The Lonely Hearts Club: Ethnic Breakdown at US Airports

December 23rd, 2011

If you ever manage to get through the security measures in good time at an international airport in the United States, take a look around at the demographic composition of those around you. Almost everybody travelling internationally (and most of those domestically) will be Caucasian, military servicepersons aside. Almost everybody serving these people coffees, burgers, newspapers and so on will be Black, Hispanic or Asian. This is not a coincidence.

 

Why America? (Turn Left at Greenland)

December 2nd, 2011

Why would someone move to a place that doesn’t know how to make tea? In the United States, one is usually presented with a cup, pot or glass of tepid water with a tea bag lying apologetically on a cold side plate. Then comes the ludicrous business of pouring the water, squeezing the bag to within an inch of its life while waiting for some change in colour before discarding the lifeless tampon surrogate. Why would someone do this to themselves? Why would I, a near addict, do this to myself?

The tea ritual shows, in one instance, America’s stubbornness and artistry. ‘You want tea? You’ll drink it our way!’ It’s like a child coming home from school with a painting of a “tree” that closer resembles a wall, but the family sticks it on the wall for years anyway because it was how the child interpreted the tree. The painting then remains on the wall for so long that to take it down would be to remove a tiny piece of the family.

What else is America? At one moment in time, it is one, some or all of the following: charming, outrageous, lovable, free, sickening, ostentatious, confident, scared, daring, conservative, revolutionary, dynamic, proud, ingenious, stupid, showy, private, avaricious, charitable, humane, merciless, stubborn, revisionist, religious, secular, heroic, cowardly, affluent, indebted, lazy, energetic, sexy, prudish, popular, disliked, focused, flamboyant, imaginative and frustrating.

It is a country with an address in the new world but with a founding population largely drawn from the old one, a sort of perfect storm for paranoia. It is a country of seemingly incongruous contradictions. It contains some of the most religious people in the world living under a stridently secular constitution. It is a country that has managed to make two close political cousins – liberalism and conservatism – appear as opposites in the popular imagination. It is the land that brought the world much technological advancement over the past century but simultaneously had to be dragged kicking and screaming into granting much of its own population some of the most basic human rights.

America displays, and often celebrates, a certain fuzziness about the world outside. It is as if the nation was in a contemporary pre-Galileo state of existence, only it is not the Earth that is the at centre of the Universe, but America that is at the centre of the Earth and, in order to prove this point, America strives to make it so.

America is the three or four year-old with the short attention span who ends up impressing everyone at the family gathering with some adorable party piece. It is the cocky adolescent doing one handed push-ups. It is the perpetual beauty pageant contestant, doing herself up differently as years and competitions go by. It is the partner that cheats and yet you always want to go back because it holds something irresistible. And I’m going back.

 

When I Get Home: Sandycove, Killiney and Achill

November 21st, 2011

In a post from May of this year I mentioned that, of all the things I miss about being away from home, nothing is more craved than the sea. One of the first things I did on this brief visit home was take a dip in the Forty Foot. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, you may think it’s crazy; but it is a creature comfort that I yearned for all year. This post is a tribute to where I am from and where I spend a lot of time: Sandycove, Dalkey and Killiney, Co. Dublin and Achill, Co. Mayo. Of all the places I have been in my life, I am yet to find one that can be quite as beautiful as Ireland. Some of the images were taken by my friend Ed Kavanagh, some were taken by myself, and some were taken by others.

 

Sunset from Sandycove strand. On cloudless evenings like this the sun illuminates the east pier and Scotsman’s bay. You can see three swimmers with their heads bobbing on the water.

The Forty Foot. I must have climbed those steps a thousand times.

More Forty Foot. You can see all the way across Dublin Bay to Howth on the far side.

Sandycove and Dalkey from the east pier in Dun Laoghaire.

Some birds found lunch in Sandycove.

Lunch!

More lunch.

A seal spies a wee birdy in Sandycove.

Rainbow over Dublin Bay, taken from Sandycove.

From Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape

Dalkey Island from Coliemore Harbour. The water isn’t normally this calm!

Sunset over Dalkey Island. I once sailed from Dun Laoghaire to the island and camped for the night. We had a wind and the current on the way over, but the journey back was hell. We had to row and I was about 14 with arms like toothpicks.

Killiney Bay taken from Killiney Hill.

Gorse bush on Killiney Hill in November.

Early morning dew on Killiney Hill.

Ed took this one of the Obelisk on Killiney Hill. It is probably my favourite image of all in this post.

The Obelisk with the Dublin mountains in the background.

Time to head west. This is Keem Bay near the westernmost point of Achill. I have been to countless beaches across three continents, yet none has ever been as magnificently beautiful as Keem. Have a few more . . .

Keem Bay is just one stunning place in Achill. Here are a few more . . .

One of the many dolphins off the west coast of Ireland.

Some horses watching a Mayo sunset.

Surfing at sunset on Keel strand.

The next few images are from the Curraun penninsula, just off Achill Island.

This is Clew Bay, Co. Mayo. Scores of little islands (‘drumlins’) dot the bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year in the Life: Montreal, Canada and Me

November 12th, 2011

Why Montreal?

Why not? It seems childish to answer a question with another question, but in this case I can’t help it. I had never been to the place before moving there, but it seemed like a place for me. Why Toronto? Why America? Why Australia? Why gap years spent on some pseudo-anthropological quest to see what’s it’s like to spend time in rural Bhutan? Why stay at home? These are all worthy pursuits for certain individuals; Montreal seemed to be a worthy pursuit for me.

Plus, I knew pretty much nobody and if I wanted to I could made up an entire history for myself and give myself a new name. I didn’t, of course, but I could have if I wanted to. Even that thought – the very hypothesis – was liberating. I needed a challenge and initially in Montreal I had a long, harsh winter ahead, no friends, nowhere to stay, no job, limited savings and the need to improve in French and become comfortable with the unique twang of its Quebecois derivative.

I arrived in mid-January. Finding an apartment was theoretically straightforward but practically complicated. I had no friends or acquaintances in the city and so had to trawl through a pile of online classified ads, copying and pasting the same spiel in two languages, amending it for those ads forewarning that obviously copied and pasted spiels would be ignored (you think I’m going to write a different reply a hundred times?). The other problem was that it was Montreal and it was January and on my third day it was -31 degrees Celsius. Minus thirty one. I had to get to these places to view them in that sort of climate. “Oh but it’s a dry cold,” they say . . .

I knew the area in which I wanted to live and started by applying in that neighbourhood. One fellow rang and said I could view a nice room in that area, but when I took the metro to get there it was obviously not in that area but actually a good few miles out. It would be like calling Tallaght “Balinteer” or maybe like calling Mogadishu a suburb of Milan. It really was very far from where the ad said it was. I went anyway, saw the room, shook the man’s hand and said ‘no thanks’.

The second place I saw that same day was in a perfect location but was a little bit . . . how do we put this? It was a little bit shit. The floors were uneven, there was no natural light at any time of day, and the room offered was oddly shaped with a single mattress on the floor. I know this because a lot of the posts on this site were written from that very room. Though I was not a beggar, I was most certainly not a chooser either.

I took the room not only because of its location but also because I was interviewed for it by two lovely, intelligent, outgoing women. What could be more important than good housemates? It turned out that woman A was subletting from woman B, who in turn was planning on moving to New York with another housemate (her boyfriend) who was at that time in New Zealand. I had not yet met the other housemate.

It turned out that the other housemate, a 30-year-old man from Paris, was a coma-inducing mammal who seemed to have undergone a complete personality bypass. I have now lived with him for nine months and as such feel ready to give birth to my true feelings about him. I never got his phone number, our longest conversation was perhaps long enough to go thirty seconds beyond ‘ca va?’ and when we had a mouse issue earlier in the year, his solution was to pick up his excrement-ridden half-eaten bag of rice and utter ‘putan merde!’ That’ll get rid of them. Not. His girlfriend rivaled him for annoyingness. He would bring her home in the afternoon and, even though I may have a friend over or I’d be chatting to the other nice housemate, they would give off the sweet aural flavours of passionate lovemaking. In such situations I feel compelled to perform a little bit of coitus interruptus myself and withdraw from the scene by leaving my own home for a while. I should give this man a name, shouldn’t I? Let’s call him Spanky. Work that one out.

