Irish Papist

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

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Are We Too Sophisticated?

The first reading at Mass today was from the book of Ecclesiastes, my favourite book of the Old Testament, and I think it's a breathtaking flight of lyricism:

The day when those who keep the house tremble
and strong men are bowed;
when the women grind no longer at the mill,
because day is darkening at the windows
and the street doors are shut;
when the sound of the mill is faint,
when the voice of the bird is silenced,
and song notes are stilled,
when to go uphill is an ordeal
and a walk is something to dread.

Yet the almond tree is in flower,
the grasshopper is heavy with food
and the caper bush bears its fruit,
while man goes to his everlasting home. 
And the mourners are already walking to and fro in the street
before the silver cord has snapped,
or the golden lamp been broken,
or the pitcher shattered at the spring,
or the pulley cracked at the well,

Or before the dust returns to the earth as it once came from it; 
and the breath to God who gave it.
Vanity of vanities, the Preacher says. All is vanity.

As I listened to it, I felt a familiar regret; that I don't know the Bible better than I do.

I suppose, by contemporary standards, I know the Bible pretty well. I have read the New Testament a good deal, and I've read about the New Testament a good deal. I can't quote chapter and verse like an Evangelical preacher, much as I would love to. In fact, I can rarely remember the exact source of a particular quotation-- I have to look it up. But on the whole, I am fairly familiar with the New Testament.

The Old Testament is much more of a foreign country to me. There are whole books, like the books of Maccabees, of which I know next to nothing. I've made big efforts to make inroads into it, but I do so with a certain reluctance. I rarely feel like reading the Bible.

In the meantime, I have done a great deal of other spiritual reading; encyclicals, works of theology, works of religious philosophy, blogs, Catholic newspapers and magazines, Catholic history, and so forth. Some people have complimented me (though I don't feel I deserve it) on my knowledge of the Faith.

Cardinal Avery Dulles

And yet, I don't know the Bible very well. And I think this is not too strange amongst Catholics. A biography of Cardinal Avery Dulles that I read (there I go again) mentioned that he was a lifelong and avid reader of Scripture, and that this benefitted him when it came to ecumenical discussions with Protestants. The fact that it was worth mentioning is notable in itself.

This post isn't about Bible knowledge per se, though. It's about my genuine worry that religious believers, especially Catholics, can be excessively sophisticated and intellectualised when it comes to the Faith.

I think this is partly grounded in defensiveness. We are well aware of the 'cultured despisers' of the Faith, and we are at pains to demonstrate that we are not literal-minded, naive, gullible or unreflective. We rush to talk about the great intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church, from St. Augustine to G.K. Chesterton. And I think this is admirable in itself, and necessary.

And yet, and yet....

And yet I find myself sympathising with the words of Blessed John Henry Newman:

Blessed John Henry Newman

Here I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be. Not, of course, that I think the tempers of mind herein implied desirable, which would be an evident absurdity; but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquillity.

I'm not so sure that, when the world hears us talking about the great intellectual heritage of the Church, or a theologically literate reading of Scripture, or engagement iwth modern currents of thought, that it's quite as impressed as we think it is.

I suspect that all it really hears is the politician, humming and hawing in a hostile interview: "Well, we really have to look at things in their overall context..." 

Along with our intellectual sophistication, there is a kind of mellowness to contemporary Christianity which I sometimes find off-putting. This seems to be associated especially with Catholics, and with Catholic intellectuals. There is something about Catholicism that seems, in many minds, to harmonise very well with a glass of burgundy, an epicurean taste in Gregorian chant and Renaissance masterpieces, and with gilt-edged and leather-bound volumes in an oak-panelled library. We are sometimes even boastful about this.

This is the spirit which is expressed by the apocryphical quotation from Chesterton: "The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar."

G.K. Chesterton with a cigar.

Perhaps this kind of luxuriating in created goodness, or in artistic and intellectual pleasures, in a reaction to puritanical strains of Protestantism, or to the accusation that Christianity is a life-hating and joyless religion.

Nancy Carpentier Brown, from the American Chesterton Society, made this response to those who question G.K. Chesterton's cause for sainthood on the grounds of his obesity, and his love of cigars and wine: "A three hundred pound cigar smoking wine drinking saint may be just what the whole world needs right now."

Is it? I would love to see Chesterton canonized, and I don't think his cigar-smoking or wine-drinking should be an obstacle. As for his obesity, I suspect (from what I have read of his life) that there was a medical reason for this.

