Homage to Myles – Friday – Mind your Language

Himself was in rare form when he reached the pub last night. Coming in on the bus, he was afflicted by a notice: Room for 10 standees only. “It’s the same when some young fellow does a bunk from Mountjoy: the next day the papers have headlines about the escapee. And are we burning our copies of the Irish Times, or screaming that there is no such thing as an escapee, that it is an impossibility?” 

The Writer had the misfortune to suggest that the mistake was around for so long now, it was probably approved by the Oxford English Dictionary. That really drove Himself wild. He laid into the Writer. Accused him and his kind of crimes against language. Then he demanded to know where the apostrophe had gone from the Irish Writers Centre.

He claimed there should be public floggings for such crimes. Look at the hash they were making of Yeats’s poetry on his 150th. Hadn’t a bull’s where to stick the apostrophe. Might as well keep it for scratching their backs. What we needed was a bunch of greybeards, as the French had, to protect the language against atrocity. You wouldn’t catch those boys inserting their dangling apostrophes into inappropriate places.

The Cynic snorted at the ribald innuendo. “What you’re looking for,” he said, “is a CIA or an MI5 for homeland language security”.

“Bloody right, I am, and a Guantanamo for offenders.”

But the Writer was game and rose to it. He said it demonstrated the flexibility of the English Language. Yeats himself, he said, wouldn’t have had a clue where to stick the apostrophe in Yeats’s poetry. He could write, but he couldn’t spell, and he wouldn’t recognise grammar if he met it marching down the street, led by a fife and drum band.

When the Writer gets the wind up, he is well able for Himself. He took a long draft from his Guinness, wiped his lips, and sat back, good and square. “The English Language,” he said, “is infinitely flexible. It is organic, always growing, not like French, which has been fossilised since the Eighteenth Century.”

“Stop waffling,” said Himself, “and tell me how the Writers’ Centre became the Writers Centre.”

“They just decided to drop the apostrophe,” said he, smug as you like – and he sounded like the boy in class who knew the answer when no one else did.

“Apostrophe – you might as well be talking to yourself.”  Himself looked around to see if anyone twigged his witticism, but was disappointed. It was two minutes later when I twigged it, and smiled, but the conversation had moved on by then.

“But is it right or wrong?” asked the Young Lad. “To leave out the apostrophe.”

“It’s right if you decide it’s right,” said the Writer, “and wrong if you decide it’s wrong.”

Himself was winding, like a cock looking for a cockfight. “You sound like a Jesuit,” he said. “Tell me the answer you want and I’ll give you the justification.”

“Those boys were ahead of their time all right,” piped in the Cynic.

“So what’s your justification for leaving out the apostrophe?” Himself had decided to drive for home.

“As with the Jesuits, you first decide what outcome you want. If you decide that the Centre belongs to the writers, then it is the Irish Writers’ Centre, apostrophe included. But if you decide that it is a Centre dedicated to Irish Writers, then no apostrophe, the words Irish Writers become an adjectival phrase qualifying Centre. Both are grammatically correct.”

Himself shifted uneasily on his high stool.

“And what about standees?” asked the Young Lad.

“You mean you don’t know your ‘ers’ from your ‘ees’!” scoffed the Cynic with mock astonishment.

“For God’s sake, give him a lesson” said Himself, as he got up abruptly and headed for the door marked WC.

“Alright,” said the Cynic. And the Young Lad was all ears. “Once upon a time Paddy the Irishman and his dear friend, Jock the Scotsman, boarded a bus in London without tickets. It was a Thursday evening and they didn’t have a red rex between them. They sat on the top deck, but after a while they heard the dreaded words behind them, ‘tickets, please’. As the Inspector was making his way towards them, Jock whispered, ‘What will we do, Paddy?’ ‘Don’t panic,’ said Paddy. ‘We’ll pretend we’re two lawyers. They’re scared shitless of lawyers. Now put on your poshest accent and your best English, and start talking.’ So good and loud, and posh as hell, Paddy said, ‘So you were in court today, Jock. How did you get on?’ ‘Oh, very harrowing, very harrowing indeed, a dreadful case.’ ‘Really? What kind of case was it?’ ‘Oh it was that dreadful rape case that is all over the papers today. Dreadful.’ ‘And tell me, Jock, were you representing the fucker or the fuckee?’ ”

There was a bit of a guffaw but it was drowned by the whine of the hand-drier behind the door marked WC.

