02 November 2023

For those who've gone before

Today being the feast of All Souls, or The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, as my missal has it, it's time to revisit my annual post where I remember those gone before me. It's a special day in the Church calendar dedicated to trying to help those we've loved, and even those we've conspicuously failed to love, and so many who we've never known, to make their way towards God and towards becoming who they were truly created to be.

The word 'Purgatory' may not appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean the doctrine isn’t there, readily drawn out from references to prayers that help the dead, to how nothing imperfect can enter heaven and a fire that purifies us after death, and to a prison where souls go till their debts are paid. Those are the lessons the early Christians drew from these lessons, and from their Jewish forebears. Just as it’s for the Blessed in Heaven to pray for us, so it is for us, then, to visit those souls in prison but guaranteed to share in the Blessed Vision, praying for those destined for heaven that they may more quickly reach the top of Dante’s mountain of hope. Having done the Camino de Santiago, and even the three-day pilgrimage at St Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg, I have a better sense these days than I once did of how we're all in this together, obliged to pull together to help each other to the finishing line. 

With that in mind, then, I have a lot of people to pray for today, just as I hope lots of people, here or up above, are praying for me, since we all need each other's help at one time or another. Many of these, I'm sure, don't need any prayers at all, but it certainly can't hurt, and if anyone here needs any help at all, I do hope my prayers will give that, in whatever meagre way they can.

At Mass today in Whitefriar's Street I had, as ever, new names to add to those I remember every year: Liam Coffey, a father to friends and a onetime regular from my days working in the pub, latterly someone to smile, nod, and chat to at the counter of the Lord Edward, left us the day after All Souls last year;  Marion Doyle, onetime neighbour to my parents and a warm host in Kilcormac when I was a child, who died last December; Mark Howard, a coworker who died so suddenly in April, surely long before his time; Renate Kurzmann, a friend for almost a quarter of a century, and a dear host in Vienna once upon a time, taken so suddenly this May; Maria Lezama, who had taught me to be more Mary than Martha in Cork's L'Arche Community, and who passed away in July; John Brierley, who I had the pleasure of meeting once and interviewing another time,  and whose Camino books led the way for me and so many others; and Nina-Jayne Birley, who once drove me hours out of her way for the sake of an interview, and who we lost this September; Gerry Murray too, a friend of friends and a onetime regular from my barman days, and Paddy Trodden, one of Palmerstown's more distinctive figures whose family background was somehow unknown even to his next-door neighbours until he died.

I thought that was today done, but then this evening, on the way home, I learned that Declan Moroney, my onetime mentor and sub-editor on the paper, the man who drove our journalistic bus in a very real sense, had passed on too: I'd wanted to meet him at the Vermeer exhibition in Holland this year, us having had a great day together at the Dublin exhibition a few years ago, but it wasn't to be, and another attempt at crossing paths a couple of months ago also came to nothing; I'm glad I still have his many texts, mind, and so many memories, and I hope I'll have his prayers: he'll certainly have mine.

And so, to turn to those who would have been in mind this day last year too...

I pray for my mum, Veronica Daly, who we lost at Christmas 2020 and laid to rest in Dublin and Liverpool over the next two years, her ashes divided between the city where her family raised her and the city where she raised her family. I pray too today for Nana and Grandad, all the Dodds, Auntie Maureen, Valerie McKenna, my cousins Philip, David, Susan, and Lily; for Auntie Brenda and Uncle Tommy, Auntie Kathleen, Great Auntie Mary, my cousins Janet and Michael, and Richard; for my uncle John; for Mam's parents, for aunt Doreen and for Monica. I pray too for Joan's husband Gerry Kavanagh, and for Edwin Bergquist and Terry Winker, both of whom I've lost from the wonderful family into which I've been blessed to marry. 

I pray for Mary and Paddy Hoare, for Mr Harwood, for Mr and Mrs McCourt, for Mrs Carrigan and for Michael Carrigan, for Mr Gahan, for Mr and Mrs Reeves, for John Ryan, Mick Doyle, Mr Lyons, Jim Freeman, Mrs Gibson, Mr and Mrs and Bernie Flanagan, Mrs Mannelly, Mr Doyle, Elizabeth Kenny, and Matt and Clare O’Reilly.

I pray for Sr Margaret Murtagh; for Johnny McGrath, Delores Spittal, Dick Molumby, Frank Beggan, Dessie Breen, Sean Forde, and Mollie O'Callaghan, and all those I know from Palmerstown Credit Union; for Gerry Hendricken, Frank Coakley, Damien Brunton, and Margaret Trodden; for Joe and Nora Hanrahan, Matt Garrigan, Dave Leavy, Frank and Mrs Towey, Jack Farrelly, Shay Lord, Jim Skerritt, David Fitzgerald, Billy Callaghan, Jimmy Owens, Gary Kennedy, Paul's uncle Francis Kennedy and Neasa's aunt Marie Doyle, all known to me from the Silver Granite; for Mary Ward; for Tom Corr, Sean Mitchell, Eamon Woulfe, Liam Glynn, Eddie Martin, Padraic Naughton, and Bro. John Hyland from Moyle Park.