But I don't think Chesterton's bon-vivant tendencies (which are overstated) make him a saint for today. I think his simplicity and child-like faith make him a saint for today.

Perhaps my favourite Chesterton quotation in this regard is his response when Holy Communion was brought to his home, and he was seen to be sweating: "'I am a simple man and I am afraid when God comes to my house."

St. Bernadette

I would argue that most of the saints and holy people that have spoken to the modern world have been distingusihed by their simplicity. I am referring to figures such as St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, St. Bernadette Soubirous, the Fatima visionaries, Matt Talbot and Edel Quinn in Ireland, and Pier Giorgio Frassatti. Saint Mother Teresa is a topical and spectacular example. 

None of the above saints were gifted intellectually. But, even where a popular modern saint has been gifted intellectually, his or her faith is usually simple and child-like: St. John Paul II and St. Maximiliian Kolbe are good examples.

Of course, figures like G.K. Chesterton, St. Edith Stein, and Thomas Merton have been very influential. Anyone who has read more than two or three posts on this blog will know G.K. Chesterton is the single biggest influence on my own view of the world. Despite this, I think the influence of such figures has been amongst a minority-- bookish people, for the most part.

I have been reading a lot about St. Bernadette recently. She struggled to master the Catechism and seemed to know few prayers beyond the Rosary. (I have read that she knew no prayers other than the Rosary, but I can't find a good source for that.) There is something very attractive about such simplicity, such holy poverty.

St. Gemma Galgani

I have also been reading a lot about St. Gemma Galgani, whose mysticism and piety was so simple and child-like that I find it both off-putting and attractive at once, and for the same reason. Take this story told by her confessor, in which she persisted in pleading for the soul of a sinner. Despite several rebuffs, she persisted, and eventually prevailed with this tactic:

Well, I am a sinner. You Yourself have told me so, and that a person worse than me You could not find. Yes, I confess it, I am the worst sinner, and I am unworthy that You should listen to me. But look, I present Thee another advocate for my sinner; it is Thine own Mother who asks You to forgive him. See! Oh, imagine saying no to Thy Mother! Surely You cannot now say no to Her. And now answer me, Jesus, tell me me that You will save my sinner.

This kind of naive familiarity with Jesus and his Blessed Mother-- to speak to them as members of our own family, even to nag them-- seems so alien to me that I flinch from it. Imagine what a New Atheist would say! But should our faith be based on what a New Atheist would say?

I anticipate an objection at this stage; that I am disregarding the 'both/and' logic of Catholicism, the plurality of gifts that St. Paul talks about in his letters, and positing a false dichotomy between simplicity and sophistication. After all, the story goes that Our Lord appeared to St. Thomas Aquinas to say: "Thou hast written well of me, Thomas" (which makes him also a visionary). Simplicity and naivety are hardly terms we associate with St. Thomas Aquinas.

The same St. Paul who wrote: "I determined to know only one thing while amongst you, Christ and him crucified" also argued philosophy with the Athenians, quoted classical poetry, and wrote: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."

I might also be accused of contradicting myself, since I wrote in a recent article for the Irish Catholic that Catholic journalists, bloggers, broadcasters and apologists need to up their game intellectually-- or at least, in terms of the depth and scope of their material.

I admit the apparent contradiction. I hope it is only an apparent contradiction.

Perhaps I would appeal to the Newman passage I quoted earlier. I'm not really saying that a literate, deep and thoughtful faith is a bad thing. I'm just scared of its tendencies to diminish simplicity, zeal and freshness.

The Church needs both sophisticates and simple folk in its ranks. Perhaps we all need to embody both these characteristics to some degree. However, I fear that we may have too much sophistication and too little simplicity. Do we receive the kingdom of Heaven like little children?

Perhaps I am not the only Catholic who needs to devote more attention to the basics, such as the Bible, and less time on secondary and tertiary material. Every St. Patrick's Day, I read the Confession of St. Patrick, and I'm always struck by how this very humble and simple man-- who described himself as unlettered, and was obviously a very reluctant and awkward writer-- was steeped in the Bible.

