Irish Papist

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Yesterday was my 39th birthday. Since I'm not on Facebook any more it passed quietly, although my office mate in work did give me a gift of a John Deere baseball cap, before he went on holiday to Edinburgh last week. (I am vocal in my liking for baseball caps, but I keep losing them. I'll try not to lose this one.)

It was also the estimated birthday of Sadbh Treasa, our second child lost to miscarriage, who we think would have been a girl based on her time of conception. We have lost five children to miscarriage, one this year. Five immortal souls, who would have looked like me if they had survived, who would have inherited all my family anecdotes and family traditions, as well as those of their mother. To whom I would have taught prayers and poems. Who would have developed their own unique personalities, as well.

Yesterday was also the feast of St. John Paul the Great, whose greatness only seems more impressive with every passing year. I was taken to see him when he visited Ireland in 1979. Apparently I was very excited, but I don't remember it. Many commentators have called this the zenith of Catholic triumphalism in Ireland, or perhaps an Indian summer. But if you actually read the Pope's addresses during the visit, you realise that the vast crowds that came to see him-- over a million in Dublin alone-- did not deceive him as to the forces at work against the Faith in Ireland, or the dark times that were ahead.

So please pray for Ireland, and me and my family in Heaven and earth.

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Wedding at Cana

This is a poem I wrote a few years ago, and I posted on the blog. Then I took it down because I thought it was worth sending to a magazine, which I did (and magazines usually ask that poems have not been previously published). I sent it to Spirituality magazine.

I never heard back from the magazine, so I assumed it was never published. Yesterday, I discovered by accident that it was.

So here it is again. I think it's not bad, apart from some very dodgy metre in a couple of places.

The Wedding at Cana

The mother of God spoke to her son
As the laughter and singing began to die
(Though the feast had hardly just begun)
And the guests began to sigh.
“These people are waiting for something more”
She whispered to him. “These people pine
To drink as they’ve never drunk before—
They have no wine.”

“Oh woman”, the Son of Man replied,
“What is that to me? It is not my hour.”
But his mother still stood there by his side
And spoke a little lower.
“The singing and dancing have almost ceased
And the bride is shame-faced. Oh, son of mine,
The guests have come to the wedding feast
And have no wine.”

And, looking down on his princely face,
She remembered what Simeon prophesied
As he held the child in the holy place:
A sword shall pierce your side.
“Oh blood of my blood” the Virgin said,
“The drink they thirst for is yours and mine.
They came to see a bridegroom wed
And they have no wine.”

If I am to serve God with my pen (or keyboard) at all, perhaps it is through verse rather than prose-- hymns, poems, and so forth. Poetry and verse of all sorts is a highly speculative venture. The world is not very welcoming to poetry, and even those of us who love poetry usually have to make more of an effort to read it than to read prose-- even with the best poetry.

But, if you do write a verse that moves people, it tends to mean more to them than any amount of prose does, and to survive in their hearts for much longer. From my early teens I have felt that writing a verse which the world (or some part of the world) took to its heart-- the words of a popular hymn, for instance-- would be one of the greatest achievements imaginable.

I have been very disillusioned with writing lately, as much through my successes (such as they have been) as my failures. As well, I have been feeling that faithful Catholics need more poetry and less prose in their lives-- although, by 'poetry', I mean devotion, prayer, liturgy, sacramentals, holy pictures, Eucharistic Adoration, lectio divina, Scripture, and, of the course, the Sacraments themselves. (The Sacraments are the most real things in life, and I am by no means suggesting otherwise when I use the term 'poetry'.)

T.S. Eliot's famous line, "distracted from distraction by distraction" is one that describes me all too well. I think it describes many of us today, perhaps even most of us. I think we have a cultural case of Attention Deficit Disorder, and I struggle with it as much as anybody. I struggle to keep my my mind focused at Mass, on my Rosary, and...well, all the time, pretty much. In recent times I have been trying to tether myself more, and (to use the traditional Christian term) to be more 'recollected'-- especially through what St. Josemaria Escriva called 'the blessed monotony of the Rosary'.

