Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

Vegans to Farmers: Let’s Communicate

No doubt farmers will dismiss out of hand someone who believes that animals have rights. But I hope you’ll hear me out.

I am not saying you are going to hell for raising animals for slaughter or for trying to make a living from your land, and to take care of you and your family. In my view all of society is complicit in a system that I consider wrong from the point of view of animals, the environment and human health.

My father comes from the West of Ireland where his father was a part-time farmer mostly raising cattle. My uncle took over the farm and today keeps cattle and sheep. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. I simply cannot regard him as a bad person for what he does, and nor do I consider most of my friends who are meat-eaters bad people.

So let me explain how I adopted my position. Some years ago I met an English gentleman who is now in his mid-80s who was in extraordinary that he attributed to a plant-based diet that he had adopted some thirty years beforehand. I was intrigued to see what the effect would be on myself and started incorporating foods he recommended like millet, sea vegetables and miso. Slowly my tastes changed. I began to really appreciate vegetables as never before and felt my health improve.

Subsequently my own father who had grown up with the standard Irish diet featuring plenty of red meat and dairy produce developed heart disease and had to undergo a distressing heart bypass operation in his late 60s. Slowly and with some reluctance he switched to an overwhelmingly plant-based diet. The health benefit was remarkable. It reached a point where he no longer needed to see his heart specialist. The change of diet and increased levels of exercise had brought about almost a complete recovery.

But health considerations was only the beginning of my journey. I began to examine the environmental impact of meat and came across reports like the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow which attributed 18% of human emissions to animal agriculture. I also found out that 32% of Irish emissions were coming from our livestock agriculture.

Yet the health and environmental arguments alone were insufficient for me to turn vegan. It was knowing the violent origins that meant I could no longer stomach animal products. This caused some ructions in my family, especially at Christmas time when I argued against the age-old tradition of Christmas turkey. Tears were shed, but we survived as a family and I learnt to be less shrill in my criticism of others.

My story may seem of little relevance to farmers and I don’t expect too many to go down the road I have travelled. But from a business point of view it might be useful for farmers to recognise that the global market could change and the number of vegans, especially among the younger generations, is gathering a global momentum. Already products such as Beyond Meat are hitting the shelves of Walmart in the US. In the UK some 12% of the population, rising to 20% among 16-24 year-olds, are now vegetarian at least. Where the US and UK go we tend to follow.

What would the implications be for Irish farmers if a fast food retailer such as McDonalds decided to use ‘meat’ from plant proteins that was cheaper, healthier and less offensive to the increasing number of vegans? Do Irish farmers who overwhelmingly raise livestock have contingency plans for a significant dietary shift, especially if pressure is put on the European Union to withdraw subsidies on food that creates high emissions? Animal products can never be an environmentally conscientious choice, no matter what the marketing spin.

What opportunities are there for innovative Irish farmers to produce crops for direct human consumption? Could crops like hemp or peas represent great opportunities? Is dulse seaweed the healthy bacon of the future? Would vegan-friendly labelling shift more of a product? Fundamentally, do we need to look at adapting a subsidy regime that gives minimal flexibility to Irish farmers?

One of the remarkable things about the world today is the pace of change.
Through social media especially ideas diffuse very rapidly. There is no doubt that veganism is on the rise in Ireland and elsewhere and it’s important for conversations to occur between vegans and farmers. There is no point sitting in our respective bunkers. We might have more in common than we anticipate.

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.

Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’

The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’

Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.

In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.

He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’

The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’

The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.

Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.

Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.

Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’

Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.

This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.

In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’

Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Having been found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates awaited execution with blissful disregard, declaring: ‘You are sadly mistaken, fellow, if you suppose that a man with even a grain of self-respect should reckon up the risks of living or dying, rather than simply consider, whenever he does something, whether his actions are just or unjust, the deeds of a good man or a bad one.’

Likewise, those of the Fine Gael tradition – or tribe – see defence of the rule of law as a sacred duty. This self-anointed role found its purest expression in the 1932 democratic handover of power to the ‘slightly constitutional’ Fianna Fail party. Like Socrates, Cumann na nGaedheal – the precursor to Fine Gael – chose political hemlock over abandonment of principle, and spent sixteen years in the political wilderness.

In the ideological stew that is Irish politics, and in an era in many respects post-historical and distractedly global, a commitment to the institutions of the state – emphasised by the late Liam Cosgrave – flickers in Fine Gael.

As a Minister for Transport Taoiseach Leo Varadkar displayed those instincts – with guts – in his public support for the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, against then Commissioner Martin Callinan in 2014. His intervention came at a crucial point in that sordid affair that has prised open the security forces of the state to highly unedifying scrutiny, leading to the resignation of two Commissioners.