Here I will delve into a little bit of autobiography. All my life, I have been powerfully attracted to simplicity and rawness, when it comes culture and ways of life. I love the polished verses of Lord Alfred Tennyson, but I also love the roughness and naivety of a street ballad or a nursery rhyme. I think folk culture is generally healthier and saner than high culture, and that people who are immersed in folk culture (insofar as they still exist) are spiritually and culturally better off than people who are immersed in high culture and intellectualism. "Blessed are the poor" is a beatitude which makes a lot of this-worldly sense to me, even though I have considerable personal experience of poverty and I am not in danger of unduly romanticising it. I very much sympathise with the lines of W.B. Yeats, from his poem 'The Fisherman', in which he turns from the cliques and chattering classes of his day to imagine a simple fisherman:

W.B. Yeats

Maybe a twelvemonth since,
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down-turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream;
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream....

"The noble savage!" some of my readers may cry out, recognising a figure that has appeared in Western cultural and social thought over and over again, and one who has been repeatedly debunked. Civilized people who feel burdened by the complications of urban life (so the argument goes) project their yearning for simplicity onto some exotic figure, such as the American Indian, the Connemara peasant, or the Amish. In reality, these 'savages' are neither as noble nor as savage as the fantasist supposes.

I'm not terribly impressed by this debunking (or by any debunking). It reminds me of the frequent response when anyone expresses any kind of social nostalgia: "You're harking back to a Golden Age." Admiration isn't idolization, or blindness, or delusion.

One of the biggest influences on my teenage imagination was undoubtedly Irish cultural nationalism. Within Irish cultural nationalism, there was a strong strain of romantic admiration for rural folkways, and ways of life steeped in tradition, such as Yeats's fisherman. Undoubtedly, this involved an element of idealization. Undoubtedly, those 'simpler' ways of life involved considerable poverty, and many people fled them as soon as they could. But it seems to me as though the ideal is no less valid for all that.

Another figure that has haunted my imagination-- even before I tried to become a Christian (and I'm still trying to become a Christian)-- is the street evangelist, the intense and unsmiling figure carrying a placard announcing the end of the world, or the need for repentance.

Such figures, in their classic form, may be more a standby of cartoonists and television scriptwriters than reality. But street preachers are a reality, and placard-bearing Christian protestors at rock concerts and blasphemous movies are a reality, and tract-distributing evangelists are a reality.

I have always felt a deep admiration for such figures. Even when I thought they were deluded, I admired them.

I admired them because they were willing to be laughed at, to go out on a limb, to be serious and unsmiling and unironic. Put simply, they were willing to be fools for Christ. To be a fool for anything, it seemed to me, brought a new zest and freshness to the life of society.

Once, when I was in America, I saw a house on which were draped various enormous banners carrying Bible verses. They covered most of the surface of the house. Ridiculous....and yet, I found myself lost in admiration. I rather suspect that such 'crude' evangelisation is worth any amount of blog posts or lecture series. Why? Because it's so raw, direct and naive. It's not hiding behind 'dialogue', the prestige of the Catholic intellectual tradition, an invitation to a journey of self-discovery, or any such thing. It's not pussyfooting around at all. It's braving ridicule and dismissal, and it conveys a corresponding weight of conviction and of urgency.

If we really believe souls are at stake, isn't this the kind of thing we should be doing-- so nobody can doubt how serious we are?

For some years, I have toyed with the idea of becoming a sandwich man for Christ-- of investing in a sandwich board with some Biblical quotation, and roaming the highways and byways of Dublin, or even of Ireland.

A sandwich man. Best picture I could find.

This is partly motivated by the desire to perpetuate the tradition of the Dublin 'character' (such as Bang Bang or Johnny Fortycoats, or Davy Keogh of the famous 'Davy Keogh Says Hello' banner, seen at so many soccer games.) But it's also out of a desire to evangelise in the most simple and unsophisticated way I can think of. (Also, I would not have to approach people, something that deters me from many forms of evangelisation.)

I am the most self-conscious person in the world in most ways, to the extent that I find it difficult to make a phone call if somebody is in the room with me, or to ask where the milk is in a café. But when it comes to trumpeting a cause, especially an unpopular cause, I rarely feel any self-consciousness, and I even feel an urge to swim nakedly against the tide (so to speak). 

(If I ever go ahead with this sandwich-board plan, which I probably won't, this post will be my evidence that I haven't suddenly flipped. I flipped a long time ago.)

I used the term 'unsmiling' above. This is relevant to my subject, because I've come to strongly believe that religious believers joke too much about religion. I have made a resolution to avoid joking about religion (though I admit I've forgotten this resolution on several occasions).

Too much of this stuff.

There's nothing wrong with joking about religion in itself. However, I suspect that we all-too-frequently joke about religion out of embarrassment, or to signal that we are not religious nutcases. It's the equivalent of the nervous whinny of the anxious lecturer, and it never makes a good impression.

