Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bridges and Tall Ships

By nature I’m a bit of a nosey parker. I like to know things. On the Enneagram I’m what is known as a Number 5 personality and the animal which represents this number is - yes, you’ve guessed it – the owl. Remember the wise old owl of nursery rhyme fame? “The more he saw the less he spoke, the less he spoke the more he heard” – that’s kind of like me. I’m still working on the ‘wise’ bit but overall I am a gatherer and hoarder of information.

I’m also a little bit lazy (which may explain why I like cats – unusual for an owl you would think!). You see, I’ve long wondered if the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin lifts up to allow ships pass down the River Liffey. Since it was opened to pedestrians and road traffic in December 2009, I have admired the architecture of this stunning bridge which is named after the eminent Irish writer Samuel Beckett. Moreover, in the past year the bridge has been a frequent subject in my photography. Indeed, this spectacular construction rapidly has become an iconic landmark of our capital city. Yet it has taken me 3 years to find out anything much about it – all the more amazing when you consider that my place of work for the past year has been right beside the bridge! The truth is, I simply hadn’t bothered to go and find out. Until this week.

As I write this blog post, the Tall Ships Race 2012 is visiting Dublin and there is a right old carnival atmosphere about the place. Last week, while perusing some advance information about the festivities that would be taking place along the Dublin quays, I discovered that some of the visiting vessels were due to berth up-river from the Beckett Bridge. Aha! So the bridge must able to open. But how? Does it lift up? At the next opportunity I consulted YouTube to see if anyone had a video clip of this bridge doing its thing. Since you can find a clip of almost anything on YouTube, needless to say I found what I was looking for within seconds. Instantly, my question was answered – the bridge does not lift up – it swivels 90 degrees to open and close!

As if spurred on by this small yet, for me, pleasing discovery, I was destined to find out even more about this bridge as the week unfolded. The theme for my ‘52’ photography project this week is Architecture. Since the topic was announced 4 weeks ago, I decided that my first choice of subject would be the Beckett Bridge. Knowing that the quays would be lined with tall ships and thronged with people in the latter part of the week, I set out at lunchtime last Tuesday to take my shot (which you can see below). While posting my shot to Flickr earlier today I decided to find out a bit more about who had architected this marvellous work.

It is actually an Argentinian architect by the name of Santiago Calatrava. He has a string of notable and imaginative bridge and building designs to his name around the world. In particular, he has 5 bridges of the cantilever spar cable-stayed kind (there’s a term you don’t hear every day of the week!) of which the Samuel Beckett is one. However, what he has managed to achieve with the Beckett Bridge is to deliver a design which is reminiscent of a harp on its back (see photo at the top of this post)and that’s what makes this bridge unique. As you look towards Dublin city centre from the mouth of the Liffey you see a structure which is functional yet a striking symbol of our nation. It spans two districts of our city which were in need of rejuvenation, a lot of which was delivered during the fabled Celtic Tiger years. A few unfinished structures stand as a reminder that the Tiger years came to an abrupt end with the banking crisis of 2008. Thankfully the Samuel Beckett Bridge was sufficiently advanced to make it to completion.

Interestingly, this is Calatrava’s second bridge across the Liffey in Dublin. He also designed the James Joyce Bridge, constructed in 2003 at Blackhall Place further up the river. I wonder will he get to complete a hat-trick of bridges across the Liffey? Unlikely, one would think. Not much money around for such projects these days. But then money isn’t everything. As I ventured out last Friday lunchtime for a quick look at the visiting ships on the quays, it was great to see so many people – office workers, families, students, senior citizens - despite the wet weather, partaking in the Tall Ship festivities in the shadow of this great bridge. We certainly haven’t forgotten how to enjoy life. And that’s a good thing!

Thankfully it didn’t rain all the time, as you can see from this shot I took of the masts on the first of the tall ships to arrive in Dublin earlier this week. It’s the Guayas from Ecuador.

Click on the images in this post to view them in larger size.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Roads Less Travelled

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

You are probably familiar with these lines from the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. These are the closing three lines from the poem’s fourth and final stanza. They are often used in an inspirational context – encouraging individualism, self-reliance, non-conformity, to consider not following where others have led.