But in becoming the natural party of government after the bail-out – for the first time since 1932 – Fine Gael also decisively shifted its appeal to the commercial classes, and departed from the 1960s generations’ social democratic leanings.

This re-alignment poses an existential threat to a party that has been a bastion of constitutionalism. In particular, questions remain over its relationship to billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose media interests extend to the newspaper with the widest circulation in the state, a host of local publications and two national radio stations.

We cannot be allowed to forget the corruption revealed by the Moriarty Tribunal in 2011, and that no criminal prosecution was brought in response.
O’Brien now dispenses writs of defamation against journalists with the abandon of a card dealer whose fortune is so great he has nothing to lose. The joke is that no Irish journalist worth his salt has not received such a threatening letter.

Press freedom is a crucial measure of democratisation and the rule of law. This is maintained, especially, by guarding against monopolistic practices. Arguably, it also requires state investment – via a licence fee or out of taxation revenue – and oversight of offensive content, such as hate speech.

All media is, to some extent, compromised by the demands of the market, with survival made more challenging with the arrival of the Internet. As George Orwell wrote: ‘The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.’ Maintaining an adequate forum for the ventilation of ideas in that commercial space is crucial.

As much as we may bemoan the Irish Time’s coverage of various issues – and freelancers gnash their teeth at a perceived journalistic establishment – as the main outlet for the Irish intelligentsia the paper is an important democratic pillar. Thus, for Communicorp, the parent company of Newstalk and Today FM, to prohibit radio stations from interviewing Irish Times journalists is a challenge to the integrity of the state itself. For O’Brien to wash his hands of responsibility for that black-listing lacks credibility.

O’Brien’s media outlets coarsen debate, feed a culture of celebrity, and like Rupert Murdoch’s, use extensive sports coverage as a ‘battering ram’, drawing attention away from more important issues. The media space available to the intelligentsia declines with each glossy picture of a scantily clad model.

The question is whether during the Kenny years of drift and incoherence the Fine Gael party has been compromised by its relationships with O’Brien. Kenny even shared a podium with O’Brien at the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

If Fine Gael remain a guardian of the rule of law it must confront O’Brien. The Criminal Assets Bureau seems the appropriate means of moving in on his extensive assets, starting with media holdings that insulate him from public censor. White collar crime is another form of gangsterism. In how he deals with O’Brien we will see if Leo Varadkar really is a good and just man.

An increasingly number of countries, both rich and poor, are beset by oligarchs who exercise undue influence, and restrain the capacity of the intelligentsia to contribute to debates. The rule of law and democracy in Ireland faces a similar challenge in the shape of Denis O’Brien

The Slow Death of Poetry?

The  Slow Death of Poetry?

Oliver Saint John Gogarty tells a story about the twenty-three-year old James Joyce at the time of W.B. Yeats’s fortieth birthday party. Yeats was staying in the Cavendish Hotel on what was then Rutland Square (now Parnell Square). On a whim, the twenty-two year old Joyce called on the revered poet. Gogarty recalls: ‘he solemnly walked in and knocked on Yeats’s door. When Yeats opened the door of the sitting-room he said, ‘What age are you, sir?’ and Yeats said, ‘I’m forty.’– ‘You’re too old for me to help I bid you good bye’.

Apparently Yeats was greatly impressed at the impertinence of his young protégé, and it is axiomatic that each artistic generation rises up against its predecessor. Thus the Modernist Joyce slew the Romantic Yeats.

But in that pursuit of originality there is also recognition of past achievement. Occasionally, however, a tradition may reach a level of decadence such that it falls into abeyance. This would appears to be the fate of the high poetic tradition, in Ireland and elsewhere. It now enjoys a popular audience equivalent to the angling notes in the paper of record. The descent is apparent in the extended exercise in wordplay evident in the output of its leading Irish light, Paul Muldoon.

In Ancient Greece, when the values of Homer’s epics the Iliad and Odyssey held sway, there were at least seven systematic activities including poetry, warfare, farming and rhetoric which required a disciplined apprenticeship in pursuit of ‘excellence’. There was acknowledgement of past achievement that permanently defined any field, but aspirants knew that rupture was necessary to transcend previous heights. According to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre: ‘the greatest achievement in each area at each stage always exhibits a freedom to violate the present established maxims, so that achievement proceeds by rule-keeping and by rule-breaking.’

