Not so much looking down as across..

Monday, December 27, 2010

What car would Jesus drive?

What car would Jesus drive?
As a child I would lie awake in bed and listen to the cars as they made their way up Landscape Park in Churchtown. From the sound of the engine I was able to distinguish between a VW and a Ford, between a Renault and an Austin. Cars in the early fifties were different from each other.
I lost interest in cars a few years ago when they all looked and sounded the same. The only difference between cars was a price and a badge. Just as all trainers in the world are made in the same sweat shop in the Far East only to be distinguished by expensive marketing logos it seemed that all cars were made in the same factory only to be given badges when they arrived to the car dealer.
My interest was rekindled in recent days as I jealously watched four wheel drive and all wheel drive SUV’s purr past the rest of us mortals condemned to spend an eternity slithering up and down Newtownpark Avenue. I had always hated SUV’s on the basis they were ugly, they ran over young children without even seeing them, they nudged up at roundabouts and your couldn’t see past them, they encouraged in many drivers a sense of superiority, they were not fuel efficient, they were the equivalent of bringing your house on your back, and a few more... While all of these things may be generally true, I did feel a little stirring in the heart as they majestically trundled over snow, slush and ice.
A neighbour of ours, who hardly ever drives, was seen arriving and disappearing in a real SUV – a Land Rover – every ten minutes – or so it seemed.
And then Christmas arrived. Our first white Christmas – ever. Unless you were born pre 1947 in Ireland, you never had experienced the Bing Crosby heaven of a Christmas card scene. I drove down to our Friends Christmas Meeting. All nine of us arrived at 9.30 to see the caretaker emerge from an igloo he had built in front of the Meeting House. He and his wife had spent the night in a comfortable zero degrees while outside it was minus 6. Even at 9.30 in the morning it was registering minus 4.
On the way back from the service to a sleeping Murray household I spotted a big Volvo XC90 awd (all wheel drive) and wondered if it had not been remiss of me in our thirteen Volvos to have not at least considered one of these mountainous cars. And then, being Christmas, my thought moved to Jesus. What car would he have driven?
I felt I could immediately discount the Rolls Royce and the Maybach. He might have travelled in a Merc or BMW though. The priests would not have approved. But then Jesus had a habit of enjoying a cup of tea or a glass of wine with whomsoever he wished. But I cannot see him owning one. Would he have been more comfortable owning a Fiat Punto or VW Polo? I mused. After all Jesus did a fair bit of travelling. The Holy Land tourist agency would have been thrilled with him. So indeed would the bed and breakfasts and rural hotels, except of course when he spoiled it all by multiplying the loaves and the fishes. All in all though, he was good for travel and tourism generally.
Would he have chosen, like me, a nice safe Volvo? After all Volvo have been leaders in the field of safety and fuel efficient cars for over fifty years. Maybe a second hand Volvo Estate with three rows of seats that would have fitted the disciples as they moved from town to town? You can imagine the kind of Volvo I mean. It is about twenty years old and the tailgate has stickers from National Parks and Glastonbury, from Maynooth University and from Greenpeace.
Over the Christmas I travelled the galaxy of cars in my mind and came to the conclusion that Jesus was probably a public transport person. After all that!!
I can imagine him in scarf and heavy coat waiting for the 46A bus to arrive. He knows the bus conductor by name. His apostles half fill the bus. They will take the bus into town and the train to Cork to meet some Gentiles who live in the Southern part of Ireland.
I think Jesus would use public transport because it is more democratic. Cars insulate us and emphasize our individuality and separateness. Public transport would be the first choice of Jesus. Will someone else make the same discovery as me and rename their bus or train fleet?
As I look out the window, the rain has replaced the snow. That is progress. Next year I predict the hit single at the end of the year will be, I ‘I’m praying for a green Christmas’...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Where has all the money gone?

Where has all the money gone?

A fellow blogger asked this simple question some weeks ago.
It is a reasonable question to ask.
We were told a mere three years ago that we Irish were the wealthiest people in Europe if not the whole wide world. How can it be that we have been reduced, seemingly, to being the beggars of Europe?
Did we blow it all? Where did we spend those billions we now owe and how did we manage to spend it so effortlessly?

Here’s my Ladybird approach to economics.

Filthy lucre or money has two functions – it allows for the payment of goods and services and also tries to put a value on a specific good or service.

The first function is much easier to follow. I work as a teacher. I get my wages at the end of the month. I buy a litre of milk in the shop and hand over a euro. The shop takes a little profit and pays the dairy, which after taking a little profit pays the farmer. We can follow the money splendidly.

During my working life I was always fascinated by how that one farmer supported the Co op who bought from him and the retailer who bought from the co op, and the insurance salesman which insured the cow and the banker who lent for the cow. The only person, it seemed to me, who was creating anything of value was the farmer, the rest were simply living off him. We might go a little further if we believe in animal rights and give the full credit to the cow, but that is for an udder day.

The second function is to put a value on an object - say my house. It is an anticipated value, because I won’t know how much it is really worth until I sell it. The same holds true of the stock market where values are assigned to shares. Because shares trade daily we can much surer of the value from a day to day to basis(unfortunately).

Let’s look at an imaginary comfortable upper middle class family. Let’s call them Black, (they were once in the black) whose family balance sheet looked like this at the end of 2007
Family home Cost 750k Value 2,000k Debt 600k
Investment property Cost 500k Value 700k Debt 400k
Bank Shares Cost 500k Value 700k Debt 400k
Holiday Home Cost 350k Value 400k Debt 300k

Total Cost 2,100 Value 3,800k Debt 1,700k

The net worth of the Black family at the end of 2007 was 2,100k
Mr. Black was earning 150k pa and received a bonus of 150k at the end of ’07. Mrs. Black is a teacher who was being paid 50k pa.
The loans were interest only and cost 50k pa

At the end of 2010, things have changed for the worse, and now the Blacks are in the red
Values have fallen as follows

Family home 1,000k (if they can find a buyer)
Investment property 350k (they are having problems finding tenants)
Bank shares 10k (no point in selling them at this stage)
Holiday Home 150k (lovely house on the Shannon that no one wants to buy)

Revised net worth Minus 190K

Mr. Black has taken a 20% decrease in salary to 120k and no bonus is being currently paid. Mrs. Black’s gross pay has remained the same but tax and deductions have reduced the take home pay.

In the case above, we might ask, where has the money gone?
There have been no transactions, so there is no money to follow.
But the problem for the Blacks, their Bank and the taxpayers who own the Bank, is that the Black family now owes more than they own and their chances of repaying these loans are very much reduced. They will have to be forgiven some of these loans if they are ever to repay the balance – but no one has worked out how much, or how it might be fair. The Black’s problem has become a problem for the tax payer including the Red family who have not moved house since they married forty years ago and never borrowed for anything but saved all their lives.

Here’s a Black example of money changing hands. Let’s imagine that the Blacks adult son bought an apartment in Dublin in July 2010 for 350k, which had been for sale in 2007 for 700k.
Let’s try and follow the money
Site cost to the builder in 2007 200k
Cost of building 2007/8 200k
Bank charges 50k
Overheads 40k
Fees 40k
Total cost 530k

Loss on the apartment 180k

Let’s see how the apartment was funded and follow the money

The Banks is owed 400k
Subcontractors 50k
Other creditors 30k
The Developer 50k

The following people will lose money (indeed already have)

The developer 50k
Subcontractors 20k (they will have to be paid something by the bank to finish the apartment
Other creditors 30k
The Bank 80k

That would explain why the developer has gone bust, why the subcontractor is hurting
And the bank is bleeding.

We might ask: what has happened with the money that was paid for the site – 200k?
It was paid to a farmer who sold 500 sites at the time and received 100m.
There are three possible general scenarios as to how he spent the money:

a) The farmer put the money on deposit and is playing golf in the Algarve

b) The farmer put one third on deposit, one third into property and one third into shares – he has probably lost only half his money and is now playing golf in Ireland

c) The farmer got great advice from experts who showed him how by borrowing 300m he could acquire a trophy property in Canary Wharf. Sadly now he has lost all his money and is probably worth minus 100m.

Anecdotally it seems as if option three was the only one generally employed. Assuming the farmer bought the property from an East end boy, someone in London is now playing golf in Florida.

Looking at Ireland Inc, a big part of our problem is that all of our overseas ventures and much of our domestic ones too were financed by overseas banks or by Irish banks who borrowed overseas and now our overseas friends want their money back.

As capitalism and leverage lifts us on the way up, it crucifies us on the way down. Ireland needs low interest rates so as to be able to repay the money but is punished with high rates which make the possibility of default a lot stronger.

Banking is the art of giving only money to people who don’t need it. Occasionally bankers forget this axiom and lapse by giving money to people who cannot afford to pay it back. A bank that has lost the confidence of its depositors is like a virgin who has lost her virginity, you cannot buy back either confidence or indeed virginity. Confidence in Banking as in life can only be given, it cannot be proscribed.

To conclude, much of what we have lost is implied value – that is not to say it is unreal, on the contrary the halving of the value of my house is very real for me and painful for my wife.

