Not so much looking down as across..

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

An 'Oatie' at last

Tonight I received a call I had been half hoping for, half dreading, to tell me I had been accepted into the Quakers, or to give 'us' (notice the 'us 'now!) our correct title The Religious Society of Friends. My initial feeling is one of delight and peace, happiness and contentment.

I am proud to be numbered in a Group that has a reputation for honesty and integrity, humility and welcome, simple living and pacifism, sobriety and good  naturedness, hard work and concern for nature. I may even pick up some of these virtues myself en route.

It is true that many people of other religions and none share these virtues. My admiration for the work of Catholic Orders grows by the day. Some of the most admirable people I have met are agnostics or atheists. But I feel at home in the Quaker world.

There is no real need to become a Quaker or indeed any pressure either. The only two immediate advantages I can immediately think of, are that I can now sit on certain committees (please God, if there is a God), I won't be invited and I can be buried in a Quaker Graveyard and my current plan is for my ashes to end up in a jar in a Catholic cemetry overlooking the sea in Santiago del Teide in Tenerife.

I suppose the real reason is to show commitment to a Group of wonderful people. 'Is ar scath a cheile a mhaireann na daoine' - if my Irish does not fail me, 'we get through life with the help of others'.

I am now going to descend from my freezing office in the attic where my knees have seized up and celebrate with a glass of tea and a cup of wine.

The better half refers to Quakers as 'Oaties' and I guess she will be happy she now has an Oatie in the family.

I am not sure what the dogs will make of it.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Scribani Conference on Re-imgining imprisonment in Europe

And the old triangle
Went jingle jangle
All along the banks
Of the Royal Canal

Memories of the recent (September 5th to 7th) conference on Prisons in Trinity College Dublin

1.       The Conference was excellently conceived, organised and financed by the Jesuits through their local Faith and Justice centre in Dublin and through their international arm, The Escribani Movement (named after a seventeenth century Flemish Jesuit who was first head of the University of Antwerp). The Escribani Conferences are held every two years in different parts of Europe on issues of Faith and Justice. Trinity was a perfect location for the conference which ran smoothly. The National Gallery of Ireland hosted a reception on the first night with a private showing of the painting ‘The Betrayal of Jesus’ by Caravaggio, which had been donated by the Jesuits (having hung anonymously on their refectory wall for over fifty years).

2.       There were approx. 250 people attending the conference drawn mainly from academic and social services backgrounds, as well as prison staff and Governors. Quaker Friends were well represented. I met H H who seemed to know everyone and who proceeded to introduce me to everyone. It was she who suggested I make a report to Monkstown Meeting even though I attended the Conference in purely a personal capacity albeit encouraged by the interest Friends have traditionally shown for prisoners down the ages. I was impressed by the opening address given by Juliet Lyon CBE, Director Prison Reform Trust UK and who is of Quaker background.

3.       Fr. Peter McVerry SJ (well known in Dublin for his excellent work spanning forty years with homeless youths) spoke on the opening night with characteristic compassion, passion and wisdom. He spoke of the sad side of prison. Nearly all of the young male prison population have been victims of crime long before they became criminals. He painted a dismal picture of young men entering often clean and coming out drug addicts. Entering alone yet exiting members of gangs and condemned t o a life of continuing crime. It did not make for easy listening to but set one of the tones of the conference.

4.       Over the course of the following two days I attended as much as I could, subject to some family and Quaker commitments, and took notes when not suffering from too little or in most cases too much caffeine from the numerous coffee breaks. Here are some of my recollections:

5.       Some statistics: The Irish prison population has increased from 65 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1997 to currently 100 per 100,000, roughly the EU average, compared with UK 150 (bronze medal), Russia 400 (Silver Medal) and US 550 (Gold Medal). Even in three years 2009-2012, the Irish prison population has increased from 3,500 to 4,500. Finland over the same period has seen its number drop from over 100 to currently 63 per 100,000.

6.       Lies, damned lies... Crime has been rising in all developed countries irrespective of increased prison population. The conclusion is that for most criminals prison is not a realistic deterrent nor is it rehabilitative. Prison has become a way of dealing with the underclass particularly in USA and UK rather than the underlying issues.