In order to scale the dizzying heights of his masterpieces Joyce first had to purge his own Yeatsian tendencies. As Jahan Ramazani in his Poetry and Its Others puts it: ‘Although Joyce wrote lyric poetry, the novelist is sometimes unrecognizable in the Elizabethan song forms, sentimental lyricism, and static retrospection of Chamber Music and Poems Penyeach.’ He cites a rather insipid passage where the iconoclastic brilliance characterising his novels is barely discernible:

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

Like Joyce, the precocious Muldoon spent much of his early career in the shadow of another poet, Seamus Heaney, but unfortunately his “rule breaking” is a slide into irrelevance. This polemical critique of Muldoon, makes no claim to be exhaustive, but is a delayed reaction to the collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (2015); his musical collaboration with Shaun Davey ‘One Hundred Years a Nation’ for the Rising commemorations last year; and a characteristically long poem that appeared in the January 2017 edition of the New York Review of Books entitled ‘Superior Aloeswood’.

Muldoon held the position of Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1999 to 2004, and is now a professor at Princeton, as well as being current poetry editor for The New Yorker. He is a brilliant critic, whose radio essay for the BBC on the legacy of W.B. Yeats at 150, to my mind, was by far the most perceptive among those offered by a number of Irish intellectuals including John Banville and Fintan O’Toole. But his poetry must be assessed independently, and without fear or favour.

It is obvious that the works of Muldoon I consider are influenced by the mood and techniques of T.S. Eliot, especially in terms of dispensing with hallowed forms in rhyme and meter, extensive recourse to enjambments (the continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza), and obscure allusion to mythology. The influence of his friend Seamus Heaney is also apparent in the flinty, ‘Northern’ texture of language evocative of Viking raiders.

But rather than altering the approach of his predecessors by a return to simpler forms he builds further riddles into his work, so puzzling as to be tiresome. James Joyce famously joked that his Finnegans Wake held so many enigmas and puzzles that it would keep professors busy for centuries. But that book of dreamtime is a unique, and highly-original, literary experiment. For all its complexity, appreciable linguistic novelty is not apparent in Muldoon’s poems: they read like difficult crossword puzzles.

Another Modernist rupture came about through T. S. Eliot’s seminal ‘The Waste Land’ (1922). It is by most measures a difficult poem to make sense of, just like the quest for the Holy Grail on whose symbolism it draws. Yet nestling in the obscurity are moments of arresting emotion that succour the reader, such as the opening sequence:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Anyone can inhabit these lines, stimulating curiosity for the difficult quest ahead. Here at least, abides by Aristotle’s maxim: ‘To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man’, even if the remainder of the poem demands profound textual analysis.

Of course applying Aristotle’s maxim tout court excludes most poetry since the Middle Ages, and I suggest that all of the great poets accommodate, to some degree, the demotic with the esoteric. It is widely held that Eliot’s high Modernism fell over the edge into the terrain of ‘academic poetry’, but there are concessions to a popular audience.

There is little evidence of Muldoon living among “the common people” in the opening poem of his last volume: ‘Cuthbert and the Otters’. Dedicated to Seamus Heaney one expects an outpouring of a universal grief. This, however, like almost every other poem in the collection, is impenetrable to a point of alienation.

The title revives a touching tale about the seventh-century Northumbrian Saint Cuthbert whose recitation of the psalms attracted the attention of the local otters, but unlike Heaney’s ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, the tale itself is only alluded to. Rather, we are expected to find out about it for ourselves, and are then treated to obscure references that fail to arouse sympathy. Is he likening Heaney to St Cuthbert? Are we, his readers, the otters? It is hard to know, or care.

Already in the first stanza there are archaic words such as ‘darne’, ‘fain’, ‘limen’, ‘flitch’, that display the erudition of the author. There is no concession to the general reader, and it continues in resolutely inaccessible, but oddly static, language.

There are also a series of non-sequiturs that appear as riddles such as in the second stanza: ‘It’s true they’ve yet to develop the turnip clamp / and the sword with a weighted pommel / but the Danes are already dyeing everything beige.’ Is it really worth the bother of finding out what he means here?

We also find hints at humour: ‘The Benedictines still love a bit of banter / along with the Beatitudes. Blessed is the trundle bed, / it readies us for the tunnel / from Spital Tongues to the staithes.’ And personal recollection: ‘I once sustained concussion, / having been hit by a boom in Greenwich, / and saw three interlocking red triangles on my beer mat.’ This may be free association of a highly-learned man, fond of resurrecting abandoned words, if so it is hard to identify its poetic qualities.

There may be merit in pure imaginative flow such as Percy Shelley likened to the burning coal of inspiration, but he contained his poetry within sympathetic meter and rhyme that allows a reader to float along the lyrical stream of his consciousness.

The only obvious concession to his grief arrives in the line ‘I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead’, but use of the archaic ‘thole’ reveals this as a private commemoration limited to Northern poets. This is comparable perhaps to Shelley’s elegy to Keats: ‘I weep for Adonais – he is dead’. Adonis, the Greek god of fertility is hardly a household name, but the dying Adonais attains an immortality in art, while the use of the verb ‘thole’ just reeks of scholarly nostalgia.