There is a further argument that would suggest that much if not all of our gains over the past ten to fifteen years have been made on the back of our simply borrowing from strangers who kindly lent to us having worked hard themselves to save the money in the first place. Now, the argument continues, we will have to work even harder for less so as to repay the debts. Not even a moneylender will look at us for the next few years. Our living standards will decline. The hard working, hard saving Chinese will see their standard of living rise. And there is nothing unfair about that.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Time for my Brother

Time for my Brother

I never had a brother, but I had hundreds of Brothers. An only child for seven years, I yearned for company to play or even fight with. My sister Kate arrived when I was seven and my sister Margaret when I was ten, and that was that.

At the age of 18 years and three days I joined the Novitiate of the Legion of Christ in Leopardstown, County Dublin. The Seminary was a green building built on land that had been sourced by Archbishop John McQuaid – now a controversial figure in political and ecclesial history, known to my father who was a big fan of the Archbishop who could be quite charming in private. The Legionary Novitiate may be the only green building to my knowledge in all of Ireland. The green tiled building, conceived to ‘blend in’, sticks out like a sore thumb as you drive along the M50 motorway at the Sandyford junction.

In 1969 I joined twenty other young men with a view to serving God in the Mexican Missions. Within an hour of joining we were advised that we should address each other as ‘Brother’. It became natural over the following two years of the Spiritual Formation Course (the Novitiate) to call each other ‘Brother’. So much so that when two of us were sent under cover in mufti on a ‘delicate’ mission to Madrid in 1971 to pretend that we were lay students attending UCD, we found it almost impossible not to call each other ‘Brother’ and once or twice we lapsed.

We lived a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Poverty meant having no possessions of one’s own – literally. We were all assigned jobs, Sacristan, Cook, Medical Officer, Farmer, among others. My favorite job was Receptionist because it entailed spending much of my time in a little office at the front of the building where I could see all the comings and goings. I got to sleep in a little room beside the reception so as to be able to take phone calls that might sound in the night. This was in the days before phone extensions and mobile phones.

In the years after I left in 1976 I used to claim that my only possession was my watch – which was not strictly true. Stricly I had no watch. The watch I brought to the Seminary was given to young man called Thomas Price – ‘Brother’ Thomas Price – to give him his full religious name. Thomas had the toughest job of all. He was in charge of ‘time’. With the help of my watch he sounded the bell every time a new task was due. He rang the first bell rang at 5.50 am for Morning Prayer, followed at 6.00 for meditation, followed at 7.00 for Mass, followed at 7.30 for breakfast – in silence – and so on.

The Brother in charge of the Bell needed to be punctual and diligent. Thomas Price had those qualities and more. Over the following 41 years nearly all my companions left the Legion of Christ – but because we were never allowed discuss personal matters in the Seminary – our decisions to leave were made alone, without access to colleagues or family. Often when we left, our remaining colleagues were told we had moved 'to Mexico' or to another mission. That is what happened in my case. It was reported that I had left on a top secret mission to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico when in fact I was back in Dublin walking Dollymount Strand.

As a result, having been deprived of communication while we were within the Legion, the information blackout nearly always continued afterwards – often for years. Many were so traumatized by the Legionary experience they chose not to contact others, no matter how well meaning. Purely by chance, some years ago I learned that Thomas had unsurprisingly left but surprisingly and sadly had died at a very young age. I was shocked and saddened. Thomas had been a gifted footballer. He hailed from the Liberties and I can still see his parents in my mind. Our parents were allowed to visit the seminary twice a year for an afternoon. I have pleasant if black and white memories of their reunions with Thomas from my vantage point in Reception.

Yesterday as I drove around Glenageary roundabout, thirty nine years later I took a call on my (hands-free!)mobile phone from a friend in Amnesty International – where I had served as honorary treasurer for three years. In moving premises they had discovered a Bible donated to a Brother Thomas Price, LC (Legion of Christ) on the occasion of his Profession (Vows) in 1971.

Memories flooded back of the red headed Brother Thomas as he made his way along the polished Seminary floor in the early morning and how he glanced at his watch – my watch; memories of him playing football in the field which now houses Bewley's Hotel in Leopardstown, of working with him to harvest potatoes in the autumn of 1970 in the land that is now occupied by Central Park.

Coming up to our first Christmas in the Seminary, in December 1969 Brother Thomas dropped the watch on the marble floor and it smashed into many pieces. So that was the end to the only thing I had in the world. Those two years in Leopardstown and the five following years taught me a very privileged lesson – possessions don’t really matter as long as you have three decent meals a day and a roof over your head. Many in Dublin and in Mexico will not have those luxuries this Christmas.

I have undertaken to try to track down members of the Price family and return the ‘Amnesty’ Bible to the family of my 'Brother' – Thomas Price. So if anyone out there knows of someone related to a wonderful red headed young man (as he was in 1969), hailing from Cork Street in the Liberties, who played a mean game of football and who was never late in his life, just give me a call and we will try and offer the family a small memento and remember a life that, if short, was nevertheless heroic.

PS Best of luck to all in Amnesty who will be moving into new offices over the Christmas Period!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Fighting for Irish Freedom

Last Sunday, just about this time, as we were enjoying the last few innocent hours of the weekend, little did we know that as we were preparing to sleep soundly, deep in the bowels of the Irish Times a truly shocking piece of economic analysis was being printed. The piece was written by Morgan Kelly, Professor of Economics at UCD Dublin and one of the very few economists in Ireland or indeed anywhere to have come out of the crisis with increased credibility. He correctly predicted the scope and scale of the property collapse in Ireland and shortly thereafter called the banking crisis equally correctly, unfortunately.

As we slept soundly in our beds this Apocalypse was hitting the printing presses. If we did not lose sleep last Sunday, we certainly did last Monday. While I agree with much of his analysis, I don't agree with all of his conclusions, many of which are political guesses and out of the reach of most mortal men. Professor Kelly makes the assumption that politicians may act like economists, and that is a big assumption. My guess is that the politicians are putting a brave face on the current chaos. They have no more a clue than we do, but they feel it would be uncaring to admit this in public. Modern finance, and indeed ancient finance, is built on confidence. Right now there is very little confidence, so when they tell you they what is going to happen in five years time they are mad or lying or both. Most politicians would do well to guess what might happen by Christmas. If a week is a long time in politics...

I do agree with Morgan Kelly. We are wtihin a few weeks of losing financial Independence. Morgan believes we have passed the tipping point. I don't. We can turn things round if....the Irish politicians can find a way of working together and seeing the awful budget of December passed. The opposition may think that by opposing the budget they will box cleverly. There will almost certainly be a new Government within six months although the composition is not likely to feature a Labour/Fine Gael coalition who cannot even agree the day of the week or time of day. But the new Government of whatever hue will be but the sub office of the IMF and the European Central Bank.

Many in Ireland are so close to capitulation that they are suggesting this might even be a qualified 'good idea'. Having the IMF in your sitting room is like your parents dying and being brought up by well meaning but stern foster parents who have every chance of killing the child in an attempt to make him better.

International financial intervention is a recent science and is where medicine was about two hundred years ago when the received wisdom was to blood let - to purify the body of impurities by bleeding the patient almost to death. I do not welcome the advent of the IMF, not because they are bad but because they are mad.

When I went to school in the simple monochromatic fifties and sixties in Dublin, all of Irish history was depicted as an eight hundred year struggle to gain independcne from the British. This often flawed and simplistic account at least saw the benefits of British culture, our roads, railways, towns, literature, music and so on.

What will the IMF bring to Ireland?
Answers on a post card.

We have to regain the upper hand.
We have to be in a position where de don't need to go back to the bond market for two or three years.
Banking has always been that impossible science of lending only to people who really don't need it. We need to show that we don't need to borrow.
Like a spendthrift husband we need to cut our expenditure to match our income and live with the consequences.
Then we will have economic freedom and pride. The consequence may be that we cannot pay back some loans ontime as previously expected - but these can be renegotiated.
You know the story - it is very difficult to get a new loan from the Bank Manager when your track record is lousy, it is much easier to hold the loan you have and send a note of apology. What you have, you hold. Possession is, after all, nine points of the law.

We shall see.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why less is definitely more

Why the recession may not be all bad news.

