Thursday, May 30, 2024

What I've Been Reading Lately

It strikes me as odd that I've never written a "what I've been reading lately" post, that I can remember. It seems a very obvious subject for a blog post. Anyway, here goes.

The first is Down Down Deeper and Down: Ireland in the 70s & 80s by Eamonn Sweeney.

In the last few years, the books I've most enjoyed have been "bird's eye" views of a particular period (in a particular country). The two titles that really impressed me were  A Classless Society? Britain in the 1990s by Alwyn Turner and (most of all) State of Emergency: The Way We Were, Britain, 1970-1974, by Dominic Sandbrook.

I have enjoyed both especially-- and I hope this doesn't shock anybody-- while sitting at an upstairs table in Burger King in Dublin's O'Connell Street, drinking a Coke, and looking down at the people walking in the street below. Pondering time, space, the currents of history, and the human drama.

I can also recommend Down, Down, although it's not quite as good as the two British books. (A minor irritation that I only became conscious of now; why couldn't Sweeney find an Irish song to use as a title, rather than a Status Quo song?)

The book is a lot more sober than I expected from the title (although far from dull). Sweeney announces from the start that he's going to try to be objective, and he does make an obvious effort. It's clear where he stands on the culture wars, though, and he doesn't have much good to say about the Catholic Church, aside from individual activist priests.

I actually learned a lot about the seventies in Ireland from this book. There were a lot more kidnappings (mostly by the IRA) than I had realized. Nor did I realize that there was a brief mood of euphoria during 1978, when Ireland's economy seemed to be about to boom. Sadly, it was a flash in the pan.

Or is it so sad after all? I grew up in a time of unemployment, emigration, hardship, and I'm quite nostalgic for it. It was certainly better than the crass Celtic Tiger years.

It was more than hardship. There was a pervasive sense of mediocrity in the Ireland of my youth. We didn't really expect Ireland to do particularly well: economically, culturally, athletically, or in any other way. (In spite of U2's global success; I actually didn't realize U2 were a big deal outside Ireland, at the time.) I find something endearing about this, in retrospect. I remember how much fuss there was when My Left Foot, a biopic about an Irish painter and writer with cerebral palsy, did well at the Oscars.

Then the 1990 World Cup, Riverdance, Father Ted, and the Celtic Tiger came along and it was all about winning and being the best and all that jazz.

Well, enough about Sweeney. After that, I read a couple of Catholic pastoral documents: On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful by St. John Paul II and The Role of the Laity in Church by Archbishop Kevin McNamara. Both were inspiring, although I'm not sure I learned anything new from them. It was rather sad to compare Archbishop McNamara's often strident tone with that of our episcopate today; but then, the times have changed.

That can't be said of the next book I read: Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions by Therese Taylor. It's hard to imagine a better biographer of Bernadette than this: anything more comprehensive would become heavy going. This isn't heavy going, but it's certainly thorough. It announces itself as the first academic biography in the introduction, and the tone is scholarly throughout.

I find this refreshing. Personally, I don't often find devotional writing inspiring. I find factual writing inspiring (if the facts themselves are inspiring), even when it comes to devotional subjects. "Gushing" alienates me more than anything else.

There isn't any gushing in this biography, but it's not a hatchet-job, either. Taylor is scrupulously fair and open-minded. She never declares for the supernatural nature of the visions, or against them. There's no discernible agenda, either way.

Although Taylor shows Bernadette in all her humanity, it doesn't detract from the image I had of her previously. Is it unsaintly to hide a bottle of white wine in your locker, as a religious novice? Is it unsaintly to do comical impressions of the convent's doctor? Was it unsaintly of Bernadette to refuse to pick up a rosary that a bishop had deliberately dropped, hoping to create a second-class relic by having the visionary hand it back to him? Hardly. Bernadette emerges as more human, but no less holy.

I learned a lot about the Pyrenean culture from which Bernadette originated from this book. It was a culture in which women were accorded a lot of authority, it had a strong anti-authoritarian streak (the people of Lourdes boasted about giving the Cathars sanctuary), and sexual morality was relatively relaxed. (Having a child outside wedlock was not scandalous, as long as the parents got married eventually.)

From this book, I also learned the extraordinary story of Anglese de Sagazan, a Marian visionary of the sixteenth century whose life prefigures Bernadette's remarkably.

The book I'm currently reading is Happy Days: Images of the Pre-Sixties Past in Seventies America by Benjamin L. Alpers.

When I was a kid, I assumed that Happy Days was actually made in the fifties, just as I assumed that Dad's Army was made during World War Two!

As you can probably guess, and as I've mentioned before, I'm very keen on the seventies. I was born in the seventies and I feel "at home" there.

In recent years, quite a few people have pointed out that decades no longer seem to be distinct periods as we've come to think of them, at least since the 1930s (but especially since the 1960s). When I've talked about this, I've sometimes got the response: "Well, you only really see these things in retrospect." ("The owl of Minerva spreads her wings only with the falling of the dusk", to quote a fancier way someone put it once.)