Too much joking about the Pearly Gates, St. Peter, 'Old Nick',and similar subjects surely makes our listeners assume that we don't take any of it very seriously. George Orwell once wondered how anyone could joke about Hell if he really believed in it. I wonder the same thing myself. What is funny about Hell?

Finally, you may notice that there is a question mark in the title of this post. Usually, when there is a question mark in a title, it is purely decorative. I've often noticed that books, pamphlets or lectures with titles such as Is God Dead? or Is Capitalism Evil? or Have We Achieved Equality? invariably provide answers in the negative.

But I come by my question mark honestly. I don't know the answer to the question. Are we, religious believers, too sophisticated in our faith, or rather in our practice and expression of our faith?

I don't know the answer. But I often feel that we are.

Addendum: I included St. Gemma Galgani in a list of saints who were not intellectually gifted. It occurs to me today that I was wrong about that. Though she appeared simple-minded to many who didn't know her well, it's said that she was actually the best student in her class in school. However, she seemed to have no interest in the things of the intellect for their own sake. She was indeed 'simple-minded' in this sense.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Storehouses of the Snow

Has thou entered into the storehouses of the snow? (Job 38:22)

One of the most famous of all Irish language proverbs is "an rud is annamh is iontach". It means: "What's rare is wonderful."

With all due respect to my ancestors, I don't like that proverb. Or rather, I don't like what it often implies.

I suppose it's inescapably true that rare things are remarkable, and in itself there's nothing wrong with that. Gold and precious stones and microstates and bizarre coincidences all make the world a more interesting place. What I really don't like is the implication that only rare things can be wonderful, and that familiarity breeds contempt.

I personally don't find this to be the case. I agree with G.K. Chesterton that:

The world is as wild as an old wives' tale
And strange the plain things are.

One instance of this common assumption that only rare things are wonderful, and one that particularly vexes me, is the matter of snow in Ireland.

Fact: snow is one of my favourite things in the whole world. Fact: I grew up in Dublin, where it hardly ever snows. 

People often connect these facts, and tell me that I would soon get tired of snow, and come to regard it as a bother, if I lived in Colorado or some such snowy place.

I protest that this is not the case. After all, I've been working in a library for fifteen years, and my sense of wonder at being surrounded by thousands of books has not diminished. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This assumption-- and the whole mentality that only what is rare is wonderful-- bothers me so much that I made it a minor theme of a novel I wrote a few years ago. The novel was titled The Snowman: A Horror Story. It wasn't particularly good, nor do I think it's publishable, but I got quite absorbed in the story. Partly it was an excuse to write a story where it snows all the way through.

My Snowman didn't look like this, but it's the same idea...
This is the plot: an alien entity takes control of a Dublin suburb, taking the form of a snowman. (He has, in fact, been summoned by the wish of a seriously ill boy to see snow.) The suburb becomes cut off from the rest of the world, in its own bubble of space and time. Anarchy ensues.

I very deliberately had my hero reflect, midway through the story, that the whole experience-- which lasts several months-- had not diminished his lifelong love of snow in the slightest. And, at the very end, my hero and heroine are given the opportunity, by the expiring Snowman, to escape into another world. Out of several worlds he shows them, they choose one where it is snowing heavily. (My initial idea was that the guy would not get the girl. In the end, I didn't have the heart for this. So, though they are not a couple as they step into the snowy otherworld in the novel's last scene, we fully expect them to end up together.)

Ballymun, where I grew up, under snow. Undated.

I have always loved snow.

I grew up at a bad time for it. My father would often tell me about the thick blankets of snow that Dublin experienced in his own childhood, and even later than that. In fact, I was told that I was just too young to remember some gala snow years.

I've often mentioned the community magazine he edited (and mostly wrote!), The Ballymun News. Two covers of The Ballymun News fed into my fascination with snow. One was painted by a local artist called Tom Shannon. I was a fan of Tom Shannon because he would give me Yorkie bars. The picture showed children skiing down a snowy slope, and it had the same child-like charm of a Lowry canvas.

The second cover was drawn by my older brother, in ink. It showed snowflakes falling through the sky, some seen from up very close, against the backdrop of the Ballymun flats and towers. I watched him draw this, and was fascinated by the way he sectioned off the black sky to fill it in, section by section. The perspective is very strange, since the viewer is apparently suspended in the sky. This added to the fascination of the picture, for me. In fact, both of these pictures have haunted me since childhood. (Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of either.)

