Neutral (war memoir by F. Spencer Chapman)
Goodbye Hessle Road
My Dream of You by Nuala O’Faolain
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Too Small a World: The Life of Francesca Cabrini
A Prayer for Owen Meaney
All the Way to Bantry Bay (Benedict Kiely)
Puppet Show of Memory (autobiography of Maurice Baring)
Teems of Times and Happy Returns by Dominic Behan
The Road to Wigan Pier
Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader
Light Moving in Time: Studies in the Visual Aesthetics of Avant-Garde Film
The World That Came In From the Cold (history of post-Cold War world)
Love is Colder Than Death: The Life and Times of Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The Parade’s Gone By (a history of silent film)
Porterhouse Blue
Goodbye to All That
A Girl in Winter (novel by Philip Larkin)
Farewell Dublin but never Goodbye (memoir by Donal McKenna)


Sex, Lies and Videotape
The Breakfast Club
On Golden Pond
Postcards from the Edge
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Never Say Never Again
The World is Not Enough
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Ice Cold in Alex


There is a Light That Never Goes Out

TV Shows:

The Wonder Years
Mad About You


Love and the Russian Winter
Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space

Friday, July 14, 2023

Don't Forget Your Penance!

We don't talk much about Friday penance any more (I've often forgotten about it myself). So here's a friendly reminder that "Catholics observe each Friday of the whole year as days of penance", to quote from an Irish Catholics Bishops Conference pamphlet on the subject.

You can abstain from meat or do something else, such as visit the Blessed Sacrament or pray the Stations of the Cross.

Happy Friday!

Monday, July 10, 2023

Poetry Reading in the Axis Centre, Ballymun


Here I am reading my poem "The Fallen Seven", one of the winners of last year's Bards of Ballymun competition, in the Axis Centre in Ballymun.

Why am I holding a bag and an umbrella? Because I was nervous and didn't think to put them down. Also why my belt is unlooped. Well, I did it despite my nerves.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

My Customer Service Woes in Tesco, Merrion Road

This is a little bit of a departure from my usual blogging, but here goes.

Supermarkets are a central feature of modern lives, as we were all reminded during the Covid lockdowns. They provide an essential service, and we are all indebted to supermarket workers. It's undoubtedly a difficult and often thankless job.

However, being on the other side of the till can also be thankless, and I think I've accumulated enough bad experiences with my local Tesco to warrant a blog post.

I live ten minutes walk away from the Tesco in the Merrion Shopping Centre, Merrion Road. I'm very grateful it's there. I've spent thousands of euro in this supermarket over the last few years, and I visit it most days.

I've had some very positive experiences with staff there over the years, especially junior staff, who tend to be particularly helpful.

I've had other experiences which are not so good, and which are in fact ongoing.

Like almost all supermarkets, this one is very active in pushing customers onto self-service tills. There are rarely more than one or two manned tills available, and sometimes there are none at all. This has become so common it's barely worth mentioning, although it's a very depressing social trend.

Having reluctantly migrated to the self-service tills, however, it's irritating when even these are closed down. My local Tesco has quite a number of self-service tills. I think they have nine or ten. It seems weird that they keep closing these so that long queues of customers are queueing at four or five tills.

Another gripe is the customer service desk. It's rarely open, in my experience, and the hours that it's actually staffed seem to be reducing all the time.

Sometimes I've pointedly stood at the customer service desk while a member of staff is working nearby-- or indeed, actually standing behind the desk, attending to something more important than customer service. Invariably, the staff member helpfully tells me: "This desk is closed", before disappearing.

The less-than-enthusiastic attitude to customer service extends to vouchers. For Clubcard members, Tesco gives vouchers for various discounts. I use these very reluctantly (usually persuaded to do so by my nearest and dearest), since at least half the time the staff fight me over them. I read the conditions of the vouchers very carefully to make sure that I'm using them correctly, but that's no guarantee I won't find myself in a battle over them. Generally I'm directed to the customer service desk...which is, naturally, empty and unmanned.

Easily my biggest problem with the Merrion Road Tesco, however-- and this is why I've kept it till last-- is their very aggressive attitude towards closing time.

I get it. Shops have to close. People have to go home. But surely customers should be allowed to shop in some kind of peace right up to closing time, rather than being bombarded with ever-more urgent messages and verbal reminders for the last forty or thirty minutes of opening hours.