7.       Prison involves an underlying paradox. How to avoid crime? Stable employment, stable family ties and relationship, sense of worth. Prison uniquely deprives prisoners of all three.

8.       Prison was imagined by well-wishing Christian 150 years ago as an improvement over what was there or not there. Christians now have to reimagine new solutions.

9.       Once a criminal. Always a criminal. Need it be so? The criminal is taught in no uncertain manner he is a criminal (mostly ‘he’ as 85% of prisoners are males and mostly 18 – 30) – from the trial to sentencing, to prison, to return to society. There should be an effort to rehabilitate people. In France the prisoner is given a certificate. It could be imagined as a rebaptism – a washing clean, a ceremony in public acknowledging the person has served their time and repaid their debt to society. Do Friends have a role here?

10.   Big is bad. We know that generally holds for almost every everything. It certainly applies to prisons. Big prisons are more impersonal and give rise to bigger security risks.

11.   Local is good. Nearly all the experts agree that having prisoners near home and family is a good thing for prisoners and improves their chances of not reoffending.

12.   Private or public? There are arguments for both. However the real problem is that prisons have become an industry and ‘market speak’ has become commonplace. It suits the market that there are more people in prison serving longer sentences. Think of the prisons as hotels and you get the idea – higher occupancy and longer stay give rise to higher profits. The good of society or the prisoners does not fit into the equation.

13.   In a refreshing improvement in the UK they encouraged police to be judged not on the many young people they managed to get into prison but on the many they kept out. Clearly politics has a lot to do with it.

14.   Society is to  blame. In a sense, as readers we get the papers we buy and as voters the politicians we elect – and so in a sense we get the prisons we deserve. Society needs to change if prisons are to change.

15.   Do people want protection or punishment? Glib media coverage might suggest punishment while more in depth studies show that the public want protection. Be careful of what surveys tell you. Who is funding and directing studies and what financial interest do they have in the outcomes?

16.   The Judiciary. On one hand they have a hard job. They can only implement the laws that exist. That said they do have a fair amount of discretion. They are not helped by a sensationalist press that is right wing and plays on public fears. On the other hand the judiciary are often seen as living in their own little world.

17.   Nearly all of the experts world-wide agree that prisons in general are not working and the problem is getting worse. Solution? We need to reimagine prisons. It is not a matter of tinkering at the edges but reforming from the centre. Have we the social and political courage?

18.   Restorative justice. This theme close to Quaker hearts got mention on the third day. We met some excellent volunteers from U Casadh ( as in U-turn) and Treo based down the country. They help with prisoners especially on release which is a time of huge challenges for the prisoner. Many prisoners leave prison with the clothes uncleaned since they  entered,  with only  the price of a bus fare into the centre of a city which may not be theirs, often homeless, often suffering from mental health issues and often exposed to the only life available – a life of continued crime.

19.   A memorable quote ‘ the only social service in Ireland for which there is no waiting list is the Irish prison system’….

Where next? I met a charismatic retired couple – I and D who run activities in prisons including a book club and  I gave them my details. Let’s see what develops. I will keep an eye on the excellent charities of U Casadh and Treo also.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Dear Mother Earth, Dear me.

What right have we
To screw the world?
And leave it waste
For other beings
Those yet to come
And those aborted
By our blind and senseless

Come nurture, harbor
And restore
Create, enhance, enrapture,
And safeguard.

Living less that others
Get the chance
To live at all.
Wasting less and leaving more
Why not toil to keep this world ?

One of millions
Yet the only one
That's home and core
To man and God
As best we know.

It's worth the candle
Let's trim the wick
Light up the world
For slow and quick.

We do not own
We simply borrow
A day, a breath
A house, a home.
Children come
And parents go.

The grave or cask
Our resting place
No rent or rates
Water charges or council tax
No views to sea
No noisy neighbors
Just the quiet chill
Of serenity
In the cypress bound
Local cemetery.

We work and toil.
We bake and boil
No word with love
Ever lost or stolen

Spring in Powerscourt

I spent the lovely April day
Examining a cloud from May
It danced and glided cross the sky
It left and didn't say goodbye.

