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.

Friday, June 23, 2023

The First Chapter of a Novel That Was Never Written

I was going through my files and came across this fragment. The novel was to be called The Chant. A schoolyard chant was a prominent plot device in the horror story that I wrote during lockdown and blogged recently.

I can't remember anything about this planned novel. I'm increasingly frustrated with stories about "the town with a dark secret", because they seem like escapism from the real horror of our time: that every place is increasingly like every other, and that there is nothing special about anywhere.

Anyway, here it is. I notice that my protagonist changes from Damian to Damien during the course of the chapter. Hey ho.

“Are you looking for your wallet?” said the man sitting one table across from Damian.

Damian just muttered something. It was pretty obvious to anybody who looked at him that he was looking for his wallet. He didn’t feel any need to announce it further, especially to someone as shady-looking as this.

“Pardon?” the man asked, wide-eyed. He was a scrawny, dishevelled looking fellow in a battered tracksuit jacket and jeans. He looked to be in his late twenties.

“I said It’s OK”, said Damian, trying to suppress feelings of panic. The nasal tones of Axl Rose filled the air of the pub. It was almost deserted and the two of them were alone in one shady corner.

“That’s not an answer”, said tracksuit jacket. “Why don’t you talk to me? I might be able to help.”

There was nothing else for it. Damian got on his hands and knees and began to look under the couch he’d been sitting on. There was only the narrowest of spaces underneath and he had to press his face against the carpet. “I doubt that”, he said.

“Well, you’re wrong”, said the man.

Some about his tone made Damian look up. The man in the tracksuit jacket was holding a brown wallet in the air. His wallet.

“Give me that” Damian said, still on his hands and knees.

“Sure” said the man, pleasantly. He extended the wallet towards Damian.

Damian snatched it, rose awkwardly to a semi-standing position, and sat down. He opened it and looked inside.

Passport. Driving license. Teachers’ union card. Credit card. Bank card. Library card. A fifty and a twenty. A few newspaper clippings. Everything was there.

“What the hell are you doing, taking my wallet?” asked Damian, moving back a little on the seat, getting ready to make a run for it if the guy got aggressive.

“What is anyone ever doing with someone else’s wallet?” asked the man. His face was thin and boyish, with fine copper-coloured stubble flecking his jaws and chin. The most noticeable feature on his face were his extraordinarily bright blue eyes. They gave him a waif-like look. Or even a slightly unbalanced look. He was rather handsome, and there was a gentle smile on his well-chiselled lips.

Damian was nonplussed. What the heck were you meant to say in a situation like this?

“Why did you give it back to me?” he asked.

The man laughed, and his laughter took Damian aback. It was a natural, easy, mirthful kind of laugh. But those blue eyes still shone with a rather disturbing light.

“Because I liked the look of you”, the man said.

Silence fell between them. By now, Guns ‘n’ Roses had been followed by some eighties tune that Damian recognised as having featured in Crocodile Dundee, but couldn’t name. A barmaid was clearing away the remains of a dinner on a nearby table.

Damian wondered what this guy could be up to. Had he copied the details from his bank cards, scanned them using some kind of machine? But why wouldn’t he just have kept the bloody wallet, in that case? Was it all part of some elaborate con?

“What makes you think I won’t report you to the guards?” Damian asked.

The man shrugged. He didn’t seem in the least concerned. Or offended. “Go ahead”, he said. “Your word against mine. Do you know how many murders happened in this neighbourhood last year? Three. Do you think the guards care about a stolen wallet that’s not stolen anymore?”

Damian shrugged, then realised he had simply copied the man’s gesture and felt strangely embarrassed. “Maybe, maybe not”, he said. “What the heck am I supposed to do? Buy you a drink?”

The man laughed again, apparently very pleased at the suggestion. He seemed even more boyish when he laughed. “That’s a good idea. I don’t drink alcohol, but I wouldn’t mind a 7-Up.”