By way of Introduction

This recession is not all sweetness and light.
I do not wish to be insensitive to
- those who have lost their jobs
- those who fear for their jobs
- those in fear of losing their homes
- those who are forced to emigrate or whose loved ones are forced to emigrate
- those middle class who are struggling to put bread on the table
- those who are dependant on benefits that will be reducing
- those in the third world who are suffering more than ever
- those who were formerly rich of whom the majority were and are decent.
I am conscious that we are at but the start of a long, probably permanent and painful period of change and that we are unlikely to ever know the same level of material comfort. I hope to suggest that it need not be all bad, keeping in mind St. Paul who famously said - 'primum vivere, deinde philosophare' - 'we must live first and then philosophise' - Maslow would no doubt agree...:

1. The accelerating rate of consumption in the world was simply unsustainable. An exhausted world would soon have to give up trying to sustain a population of currently 6.9 Billion souls and growing at 6m babies every month. By reducing the size of our meals, more can feed at the table.
2. Looking through my wardrobe I find clothes never worn, my library contains over three hundred books of which less than 50% have been read, our garden hut is full of bikes no longer used, furniture that is surplus.
3. The developed world has too many houses and shops and offices and books and shoes and CD’s.
4. The underdeveloped world has too few.
5. We were running out of a raison d’être – just how many cars can we drive?
6. People at the top of organizations were getting paid one hundred times the wages of the people at the bottom. A scale of more than five times is madness. No human being's economic contribution is worth a hundred times another's.
7. Wealth was being transferred from the people who created it, from entrepreneurs, and from the workers to grossly overpaid hedge fund managers who created nothing and bank traders who created even less.
8. Families are learning to save for Christmas, for furniture and for holidays. The joy of saving and anticipating is greater than the unconscious spending of the noughties.
9. Children are being spared from over indulgence that was leaving them morally and economically incompetent.
10. We are rediscovering the joys of entertaining modestly at home where the food is often better, the wine cheaper and the welcome warmer.
11. We are more compassionate - realizing that our hold on wealth and health is but by a slim thread.
12. We are spared the nonsense of discussing house prices and our neighbors’ third skiing trip.
13. We are back looking for value and rewarding those who maintained price sanity in good times and in bad.
14. The joy of sharing has been rediscovered, a shared car trip into town, a summer home lent out, a pasta meal handed over a garden wall…
15. Our eyes have been opened to the fact that ‘nobody knows..’ not the Church, not the Government, not the economists. We realize that our ‘certainties’ divide us as humans while our doubts unite us.
16. We think twice about that trip to Cork, or London and the fuel it will use. We go on fewer trips that are more meaningful.
17. Driving speeds have dropped, at least in our area. We have the luxury of making a decision over a day when before it had to be in an hour.
18. We have discovered music channels on the radio and history channels on the TV and have turned off the incessant chat shows that take calls from unhappy people.
19. We have rediscovered that all the best things in life are free – peace, joy, love, forgiveness, birdsong, sunset and daffodils.
20. We have learned to be grateful for what we have got and to count our many blessings.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Suffer little children to come to me - later - maybe in 2015

Suffer little children to come to me – later
Welcome to the new children’s hospital
Coming to a town nearish to you, well near enough, well nearly near enough.
A Government which has no money announced today it was going to spend 650m it doesn’t have in closing down children's hospitals so as to build a new one.
Consultants were paid huge amounts of money to come up with some suggestions. Please name one disaster that has not been recommended by consultants. Your answers on a post card.
Why not ask the children or the doctors?
Too simple? Too cheap?
I have previously argued that we don’t need a general election, what we need is a national government.
Reluctantly I have to accept that the present Government is stuck in a time warp.
They have ended up believing their own propaganda.
No one can save them, not even their closest family.
Let’s have an election, and then form a national government.
Let’s buy a ticket to Brussels for every consultant and wish them well.
Let’s give the power back to the people
To the local hospitals and enterprise boards.
Let’s close down the HSE, and when we are at it FAS, and redesign Bord Failte and Enterprise Ireland.
Let’s start all over again.
I was visiting a sick child recently in Our Lady’s Hospital for sick children in Crumlin.
They are in the middle of building a brand new wing – because the need is urgent.
I half suspect they have figured out that the new hospital at the Mater site will never happen.
A little like the Bertie Bowl.
Mary Harney had the good sense to block that piece of political folly by Bertie.
Now someone needs to do the same to the MaterChildren's hospital.
I hear on the grape vine the promoters may struggling to raise a mere 25m for selling the most generous tax breaks I have ever heard of in my life.
If we cannot persuade people to invest 50k to get tax breaks of 180k how do we expect to get private donations of 100m?
It would assume that people still have the money. I doubt it.
It would assume that the new project generates goodwill. I doubt that too. On the contrary, the project seems to generate great reservations on the part of many excellent health professionals involved in children’s care.
The new hospital has a flawed image and no amount of sticking plaster will help it.
The project lost its chairman the past week.
Amazingly no statement has been made by the outgoing chairman, by the minister, by the HSE.
We have to assume the worst - that the chairman saw the game was up and there was no point in delaying the inevitable.
I have heard that the public car park would have to be built underground making it many times more expensive than surface or multi-storey car parks in other parts of the country.
People will not pay parking fees of 3 euro an hour to visit their sick child.
The Government has only shown expertise in closing beds wards and hospitals.
It needs to use the same expertise to keep wards open at a fraction of the cost of building a new hospital.
The world changed when the twin towers came down in a storm of apocalyptic dust.
The world changed far more subtly and far more widely when Lehmans came down.
We will never see the same level of money in our lifetime.
Maybe it is better we don’t.
We will have to learn, like the Cubans, to make old machinery work again and prolong the lifeof many things long beyond their planned obsolescence date.
After Lehmans we are living in the equivalent of a post nuclear financial world. If we don’t change - we will end up in the Dinosaur graveyard, assuming someone is kind enough to bury us.
Our children deserve better........

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Desperately seeking God

To see that of God in everyone

The expression ‘to see that of God in everyone’ is the most famous and most profound Quaker statement and aspiration. It is at once simple and complex, easy and hard. It may be difficult to see that of God in some people – Hitler, Stalin, a rival political party, a driver who has just jumped the lights and so on. At home the challenge can be more acute, a grandparent who is fractious, a sulking teenager, an alcoholic partner, a treacherous friend...

Jesus Christ deserves a paragraph to himself. For me he is the human being who best reflected in his life and teachings the most accurate picture of God. I do not believe he was God. He may well have been. It is not a matter of fact but of belief. I believe he was the special one, the anointed one (Christ), the Son of God. The post crucifixion followers may have overstated his claim, if he did in fact claim that he was God. I believe that Jesus was fully human, that he had a sense of humour and fun and sarcasm. Even the slightly sanitized Gospels bear this out. I believe he was probably celibate but it does not worry me either way. I believe he had doubts and made mistakes. I think it is unlikely that he sinned. Being human he could have sinned and may have sinned but I think it highly unlikely from what we know.

Jesus Christ deserves a second paragraph because I have totally failed to say what he does stand for and the relationship we can have with him. Because there is that of God in him so much more than any other human being, God shines through him and we can try and make out the outlines of God and move towards God. It is a God who is merciful and kind, the God of the prodigal son and the healed lepers. I don’t feel comfortable with Christ’s description of the God of hell which is a carry over from his Jewish upbringing. Hell is a wonderful symbol of how we can really mess up our lives on this earth and to the extent there is a life hereafter we may end up living in the straight jacket of our own making. This indeed can be loosely described as hell, but not literally. I believe over the past two thousand years through science we have been in a better position to say what God is NOT. God continues to reveal himself to every human being and in am improved way to the entire human race.

Jesus may have been restricted by the times he lived in and by his upbringing, as all humans are, but his reflection of God has never been equaled or bettered. He suggested that we should pardon our enemies and offer the other cheek, that we should enter the kingdom of God like children; that we should pray at the back of the Church; that we should engage with the foreigner; we should aspire to the joy that purity alone brings and above we should be of service to all men.

God reveals himself most fully in Jesus. God is also revealed in all other human beings, in some more perfectly than others. I see God in Buddha and Mohammed, in Darwin and the Aborigines. I do not believe in the concept of ‘being saved’ or the need to convert others to a particular religion. The only message of Religion should be to remind us that we are each a child of God. Our ability to find God is matched by our ability to loose him in the day to day tasks and preoccupations. The task of religion is not to form cliques of competing sects but to encourage people to find the keys that best open up for that individual the joy and love of God for them.

We have no particular need for priests or other vested interests to sell their ‘special’ or ‘unique’ way. Every human being is called to travel towards God and every one of us will die and revert to God irrespective or religion or lack of it. I have great empathy with humanists who despair of the competing religions who squabble among each other.

God is indescribable. We try through religion to paint a picture of him but often confect a distortion, and with every brush stroke we show less and confuse more. In those precious moments when we commune with the God within, all words and images fail, love and joy take over. Full stop. Very little more can or should be said.

Can we explain evil? Well I cannot. I have never used prayer to try and change outcomes, just to accept life and improve the world where I can. Prayer is losing ourselves and losing our demands. There is no need to tell God anything – he must already know it. There is no need to ask him to do a favour – he is infinitely merciful. When a child is killed or tsunami drowns thousands, I have no answer, no clever words, and no cooling balm. I am not convinced it is God’s will. How can we claim there is a god when there is so much evil? Very difficult.

However how can we explain love and joy without God – very difficult too?. God is the only explanation for me and for millions of others.

My human experience has shown that there is far more good than evil; that evil is the exception, not the rule. Most human beings are good and try to be good. Most of the time I try to be good. So while God seems to be absent in time of pain and suffering he is fully there in times of happiness and contentment.

Theology is a very inexact science, but so then so are economics and psychology or indeed any reflection on the human condition.

Anyone who says he has it all sussed is either mad or lying. If he asks for money he is lying, if not, he is mad. Some things are simple after all.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pole-axed? You2?