Some years later, I remember a classroom discussion on the possibility of a white Christmas. This was in a French class in 1992, when I was fourteen years old. It never happened, nor did anyone really expect it to happen. The idea of a white Christmas, to me, was a little like the idea of owning a jacuzzi. Such things happened to other people, in other countries.

My hour would come, though. In the winters of 2009 and 2010, Ireland experienced what became known as 'the Big Freeze'. We had more snow in those two years than we'd had in my whole life before that, including an honest-to-goodness white Christmas. (I had actually experienced a white Christmas a few years before this, but it had been a mere sprinkling. This was the full Hallmark treatment.)

Maddeningly, Irish people were already so sick of the snow, after a few weeks of it, that they were speculating on the possibility of a 'green Christmas'-- much to my disgust!

For me, the whole period was wonderful. Particularly wonderful were the three days in a row that my workplace was closed on account of the snow. Each day, the text informing me came late in the evening, making it all the sweeter.

At this time, I also built my first ever snowman-- in my late twenties!

Why am I so fascinated by snow?

I've thought about this for a long time, and I've come to realise that there are a few different reasons.

First of all, snow is both a symbol and an instance of something that has thrilled me all my life. I have mentioned it on this blog before. It's the idea (and, indeed, the reality) of a revolution that changes everything but leaves everything intact-- a revolution that transforms but does not destroy.

This, I venture to claim, was the sort of revolution that Christ brought about. He did not come to liberate his people politically, or to transform society in any outwards sense. Indeed, he instructed his listeners to give Caesar what belonged to Caesar. St. Paul tells us to obey every earthly power, and even admonishes slaves to obey their masters.

And yet, Christ's message was revolutionary. "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things have passed away."

As Christ did, so did his missionaries. Christianity has been criticized for adopting itself to existing cultural forms, such as Halloween-- as though there is something sneaky or lamentable about this. For my own part, I cannot see it as anything other than entirely admirable-- even beautiful. 

Just as grace perfects but does cancel nature, Christianization was a revolution that transformed but did not (as far as possible) destroy. Nothing could be further from the vandalism that the world has recently witnessed in Palmyra, and other places where ISIS and their like have taken hold. (And the same might be said of the Marxist revolutions of the twentieth century, or indeed-- to some extent-- of the consumerist tidal wave in the developed world.)

The transformation that snow effects is not of this kind.

When you wake up to find your hometown covered in snow, you find yourself in a place that is completely new, and yet familiar. The air itself seems to glow. It's a perfect illustration of the Chestertonian principle I have cited so often in this blog: "We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder with an idea of welcome....the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure."

Louis Macneice
One of my all-time favourite poems, 'Snow' by Louis Macneice, expresses this transformative action of snow in a manner that is unsurpassed:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it...

I didn't spend very much time thinking about Christianity when I was a little boy, so how does all this explain my childhood love of snow? 

It does indeed explain it, because this idea-- the idea of a revolution that transforms but does not destroy-- fascinated me long before I was able to articulate it, or before I was even aware of it. It explains my lifelong adoration of Christmas, Halloween and other festivals--  a few Christmas decorations makes the most familiar room otherworldly, while still remaining familiar. Halloween bonfires and fireworks do the same for the most familiar neighbourhood. 

This principle explains my love of the horror genre, where the everyday is so often made nightmarish (but often seductively so). My favourite quotation in this regard is from philosopher Michael Mendelson: "We need only be told that there is a body in the next room, and suddenly all is transformed." Indeed, even the flickering of a light, the hearing of a local legend, or a strange sound can do the same trick... 

It's not only horror that achieves this, but all art, and all poetry. "To make the familiar strange, and the strange familar" is the mantra of the journalist, but it serves pretty well for the artist and the poet too.

Here I cannot help mentioning my love of coloured reflective surfaces, like Christmas baubles and beer bottles, and of single-tint photographs, both of which bring about a similar 'revoluton'.

Taking the principle to its ultimate, we reach the awe-inspiring heights of the sacramental system itself-- the water of baptism, the words of absolution, the ordinary become sacred.

I have touched on another aspect of what I love about snow-- that is, its otherworldiness.

We say that snow falls, and indeed the phrase 'softly falling snow' is one of my favourite phrases ever. But snow doesn't fall-- it dances. It glides, pirouettes, eddies and whirls. Snow is a veritable airborne phantasmagoria (which is one of my favourite words). There is something ghostly, something ethereal, something dream-like about it.

