Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Is Dialogue Really Worth It?

I was watching this conversation between Andrew Sullivan (a liberal Catholic) and Ross Douthat (a conservative Catholic) from 2012. I found myself taking a certain pleasure in its geniality and lack of point-scoring.

However, the predictability and shallowness of Sullvan's arguments grated on me. Jesus rarely mentions sex, so Christians must have exaggerated its importance. (It doesn't seem to occur to him that the Gospels are short documents, and that Jesus is very emphatic when he does mention it.) The Church used its teaching throughout the centuries to bolster its power. (Then why was it so keen to preserve its doctrine? It could have easily cut its cloth to fit the demands of power at any given time.)

It's when the conversation turns to the point of religion and politics, and when Sullivan says that his model of Christianity in politics is something liike the civil rights movement, that I felt a sense of utter weariness descend upon me.

Genial discussion can be very pleasant. It's nice to be nice. It's nice to be liked. But does it actually achieve anything? Does honey really catch more flies than vinegar? I'm not so sure that it does.

But I might be wrong, so I'm not saying it's not worth trying.

Wearing my Library Hat

I'm credited as co-author of an academic paper on the development of an 'Academic Integrity Style Guide' (basically, an online guide telling students how to cite and use footnotes) in the latest issue of Sconul Focus, a library science journal.

My involvement in the actual writing of the article was minimal. The main author invited me and my other colleague to read her draft and make any critiques or contributions. I made hardly any suggestions as it seemed fine to me. So I felt bad to be getting so many plaudits in work. (Getting published in an academic journal is a big deal in the library profession. My other writing isn't even on my colleagues' radar!)

I did, however, do a lot of work on the project the article is describing, so maybe I shouldn't feel so bad.

I'm not wearing my glasses in the photo because they kept reflecting the flash of the camera. I like my glasses. I'm a proud speccy.

I had actually tried to write a blog post on the project, for an inter-library blog post competition, but it was hard to make it interesting. I personally find libraries fascinating, but the nitty-gritty of library work is something that it's hard to write about for a non-library audience. So I wrote about something else in the end, the book exchange outside the library. (I didn't get anywhere.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Particularism and Universalism

Earlier today, I found myself listening to an Irish soccer commentator who was commentating (not a mistake) on a soccer match between and English and an Italian team. Before play began, he made some remarks about the stadium. The Irish national team had played there before and he referred familliarly to some of those games, expecting the viewer to remember them, and referring to "us" throughout.

This felt deliciously cosy to me. This is what I like about national identity. Shared memory; shared experience; a window on the world, with the world outside and us inside.

Then I fell to thinking about universalism, and it struck me that one of the reasons I am so hot for particularism is that, in a certain sense, you can't really have universalism without particularism. At least, you can't have it in the same way.

Think about something that is truly universal, like some great speech from Shakespeare. I'll take my own favourite, Prospero's famous speech from The Tempest (which I first read in a bookshop aged seventeen, and instantly loved):

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, 
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.

Art like this speaks to all of us, transcending all barriers and circumstances, going to the heart of the human condition itself. We seem to be gazing over a panorama of centuries as we meditate upon it. As Chesterton wrote, of a similarly universal author: "In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: that thing enjoys Dickens. And everybody does not mean uneducated crowds; everybody means everybody.”

When we come such across great universal art-- or something that makes us more than usually aware of the universal human condition-- we feel as though we have emerged into some vast space, there is a sense of enlargement and of the sublime. I experience a similar feeling when I walk from Dublin's Westmoreland Street towards O'Connell Bridge, a great cross-roads full of milling crowds, where there are no longer buildings on either side of me and I am struck with a sense of space and scale and openness.

Well, my point is that, in order to fully experience such a sense of the sublime in the universal, we have to have the particular to contrast with it. Where would be the praise in saying that an author speaks to readers of every culture, if there is no difference between cultures anyway?

I call myself an anti-globalist, but I'm not really. I accept that the earth is a globe (although I admire the heroism of Flat Earthers). I enjoy air travel. I like the internet.

More relevantly, perhaps, I accept that the our common humanity far outweighs our national, ethnic, sexual, and other differences. We are all much more alike than we are different. Human solidarity is essential.

When it comes to art and literature, I've always preferred literature that addresses universal themes. I'm not much interested in a book or a poem that is full of intellectual parlour games for academics or bookish people. I've always detested dialect poetry, although this might be irrational or an overreaction.

And, of course, I am a member of the universal Catholic church, whose mandate from our Lord is to make disciples of all nations.

The reason I call myself an anti-globalist is because:

1) Although I believe in a universal human nature, one dimension of this universal human nature (in my view) is a profound desire to belong to something more specific than the human race. In fact, I think we have a series of such belongings. We want to belong to a family; we want to belong to a circle of friends, allies, and colleagues; we want to belong to a people. Particularism is universal.