Indeed, it's frequently the case that Tesco Merrion Road closes early. I don't like to walk into a shop when it's closing, but sometimes it's necessary. I've quite often had the experience of running all the way from my apartment to the supermarket to pick up that one item I urgently need...only to find the supermarket has shut down five minutes (or more) before the advertised time.

To be fair, it's the staff of the shopping centre (not the supermarket) that do this. But if the supermarket advertises itself as open until a particular time, it should be open until exactly that time. Surely there can be some conferral between the supermarket and the shopping centre on this point.

My worst experience with Tesco Merrion Road was some weeks ago. I very urgently needed to get some particular provisions from the store. I ran all the way, and did my shopping as quick as I could.

I was the last person going through the tills-- the self-service till, obviously, since the manned tills are closed by now.

When I reached for my wallet, I realized to my consternation that I had forgotten it in my panic. I phoned my wife to update her, and she suggested I download the app for a payment card that we use. By now, the staff were helpfully telling me that the store was closed, doubtless imagining that I didn't realize this.

I downloaded the app. It was agonizingly slow, as you can imagine. At this stage, three staff members were hovering over me. One of them was an employee of the shopping centre, while the other two were Tesco staff. They just stood there, right beside me, staring at me as I tried to install the app.

The app required a password to set up, as most apps do. You, dear reader, might find it easy to concentrate on something like that with three people hovering over you, glaring at you. I don't. I tried and failed again and again to enter matching passwords.

Eventually, I gave up. I abandoned my shopping, and let the shopping centre employee escort me to the exit. I'll admit I passed some bitter remarks as I did so.

My wife was hurrying to the supermarket as we walked out, bearing my wallet. We had a bit of an animated conference with two of the Tesco employees as they left. To be fair, they apologized, and were quite gracious. One of them, seeing how flustered and upset I was, has been especially nice to me since.

I don't want to castigate supermarket employees. But I do think this particular branch of Tesco has a culture of hustling customers out of the shop unlike almost any I've encountered before. (I say "almost any", because to be honest, the only worse example I've ever experienced was the Tesco in the Omni Centre in Santry.)

It's not the same every night, but quite often, the closing-down announcements begin twenty minutes (or longer) before closing time and will be repeated every five minutes or so. As well as this, managers are going around verbally reminding customers that the store is closing-- as though you could possibly miss that fact. (I'm reminded of those episodes of Star Trek involving an auto-destruct sequence: "This vessel will auto-destruct in seven minutes thirty-five seconds..")

I've had experience of implementing a closing time myself, of course, in the library where I work. Sometimes in the smaller branch libraries, where I might be the only person there and closing time is ten at night. I only make one announcement, even where the guidelines suggest more. I try to treat people like responsible adults.

Perhaps the problem is that Tesco itself doesn't take a realistic view of closing times, and isn't giving their employees enough leeway to close the store down. Maybe blogging about it here will help that. It's worth trying.

Friday, June 30, 2023

The Island by Francis Brett Young

Regular readers, God bless them, will know all about my contrarianism and my love of going off the beaten track. Recently this has manifested itself in a determination to read The Island by Francis Brett Young, first published in 1944.

It's a verse epic recounting the history of Britain from the earliest times (literally the earliest times) to the Battle of Britain. Wikipedia claims that "its entire first edition of 23,500 sold out immediately, even in wartime conditions, and was then reprinted". However, The Oxford National Biography says it "was largely ignored".

As far as I can tell, the text is not available anywhere online, which is not surprising considering it would still be in copyright.

I wonder how many people have read this work in the last few decades? Very few, I imagine, which is an added inducement for me to read it.

Why read this particular forgotten opus, when there are so many other neglected works which are even more off the beaten track, if not more so? Well, partly it's just serendipity. One of my Facebook friends posted a poem by Francis Brett Young, who I'd never heard of, and this got me reading up on him. But it's partly because I like the idea of an epic in verse, especially one with such a grandiose conception. I've sometimes toyed with reading the famous Polyolbion by John Drayton, a 15,000 line survey of British geography and history. But I find geography much more of a drudge than history, despite my burgeoning interest in place.

The copy in my own library is in Special Collections, which means I can't bring it home. So reading it will require added effort. It's more than four hundred pages long.