I write these words with caution, because we do also need prose-- very much so. We need catechesis and evangelisation and homilies and sound teaching of every kind. But I do fear the tendency (not least in my own case) of prose to degenerate into chatter. Irish Catholicism is certainly not going to expire for lack of conferences, workshops and seminars. (I was about to add, self-mockingly, "not to mention blogs". But there are actually very few Irish Catholic blogs!)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Have You Ever Heard of St. Philip Howard?

I had never heard of him, until I read about him today, his feast day.

He was an Elizabethan aristocrat who gave up one of the highest positions in the land for the sake of his Catholic faith, and who died after a decade in the Tower of London. He was declared a saint in 1970.

Here is a video about him.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Retractions and Reassessments

As I said in my previous post, I have come to a stage in my life that seems like a time for silence rather than a time for speech, a time for listening rather than a time for proclaiming. And I have been doing a lot of that. But it would feel dishonest not to share some of the changes in my own outlook that I have developed recently.

A verse of Scripture that seems more and more important to me is Colossians 3:2: "Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things." I have not always been very good at doing this.

I am now dubious about much that I have written on this blog. Take, for instance, my many blog posts on the subject of tradition-- human, secular traditions.

All my life I have been tradition-mad, and this had a powerful influence on the trajectory of my beliefs; first of all towards conservatism, and then towards Catholicism.

This was good. But I am coming to think I should have thrown away the ladder once I had reached my destination.

Where did this love of tradition come from? Well, it could have come from many things, but I tend to believe it was the Holy Spirit calling me towards the Truth, or using my own inclinations to guide me to the Truth.

I have written in my series of posts on tradition that much of my love of tradition is based upon the sense of the timeless, or the time-outside-time, that we so often feel when we look at a Halloween bonfire or a Thanksgiving parade, or some other image of a secular tradition.

Well, it seems to me pretty clear that this love of the 'time-outside--time' which I find in tradition is really a yearning for Eternity. That was the message. Once I'd got it, I shouldn't have continued to fixate on human traditions.

Now, I don't want to be too humourless or blinkered about this. There is nothing wrong with taking an ordinary, moderate, incidental pleasure in human traditions (or in other aspects of the world that appeal to us). But the extent to which I fixated on them was, I believe, unhealthy and wrong and a distraction from the thing that matters. It was an excessive attachment to worldly things.

(I'm not talking about sacred traditions here. They are something entirely different.)

Then again, there is my many blog posts about globalization and cultural nationalism.

I declared war on globalization and the cultural homogenization I perceived in the world. But, seen from the view of Eternity-- which is really the only view worth taking-- what difference does this make?

Our purpose in this world is to get to Heaven and to take as many people with us as we can. Our political, cultural and social goals should flow from that. "Martha, Martha, you are worried about so many things, but so few are needed-- indeed, only one." (Luke 10:41-42.)

Again, I'm not suggesting we should all become utterly otherworldly, or cease to take pleasure in our national heritages, or cease to preserve them-- or to preserve other secular institutions that we cherish. But the salient point is how much of an effort, how much focus this demands. If it takes up an extraordinary amount of our time and effort, I think it has become an idol-- and, indeed, I think cultural nationalism (and even more political nationalism) has very often become an idol. I admit that it has been an idol to me.

What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians seems pertinent: "This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away."

The fashion of this world passeth away. Cultural globalization is just another moment in that process. We have enough on our plates, defending life and the family (which we know God wants us to defend), without putting too much effort into defending cultural forms that we have no particular warrant to believe God wants us to defend.

These dread words from the Book of Jeremiah frighten me: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts: Hearken not to the words of the prophets that prophesy to you, and deceive you: they speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord."

In fact, I am becoming more and more cautious about worldly causes becoming idols that distract us from the Gospel.