A New National Government – the poleX Factor

Is it too much to hope that politicians might for a day cease being politicians?
Is it possible that from the ashes of the rag bag of cliché spewing politicians with a very small ‘p’ we might find a few Statesmen with a very big ‘S’?

The political party system which for many years served our country well is within months of destroying it. We are almost certainly going to get a General Election within 6 months which will provide us with more questions and no answers.

We need a General Election as badly as a man bleeding to death at the side of the road from a car crash needs another consultants report from the HSE. The poor dying man needs a doctor or a nurse who knows what they are doing. The last thing he needs is a detailed report, color coded, expertly produced in ten volumes in six months time to tell him exactly how the car crash happened and how he died.

What we need is a National Government to be selected in the most democratic way by way of a Poll, along the lines of the X Factor. We don’t need any more politicians, in fact we need less. We don’t need any more policies – we all know what we have to do in our heart of hearts. Now we have to get the best team on the field dressed in the Irish shirt.

Here are my picks 90% on personal ability 10% on political party legitimacy

Taoiseach Brian Lenihan (FF)
The most important job in the country needs the most able and committed person in the country.
Tánaiste, F. Affairs Enda Kenny (FG)
The nicest man in the country doesn’t mean the ablest
Community, Equality Eamonn Gilmore
My TD, very proud. Lovely man but keep him away from Finance!
Finance Ruairi Quinn (Labour)
One of the best Finance Ministers we ever had, time to bring him out of ‘retirement’.
Health James Reilly (FG)
My head ruling my heart on this one
Enterprise Richard Bruton (FG)
The only man to call it right.
Education Eamon Ryan (Green)
Hard working and well meaning.
Justice Dermot Ahern (FF)
Cool hand, steady nerve.
Transport Michael Martin (FF)
Ability and genuine likability.
Tourism Fergal Quinn (Ind. Senator)
We need someone who can genuinely sell.
Culture Michael D O Higgins (Labour)
A man at home in an Aran Sweater
Communications Michael Noonan (FG)
Communication? Straight talking? You got it.
Agriculture Caoihin O Caolain (SF)
We want a national Government? Then Sinn Fein must be there. Otherwise it lacks universal suffrage.
Banking Joan Burton (Labour)
A new post for a new national priority.

Possible Junior Ministers

Noel Dempsey (FF)
Probably worthy of a top seat but we ran out of chairs
Pat Rabbite (Labour)
Bursting with ideas, at times trips over them.
Eugene Regan (FG Senator)
Possible Attorney General
Leo Vradkar (FG)
Like a puppy, lots of energy but needs some training.
Dan Boyle (Greens, Senator)
Very possibly heaviest intellect in either Dail or Senate
Trevor Sergeant (Greens)
Too nice for politics?
Olwen Enright (FG)
Attractive AND intelligent, might reconsider resigning
Ivana Bacik (Labour)
We need a lady who thinks.
Simon Coveney (Green)
Potential to be top at the top table

What do you think of my choices?

Who would you choose?

Would Simon Cowell act as judge?

Could Facebook handle 3.0m votes?

I would like to pretend it’s a laugh, but it’s really deadly serious…..

Its now or neverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

Don't be silly Noddy!!

Noddy Rides Again association (NRAa)

We represent a middle income, midlands based group of economists, bankers, lawyers, consultants and politicians who failed to see the recession coming but feel we will be in a much better position second time round to assist and advise.

We are happy to give of our time for a modest fee to advise the National Roads Authority (NRA) in their strategy going forward.

The purpose of this kwango – not to be confused with ‘quango’ – spelt (and pronounced in some parts of the country) differently – is to further develop the marvelous NRA decisions to their illogical end.

In this regard we note the recent suggestion by the NRA to have multiple tolls on the M50, Dublin's orbital road and only thing that seems to work these days. This excellent idea, if developed, would see nearly all the cars currently using the M50 use the alternative routes through house-friendly areas and pram-littered suburbia. To accelerate this process we suggest closing down the M50 completely. Studies by some of our experts show that if there were no cars at all on the M50 the number of accidents might reduce significantly going forward. The cost of building the M50 could be recouped by selling it to countries with significant infrastructural defecits – like Afghanistan – or countries in immediate need of bridges – for example Pakistan, at a discount of course.

The excellent initiative of the NRA to often refuse planning for petrol stations and rest areas on our Motorways could be further developed illogically to all main roads ensuring there are no unsightly queues outside petrol stations that might unnerve the odd tourist who has got lost on a badly signed main road. By closing down petrol stations on all main roads it is likely that local and community petrol forecourts will thrive – which has to be a good thing going forward.

NRAa recommends courses for graduates who cannot find jobs elsewhere in a brand new Petrol Pump Attendant University somewhere in the midlands – anywhere will do. Here academics who have nothing to say on other subjects can say nothing on this subject. The NRAa sees these courses as a drive to boost the SMART economy both here and abroad going forward. The NRAa is not quite sure how many petrol stations there are in the world but has retained a group of consultants to unselfishly criss cross the world for the next five years, travelling in first class, to bring us back the numbers and the export opportunities. Our first meeting with the Minister for Cul de Sacs was successful, we guessed, as our suggestions brought tears to his eyes.

In a further revolutionary development the NRAa is recommending the abolition of rear view mirrors in all cars driven by kwango members or their extended families. As all these drivers have perfect hindsight a fortune can be saved on the import of these mirrors and old mirrors can be recycled under our Green initiative – ‘Let he who looks in the mirror cast the first stone, and the second and third too’.

The NRAa questions the wisdom in having all roads lead to Dublin. We feel that perhaps all roads might lead to Athlone where most of the Kwango members live. We feel this initiative would be in tune with the Governments spatial strategy which almost no one understands and the few that do, avoid it.

No animals were harmed in the production of this review just as no expense was spared either. Your comments on a post card please to ‘The Kwango, NRAa HQ, Athlone Bypass, Middle Ireland’. We do not expect to be in a position to read your comments for some weeks as we are out for lunch with Big Ears.

Our mission statement – Ireland is different – let’s keep it that way!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Quaker's Dozen

A Quakers dozen of things I like about the Meeting for Worship

By way of Background. I am not a Quaker. I have however attended the Meetings for Worship every Sunday with few exceptions for the past 6 months. I have enjoyed the meetings and have benefitted from them. I do not know where my path in life will take me but for now and the foreseeable future, the Sunday Meeting for Worship is a very important part of my life. I look forward to it and try not to miss it. Here are but a few of the wonderful things I have found.

1. Silence – the meetings are held mostly in silence. I find this helps me reflect on God and find my true self. I have been trying to find a definition of God that works for me. The broad church of Quakerism admits many definitions of God. This very openness and tolerance suits what I have become over the past few decades and what I hope will develop over my remaining years. I love sacred music but increasingly the words of traditional hymns did not speak to where I found myself. I am at home with the quiet God of the cosmos, the God of peace, not the sometimes portrayed God in the Old Testament with flowing beard and mighty spear. That image has nothing to do with my spirituality. I still love to listen to sacred music, to Bach and Handel and to Gregorian chant, but the silence in worship suits me fine.

2. Centering down – after the first few minutes the meeting centers down. We breathe more easily and put aside the cares of the week. I find the cumulative and communal effect of individuals united in silence is often more powerful that a group of people praying together out loud.

3. I get a feeling of invisible companionship – mostly among the little community within the room, but also with the wider world – with my friends across the road in the Catholic Church and down the Road in the Church of Ireland with my family here and abroad, with friends alive and gone.

4. It helps me develop my relationship with Jesus Christ. In common with some modern Christians, some Quakers among them, I struggle with the notion of the divinity of Christ but have a huge love and affinity for Him. His message is even more compelling at the Meetings. His words no longer go over my head but through me. The Beatitudes have greater meaning and resonance. I think Jesus would be very comfortable in a Meeting for Worship. In an inexplicable way I feel closer to his word and example now than when I was a daily mass-going Catholic. Some Friends have a more traditional approach to the divinity of Christ, but each view is respected. Besides, the Meeting is not a place for theological debate but for affirmation of universally held views of charity and tolerance within a broad Christian tradition having respect for its continuing evolution over time and its specific meaning for the individual.

5. The meeting appeals my mystical side. During my eight years as a seminarian and a religious I occasionally felt touched by mysticism, by the sublime love and mystery that is not so much ‘out there’ but is really within all of us. This mysticism is available to all human beings no matter our education, our religion or lack of it. It allows me lose myself and my small worries in the infinite and eternal love of God however I might try and define him.

6. I enjoy the simple spray of flowers that are placed for every Meeting in the middle of the table. I believe God reveals himself especially in nature. This year I have discovered the beauty and power of nature with a new vigor. The harshness of the winter of 09 was replaced by the abundance and stunning beauty of the spring summer and fall of ’10. The colors seemed more vibrant to me, purples during the summer and pinks during early fall.

7. I listen out for the birds outside the beautiful simple windows who sing from the trees that surround the meeting hall. It may be a coincidence but this year I have felt closer to animals – to our two little dogs at home and to all animals generally. I have come to discover their broad range of emotions – affection, fear, vanity, jealousy and loyalty. The teachings and example of St Francis who spoke of ‘sister sun and brother moon’ have meant a lot. In the meeting I reflect on the togetherness and interdependence of all of God’s creation and the necessity to protect it as best we can.

