Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Another Response to the Post-Conservative

The Post-Conservative has kindly responded to my recent post...which was a response to his own post....which was itself a response to my original post, Why I Am Not Alt-Right.

Here is his first response.

Here is my response to that.

And here is his latest response! 

First of all, I have to congratulate him on his pop cultural reference. "In the Year 2525" has always been one of my favourites. It's one of the rare examples of pop culture questioning "progress!"

Secondly, I have to acknowledge his astuteness in picking up what I left unspoken in my two examples. Yes, the internationalized, characterless Ireland I was projecting into the year 2217, in my first example, is an only slightly exaggerated image of today's Ireland. We're not there yet, but we're well on the way, and that deeply depresses me. And let us bear in mind that a lot of it happened post-independence and pre-globalization.

As for my other projection-- an Ireland of the future where only ten or fifteen per cent of the population are descended from today's Irish, but which has achieved the goals that the Gaelic Revival of the late nineteenth century only partly achieved-- I acknowledge that this is fairy tale stuff. It's not going to happen. I don't in fact believe in the "magic dirt" theory he critiques-- the idea that people (en masse) somehow absorb the culture and traditions of the host nation, just through standing on its soil.

But my thought experiment was just that-- a thought experiment. I was saying that the second scenario, impossible as it is, is one that I would find preferable to the first. And that says something important, I think.

I think the essence of my disagreement with the Post-Conservative lies in a paragraph where he compares my thinking to gender ideology:

It sounds like the kind of thing we’re hearing from Gender Studies departments about forms of identification which have no bearing on biology and reality. A man in a wig who disfigured himself is not a woman, he is a man pretending to be a woman. A hopelessly tragic and poor imposter. A Mexican in a Kimono is … lost or a waiter at a fusion restaurant.

But these examples are not on the same level. I don't believe nationality (or cultural identity) is as firmly rooted in biology as sex (or gender). No man has ever become a woman, no matter what gender studies or birth certificates might say. But is it really true that nobody has ever changed nationality, or (to put it in its most basic terms) "tribe"? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's pretty common.

As the left never tires of telling us, intermarriage and migration and cultural fusion has been going on since time began. The fact that they draw an untrue conclusion from this-- that cultural identity is infinitely fluid, a mere social construct-- does not negate the point itself. Cultural identity isn't infinitely fluid, but I don't believe it's as stark and absolute as sex.

In Irish history, we have famous instances of invaders who became "more Irish than the Irish themselves"-- the very phrase became a proverb. In terms of English history, who will say that the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons did not merge to become a true and distinctive people?

So is it a case of "there is nothing new under the sun" and globalization is nothing to worry about?

No, I don't think that, either. I think the world we we are living in puts national and ethnic and regional cultures in unprecedented danger. Communications, transport, international pop culture, economic globalization, and mass migration all come together to bring about a whole new ball game.

How can we preserve tradition and identity, while respecting the claims of our common humanity and the dignity of the person? I don't have the answer to that. I would like to see the (more or less) ethnic nation-state survive, but I don't rule out the possibility that this is not going to happen, and that we have to start thinking in terms of tradition rather than territory-- much like the Jews in the diaspora. Maybe the Jews in the diaspora will become the model of every people.

In terms of the public debate on these matters, I really feel that the pendulum has swung too far. I have been arguing about cultural identity with leftists for more than a decade-- I may even publish an interesting correspondence I had with just such a leftist, back in 2008.

And always, I had to answer the same charges-- you're an essentialist, you're a nostalgist, you don't accept the fact that cultures have always changed and intermingled, etc. etc.

Now I feel the Alt Right (and I accept that Post-Conservative does not consider himself to be Alt-Right, but they are the rising force on the right) seem to be confirming all those accusations. And that saddens me.

I've always found the "civic nationalism" of the liberal left to be insipid, uninspiring and even inhuman.