That's the thing with clouds I heard
They take their leave without a word
But just as quietly they wander in
And frame the blue with smile and grin.

I know there's times they're cold and blowy
The winter clouds are white and snowy
But April clouds are a different lot
Reminding us of all we've got

The busy birdsong hymns the meadow
Above green fields and beyond the hedgerow
Foals and horses silky haired
Happily chomp the springtime fare.

Good to be alive and good to see
The annual miracle for you and me
Despite the crisis and the woe
Nature bursts forth like times before

Flying out

The sleepy fliers
Gently snore
Six miles above
The ocean floor.

The harried crew
Smile and toil
Up the aisles
Of this metal coil.

The lady's had
too much to drink
She's downing gins
As down a sink.

The guilty couple
Holding hands
They're Cheating twice
As love demands.

The rocks and cliffs
Way Down below
The soft white surf
Does brightly glow.

Today I journey
All alone
Above the clouds
So far from home.

What awaits
I do not know
This is my life
But not my show.

It's good to travel
For the soul
To find oneself
Becoming whole


Bow wow

Little puppy, you're so happy
Waggy tail, so fun and bouncy
Loyal, cheerful and excusing
Curious, playful and amusing.

Innocent eyes and busy teeth
Tear away at pillow and sheet.
Nothing's sacred, nothing's safe
Happy at play and happy to meet.

The world seems young and fun again
The tv news drones on and on
Not a care in the world
You're my special girl.

Tenerife sunset

I watch the waves
As in a haze
Enjoy the spray
At end of day.
Soak up the surf
Enjoy the surge
A healing balm
A mental purge.
The swell comes roaring
Only to retreat
And ebb with flow
Where the white waters meet.

And so our lives both ebb and flow
Scaling heights then file below
The sea of life will throw us a line
If not at once, then in it's own time

Close to heaven



Thoughts on an airplane flight


The farmer in heaven

Has ploughed the white fields

Of fluffy clouds

The bobbly clouds

Straight in serried furrows

Porous cover the sea and land

Lying down below, below

And so this miracle of man

And science, unbelievably

Races just below heaven

And far above earth


The early flight now takes it's toll

And fellow travellers doze and curl

In Foetal balls

Both pretty girls with hair in buns

And eyes made heavy with lashes

And golden bodies

From the Canarian sun

And strong limbed youths

With new tattoos

Lie half asleep

Like helpless babes.