However, closer reading of this poem, which Frost himself described as ‘tricky’, shows that the narrator is not at all moralising about choice. He is saying that choice is inevitable but that the outcome of choices we make cannot be known until we have lived out those choices. Consider the two lines which precede the quotation above:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The narrator is surmising that he will look back at some point in the future and consider the choice he has made, with a sigh. What we are not told, however, is whether that ‘sigh’ is one of relief or regret. Whichever it is will then have an impact on the meaning of ‘difference’. A sigh of relief would suggest that the difference is a positive one; a sigh of regret would mean a negative difference.

It is a short yet very powerful poem. If you are not familiar with it I encourage you to read it. You’ll find it easily through Google. It is not my intention to elucidate my personal analysis of it in this blog post. Rather, I want to talk about why this oft-quoted extract, in its literal sense, has become apposite for me in my photographic pursuits during the past year.

You see, when out in the car in search of photo opportunities, I often find myself choosing to turn off the main roads and onto the byways and boreens, looking for that something a little bit different to capture with the camera. We live in a country of unparalleled natural beauty. Places such as Connemara, the Ring of Kerry, the Burren, Giant’s Causeway, (insert your own favourite well-known beauty spot here). All are world-renowned and synonymous with the beauty of our island. But there’s more - a lot more.

What if I mention Cloon Lough or Ballaghbeama Gap in Co. Kerry? I recently discovered these places of exquisite beauty quite simply by seeing a turn off the main road and wondering what would be down there. I could also say the same about Shronahiree Beg (where the photo above was taken), Ballinafunshoge and Carrowaystick Brook. Then there’s the Black Valley in Kerry and the Gortnaskeagh area on the road between Kilgarvan in Kerry and Ballylickey in west Cork. I could go on.

Some of these side-tracks are not for the faint-hearted, however. I remember several months ago having to make a rather inelegant 3-point turn on a raised dirt-track in Connemara which turned out to be a dead-end without even the reward of a decent photo opportunity. Many of them, however, have amazing hidden gems awaiting you to discover them. And it’s all perfectly safe really, once you are prepared to ride the ditch as there is often insufficient room for two cars to pass each other.

But don’t let these small matters deter you. There are plenty of advantages to these smaller roads. The absence of tour buses is one. In fact, the absence of much traffic of any description. If you drive the Ballaghbeama Gap across the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks in Kerry, I recommend you to stop at the top, switch off the engine and step out of the car (or dismount your bicycle, if that is your preferred mode of transport). Simply listen to the silence which may occasionally be disturbed only by the distant ‘baa’ of a sheep on the mountainside. A piece of heaven.

So the next time you are out for a leisurely drive in the country, look for where the road diverges and take that lesser travelled route. It will usually be marked by a strip of grass growing in the middle of it. You may well be pleasantly surprised by the beauty that awaits you.

(Click on the photo above to view larger)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Local Hero

I feel like lodging a complaint with the International Olympic Committee. You see, they went and organised the London 2012 games to overlap with my traditional summer vacation dates. In recent times, I take the first two or three weeks of August off work. This year it means that I'm on vacation for the second week of the games of the 30th Olympiad - that crucial week when so many events reach their climax and we witness the heroic feats of the world's greatest athletes and sports people as they vie for Olympic gold, silver or bronze.

I can usually take or leave the first week of the games. The opening ceremony is usually a highlight (and what a highlight it was of these games). However, I always enjoy the last week of the games as track and field comes into its own and we reach, as they say, the 'business end' of things.

Now, I can understand if, at this point, you have little sympathy for me. "What could be better," I hear you say - a whole week to simply kick back, loll in front of the telly box and soak up the ubiquitous coverage on the major channels. Oh that it were so. The problem is I'm not at home. I am holidaying in the kingdom of Kerry. Let me be honest - this in itself is not an issue. There are few more beautiful places on the planet to spend a week of your time. And sure don't I have my fruity smartphone and my brand new iPad with me. With these modern technological wonder-gadgets I can have on-demand audio and video updates on proceedings in the east end of London. Alas, not to be. The availability of the necessary high-speed 3G data network in the kingdom is, shall we say, sparse. All part of the charm, I suppose!

The real issue is that I'm not in my home town of Bray, the reason being that the mother of all parties is taking place there this week. Our very own Katie Taylor, already a world champion at her chosen sport, made it through the final of the women's lightweight boxing event. At the very least we were going to have an Olympic silver medalist in our midst. Not only will I miss the great atmosphere back home (and I know it's great because my friends keep reporting on how great it is!) but I'm unlikely even see the final itself.