2) The extent of globalization in our modern world horrifies me. I fear that the universal is gobbling up the particular, that the international is gobbling up the national, that the national is gobbling up the regional, and so forth. I think life should be a balance of the particular and the universal, and the balance has swung far too much in the direction of the universal. For instance, it is estimated that a language dies every three months, and forty-six per cent are in danger of dying. That, to me, is horrifying. And language death is only one aspect of homogenization.

Another point. I have used the term 'particularist' in this post. I usually call myself a nationalist. This is partly out of tradition, partly to defy the people who are trying to make 'nationalist' a dirty word, and partly because I do believe in the ethno-nationalist ideal. However, my nationalism is just one manifestation of my particularism. I accept the arguments that the the nation is a historically and culturally contingent phenomenon. African nations, for instance, often seem to be a conglomeration of a huge amount of different ethnicities and people.

The whole phenomenon of nations may become obsolete, sooner or later. I hope not, but it might. In that case I hope ethinc and national traditions survive in some form, as peoples rather than as polities. And even if ethnic differences die out, I hope and believe humanity will continue to express their urge towards particularism in some form or other. (One of the reasons I like Star Trek is because ethnic differences and  traditions are shown as surviving into the twenty-fourth century!)

Incidentally, the phrase "particularism is universal" gets no hits on an internet search. Perhaps I should trademark it!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Too Close To See

My secondary schooling (ages thirteen to eighteen) occurred at an Irish language school run by Dominican nuns. It was called Scoil Caitríona, that is, St. Catherine's.

I found myself wondering a few days ago who it was named after. (Or named for, as my American readers would say-- and come to think of it, it makes more sense.) St. Catherine of Siena?

The funny thing is that I don't remember ever wondering this during my years in the school. Not once.

I currently work in the James Joyce Library in University College Dublin. I probably say the words 'James Joyce Library' several times a day. But a picture of James Joyce, or a thought of James Joyce, never comes into my head. It just slides off the tongue now.

I liked Scoil Catríona, but the Catholic environment didn't impact on me much at the time. I had a brief but intense religious conversion on my summer holidays, after my first year, and I remember looking approvingly at a statue of St. Francis (or was it St. Anthony?) when I returned. That passed, however.

I'm quite pleased that I was never anti-Catholic. I quite liked the school's religious pictures, statues, etc. and I didn't mind the prayers before class at all. I hated religion class but we didn't learn very much religion in it. It was mostly personal development and pop psychology and other fuzzy stuff.

I was anti-Irish language, though, and anti-nationalist. Not all the time. I passed through different phases. I had several things to contend with. As I've mentioned before, I was (intermittently) very drawn to romantic nationalism that was agrarian, traditionalist, revivalist, sentimental, and so forth. But the Irish nationalism around me (I don't mean in Scoil Caitríona, but in Ireland in general) was none of these things. It was urban, anti-traditionalist, anti-sentimental, quite often anti-religious, and usually cynical. That confused me and made no sense to me, although I wouldn't have been able to articulate this confusion.

Come to think of it, one of the many reasons I was anti-Irish language was because its supporters were so vague about why they wanted to revive Irish. "We're Irish and we should speak our own language", they'd say. But why should Irish be our language? Why not English, after all? It does the job.

It didn't make any sense to me that they were revivalists and traditionalists when it came to the Irish language, but they weren't noticeably so in any other regard. They seemed entirely modern and progressive and hardheaded in other respects. Again, I wouldn't have been able to even think this through, certainly not express it. But it was undoubtedly there, and I even expressed something close to it in some satirical poems.

(Yes, I was a weird kid even to be thinking about this stuff. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For me, it's not so much not worth living as simply impossible, and this has always been the way for me. I've always needed to be consistent.)

I still don't really adhere to the 'matter-of-fact' nationalism that so many of my contemporaries seem to espouse. Why should any particular territory have its own government? What's so obvious and necessary about that? If we're not going to care about reviving traditions in general, why revive a language? If we are going to accept globalization and homogenization ("become cosmopolitan and outward-looking"), why get perversely sentimental about Irishness when it comes to the World Cup or when we're making movies and albums? How can we emphasise our traditions and distinctiveness when it comes to seeking the tourist dollar, but cringe at them all the rest of the time? 

I didn't intend that rant. I was only going to remark on never having wondered who St. Catherine was. Maybe I should write more about my schooldays.

Monday, February 20, 2017

My Correspondence with the UCD Vice-President for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

I'm reproducing a correspondence I've had with the above university official, prompted by a circular email I received promoting 'equality' events. (I suggest you skim that message, which is the first one.) I don't see anything wrong with publishing it here, but I've omitted the person's name, out of a sense of delicacy. My first response was prompted by irritation at receiving so many of these propagandistic messages.