The safest way to travel, we learn,

Hung half way between earth and sky


Overworked and underpaid for what they do

At times annoying but mostly patient crew

Go up and down the tiny aisle

And cramped as crabs

Caught in summer buckets

They toil to and fro

Administer to high and low


The youthful parents

Struggle with the crying babies

The silver haired

Perhaps forget that once they too

Were those couples

Who scrimped and saved

To carve a special fortnight

In the sun, away from rain

Escape awhile from sapping news

That keeps repeating on the loop

The news that never ends

Rarely lifts our exhausted senses


And on and on

The white fields run

Above the earth

Below the sun

Like heavy snow

Untouched by man

No footprints on the arctic scape

That runs for miles and miles

From here to infinity

From now to eternity
Leadership and other thoughts, August 2012
He had the gift
We felt the lift
Smiling as you met
Laughing as we left
Time for only you alone
For in that moment
You were the only one
It was simply you and him
How was it that you felt
Did resistance melt?
It may have been a spell
No one could really tell
But no one cared
And no one spared
Their joyful giving
For the cause was living
Tired but happy fools perhaps
Ecstasy and agony
Mattered not a bit
Content to serve
A cause bigger than ourselves
Carpe Diem!
Seize the day, squeeze it dry
Drink the sun while it’s high
Smell the beans, enjoy the taste
Grasp the moment, none to waste.
Embrace the person, next to you
Give one last hug, it might be true
You can save your money, but not your time
I may be poor but the ‘now’ is mine
For money blinds and dulls the sight
Looking the wrong way with all it's might
I've got today, that's all maybe
I’ve got you, that’s enough for me
Joyce’s regret
The startling clouds
All black and gold
Sit on the Dublin Hills
They threaten and give joy
What holds him back
From seeing Dublin Bay again?
Written in his heart
Strangled by strange pride
The passing years build up the wall
And lower the rampart floor
A virtue is fashioned needlessly
Quietly at night the familiar  calls
Of sea gull and of cormorant
Gone forever the three steeples
Of Glasthule and Dun Laoghaire
The handsome granite piers
Hewn from Dalkey quarry
And all the while the clouds bank up
Layer by layer over Sandymount Strand
Gone and gone is Dun Leary of the soul
A bitter price for artistic pride
The August evening sun peeps above
And hugs the gentle waters
Licking handsome terraced houses
Keeping watch over a changing sea
Ireland of his youth
Dublin of his dreams
Now but the artists palette
In a coast less land
Early hint of autumn in Churchtown, Dublin 14
Sitting here in the shade
Of the spreading tree
In leafy Castle Park
Car door and windows open
A gentle breeze
Rustles the leaves
Beneath the pale blue china sky
A warming sun
Full of August promise
The first few leaves
Of the early Irish autumn
Scurry along the pavement
Like playful schoolboys
Hurrying nowhere in particular
With carefree insouciance
And joyful innocence.
This magic  moment
Only came to be
Through a haircut
For an aging lady
Of almost ninety three
Confused of days and hours
Bravely facing loss of powers
The common fate of missing
The early death of friends
The nether coin side
Of the doubtful blessing
Of advanced old age.
Is how we live
The path to how we age?
And do we die
To live again?
In that same style
With little parts
That echo God
Whatever that may mean
A pigeon calls
In Castle Park
In trees above
The handsome homes
And gleaming cars
A man with silver hair
Cleans clubs with care
And sounds of grass being cut
Are punctured by the Angelus bell
From Churchtown church
Midday sounds
There is sleepy sunny peace around
While hair is cut
And ladies prolong their style

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Lord's Prayer - Pater Noster

The Lord’s Prayer – Pater Noster - One

Our father who art in heaven,
And above and below
And within and without
Father, brother, mother, sister
Always was and always is

Hallowed be thy name
Thank you for the miracle of being
Thank you for the cup half filled
Enjoying that what is
Not mourning that what might have been
Or never was
We lift our cups half full
In grateful wonder
To celebrate life
In humble awe of
What is

Thy kingdom come
Heralded by many through the ages
And to this day
With many Princes
Chief of whom
Is Jesus Christ
The anointed one
Who leads the way to you
Along the lowly joyful paths
And through the narrow door
Where all are welcome
By you God who are shepherd to every flock
Who welcome all
For all are called
And most are chosen

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Marie Colvin Remembered

Parish Church, Louisburg, County Mayo, December 2011. On tour with Claire.

Speaking Truth to Power – Marie Colvin remembered

Marie Colvin’s life will not have been in vain if we can do something to save the people of Homs in Syria who, while we drink our cappuccino or walk our dog, are being slaughtered on our watch.

We thought that after the Holocaust mankind would have learned to turn away from inhumanity. We felt comfortable that the terrible murder of millions of Jews, Gypsies and Mentally ill was safely preserved in a time capsule ; it was when the world went mad, in another time, in another place by another people.

As we get older, many of us feel we get wiser, which is simply perhaps recognition of our youthful excesses. Many of us get less courageous as we advance in years and hold onto to the dwindling days of our lives more tightly than we did in our twenties. We can feel less secure and surround ourselves with familiar places and possessions.

Marie clearly was an exception. She could have retired ten years ago and made a good living from her memories while drinking Gin and Tonics on a Caribbean beach. But she felt driven to expose injustice where and when she found it. She simply could not bring herself to retire in good conscience.

I often fear that our big institutions for good works, the Churches, the United Nations, Amnesty International, become ossified over time and calcified with bureaucracy. The courage and vision of the founders is inherited by people with mortgages to pay and families to rear. People like you and me.

Speaking truth to power was first used by Quakers in the States in the early twentieth century when they encouraged their Government to stand up to seemingly irresistible forces of Communism on one side and Fascism on the other. The phrase is often incorrectly attributed to George Fox, founder of the Quakers. It may not have been something he actually said, but it is something he actually did with his life and suffered in prison many times for it.