But I find the unabashed atavism of the Alt Right to be crude, simplistic and also somewhat inhuman. It's "magic blood" theory, rather than "magic dirt" theory.

l feel I should be honest and put it in a more personal way. I don't know how to do so without being suspected of appealing to political correctness or of virtue signalling, so I hope the Post-Conservative won't think I'm doing that. I'm really not trying to be emotive or sound virtuous.

But here is the thing. Could I tell a young guy who had been born in Ireland, but whose parents were both Nigerian, that I didn't think he could be Irish-- that he had his own heritage, and it wasn't Irish, no matter how he might want to be? Could I look him in the eye and say that?

No, I wouldn't say that. I couldn't say that. I don't believe that. And this is not a rhetorical tactic on my part-- this is a very real consideration, one that I've often thought about (I mean in general terms, not in that specific scenario).

There are examples of people who had no Irish ancestry but who identified with the country-- such as Erskine Childers, an Englishman who died for Ireland, and Micheál MacLiammóir, the English actor who became so enchanted with Irish culture that he changed his name from Alfred Willmore and learned the Irish language. It's rare, but it happens.

Then there are people who become Irish by marriage, by adoption, by immigration. (I mean individual immigration, not mass immigration.) Or children with one Irish parent. And so on. Any theory of nationality has to accommodate such cases.

I don't think it should be magic dirt versus magic blood. I think it's more complicated than that.

Well, I wrote more than I intended to-- because the arguments Post-Conservative makes are so interesting and (in my view) important. I thank him for engaging with me in this way, and hope my responses haven't missed too many points!

Speaking of Recipes...

...does anyone have any tips for making French toast?

I'm trying to make nice crisp French toast, with interesting coloration (including dark brown splotches).

I don't put anything on it. (I've stopped eating sugar or anything sugary for many, many months now.) I like it basic-- eggs, milk and bread.

I can make one successful slice, usually, but the second slice is usually too floppy and enlarged. I don't want it to be actually hard, but firm enough to easily slice and pick up.

I don't know how long to heat the pan, how much oil to put in, how much heat to apply, or how long to toast.

Written recipes don't make any sense to me as they are too complicated-- and I hate them, for some reason. Maybe because I resent cookbooks, thinking that they are not real books and that they are using up shelfspace and catalogue space for real books.

Start Where You Are. Use What you Have. Do What You Can.

This quotation, by Arthur Ashe, is one of my favourites.

It comes into my mind whenever I think about the prospects of resisting the tide of liberal secular globalism.

I'm convinced that, if we are going to save and perpetuate anything, it won't be through ideas. You can't fight ideology with ideas.

We need ideas, of course, but ideas are nothing if they don't bear fruit in something more. I mean traditions, ways of life, relationships, skills,  bonds, environments.

I encountered a quotation I very much liked in First Things magazines some years ago, a quotation from Walter Bagehot (of whom I know next to nothing):

"Talk of the ways of spreading a wholesome Conservatism throughout the country . . . . as far as communicating and establishing your creed is concerned, try a little pleasure. The way to keep up old customs is to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things is to enjoy that state of things. Over the ‘Cavalier’ mind this world passes with a thrill of delight; there is an exultation in a daily event, zest in the ‘regular thing,’ joy at an old feast.”

Who are the we I'm talking about, though? Ah, that's quite a question? That word "we" contains such a wilderness of assumptions and potential confusions!

In this context, I am talking about traditionalists. Not Catholic Traditionalists, but traditionalists.

The "present state of things" in the quotation is, of course, problematic today-- and the writer of the First Things article acknowledged this. Is there anything left to preserve today, she asked?

Well, I think there is. But at any rate, the principle applies to restoration as much as it does to preservation.

I think the best thing traditionalists can do today is to find some tradition and actively cherish it-- with others, where possible.

Of course, this comes into my mind especially with my recent efforts to improve my knowledge and use of the Irish language. I'm realizing how much harder it is to do something, rather than to theorize about it.