Yesterday, August 9th, the day of Katie's final. The weather is up in Kerry and we take ourselves off on a trek to Rossbeigh beach. There, on a very rare day of sunshine and warmth, we forget about all outside influences and enjoy the moment. 4.30pm and time to leave for our rented house back in Kenmare. Then I remember - the fight is due at 4.45pm and there's bound to be a pub in nearby Glenbeigh - with a telly. Sure enough, we find a crowd rapidly building in O'Suileabhean's for the big event, something that was undoubtedly repeating itself in pubs, communities and indeed anywhere across Ireland where people could get near a TV. Even before the first punch is thrown it is already apparent that this young lady from Bray has already won the hearts of the nation.

Katie has built a 2 point leading going into the final round. It's nail-biting stuff. The final round seems too close to call. The Russian opponent is claiming victory. We must await the referee to raise the hand of the winner. After what seems like an eternity, the referee final raises the arm of the young lady in red. Yes - Katie has done it. Olympic champion. O'Suileabhean's in Glenbeigh erupts and there's hardly a dry eye in the house. I can only imagine what it is like back home in Bray.

This is a remarkable sporting achievement on many levels. How often we have seen world champions fail to reach the pinacle on the Olympic stage. No so for Katie. She has proved her champion status beyond any doubt. For me, perhaps the most remarkable aspect can be best appreciated by taking a visit to Bray harbour. As you approach the bridge that crosses to the north pier you will pass a small and very unremarkable building on your left - so unremarkable that you might miss it. That is Katie's training facility. For me, the key point is this - facilities do not produce true champions. They are important, yes, and we should be looking to provide the right infrastructure to nurture up and coming talent, in all fields of endeavour. However, the fundamental thing is what comes from within - the stuff of champions. Katie has shown the tenacity, self-belief and single-mindedness that it takes to succeed and rounds it all off by being a truly nice person as evidenced whenever you see and hear her in the media spotlight and, even more importantly, when she is not in the spotlight. She is and will be an inspiration to young people as they dream of what they one day may do.

The homecoming celebration is scheduled for next Monday. We'll be back home from our adventures in Kerry, ready to join with the crowd to welcome home our Katie and to celebrate her achievements. I suppose her sporting career is at a crossroads now - where does she go from here? Where can she go from here? One thing is certain though - she has achieved her place in sporting history and in the hearts of a nation.

Katie Taylor - local hero, sporting legend, national treasure.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Housewife with a Half-Life has lift-off!

I’m declaring this a rant-free day on my blog. That’s because I’m using this post to let you all know that local author (well, local to me at least) A.B.Wells is going global (inter-galactic, even) with the launch today of her new book “Housewife with a Half-Life”.

The title alone is intriguing enough to warrant checking out this book but should you need even more encouragement then consider that this is a Housewife’s answer to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy! Susan Strong is a suburban housewife who is literally disintegrating. When Fairly Dave, a kilt-sporting spaceman arrives through the shower head to warn her, she knows things are serious. When she and her precocious four year old twins, Pluto and Rufus, get sucked through Chilled Foods into another universe it gets even messier. Where household appliances are alive and dangerous, Geezers have Entropy Hoovers and the Spinner's Cataclysmic convertor could rip reality apart, Susan Strong is all that’s holding the world together.

In this madcap, feel-good adventure, Susan and Fairly Dave travel alternate universes to find Susan's many selves, dodge the Geezers and defeat evil memory bankers. From dystopian landscapes and chicken dinners, to Las Vegas and bubble universes, can Susan Strong reintegrate her bits and will it be enough to save us all?

About A.B.Wells

What is a housewife to do when she becomes 42? Write a book about life, the universe and everything. A.B.Wells is the mother of four children age 11 and under, three of whom are that particularly alien species called boys. As Alison Wells her more literary writing has been shortlisted in the prestigious Bridport, Fish and Hennessy Awards and she’s been published or is about to be in a wide variety of anthologies and e-zines, including the Higgs Boson Anthology by Year Zero, Metazen, The View from Here, Voices of Angels by Bridgehouse and National Flash Fiction day’s Jawbreakers. She recently won the fiction category of the Big Book of Hope ebook with a flash fiction medley and has a litfic novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities on submission. She blogs for in the guest blog: Random Acts of Optimism. One of the as yet unsolved mysteries of the universe is whether the B in A. B. Wells stands for barmy or brilliant.