Damian’s sense of the absurd had been awoken. Besides, he couldn’t help feeling grateful that the man had returned his wallet, ridiculous though this might be. He gestured to the barmaid, who came to the table, carrying the tray with the finished dinner on it.


“An Erdinger and a 7-Up, please.”

“We don’t have 7-Up. Only Sprite.”

Damian looked at the man in the tracksuit jacket, who nodded.

“Fine. An Erdinger and a Sprite.”

The barmaid wandered away, without so much as a curious glance at the two ill-matched companion. Perhaps they were not so ill-matched as Damian might have liked to believe. After all, he hadn’t shaved that morning and his own hair was quite ruffled.

“Thanks man.”

“You’re welcome. Man. What’s your name?”

“Damien”, said the man in the tracksuit jacket.

“That’s my—“

“That’s your name, yeah, I know. Damien Spencer.”

“Nice to see you had a look through my wallet”, said Damien.

“I’m Damien Clifford” said the other Damien.

Silence fell between them for a moments. Damien looked out towards the bar. The Lady Morgan pub was having a quiet Tuesday night. A group of students were gathered around one of the tables in the middle of the floor. A man was doing a crossword at the bar. A mechanical ship was eternally swaying from side to side in a long glass box full of sparkling blue fluid, halfway between the two Damiens and the bar. It was a rather nondescript pub, but Damien liked it.

“So can I call you Daimo?” asked Damien, smiling in a way that was supposed to ironic and knowing and rather weary.

The other Damien frowned, appearing irritated for the first time. “I also hated being called Daimo”, he said. “You can call me Clifford if you want. Why do you assume anyone calls me Daimo?”

“I don’t” said Damien, but he was lying. Daimo did seem to him like the kind of street nickname that a guy like this might pick up. “Fine. Clifford it is. Why did you give me back my wallet, Clifford?”

Clifford was silent for a few moments, watching Damien keenly. Yes, those bright blue eyes were rather disturbing, even though there was no obvious sign of malice in the way Clifford looked at him.

“Because I liked you” he said, eventually. “And because you read poetry.”

Damien looked at the book which was opened, face-down, on the pub table in front of him. It was John Betjeman’s Collected Poems.

“Poetry fan, are you?” asked Damien. He tried not to sound ironic this time, still feeling embarrassed about the Daimo thing.

“Yeah” said Clifford, nodding. “I looked through that when you were in the bathroom. Didn’t like it so much, but it takes a while to get into a new poet, doesn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“Well, that’s what I find” said Clifford, warming to his theme. “Dylan Thomas, I like. Do you like Dylan Thomas?”

“Not so much” said Damien. “Apart from ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’.”

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”, quoted Clifford, smiling eagerly. “And I like W.B. Yeats and W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin and Patrick Kavanagh. I love poetry, I do.”

The barmaid appeared and set down their drinks in front of them. Damien plucked the twenty out of his wallet and handed it to her. “I’ll be back with your change”, she said, and glided away. Damien watched her go. She had a nice figure.

“I’m glad you like poetry” said Damien. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have a wallet.”

“It wasn’t just that” said Clifford, with a secretive smile. “I know you. I recognise you”.

“You do? Where from?”

“Not telling”.

Damien peered into this strange man’s face for an extended moment. It remained as strange to him as before.

It wasn’t so odd that Clifford recognised him. After all, Damien had lived in this suburb for the first fifteen years of his life.

“School?” asked Damien.

Clifford nodded.

“You’re younger than me” said Damien. “You must have been a few years behind me. And I left in fourth year.”

“I was in first year” said Clifford. “I remember you.”

“How come?”

Clifford shrugged. “You were a bit of a loner, weren’t you?”

“Not really.”

“I saw you on your own a lot.”

Was that true? It must have been, Damien supposed. He’d had friends in St. John Bosco’s, but they weren’t close friends. He often spent lunch-breaks sitting in the cafeteria and reading his book.