There has been a great deal of research done on the preservation of minority languages, and most of it makes tough reading. Languages usually need a critical mass of daily speakers in a tight-knit community, who use it as their first language for the ordinary business of life, to survive. That's by far the best context and everything else is lagging behind.

Nevertheless, there is heartening news. The Cornish language, once considered extinct, has made a revival-- and I hear the same about the Manx language (also considered extinct). Even in our globalised world, the call of tradition is potent.

Of course, I'm not just talking about languages, I'm talking about all kinds of traditions.

There is much talk of the "Benedict option" in Christian circles today-- an acknowledgement that the culture war is over, and that Christians need to create Christian enclaves within the larger society.

I think the same applies to all forms of traditionalism.

So I repeat: I think we should all be seeking to keep alive whatever flame we can. It might be cooking your grandmother's recipes, storytelling, letter-writing, card game playing, charades-playing, model-making, ballad-singing, knitting, dialect use, observing a fading memorial, reading and discussing old books...anything. Especially anything that's distinctive to your nation, region, locality or family.

I'll add another, a negative one; not cursing. I'm surprised by how many conservatives and self-proclaimed traditionalists curse. I was lucky to be raised by a mother and father who never cursed (ever). I do sometimes curse myself, but I'm ashamed of it-- usually it's with male friends, and I do it to give emphasis to a joke or a comical rant. I feel ashamed admitting it now. Yes, I'm going to try to cut it out completely, from this moment forward.

One of my readers told me that she joins in recitations of seventeenth century poetry at conferences. That's exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Incidentally, I don't think the preservation of tradition is confined to conservatives. When I typed "knitting", it struck me that knitting (as far as I can tell) is very trendy right now, amongst fashionable young women in particular. And I think that's great. As long as the traditions are preserved.

I have a colleague who is extremely interested in the history of Dublin-- he's steeped in it. I have no idea what his political, religious, cultural and social opinions are. I get the impression he's rather leftist, if he's anything at all. But fair play to him, as we say in Ireland-- he's keeping a tradition alive, or least remembered. I have tremendous respect for that.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Inadequate Response to a Detailed Response

As I've said, I'm trying to do less blogging, and concentrate more on my book.

Unfortunately, then, I'm not able to give the attention it deserves to a very thoughtful and well-written response to my recent post explaining why I don't identify with the Alt Right, by a blogger who calls himself The Post-Conservative.

Click here to read it.

I don't know the author. The post came to my attention when he contacted me. But I must say I'm quite honoured to have provoked such a detailed post, and I'm very flattered at his kind words about this blog.

I may give this the response it deserves when I have more time, although that may not be for many weeks.

In the meantime, I want to concentrate on one point only-- his response (which is not an unreasonable one) to my claim that I am much more interested in culture and tradition than in genetics:

A culture cannot be divorced from the people from which it was born. This is not a revolutionary or novel idea. Holding the opposite view – I would argue – is novel and politically motivated. Culture and people, race or identity are inseparable. History is a testament to this. Culture hollowed out by the death of the people it once came from is then nothing more than a farcical imitation, a historical re-enactment.

A fair point.

In response, I want to engage in a little thought experiment. I'm only trying to explain my own thinking and not trying to rebut anybody else's.

Take two scenarios, which I agree are far-fetched and implausible, but are exaggerated for the sake of clarity. (I have left aside the matter of religion, to avoid complication.)

In one scenario, Ireland in the year 2217 is inhabited by people who are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, descendants of the people living in Ireland today. In fact, most of them can trace their ancestry back to people who lived here many centuries ago.

Imagine further that this Ireland of 2217 has entirely discarded its traditional culture. The Irish language is completely dead. Gaelic games are no longer played. Irish traditional music and Irish set dancing are only recreated in museums. Most people haven't heard of Cú Chulainn or Finn MacCool. Irish history is studied but nobody feels any personal stake in it. The poems of W.B. Yeats are no more relevant to an average Irish reader than the poems of Edgar Allen Poe. The inhabitants of this Ireland are entirely internationalised, or they have developed a completely new national culture with no reference to what came before. They have as much interest in the people who inhabited the land before them as the ordinary householder has in the previous owner of his house.