When I arrived, friendless and cold, I worked hard. I had set myself a goal a few weeks prior to my arrival of getting published in The Irish Times. I pitched a few articles to various editors and was eventually commissioned to write one of them. That article was published over two months later.

On a notice board in my parents’ bedroom, there is a piece of paper on which is written something I said during my early-to-mid teens that so amused my mother that she had to pin it on the board. It says ‘the three most important things in my life are newspapers, women and cake.’

From around June of this year I subconsciously switched the first two around to the point where my consumption of news and output of words didn’t just take a back seat, but rather were put in a trailer. I then forgot to attach the trailer and instead drove off without it (though I never forgot to bring cake).

The evidence for this is on this page. I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by how epic the Montreal summer is and, at the same time, a person re-entered this little life of mine and took it over for a while. My output went down, as did my networking and pitching. Now that I have left Montreal, though probably not forever, I do have the very salient sense of ‘if only’ about some aspects of my year. But then I ask myself a question: if you had been offered the year as it panned out, would you have taken it in advance? Yes, I would.

Montreal is the hidden gem of North America. Homer Simpson once said “anyone could miss Canada, all tucked away down there,” and even within Canada Montreal is tucked away. There is no metropolis further north and it’s not really on the way to anywhere. To get to Montreal, it almost has to be your destination.

For many Montrealers, they are Montrealers first and foremost, not Canadian or Quebecois. I was having a sandwich in my favourite cafe (Chez José on Duluth) in around March of this year when the man serving me, a gangly bespectacled Anglophone of about my age, noticed the book I was reading:  A Fair Country by the Canadian author John Ralston Saul. On seeing my reading material, the man flipped out and went on a rant about how much he hated Canada. Of course, he was Canadian, but he gave the impression that he was trying to shake off his Canadianness like a dog trying to pick a tick off its body.

“What do I have in common with some kid in Alberta?” he demanded in a sort of rhetorical way. Canada is perhaps too big to have a uniform culture and it was never really meant to have one – that’s almost the point of its existence. The United States has been more successful in honing a sense of loyalty to one flag than its northern neighbour, but Canadians should not seek to mimic that. Any sentence that begins with ‘Canadians are . . .’ invariably misses the point; A nation of such size will inevitably command secondary loyalty from a large proportion of its citizens or, in the case of the man in the cafe, disdain. So be it. Montreal is worthy of this man’s affection in any case. It is a city worthy of anyone’s affection.

 

What happened to the American Dream? It moved North.

September 29th, 2011

(This article was published recently in Trinity News – www.trinitynews.ie)

 

There are two prerequisites that must be met in order to have some career success in American political life. Firstly, you must profess, over and over, that the United States is the greatest and most exceptional country ever to have been conceived; secondly, you must regularly express your faith in a higher, celestial power.

What is remarkable about this double expression is that the former – an absolute, unquestioned loyalty to the American Dream – is far more faith-based than the latter – the public expression of religiosity, often for political gain. The nominally secular notion of the American Dream has millions of devotees, all trying to find heaven on Earth. Thus, to knock it is to sign your own political death warrant. The American Dream is a religion for theists and atheists alike.

Look around you. Where is the new wave of Irish emigrants heading? Most of the usual suspects (Australia, Britain, Canada) have lined up at their airports to stamp Irish passports and working visas, but in this recession – our first since the 1980s – the United States has taken more of a back role. More Irish graduates and unemployed persons are moving to Canada and, fortunately for them, they are the ones who will get a real chance of enjoying the American Dream.