In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf Heaney points to his use of the word thole – ‘endure, suffer, hold out’ – not as an archaism but as a word linking his own Ulster dialect to Old English dialect. Muldoon thus situates himself as Heaney’s successor, but little appears to remain of the kingdom he lays claim to.

What of Muldoon’s contribution of a song-poem to the Rising Commemorations? Here we find the poet speaking more directly to “the common people”, and we find fairly predictable symbols of Irishness beginning with ‘from glen to glen’, the opening lines of Danny Boy, along with the stag and the yellow bittern. There is a predictable reference to Finn MacCool – of the macho warrior cult – as opposed to summoning characters from more subtle and colourful sagas such as ‘The Wooing of Étaín’, or ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ to represent the origins of the nation. The second half displays the influence of hip-hop and delivers rather populist digs at the ‘establishment’:

when that rent’s in arrears
now Finn MacCool gave way to cool
our very monks lived by the rule
of gombeen financiers

It struck the right notes for a windswept Miriam O’Callaghan on the night, and the musical accompaniment is genuinely rousing, but it could easily have been written to parody a decadence that is explicitly ventilated in one of his latest poem of ‘Superior Aloeswood’, published in the January edition of the New York Review of Books.

This takes a longer form making it all the more painful to endure. The theme here is beneficial rot: when the Aloeswood or Agarwood is digested by bacteria it produces agar, a resin valued for its fragrance in incense and other aromas. We are also subjected to an inventory of cheeses and wines which experience a similar bacterial breakdown; nods to the Biblical Nicodemus who embalmed Jesus (with such spices) in John’s gospel; numerous references to characters from Moby Dick, and more curiously, varieties of oysters.

It seems that these references have something to do with: ‘the Tower of Wrong / being built by Trump’, and ‘Bashar al-Assad training his bombardiers / on his own citizenry (grace a Putin), or perhaps: ‘Why the electorate choose the likes of Ronald Bonzo and George W. Bozo / as Commander-in Chief has already defied exegesis’. This is bewildering because the political rot can hardly be construed as beneficial. Moreover, if the great poet cannot explain how these men came to power then where does that leave the rest of us?

The lines: ‘Though we’d hoped to meet at the Blue Plate Oysterette / you’d been confined to barracks / on account of the side effects, I surmised, of steroids.’, reveal a debased successor to Eliot’s withered, but still lyrical ‘Prufrock’: The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.’ The patient is no longer etherised upon a table but in remission.

Muldoon bears no personal responsibility for his own self-expression, and for getting on in the world. His ‘success’ nonetheless suggests the poetic tradition, which in epic form provided heroic models against which the Ancient Greeks measured themselves, has devoured itself through conceptual innovation over the past century of seismic technological shifts.

Similarly, Will Self argues that the novel has been consumed by the Digital Leviathan. He poses the question whether, assuming the vast majority of texts will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web: ‘do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no,’ he says, ‘then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.’

It will survive he says but only as a state-supported indulgence like Classical music. He further contends that ‘the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism’. This leaves even less scope for poetry to attract a popular audience, especially given an inherent predilection for mystery. Conversely, considering Muldoon’s stature, what remains of the tradition survives by recourse to even greater abstraction. This is the “rule breaking” of an already dated post-Modernism.

Since the nineteenth century – linked perhaps to the increased pace of life produced by the railway, the steamship and the telegraph – poetry has been in decline relative to prose. But until recently it has filtered through and resonated with a wider audience. Much of what remains has descended into self-parody.

Paradoxically, however, versifying endures through popular forms such as slam, and song especially. These bring a visceral immediacy, although the scope for depth is diminished, and the great exemplars of the past are increasingly forgotten. This is perhaps a necessary dislocation before a revival.

More hearteningly Ramazani observes: ‘I began writing this book as a consideration of poetry’s dispersal into its others. But as I studied ever more examples of just such melding, I found time and again that poems reassert themselves as poems even in the moments of seeming to fuse with their others.’ The timeless, and primal, patterns of poetic speech reasserts itself notwithstanding the excesses of the current masters.

Poetry needs to grow a new skin for the old ceremony. Until then it will inhabit the space between the angling notes and the Church of Ireland notices, and political decay may continue apace. We need new heroes to measure ourselves against.
(Published in Village Magazine, March, 2017)

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

‘Immanent in the Landscape’

The highest compliment I can pay Mark Williams is that after reading his ‘Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth’, I have an appetite to learn the Irish language. He exposes to the light a literary inheritance that has barely flickered in the Irish national consciousness since independence in 1922. It allows this nation to consider its origins, and observe how mythology involves a dynamic process of re-imagining, inclusive to all traditions.