I pray for so many of my peers, taken far too soon, and for those with whom I have walked: Gavan Nugent, Padraic Ryan, Anthony Desmond, Sean Kenny, Paul Brown, Claire Edmonds, Conn Murphy, Marie Plisnier, Agueda Pons, Michelle Cosgrave and her father Ollie, Ultan Sinclair, and Susan Dunne and her parents Paschal and Angela; for Kathleen Griffin and Niamh Moloney from Catholic Voices; for Julie Yipp and Kevin Hunneybell from my Camino, and for Francis McKenzie from my visit to Peru.

I pray for Val Grant, Alex Walker, Theresa MacDonagh, Gerard McCarthy, Sheila Griffith, and Alan Gilbert from the University of Manchester; and for John, Kathleen Bibby, Mary McFaul, John and Agnes Ainsworth, and Kate Gregg, all from Wilmslow.

I pray for Sr Mary David Totah; for Fr Con Curley, Fr Gerard Byrne, and Fr Flo Lynch; for Fr David Lumsden and Fr Martin Ryan; for Fr Tom Heneghan; for Fr Simon Roche OP, Fr Martin McCarthy OP, Fr Dermot Brennan OP, Fr Bob Talty OP, and Fr Denis Keating OP; and for Sr Margarita Schwind OP.

I pray for Jenny Daly, and Sr Agnes, and Helen, and all the other ladies from Mam's nursing home.

I pray for Bill Kinsella from Boora; for Fritz Schult from Pollatomish; for Steve's wife Ruth Southall; for Sarah's grandad Alan Martindale; for Laura's grandad Tony Adams; for Jason's mum Marlene Crowley and Sophie's dad Johnny von Pfluegl; for Christopher's mum Mary Dawson; for Michael's mother Ann Kelly; for Colum's dad Joe Keating, for Eamon's dad Packie McGarty, for John's dad Gerry Duffy, for Aidan's father Colin Higgins, for the fathers of Daron Higgins, Lucy Corcoran, Dara Gantley, Bláithín Ni Giolla Rua, Martin Brady, and Bridget Martin, and the parents of Claire O'Brien; for Ned's mum Maura Hughes; for Jean's dad Kevin Callaghan; for Breda Polly and Tom Crotty; for Rory's mum Anne Fitzgerald; for Dan's wife Naima Jackson; for Mike's sister Katie Lewis; for Bob's dad Brian McCabe; for Dawn Foster and Liam Cahill who I knew just through their writing and their warmth and wisdom over the internet; for Polly and Dan’s friends Will Scott and Dominic Crisp; and for George Kiely, who stood with me when I needed true support.

I pray for the souls of all those dear to those I love, for the souls of all those dear to me, and for the souls of all those whose names and faces I have forgotten. 

I pray too for the families of all those I remember, and of those who, like Francis Benedict Pyles and Margaret Mary Hill, are not themselves in need of any prayers and went to God assured of their rest in his blessed vision.

May the Lord God almighty have mercy on their souls, and may his perpetual light shine upon them; may they rest in peace.


26 July 2023

Hannibal, Cyrus, and lessons in followship

Back in 2003 Toni Morrison met Peter Olson, the then CEO of Random House, at that year’s Book Expo America, and mentioned having watched a documentary on the Mongols in her hotel after a flight which had left her unsettled. Olson lit up. “I wrote my college thesis on an anti-Soviet revolt in South Central Asia,” he said, continuing, “I would contend that military histories are better for learning about corporate strategies and management technique than any other books.”

Military history is one of those fields that lends insights, ideas, and examples aplenty to modern management discussions: given how it covers leadership, intelligence, logistics, tactics, strategy, and so much more, this probably shouldn’t surprise us, but the link wasn’t always so obvious.  Indeed, according to Peter Drucker, probably the twentieth century’s most influential management guru, strategy itself was seen as a military concept, largely irrelevant to business management, as late as the 1960s:

Managing for Results was the first book to address itself to what is now called “business strategy”. It is still the most widely used book on the subject. When I wrote it, more than twenty years ago, my original title was, in fact, Business Strategies. But “strategy” in those days was not a term in common usage. Indeed, when my publisher and I tested the title with acquaintances who were business executives, consultants, management teachers, and booksellers, we were strongly advised to drop it. “Strategy,” we were told again and again, “belongs to military or perhaps to political campaigns but not to business.”’

The situation wasn’t quite as stark as that, of course – just two years earlier, for instance, Alfred Chandler had published Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the history of the American industrial enterprise – but certainly it seems clear that the idea that warfare had anything to say to business was far from an orthodoxy at the time. Indeed, Drucker would later state that he had not written a book on leadership because an ancient Greek had made such a project superfluous. ‘The first systematic book on leadership was written by Xenophon more than 2,000 years ago,’ he told a student, adding, ‘and it is still the best.’

The book he had in mind, oddly, was not the extraordinarily instructive Anabasis, Xenophon’s memoir of the exploits of an army of 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the Persian Empire and their attempts to come home; neither was it his Hellenica, detailing the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent defeat of Sparta by the resurgent Thebes. Instead, he was referring to the Cyropaedia, the fictionalised biography of the Persian Cyrus the Great, which Drucker saw as a study in both leadership and followship.  The latter, Drucker felt, was too often neglected, to the detriment of any enterprise because it is impossible to be a leader without followers. ‘To lead, one must follow,’ he observed, ‘because it is only from the viewpoint of the follower that we can reflect on the basis of followship, which when turned around becomes the essence of leadership.’