Prophets it seems can often be difficult people to know and love. However Marie seems to have been the exception. There is genuine mourning among her journalistic colleagues. She has held up a mirror to their better selves and has shown that grubby phone hacking scandals do not completely define them. If proof were needed she confirmed that the fair sex is not the weaker sex, as we married men know all too well.

Marie’s mum spoke with grief and poise and dignity. Above all let us not forget why Marie died and let’s write a letter to someone somewhere arguing for change, for peace, for the carnage to stop before the night falls. She must not die in vain, and that is up to us.

She has done her bit.

May she rest in Peace!

On reflection, I am sure she does.

PS I have decided the lucky recipients of my letter will be the Russian and Chinese Ambassadors to Ireland.
PPS Read Jim Muir’s lovely piece – his last letter to Marie on the BBC

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Youth Unemployment

This may be the biggest problem facing mankind for the foreseeable future, together with the linked problems of climate change, food production and depletion of resources.

Traditionally we solved the problems of over population by waging wars or were helped by nature with pestilence and famine. Fortunately, no doubt, these remedies are no longer to hand – for present at least – and we are tasked with finding more human solutions.

It goes without saying that population containment is one candle to light in the dark. It is a problem we clearly cannot land at the feet of the gay community. Religion in all it guises needs to realize that the extinction of man which traditionally was threatened by lack of fertility is now threatened by its oversupply. We may have to set aside decades of teaching on family planning which was often morally dubious and now is patently impractical. Responsible parenting may imply just that.

But humanly, socially and psychologically the most destabilizing phenomenon is that of youth unemployment. The reality is that it here to stay and will only get worse if present moral and mental approaches apply. Why?

Well, for the last fifty years we have boasted on how we have invented, manufactured and deployed labor saving devices. Corporate earnings improve on the back of ‘downsizing’.

Tractors have taken over from laborers, computers have taken over from bookkeepers, and automation in industry has taken over from assembly line workers. We have dishing washers, tumble dryers, forklifts, central distribution points. And we wonder where all the jobs have gone? Are we blind?

I am not suggesting for a moment that we go back to tilling the fields with horses and ploughs, although the Amish have some interesting points to make. But if we want to know where all the workers have gone, look no further than your kitchen.

Added to that is the equally important question of who is getting rich? Is it the farmers? Clearly not; for the past fifty years we, as a society, have driven them from the fields -from the dustbowls of the Midwest to the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta. We complain we are ‘subsidizing farmers’ when in fact they have been subsidizing us. How have we rewarded people who work 365 days a year? Not quite as well as hedge fund managers. The financial global industry is grotesquely big in proportion to the services it offers mankind.

Until we decide to reward farmers, factory workers and small business people we will live in an upside down society.

But this means making choices we have not to date been willing to accept. Why should we spend so much money on our iPhone and so little on our turnips?

For the past 100 years work has been measured exclusively in monetary terms. The concept of service has been lost in the past thirty years particularly. Communism hasn’t worked and never will; inevitably it resulted in the enrichment of the very few at the expense of the many even in a more brutal way than capitalism which at least was reasonably transparent. Naked capitalism which was always ethically dodgy has been shown in recent years to be economically illiterate.

So where from here?

Here are a few thoughts

1. Start paying the right people for the real value of their produce – farmers and others for example
2. Shrink and refocus the financial services industry, which instead of serving mankind increasingly has been starving mankind. Close down investment banks and increase high street and local banks
3. Make community jobs have real value with career paths
4. Push back the industrial revolution – sanctify manual labour
5. Rethink responsible parenthood to reflect the 7 billion others
6. Focus on community based initiatives
7. Roll back globalization and the exposed world it creates
8. Encourage more social and economic resilience – more smaller local companies and less bigger behemoths
9. Work towards a global free market area with free movement of goods and people globally
10. No more glorifying ‘downsizing’
11. Reappraisal of the function and ethics of work and its relation to society and self-worth.
12. It is up to us. Once they told us that we had to obey kings and bishops and lords – we saw through that – after some time. Now they are telling us we have obey fund managers the market makers – I wonder when we will realize it is our world – not theirs – only when we leave behind their mindset, I suppose.