The numbers support this claim. Compared to the U.S., Canadians work less, live longer and enjoy better health. With a lower unemployment rate, a stronger dollar (from a position in the 1980s when the Canadian dollar was worth 69 American cents) and less sovereign and individual debt, Canada is now a better place to make money. Canadians – traditionally seen as deferential to their southern neighbours as they sloshed around in deep pools of capital in an entrepreneurial paradise –now view that same land, with its tattered economy, bloated debt and paralysed political system, more with pity than in awe. In a recent Nanos research poll of Canadians, 86 per cent said that their country holds more promise for prosperity.

That prosperity has come with shorter working hours and more time off, allowing Canadians to enjoy themselves more. The Canadian news weekly magazine Macleans has found that in recent years as Americans toil away, working to pay mounting bills, Canadians are spending more time with friends or travelling. Canadians play more golf than any other nationality in the world and have more sex but fewer teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and divorces than their American counterparts. They also drink more but have fewer illnesses and live longer.

Median income for Americans and Canadians is almost exactly the same, but in 2005 it was found that in Canada the average amount of personal debt per person was US$23,460, as opposed to a whopping US$40,250 for Americans. This means that, although they may have slightly smaller homes, Canadians have a lot more real wealth. Those figures are from before the American housing market descended into chaos, likely making for an even greater disparity in per capita debt just half a decade later. Canadians have a different definition of freedom.

Meanwhile in the U.S., debate within the Republican Party in recent weeks has focused on immigration as potential presidential candidates fall over one another in a race to see who can build the biggest wall in the shortest amount of time across one of its two land borders. Green cards, once handed out like confetti to immigrants, many Irishmen and women among them, are now far harder to obtain. The post-9/11 decade has seen American politicians tending to view immigration through the lens of terrorism or national sovereignty rather than as an opportunity to add dynamism and flexibility to the labour market. The popular image of the penniless immigrant arriving on American shore and “making it” through hard work and bright ideas is redundant if the system won’t allow it. On the other hand, Canada now accepts more immigrants per capita than any other developed country.

During one of those aforementioned debates in Florida, fanatics in the audience shouted ‘let him die’ as Republican Senator Ron Paul of Texas attempted to justify his belief that a hypothetical 30 year-old patient with life-threatening injuries or disease should not receive care unless he was wealthy enough to pay hundreds of dollars per month for private insurance. This is the not-so-small print of the modern American Dream.

Look the headline above and note the capital ‘D’ in ‘American Dream’. Why is it so? More than anything, it is now a brand – an idea that can be sold to men, women and children; something into which they can invest their money and emotions, even if the winners are almost always those already at the top. Canada, meanwhile, is no longer a blander, watered-down version of the U.S., though that reputation will take longer to change than the reality. While Americans have been busy pursuing happiness, Canadians have been living it. If anything, it is the true land of opportunity in North America.

God is deciding who to pick as President of Ireland . . .

September 7th, 2011

Place:    Earth Politics Committee Boardroom, Heaven

God:      Order! Okay, thanks for coming everyone. I’ll cut to the chase – I have to choose a new Irish President. Suggestions?

Moses (wistfully):          How long has it been since we did this?

Jesus:    14 years.

God:      14 years without a Presidential election? Ha! They call themselves a democracy, you know.

Everyone laughs

Jesus:    I suppose you want us to throw out some names, yeah?

God:      That would help. I can’t remember any decent candidates.

Moses:      You’re supposed to know everything!

God:      Ah Moses, give it a rest. My reputation precedes me and I’ve had a long day. So, any names for me?

Jesus (looking at a laptop screen):            I’m just looking at the odds here and they reckon this lad Higgins is going to get it. He’s got the right attributes – he’s got that dodgy Irish haircut going on and sounds awful strange. They’ll like him. He’s getting on a bit though, so you’d have to ask St. Peter how long he might stick around for.

God:      Hmmm . . . Anyone else?

St. Peter:        A Senator by the name of Norris has been mentioned. But you’ll be happy to hear he’s pulled out of the race.

God:      Why should I be happy about that?

Moses coughs and fidgets nervously, then looks at St. Peter

Moses:     Well, are you going to tell him?