I recently left Facebook, but before I left it, I became more and more bothered by the phenomenon of many of my Catholic Facebook friends-- orthodox, non-dissident Catholics-- becoming sucked into the slipstream of some political ideology. These were ideologies of both right and left, but it was more noticeable in the case of the political left.

I had Catholic Facebook friends who seemed to spend an extraordinary amount of energy attacking Donald Trump, the Republican party, gun ownership, racism, sexism, and 'Islamaphobic' media coverage, but who never seemed to use Facebook to evangelize or defend the Faith-- outside of the occasional picture of Mother Theresa with a non-controversial caption attached. 

They were more than willing to criticize conservatives or right-wing Christians, but they rarely (if ever) seemed to speak out against abortion, or euthanasia, or the persecution of Christians around the globe. These causes were not important enough for them to stick their heads above the parapet. 

(My right-wing Catholic friends were often overly insistent on causes like gun ownership or free market capitalism-- but they were rarely shy about defending their Faith, or controversial aspects thereof. On the other hand, I tended to 'unfollow' them pretty quickly. In many ways, I was temperamentally more sympathetic to my 'liberal' Catholic friends.)

I'm not attacking any of these people. I have no doubt they are better people than me, and better Catholics than me. But the distortion of priorities that I saw in their Facebook feeds was like a mirror wherein I saw my own failings.

There is an awful lot on this blog which is extraneous to the Gospel. But, for a Catholic, I don't think anything should be extraneous to the Gospel. "Now I live, not I, but Christ lives in me." (Galatians 2:20). That should be our aspiration.

But it's not just the proclamation and excessive attachment to worldly causes that I've come to see as wrong. It's just as important (I think) that we proclaim the Faith in the right way, and for the right motivations, and in the right terms. 

"Through him, and with him, and in him" is what the priest says in the moments before Communion. I've been pondering those words a lot recently.

Take the example of the term 'pro-life', especially as it is used by Catholics who belong to the 'seamless garment' school of thought.

"Pro-life" was a word coined to argue against abortion-- and, perhaps, euthanasia. These are practices that all Catholics must oppose and abhor. But Catholics and Christians of the 'seamless garment' school use the term 'pro-life' to argue in favour of all sorts of measures which are not required by faith, which are in fact prudential matters upon which Catholics may legitimately disagree-- the complete abolition of the death penalty, pacifism, socialised healthcare, open borders, and so on.

Not only did I witness this expansion of the term 'pro-life' on my Facebook feed, but it has unfortunately been taken up in this sense by many Catholics I greatly admire-- such as the blogger and writer Mark Shea. 

I have deep, deep respect for Mark Shea. His writings were very influential on me when I was moving to the Faith, and his book Mary: Mother of the Son is one of my favourite books, and is indeed the book that unlocked Mary's role in salvation to me. But he seems to have become hypnotised by left-wing causes, like many of my Catholic Facebook friends. In such cases, passions are raised so high that Catholics almost seem to be locked into a left wing/right wing faction fight where the real enemy is some pet hate figure on the right or left, rather than Satan and his fallen angels-- where the cosmic battle becomes less important than a transient squabble that only historians will care about in a hundred years.

In a blog post in which he was responding to some very intemperate language from Mark Shea, who was accusing him of not being 'pro-life' enough in refusing to support the complete abolition of the death penalty, Edward Feser responded: "Shouting the phrase “pro-life” – a slogan that has its origins in U.S. political discourse, not in Catholic moral theology – no more settles anything than shouting the slogan “pro-choice” does."

Edward Feser

That sentence struck me very powerfully. If even a term like 'pro-life', which rolls off our tongue so easily and which seems so unobjectionable, can contain such potential confusion within it, we have to be very careful of the language and lines of argument and apologetic strategies we use.