These include the Rabelaisian intrigue of ‘The Second Battle of Moytura’; ‘The Wooing of Étaín’ which offers a fleeting glimpse of pre-Christian beliefs; ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’ interpreted as a Christian parable; and ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Tuireann’ that foreshadows the disintegration of Gaelic civilisation. These subtle tales are a corrective to the fatalistic machismo of the character of Cú Chulainn from the Irish epic Táin Bó Cualígne, that has tended to adorn the nationalist self-image.

Defining the nature of the Celtic immortals, or gods, has long proved elusive to scholars. J. R. R. Tolkien complained that ‘there is bright colour but no sense’, although the elves of his Lord of the Rings were influenced by ‘Celtic’ mythology. The accuracy of the term ‘Celtic’ is itself doubtful when we consider the word’s Greek origin as ‘barbarian’, and the fragility of the archaeological evidence of a contiguous ‘Celtic’ culture associated with excavations from La Téne in modern-day Switzerland.

Undeterred, modern ‘Celticism’ (a hybrid of ‘Celtic’ folklore and mysticism) incubated fuzzy ideas such as these expressed by the early twentieth-century theosophist Walter Evans-Wentz:

“Of all European lands I venture to say that Ireland is the most mystical, and, in the eyes of true Irishmen, as much the Magic Isle of Gods and Initiates now as it was when the Sacred Fires flashed from its purple, heather covered mountain-tops and mysterious round towers, and the Great Mysteries drew to its hallowed shrines neophytes from the West as from the East, from India and Egypt as well as from Atlantis; and Erin’s mystic seeking sons will watch and wait for the relighting of the Fires and the restoration of the Old Druidic Mysteries.”

Efforts to taxonomize the various myths and develop rituals of worship foundered, at times comically, but the ethereal motifs were a wellspring of inspiration during the fin de siècle Irish Revival. This engendered possibly the finest movement in English-language literature of the twentieth century; the early W.B. Yeats and late James Joyce drew on imagery from these tales.

The corpus remains a powerful creative source, connecting us with enduring symbols that portray Carl Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious. Unfortunately today in Ireland, as elsewhere, the vision of an unconscious mind is rarely nurtured, and the varied manifestations of the Irish immortals hardly figure in ‘serious’ literature. Another revival may be brewing, however, associated with John Moriarty’s ‘philo-mythical approach’.

Williams speculates that the gods of the Irish prior to the arrival of Christianity may have been in considerable flux due to late Iron Age agricultural decline. The evidence for Gaelic paganism is fragmented and mediated by a Christianity that brought literacy; the indigenous culture had not advanced beyond Ogham script. We have no evidence for how pagan deities were worshipped, and they tend to appear as numinous presences ‘immanent in the landscape’. Williams speculates that a taboo may have operated against poetic description of pagan worship. Nor do we encounter a central Mount Olympus or Asgard for their deities. Tara was the seat of the high kings, not the Irish immortals. Their fragmented residences in síd mounds, haunting the countryside, reflect their banishment into the subterranean unconscious after the arrival of Christianity. As a reflection, or shadow, of a politically fragmented human society, their supposed location is unsurprising.

It is important to emphasise that throughout the period the Bible remained the foundation of learning, and few other books were available. Thus we find Ba’al, a biblical Canaanite god, being associated with the feast of Bealtaine at the start of May in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (Sanas Cormac) c.900, rather than the native ‘Bel’. Moreover, access to the writings of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) brought poets into contact with the myths of Classical Rome and Greece which influenced the ceaseless re-casting of indigenous tropes.

It might be assumed that the early Church brought a doctrinaire and prescriptive faith, but early medieval scholarship is infused with the language of paradox. It was believed that as fallen beings we cannot approach noesis (eschatological knowledge) directly; a position akin to physicists in the quantum realm contending with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Thus, rather than viewing Christianity as a monolithic, deadening force, in earlier times at least, it seemed to bring a refined admixture to a disorderly civilisation. Moreover, scholars were also acquainted with Neoplatonism which posited a universal harmony beloved of poets.

As when two ocean plates collide to produce an effluxion in life, a great cultural ferment characterised the encounter between a relatively insulated native civilisation and wider European currents. It is evident that individual genius is expressed within the context of a particular society, and Williams discerns among the literati of the time a sense that they were playing their part in a rather special movement. From the eighth to the eleventh century a formidable vernacular literature arose in Ireland, although most of the poets are unknown. Williams says this must count as ‘an outstanding contribution to the literary inheritance of humanity’, distinguished by ‘moments of ferocious weirdness’. It is also striking that many of the great works emerged at a point when the nation was suffering grievously under Viking attacks. This must have prompted deep questioning of God’s will, and the validity of their institutions. The pre-existing deities offered imaginative tools with which to address these issues when direct criticism could have proved dangerous, and artistically limiting.