In her former life she worked, among other things, as a clerk like Albert Einstein, as a technical writer (and a HR. Manager) and before that studied psychology and communications where, in the college library James Gleick’s book Chaos fell on her head. Her ambitions include a desire to travel to see the Northern Lights and to really travel with Dr Who’s David Tennant in a Tardis.

You can find her elsewhere on and blogging on Head Above Water or like A.B. Wells writer on Facebook.

Launch day (that’s today, May 8th!) activities for Housewife with a Half-Life will take place on A.B.Wells’ author page on Facebook, on Twitter - Follow @alisonwells) and on her main blog Head Above Water. There will be giveaways, the shortlist and results of the 42 word flash fiction competition and a fun treasure hunt where you have to hunt Housewife with a Half-Life related web activity to find the answers to some clues!

Most importantly though, to find out if we can all be saved from Universal Devastation, check out the ebook which is available on Kindle at:

And in a variety of formats on Smashwords

A paperback will be available in June!

Wishing lots of success to Alison and her “Housewife with a Half-Life”. And with that, I’m outta here. Now, where did I park me Tardis?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cardinal Rule

The scandal of abuse visited upon children by clergy of the Catholic Church in Ireland is well documented. In response, the Dublin Diocese is implementing a policy whereby every lay volunteer in every parish, under pain of dismissal from ministry or service and whether they have contact with children or not, is required to undergo Garda vetting. To the best of my understanding, the Garda vetting unit provides background checks on people who, as part of their employment or volunteering, have unsupervised access to children and/or vulnerable adults.

The reaction to this scattergun approach by the Dublin Diocese has been mixed. Many have signed up without question; many have signed up out of fear or despite the fact that they have questions and reservations about the policy; some have a difficulty in signing up when instructed to do so by an institution which still has a long way to go to get its own house in order with regard to accepting responsibility for enormous hurt that it has caused (and not just through abuse of children). In the situations I know about, these people are volunteer members of adult groups in parish life and their ministry involves minimal, if any, contact with children. Even then it is always supervised contact. These people feel they are being directed to take an action by a regime which has not fully atoned for the culture of silence and cover-up that it perpetrated for years.

I know some of the people in this latter category very well. They are my friends. They are great people and I would trust them implicitly. While I wish they would sign the form, I understand their reasons for not doing so. I know for a fact that some of them are quite prepared to be vetted by any other organisation except the Church. This, however, is not an option for the Church. Evictions from ministry will be carried out. In fact, they have already begun. People who have given years of service in parish life will no longer be permitted to continue in their positions. They are not breaking any laws, they are simply following what their conscience is telling them – and suffering the consequences as a result.

On Tuesday evening this week, I watched the ‘This World’ documentary on BBC1 which gave further insight into the role of the then Fr. John Brady, now Cardinal Sean Brady, head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in relation to the investigation of child abuse claims against the notorious Fr. Brendan Smyth. In equal measure, I was appalled, saddened and outraged to discover how the complaint of 14 year old Brendan Boland was dealt with by Fr. Brady and the others sent to investigate. Separated from his father during the meeting, Brendan had to endure questioning of the vilest, most intimate nature and which to me seemed to be architected to elicit responses which would show Brendan to be in some way responsible for what happened. How could any rational, responsible adult ask a child abuse complainant if they had enjoyed it? Further, Fr. Brady then swore the 14 year old to secrecy.

Following the documentary, a spokesperson for Cardinal Brady issued a statement. Among other things, the spokesperson states:

“It would be unreasonable and grossly unfair to judge the actions of those at that time by the standards of the clear guidance from the State and the church that only came into existence some 20 years later."

So, in the absence of guidelines from Church or State, the rape and abuse of children by clerics was OK then? Surely by any moral standards at the time, it was wrong to rape and abuse children – regardless of what guidance existed from Church or State? Even with today’s standards in place, the Church has clearly said as recently as last week that it will not comply with proposed legislation requiring any knowledge of child abuse to be reported to the authorities, if that knowledge is obtained in the act of confession. The same clergy and hierarchy who will not comply with this legal requirement are removing innocent lay people from ministry because they cannot in conscience sign a vetting form under Church order while people like Cardinal Brady, who failed to act out of humanity let alone Christianity, remain in office.