8. I have enjoyed the readings. In every meeting someone is invited to introduce and recite a reading from the list that has been chosen a year in advance. The readings are an eclectic mixture of material from the Old and New Testament, from Quaker writers, from other religions and no religion. This years readings included excerpts from Sheenagh Pugh - her lovely poem – ‘Sometimes’; Teilhard to Chardin ‘Some day, after mastering the winds..; Gerard Manly Hopkins for ‘Thanks be to God for dappled things’; the Gospel of St Mark ‘ suffer little children..’; Nadine Starr, ‘if I had to live my life over again; William Henry Davies ‘what is life, if full of care..’; the Gospel of St. Matthew ‘ take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat..’; Siegfried Sassoon ‘Everybody sang’ and so on…

9. The meetings bring serenity. Serenity during the meeting and serenity in my life in the week after. I have been grateful to have this gift of serenity during these times of financial and social upheaval.

10. The most striking Quaker statement for me is – to find that of God in everyone. In the meetings I hear testimonies that are sometimes quite different to the way I would see life. Whereas before I would have tut tutted inwardly, now I am grateful to receive a testimony and a view that are different to mine. I don’t have to accept them, but being different they are often more valuable. I love the democracy involved. In a sense everyone’s view is as valid as everyone else’s and we avoid the hierarchical nature of many organised religions, with the joys and tribulations they bring. In all things there is charity. Being non judgmental lifts a load off my back.

11. The cup of tea at the end of the meeting. In some ways it is just as important as the hour in silence. For me the last supper was not about transubstantiation but about meeting together in friendship in memory of Christ and what he stood for. A cup of tea and a few biscuits are as effective as any last supper.

12. I like the intimacy of the meeting – Normally we have 30 to 50 people. I wish it could be five or six times that number, but certainly the thought of thousands would frighten me. I can understand thousands of people might meet for a pop concert or a game of football but not to pray. Each person in the meeting is special and is not just a number.

13. I value the testimony of the lived lives. I love meeting those who Friends who generally say little or nothing but their greeting or smile is better than a thousand words.

14. If it is to be, it up to me. There is no ‘us and them’. It’s not their religion I am following – it is mine. And the Meeting gives me a voice albeit silent to the urgings and call of the Spirit.

15. I feel the Spirit of God does actually touch the meeting, perhaps not all the time and not always directly but I get the reflected and refracted light through the rainbow prism of the meeting and the warmth of the love and service that the fellowship induces.

I know that is more than a dozen things, but then I am an accountant and famously accountants cannot count.

Cead Mile Failte, you're very welcome!

An Open Door

The Quaker Community in Monkstown – – is extending an invitation to us all to attend an Open Day on Saturday week next, 9th of October in the simple, classically designed meeting house in Monkstown Village.

People are invited to drop in for a few minutes for a chat and a cup of tea between 10.00 am and 5.00 pm. While the day is typically flexible there will be four small presentations, each different, at 10.00 am 12.30 pm 2.30pm and 4.30 pm. The informal talks/conversations will deal with Quaker issues, their history in Ireland, why one might become a Quaker (I am not a Quaker, yet, anyway) and so on.

I am thrilled to have been asked to share a few thoughts at the 2.30 pm slot on what I have gained from the Sunday morning meetings. I am stealing my own thunder by placing the notes of my presentation on my website under a separate post – A Quaker’s Dozen.

Everyone is more than welcome to come without commitment.

I can vouch for the tea and the biscuits!

Have a good week!


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Pope comes to town...

Benedict goes on tour while Ratzinger stays at home

A Papal visit of three halves

It seems undeniable that Pope Benedict in person is genuinely a nice man – as nice as a friendly granddad. He is tiny. Unlike his predecessor who was handsome and strong until his last years had charisma to burn, this Pontiff is mild and reticent. You feel he would be just as happy at home with a cup of cocoa and a book of theology. We learned that he offered his resignation from public life ten years ago, five years before his accession to the Papacy. His request was turned down – obviously.

On his tour to England we were happily not distracted by Ratzinger the theologian who can offend almost everyone at will – there is a long list- gays, women, Anglicans, Jews, Moslems and others.

It was a great visit by any measure and a credit to the organisers. It was a joy to see the buzz of young and old, the choristers, the schoolchildren, the babies, the great and the good, the ordinary and the average. The Scots and English gave him a great welcome – as is only right. He represents not only himself but a billion Catholics round the world.

But that welcome comes as no surprise. I have been travelling to the UK for over forty years and over 99% of my experiences have been positive. I have enjoyed the hospitality of the farmers in Cornwall, the city people in London, the Pubs and Clubs of Newcastle, the building sites of Manchester not to mention bad golf played on good golf courses in Scotland and rugby matches in Murrayfield.

On reflection it should not come as a surprise that one of the most accommodating races in the world should extend a hand of warmth and friendship to a Pope of German birth with a Roman postcode.

I felt the historic significance of the rapprochement. England had gone its own way for over five hundred years previously and frankly had not been nice to Catholics for much for the following four centuries. Happily that is now all past and is where all history should be kept, in the history books. My children saw nothing unusual in the Queen of England – the Defender of the faith – greeting the other defender of the faith.

There was genuine warmth in the embrace between the Pope and Archbishop Rowan Williams.

I felt a bit of nostalgia for the Catholic Church I left but still love andfor the visit of his processor John Paul II to Ireland in 1979. In the morning of the Papal Visit I walked to the Phoenix Park with my mother. In the afternoon I visited a home for abused girls in the Magdalene Laundry in Sean Mc Dermott Street where I made a weekly visit. The Street is one of the toughest in one of the toughest areas of Dublin. But on this day it was festooned with white and yellow flags. There was a great and palpable excitement as the Pope's motorcade came down the Street. There was a hope he might stop at the Parish Church and mark one of Ireland's great saints – Laurence O'Toole – who worked with the poorest of the poor in Dublin’s tenements and helped partially overcome the ravages of alcoholism which destroyed so many families.

The Pope’s car slowed down but did not stop. Later that evening we took the midnight train to Galway with the young girls who had found refuge in the Magdalene Laundry. These girls had been abused by their families and had found sanctuary in the Church. The reverse of the modern tale.

We arrived in Galway and walked out to the racetrack (In the West they do it differently). We woke in the early dawn cold and stiff. Fr Michael Cleary, who was a character, in more than one sense, got a sing song going and we soon began to feel better. 31 years on and I can still remember the excitement and fun. I bumped into my sister Margaret purely by chance. She had decided to come last minute with the scouts and we literally stumbled across each other among 100,000 other young people.
We arrived back to Sean McDermott Street later that evening. Normal business was soon resumed. I counted three burnt out cars beside the Church which still bore the bunting of the previous day.

The Church that John Paul II saw 31 years ago is vastly different to the one we now witness, struggling to cope with falling church attendances and the fallout from the sex crisis; I doubt if JP II would recognise the landscape.
One can only hope that the English and Scottish Churches will have a happier post papal experience. I am hopeful it can be. There are signs that the present pope is listening. He is promoting eco Christianity; he is promoting Teilhard de Chardin and JH Newman.

I am ever hopeful that the Church can find a way of coming to terms with gays, women priests, married priests, birth control, and inter faith dialogue. I am on the banks of the river hoping the barque of Peter may set sail in our direction. Stranger things have happened.

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Phenomenal Man

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Optimism in Science

Teilhard was born in 1881 deep in the heart of France and died in New York in 1955. He was ordained a Jesuit in 1911 and spent most of his priestly life as a scientist, dedicated to his love of paleontology, the science that looks at prehistoric life.

The Jesuits always impressed me. I spent a year at the lofty Gregorian Jesuit Seminary in Rome during the mid seventies. All of our philosophy studies were in Italian with the exception of Logic which was taught in Latin – ex lingua Latina. It was here I tripped over Wittgenstein and the slightly larger frame of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas was a great philosopher but understood that students would have to be comfortable while sitting and studying – he was famously quoted as saying, ‘the mind cannot absorb what the bottom cannot endure’

The Jesuits also fascinated me. How can it be that they spend huge resources of time and money in the training of a priest only for him to head off to China for over a decade to look at fossils? It seems such a grandiose gesture! It reveals a generous vision of life and erudition compared to the mercenary times we seem to endure today.

My late father lectured in what is now called the National College of Ireland – then called the College of Industrial Relations – (I prefer the old name, it seemed to have more meaning and bite)(Coincidentally supported by, you guessed it, the Jesuits.) Anyway, in the sixties in Dublin, he had a terrific up to date private library that stocked books by all sorts of mad people that included Marshall McLuhan, JK Galbraith, Keynes and of course Teilhard de Chardin.