I’ll talk about the Cyropaedia another day, but I think it’s worth saying that the point that the best leaders are willing to learn, to serve, and to follow wasn’t unique to Xenophon. Here, for instance, is the Roman historian Livy describing the Carthaginian Hannibal’s brilliance both as a commander and as a subordinate:

‘Power to command and readiness to obey are rare associates; but in Hannibal they were perfectly united, and their union made him as much valued by his commander as his men. Hasdrubal preferred him to all other officers in any action which called for vigour and courage, and under his leadership the men invariable showed to the best advantage both dash and confidence. Reckless in courting danger, he showed superb tactical ability when it was upon him.

Indefatigable both physically and mentally, he could endure with equal ease excessive heat or excessive cold; he ate and drank not to flatter his appetites but only so much as would sustain his bodily strength. His time for waking, like his time for sleeping, was never determined by daylight or darkness: when his work was done, then, and then only, he rested, without need, moreover, of silence or a soft bed to woo sleep to his eyes. Often he was seen lying in his cloak on the bare ground amongst the common soldiers on sentry or picket duty. His accoutrement, like the horses he rode, was always conspicuous, but not his clothes, which were like those of any other officer of his rank and standing. Mounted or unmounted, he was unequalled as a fighting man, always the first to attack, the last to leave the field.’

Much of this – perhaps all of it – should be seen as a series of rhetorical clichés, but things often only become clichés because they’re basically true. If these are conventional compliments, they merely highlight how Livy and his audience recognised that the best leaders are good followers, and that effective leadership demands a willingness to share the hardships of those being led.

Some things don’t change. 

25 July 2023

Silos and synods

I was at a conference in Rome a few years ago where people from Google explained that Catholic websites tend to punch well below their weight compared to those of other religious groups for the simple reason that they don’t link to other sites; in the digital environment as so often in the world at large today, Catholicism is a siloed landscape. It doesn’t have to be, though. Even just thinking about Irish history, and the kind of lessons we might draw from our most influential period, those centuries between the coming of Patrick and the Viking attacks when we supposedly saved civilization – we didn’t, but we did a lot – it shouldn’t take long for us to realise just how important networks and networking were to ‘the land of saints and scholars’.

That won’t typically be our first thought, of course. We’re far more likely to think of the likes of the island monastery of Skellig Michael. Famously isolated, the stone huts on the pyramidal island are dramatically inaccessible, so much so that they were perfectly cast in recent Star Wars films as Luke Skywalker’s hermit hideout. This very inaccessibility, this remoteness – the monastery is high on a rugged rocky spike that arises from stormy waters that cut the island off from the south-western corner of the Irish mainland – defines the monastery, but can too easily mislead us into thinking that this kind of community was somehow typical of Irish Christianity in its earliest centuries. Anything but!

That’s not to say that there weren’t Celtic monks who went off into the wilderness to seek God through contemplation – the Cambrai Homily, written around AD700, speaks of this ‘green martyrdom’, as distinct from the classical red martyrdom of those who died for the Faith and the white martyrdom of those who left their homelands to become missionary exiles – but we go wildly astray if we ever think of this as the norm. On the contrary: in the first centuries of our recorded history the Irish countryside was dotted with hundreds, even thousands, of monasteries, and while some certainly were discreet centres of contemplation, many others had roles that were pastoral, administrative, scholarly, and evangelising. They were platforms for outreach, and they were linked together.

Clonmacnoise, established by St Ciarán where the river Shannon meets the great road that was the Esker Riada, is perhaps the most obvious of these, but even when we think of the ostensibly remote beauty of Glendalough, we should keep in mind that though St Kevin settled in a beautiful spot in the Wicklow Mountains, he hardly did so in an obscure one; the monastic city that grew up around him is, after all, barely a mile from the crossroads of Laragh. St Cronán is famously described in his medieval biography as having moved his community to Roscrea because people couldn’t find it in its original home. ‘I will not be in a desert place where guests and poor people cannot easily find me,’ he supposedly said, continuing, ‘but I will stay here now in a public place.’

Our early lives of St Brigid show her travelling around the roads of central Ireland by chariot, praying as she went like an efficient commuter, and even helping her people in the building of a road, designed to carry chariots and wagons even across bog and riverside swamps. They describe her too as paying careful attention to how Mass was celebrated in Rome, so the prayers could change in Ireland if they changed in Rome, while contemporary letters from the likes of St Columbanus underline how letters and appeals to Rome were indeed a real phenomenon for the Celtic saints.

Roads, rivers, and letters all served to bind communities together, and communities would be aware too of their familial links – not merely because they’d often be expressions of local tribes and kingdoms, but because they’d be part of loose familial federations, known as paruchia, deriving from particular founder saints and those with whom he or she had studied. These federations could cross the sea, or even straddle the continent. Not that all was harmonious in or between these paruchia, of course – families can be tricky things, after all – but there were links, and the links mattered.

What’s more, the monastic leaders would travel to meet with each and learn from each other, and could come together occasionally in gatherings called synods. One synod from AD 697 begot the Cáin Adomnán, attempting to ban violence in warfare against non-combatants and especially women, for instance, while another, known as the Synod of Patrick, issued more than thirty rulings, including ones banning the receipt of donations from pagans and  threatening excommunication against anyone who believed in vampires!