St. Peter:      Never mind.

God:      Never mind what? What’s wrong with this Norris fella?

Jesus (sighing):     You know . . . he kicks with the other foot.

God stares back blankly

St. Peter:       He’s very effervescent . . .  joyous, frivolous, fabulous, Sapphic . . . Do you know what I mean?

God continues to stare back blankly

Jesus:    He bats for the other team.

God is still staring back blankly

Moses:       God, he’s gay. Do you understand?

God:      Oh right. Do the Irish people know this?

Jesus, Moses and St. Peter:        Yes.

God:      Hmmm . . . well we can’t be having an openly gay President just yet. This is a very weak field. Maybe we should somehow tell them to shape up a bit?

Noah (eagerly):        Can we have flooding?

God:      You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Okay, throw in some flooding, but nothing too drastic. Limit it to basements and ground floors in the more pointless counties – Tipperary, Laois and Offaly in particular. Oh! And Kildare. That will teach them for building too many houses on floodplains.

Moses:      That’s a bit Old Testament, isn’t it?

God:      Maybe a little, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots. I don’t mean go Pakistan on them, just have a few rural folk crying on the evening news while an RTE reporter wearing overalls stands waist deep in water, okay? The usual scenario, like last time.

Noah:    How about some fear thrown in too? Maybe have the insurance folks say they won’t pay out?

Jesus:    Not enough sandbags is always a good one!

God:      Erm, okay. But no deaths, you got that? Let’s keep our eye on the ball here – we’re trying to get a half-decent president for these people, not kill them.

Moses:      They had this man called Lenihan who would have been a solid president, but St. Peter only had to go and let him in early.

God (to St. Peter):           Did I ever tell you that you’re a fucking idiot sometimes?

St. Peter:       Sorry God, my bad. I didn’t realise how popular he was; I don’t even have the excuse that I was on holiday and forgot to leave someone in charge.

Moses:        What happened the last time you forgot to leave someone at the gate while you were gone again?

Jesus (interrupting):       JFK was assassinated!

Recalling his past errors, St. Peter looks at the ground and lets out a deep breath

Moses (to St. Peter):       Man, you really are an imbecile sometimes.

God:      Okay gentlemen, let’s leave him alone for a minute. Any other options for Ireland then?

Moses:       How about a joke candidate, like your man from Libertas or one of the Jedward twins?

Jesus:    Wasn’t Jedward punishment for Bertie Ahern sticking around so long?

Moses:        No, I’m thinking Jedward was punishment for taking the Eurovision song contest seriously for so long. Steve Staunton managing the football team was punishment for Bertie Ahern.

Jesus:    Then what was Bertie Ahern punishment for?

Moses:      Nothing. That just happened. They kept electing him without our help.

Jesus:      Are you serious?!

Moses:      Deadly serious.

Jesus:    I find that hard to believe, the gobshites. Anyway, doesn’t Bertie have a daughter who writes books? What about throwing her in as president?

God:      And why should I do that?

Jesus:    Well, last time you sent someone’s kid – your own – to do an important job, it worked out alright. Just a thought . . .

God:      Two points here, son. Are you comparing me with Bertie Ahern, and are you calling the Presidency of Ireland an important job? Because if you are, you’re off your rocker.

Jesus:    I was just sayin’

God:      And now you’ll just shut up, okay?

St. Peter (clicking his fingers, hip hop style):        Ohhhhh did you just go there?

God:      I went there.

St. Peter:       Hi-ohhhh!!!

Moses:      This meeting is getting out of hand. Might I suggest a parting of the ways and we can reconvene later?

Jesus:    You’re always suggesting a parting of the ways, Moses. It’s your solution to everything. Get a new trick already.

Moses:      And I suppose you’ve got loads of tricks, yeah? Oh look at me! Look at me turn this water into delicious wine! Prick.

Jesus:    You’re a prick.

God:      You’re both pricks and if you don’t shut it I’ll cancel the holiday and send you two to Satan for a week! Do I make myself clear?