“I don’t remember you at all” said Damien, rather vengefully. Dammit, he hadn’t been a loner.

“Well, why would you notice a first year?” asked Clifford.

“I still think it’s weird you remember me” said Damien.

“I’m the kind of person who notices things.”

You look it, thought Damien, who couldn’t help flinching a little from the intensity of Clifford’s stare.

“Why did you leave Bozzer’s?” Bozzer’s was the local slang for St. John Bosco’s.

“My father died”, said Damien. “We went to live with my uncle. My mother was already dead when I was a baby.”

“That’s tough” said Clifford, unemotionally. “Where did you move to?”

“England”, said Damien. “Hull.”

“You don’t have a Yorkshire accent.”

“So I’m constantly told.”

“So what brings you back?”

“Actually I’m teaching” said Damien. “At Bozzer’s.”

Clifford laughed, took a sip of his Sprite, and laughed again. He seemed very pleased by this.

“Funny how it worked out that way” he said. “What do you teach?”

“English”, said Damien, wondering why he always cringed a little when he admitted this.

Clifford made a face. “I hated English class”, he said. “They ruined poetry for me for years and years.”

Damien was rather sick of hearing this. He wondered how exactly English teachers were supposed to not ruin poetry, or Shakespeare, or reading in general—other than by showing DVDs in every class and asking their students how the poems made them feel inside.

“Teachers have to teach”, he said. “It’s not supposed to be all fun.”

“Man, it wasn’t fun at all” said Clifford. “Where are you living?”

Damien hesitated to reply, and Clifford laughed out loud, not seeming in the least bit bothered. “Never mind”, he said. “Why would you tell the likes of me?”


“I know, I know”, said Clifford, reaching forward and patting Damien on the shoulder. “You can’t be in my line of work and expect people to tell you things like that. But you don’t have to worry.”


“No. I never rob people I like.”

Now Damien laughed. Clifford had said it matter-of-factly, not as a joke.

“I’d better stay on your good side, then”, he said. “How about—“

“Peelers”, whispered Clifford, looking towards the bar. “Off-duty.”

Damien looked up. Two burly men were standing at the bar, dressed in jeans and crisp shirts.

Clifford was rising from the table. “Thanks for the drink”, he said. “See you around, Damien.”

“Sure” said Damien. He was still holding his wallet and he held it a little tighter as Clifford left the table and made for the exit, keeping as much as distance as possible between him and the off-duty guards, his head down.

Peelers? Peelers! That was one he’d completely forgotten!

Damien reached into his pocket and took out a thin, paper backed notebook. After a little bit more rummaging, he produced a felt-tip pen. He opened the notebook and wrote down Peelers. It was on a list with words like grupper, tanny and joxies.

Peeler, of course, wasn’t a word unique to Morganstown. It was a rather dated term for a policeman, well-known all over Ireland and Britain. But Damien never heard anyone actually use it in everyday speech—certainly not in Dublin, anyway.

With the exception of Morganstown, that was. Morganstown had its own small scattering of unique (or almost unique) slang. It wasn’t so much that you would notice it unless you were living there for some time. And even then, nobody ever seemed to remark upon it. Damien had searched the internet for references to this odd phenomenon, but there were none—apart from those that he had made himself.

Why that was, he couldn’t understand. Well, there were lots of things he couldn’t understand about the world.

He put the notebook back into his pocket, drained the last of his Erdinger, put his John Betjeman book into his knapsack, took one last appreciative look at the barmaid, and headed towards the door. Karma Chameleon was playing on the sound system and the off-duty guards were talking about rickshaws.

The town centre of Morganstown was almost deserted on this balmy September evening. A small knot of teenagers was standing outside the Orbit cinema, trading ritual insults and laughing. They didn’t seem all that rowdy.