“Right so,” said the Young Lad as he took a long draught from his pint and thought about it.






Homage to Myles – Wednesday – Art is for everyone. Right?

Himself is into art now. Or so he says. He always had a passion for art but realised when he was a kid that he couldn’t draw for nuts. If he brought a line for a walk, the line would jump over the fence and bolt across the fields, never to be seen again. No, Himself and the pencil never got on. And if you couldn’t keep manners on a pencil, how could you expect a paint brush to behave for you. So he abandoned his art career before it could make a mockery of him.

It was different nowadays, he maintained, and he pulled something from the pocket of his overcoat and put it on the table in front of us. We drew back our glasses to have a better view.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Straight away the Young Lad, not yet having acquired the circumspection of the mature, blurted out, “A beach stone. I always wondered how all the holes are made in those stones. Looks like they were eaten away by some insect in the sea.”

Sure enough, it was one of those perforated stones that litter the shores of Ireland. And it was a good question, how do they get so many holes? But himself was not to be distracted by such curiosity. He had a new perspective.

“That’s where you are wrong,” said Himself. “It’s a work of art.”

“Is it valuable?” asked the Cynic. “If it is, I’m heading for Killiney Beach.”

“You can bring a tractor and collect a trailer-load, but they will be worthless. What makes this one unique is the concept.”

“Conceptual art,” sighed the Writer rolling his eyes heavenwards.

“It makes art accessible to all,” said Himself. “Even to someone who has two left hands, like me. All you need is the concept.”

“What are you going to do with it?” The Young Lad had taken it up and was turning it over in his hands.”

“Mind what you’re doing,” said the Cynic. “That’s a work of art you have there, not a bloody stone.”

Himself took it back. “I am going to have it mounted on a plinth, with the title underneath, ‘Holey Stone’. Spelt with an ‘e’. And then I’m going to submit it to the RHA.”

The Young Lad’s eyes were wide as saucers. “And do you think they’ll take it?”

“Why wouldn’t they? It’s a clever concept, isn’t it?”

“We’ll go out tomorrow with you and collect some more. Then you can have a one-man show.” The Writer didn’t look impressed.

“An original talent never repeats himself. Anyway, I have my one-man show all planned out.”

“What gallery?” asked the Writer.

“It won’t be in a gallery. That’s passé, bourgeois. I want to bring art to the people. The important thing is to engage the public, get the people to use their imagination. So my exhibition will be out in Herbert Park. I am going to have a set of little plates made up, the kind you can stick in the ground. Like the ones that say ‘Do not walk on the grass’, that type of thing. I will have a plate stuck in front of a park bench with just the word ‘Grass’ on it. That will be the title of one of my pieces. And people can sit on the bench and think about grass, what it means to them. I will be inviting them to use their imagination. That’s what conceptual art is all about. And if it goes well, I will have themed exhibitions. For example, Sport. In front of each bench in Herbert Park, I will have a plate saying, ‘Soccer’, ‘Cricket’, ‘Hurling’, etcetera, and people will sit there thinking of the game, maybe remembering matches they saw.”

“Bohemians must have discovered that. It’s the way they train, without going out, just looking through the window of the clubhouse, thinking about it.” The Cynic could make all the jokes he liked about Bohs, so long as he kept his snide remarks off Rovers.





Padraig J Daly’s new collection ‘God in Winter’

Padraig book

Padraig J Daly’s new collection of poems, God in Winter, is extraordinarily good. It comes with a health warning on the package: this is religious poetry, or poetry of ‘faith’. The warning is obviously intended for people of delicate sensibility, like me, for whom the only useful purpose of a personal God would be to take institutional dogmatic religion of every hue, and with a kick of his almighty boot to send it sailing out of our particular space-time continuum. But even if God were to thus oblige us, and furthermore if he fired an angry envelope through Earth’s letterbox, with his keys inside, and a note: ‘don’t dare try to contact me’, it would not make a whit of difference to poetry such as that of Padraig J Daly. Because poetry, or any kind of art, is not validated by anything outside its own guiding principles and discipline.

The categorising is not only inane and condescending, it is counter-productive. If a reader is searching for a new experience through poetry, why warn him off? Imagine picking up Homer’s Iliad, and being touched on the elbow to alert you that ‘this is full of interventionist-god stuff, but, if you can stomach that, it is really very good’.