Indeed, Dr. Feser has argued persuasively that a solid Catholic apologetics has to be built on Thomism and scholastic philosophy, and the 'New Theology' which more or less replaced it in the twentieth century--- and many of whose proponents, as Dr. Feser points out, were in no way 'liberal' or 'progressive' in their own minds-- is not, at least by itself, up to the intellectual task of defending the Faith against its opponents.

"Through him, and with him, and in him." It's not enough to assert and defend the Faith. We have to defend it using solid Catholic arguments, and solid Catholic apologetics, and solid Catholic interpretations of Scripture. This is too important a business to indulge our own eccentricities, idiosyncracies, or irresponsible creativity.

I aim this criticism against myself principally. Too often, on this blog, I have drawn on my own imaginative impulses, or my own memories, or upon parts of popular culture or literature that particularly appealed to me, to make (what I thought was) an argument for the Faith.

Now, I'm not going so far as to say that this is completely illegitimate, but I have come to view it with tremendous caution. I don't think I'm the only Catholic who has been too eager to 'canonize' his favourite philosopher, movie, song, historical figure, novel, non-Catholic theologian, or non-Christian historical figure (such as Gandhi, who seems to have been made a kind of honorary saint by many Christians).

We have Scripture, the Church Fathers, approved classics of devotion, a treasury of traditional prayers, the lives and writings of the saints, Church-approved apparitions, and a whole wealth of other 'safe' material to drawn on-- more of it than anyone could ever get through in one lifetime. There is no austerity involved in sticking to the authentically Catholic. We have an abundance. We don't have to write blog posts making a Catholic case for Star Trek and Groundhog Day, and so forth.

I did this far too much, perhaps exulting in my own sense of creativity and ingenuity. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But I'm not the only one.

We are always trying to conform Christ to our own image, rather than conform ourselves to Christ's image. This tendency has to be fought against constantly.

Finally, I have to admit a change of heart regarding a prominent and controversial Catholic apologist. I have been publicly and strongly critical of Michael Voris, the founder of Real Catholic TV, now Church Militant TV.

Not only have I criticized him on this blog, but I once criticized him in a lecture (of the two lectures I've ever given!) to the John Paul II Theological Society in Maynooth.

Well, I have changed my mind. Although his style is still rather more abrasive than is congenial to me, I have come to think that Michael Voris is doing very good and very important work, and that he's right about nearly everything-- but most of all, in his stubborn and terrier-like focus on the supernatural element of the Catholic faith, and the doctrine that 'outside the Church, there is no salvation'-- a doctrine that, though it may have once been understood too narrowly, has today been watered down to homeopathic proportions. His critique of the 'Church of Nice'-- though I think it is exaggerated-- is true more often than not. His emphasis on the rational rather than the emotional aspect of Catholicism is also necessary and right. I feel it is only honourable to publish this retraction.

The Church is a sign of contradiction. Trying to soft-soap the Gospel is (I think) a mistake. Now, I'm not denying that there are points of encounter we can find in contemporary culture, or arguing that we always have to be confrontational in our apologetics. But I have significantly less faith in the 'softly' softly' approach than I had until very recently. Judge it by its fruits. How has it fared? Indeed, it seems to me-- from the many, many conversion stories I have read-- that people are more likely to be drawn to the Church on account of its willingness to confront modern society, than through its attempts at 'dialogue' with it.

I've been watching lots of Voris's videos recently (all the free ones, as I can't afford a subscription). But I think it was this one that did it for me. He's completely and utterly right.

I used to disapprove of Voris's videos being carried on the Catholic Voice website, when I wrote for that newspaper. The irony is that my outlook is more 'Catholic Voice' now than it was when I wrote for The Catholic Voice.

This is a longer post than I intended to write. But I felt honour-bound to write it. Let us pray for each other!

Postscript, written the next day: I have been mulling over this post today, and I wanted to add a qualification or two.