Damien had always liked this town centre. The streets were broader than those of most Irish towns and suburbs. It didn’t give the same stifling sense of greyness as many Irish towns, since many of the buildings were painted or constructed in brighter colours. Even the shop-fronts seemed broader, brighter and friendlier than many other Irish towns and suburbs he’d been in. There were a fair amount of neon signs. Perhaps he shouldn’t like that, but he did. The green cross that flashes eternally outside McDuggan’s chemist had always seemed a cheerful sight to him.

And even some of the graffiti that was there in his boyhood was still there. Trish 74 was still carved above the street sign for Monaghan Street. Seeing it there made him feel strangely happy.

Yes, for all his anxieties about actually returning to St. John Bosco school, he was glad to be back in Morganstown. Things would work out. This was where he was supposed to be.

His eyes fell upon another street sign, in a shadowy lane that ran past the Home Heaven furniture shop. Culleton Row, it said.

Culleton Row led to Tanner Street, which ran onto the corner of the Morganstown Cemetery. And Morganstown Cemetery was where his mother and father were buried.

He hadn’t been to visit the graves since his mother’s funeral seven years ago. Of course, the cemetery would not be open this late. But it was a very easy business to hop over the low wall and railings. He’d done it several times in his youth, joining in ghost-story sessions with other kids.

Perhaps it was the three Erdingers that were sloshing around inside him, but it seemed like a good idea to pay an evening visit to his deceased parents. A few moments later, he was lowering himself into Morganstown Cemetery.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Capuchin Annual

One thing about working in a library, and especially a university library, is that every day I'm surrounded by so many wonderful resources that I've never even learned about some of them, and I've never got around to exploring others.

In the case of The Capuchin Annual (1930-1977) it's a mixture of both categories. I did know it was on our shelves, and I had even flicked through it, but somehow I'd never really paid much attention to it.

Yesterday I was doing some research that led me to our holdings of this journal, and I was very impressed. It's obvious that the Irish Capuchins really laboured to produce something special every year. The photographs are lavish and artistic, there is lots of poetry (the sign of a serious magazine), the typography and layout are very stylish, and the subject matter is much broader than most religious magazines.

For those with a serious interest in poetry-- both of you-- the poetry columns are actually a glimpse into an aspect of Irish literary history usually invisible, that is, non-modernist poets in Ireland after the thirties. I hadn't even heard of many of the poets but their verse seems pretty good. These are the sort of poets who would have been derided by Patrick Kavanagh and his kind as regime hacks, still peddling Irish romanticism when the avant-garde had moved onto something else. Or so I presume.

This is how the Capuchin website describes it: " Many Irish writers, artists and educators who later rose to prominence such as Benedict Kiely, Pearse Hutchinson, Francis Stuart, Daniel Corkery, Francis MacManus, Richard J. King, Thomas MacGreevey and Augustine Martin [editor of Soundings] received their first opportunities to publish with the Annual. Throughout its publication run it maintained a very high quality of contributions by leading politicians and writers. The Annual frequently reflected a very strong nationalistic theme."

Now I've discovered it, I do intend to explore it. And so can you, given that the entire archive is available digitally.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

My Desert Island Discs

A discussion with some friends recently touched on the subject of "desert island discs".

As the whole world probably knows, Desert Island Discs is a BBC radio show where various notable people list the eight songs they would bring with them to a desert island. (Originally, they were gramophone records). I've only heard a few episodes of the show, but I understand that the songs are supposed to act as a sort of window into the person's life. They can also bring a book (the Bible and the Works of Shakespeare are presumed to be on the island already) and an inanimate object. In between songs, the host interviews the guest about his or her life.

The format is one of those absurdly simple but brilliant ideas, and sprang from the brain of its original presenter, Roy Plomley.

There is an online archive of the show going back to 1959. It includes Philip Larkin and Keith Waterhouse, which are the only episodes I've listened to myself, that I can remember.

I have no idea what book I'd bring to the island. Probably a big thick history book, perhaps a history of the Catholic Church, that I could read over and over again.

Nor do I know what inanimate object I'd bring. For all my love of snow globes, probably not one of those.