What I want, what any reader wants, is to get inside the skin of the writer, to walk in his boots, to see and feel the world as he sees and feels it. Poetry, more than any of the other literary forms, is capable of delivering such an experience. From my reading I want to understand the poet as a man or as a woman, to receive any insights he or she may have into our shared predicament as human beings. If the poet comes from an interesting background, or one that is very different from my own, then all the more welcome is his viewpoint. If he is a coalminer, I am interested in seeing and feeling the world through the perception of one who spends much of his life under the surface of the earth; or if he is an aircraft pilot, I want to experience the world through the eyes of one who sees it mostly from a height of 35,000 feet.

So what can be more interesting for an atheist or a pagan than to see and feel the world from inside the skin of a Roman Catholic priest in the present age!

Daly presents his world and his world view with precision and clarity, diamond clear, but diamond hard as well. There is no sentimentality in his world or in his poetry. His poems are not an apologia for his religious beliefs nor an attempt to propagate them, and they are certainly not aids to piety. Instead he gives us the purest of pure poetry, his personal experiences distilled, his material carefully wrought until it stands apart glittering, its own justification.

His subjects and themes are wonderfully varied. Even if sexual love is absent, as one would expect, the book abounds in human love in all its richness. He celebrates the lives of friends and relatives with a passionate intensity. His over-riding theme is beauty – of life, of the earth, of the universe. And he relates the abundance of love and beauty that he observes to an overseeing personal loving Creator.

In many ways Daly, in this book, is re-asserting the vision of his first volume of poems, Nowhere but in Praise, published forty years ago. There the immanence of a loving God in the world was the central theme. But if Daly has come full circle, he certainly hasn’t ploughed a straight furrow over the years. When the disclosures of crimes committed against children by his colleagues deluged public awareness, Daly, like his decent and dedicated fellow-priests, was pushed to despair. He questions and castigates his God in the collection, The Voice of the Hare, and articulates a feeling of despair and desertion, far more visceral even than that of Hopkins’s Dark Sonnets.

As a storyteller myself, I have always admired Daly’s ability to infuse a single image with narrative potency. I will quote just one poem and it illustrates this. It could be a short story by Hemingway, if Hemingway could be as concise.


It was a place of pigeons fluttering.

A thrush tugged at a worm.

A solitary cloud boded rain.


In the middle of the field

A giant chestnut was white with blossom.


A cyclist pushed against the hill.

Men gathered by the ruined factory

In faded overalls.


Behind a window,

Someone broke eggs into a pan.


Although highly respected among his fellow poets, Daly is not as well known to the general public as he should be. He does not promote himself, does not swagger his importance around town, does not bellow his poems into the ears of the populace. Indeed he has been accused of being ‘humble’. Yes, I imagine that even the concept of ‘promotion’ is anathema to him. However humble he is not. From start to finish his poems exude a pride in craftsmanship, in achievement, in the successful delivery of his experience to the eye or ear of his public. He sets his poems out in book after beautiful book and leaves it to the reader to make what he or she will of them.

I began by talking of the ‘health warning’, and I will end by issuing a ‘health clearance certificate’. I myself have been exposed to Daly’s poetry for the past forty years, and it has not at all affected my absolute disenchantment with and aversion to the Roman Catholic Church. So it is perfectly safe to read this book. I recommend it to anyone who simply loves wonderful poetry.


The Laughing Boy

Protest 2

September 2014 and the Greeks are back on the street.


The following is the text of my piece that was broadcast by Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio One on 12 April. It was recorded live in the Peacock Theatre as part of the Easter Monday celebrations titled, Road to the Rising. If you wish to listen to the podcast, here is the link:


When I heard from a friend, Elias Tsonis, in Greece that Brendan Behan’s song, The Laughing Boy, was as famous there as Danny Boy or The Fields of Athenry is here, I was puzzled. I had never heard the song, nor heard of it. The only recording of it seemed to be a rather odd one that Behan himself made. When Aoife Nic Cormaic commissioned Barry Gleeson to sing it for the programme, he had to arrange it himself. What a fine job he did. If you are fascinated by this story, then explore the links hereunder and listen to the extraordinary renderings of the song in Greek. Behan’s original is also included.