First of all, I wouldn't myself adopt Voris's 'Church of Nice' label to describe the mainstream Catholic Church. Far from it. In fact, most of the priests I have known are good priests. At the moment, I regularly attend Mass celebrated by four different priests, and three of them are excellent-- reverential in their celebration of Mass, supernatural and Christ-centred in their homilies, deeply serious, always willing and available for confession. (The fourth priest, unfortunately, tends towards liturgical abuses such as leaving the  altar at the sign of peace, leading the congregation in applause during Mass, and interposing his own words in the liturgy.) I also find Irish congregations to be generally reverent and serious-minded. I don't see people answering their mobile phones or drinking cans of Diet Coke in Mass. I see a great deal of fervour and reverence.

When we look towards the Irish episcopate, however, the matter is very different. Our bishops seem to be terrified of actually preaching the Gospel in season and out of season (a phrase from today's readings, as it happens). The nadir of this was the homosexual marriage referendum in Ireland, where our bishops seemed to spend more time and energy warning against homophobia, and chiding people who were actually opposing the introduction of gay marriage, than upholding the Christian view of marriage and sexuality. They seem entirely unwilling to 'take on' the anti-Christian forces in the Irish media and political system. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin is a particularly lamentable example.

And then there is the whole Catholic and Catholic-lite infrastructure in Ireland-- such as the St. Vincent De Paul, which found it appropriate some years ago to donate money to a homosexual resource centre in Galway, or the Veritas bookshops (and publishers) which sell shelves upon shelves of books which are essentially self-help feel-good tracts with the merest flavouring of Christianity. And we cannot forget the Association of Catholic Priests, a dedicated fifth column whose open apostasies have been ceaselessly indulged by our bishops. (I appreciate, however, that the bishops are in a bit of a tricky position. We have so few priests in Ireland now that we need even the bad ones, so long as they are administering valid sacraments.) 

I do not accept or agree that the institutional church is a 'dead man walking' and that there is only a tiny 'remnant' of faithful priests and laity remaining. I do agree that apostasy and worldliness has penetrated deep into the Church in Ireland and elsewhere, but I think it's in an uneven and selective manner. It's not as simple as good parishes vs. bad parishes, or good priests vs. bad priests, or anything so clear-cut. Yes, there are good priests and bad priests-- I'm not judging souls here, but their deeds--  but there are also lots of priests who are a very mixed bag.

There is a tremendous danger of spiritual pride and Pharisaism in even writing on these matters. That is one reason I have found it so difficult to articulate this change of heart. I am very much alive to that danger. And yes, reforming ourselves is always the most important and achievable task. Yes, prayer and penance are essential. But I no longer believe that the laity (or the clergy) should remain silent or inappropriately docile when it comes to abuses and apostasy in the Church, and (even more so) evil and irreligion in society at large. And I am no longer going to criticize Catholics who have the courage to defend the Faith as it needs to be defended-- so long as they steer clear of schism, sedevacantism, lack of reverence towards the Pope, and all the other 'auto-immune' evils whereby spiritual antibodies are no longer attacking a disease but are attacking the organism itself. (I cannot claim credit for this metaphor-- I think I saw it on a blog comment somewhere.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Time to Keep Silence, and a Time to Speak

I deleted my last post, because I felt it was incoherent and confused, and I feel that may be a cue to let this blog rest for a while.

I do worry, often enough, about the words I let out into the world (or the world wide web, at least) and whether they are having an influence for good or for ill.

Our Lord told us we will have to give an account of every idle word we let fall, and I fret I have spoken and blogged many idle words, though I hope that not all my words are idle.

I hope anyone who visits this blog finds the contents interesting, entertaining, perhaps even inspiring. Most of my readers will already know to judge everything I write (and everything that everybody else writes or says) against the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church as expressed by its Magisterium, not only as regards its substance but as regards its emphasis and spirit. But, in case there is anybody reading here who doesn't know this already, I am saying it now.

After pouring forth so many words, I feel called to listen for some time-- how long or short, I am not sure. To listen to God, of course.

Pray for me! I will pray for you.

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!