Coming from the Greek syn-odos, meaning a shared journey or even a common path, synods are things we hear a lot about in Church circles nowadays, with talk of synods, synodality, synodal paths, and synodal ways. In the end, though, we should realise that they are, above all else, antidotes to siloed landscapes, a way of helping give reality and life to the Church as a network of networks. If St Brigid helped build roads across bogs, it must in part have been because without such ways – without such common paths – our monasteries would have been isolated and ineffective. Like the proverbial lighthouse in a bog, they’d have been brilliant but useless.

If synodality does nothing more than keep people talking together and praying together and working together towards common ends, it will have achieved something. Networks matter, after all.

17 July 2023


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about specialisation, about picking one area and being known for being great at one thing. I’m not sure about this, though, because to take a pointer from Archilochus, the world surely needs foxes as much as it needs hedgehogs. One of the great insights in medical practice over recent decades has been that for all the status that accords to consultants, general practitioners are experts too: general practice is a specialism, as being good at many things is a remarkable gift, a speciality in its own right. Sometimes jacks of all trades are indeed masters of none, but sometimes too they are masters of many.

This reality has been recognised for millennia through the repository of human wisdom that is the world’s myths and legends, of course. Back in the seventh century BC Homer famously described Odysseus as polytropos – a word literally meaning ‘of many turnings’ – and also as polymētis (‘many-skilled’) and poikilomētis (‘dapple-skilled’). Even more than Achilles, the intense and shortlived hero of the Iliad, the hero of the Odyssey is a figure who excels in all manner of fields. As H.D.F. Kitto put it in a passage so memorably quoted in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

‘Thus the hero of the Odyssey is a great fighter, a wily schemer, a ready speaker, a man of stout heart and broad wisdom who knows that he must endure without too much complaining what the gods send; and he can both build and sail a boat, drive a furrow as straight as anyone, beat a young braggart at throwing the discus, challenge the Pheacian youth at boxing, wrestling or running; flay, skin, cut up and cook an ox, and be moved to tears by song.  He is in fact an excellent all-rounder; he has surpassing arēte.’

Irish legend has made the same point since time immemorial, with one of its most remarkable figures being the mercurial Lugh, hero of the wars against the Fomorians and eventual father of Cuchulainn. Lugh would be famously known as Samildánach  –  ‘equally skilled in many arts’, the story of how he came to Tara underlining how wide-ranging his abilities were. As told in the medieval Second Battle of Moytura, it goes something like this:

One day, after Bres the traitor had been banished and Nuada was once more king, the Tuatha Dé Danann were feasting and celebrating at Tara when a young and handsome warrior arrived at the palace’s gate. 

‘Who are you?’ asked Gamal and Camall, the palace doorkeepers. 

‘I am Lugh Long-arm,’ the young man answered, ‘son of Cian son of Diancecht and of Ethne, daughter of Balor, fosterson of Eochaidh and Tailtiu, daughter of the King of Spain.’

‘And what can you do? No one without an art enters Tara.’

‘Try me. I am a carpenter,’ said Lugh. 

‘Then we don’t need you. We have a carpenter already – Luchta son of Luachaid.’

‘I’m a smith too,’ said Lugh.

‘We also have a smith – Colum Cualleinech of the three new processes.’

‘I am a champion.’

‘We don’t need one! Ogma son of Ethliu is our champion.’

‘I’m a harper as well.’

‘We have a harper already, Abcan son of Bicelmos, who we chose in the fairy-mounds.’

‘Well, I am a hero.’

‘We’ve no need of one – Bresal is our hero.’

‘I am a poet, and I am a historian.’

‘En son of Ethaman is our poet and historian.’

‘I’m also a sorcerer.’ 

‘Sure, we’ve no shortage of sorcerers!’

‘I am a healer.’

‘No need. Diancecht is our healer.’

‘I am a cup-bearer too.’

‘We have nine of those already!’

‘I’m even a metalworker, skilled at working in brass.’

‘We don’t need you – Credne Cerd is already our brazier.’

Lugh paused, and then said: ‘Ask the king whether he has a single man in his whole household who has all these skills. If he has, I will not enter.’

And so Lugh was welcomed to Tara, where he became the greatest of the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and was known henceforth as Samildánach, for he had many skills. 

Sometimes a breadth of expertise and the vision that comes with that is the skill we are slowest to recognise, but it can be the most valuable skill of all.

10 May 2023


It’s strange to read commentary on the Coronation when it wasn’t even on the radar for me on Saturday; a bit like missing the Biden visit and the indignant rantings about it from some elements of our neighbours’ fourth estate, I missed the Coronation entirely, as we had a First Holy Communion to celebrate in the family.

It seems strange to have passed over so rare an event - the first in the my lifetime, at any rate, and it only being a few years since I’d delighted my mum by meeting and shaking hands with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at a Great War commemoration in London. While I was indeed curious to watch it for historical interest, the immediate and familial won out. Why wouldn’t it, though? Kavanagh had it right, in ‘Epic’:

I have lived in important places, times

When great events were decided; who owned

That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land

Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’

And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen

Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –

‘Here is the march along these iron stones’

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which

Was more important? I inclined

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row. Gods make their own importance.