One afternoon, out of boredom I started reading the Phenomenon of Man which had been published in 1955 shortly following his death. The Church authorities regarded his teaching as dangerous and so he was asked to leave his teaching post and not to publish any of his controversial writings. He obeyed. The Phenomenon of Man which had been written 1938-40, only saw the light of day in fifteen years later. The ‘Phenomenon of Man’ may have been inspired by his taking part in a team in 1926 that found traces of Peking Man. Peking Man dates back over half a million years. Peking Man was a ‘faber’ – a worker of stone and a controller of fire. I struggled to read the book then and I still do. But I am happy to rely on the summaries of others. Even the summaries had a big impact on me and fired my imagination.

Essentially the message of Teilhard is one of optimism, serenity and love. He did not see the theory of evolution threatening his faith in any way – quite the opposite. The more he discovered, the more he was in awe of the marvelous world which would yield up secrets only to suggest hundreds more.

He was more than a scientist. He was a poet in love with the universe and the God who created it. He was happy to be enveloped in a cosmic dance that started millions of years ago. In the constant evolution of the world he saw God’s hand ever more clearly. Matter evolved to become man and man in turn will evolve to become part of cosmic consciousness called the Noossphere where we will join in an eternal cosmic embrace of surrender and love.

Teilhard expresses it so much better:
‘Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire’

Someone should set the Phenomenon of Man to music. I suspect someone already has.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

John Henry Newman - hardly a Cardinal rule.

John Henry Newman

I celebrate the fact that the Catholic Church is choosing to beatify John Henry Newman despite some obvious difficulties:
1. He spent exactly half his life as an Anglican criticizing the Catholic Church and the Pope.
2. He was almost certainly gay, although he almost certainly remained celibate.
3. He denied he was a saint and wanted to avoid veneration. He went to the extreme measure of having his body buried in special soil that dissolved the body leaving no fragment of the body and theoretically rendering his canonization technically impossible.
4. The miracle attributed to him seems even by the Churches admission to be based on the flimsiest of evidence.
5. He regarded his time in Ireland as a waste forced to resign in the end, even though he laid the foundation to University College Dublin, a resounding success over the past century. He got little support from the Irish Catholic Bishops who were suspicious of his means and motives and he did not see eye to eye with Cardinal Cullen.
6. He felt lonely and isolated in the Catholic Church complaining that all his real friends were still Anglican
7. He had many rows with the Vatican Authorities who regarded his theology with great suspicion and he was blacklisted up to his rehabilitation by the incoming Pope Leo XIII only two years before he died. He did not enjoy a great relationship with the English Catholic Primate, Cardinal Manning..
8. His view that the Church was represented as much by the people as by the hierarchy was rebuffed by Church Authorities until the advent of Vatican II which is regarded by many as ‘Newman’s Council’.
9. He felt that conscience was to be obeyed above all and felt that the Church had become over reaching in its teaching and the infallibility of the Popes was being overstated

I believe that Newman is indeed a saint in laymen’s terms. He could be equally described as a Catholic or an Anglican saint. In any event I feel the differences between these two Churches are tiny compared to what unites them, even though they may choose not to see it that way.
I believe he was first and foremost a worker for civil rights. He fought long and hard and successfully for Catholics to be regarded as full citizens of Britain. Catholics today owe much to him.
I believe he was a great defender of the supreme court of conscience against those within and without the church who would choose to abuse us and pretend that conscience does not prevail.
I believe that there are many on all sides who would like to kidnap him for their own purpose, but if this has the effect of having people rediscover his original thoughts and writings, then all of this is good.
Very good indeed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Preaching to the converted

Preaching to the Converted

Most religious sermons and party political speeches are a waste of time. Most priests and politicians are preaching to the already converted. Their time would be better spent preaching to the unconverted, it would seem...

My late sister Kate lived in the quaint and beautiful rural city of Lincoln. The county of Lincoln is wide and large; where flat fertile farming land stretches out as far as the eye can see. I was reminded of the year I spent in Salamanca, Spain, a Cathedral city also surrounded by a vast plain – in its case the Mancha of Castile that also stretched into infinity...

I was struck time and again when approaching Lincoln along the road among the monotonous sleepy fields by the craggy crop of rocky hill that jumped out of the dull plain. The Romans had the bright idea of founding Lincoln on that outcrop of rock; the city in turn crowned by the proud towers of the Cathedral that predates the Reformation. Regularly while visiting Kate who lived a mere fifteen minute walk from the historic centre, I would slip out early on a Sunday morning while the rest of the family dozed and snored and attend the wonderful sung services in the cathedral where I and any wandering stranger were warmly welcomed and brought into the very heart of the cathedral beside the choir. The services reminded me of Mass in the Catholic Church pre Vatican II. It was very High Church with lots of smoky incense and fluffy white surplices.

One wet morning, it always seemed to rain on Sunday mornings, I took my seat in the ornate pew within the gallery. I heard one of the best sermons ever, and I have had to endure thousands of sermons over the years, mostly my own fault. The priest referred to the news which had broken in Lincoln the previous day, Saturday - the iconic department store was closing down after one hundred years in business. I had recently bought some garish shirts at half price in one of their continual sales. It would be the same if Clerys in Dublin or Harrods in London announced their demise. The store was more than a shop - it was part of the history and heritage of the City. The problem was precisely that - people regarded it fondly as part of their past – not their present, and nostalgia generally doesn’t put food on the table.

The preacher went on to say the department store had done all the right things. Or so it seemed. They got in the expensive consultants. The consultants after much time and expense suggested they talk to their customers. All extremely sensible, you might think. They got feedback from the customers, they again wrote and e mailed them and took into account their dwindling customers’ wishes. The problem with that approach is that they missed all the people who did not shop in the store, and increasingly they were fishing in an increasingly depleted pool. Instead of questioning the many who did not shop at the store they increasingly questioned those who did.

The preacher went on to say this was exactly the problem of the Anglican Church – their numbers were reducing all the time. The traditional response to ask the same group of people the same questions was not achieving any success.

Once in a generation – if we are lucky, we will discover a religious or political leader who has his finger on the pulse and connects with the public. For the rest –we are wasting our time, those sitting in the pews and those in the pulpits.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tony Blairs Journey

Tony Blair’s Journey – His recent autobiography

In the beginning I was a big fan of Tony Blair and what he stood for – like many others. I was excited about the possibilities of New Labour and did not mourn the passing of the harsh Maggie Thatcher years or the limping governments of John Major.

I felt that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. I felt it then and I feel it now. My worry from the start was not so much about its legitimacy – because you could honestly argue either way – but of its conduct and likely consequences. Living as we do in Dublin – a mere 100 miles away from Belfast – where for thirty years we watched sectarian hatred of almost medieval barbarity and ignorance with a mixture of dismay and disbelief – gives us perhaps a unique and privileged position to survey the follies of colonization and in particular its demise.

And so when Blair left office under a cloud it seemed as if a part of us died. Like Clinton, who also fell under a cloud while in office, Blair was a young man with lots to do and to offer. It seemed however as if his future lay behind him.

I bought the autobiography for a number of reasons. In the first instance all the profits go to the cause of the soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Tony Blair (TB) I do not believe they have lost their lives or suffered their injuries in vain. I think they have fought to make this world a safer place. I have huge respect for people who died to save my life or my freedom. I have always contributed to the poppy days in Dublin.

I enjoyed the book immensely. It is the most candid autobiography I have ever read. It is also one of the best written. It has all the hallmarks of someone who spent a lot of time and thought marshalling his ideas. He gives great insights into British and international figures and the background to so many world events.

I was captivated by its honesty. Of course it is told from one person’s point of view (it cannot be other!). He argues his beliefs and actions with passion and reason and shares with us his continuing doubts on so many issues. The account is truly human.

Above all, I enjoyed the ideas. I particularly enjoyed his description of how New Labour was conceived and developed. I had forgotten the agenda for change it brought in. It is interesting that Blair suggests that Labour will have to revisit the well of New Labour if it is win an election again. I found the section on Northern Ireland fascinating, particularly the chapter on the Good Friday Agreement.

While I don’t agree with much of what he has to say about Iraq, I nevertheless was impressed by his presentation of his point of view. In a world where we suffer from the new tyranny of the press it is interesting to be afforded a different side of things, albeit necessarily a personal side.

Anyone who is interested in British or World politics should read this book. It should be compulsory reading for all students of politics. It is interesting and provocative about where we should go from now. For sheer readability it is impossible to better Alan Clarkes Dairies, but for a thought provoking and fascinating account of one man and the world he inhabited 1997 – 2007, it is unlikely to be ever improved on.. Everyone should read it, particularly his critics!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Back to school in Clare

Five things I liked most about the 2010 Merriman School in Ennis


I had never been at a summer school of any description, ever. I did not know what to expect exactly in terms of content, company or context. I liked the title: Faith: Beyond Belief? It reflected my personal struggle this year to find intellectual meaning and spiritual clarity. 2010 has been a year prefaced by a thorough reading of the ‘The God delusion’ by Richard Dawkins and mellowed by the discovery of Quaker philosophy, worship and life. It been littered in between with Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama and daily Blogs. It has been a year of acceptance that after many happy years together that the Catholic Church and I would go our separate ways. The parting has been tinged with sadness and serenity, mellow joy mixed with melancholy. The parting has been on good terms. We still meet for family occasions. What divides us is dwarfed by what unites us, above all a connection with a spirituality and custom that stretches back two thousand years to Christ and a further two thousand years beyond that again.