Jesus and Moses (sheepishly):     Yes, God.

God:      This meeting is over. We’ll reconvene tomorrow. Moses, you bring the morning’s Irish Times and Jesus, you get me the latest paddypower odds. St. Peter, stop taking the few decent candidates and Noah, get things ready for the flood. We’re going to get these clowns a decent president.

Walls and Bridges: the Importance of Washington and Ottawa

September 3rd, 2011

Since human beings first spread themselves across the earth, they have encountered obstacles: rivers, mountains, scarcity of food, extreme heat, biting cold, warlike peoples and diseases – physical barriers to progress. Because of difficulties such as these, the vast majority of human history has been lived in fear.

Some individuals and civilisations embrace that fear and use it as a catalyst to attempt great feats. Ever since our species has sought new lands, one of the devices used to overcome obstacles to movement is the bridge. Bridges allowed us to eat today and build tomorrow while not drowning in the attempt. Julius Caesar made use of huge temporary bridges in order to subdue (or more often, massacre) Germanic tribes over 2,000 years ago. We use them to carry water and to drive further.

Retrospectively, however, bridges can carry more than water or cargo; they carry a lot of history. Of the three colossal countries that comprise continental North America, two of them – Canada and the United States – have capital cities that are located in parts of their respective countries in such a way that part of the cities almost became part of another country, and what links these would-be sister states are bridges. Ottawa and Washington, the respective capitals, were both capital cities by the time of the Quebec referendums and the US Civil War, which makes their capital status before these historic events all the more important and extraordinary.

When you walk, as I did two weeks ago, from Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River on Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial, you are walking from the state of Virginia to the District of Columbia. You are also walking from the old Confederate States of America to what was then and is now the United States of America; in another history, you could have been walking from one nation to another. The unity that Washington brings to such a vast country can be seen in concentrated form right there on that small plot of land. The bridges are stitches on an old wound.

Earlier this summer, I also walked from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario across the Alexandra Bridge over the Ottawa River to Gatineau, Quebec. Just as in Washington, bridges link what might have become (and might yet become) an entirely separate country within the capital city. I cannot think of any other cities in the world where this is the case.

Of course, the ways that Quebec and the Confederacy went about trying to gain independence were entirely different. For the former, two referendums ended with Quebec remaining within Canada – nobody died, at least not directly. In contrast, more than 600,000 people died during the American Civil War.

Washington is a far more grandiose city. It is larger and more monolithic with more tourists and bigger things. When one takes that walk from the old Confederacy to the modern American capital – from the South to the North – the air oozes the salient sense that this is a very important place. In that respect, the city is quite beautiful because it is a beautiful thing to be there. Physically and politically, Washington itself is a monument of monuments.

Ottawa’s beauty is more understated, built as much by the hand of nature as by the hand of humanity. Taking into account how recently the city was almost split between two countries (1980 and 1995), its status becomes a significant factor in the viability of Canada remaining one country.

Both Ottawa and Washington are metropolises that could have been permanently split by rivers, politics and war. As it is, they are held together by the will of the majority of the people and by bridges, bridges that have a modern resonance far beyond their original function.

Never a fool on the Hill: The Legacy of Jack Layton

August 29th, 2011

I never met Jack Layton and Jack Layton never met me, but I feel like we would have got along well.

Why? Because everyone who has heard of or met “bon Jack” seems to feel this way. And even though I never met him, I can solemnly claim to have been present at his final appearance and heard his final words to the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, the 23rd of June, 2011. Of course, I didn’t know at the time that it was Layton’s final day in the place where he had for so long defended working (and non-working) Canadians and their interests. My notes taken from the public gallery read that he “switched effortlessly from English to French” as he (fittingly, for what turned out to be his final Parliamentary cause) sought to preserve the rights of postal workers after they had been locked out by Canada Post.

That day, Layton slowly descended the stairs with the aid of a walking cane to take his seat as leader of the Official Opposition, a role he enjoyed for just a few short weeks. His evident physical discomfort did not soften his ferocity, wit and sense of justice, however, as he calmly but stridently put forward a set of policies that were at odds with the Conservative majority sitting opposite.