In the few days since that documentary, there have been renewed, almost universal calls for Cardinal Brady to resign. He refuses, protesting that he was merely a note taker, a subservient obeying the orders of his superiors. No matter what way I look at it, he was party to information regarding heinous crimes against children and no matter what his subservient role, this gave him a moral obligation to ensure that something was done about it. In my view he did not adequately fulfil that moral obligation. Instead, his obedience and subservience to his higher authorities may have contributed to his eventual elevation to the position of most senior Churchman in the land.

High office carries with it high responsibility, accountability and duty of care. Sometimes leaders have to accept responsibility for situations that they may not have fully created or for matters in which they were negligent, intentionally or otherwise. No matter how much he may plead innocence in relation to what happened in 1975, his naivety in relation to the whole affair and how it is perceived at large is astounding. With the best will in the world, it will be next to impossible for Cardinal Brady to carry out his office with credibility and effect. Surely he can see that? Surely those close to him can see it and advise him appropriately? When a leader has lost credibility there is still an opportunity for that leader to act bravely and courageously in light of reality. That act would be to accept responsibility for the situation now at hand rather than pass the blame to others - some of whom are now dead.

As I write this, however, we appear to be no nearer Cardinal Brady doing the right, just and honourable thing. We are, however, a whole lot nearer some of my cherished friends receiving their letters of ultimatum / dismissal from volunteer ministry in our parish.

It beggars belief.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Abandoned Ireland

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned (ad nauseum, I hear you say!), I’m taking part in a year-long photographic project called ’52 of 2012’. The idea is to take a theme-based photo each week during 2012. A few weeks ago the given theme was ‘Old, Abandoned, Decaying’.

Now, as a Number Five Enneagram personality type, I tend to do a lot of observing. You see, Fives (sometimes labelled the ‘Investigator’) are alert and curious by nature. The animal totem of the Five is the owl, possessed of wisdom gained through observation and knowledge. I’ll blog about that at a later stage but for now, suffice to say as I increasingly look at things with a photographer’s eye, I’m amazed at how much I was missing all this time! This came home to me especially during the ‘Old, Abandoned, Decaying’ week.

One of the rules of the project is that the photo you submit must be taken during the week of the particular theme. As misfortune would have it, on the Saturday before the ‘Old, Abandoned, Decaying’ week I happened to be travelling to Trim in Co. Meath when I spotted by the roadside a very old, very decaying and clearly very abandoned farm cottage - a perfect subject. I drove past as I realised it would be pointless to stop for a photo of it since I would be unable to use it in the project. But I resolved to research old and abandoned photo opportunities near where I live.

The next day, while weaving my way through Google, I discovered that quite a few amateur photographers in Ireland have a keen interest in abandoned buildings. In particular, I came across a website called Abandoned Ireland – established by Tarquin Blake, author of Abandoned Mansions of Ireland. The website, like the book, features mainly old abandoned buildings of the larger variety (mansions, churches, hospitals, industrial premises, …) although several smaller dwellings are also covered. It is one person’s attempt to record and document our heritage as represented by these buildings before they are gone. There is a link at the end of this post if you want to visit it for yourself.

Through this research, I became quite fascinated by ‘abandoned Ireland’. I found myself increasingly drawn to the smaller dwellings – homes of individuals and families which had long since been vacated and abandoned, left to decay slowly and not always gracefully. I began to think beyond the photo opportunities these presented. Who had lived in these houses and cottages? What kind of people were they? Who walked through the front door or looked out of the long-gone windows. What kind of life did they have? What were the circumstances which led to these homes being abandoned? Where did the people go and what did they leave behind? Did a lonely, sole occupant simply die and the property was not passed on? So many questions which will never be answered.

Finally, the Saturday of ‘Old, Abandoned, Decaying’ week arrived and I still had not taken my photograph for that week. Only one day left to do so. I arose at 6.30am and decided to drive into Dublin. I was sure I would find some decaying urban premises to be my subject. I drove by the abandoned Boland’s Flour Mills at Grand Canal Dock then travelled on to the north quays and down to the docklands area. Some possibilities but nothing that was really shouting at me to photograph it and certainly nothing that had that old-world charm factor!