I think we need to do this kind of thing more often; to challenge assumptions of neutrality and assent, not to let them pass without challenge or at least question. I think I was perfectly polite. The 'political badges' refers to the Yes Equality badges which were all over UCD during the time of the Irish gay marriage referendum.

Dear Maolsheachlann,
In my new role as Vice-President for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion I would like to bring to your attention three events coming up shortly that celebrate the UCD community.

1. Launch of the UCD LGBTI Staff Network – Wednesday, 22 February 

This new network works in partnership with colleagues and students to create a safe, inclusive and diverse culture where everyone in UCD regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity can reach their full potential. 

We have made great progress in recent years to advance equality for LGBTI staff in UCD, including raising the Rainbow flag in Belfield for Dublin Pride in 2016 and the establishment of an LGBTI sub-group working to the UMT EDI Group.  To mark these significant achievements, we are honoured that the Network will be launched by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald TD. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2017, 6-8pm
Atrium of the UCD O’Brien, Science Centre

The event will feature “The Road to Equality” exhibition which celebrates the 40 years of activism that reshaped Ireland culminating in the introduction of marriage equality and legal gender recognition in 2015.  The Dublin LGBTI choir GLORIA will enchant guests with beautiful vocals and food and refreshments will be provided.

If you would like to attend the event, please register at: Eventbrite Registration LGBTI Staff Network Launch

2. Strictly UCD – Saturday, 4 March

Strictly UCD will be a fun-filled night which aims to engage, build community and inspire creativity across UCD, while supporting two very worthwhile causes, UCD Volunteers Overseas and Gorta Self Help Africa.  Over 40 amateur dancers from our UCD community will perform on the night.

Saturday, 4 March 2017, doors 7pm, show 8pm
UCD O’Reilly Hall

Details of the dancers competing and a link to purchase tickets online are available at Tickets are also available directly from the dancers and I encourage you to offer any support you can through buying tickets or sponsoring our contestants.

This is a collaborative event between the Equality, Diversity & Inclusion committee, Culture and Engagement – UCD HR, and UCD in the Community. 

3. International Women’s Day – Wednesday, 8 March

UCD will join organisations across the globe in marking International Women’s Day again this year. This year’s theme is “Be Bold for Change”.  Through conversation and celebration, we will be pledging our support to help forge gender equality on International Women’s Day and beyond. For further details on events and actions you can take, watch this space,

I hope to meet you at these events.
Best wishes,
Prof. S-----------
Vice-President for Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Dear Mr. S----
Thank you for your email on events that promote identity and inclusion in UCD.

Are there any initatives to foster and protect diversity of opinion, rather than diversity of identity, in UCD?
Many thanks

Dear Maolsheachlann,

Many thanks for your message. I would say that fostering diversity of opinion is rather central to what we do as a University, supported by academic freedom, and we have many events on the campus at which a wide range of opinion is to be found, organised by schools and Colleges and also by students societies. Did you have something particular in mind?

Best wishes,

Hi ------

Thanks for your reply.

In terms of events you could hold, perhaps some lectures on threats to religious freedom and freedom of conscience in Irish society would help balance the ledger. You might contact Dr. Mark Dooley, former philosophy lecturer in UCD, and ask him to give a lecture on the plight of the conservative academic in Irish humanities and social science departments.

I rarely attend events in UCD, because of my commuting time, so the likelihood is that I would never attend such events anyway. But it would be nice to see something different on the programme. Although I certainly can't complain about the provision of religious facilities in UCD-- Catholics are excellently served, as I believe are other faiths-- I do feel the climate in the university is inhospitable for anyone with opinions at variance with the liberal left. Yes, much of this is simply a by-product of academic freedom, and I accept that, but it seems to me also an area for any diversity policy to address.

One thing I think you could work on is to examine the appropriateness of political badges in the workplace. I have no desire to strangle freedom of expression, but I do feel political badges are inappropriate when they are worn by university staff on duty.

Thanks again, and best wishes,

That was last week. No reply as yet...

Happy Feast Day of St. Robert Southwell!

Another opportunity to draw your attention to "The Burning Babe", one of my favourite poems.

May we emulate the courage and witness of this great Jesuit saint!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Great Words for Great Things

I was just thinking of Yorkshire pudding and I realised it's one of those instances where I love a term and the thing it describes just as much.

Some others:

1) Brandy

2) Kaleidoscope

3) Amber

4) Formica

5) Silhouette

6) Winter

7I Turkish delight

I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of them.

Here's a case where I like the thing the word describes, but not the word itself: poetry. I think poetry is a very unpoetic word.

I've noticed that many diseases and medical conditions have beautiful names, even though the things themselves are not so nice: rubella, scarlatina, tinnitus, tonsilitis, whooping cough, gonorrhea, sciatica, meningitis. How lovely!