Less than two months later he was dead, killed by cancer. He was two weeks younger than my mother and two years younger than my father.

There was something heroic, almost Shakespearean, about the final few months of his life. His greatest triumph – becoming leader of the opposition – coincided with his rapidly deteriorating health. Alanis Morissette would call it ironic.

Layton’s death has brought together the full spectrum of Canadians, and in my case non-Canadians, in mourning: Anglophones, francophones, young and old, federalists, separatists, immigrants, journalists, conservatives, liberals, socialists, urbanites, rural dwellers, the wealthy, the downtrodden, temporary guest workers – they all realise now what Layton meant to Canada and what Canada meant to him.

Now that he has gone, there is a palpable sense that he was maybe too good for us.

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

On the Cloyne Report, Somalia, and Anders Behring Breivik

July 26th, 2011

A rebuke, a hidden cause, a massacre – it has been a tough week for God. Or more specifically, for the parties of God.

Ireland

By admonishing the Vatican in a Dáil speech last Wednesday in the wake of the Cloyne Report, Taoiseach Enda Kenny – a relatively conservative-minded Catholic – has effectively pressed the reset button on the Irish state and its relationship with the Church. The unfathomable master-slave relationship that has existed is now seemingly confined to the dustbin of history and, more importantly, Kenny and the wider Irish body politic do not appear to be seeking a reversal of that relationship, where the state would become master, but rather a separation or divorce. Ireland is dragging itself, kicking and screaming (and I choose this metaphor because that is what the pre-pubescent victims of rape at the hands of priests were no doubt doing), into the twenty-first century. While the state is rapidly losing its economic sovereignty, it is at least finally asserting its social and cultural independence from the vapid, corrupt and at times sadistic institution that is the Holy See.

What is particularly significant about this week’s events in Ireland and the Church is that, like the leaders that went before him, Kenny is aligning himself with middle Ireland – the mass of slightly conservative Catholics that make up a huge proportion of the electorate. The tipping point that made this speech possible is tripartite: firstly, gross crimes had to be undertaken and covered up by the Church; secondly, these had to be disclosed by a non-ecclesiastical party or parties; lastly, and most importantly from a political point of view, it had to be clear that at least half of the voting age Irish people had to be publicly affronted and sickened by what was disclosed. It is a sobering reflection to note that without that last part, it is unlikely that Mr Kenny would have delivered the speech, at least not in such bold language, no matter what his private feelings on the issue. It was not so much that Mr Kenny was being courageous – and we should not doubt that his feelings are sincere – but rather that the Irish people have finally given a government the opportunity to scorn the Vatican without negative opportunity cost.

A final thought; given what has come to light in recent days, months and years, one can only shudder to think what was happening during the centuries where the Church was above all criticism. How many Cloyne Reports were never written? We should not delude ourselves into believing that the Church’s rape-and-torture policy towards children (and, given the protection afforded to rapists, calling it a “policy” is quite legitimate terminology) was solely a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Somalia

The United Nations has now declared famine in parts of South Somalia, a tardy declaration that has already cost lives. But what is famine? Its effects are more obvious that its causes – the most chilling being children with oversized heads sitting on wasted bodies, waiting to die. But famine is not something that suddenly comes upon a community, nation or region; rather, it is often as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause but a catalyst of famine. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest cause famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

About two-thirds of the starving are thought to be unreachable due to the presence of Al-Shabab, a theocratic party of God that is now launching a strategy of mass killing by starvation; starving people to death in the name of religion. (Note how much easier it is to kill innocent people when you believe you have God on your side, as the third and final segment of this article will further show). Previous famines also had political as well as natural causes, notably in Ireland, where the British government initiated a policy of negligence as part of its then Empire wasted and fled, but Al-Shabab has exceeded that level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. The West may want to help Somalia and Africa, but it can’t do so without learning about it. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the continent. It can be left to rot and crash.