In my second scenario, the Ireland of 2217 is genetically very different to the Ireland of today. Only a very small minority of the inhabitants of this future Ireland are descended from today's Irish-- let's say ten or fifteen per cent.

However, somewhere along the line there has been a second Gaelic Revival, and this one has been far more successful than the first. The island is solidly Irish-speaking. Gaelic games are even more popular than they are now. The Irish people now have a distinctive dress, architecture, and cuisine, all based on models from the country's past. Most Irish people have a fairly detailed knowledge of Irish history, folklore, and literature. Most importantly, the Irish people of this scenario very self-consciously and deliberately cherish the nation's traditions and identify with its past, whatever their DNA.

Now, if I was given a choice between these two scenarios, I wouldn't have to pause for a moment's reflection before choosing the second. And I think this is very consistent with the opinions I've expressed previously.

I think I can guess what the Post-Conservative would respond to this thought experiment; that it's completely unrealistic and that human beings, as a matter of fact, tend to identify with their ancestors by blood rather than the ancestors of the land they inhabit.

That's a big argument. And considering how long it's taken me to partially respond to one of the Post-Conservative's points, I think I was wise not to try to respond to the whole thing right now!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Less Blog, More Book

I've been blogging pretty frenetically recently. There's a few different reasons for this, but partly it's because I have something else to be doing, and I've been rather avoiding it.

I should be working on the revised manuscript of my book. I have been working on it...a little....but I have to focus on it now.

I'm hoping that posting this will deter me from too many posts in the future! I'll still post, but I'll try to make it once a week or something like that.

My blog has probably never had a better reception, in terms of number of readers, numbers of people commenting, and people emailing me. It's all very much appreciated.

In the Jeffrey Archer book As the Crow Flies, a character comments that people are reluctant to walk into a shop if they don't see any other customers inside. I've never felt that myself, but I think something similar applies to blogs. Seeing comments is very encouraging to internet browsers, I know from experience.

I also very much appreciate the response when I asked for emails, the time I was feeling down. I was surprised and very touched.

Well, I'll still be blogging, but less frequently for the next couple of months. Please don't go away!

An Tobar, or The Well: My Memorization Lark

This morning, I found myself newly excited by an idea for a project which has excited me in the past, which I've briefly taken up from time to time, and which I've discarded (or at least postponed).

This is the idea, briefly put: to memorize a corpus of oral culture-- "oral culture" is the best way I can think of describing it. By oral culture I mean poems, Scripture verses, songs, prayers, etc. etc.

This idea first occurred to me while I was attending Mass in Our Lady of Victories Church in Glasnevin, though it has antecedents. Then I gave it the name "An Tobar" (Un Tubber), which means, "The Well" in Irish.

I made a start on it with poems.

When I was a teenager, my memory for poems was amazing. I learned poems without even trying to do so. I'll always remember the time when I was walking home from school and I realised that I had by heart the entirety of "A Prayer for my Daughter" by W.B. Yeats-- quite a long poem. I hadn't even read this poem attentively-- we hadn't even started to study Yeats. Poetry just went from my eye into my memory, if it appealed to me at all.

Well, it's not like that any more-- sad to say. Now it's something I have to do deliberately.

I think oral culture is something we really lack in our society.

Knowledge of the Bible, for instance. You only have to read novels and essays and plays written in previous times-- up until the end of the nineteenth century, and perhaps even decades later-- to realise that almost everybody at that time, educated and uneducated, had a pretty detailed knowledge of the Bible. References to the walls of Jericho, the writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast, Samson and Delilah, or the "still small voice" which spoke to Elijah were common currency, used in the expectation that they would be understood. So were quotations such as: "the good which I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do." They were used by atheists and secularists as readily as by Christians.