I drove to the Phoenix Park to find the old Magazine Fort (the existence of which I had not known about until my Googling earlier in the week). I decided that scaling the wall to enter the Fort would be a bit much for me, especially as I didn’t know how difficult it might be to scale back out again! I motored on and marvelled at the early morning deer in the park. Then I remembered – the abandoned farm cottage near Trim.

Twenty minutes later I was standing in a field outside Trim, camera and tripod at the ready and again knew I had found the perfect subject for my shot of the week. The result is at the top of this post. Before I left the location, I took one last walk around the old cottage, pondering the questions that I related above.

Two weeks later we spent a few days in Connemara. As we were driving around looking for the next place to stop for some photos, I was amazed at how many old and abandoned dwellings we passed. Some of the not-so-old ones still had tattered curtains hanging inside the broken and decaying windows. I remarked to myself that I hadn’t seemed to notice many of these dwellings the previous times I drove these roads and I wondered was I less of a Five personality than the Enneagram had told me. Rather than dwell too much on that, I decided just to be thankful that due to photography my eyes were now more open to a very poignant and important piece of our national heritage. I wonder how future generations will look at old, abandoned and decaying buildings from the era we now live in? Are the ghost estates destined to be the heritage that our future generations will seek out as examples of ‘old, abandoned, decaying’?

Link to my photo of the inside of the farm cottage.

Link to Tarquin Blake's 'Abandoned Ireland' website.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Being There

I took the above picture a little over a month ago. It was my entry for ‘monochrome’ week in the 52 photo project I’m doing this year. When I studied the photo I knew I would write a blog post about it – but just didn’t know exactly what that would be. Initially, I thought it might simply be a description of where the photo was taken. However, I’ve been led in a slightly more reflective direction. But I’ll start anyway with some background to the location.

Close to where I live, in a disused landscaped quarry, lies the German War Cemetery in Glencree. Dedicated on July 9th 1961, the graveyard is located close to the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. One hundred and thirty four persons are buried here including Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Many are known, some are unknown. These were originally in 59 Graves across 15 counties of Ireland until being moved to Glencree. Most of the graves belong to flyers of the Second World War who were washed up on our shores. Included also are the victims of the Arandora Star, German civilian detainees sunk by U-Boat in 1940 off Tory Island.

Despite living close by all my life, I first visited this cemetery less than 2 months ago. I found it to be a place of great beauty and tranquillity. In the years since its dedication it has become, as well as a memorial for Germany’s war dead and a focal point for the Irish - German community, a place also for peace and reflection to a much wider society.

While there, I was struck by several thoughts related to death and how we mark it. Firstly, I was reminded that in violent conflict there is loss of life on all sides. Through the ages, countless millions – human beings, flesh and blood – have made the ultimate sacrifice in times of war. The unfortunate souls buried in this beautiful and tranquil place most likely died young, died violently, died a long way from home and therefore died lonely deaths away from their loved ones. The reverse side, of course, is that for each of these deceased, there were family and friends who perhaps didn’t know until well after the fact that their loved one had gone. For them, no chance for a last goodbye, no ritual of celebration or thanksgiving for the life that was before a final farewell at the graveside at the time of laying to rest. Not how most of us would wish to depart this life.

Secondly, I was reminded of a remark a friend of mine had recently made in relation to the Catholic Church that, despite its many faults and failings, it does death well. I would fully subscribe to that view. The ritual surrounding death in the Catholic Church seems to me, in most cases, to strike a perfect balance between mourning the passing, celebrating the life and at the same time extending compassion and support to the family and friends.

In more general terms, one could say that the Irish do death well. Our culture is one of strong community presence and support to friends, neighbours and colleagues who are grieving the loss of a loved one. In this aspect, I recall many years ago when I joined the workforce I had the privilege to work with an extraordinary colleague who, for want of a better way of putting it, just seemed always to do the right thing. One of his strongest principles was that of lending support to work colleagues who had lost a close family member. In this, he led by example. I don’t recall any occasion where he prioritised a work situation over making the time to pay his respects at a removal or a funeral Mass when a colleague had lost a parent or a partner.

Whenever I attend a funeral, and unfortunately I had the opportunity to do so twice in the past week, I often think back to the example set by my erstwhile work colleague. It reminds me not to underestimate the importance of supporting those we know who are grieving – and it can be as simple as a handshake, a hug or mere presence – being there.