What’s that line in Gaiman and McKean’s Signal to Noise? ‘There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones.’ I’m not saying that big far-off events don’t matter, not least as you not being interested in them doesn’t mean they’re not interested in you, but it’s too easy to focus on distant spectacles and miss what matters under our noses.

I may yet catch the highlights, if anybody has a good link.

04 May 2023


I saw yesterday that this year’s Dublin Handelfest is being advertised, and perhaps unsurprisingly I felt that same ambivalent twinge of troubled anticipation I felt last year. The festival is great, with concerts and tours and exhibitions, but too often celebrations of Handel’s Dublin sojourn, like the city’s Georgian architecture or writers like Swift and Goldsmith, go hand-in-hand with nonsense about the eighteenth century as the capital’s golden age.

Such claims only make sense if we only care about our elites, the 3% of the population who could vote and who lived in the houses we admire today. They only make sense if we disregard the vast majority of the city’s population, the mass of urban poor who lived in destitute slums, the thousands of beggars, the thousands of prostitutes, the thousands who died in the freezing famine that killed up to a fifth of the population between 1740 and 1741 in what history would record as the 'Year of Slaughter'. They only make sense if we disregard the regular riots of the urban poor that the army was called upon to suppress time and again. They only make sense if we disregard the fact that the Kingdom of Ireland was what we would now call an apartheid state, one where the country’s Catholic majority were barely tolerated, their most basic rights curtailed and denied, discreet chapels only allowed in Dublin at all when riots were feared after a house where Mass was being celebrated collapsed, killing the celebrant and nine of those worshipping. If we disregard the violence, the robbery, the overcrowding, the typhus, the open sewers.

Pádraig Daly, the Augustinian priest-poet, has a poem called ‘Colonists’, in which he reflects on how we might be tempted to celebrate the domestic glories of those who colonised Africa. It’s not long, so I may as well quote it in full:

What hits you as strongly as the first blast

Of African heat

Is their absolute presumption,

Dividing out a land

Others had wandered since forever,

Erecting fences across the paths of hippo, zebra, lion,

Calling rivers for themselves and their bloated queens,

Corrupting the names of hollows and mountainranges,

Terming the old uncouth,



Teaching servitude.

The beauty they achieved in their houses

And sweeps of trees

Is by the by.

I’m not saying the beauties and glories the elite of Georgian Dublin enjoyed amongst the squalor and sorrow of those they’d dispossessed and oppressed are ‘by the by’ -- we can, after all, enjoy them now. And, in truth, we may as well take advantage of whatever good that shower did. There was precious little of it, after all, compared to the harm they inflicted. But still: let’s not pretend this was a Golden Age; what gold there was shone among the blood and filth of a boot-trodden charnel pit.

17 April 2023


On the bus back from the airport yesterday I wasted the blue skies and glorious views that were surrounding me and would soon and suddenly be shrouded in an all-concealing fog by spending my time reading a frustrating essay from a few years back, a piece by Edward Feser who I used to rate, with a couple of decent books by him still on the shelves. Entitled 'Three questions for Catholic opponents of capital punishment', it's a long and obstructive piece that seems built in a way that it's hard to engage with in a comprehensive and reasonable fashion. He'd written it in 2019 in the aftermath of the previous year's change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church to the effect that the death penalty should be regarded as inadmissable, and the piece had been reposted the following year after this point was driven home in the papal encyclical Fratelli tutti.

Shorn of the undergrowth and the wood that makes it hard to see the trees, what Prof. Feser is asking can be summed up as follows:

1. Does Pope Francis’s teaching on capital punishment amount to a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment? Prof. Feser argues that when the Pope says capital punishment should never be used, he is either making a doctrinal change that contradicts the teaching of Scripture and Tradition, or he is merely making a prudential judgment. Either way, he claims, Catholics are not obliged to agree with him.

2. Do you agree with Pope Francis that life sentences should be abolished? Pope Francis, he says, has frequently said life sentences are objectionable, and are objectionable for the same reasons as are death sentences.

3. Do you agree with Pope Francis that executing a murderer is worse than what the murderer himself did? In a 2015 letter, Prof. Feser notes, the Pope wrote that the death penalty represents a failure for any constitutional state because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice, and that justice is never reached by killing a human being. On this point, the Pope noted Dostoyevsky's observation that 'To kill a murderer is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by a criminal.'

Now, the second and third questions can be dealt with pretty easily, and seem to exist here merely to complicate the issue. Putting aside the merits or otherwise of the Pope's opinions -- and both seem utterly defensible, with the key point ignored by Prof. Feser in the third question being that when the state kills somebody it creates a situation where there is blood on a whole society's hands, not just on those of an individual killer  -- the crucial thing here is that these are just opinions, and thus not things Catholics are expected to accept as Church teaching. We might well reflect upon them, and doing so might help us to become better Christians, but still, they're not things we're expected to sign up to. Prof. Feser might ask these questions out of interest, but they're ultimately distractions.