*         *         *


When I received an invitation to participate in the World Philosophical Forum in Athens, I couldn’t turn it down, could I? Especially as it was scheduled for September, 2014, forty years exactly since I last set foot in that city.

That summer of 1974 was momentous. The military dictatorship of the Colonels, who had ruled Greece for the previous seven years, was wobbling. They sought to buttress their rule by pulling off the annexation of Cyprus. We were boarding a ship to sail from Crete to Santorini when we heard that President Makarios had been ousted by a military coup. During the following week we heard of the unfolding events in fragments of broken conversations. The Turkish Government had read the intentions of the Greek Colonels, and reacted instantly by sending in their army to occupy the northern half of Cyprus. A war between Greece and Turkey seemed inevitable.

On Santorini the atmosphere was tense. The mobilisation of militias saw old men in faded khaki, with ancient rifles, patrolling the streets in pick-up trucks. Conscripted young men, many just boys, were wailed over by their broken-hearted mamas. With no chefs or waiters, restaurants closed shop. The banks and all public offices were closed too. Ships had stopped sailing, having been commandeered by the army to transport troops. Essential supplies ran out quickly. There was not enough food to sustain the thousands of tourists stranded on this tiny volcanic island.

When a ship eventually arrived, it was to evacuate all tourists. The advice was to leave the country fast. We boarded, but jumped ship again at the next big island, Paros. We were committed to our three-month holiday in Greece, and were not leaving, especially now that events had become so ‘interesting’. All summer the sense of Greece’s enormous discontent  filtered through to us. Because we had stayed, the Greeks treated us as guests rather than tourists. We spent the time going from island to island. One night we were sleeping rough under the canopy of a closed cafe on Mykonos. Suddenly there was gunfire and noise, wild shouting. We thought the Turks had invaded. But when we peeped over the sand dune we saw only the Greek army, and the soldiers were dancing on the beach, waving their guns over their heads, shouting. Citizens were arriving, all shouting, waving arms in delight. Then we learned the cause of the uproar. The Colonels’ Regime had collapsed. Greece’s seven-year nightmare was over.

We danced all night on the beach with the delighted Greeks, danced Zorba style. The Zorba tune had not been heard openly in Greece during the rule of the junta. Its composer, Mikis Theodorakis, had been the chief cultural antagonist of the Colonels, and every bar of his music was banned. Now the country was vibrating to Theodorakis songs. And when we joined the hundreds of thousands dancing on the streets of Athens it was all Theodorakis we were singing. His songs of resistance and rebellion seemed the absolute expression of the Greek soul.

Back in Athens in 2014, I had settled in to the conference when a Greek delegate smiled at me. With an interrogative lift of the eyebrows, he said ‘Ireland?’ I nodded. If he was going to ask for my analysis of Eriugena, I was flummoxed. But he just nodded, winked, gave me a thumbs up, and said, ‘Brendan Behan’. I was mystified as to Behan’s contribution to western philosophy, so I sought out my friendly colleague, and over coffee was briefed on the enormous status of Brendan Behan in Greece. Mikis Theodorakis composed the music for Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ which was staged in Athens in 1962. There were 16 songs, but one that made a huge impression, ‘The Laughing Boy’, a song Behan wrote about the death of Michael Collins. So popular was this song that the Greeks eventually forgot it was an Irish song, and attached it to various figures of Greek resistance by subtle adjustments or additions to the lyrics. During the Colonels’ Regime it became attached to the students who died in the army attack on Athens Polytechnic in 1973. To the present day it is sung in schools as one of the best loved ‘Greek’ patriotic ballads.

In 1974 that was the Greek song we danced to on the beach in Mykonos, that we chanted on the streets of Athens with hundreds of thousands, celebrating the liberation of Greece from dictatorship. But we never realised that what we were singing was Brendan Behan’s ‘The Laughing Boy’.


Links to Greek performances of The Laughing Boy


http://youtu.be/iBRqMynXFuw (song, lyrics Brendan Behan)

http://youtu.be/gUn9n1MzmbU (Music of The Hostage)

http://youtu.be/j_r2NVwn6J4?list=PLD0E6FEA1CDEECEF0  (song, lyrics Bredan Behan)

http://youtu.be/n8j4luPWPmk  (song, lyrics Brendan Behan)



Brendan Behan’s original version



Discussing Sufism and Peace in a War Zone

addressing conference

This piece was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on 8 February, 2015.  If you would like to listen to the podcast, go to the RTE site:   http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/

At the centre of the top table is Salman Taseer who was assassinated a few months later by his own bodyguard – he took umbrage at Taseer’s criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws. On his way to court he was showered with rose petals by approving supporters.