But these are the songs I came up with. As I've often said before, I have a very unsophisticated and uncultured taste in music, which I don't defend. But it's my taste. There's no point listening to music you don't honestly like, after having given it a fair hearing.

1) The Battle of Evermore by Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin are my favourite band. Which is appallingly middle-of-the-road and unoriginal, but so it is. This song is taken from Led Zeppelin IV (an album which officially has no name), which might be the greatest album ever made.

I love the sense of high drama and grandiosity in this song. It seems to encapsulate the battle between good and evil that has raged all through history. The chords evoke the clash of swords heard from afar, and it has one of the greatest, most evocative lines ever: "The Dark Lord rides in force tonight".

I've chosen only one song from each band or artist, otherwise I could almost have filled the list with Zeppelin.

2) Night Fever by the Bee Gees

This is my single favourite song of all time, though I somehow didn't hear it until my thirties. I like how shimmering and sparkly it is. It's the audio equivalent of a disco ball, and I love disco balls.

I've probably been to fewer parties than anybody reading this, but the song perfectly evokes the feeling of a night out when you're really up for it. And it's so seventies. I love the seventies.

3) Barley and Grape Rag by Rory Gallagher

I discovered Rory Gallagher in my late teens, when his popularity was at its lowest, a few years before he died and came back into favour. It was almost impossible to get his records anywhere, and this was before the internet.

To be honest I rarely listen to him now, but he was the musical hero of a good few years of my life, and this was my favourite of his songs. I listened to it over and over. It has fine lyrics, especially the phrase: "Where the whiskey flows and the dices roll till dawn."

4) A Day in the Life by the Beatles

If you're in the right mood, this is the sort of song that makes you feel like you're floating. Somehow it seems to chip away at the very fabric of accepted reality, like Prospero's "Our revels now are ended" speech in The Tempest. It also seems to sum up the euphoria and disorientation of the sixties, which can still be vicariously experienced by those who never lived through them. I first heard this song while I was lodging in Stillorgan, around 2006, feeling very lonely and lost.

5) Don't Tread On Me by Metallica

I listened to the Black Album by Metallica over and over again in the mid-nineties, in my late teens. I particularly associate this song with a game I used to play with my brothers, a board game called History of the World. This seemed symbolic to me of a new world opening up to me. While I had regarded adulthood with great trepidation, this song inspired me to view it with some confidence.

6) Mama Weer All Crazee Now by Slade

To me, this song is like a shot of pure euphoria, good-humoured and unpretentious euphoria. I can't really analyse it more than that. I could equally have chosen "Cum On Feel the Noyze", which seems like a companion piece. Despite being melancholic by nature, I've also always felt that life can just as easily be seen as one big party, one big romp.

7) Estranged by Guns 'n' Roses

Guns 'n' Roses were the musical phenomenon of my teens, and the hype when they came to the Slane Festival in county Meath in 1992 was phenomenal.

For once, I agreed with my peers on something. Although many consider Appetite for Destruction their best album, I much preferred Use Your Illusion II, which I've probably listened to more than any other album. (Bizarrely, I never listened to Use Your Illusion I, or at least not until many years later.)

Guns 'n' Roses seem like the soundtrack to my youth, in many ways. I can remember never-ending soccer games on a tarmac pitch in Ballymun, while the girls standing on the edge (and sometimes joining in) played Don't Cry over and over. But my favourite song on Use Your Illusion II was this one, which is often gorgeous and wistful and haunting.

8) Sally McLenane by the Pogues

One of those "wear out the needle" songs of my teens, when I was indeed playing music on a turntable. "Jimmy didn't like his place in this world of ours" expressed my own sense of alienation, of feeling like an outsider, as a teenager.

So, there you go. What are your desert island discs?

Friday, June 9, 2023

A Happy Memory

It's funny how experience is constantly being digested, filtered, revisited, revised, and so on.