Monday, January 30, 2012

What Do You Believe?

Yesterday morning at church the homily was delivered by our retired parish priest, Fr. John O’Connell. Fr. John is one of the most Christian, most compassionate and most intelligent people I've come to know. In the 30-odd years I've known him, he has delivered through word and deed a very pragmatic view of Christianity. I may revisit that in a future post. Now, however, I want to tell you something of yesterday’s homily which Fr. John based entirely on the interview, broadcast on Jan 22nd 2012, between Fr. Shay Cullen and Gay Byrne as part of ‘The Meaning of Life’ series. Fr. Shay is one of the founders of PREDA (People’s Recovery Empowerment Development Assistance). This small charitable organisation has a number of purposes which include the promotion and protection of the dignity and the Human Rights of the Filipino people, especially of women and children. I missed the original broadcast but I made it my business yesterday to watch it on playback.

I know Fr. John well enough to believe he has great respect for the way Fr. Shay spoke in that interview and for the pragmatic views he espoused. Let me briefly relate some of the points from the interview that Fr. John covered in his sermon. During the course of his questioning, Gay asked Fr. Shay about various aspects of his faith. He asked him what his image of God is. He replied that it was not the image as portrayed by the likes of Michelangelo, for example. Rather, he expressed his image of God as the existence of eternal goodness – the power and the force of love, caring for and respecting each other. When asked about the Mass, he answered that he found it a bit too ‘religioso’ in its current ritual and quite removed from what Jesus would have experienced. He likened it more to a meal of friendship. Asked about his thoughts on the ‘real presence’ (transubstantiation is the technical term, or the ‘magic bits’ as a friend of mine refers to it), he replied that he sees it more as the presence of Jesus being recreated by the people in the congregation who believe in the spirit of his message and want to carry on his mission. Regarding the resurrection, and Gay was quite specific on his meaning here – the ‘bodily’ resurrection – Fr. Shay says ‘we go with that’ but further explains that what Jesus lived and believed in – his message – is alive because his followers decided to keep the spirit of his message alive by living according to what he had taught them. 

Now if I was being asked to offer a critique of the programme I would say the questions were all very high level but nonetheless relevant. Anyway, how much depth can you go to in a 25-minute interview? Regarding the answers, I would say on matters of doctrine as professed by the Catholic Church, Fr. Shay probably did enough to avoid being branded a heretic. Not that it would bother him, I’m sure. Where he excelled, for this viewer at least, was in offering a different view or interpretation on several of the central tenets of the Catholic faith.

Why did yesterday’s sermon strike such a chord with me? Well you see, in the last few years I’ve gone through a bit of a crisis of faith, for want of a better way of putting it. The reasons are many and varied but suffice to say for now that I have become extremely disillusioned (perhaps irretrievably so) with the ways of the institutional Catholic Church. But more than that – I had started to question some of the fundamental teachings of the church. The revelation for me yesterday was hearing a cleric address the same questions I am struggling with but answering them in a way that made a lot of sense to me. You might well ask why I continue to attend Mass if I have so many questions and misgivings. I am very active in music ministry and I find that very challenging and fulfilling. Anyway, I don’t hold sway with the “if you don’t like the rules join another club” brigade and as Fr. John famously encourages people “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

So, what do I believe? What is my image of God? Well, I don’t have one because I’m no longer sure that there is the existence of an almighty being responsible for creating everything we see. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether I believe in such an existence or not. God as a being or entity either exists or does not exist, irrespective of what I believe. Like Fr. Shay, I believe in the existence of goodness (and evil – this was covered in the interview also) but that these things are not outside us but within us as part of our human nature, our human spirit. I believe that a man whom we know as Jesus Christ walked on earth 2,000-odd years ago. He was a prophet and a rebel in a time and a place where oppression was rife. I believe his message was that people were not going to find a solution to their problems by worshipping false gods. Rather, he taught them that god is love – not the sun, the moon, the sea, money, greed, power or anything else. He called people to use the love and the spirit within themselves to work for freedom and justice. His notion of the kingdom of god (kingdom of love) is achieved right here through making justice, love, concern and compassion for others the number one priority.