Another word that always come to mind when we think of snow is 'purity'. 'As pure as the driven snow' is a saying that is usually used sarcastically, but it's no less evocative for that.

As I have explained in my post defending priggishness, and in my post on the Laurence Binyon poem 'The Burning of the Leaves', I've had a lifelong fascination with purity and purification. I suppose we all do. We hanker after purification of some kind-- even an out-and-out hedonist who takes as his motto "have a good time, all the time" is striving after his own vision of purity.

Fire is one symbol of purity and of purification. Snow is another. It is a natural metaphor for all that is fresh, innocent, pristine. It glows, just like fire does.

Our Lady of the Snows
Snow puts me particularly in mind of the Christian virtues of chastity and humility-- the virtues which seem most contrary to human nature, the most otherworldly, but which are most bewitching when we encounter them, or even read about them.

To quote Chesterton again: "The whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized by the statement that white is a colour, not the mere absence of a colour."

The exaltation of celibacy in Christianity was something that repelled me for a long time. I have always seen something mystical in the union of man and woman, and I wondered how a deliberate privation could in any way be pleasing to God. I much preferred the emphasis upon marriage in rabbinic Judaism.

I eventually came to realise that Christianity does see something mystical in the union of man and woman, but that virginity is a higher ideal still. It was only in reading about the saints that I eventually came to see its beauty-- more of a 'heart knowledge' than a 'head knowledge'. And the bold beauty of virginity is like the gleaming beauty of a snowy landscape.

What applies to celibacy applies just as much to chastity-- and it also applies, in my view, to humility. These are all virtues that seem unnatural, otherworldly, even cold. They are not at all appealing when we contemplate them for ourselves. It's only when we see them in others that we realize their beauty, and wish to emulate it. And their beauty, too, is like the gleaming beauty of a snowy landscape.

But what is the highest beauty that snow can symbolize, even above the beauty of virginity and chastity and humility?

Surely it is the pure white of the Host, the "source and summit" of the Catholic faith, which was prefigured by the white manna that fell from heaven-- the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the appearance of sacramental bread. Here, the purity imaged by snow and fire, and every other symbol, finds its ultimate reality.

Was the Eucharist what I was yearning for as a little boy, when the sight of snow falling from heaven thrilled me so much?

My faith tells me that it was-- indeed, that every yearning that every human being feels is ultimately a hunger for the Eucharist, of which J.R.R. Tolkien so beautifully wrote: "I put before you the one great thing to love on Earth, the Blessed Sacrament....There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on Earth."

We all have our foretastes of Heaven, our 'intimations of immortality'. I see nothing at all incongruous in taking snow as a symbol of the beauty beyond all beauty, the wonder beyond all wonder. Certainly the sight of snowflakes dancing in air-- like all wonder-stirring sights-- fills me with a wistfulness so deep that nothing in this world could satisfy it.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Personal View of the Seven Signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Independence

Though you'd be hard pressed to tell it, it's still the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Given the importance of the anniversary, I think it's a shame that the commemorations were mostly bundled into a few weeks around Easter, even if that was the exact anniversary of the events.

To keep the ball rolling, I am going to write a little about the seven men who signed the Irish Proclamation of Independence, a noble document which adorns the walls of many pubs, schools and private houses in Ireland.

First of all, a few remarks about the Rising itself. I'll keep it brief because I've written all this before.

I don't necessariliy condone the Rising. I have mixed feelings about it. There has been a vast amount of discussion, ever since it happened, on whether it fulfilled the criteria of a just war. I lean towards the negative in those debates. But I'm not sure.

The deaths of innocent civilians is the most difficult aspect of it. Who can forget the story of the little girl who was shot through the head, because she was peering through a keyhole when a rebel shot the lock? There are many such stories.

All the same, Easter 1916 happened, and is a crucial part of Irish identity. It is hard for non-Irish people to appreciate the extent of this. It is akin to the American Revolution for Americans, or the Battle of Britain for the English.

Whatever my scruples about the Rising, I do have a great deal of respect for the men and women who fought in it. Seven men signed the Proclamation, and I will deal with them individually.

Patrick Pearse was (and is) undoubtedly the most celebrated of the 1916 leaders, and he is the one I admire the most. My upbringing has something to do with this. We owned a copy of his Political Writings and Speeches, and it had almost Scriptural prestige in our house. My father often quoted him.

I reacted against this in my teens. I can remember, pettily, inserting a self-drawn cartoon which condemned him as a psychopath into the school library's copy of Political Writings and Speeches. But this was just a phase.

