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, 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?

22 March 2023

Pausing to preserve ourselves

I’ve used the ‘take a break’ function on Facebook for the first time today, not even knowing about it before this morning, reducing what I can see from someone I’ve considered a friend for years. Some things he did and then doubled down on some weeks ago left me feeling deeply betrayed and profoundly upset, and though I’m not angry with him, being reminded of it through Mr Zuckerberg's algorithms is scraping at the wound and keeping the grief alive.

I’m not great with trust, to be blunt; people who know me well know that, and know why, and know too how hard I’ve worked to make trusting easier for me than my more instinctive suspicion, such that realising that confidence in a person’s judgement and character has been misplaced hurts maybe more than it should. It doesn't help, I suppose, that it comes no time at all after being let down by others, folk in positions of responsibility and care, who seem more inclined to be guilty of oversight than to engage in the oversight that they're called to.

It’s tricky. We’re meant to forgive; it’s not just that it’s what’s expected of us, but it’s what’s good for us. I don’t think this is about forgiveness, though, so much as about self-preservation; it’s about realising that I’d put someone a pedestal and invested a foolish degree of hope in them, that they’re not very special after all, and that it’s better to keep a certain distance from people we no longer trust.

And maybe, if we’re going to be exposed constantly to the thoughts and ideas and news of others, we should take care to curate such exposure to those who feed us, and those who we feed in turn. If we can’t be sure others will look after our hearts, maybe we should guard them better.


20 March 2023

A decade after coffee

Ten years ago today, in a London week that saw friends married, a clerical funeral, an emergency noctural visit to hospital, a shamefully late lunch rendezvous, and me turning down an ill-considered proposal to commentate on the papal installation Mass, I met up with someone I’d only known through Twitter at the recommendation of a mutual friend. It would be good, he said, if his two historian friends who were in London could meet each other.

And so we met for coffee in a bookshop, and talked of cheesehats and sports and history and books and faith and friends, and had a great morning. And then we went our separate ways, she to complete her doctorate like a proper person, and me to try my vocation as a Dominican friar.

Time passed.

Reader, I married her.

15 March 2023

Somewhere on screen

There’s a passage in The Moviegoer where Walker Percy has the narrator muse on what he calls ‘certification’.

‘Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighbourhood, the place is not certified for him,’ he observes. ‘More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighbourhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighbourhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.’

I got to thinking of that over the last week, with the Oscar attempts of The Banshees of Inisherin and the almost impossibly good An Cailín Ciúin, and me remembering how excited we used to get about any films at all being shot in Ireland. They were rarities, or felt to be so, and just as we all knew that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold saw Smithfield standing in for Berlin, Excalibur was filmed in Wicklow, and Educating Rita was shot all over Dublin, so we were doubly thrilled to see films that were set here. I mean, Eat the Peach was a film people seemed to talk about endlessly when I was small. ‘Eat the Peach’, I tell you, about a couple of lads in Kildare building a ‘wall of death’ for motorbikes.

This was long before Tom Hanks was storming the beaches at Enniscorthy, mind, never mind Luke Skywalker living his best hermit life off the Kerry coast.

I wonder if it’s related to something a friend of mine from Pittsburg used to notice in his years studying in Dublin. He’d find it baffling that Irish people would be proud of things he’d take for granted. ‘How do you know that?’ he’d ask. ‘Irish people always do this -- I’ll mention Jaws or something, and somebody will always throw me that an Irish person was second-unit cameraman on it or something. How do you know this? And why do you care?’

We’re a small country, one that’s somehow got both a village mentality and a exile one, where there’s a sense that everyone knows people and should be able to connect with people, but also an awareness that we’re scattered all over the world. I think that twin mentality may probably be combining with a desire to be able to prove that somehow we matter -- that we have gone places, and that we have done things. A big chunk of our history, after all, is a history of things being done to the Irish more so than by the Irish, with culture, language, religion, and even the basic necessities for sustenance all having been attacked. I suspect that in any society where there’s a sense of somehow having survived with just shadows of your heritage, an excitement about being recognised globally as Somewhere is probably inevitable.

14 March 2023

Triumphant imposters

Flicking through Herodotus over breakfast, as you do, it occurs to me again that it’s interesting how the first historian implicitly but clearly rejects the notion that history is written by the victors. ‘Winners?’ he effectively says time and again. ‘Maybe, but for how long?’

Mind, this is something I often return to, and was at the heart of the thesis I eventually laid aside, albeit in the hope I could pick it up again someday: Herodotus, as a good student of Homer, knew victory was a profoundly suspect and temporary phenomenon, and not something that was necessarily clear even on the battlefield.