2010 has also been a year of rediscovering long lost and even subliminal pleasures that were sacrificed to the militaristic spiritual life of the Legion of Christ and the joys and cares of a professional career and a middle age given to rearing a young family. I have been listening to the Irish language for the love of it. I have sat in our garden and enjoyed our flowers for the first time in 30 years. I have feasted on classical music on Lyric FM and BBC 3. I have plans to visit the monasteries of Ireland and to continue on my path along the Camino de Santiago. Against this colorful and confusing tapestry, a trip to Ennis seemed a logical leit motif.

Here are a few of my favorite things….

David and Mick Hanly
I remembered David from Morning Ireland – his distinctive gravelly voice keeping me company on my way along the Merrion Road into work in Dublin 2. I had not realized that David had scripted the iconic radio shows, the Kennedys of Castle Ross and the Glen Abbey Show and the much acclaimed Riordans. His brother Mick is an accomplished singer and songwriter. Mick reminded me of Christy Moore. This was their first time together performing on a single stage. I doubt and hope it will be their last! There was terrific chemistry and authenticity.

The brothers had grown up in Limerick in the fifties and sixties. For me, theirs was a Limerick far more human and multicolored than Frank McCourt’s monochromic and single dimensional Limerick of Angela’s Ashes. It was a Limerick of pathos and humour.
David lavished us with stories of behind the stage and screen and told us how he had failed to turn up not once but twice for appointments with Joan Fontaine, sister of Olivia de Havilland. He also recounted how gracious Ella Fitzgerald was in her granting an interview for the Glen Abbey Show and how she understandably she mistook his name for Glen (as in the Glen Abbey Show...).
I would certainly go to a show of theirs. I thought Mick was equally as good as the wonderful Christy Moore and perhaps more refreshing because of the lack of hype and exposure.

They went a half an hour over their allotted time and no one complained about being late for lunch.

Father Kevin Hegarty

Father Kevin gave a talk that was both prophetic and moving to a packed audience in the Glor Theatre. Father Kevin quipped how no one had ever become famous for being editor of Indecon, the official organ of the Irish Catholic Bishops, but he alone had become famous for being sacked from the job back in 1993. Ever since he has been a quiet thorn in the side of the hierarchy. He is the most difficult of all priests for the hierarchy to manage – he is theologically sound but independent on social and pastoral matters. By posting him to the most remote parish in Ireland – that of Erris in Co. Mayo - they may have hoped we would never hear from him. Like the prophets of old, his testimony will simply not go away.

He spoke for over an hour with honesty and integrity, with vulnerability and searing humanity. He spoke of a church where the hierarchy was simply unable to emotionally connect with the flock, of a structure that was perhaps beyond change or reform in the near future. He thought there would be change, but not perhaps in his lifetime. Father Kevin is only 50 or so.

He reminded me of the Prophets of the Old Testament – telling the awkward truths without concern for their own career or promotion. He was like a voice that cried in the wilderness. It took the women in the audience to ask the obvious questions we could not bring ourselves to ask – in a world where we try and avoid pain and discomfort, why does he plough on? Why does he not get married? Why does he stay with a church with so many faults? By way of response all he could honestly offer was the comment that he could not rule anything out in the future but for now he did not see a change in the direction of his life. He explained how he drew his strength and inspiration from the people he served. Not one person in the room could have doubted him.

The Irish Language

There were many opportunities to brush up on my schoolboy Irish. Nearly all of the announcements were in the two languages. Every morning at 10.00 there was the choice of a talk in Irish or English.

I only braved one talk. It was given by a friend who is also a Friend – Irene Ni Mhaille – on the topic of the future of the Irish Church in Ireland. Irene had worked as a missionary in Nigeria before leaving the Order and spending many years in Ireland teaching religion to an ever more secular youth. She felt a lot of the problems of the Church go right back to the Emperor Constantine and his decision to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire and thereby wed the Church forever to the political and financial upper classes. The Church of Christ’s time was of the meek and the poor, not the powerful and the privileged. I was thrilled to find I understood most of what she said.

To make the world even smaller, I discovered that Irene is a native Irish speaker from Rosmuc, the neighboring parish to Camus where I had spent three summers and one spring in the early sixties.

I love listening to native Irish speakers. I love the Irish language and its very particular thought pattern. The simple phrase I am hungry – in French – j’ai faim – in Spanish tengo hambre – compares with the Irish ‘ta ocras orm’ – there is hunger on me. It is this phrasing that makes irish so different and attractive and sounds a chord in our Celtic soul. Unfortunately many well meaning people are doing their best to speak a mongrel Irish and for example saying the equivalent of ‘ta me ocrasach- - literally I am hungry which destroys the natural syntax. I listen to Radio Na Gaeltachta and watch TG4 with pleasure when native Irish speakers are in full flow and speaking a language that has charm and rhythm. I have to turn off the radio or TV when some well meaning person from Dublin 4 who has assiduously studied Irish at a summer college jabbers on in a form of Irish/English mongrelize that murders both languages.

Some enthusiasts of Irish defend this mutilation of the language on the basis that half a loaf s better than no bread. Of course a half a loaf is better. But the comparison is misplaced. Is it better to listen to listen to Handel and Mozart just a ‘little out of key’ or to sit in silken? Give me silence every day.

I feel grateful to many in Gael Linn and Conrad Na Gaeilge who labored hard over many years to preserve Irish for me and others. It is because of their hard work I can still enjoy the distinctive sound and syntax. I think we should have a national rethink of our relationship with our language to preserve its beauty rather than oversee its vivisection.

To end on a positive note, it was wonderful to listen to the pleasant voice of the Chairman, Liam O Dochartaigh who spoke both languages with equal versatility and whose good humor was infectious. I was reminded of Oliver Goldsmith description of the village schoolmaster, ‘the more they looked, the more their wonder grew, how one small could carry all he knew’!

The Poets – Aine Ui Fhoghlu and Martin Coady

We took a well earned and necessary break from Philosophy and Religion every day at noon to listen to poetry. On Thursday we listened to the poetry of Aine Ui Fhoghlu. She made the excellent decision to read the translation in English first, which helped us to understand and appreciate the Irish texts. She was attractive and charming. I had not met many people from the tiny Gaeltacht of Rinn in Waterford, perhaps the most vulnerable of the Gaeltacht s. My favorite poem was a humorous story about the time she and school friends were taken to accident and emergency in a Donegal hospital to be asked for their ‘real names’. I suppose that at least it refers to a time when there was A and E around the country. After the session I thanked her and suggested she might seriously consider writing some poems in English so as to expose her work to a wider audience.

The following day at noon we were treated to poems read by Martin Coady. In some ways he had the advantage of being longer on the planet – Martin was in his late sixties I guess, while Aine still has a three at the start of her age, I reckon. With age comes wrinkles, but also comes deeper philosophy and better insights.

Martin is retired from teaching and has spent all his life happily in Carrick on Suir where he knows literally hundreds of town’s people, in some cases going back many generations. He feels that the fact that the town is built at the tidal point of the river gives it extra interest and importance. He spoke of the many afternoons spent on the river. As a young man he fished, but now that he has mellowed into old age, he and the fish ‘have come to an understanding’

One haunting poem told of how a mendicant friar who lived on the river was asked to locate a young girl who was lost for some days, rightly presumed drowned and how he found the little child in a bend in the river.

Martin’s most attractive piece perhaps dealt with a nun he had visited in Paris. As a very young woman she had followed the example of a half dozen girls from the town who over the years had taken the unusual and unexpected choice of joining a French order that ministered to women prisoners in Paris. These nuns lived in the prisons and shared the terrible conditions. These innocent nuns were much loved by the women prisoners. I cannot do justice to the story of the afternoon he spent in Paris with this aging nun, recognized and welcomed alike by the Parisian ladies of the night and the gendarmerie. Theirs were amazing lives spent in extraordinary conditions, far from home and family.

It both cases it was a real privilege to hear from the poets who had written the poems. If poems are meant to be heard rather than read, maybe we should add they should be read by their creators….

The town of Ennis in all its colors

Every evening at 5.00 pm we were treated to a tour of Ennis by Brian O Dalaigh who is a retired school teacher and an historian. Together with my cousin Norman who arrived on Friday at midday we joined Brian for two excellent tours of this interesting town. Our group must have numbered over fifty and constituted a traffic hazard as we made our way around town. We were spoiled by the lovely weather. Ennis comes from the word Inis in Irish meaning Island. The river Fergus weaves its way around the town which is steeped in history that goes back over 1,000 years and enjoys the combination of the religious and the profane. The Cathedral is well worth a visit and the Franciscan Friary is being refurbished. I just hope we don’t run out of money before its finished. We spotted De Valera’s state car down a lane, big and black and impressive in a way that even top of the range cars fail today.

Ennis is a pleasant town. It seems to have escaped the worst ravages of the Celtic Tiger on the way in and on the way out. Because I got lost on average once a day, I got to see much more of Ennis than I should have. I was happy to miss the ‘for sale’ signs that festoon so many of our towns and villages. There were no ghost estates of half built houses.