I used to think of this as "the darkroom of the soul" (I think I used the phrase in a poem, back in my teens).

One particular happy memory has been coming to my mind a lot recently.

It was the first Christmas I spent in UCD library, so that was almost twenty-two years ago now. It doesn't seem that long.

As often happens to me, two different memories seem to be "spliced" together.

One is a book that I received as a Kris Kindle gift at the first library Christmas party I attended. It was a book with the title Can Reindeer Fly? The Science of Christmas. The cover was very appealing; the silhouette of Santa's sleigh, pulled by reindeer, over a glowing white moon. It wasn't cartoonish but somewhat realistic. (Strangely, I can find the cover image online, but not this version of the book's cover.)

The other memory, from the same Christmas, is of discovering the website

The internet was still relatively new to me at this time. I suppose it was relatively new to most of the world. When I started in UCD, I didn't have my own work computer so internet access was restricted to fifteen minutes here and there on shared computers. In fact, at the Allen Library training course I attended immediately before UCD, we had rostered "internet time" to use the internet. (The first website I can remember visiting regularly was The Philip Larkin Society page.)

I'm a partisan of the internet, in general. Pope Francis says it's a gift of God. There's a part of me that regrets all communications technology since the invention of the telephone. I'm nostalgic for the sort of self-contained communities that generated their own culture, their own proverbs, their own idioms, and so forth.

But I think the internet is an improvement on the communication technologies that proceeded it, such as the radio and the television. (I won't say the cinema.) Television and radio created passive mass audiences; the internet is open to everybody, and nurtures a bewilderment of interest groups of all sizes.

Besides, and more relevantly here, the internet has its own aesthetic. It's greatly inferior to the aesthetic of the printed word, but it's there. I don't have time to describe it. I might elsewhere.

Anyway, in the Christmas season of 2001, I spent a lot of time browsing the website It's a website dedicated to urban legends, and it contained many entertaining articles, written with great wit and flair by Barbara Mikkelson. Barbara has since left the site, which has descended into liberal propaganda.

It's also a lot less visually appealing than it used to be. Back then, the site was very clean and white, very uncluttered. Urban legends were identified as true, false or a mixture of both using green, red and yellow "buttons"-- I don't know how else to describe them. They were so bright they took me back to "low babies and high babies" (Irish pre-school), and the colourful plastic pegs that we used to fit into a cardboard grid, to indicate something or other-- attendance, or some such thing.

The website also used a lot of very simple clip-art, which gave it an endearingly playful atmosphere.

Urban legends are one answer to a problem which appears to me, more and more, as one of the central problems of our time-- how do we "enchant" or "re-enchant" ordinary, suburban life? Most of us now live fairly prosperous, safe, comfortable lives with a good deal of leisure time. However, a tide of rationalization, standardization and banality seems to be passing over the whole developed world. Can we celebrate and affirm this world of supermarkets, housing estates, and indoor shopping centres, or must we always be seeking escapism in true crime TV shows, superhero stories, and travel abroad?

I spent hours and days hopping from page to page on Snopes, that Christmas. I remember drinking a lot of Coke (Coke features prominently in many of my nostalgic memories).

Much of the appeal of this memory comes from a sense of new departures. The job was new, the internet was new, UCD was new, I felt at the beginning of something. (And, although it's tough to admit, 9/11 undoubtedly gave the world  a shot in the arm at this time. Perhaps it sounds better if I say that the stories that filtered out of that awful day gave us all, I think, a keener sense of the preciousness and precariousness of life. But it also dispersed the "end of history" atmosphere that had been heavy at the time.)

I've noticed that this "start of something new" atmosphere is a recurrent and important one in my life, one which stimulates my imagination and perhaps even revitalises my soul, to a remarkable degree. I remember it with lots of things: secondary school, college, a new job, discovering poetry (in my early teens), my great phase of cinema-going (in my early twenties), coming to the Catholic faith, travelling to America a lot to visit my future wife , marriage, and so forth.