I believe the Mass as we know it today is in stark contrast to the image we have of the last supper – Jesus gathered with his friends, his community, most likely around a wooden table and sharing whatever bread and drink was procured from the local market. I doubt there was a bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is far more likely that the Romans disposed of the body to avoid creating a shrine to the rebel they had just defeated. I have a lot of empathy with Fr. Shay’s view that the spirit of Jesus’ message lives on by the decision of those who believed in his message to continue the work that he had started. I believe that, unfortunately, a lot of Jesus’ message has gotten lost in a fog of dogma, doctrine and canon law that has been developed through the ages by the Church.    

I believe that we need more people with the clarity of vision and the courage of Fr. Shay and Fr. John, able and willing to peel away the irrelevant paraphernalia that the Church has built up over many centuries and which now has so much power and control vested in its structures and belief systems that it cannot back away from them. Alas I fear such people of courage are few and far between in the Catholic Church. Vatican-II offered us a vision and a blueprint for the Catholic Church in the modern world and a true recognition of the role of everyone in the Church, women and men alike, to bring about the kingdom of love. Progress towards that vision appears to have stalled – some might even say we are in reverse gear. Unfortunately, there are too many Vatican men now emerging from the seminaries and not enough Vatican-II men. And no women. 

You can read more about PREDA here.

You can view Fr. Shay's interview with Gay Byrne here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In The Moment

The lead-in to summer 2011 was not a good time for me. Several years of stress and strain were about to take their toll and my mind was saying “enough”. Things improved over the summer, thanks largely to support of family and friends.

Fast forward to Christmas and year end - a time of year when it is natural to look backward on what has been and to look forward to what one hopes the future may hold. This is where the wheels came off a bit. Looking backward just raised questions to which I may never get the answers. Probably best not to dwell on it then. What of the future? Well, I was struck by an interview on Jan 2nd with Prof. Richard Tol of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). It turns out he has decided to up sticks from Ireland and head to the UK. He believes that austerity in Ireland will not last 4 years – more like 10-15 years. Probably best not to think too much about the future either, although my heart goes out to all, especially our young people, who are forced by economic circumstances to move overseas and also to their families who watch them go.    

So I’ve decided for the New Year to try to live just in the moment. It won’t be easy. There will be reminders of the stresses I’ve had over the past few years. At least now I know these are potential ‘trigger points’ for me so hopefully I will be able to deal with that. It will be impossible to avoid hearing about the future, especially from the ‘doom and gloom’ merchants. Ok – maybe they are right and we are in for a period of prolonged austerity. Our ancestors survived worse, and so will we. As individuals, our span of control in these matters is quite limited. What we can control is how we deal with it. I’m going to deal with it by not worrying about it – which is going to be a challenge for a natural worrier!

So, what’s going to keep me grounded ‘in the moment’? I believe my new-found interest in the form of photography is going to help me a lot with that. When I’m out with the camera I spend so much time thinking about my surroundings and the potential shots I can take that I don’t have time to worry or analyse anything else! And what else is photography other than capturing the moment – not the past, not the future but the absolute here and now. Fail to get the shot and it’s gone forever. That exact moment will never happen again.

To ensure I spend adequate time engaged in my pursuit, I’ve signed up for a ‘52’ project. That means submitting one photo a week on a specific theme for the duration of 2012. I can’t wait to submit my first photo at the end of this week. I’ll post a link to my ‘52’ here on my blog once I have posted the first picture. I’m hoping that some of the shots will inspire future blog posts – note - hoping, but not worrying!

Unfortunately, New Year’s Day doesn’t count in the particular ‘52’ project I signed up for, as Week 1 began at 00:00 on Jan 2nd. However, the particular photo I wanted to accompany this blog post is one I took on January 1st. It was at the Bray Charities Sea Swim. This annual event, organised by Bray Lions Club, has been going for 28 years and has the dual purpose of having some festive fun while raising funds for local charities. Over the years, the event has realised more than €250,000 for a long list of worthy local causes. Around 200 swimmers took part this year and proceeds are going to Bray St. Vincent de Paul.

Why did I choose this particular photo? Firstly, I like the expression on Frank’s face (and the colour of his towel, which originally attracted me to the shot). What I didn’t realise at the time is the great back-drop of the crowd. It shows what a community event the sea swim is – people straining to see or to catch a shot of a family member, neighbour or friend brave enough to take to the water. I’ll bet all those swimmers were ‘in the moment’ as they plunged in to the cold waters of the Irish Sea!

A very Happy New Year to you all  :)