Irish filid (poets) held expertise in memorialization of tradition, genealogies and vernacular composition, and were an exalted cast among the áes dána (skilled people). They were not clerics although, unusually for the time, aspects of their educations overlapped. In a highly stratified society they painted themselves as equal to kings. More than simply entertainers, they were also legal authorities in a society spared full-time lawyers. As masters of language – and performance perhaps – they shaped the outlook of their audiences; Percy Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’ in other words.

These Irish poets learnt their trade, often operating under exacting metrical demands. According to Williams: ‘They were expert in the grammatical analysis … in the highly formalized rules of poetic composition, and in training the memory to encompass the vast body of historical and legendary story, precedent, and genealogy which it was their business to know.’ Pagan gods and lore were their discreet preserve, conferring deep awareness of the native language and landscape, although, as Williams stresses, they were not atavistic pagans.

‘The Second Battle of Moytura’ (Cath Maige Tuired) c. 875 is the centrepiece of the so-called Mythological Cycle, relating how the Tuatha Dé (‘god-peoples’) had been oppressed by their enemies the Formorians (Fomoire). Applying my own Jungian analysis – especially relying on Laurens van der Post’s excellent treatment in Jung and the Story of Our Time (1975) – to the saga may be useful to the reader, and I think suggest Williams’s wide ranging approach offers an invitation for new readings.

It consists of a series of fantastical episodes of enduring interest. We meet a Tuatha Dé exhausted by impossible labours and tributes after the half-Formorian Bres becomes high king. He had replaced Nuada who had lost his arm and authority in battle. We learn that the court physician Diancecht fashions him a prosthetic silver limb in its place. In the meantime, Diancecht’s son Miach begins to heal Nuada’s real severed arm, but the father prefers his own methods and surgically kills his son by removing his brain. Miach is buried by his sister Airmed and from his grave sprout three hundred and sixty-five healing herbs, which she orders in her cloak. Diancecht has other ideas, however, scattering the herbs, each of whose value would remain obscure.
In the account of Diancecht’s preference for an artificial arm over Miach’s more effective Complimentary approach, the poet may be suggesting that the best healing comes from within the body itself, while the scattering of the healing herbs could represent ignorance of the cures available in Nature. It is also appears that a professional body will seek to preserve its secrets, in which case this remains a powerful metaphor that could be applied to the modern pharmaceutical industry. A man with a silver arm presages the contemporary spectre of transhumance, where human beings propose to upload their bodies into computers, in fulfilment of René Descartes’s Dualistic idea of a homunculus controlling a mechanical body.

The ‘Second Battle’ parades scenes of Rabelaisian excess, especially involving one character, the Dagda, who undertakes a mission inside the territory of the Formorians. There he meets a distortion of hospitality, whereby he is compelled to consume vast quantities of porridge to a point where is belly is the size of a cauldron. Afterwards he must loosen his bowels before sexual congress with a Formorian princess. In Williams own ‘less genteel’ translation: ‘The girl jumped on him and whacked him across the arse, and her curly bush was revealed. At that point the Dagda gained a mistress, and they had sex’. Smutty Irish humour has long antecedents.

The Formorians seem to represent the nefarious shadow of the Tuatha Dé, and the audience themselves. The Formorians are an external force that corrupt and indebt the native inhabitants, a narrative familiar to contemporary Ireland. However, the half-Formorian Bres is eventually succeeded by Lug who is also of mixed parentage. Yet he combines all the highest attributes of the áes dána. Lug and Bres differ in that the former’s father is Tuatha Dé and his mother Formorian, while the latter’s ancestry is the reverse. This might appear simply as an expression of approval for patriarchal bias, but we may divine an enriching symbolic meaning by seeing a favourable balance in Lug’s mixed ancestry being struck between the thrusting, will to power of male energy on his Formorian mother’s side with the earthier characteristics of the Tuatha Dé, that equate with female love, on his father’s. He achieves wholeness when, paradoxically, the female characteristics arrive through a dominant male parentage wherein the thrusting Formorian energies are contained (Mf:Fm = Fm). Bres differs in that the ‘male’ Formorian outlook remains ascendant as it arrives from a dominant male father repressing his ‘caring’ Tuatha Dé female energies (Mm:Ff = Mf).