But that clearly wasn't the case with the seventies. As this book shows, commentators were analysing the "spirit" of the seventies from a very early stage. (In fact, a writer called Joan Didion wrote an essay called "On the Morning after the Sixties" literally on the first day of the seventies.)

When American Graffiti was released in 1973, Roger Ebert said in his review: "When I went to see [the film] that whole world -- a world that now seems incomparably distant and innocent -- was brought back with a rush of feeling that wasn’t so much nostalgia as culture shock."

The big divide in cultural history still seems to be pre- and post-sixties. It's interesting that the two candidates in this year's Presidential election in America came of age in the sixties. The decade casts a long shadow indeed.

Social and cultural history is fascinating. Surely it's exciting to think that everything that happens to you in a single day-- the words you use, the foods you eat, the music you listen to (or just overhear), the clothes you wear, the technology you use-- are all part of a huge drama that is being played around us (and, indeed, inside us) at every moment?

Happy Corpus Christi!

The Corpus Christi Carol (traditional)

He bore him up, he bore him down,
He bore him into an orchard brown.
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

In that orchard there was a hall
That was hanged with purple and pall;
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

And in that hall there was a bed:
It was hanged with gold so red;
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

And in that bed there lies a knight,
His wounds bleeding day and night;
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

By that bed's side there kneels a maid,
And she weeps both night and day;
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

And by that bed’s side there stands a stone,
"The Body of Christ" written thereon.
Lully, lullay, lully, lullay!
The falcon has borne my mate away.

This blog will be going white from now till Sunday (at least).

Monday, May 27, 2024

Back to Ordinary Time

Now that the (notional) octave of Pentecost is over, I'm going green for Ordinary Time.

It probably makes sense for the background to be green anyway, given that the blog title is Irish Papist.

I reserve the right to depart from the proper liturgical colours for future celebrations, both sacred and secular.

Friday, May 24, 2024

From "The Role of the Laity in the Church", by Archbishop of Dublin Kevin McNamara, 1985

In this Christian life there is no 'pass course'. There is only an 'honours course', which all Christians must follow. It is summed up in the words of Christ, which were addressed to all: "Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:48)

Referring to the Christian life, the great Cardinal Newman used to say: "Growth is the only proof of life". Unless we are growing in the love of God, how can we feel sure that his love is in our hearts at all? It may not be easy to measure our growth in love of God, but at any rate growth is what we must constantly aim at.

Sometimes people feel they have reached a reasonably good standard in the Christian life. To aim higher, they may say to themselves, is not required of them.

To think like that, however, is to forget that to every Christian the words were addressed: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind". (Mt 22:37). Half-hearted love is unworthy of God. He wants nothing less than our whole heart. If we put a limit on our love for him, we are reducing him to our own measure. And that means that we do not really love God at all.

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Happy Pentecost!

I'm changing the colour theme to reflect the season, in keeping with recent practice!

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Conquering Mount Apathy

The manifesto of the Suburban Romantics, which I posted here recently, has also been posted by my friend and fellow Suburban Romantic poet Dominic, at this excellent Some Definite Service blog. He adds some very important clarifying comments.

So where do we take it from there?

Since my late teens, I have been caught between two conflicting facts. One is my overwhelming conviction that poetry, and especially traditional verse, is hugely important to the soul of society, the soul of a nation, the soul of any historical period or movement, the soul of man. And further, that it has probably never in the history of human life been as neglected as it is today. This is a matter in which supposedly "primitive" peoples were (and, I assume, are) infinitely more civilized than ourselves.

And, since my late teens, I have felt an urge and even a duty to do something about this-- which seems akin to Patrick Pearse's mission of "attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil".

On the other hand...

On the other hand, there is the colossal, mountainous, pulverizing weight of apathy and indifference towards poetry and its importance. Opposition is easy to face. It's even bracing. Indifference is almost impossible to conquer. How do you shout down silence?

Even conservatives don't care about poetry. Not really. They will agree with you, and then go back to ignoring the subject, all the while denouncing cultural decline and our era of barbarity.

Christianity is counter-cultural. Nationalism is counter-cultural. Poetry is far more counter-cultural than either, in my view. (At least in the West.) This is one subject where conservatives are effectively on the same side, for the most part, as progressives and secularists and globalists. The idea that they would spend a fraction of the time and energy they spend on music, cinema or fiction on poetry is just unthinkable. The idea that one might re-read poems as one listens to an album over and over, form a relationship with a poem, make it a companion in your life-- just crazy talk.

I have recently decided to take a big step back from social media (Facebook and Twitter; strictly speaking, this blog is social media, but I will keep blogging). This is for many reasons, but one of them the near-complete silence that greeted my attempt to launch a YouTube channel of my poetry on social media.