So, that leaves us with question one, and in looking at that it's worth noting that Prof. Feser begins his argument by saying that there are two possible interpretations of Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty, with him either intending to revise the relevant doctrinal principles or intending merely to make a prudential judgment about how best to apply existing doctrinal principles to current circumstances. Thing is, this -- and indeed the essay as a whole -- fundamentally ignores what the Vatican actually said when the Catechism was changed in 2019, that being that the change was an expression of doctrinal development.

In a letter explaining the change, Cardinal Ladaria wrote to say the Pope had asked for the Church's 'teaching on the death penalty be reformulated so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point that has taken place in recent times', adding that 'this development centres principally on the clearer awareness of the Church for the respect due to every human life', with St John Paul II's letter Evangelium vitae being of great importance in this development. The CDF head went on to explain that the change was 'in continuity with the preceding Magisterium while bringing forth a coherent development of Catholic doctrine', and as such reflected 'an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium'. 

Curiously, Prof. Feser never even uses the terms 'development of doctrine' or 'doctrinal development' in his piece. This is unfortunate given how Cardinal Ladaria, on behalf of the Pope, had explained the recognition that the death penalty should be deemed inadmissable as a development of doctrine in relation to the Church's deepening understanding of human dignity, and the capacity of our world to realise that dignity. After all, that every single one of us is deliberately made by God in God's own image is as foundational a Catholic teaching that you're ever going to see, and the horrors of the twentieth century have helped underline just how precious that dignity is, and how easy it can be to rationalise its abuse.

I appreciate that Prof. Feser has argued extensively elsewhere that the Church has over the centuries taught infallibly that the death penalty is legitimate, but I'm not sure he does so with a suitable eye to how different magisterial levels operate, or indeed how Church teaching is structured around a hierarchy of truth, where some truths are based on other ones and are illuminated by them. In his article 'Capital punishment and the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium', for instance, published several months before Church teaching was formally clarified in this area, the general tendency is to disregard the development of Church teaching on human dignity.

It shouldn't be hard to see that Church teaching on the legitimacy or otherwise of the death penalty relates to questions of how we can protect society, which in the end is about how we protect and recognise the dignity of human life itself; the key doctrinal question here concerns the dignity of the individual human being, made in God's image. I'm glad that the Pope, and the CDF -- or now the DDF, I suppose -- have their priorities right on this. 

09 April 2023


Days accumulate meanings as we age. Today would have been my mam’s birthday, were she still with us here, and so with me thinking of her anyway social media throws up recollections of birthdays past. The one from four years ago featured two photos, one from her youth, before she’d married Dad, and one from her time in the nursing home. Her eyes and smile were the same. I had no idea when I posted that that that I’d not get to spend another birthday with her, that on her next one Covid protections for herself and others in her nursing home would mean I couldn’t visit her, and indeed that I’d not see her again until more than eight months had passed and we could all sit with her body, and I could tearfully hold her icy cold hand.

‘Looking forward to seeing this wonder this evening,’ I had written, ‘after adventures at hospital and work, and before dinner with my post-Santiago in-laws. It always strikes me as oddly funny that Mam, Marvin Gaye, and Seamus Heaney were all born within just a few days of each other.’ She outlasted Marvin and Seamus, of course.

That dinner with the in-laws proved significant enough too, with us finishing our dinner in Drumcondra and having a skype chat with my brother-in-law and his girlfriend after we’d finished our meal; to our delight, but hardly to our surprise, we learned that they’d gotten engaged. And so, since then, my wife has lost a mother-in-law but gained a sister-in-law. Families wax and wane.

April 9 was, I always knew as a child, not just Mam’s birthday, but the birthday of the older brother of one of my two best friends. Said brother would became a dear friend in his own right over the years, not least through our working together in a pub alongside the girl he’d himself marry, though life being complicated neither he nor Dave could make it to my wedding. It’s been more than seven years since I’ve seen him, so I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when we’ll set out for Holland to see him, and his wife, and tulips, and a Camino friend I’ve not seen since I was in Santiago, and so many Vermeers.

And with that, Happy Easter.  Here's to the Resurrection, and to the promise of Resurrection.

29 March 2023


The river Boyne is tidal outside our house, rising and falling as it ebbs and flows with the salty waters of the Irish Sea. The water can drop to a few inches at times, revealing wide gravel beds and even — to the eagle-eyed — the outlines of a few ancient oak canoes, sunk six thousand years ago when the great solar tomb of Newgrange was being built beyond the bend of the river, and now at risk of being trampled and destroyed by the horses that have taken to exploring. It's navigable, though, at least for small boats when the tide is in, and if you want you can even hire traditional skin-and-wood currachs to row along the river now. 

Such a boat, I suppose, would have been used by the monks who sailed along the river at the dawn of Ireland's Christian era when the Boyne was one of Ireland’s main transport routes, and the story goes that a group of such monks were passing by in the late fifth century when they were flagged down by a man who lived by the banks of the river facing where I live now. His wife and he had a baby boy, he said; would the monks baptise him for them? They could not, they said, because the salty waters of the sea were not the fresh living waters needed for baptism. But, they added, God would provide. And so they came ashore, and one took the child, and placed him on the ground just a few yards from the riverbank, and fresh water bubbled up from the ground where he lay, and so the boy Buíthe, or Boyce, was Christened.