There is another fascinating scene after the Formorians are vanquished when Lug captures the errant Bres, who pleads for his life by proposing that the Tuatha Dé should plant crops four times a year. Lug recognises this as impossible, or unsustainable, and only spares his foe when he reveals how the men of Ireland could operate a plough. According to Williams: ‘the Formorians in the saga are characterized by a monstrously exploitative and unnatural relationship to the organic world, in a strange anticipation of contemporary agri-business’. This may be so, but Lug’s character also has a Formorian dimension, that, crucially, is contained positively by his (Fm) parentage. Similarly, in this episode, when Bres’s knowledge is refined from the approach of ploughing the earth four times a year, we find he confers a crucial skill. The relationship between the Tuatha Dé and the Formorians may also have been a commentary on the benefit of accommodating the skills of Norse raiders who brought technological advances in agriculture and sailing, alongside carnage.

There are lessons here for a contemporary audience insofar as we need both a thrusting, male, Formorian, energy, to bring a task to fruition but crucially it is the caring, ‘female’ Tuatha Dé approach that should guide our endeavours. We might extend this further by allusion to the nefarious consequences of the contemporary separation of religion from science. As Laurens van der Post in his excellent study of Carl Jung puts it: ‘For me the passion of spirit we call “religion”, and the love of truth that impels the scientist, come from one indivisible source, and their separation in the time of my life was a singularly artificial and catastrophic amputation.’ It is the dominance of the Formorian mind that brought us the Atomic bomb. We could also draw an analogy with the unfavourable balance between the roles struck between the two hemispheres of the brain at present, persuasively argued in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The Formorian represents left-sided, ‘male’, singular focus, the Tuatha Dé holistic, female, right-sided awareness.

‘The Wooing of Etain’ (Tochmarc Étaín) c.800-1000 is a colourful tale of romantic intrigues and magic spells, featuring perhaps the greatest femme fatale in Irish literature. Based on recurring shape-shifting, we find hints of belief in metempsychosis – the transmigration of souls – preceding Christianity. Only fully translated in 1930, the tale was beloved of Revivalists such as Yeats, who found there imagery to stir any poetic imagination. Here the Tuatha Dé are reduced from the giants of the ‘Second Battle’ to ethereal síde, ‘faeries’, living in síd mounds, familiar in folklore today.

When Midir of the Tuatha Dé demands that Aengus his foster son gives him the most beautiful woman in Ireland in compensation for the infliction of an accidental injury trouble begins. She is Étaín whom Aengus earns by performing a series of tasks for her father, the high king of Ireland. Midir, however, already has a wife in Fúamnach who does not take kindly to the new arrival, turning her into a giant bluebottle through a magic spell. Even in this altered state Midir finds fulfilment in her company, and the divine Calliphora vomitoria performs various miracles along the way. Furious, Fúamnach summons great winds to drive Midir’s buzzing consort away. Eventually, exhausted, she falls into the drink of a woman who swallows her and becomes pregnant, reproducing Étaín 1,002 years after her original birth. The beauty is then married off to another high king of Ireland Eochu. Unfortunately his brother Ailill upon setting eyes on Étaín falls hopelessly in love, and starts to waste away. Ailill confesses his feelings to her whereupon his health begins to return. In order to cure him fully the obliging Étaín agrees to an amorous exchange, but insists, for the sake of propriety, this should not take place under the king’s roof. In the meantime, the apparently immortal Midir puts Ailill to sleep and assumes his form, explaining to Étaín their ancient love when they meet. She agrees to give it another go, but only if Eochu agrees to sell her. Naturally he refuses, only for Midir to win her from him in a game of chess after bluffing for the first few rounds. Still Eochu refuses to give up his wife, defending Tara with all his men. Undeterred, Midir miraculously appears inside Tara where the lovers embrace and transmogrify into swans that escape together. In response Eochu orders his men to dig up every síd mound in the country. At this stage Midir plays a trick on him by returning a replica of Étaín, who it transpires is actually Eochu’s daughter, Étaín having been pregnant with her.

Eochu’s fate is in an interesting inversion of the Oedipus myth, and echoes Jung’s understanding of the collective unconscious whereby ignorance and unawareness carry the greatest offence. As van der Post puts it: ‘in Greek myth, legend and art, the villain is always the ignorance where it serves as representative of inner unawareness.’ In this tale the folly lies in denying the expression of love, especially when the Tuatha Dé are involved. Nevertheless Étaín is a moral exemplar bound by social conventions whereby she refuses to dishonour Eochu’s home by fornicating with Ailill whose recovery reflects the benefit of voicing innermost feelings. Also, Étaín only agrees to return to Midir if Eochu consents. Having lost Étaín in chess he welches on the bet and is punished by unconsciously committing the taboo of incest. The enduring image is of two swans, who in nature mate for life, escaping through the skylight. The idea of beauty inhabiting the generally disparaged bluebottle attests to a joyful relationship with Nature. As the Eesha-Upanishad says: ‘Of a certainty the man who can see all creatures in himself, himself in all creatures, knows no sorrow.’

