Not so much looking down as across..

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.