Such at least is the story that was told centuries later, in a medieval life from the twelfth century or thereabouts, seemingly based on earlier accounts that told how St Buíthe, for so he’d become known, studied in Wales and on the continent, and set up a monastery by the Boyne, acting as a miraculous channel of God’s power time and again along the way. On one occasion, for instance, he’s said to have parted the waters of the Boyne so he could cross it and prevent the execution of one of the king’s prisoners. He arrived too late, but was able to restore the executed man to life, and then took him to his monastery, where he would henceforth work. That was one of the more curious roles of monasteries in early Christian Ireland — they could be like open prisons where men who would otherwise be hunted down and executed could find sanctuary, as long as they lived like monks.

Buíthe is best known now for the great monastery named after him he founded a few miles inland at Monasterboice. Site of a majestic round tower and two of the most impressive high crosses in the country, it would be a major ecclesiastical centre until it slipped into insignificance when the new Cistercian abbey of Mellifont was built a few miles away in the middle of the twelfth century. Mellifont, it seems, may have taken its name as a nod to the site of Buíthe’s baptism, the ‘sweet spring’ that flowed with fresh water just yards from the salty Boyne.

I’ve known about this for a while now, but it was only today, following an afternoon of errands in town, that I decided it was time to wander about the place of Buíthe’s baptism for myself, setting foot in the field I’ve been looking over the river at for four years.

Off I headed down Trinity Street into Mell, sheltering from a sudden shower in the little parish Church of St Joseph and accidentally joining in Adoration as I did. I couldn’t see any sign there of the sixteenth-century window and Romanesque arch that were discovered there during expansion work at the start of the last century, though, relics of the time it housed a small community of Cistercians after Henry VIII and his lackeys closed the abbeys. They hung on a while, retaining the title of abbots of Mellifont, but never returned to the monastery.

After Adoration, with the rain having passed, I turned down the narrow, hedge-flanked Toberboice Lane in search of the eponymous well, ‘Toberboice’ coming from the Irish word ‘tobar’, meaning well or spring, and the name Buíthe. On the way I wondered where exactly it was that archaeologists had found early Christian graves beside the lane forty years ago, along with two underground storage tunnels and evidence of an enclosure, all pointing to a small monastic community. There were thousands of these across Ireland in the early middle ages, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting to find or be in one.
The lane ends at a small compound, a printing factory and a repair shop for cars. Nobody knew anything about the well, but I’d looked on nineteenth-century maps and it was clearly there, off the south-west corner of what’s now the repair yard. Had it been covered up? Certainly back in the day it was used to supply water for a local brewery, piping it there through wooden pipes. 

Over the gate into the next field, so, squelching through the hoof-churned mud, and then there! There it was! A small bridge over a cut trench with a little stream of water running along it behind the repair yard, and beside the bridge the trench lined with small rocks, a deliberate attempt at building some kind of structure from where people could draw water back in the day. That was it, so, Buíthe’s well — and our apartment quite visible from it across the rushes and the river. Mission accomplished. I’m not sure why, but it didn’t occur to me to ask for his intercession. Next time, so. It’s surely good to have a local saint in this way.

I was tempted for a moment to follow the muddy horse-churned path between the rushes to the river’s edge, but instead I turned to examine the ruined house I’d somehow not even noticed till this morning. Back in the nineteenth century it was believed that the two-storey house at the end of Toberboice Lane housed an upstairs cupboard that had been used as a priest hole for hiding clergy in penal times; this ruin must have been the house in question, with an upper window testifying to the upper storey. 
Time, then, to go home, content. Sometimes, in our eagerness to think of where we’re going, and constant cries to be mindful of where we are, it’s too easy to forget where we’ve come from. Today, though, was for remembering, looking backward to inspiration and guidance in going forward. And all within sight of my home.

23 March 2023

The problem of England

I'm not sure there's anywhere in the world that annoys me more than Ireland, but England surely runs it a close second. One of the strangest English delusions — we all have our national delusions, and I spend far too much time talking of Irish ones, so indulge me here — is the conviction that nationalism is a disease that afflicts other countries, and especially the emotional Celts. I'm not talking of those English who openly recognise and parade their English nationalism, but those who identify, rather, as British, and who do so proudly and even condescendingly. Nationalism, for these, is for lesser countries and lesser peoples.

Viewed from outside, or even from the porch with one foot in the door, it seems very obvious that 'British' is itself a nationality, one that when embraced as an identification carries with itself all the baggage of nationalism. This might seem jarring, but as Orwell pointed out in his 'Notes on Nationalism', that's the deluding nature of nationalism: 'All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by "our" side.'

'In England,' he said, 'if one simply considers the number of people involved, it is probable that the dominant form of nationalism is old-fashioned British jingoism.'