Not only do I intend to read it, but I intend to write about it here as I read it. So there's something for you to look forward to.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Priests and Converts

For a good while now, I've been writing a series on great Irish priests for Ireland's Own magazine, and a series on Catholic converts for St. Martin's Magazine. Both of these series are labours of love, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity to write them.

The articles will remain exclusive to the respective magazines, and if you subscribe to Ireland's Own you get access to the archive going back to before the beginning of my series.

But at this point, I think it might be of interest just to give a list of the priest and converts. I've tried to go somewhat off the beaten track.

Researching these articles has been a great source of sustenance in my own spiritual and devotional life. This is especially so in the case of the priests, many of whom were unquestionable heroes of faith. But it's also true with quite a lot of the converts-- for instance, John Bradburne, whose story fired me immensely. We are indeed surrounded by "so great a cloud of witnesses".

I've had a set of rules for each series, although I've allowed some exceptions. With the priests, my rules were that they had to be born in Ireland, they couldn't be bishops or archbishops, they couldn't be advanced on the road to recognized sainthood, and they had to be faithful Catholics rather than dissidents. They also had to be priests first and foremost, whatever their other achievements.

When it comes to the converts, they simply had to be people whose lives were fundamentally true to Catholic teaching. For instance, I would not include converts who had divorced and remarried without an annulment, or who lived flagrantly scandalous lives. Their faith had to be demonstrably important to them in an ongoing way.

Anyway, here goes. Priests first. I will give their death date in each case.

1) Nicholas Callan (1864). Scientist, inventor of the induction coil, Maynooth professor.

2) Thomas Burke (1883), famed Dominican preacher.

3) Canon Sheehan (1913), novelist.

4) Eugene O'Growney (1899), Irish language scholar.

5) Willie Doyle (1917), military chaplain.

6) Aedan McGrath (2000), League of Mary missionary imprisoned by Chinese communists.

7) James Christopher O'Flynn (1962), dramatist and speech therapist.

8) Patrick Peyton (1992), "rosary priest".

9) Pádraig Ó Fiannachta (2016), Irish language scholar and Bible translator.

10) Luke Wadding (1657), important cleric in Rome.

11) John Patrick Caroll-Abbing (2001), founder of self-governing communities for homeless boys and girls.

12) Theobald Mathew (1856), temperance campaigner.

13) James Coyle (1921), murdered by a member of the Klu Klux Klan in Alabama for marrying his daughter to a Puerto Rican.

14) John O'Hanlon (1905), hagiographer and historian of Laois.

15) John O'Connor (1952), friend of G.K. Chesterton and his inspiration for Father Brown character.

6) Niall O'Brien (2004), social activist in Philippines, accused of murder and sentenced to death but reprieved.

17) Henry Edgeworth (1807), accompanied King Louis XVI to the gallows.

18) John Hayes (1957), founder of rural organisation Muintir na Tire.

19) P.J. McGlinchey (2018), agricultural reformer in Korea.

20) Rufus Halley (2001), interreligious activist in the Philippines, murdered by terrorists.

21) Stan Brennan (2012), educationalist in apartheid South Africa.

And now the converts. If there's no death date, it means they're still alive.

1) Gerard Manley Hopkins (1889), Jesuit and poet.

2) Malcolm Muggeridge (1990), writer and broadcaster.

3) Alec Guinness (2000), actor and reluctant Jedi.

4) Dean Koontz, mega-selling author of horror and thriller novels.

5) Ronald Knox (1957), Anglican cleric and Bible translator.

6) Adrienne von Speyr (1967), Swiss theologian and mystic.

7) G.K. Chesterton (1936), some guy, can't remember who exactly.

8) Thomas Merton (1968), Trappist monk and writer.

9) Gregory Zilboorg (1959), Russian-American psychoanalyst.

10) St. Justin Martyr (166), generally considered the first Christian apologist.

11) St. Augustine (430), orchard thief.

12) Dominique Dawes, American gymnast and Olympic gold medallist.

13) Leonard Cheshire (1992), pilot and charity founder.

14) Marshal McLuhan (1980), communication theorist.

15) Blessed Bartolo Longo (1926), former Satanist. Strictly speaking a revert.

16) Avery Dulles (2008), theologian and cardinal.

17) Thea Bowman (1990), religious sister and writer.

18) John Bradburne (1979), poet and Franciscan tertiary.

19) Mary Aikenhead (1858), religious founder.