It's true that I only have about 130 Facebook friends, but they would be well aware of how important my poetry is to me. They'd have to be, at this stage. And yet...all but three or four of them took a look at the couple of poetry videos I posted and apparently thought: "That minute-long video is just too much time out of my busy life." (Even constructive criticism would have been welcome.)

It was a haymaker to my morale. I had long harboured the hope that social media might be a way to bypass the free verse gatekeepers that are literary and poetry editors. I thought it possible that people might share such videos, and that my poetry might "circulate" as in the days of Philip Sidney and Thomas Wyatt. I'm embarrassed to admit this now.

(Having said that, a few of my Facebook friends have been extremely kind and encouraging about my poetry, and this has meant the world to me.) does one conquer Mount Apathy? That is the challenge facing any poet or poetry school today, but especially one that goes in for traditional verse. And certainly the biggest challenge facing Suburban Romanticism.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Happy Feast of the Ascension!

When I pray the second glorious mystery of the rosary, which is the Ascension, I often find myself thinking of the carving above the altar in Dublin's Pro-Cathedral.

Indeed, for some reason, the Pro-Cathedral seems to me the quintessence of Dublin-ness. Which is rather strange, since I haven't been in it all that often, though I was in it a few times as a small child.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

A Trek Through All of Horslips's Albums, Part One: Introduction.

On Christmas Day of 1995 (I think), I received a gift of a "best hits" compilation by the Irish band Horslips. I'd never even heard of this band (though like the rest of the country, I was well-familiar with the "Put 'Em Under Pressure" World Cup '90 anthem, based on their signature song "Dearg Doom").

To put it as succinctly as possible: Horslips were an Irish rock group who were active from 1970 to 1980. They fused traditional Irish music with rock music, as well as playing the straight version of both forms. They were pioneers in the fusion of rock and Irish trad, which is sometimes called Celtic Rock, and sometimes-- though not nearly often enough, for my liking-- "Sham Rock".

I've long wondered what gave Santa the idea of giving me this gift, and who Santa was on this occasion. My father pretty much disapproved of all popular music after Frank Sinatra, and criticized me for listening to rock music. (He was probably right, even though I still listen to it.) But he was proud of his Irishness to a sometimes comical degree, so Horslips's fusion of traditional music and rock might have appealed to him. At the same time, he had so little interest in popular music that I'd be surprised if he even knew who Horslips were. Maybe it was a near-random selection, serendipity at work. Maybe some other member of my family was involved. Who knows?

Anyway, it was an incredibly fortunate choice. I loved Horslips straight away. I listened to the album over and over and over, and when I had my own money I bought a few Horslips albums myself. (Although mostly just more compilations, since this all that was available. I think The Book of Invasions was the only actual album I could find.)

The particular collection I got that Christmas has long been discontinued, since Horslips were at this point in a dispute with their label, and they didn't approve of the release. In spite of this, it was a very good production, both in selection and presentation. The sleeve even had a comprehensive history of the band. (To be honest, the band-approved collections which I bought in later years weren't nearly as good.)

Now, listening to Horslips brings me back to my late teens, but I don't just listen to them out of nostalgia. If it was just nostalgia, I wouldn't have liked them in the first place.

Not only did Horslips draw on Irish traditional and folk music, they also drew on Irish mythology, history and literature for their song subjects. For instance, two of their albums are based on Irish sagas, The Táin and The Book of Invasions.

I've listened to Horslips ever since. I stopped listening to them briefly when they complained about the use of one of their songs at the Irexit conference of 2018, calling the attendees "saddos", and boasting that Horslips "stood for a hopeful, outward looking, inclusive vision of Ireland". (Surely there is a limit to how inclusive you can get before you lose all your distinctiveness; surely you need to be looking out of something if you're to be "outward-looking"?) But I got over that.

A couple of years before that, I actually saw the drummer Eamon Carr in a hospital waiting room. (I knew of him from his column in the Evening Herald long before I'd heard of the band.) I'm not the sort of person to bother celebrities (major or minor), and I don't think he would have been too keen to be bothered there in any case. 

Sadly, their guitarist Johnny Fean died last year. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam. The band, who'd had a few brief reformations since 1980, announced in 2022 that they were definitively retired.

Despite my love of Horslips, I don't know all their songs by any means. I have a terrible, terrible habit of listening to my favourite songs over and over and over again, without expanding my musical horizons at all-- even when it comes to bands or artists I already like. It's a sort of intellectual or aesthetic sloth that I deplore in myself and struggle to overcome, an excessive reliance on the tried and tested over the unknown.

So, since everything is on YouTube today, I've decided to listen my way through all of Horslips's studio albums, and write my personal reactions to each.

I'm pretty clueless when it comes to musical knowledge, or describing music, or musical theory, or anything like that. So if any fan of Horslips comes across these posts (or, God forbid, any of the band members themselves), I hope they'll be indulgent and not take offence at any of my opinions. (In fact, I'm going to repeat this disclaimer with every instalment.)

Next up will be a post on their first album, Happy to Meet-- Sorry to Part.