The term 'British', it's worth remembering, is rarely used to mean simply 'from Britain', but instead comes with a whole host of connotations and tropes: the flag and the anthem; the monarchy and all its pageantry; the pound; the army, navy, and airforce; Remembrance Sunday and the sanctification of wars just and unjust; 1066 and all that; Magna Carta; Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess; the bloodless Glorious Revolution and the supremacy of Parliament; the Mother of Parliaments; Rule Britannia, ruling the waves, and never being slaves; Cool Britannia, Britpop, and British is Best; British values; stiff upper lip; Land of Hope and Glory; the National Health Service, whether loved or hated; WW2 as myth, whether in films, 'Britain stands alone', the spirit of the blitz, Churchill, 'keep calm and carry on', or 'don't mention the war'; the language of Shakespeare; you can't be educated unless you read the KJV; the established Church; a suspicion of and antipathy to Catholics and Catholicism; bloody foreigners; John Bull; Britannia; the British Bulldog; fog on the channel, continent cut off; 'British exceptionalism'; Zulu; 'look what happened to them when they left the Empire!'; Britain as a synonym for UK, and British as an adjective to describe the monarch's Irish subjects; lists of great Britons coopting Irish people whether subjects or not; claiming sportspeople as British when they win and Scottish or whatever when they lose; Tebbit's cricket test; fish and chips; as British as Finchley; Our Island Story; Team GB; the workshop of the world; the British Isles; ex-pats not migrants, and a refusal to assimilate abroad; the insistence that Britain is not part of Europe; Ulster Unionism, the Orange Order, and the BNP; the belief that there's no such thing as British nationalism.

Even look at the great post-imperial popular fiction exports James Bond, Harry Potter, and Doctor Who, all of which set up Britain as the centre of the world, whether as the real heroes of the Cold War, the decisive battleground in the wars of good and evil wizards, or the place where if you can fight off invading aliens in your beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, hills and indeed quarries you can save the world — a thesis memorably expounded by HG Wells at the height of the Victorian empire.

This is nationalism by any reasonable definition, and it might be rather healthier if it were acknowledged as such, not least because it's overwhelmingly an English nationalism, one that has no space for statues of such great parliamentarians as Daniel O'Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell in Parliament Square, let alone a national famine memorial to recognise the single most lethal event in the history of the UK: the 'Great Hunger' that ravaged mid-nineteenth-century Ireland.

In some ways weight of numbers alone ensures this English emphasis: while the English made up only slightly more than half the population of the UK a couple of hundred years ago, now it's about 85% of the UK population, and in practical terms that means that what England wants goes. No law can be passed in the UK without the direct or indirect support of at least 40% of English MPs, whereas in principle there's no limit on the number of laws that could be passed without any Scottish, Welsh, or Northern Irish support whatsoever. A big problem of these islands — perhaps the big problem — is how to deal with the fact that while there are several nations here, the biggest one by far has a long history largely defined by dominating its neighbours, often through force and the threat of force, whether implicit or explicit. And part of this tendency towards domination has entailed the suppression of others' national feelings and aspirations combined with the denial and concealment of its own.

A healthier British nationalism — call it patriotism if you want, but that'll start a whole fresh row — would be one that acknowledged that British nationalism is real, no more and no less aspirational than other nationalisms, and just like other nationalisms far from simple, a nationalism that recognised overlapping circles of nationalisms within and without the UK. Such a nationalism, engaged with properly, would embrace these facts, and heed others' grievances, accepting that the victims of empire and their descendants may be in a better position than those in England to judge the realities of English and British imperialism. Because, as Chesterton put it so well in his 'Paying for Patriotism', if we want to boast of our best, we need to be willing to repent for our worst.

The thing is, Britain as a whole has lots to boast about, and the part of Britain I know best has lots to boast about: England is brilliant. I mean, even aside from my family and friends, anywhere that can give us the Lake District, Hadrian's Wall with its accompanying magical pubs and the spectacular shift in dialects marked by the river Irthing at Gilsland, Turner, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Jane Austen, Chaucer, Le Morte d'Arthur, York Minster and Durham and the other great cathedrals of English Catholicism, Isaac Newton, Cornish pasties and the general pathological conviction that if a thing can be cooked it can legitimately be encased in pastry, Avebury and Stonehenge (even if the latter was magically stolen from Ireland), the Brontës, George Eliot, Dickens, PG Wodehouse, TH White, MR James, GK Chesterton, Keats, Wordsworth, St Margaret Clitherow, the Chartists, ending the Atlantic Slave Trade (even if that doesn't cancel out having so murderously dominated it for a century and a half first), St John Henry Newman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Box of Delights, Five Children and It, George Orwell, Bletchley Park, Leonard Cheshire and Sue Ryder, Cecily Saunders, Jennings, James and the Giant Peach and Danny the Champion of the World, The Dark is Rising, The Weirdstone of BrisingamenThe Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Terry Pratchett, 2000AD and even its spin-off Crisis, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, the films of David Lean and especially those of Powell and Pressburger, The Third Man, Hitchcock, Ealing Comedies, Quatermass and the Pit, folk horror, Kes, Withnail and I, The Beatles, Kate Bush, Thea Gilmore, All Creatures Great and SmallCold Comfort Farm, the writings of John Le Carré and by extension Alec Guinness's magical performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Alan Bleasdale, Michael Palin and Monty Python's Flying Circus, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, the glorious charred skeleton of Brighton's West Pier,  Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Wombles, Paddington, Roobarb, Oliver Postgate, Floella Benjamin, Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, When the Wind Blows, Everton Football Club, Westminster Cathedral, Brixton, Preston, the Olde Cheshire Cheese pub and the Cittie of Yorke on High Holborn, Goodness Gracious Me and The Fast Show, the fantasy Britain of the 2012 Olympics, Olivia Coleman, and above all Wallace and Gromit has to be a place worth loving, right?