A final thought; during all your years of education, from pre-school through to third level, how much time was spent in the classroom or lecture theatre on African matters, save for the imperial scramble of the late nineteenth century? Answer: probably none.

Norway

Media coverage of the Utoya massacre in Norway is now four days hence, but few outlets and commentators are addressing one of the most unpalatable truths – Anders Behring Breivik is a Christian and a very conservative one at that. For Christians to disown him is moral cowardice and reveals a glaring double standard: if the 9/11 hijackers represent, at least in some part, a strand of Islam, then why does Mr Breivik not represent Christianity in some form?

It is clear from police and eyewitness statements given by survivors of the ordeal that Mr Breivik would not have stopped shooting at unarmed adolescents with the intention of killing them until police arrived on the island. He would have killed 3,000 people, given the opportunity. Why can it be said, as it has been repeatedly, that Mr Breivik is not a Christian, yet the 9/11 hijackers and their ilk are not only representative of a certain type of Islam – the fundamentalist fascistic type – but representative of Islam as a whole?

A final thought; if Mr Breivik has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, do Christians by and large believe that he will go to heaven regardless of his actions on Earth? I often think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for people like him to go to.

Given the events of the past week, it is clear that one of the defining arguments of the twenty-first century will be between secularism and the separation of church and state on the one hand and theocracy and fanaticism on the other. One should never miss an opportunity to celebrate the Enlightenment and admonish those who believe that they may do as they wish because a deity commanded them to do so. That is the solace that we may take from the events of the past week.

So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair

June 28th, 2011

When does a child become an adult? Opening a bank account. Your first pay cheque. Taking an interest in the news. Dealing with hangovers. Losing your virginity. Instinctively shaking hands with people you don’t know. Some are more obvious, such as moving out of the family home or getting married.

No matter how much we would like to believe that the transition is a smooth, simple affair, it is not. Some people move from childhood to full-blown early-to-bed must-open-a-pension-plan adults in a very short period of time, perhaps just a couple of years. Others drag it out over a decade or longer, afraid of the ceaselessness of ticking clocks, physically developing in one direction while psychologically staying put or even going backwards.

A little under two years ago I came back from a three-month stint working in Ghana for the Ghanaian Times. About a week after I returned, my mother said to me, with a mixture of melancholy and pride, “you’ve come back a man.” I didn’t know whether to say ‘sorry’ or ‘thank you’, or (as the wise philosopher Ronan Keating said) nothing at all. I had made no effort to consciously act more manly, but three months in West Africa would certainly develop even the most immature being.

It has now become clear to me, however, that the metamorphosis from child to adult ought not to be counted out with weighty actions such as marriage or jobs. Rather, it should be assessed in a more nuanced way by one’s evolving priorities.

It was last week, and a couple of years after my mother’s wistful words, that it occurred to me that yes, I am now a man. It only took 25 years. I did something that only an adult could do: I bought a piece of furniture. I got the sofa-bed not because I needed it, but because I thought my apartment needed a bit of jazzing up. That, and the fact that I can now offer overnight guests somewhere quasi-comfortable to sleep.

I built the flat-pack sofa and parked it in the corner of my room. Sweating after cursing for over an hour at nuts, bolts and pillows, I stepped back to look at my not-so handy work. It was only then, after the process of deciding I needed some more furniture, buying it, and building it, that I realised adulthood is now the only game in town. Next to the new sofa on the floor was a football, so at least I knew I had not rejected my passions from childhood.

Moving from childhood to adult life is therefore not a zero-sum game, where every stone added on one of the scales equally tips the balance on the other side. Instead, it is a process that we as humans don’t really understand until it is done; more importantly, every little gradated step on the one-way road towards proving one’s mortality need not be a rejection of childlike behaviour. I know plenty of more aged adults than me for whom brief, controlled escapades into childlike behaviour are a form of proof of adulthood. It seems that the only way to stay sane in advancing years is to sometimes act slightly insane, and every sofa bought must be balanced by a sofa jumped upon. Otherwise, that one-way road is travelled with tinted windows.