Who was he? He was an Irish language activist, a teacher, a headmaster, an orator, a poet, and the President of the Provisional Government which was proclaimed in 1916.

There has been much discussion of whether he was attracted to boys. He undoubtedly loved and romanticised boys and some of his writings praising them read very suspiciously to our over-sexualised era. There is no evidence of any romantic relationships with women in his life (he was extremely shy around women). However, there is also no hint of any actual inappropriate behaviour towards boys. He was the headmaster of a boys school and virtually all of his pupils seem to have idolised him.

Pearse was a galloping romantic, and I think this is why I have such a high regard for him. One of his essays was entitled 'The Spiritual Nation'. He viewed nationhood as something spiritual, as do I. He was not interested in a national liberation which did not involve cultural renewal. He memorably expressed this aspiration in this classic formula; "Not free merely, but Gaelic as well; not Gaelic merely, but free as well".

(In fact, he was a political moderate until very late in his short life. initially, he was much more interested in cultural renewal than in politics. But his experiences as a headmaster of an Irish-language school-- a pioneering enterprise, at that time-- convinced him that political revolution was required for cultural renewal.)

He was not without faults. Though he was an observant Catholic, and sincerely religious, some of his writings seem to treat Irish nationalism as a kind of secular religion. The most disturbing instance of this are these words, from his oration at the grave of Wolfe Tone, a hero of Irish nationalism:

We have come to the holiest place in Ireland; holier to us even than the place where Patrick sleeps in Down. Patrick brought us life, but this man died for us.

I have always found these words shocking, and the perfect example of the danger of idolatry which haunts nationalism. Nevertheless, Pearse was a fervent Catholic, and he received confession and absolution before his execution. In fact, he was so pleased to hear that his fellow-signatory, the Marxist James Connolly, had also received absolution, that he said it was the one thing he had been worried about.

Pearse's poetry is, in my view, absolutely first rate. He seemed to have been a complete naif when it came to poetry, writing haunting lyrics in free verse. They are marked by their directness and artlessness, and seem to owe nothing to any poetic tradition, unless it is the prophetic writing of the Bible. Take this poem which was written on the eve of his execution:

The beauty of the world hath made me sad,
This beauty that will pass;
Sometimes my heart hath shaken with great joy
To see a leaping squirrel in a tree,
Or a red lady-bird upon a stalk,
Or little rabbits in a field at evening,
Lit by a slanting sun,
Or some green hill where shadows drifted by
Some quiet hill where mountainy man hath sown
And soon would reap; near to the gate of Heaven;
Or children with bare feet upon the sands
Of some ebbed sea, or playing on the streets
Of little towns in Connacht,
Things young and happy.
And then my heart hath told me:
These will pass,
Will pass and change, will die and be no more,
Things bright and green, things young and happy;
And I have gone upon my way


Perfection. "The Fool" is another masterpiece, as is "The Risen People".

The second most famous figure in the Rising was James Connolly. Since he was a Marxist, and the leader of the left-wing Irish Citizens' Army (several different military organisations fought in the Rising), he has always been the left-wing hero of the Rising, and indeed the saint of the Irish left in general.

I've never had all that much interest in him, despite his prominence, even when I was a socialist. (I was a socialist in my early twenties, but I was never a Marxist. Indeed, I was a self-consciously anti-Marxist socialist even then.) He left many writings, but I wouldn't dream of reading them-- my few encounters with Marxist theory have been enough for me.

As a person, however, Connolly seems to have been entirely noble and admirable. An ex-soldier, he directed the fighting in the main garrison of the General Post Office, and all acounts of his leadership show him to be valiant, humane and inspiring.

I also admire his history as an organiser of trade unions. It's a long time since I've been a socialist, but a concern for the poor seems to me an entirely Christian outlook. The working conditions in Dublin at the time of the Rising were appalling. An apostle of the free market might tell me that this was entirely due to government regulation or tarriffs, or some such thing, and that the perfect liberation of market forces would eliminate such poverty. Maybe. In the meantime, people have to live, and to live with some dignity.

As before mentioned, he had the last rites and absolution before his execution, despite having been a lapsed Catholic before this. The Irish radical left has always found this 'an inconvenient truth'. Indeed, it was Connolly who sent runners to request the presence of Catholic priests during the fighting, so his men could have confession.