The same was true of poetry and literature. Educated writers (and even writers writing for 'the masses') seemed to expect that allusions to classic poetry and novels, and especially to Shakespeare, would be recognised by all.

True, we do have our own oral culture today-- pop culture. "One does not simply walk into Mordor", "Here's looking at you, kid", "Guns. Lots of guns", "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave", etc. etc. And I don't despite this by any means. I'm long past my "disdain for the present", an attitude which Chesterton so rightly condemns. Memes and "iconic" quotations and images are a form of folklore. And they overlap with high culture and religion and folk culture in many places. (For instance, I am going to mention the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 in a little bit-- but I only know the story through the movie version.)

All the same, I feel it's a shame that pop culture is increasingly our only folk culture. It's a shame that everything has to be mediated by the TV screen, the cinema screen, the internet, and the entertainment industry in general. It's all so recent, too-- only stretching back a few decades, for the most part. There's something very alienating about that-- at least, there is for me. I crave deeper roots. Also, pop culture tends to have a homogenizing effect, all over the developed world and further afield.

Irish folk culture is something whose loss I lament. My father can sing hundreds of folk ballads, and he's incredibly blasé about this. Sometimes he will rattle off three or four verses of a folk ballad I've never heard, and then say: "I last heard that song fifty years ago." He doesn't say it boastfully, just as a matter of fact. 

My father is something of a prodigy in this regard, but not that much of a prodigy. Many older Irish people, and even Irish people my age, can sing folk ballads for hours, rattling off one after another. I feel very ashamed that I can't do the same, and (when I think about it) almost desolate at the thought of this wealth of oral culture passing away.

Some time ago, my wife asked me to sing a song. I was unable to come up with any song without stumbling over some of the words, or having to skip over some lines. When I told my father that, he said: "You should be ashamed of yourself." He was joking, but I really am.

I've had thoughts like these for quite a few years now, and they've led me to deliberately memorize poems. I've recited some of these at social occasions. (This also reflects my belief in giving poetry a bigger place in everyday life.) I once recited the entirety of  Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" at a dinner party. I was holding a lit candle as a prop, and my plan was to blow it out immediately before the final "Nevermore". However, I struggled to extinguish it, leading to considerable amusement. I also recited "Ulysses" by Tennyson at another dinner party.

I couldn't recite "The Raven" now, nor the other poems I memorized at that time. I can still recall poems I memorized in my teens, but not more recently. I've decided that memorization is useless without constantly refreshing the memory-- daily, or near-daily, practice. I've been getting more physical exercise recently, wanting to get my body into better shape, and I think mental "exercises" of this sort are a good counterpart to this.

Another motivation for this project is our increasing dependence on technology. I sometimes shudder to think of the amount of time I spend looking at various screens throughout the day. When I walk through the library and see all the students on their laptops, or when I look around the bus and see everyone on a mobile phone or other device, I feel a deep sense of unease. Even if there's no mental or physical consequences to this (and there probably is), there's something...unseemly, even inhuman about it.

I feel we should have more inner resources, rather than resources stored on computers, or in the cloud, or in other technological forms.That which lives in our minds, rather than in digitised form on a computer, belongs to us-- is even a part of us.

I mentioned Fahrenheit 451, the Ray Bradbury novel. You probably know the ending of the story. But if you don't, and if you care about "spoilers" (which I never have), skip to the next paragraph. In Bradbury's dystopian future, where books are banned, an underground resistance (which no dystopia can do without) seeks to preserve books by memorizing them. Each person in the resistance memorizes an entire book, and keeps it alive in their memory.

I found that idea wildly exciting. To become an avatar of a tradition, a vessel of a tradition-- somehow, the very thought of this stirs my blood. I find the Amish and the Mennonites extremely admirable, even though I realise that they have their own problems, and it's too easy to romanticize them. I'm inspired by Native Americans who seek to revive and preserve their culture, and indeed by every deliberate and self-conscious attempt to preserve and restore a culture-- especially those which are very much swimming against the tide, and climbing uphill.