I was close to Osama bin Laden when he was still alive. Of course I didn’t realise that as the bus conveying us from our well fortified hotel to the National Library of Pakistan meandered through the endless series of concrete roadblocks that punctuated the main thoroughfares of Islamabad. The steel helmets of soldiers peeping out from sand-bag bunkers, and the armoured cars before and after the bus, were further evidence that the country was in the grip of what we in Ireland might have described as an Emergency.

This was March 2010, and Bin Laden was living in the suburbs of the city with his family and friends around him. I was in Islamabad to participate in a Conference on the topic of ‘Sufism and Peace’. The motley collection of international writers and scholars included many who were deeply versed in Sufism. I myself was no more than somewhat informed on the subject. I had visited the shrines of Sufi saints in India. I had spent some time in a Dervish monastery in Turkey. And of course I had read some work of the Persian poet, Rumi.

It was a curious conference to be organised in Islamabad, with the full support of the existing Government, at a time when fundamentalists, particularly the Taliban, were perpetrating vicious attacks on Sufi shrines. The image in the West was that Pakistani officialdom was sympathetic to Muslim fundamentalists, and was conniving to assist them at every turn. But Sufism was anathema to the fundamentalists; they regarded it as a heresy that had no right to exist inside or outside Islam.

Sufism, like Islam itself, is a vast and varied religious tradition. In a nutshell it can be defined as the mystical brand of Islam. But nutshells and definitions are of little help in understanding something so complex. The central belief of the Sufis is that the experience of God is personal – and achievable, even in this life, by meditation and ascetic practice. They saw religious ecstasy as close to the aesthetic experience, so music, dance, poetry, could all be pathways to the experience of the divine. The practice and propagation of Sufism is based on the relationship of teacher and acolyte. Many of these teachers have been venerated as holy men, just as saints have in the Christian tradition.

Not surprising therefore that artists found much that was congenial in Sufism. Not surprising either that it raised the hackles of the Taliban who had carried out atrocities against Sufi worshippers at sites around Pakistan over the previous years. To them the veneration of saints was a form of idolatry.

But to judge by the absolute and unequivocal support of the government, Sufism had a very strong following in Pakistan. Presiding at each session of the Conference was a member of the Government, including the Minister for Education, and President Zardari himself, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated four years earlier. The session at which I spoke was presided over by Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard a few months later because he criticised the country’s Blasphemy Laws.

Most of the delegates were from within Pakistan, and of course all of the audience. It was fascinating to talk with them and to get even a small glimpse into their lives. If I had closed my eyes, I might have been listening to the aspirations of the people of Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s. All they wanted was a peaceful world in which to rear their children and grandchildren. But they saw that world being torn from them by the militarists and the religious hard-liners. They talked of the manoeuvring of these self-appointed arbiters of theological correctness to control the minds of the ordinary people of Pakistan.

So, if I was not an expert in Sufism, what did I contribute to the Conference? I chose to talk about Peace. I started by reciting Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. This little poem embodied a concept of Peace for many generations throughout the literary and literate world. A sentimental concept. Peace implied withdrawal from life with its tensions and its responsibilities. I described the landscape of the Northwest, where the poem was set, the perfect place to escape to, to escape in. Then I brought them to two small rural towns not more than an hour’s drive from the said Lake Isle. Enniskillen and Omagh. I described what happened there. And they knew exactly what I meant. They had been there, except the names were different, Peshawar, Rawalpindi. And I put it to them that Peace could never be established by withdrawal from the world. And if peace was viewed merely as the absence of violence, or as an intermission between wars, there was no hope. Only a philosophy of engagement with the world had any chance, a philosophy that had to be more powerful than any creed that had heretofore sent people out to kill one another. That philosophy could not be based in any one religion. It had to transcend all religions. Or else it had to operate on a level that joined all human beings at the most basic level, beneath that benchmark line, where humanity unites us, but  religion or race has not yet defined nor divided us.



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