Like any town, it fills up the weekend with young people and the pubs become loud and busy. We found it heard to find a traditional pub with quiet corners and comfortable seats that did not have music blaring from it. On Friday evening we drove aimlessly out of town looking for a place where we might enjoy a quiet pint. All we could find was a lounge on an industrial estate on the outskirts of town taken straight from an American road movie. A three piece band played largely to themselves while sad men gazed into lonely pints and ladies of a certain age smoked in the awning outside and danced together to the tunes they liked. It was beyond Father Ted. Needless to say the following night we discovered another end of the town that would have been perfect, but unfortunately we were heading back at 10.30pm after the last talk of Saturday evening.

Post script

After thought provoking presentations by Gina Menzies, a lady theologian, and Ann James, a humanist, on Saturday evening we pointed the car home. We enjoyed the excellent road that links Ennis to Limerick and even more the tunnel under the Shannon that cuts 30 minutes off the journey. We stopped for 'afternoon tea' in Racket Hall just outside Nenagh around 1.00 a.m. in keeping with our alternative dining habits.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Party Political Broadcast on behalf of LID

Party Political Broadcast on behalf of LID (Liberal Irish Democrats)

We, in the newly formed party LID, appeal to all debt fearing people living in the Republic of Ireland or abroad in tax havens to support our Party at the forthcoming General Election. Here are our policies and promises

1. If elected we will rename the general election. Hence forward it will be called the Election of Generals. We realize the plain people of Ireland are looking for Generals, for leaders in thought and action.
2. Our lovely lady candidates will be chosen only from model agencies and from the Rose of Tralee pageant. In line with our political partners in Italy we wish only attractive lady candidates to grace our TV screens. Life is tough enough we feel without having to watch ugly politicians.
3. We will cancel all foreign debt immediately. We will write a polite but firm note to the Germans by way of apology.
4. Similarly we will cancel all bank debt with immediate effect. Of course we feel sorry for savers, but if they cannot be bothered spending money then they will hardly miss it.
5. We will cancel all unemployment. With immediate effect all people without a job will report to their local county council with a shovel and will be given jobs around the area.
6. In the words of the Gospel ‘All potholes will be filled in, all gardens will be tidied, all graffiti will be removed’.
7. Overseas students of the English language will be welcomed and put up in subsidized accommodation in our surplus hotels.
8. Nama will be closed down over a period of three weeks. Everything it owns will be sold off between now and Christmas.
9. The Department of Happy Marriages will ban divorce and outlaw affairs, especially Foreign Affairs, which will be overseen by the department of the same name.
10. The Irish language will be banned in public unless people can show they can speak it properly. The Gaeltacht will be closed down officially next spring and the Bean a ti will be encouraged to take in Chinese students.
11. Every garden will have to possess a vegetable patch on pain of being forced to eat fast food takeaways.
12. The department of Health will be closed down. No one will actually notice for a few months but the savings will come in handy immediately.
13. The Department for family names will outlaw the cruel practice of calling children ‘Bertie’.
14. We will consider becoming an overseas province of China if they promise to give us lots of money like the Europeans – we will also consider overtures from the USA, Australia, Canada and any other country which still has some money.
15. We will leave the EU before they leave us, probably by summer next. We will still have good relations with people we fancy, the French above all. Europe will hardly miss us. We won’t miss them. The Eurovision is overrated as is European Football, Euro Disney, Euro star and Euro.
16. We will consider proposing Sarah Palin as our Presidential Candidate. We feel she would be the perfect person. She is after all very pretty. And when she is not keeping an eye on the Russians from her kitchen in Alaska, she can keep an eye on the British from the Aras (The President’s Residence in the Phoenix Park)
17. We will cancel the tourist/travel tax immediately and replace it with tourist stamps that can be redeemed at any hotel or restaurant.
18. In a drive to reduce imports we will ban the import of wine and give every family a home brew kit and fire extinguisher.
19. To prepare for Global Warming we will issue every family in low lying areas a canoe and a flare.
20. All national hospitals will be shut down and local hospitals will be given extra resources
21. All prisons will be shut down. All prisoners will be made do community service instead of serving time in prison. Dangerous prisoners will be sent to Spike Island where they will have to cook and wash for themselves.
22. We will introduce legislation to force politicians to tell us what they do in their spare time. This should lift the lid on everything. It’s not for nothing that our party is called LID and our members are called LIDERS (for pronunciation imagine you are in Spain Or Greece on holidays with Shirley Valentine).
23. Our Party was formed from the very brightest young minds in the other political parties. If our party is small it speaks volumes about the others
24. Vote for LID. Vote early and vote often!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Whither the Irish Catholic Church?

Sallynoggin Church viewed from Glenageary Avenue.

We watched an interesting program last night on RTE on the state of the Irish Church. The program was well made and the participants were excellent. The only problem was that it lasted only an hour when three hours would not have been sufficient. As a result we got mostly soundbites when we might have hoped for more reflection and analysis.

All participants, lay and clergy, were agreed that the Church must change. And no doubt it will. The problem for many Catholics liberal and conservative is what will it turn into? There would appear to be two possibilities with very little possibility of a middle way.

The first would see the Church shrinking to a size perhaps less than 10 per cent of what it is now. Parishes would be amalgamated and would follow demographically what has happened to a certain extent the Catholic Church on the Continent and the Anglican Church in UK. It would become more conservative and hold to its exclusion of women in the priesthood and the admittance of gays as full members of the Church. It would be theologically tight and would not suffer the doubts of many individuals and religions. It would no longer be the religion of the masses except perhaps in some emerging countries of the third world.

The other possibility is that the Catholic Church effectively converts to Protestantism - it embraces a more democratic process, welcomes women as priests, Bishop's and perhaps as Popes. Why not? It dumps clericalism. It embraces gays. It comes to terms with birth control. It rediscovers Vatican 2 and turns its back on the last hundred years of theological conservatism.

It ends up where many Protestant denominations are today.

The question for people like me is ' why wait?' Over recent weeks I have been learning about the Society of Friends and they seem to be where I would wish the Catholic Church to arrive. It seems of little import whether people leave and wait for the Catholic Church to arrive, or stay with the Church and help it along the road. An equally reasoned argument can be made for both stances. At the end we can only obey our conscience as best informed.

I believe at the end of the day religion is not about numbers or power but about people and something we try to define as God as we stumble out of darkness towards the light in all humility.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Istanbul - where East meets West

I spent a very short but memorable night in Istanbul last summer. I was returning to Dublin from Antalya where I had been attending an international conference of Amnesty International as one of Ireland's three representatives.

Our initial expereinces in travelling to Antalya should have prepared us. Turkish Airlines must be the nicest people to fly with but also one of the most seemingly unpunctual - and yet everything gets done in a slow, courteous and measured way. It reminds me of the West of Ireland in the fifties. I can never see a merger with time-table obsessed Ryanair

We arrived in Istanbul 'only' an hour late. A US colleague who was flying onward to Washington was beginning to hyper ventilate. But he got there , in the end. I did not know what to hope or expect before arriving in Turkey. During the week in Antalya I had been struck by the genuine hospitality of the people. They seemed untarnished by the harshness of commercialism or even their own precarious careers in the most volatile of industries - tourism.

We arrived at our modest two and a half star hotel in the centre of Istanbul beside the blue mosque just as the lazy languid light was fading in the soft blue sky. We quickly unpacked and rushed to the rooftop restaurant in time to see the sun go down and take a few photos of the mosque beside us. We heard the call to prayer as we sipped a gentle gin and tonic. The sacred and the profane seemed to mix serenely.

Istanbul was a revelation. I found it as Mediterranean as Nice or Barcelona but with the added zest of the Middle East. The scents and the perfumes were excitingly exotic. I was reminded me of the heady giddiness of seeing Paris for the first time in 1968. We wandered through the streets after midnight feeling totally safe and unthreatened. Our female colleague was at ease and joined us in buying attractive souvenirs that were ridiculously cheap.

Maybe they have got the balance right in Turkey between the religion and the state. I was a supporter of Turkey joining the EU before I set foot in the country. Having mets i's people I am one hundred percent convinced it is the right thing. If Israel can take part in the Eurovision why cannot Turkey join the EU? People point out to her human rights past. I lived in Spain less than forty years ago in the time of Franco and things were not great. In neighbouring Portugal things were not much better. They are now leading lights in the battle for human rights.

I also believe in the value of a secular state. I applaud the decision of the French to ban the burkah. I believe it is a medieval form of oppression on women - particularly on the women who defend it. While I believe in 'live and let live' we have to defend certain fundamentals.

The vast majority of Muslims are decent honorable people - as are the majority Christan's and Hindus. What has been done in their names has not always been the best. One of the big challenges of the modern world is to help religions reconcile with the founder's at times conflicting messages and interpet their charism in the light of modern science and insight.

I was truly excited by Istanbul and its people. I would love to go back. I can understand why people who have bought holiday homes in Turkey return every year. I hope we can support the Turks in their wish to come closer to the West - it's clearly in their interest - it is even more in ours.