"Something new" trivializes this sensation, perhaps. To put it more poetically, it's the sense of an opening horizon.

I associate it with one night in Limerick as a child, when we had gone to visit my aunt on her farm. She wasn't at home when we arrived, and we were locked outside for a while. Night was falling, and I was amazed at how many stars I could see away from the light pollution of Dublin. Hundreds more seemed to be appearing every minute.

I associate this sensation, also, with the wonderful lines from "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by Keats:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

(Of course, the shallow and indulgent way to experience this sensation would be to launch into a succession of new commitments, abandoning each one for the next. That's obviously not what I mean.)

As well as the sense of an opening horizon, the pleasure of this memory comes from a combination of two things: activity and retreat. The memory of the Christmas party, and the sense of festive bustle and activity I got from flicking through Can Reindeers Fly? (which featured a lot of whimsical scientific questions connected to the holiday), was crucial to the enjoyment of lazily browsing the net for hours on end. It's a bit like Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility". Perhaps I should say: "Excitement savoured from calm", or some such thing.

A strange post? Perhaps. I hope it appeals to somebody.

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Travels Through my Bookshelves (3)

These bookshelves are purely imaginary. I can only fit a handful of books in my tiny flat, and a few more in my office at work. Anyway, onwards...

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (people rave about this story but I found it rather dull and obvious)

The American by Henry James (I remember nothing about this)

Victorian Painting by Lionel Lambourne (pretty good)

Dark Forces (Kirby McAuley, editor) (like all horror anthologies, I can never remember the contents)

Four Past Midnight by Stephen King (the first Stephen King book I read; the Sun Dog really scared me, and The Langoliers is really original)

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (another book in which Dickens relies on good-hearted wealthy people to save the day)

New Terrors Omnibus (Ramsey Campbell, editor) (as above)

Hornblower and the Atropos by C.S. Forrester (I started reading this book immediately after my last Leaving Cert exam, in a spirit of trepidation about the future. It was poor.)

The Coral Island by J.M. Ballyntyne (I read this as a child but all I can remember is the atmosphere and one scene where a dead body is discovered)

J.R.R. Tolkien by Humphrey Carpenter (wonderful biography)

Prime Evil, (Douglas W. Winter, editor)

Think by Simon Blackburn (adequate philosophy primer, uninspiring)

The Passion of Michel Foucault (I have a regrettable attraction to flashy ideas and I was drawn to Foucault in my twenties-- not enough to actually read any of his books. This is actually a well-written, interesting biography, a good portrait of a time and environment)

The World at War by Mark Arnold Foster (nothing special)

The Best of Myles by Myles Na Gopaleen (this book became so well-thumbed in my house that the front and back covers, as well as many of the first and last pages, were missing. My father read it, I read it, all my brothers read it. Lines from it became household words, at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular to be a Myles fan.)

Myles Before Myles, Myles Na Gopaleen (some good stuff)

Myles Away from Dublin by Myles Na Gopaleen (very poor. Myles was really hitting the sauce by now, and-- as the preface admits-- some of the articles are more or less copied out of the encyclopedia)

The Dalkey Archive by Flann O’Brien (rather unfairly dismissed, it holds the attention from beginning to end, although it rather trails off)

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu ("The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao"-- one of the most profound sentences ever formulated, surely? It's took me a lifetime to appreciate the first line of this book, so it's no surprise I don't remember the rest very well. I think I'm more of a Confucian than a Taoist, though.)

The Republic by Plato (Read it one Christmas day, very readable. My first encounter with it was through Popper's Open Society and Its Enemies, where it is devastatingly critiqued. But then, some commentators say Plato never meant it as a serious proposal.)

The Last Days of Socrates by Plato (I was tremendously moved by this, although Socrates's contention that: "I have never been happier than during a dreamless sleep" is rather depressing, as his observation that all pleasure is similar to taking fetters from one's legs-- merely relief of pain.)