So my project-- An Tobar, the Well-- is to try to develop a well of living memory within myself. These are the kind of things I'm thinking of memorizing:

Scripture verses
Folk ballads
Nursery rhymes

This is a lifelong project, and one I'm going to pace myself on. In the past, I rushed into it and burned myself out too quickly.

In the spirit of taking it slowly, I've decided on my first subject matter for memorization; jokes. Jokes may be the humblest unit of oral culture, but oral culture they are.

I've always been a big fan of jokes, especially old-fashioned "a guy walked into a bar" type jokes-- that is, jokes with a set-up, a situation, and a punch-line. I think there is a certain poetry to such jokes; such a joke is very like a snow-globe, a little world of its own.

However, like many people, I struggle to remember them when they would come in handy.

In 2001, when I was a trainee in the Allen Library project (a training project for unemployed people, which gave them library and archive experience), we were given a few classes in job-seeking and interview technique. I remember one of the trainers telling us: "Interviewers like to see how you cope with the unexpected. Some interviewers even ask interviewees to tell them a joke."

A grizzled old guy in his sixties, who had worked for a bank most of his life and had been swindled out of his pension fund, replied: "You know what I'd say to that? I'd say, 'I'll tell you a joke. Your f****** interview technique is a joke."

I'm not always at a loss for a joke. The one time I met my father-in-law (RIP) we engaged in a joke marathon that lasted at least fifteen minutes. I'm rarely on such good form.

I reckon that if I had about a hundred good jokes on the tip of my tongue, I would never be at a loss for one. And it would be a good, gentle start to this life-long project.

So...please tell me some of your favourite jokes, or even one of your favourite jokes! In the comments, or in an email to I don't like disgusting jokes, and I don't like dirty jokes. I especially like jokes that have a bit of a philosophical depth to them, and that have a "snow globe" quality to them-- the man who walks into a bar, etc. But they don't have to have any of that.

I'll set the ball rolling. My favourite joke of all time is a Halloween joke. Why do ghouls like demons?

You don't know?

Because demons are a ghoul's best friend! 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Ladies and Gentlemen

"Ladies and gentlemen" is a phrase I like very much, and a salutation I like very much. I like being described as a gentleman. I generally describe all women as ladies, in casual conversation.

I'm quite surprised that this phrase, and these terms, haven't come under attack yet-- they are still used even by liberals and progressives. 

Will they come under attack? Sometimes I'm alarmist in my expectations. Or perhaps I just expect a certain level of logical consistency.

Most of us have heard that gendered pronouns have come under attack in northern Europe. I on't know whether this has filtered into everyday life, or whether it's only in official contexts.

Will the same push occur in English-speaking countries?

I've spent a fair amount of time in Virginia, and I loved hearing how ordinary people (and not just in the service industries) use the terms "ma'am" and "sir" all the time. I like being addressed as "sir".

Now and again I address women as "ma'am", which I mean entirely as a term of respect. However, they generally don't like it and complain about me using it-- I think because it makes them feel old. (Sometimes, to be honest, I'm just using it to see how they respond.)

I don't know the answer to this. "Miss" hardly seems to be an option, even where it might apply. I don't mean "ma'am" to be any reflection on a woman's age-- it applies to all women in my mind, just as "sir" applies to all men.

When I pointed out to one such colleague that the term was regularly used in the South of America, she replied: "This isn't the South of America."

Incidentally, I have noticed that a surprising number of female students, and female users of the library, very often put down "Miss" as their title, rather than "Ms", when filling out forms. This pleases me. "Ms" is a horror. It has an unnatural sound, and since it's only used in formal contexts, it's not warmed by familiarity and tradition like "Miss" and "Mrs". Surely universalising "Mrs" would be the logical parallel to "Mr" being used universally for men?

I hate "Ms" so much that, although I'm not a fan of using first names for strangers, I usually address a business email to a female "Dear Sarah" or "Dear Lauren", rather than use the hated "Ms"!