The next figure I will mention is Joseph Plunkett. I knew very little about him before this year, when I started reading about the Rising in more depth. Since then I have read and watched a good deal about him, and he is undoubtedly my second favourite of the leaders after Pearse.

He was a devout Catholic, though not a daily Mass-goer or particularly outspoken about his faith. He was also a big fan of G.K. Chesterton-- he read The Man Who Was Thursday at least four times, and he wrote a poetic tribute to him.

Plunkett came from a wealthy family, though he also had a deprived childhood since his mother was neglectful. He was fascinated by machinery and war games-- indeed, it was Plunkett who devised the military strategy for the Rising. That strategy has had very mixed reviews-- one writer wondered what success an uprising could have when it involved "occupying bases and waiting to be attacked". In any case, it's hard to assess his plans fairly, since the entire thing was so botched that it mostly had to improvised.

Plunkett is the most romantic figure of the Rising for two reasons. One is that he was dying of TB-- he would have been dead within weeks, even if he had not been executed. The other is that he married his fianceé Grace Gifford in the prison chapel, shortly before his execution. They were not allowed to exchange a single word, other than their vows.

He was a poet, and one of his poems has become a classic:

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.

I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.


I will pass swiftly over Éamonn Ceannt, who seems to me by far the least interesting of the signatories. He was a military man and a cultural nationalist. Other than his role in the Rising, the most notable thing about him is that he once played the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) for the Pope. I don't mean any disrespect to him, but I have little to say about him.

We have been dealing with the visionaries so far. But not all of the signatories were visionaries. The pairing of Thomas Clarke and Séan MacDiarmada were the 'hard heads' of the Rising. Between them, they laid most of the groundwork of the rebellion, long before the other five became involved. It was these two who insured that the secret organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, infiltrated and took control of the Irish Volunteers, an open citizen's 'defence force'.

Tom Clarke is the 1916 signatory I find least appealing. He was, to be blunt, a fanatic-- a man whose life was utterly dedicated to getting the British out of Ireland. He was involved in a dynamiting campaign in his youth, and spent years in prison a a result. He came out a prematurely aged man, and even more fanatical. His tobacco shop in O'Connell Street was in many ways the hub of the rebellion.

What I find most unappealing about Clake is his apparent lack of any vision for a post-independence Ireland. He wanted to get the British out, and that was it. He had very little interest in cultural nationalism. And he was a hardliner-- when the other leaders wanted to surrender, to spare further civilians from being killed, he pleaded with them to keep fighting to the death.

He was not a religious man-- he was embittered against the Church for its hostility to the Fenians, a previous group of Irish insurrectionists. He told the priest who came to minister to him before execution to leave, when he urged him to repent.

I read a biography of Clarke recently, intrigued as to why someone would devote his life to Irish independence, with apparently so little consideration of what an independent Ireland would look like. I didn't find the answer, but I can at least say that he was a loving husband and father. If he was a fanatic in public life, he was quite sentimental in private life-- which, at least, I find endearing.

His close friend Sean MacDiarmada is like Clarke is a lesser key. He was much more a political nationalist than a cultural one. He was a man of action rather than a man of ideas. He has been called an 'amiable fanatic'-- indeed, everybody seems to have liked him. What I find most endearing about him is that he helped convince the footsoldiers of the rebellion to surrender when they wanted to fight on. He told them that he expected to be executed, along with the other leaders, but that the rank and file would live to fight another day-- which they did.

On his census form, he recorded his religion as 'Irish nationalist'. However, it's obvious from his other answers that he was doing his best to irritate the census-takers, and he did not chase the priest away from his cell in the manner of Tom Clarke.

In my mind, Clarke and MacDiarmada represent the tough-minded, anti-romantic strain of Irish nationalism, where Pearse and Plunkett represent the romantic and idealistic strain. I definitely identify with the latter, rather than the former.

The final signatory, Thomas MacDonagh, is someone about whom I know very little, even though he is a flamboyant figure-- the third poet of the Rising. He was also a teacher in Pearse's school, and a lecturer in English at the university where I work.

Since I have always been an anglophile, and Irish nationalism has all too often involved anti-Englishness, I cherish the story of the last words he spoke to his students, after a class on Jane Austen: "Ah, there's nobody like Jane, lads".

He was a handsome, debonair and charming figure. He offered cigarettes to his executioners. He seems to have had a religious temperament, though not in a particularly orthodox mode.

Well, God bless them all. They all paid the ultimate price for their beliefs, and I pray they are all with the Lord now. And God bless everybody who died in the fighting. And God bless Ireland!