From 900 there is a shift in the name of the Túatha Dé, crystallizing as Túatha Dé Danann ‘the Peoples of the Goddess Danu’ in about 1200 which Williams suggests may have been ‘a deliberate attempt at inducing mental estrangement’. In the later medieval we find pseudo-histories such as ‘The Book of Invasions’ (Lebor Gabála Érenn) c.1150 which tells the story of Ireland and its various waves of settlers and invaders from the time of Noah’s Flood to the era of the Gaels or ‘Milesians’, meaning the ethnic Irish themselves. Here the Tuatha Dé are stripped of godlike qualities and instead imagined as a race of pagan necromancers preceding the Gaels. Historicising the Tuatha Dé also winnowed the creative possibilities available to poets, and Irish language literature thereafter fails to scale the earlier heights.

The Tuatha Dé become darker presences usually associated with human failings.
Suspicion extends to their bewitching music. In one episode of the ‘The Colloquy of the Elders’ (Accalam na Senórach) c.1220 the character of St. Patrick expresses these reservations: ‘‘Good it was,’ said Patrick, ‘were it not indeed for the magical melody of the síd in it.’ Yet their creative presence is still acknowledged in traditional Irish music: the word for session is derived from síde.

‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Lir) c.1450 is a tale familiar to most Irish people. The story involves a wicked step-mother Aoife whose magic transforms Lir’s two sets of twins from his first wife into swans. Forced to endure what is portrayed as an unhappy fate their resolve is strengthened by one of them, Fionnghuala, who seems to have an inner knowledge of Christian revelation. Eventually they meet a saintly monk called Mochaomhóg who baptises them whereupon the spell is broken, and they become withered old human beings who die and ascend to heaven. It is worthwhile comparing this tale to the earlier ‘Wooing of Étaín’ where the shape-shifting into swans is an affirmative form of escape into a wild nature. According to van der Post:

“the bird always and everywhere from Stone-Age man to Stravinsky has been the image of the inspiration, the unthinkable thought which enters our selves like a bird unsolicited out of the blue, it was for Jung … one of the signs of confirmation from nature that sustain the spirit in its search for enlightenment and emancipation from the floating world of appearances.”

In ‘The Tragic Death of the Children of Lir’ a censorious cage is placed over the bird of imaginative possibilities, which fitted neatly the domineering Catholicism of independent Ireland. The worth of life as a swan is rejected, a lifeless human form is preferred as long as salvation is available from the one true Apostolic Church.

‘The Tragic Deaths of Children of Tuireann’ (Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann) c.1500 returns to the subject-matter of the ‘Second Battle of Moytura’, but at this point internal rivalry bedevils the Tuatha Dé, leading to the murder of Cian, the father of Lug, by the sons of Tuireann. The sons attempt to bury Cian’s mangled remains six times but each time the earth rejects his body, illustrating Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious where nature itself rises up against a nefarious deed. This idea is also found in Émile Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin where a murdered husband haunts the landscape of those responsible for the deed, his wife and her lover who are driven to commit suicide together.

Lug intuits that the sons are responsible for the deed and succeeds in gaining a commitment for them to pay éric, the legal compensation for homicide. Unsurprisingly the sons meet a sorry fate in their quests to satisfy this, but perhaps more interesting is the depiction of the Tuatha Dé as an enfeebled race incapable of contending with the Formorians. The illusion to the fractious politics of that period is obvious, and as Gaelic Irish culture crumbled after the Tudor conquest and subsequent plantations the vibrancy of the gods diminished, until their resuscitation, ironically, via descendants of their conquerors.

The Romantic inspiration for the Revival of Irish mythology at the end of the nineteenth century is significant. Yeats, especially, was influenced by Romantics and pre-Raphaelite poets of a previous era, foremost perhaps Shelley who saw poetry as the font of wisdom and extensively mined Classical mythology for metaphor and inspiration. In his essay The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry (1900) Yeats refers to the ‘ministering spirits’ for the former’s poem Intellectual Beauty: ‘who correspond to the Devas of the East, and the Elemental Spirits of medieval Europe, and the Sidhe [sic] of ancient Ireland’. In quoting that poem he reveals the significance of the síde to his own Art:

These are ‘gleams of a remoter world which visit us in sleep,’ spiritual essences whose shadows are the delights of the senses, sounds ‘folded in cells of crystal silence,’ ‘visions swift, and sweet, and quaint,’ which lie waiting their moment ‘each in its thin sheath, like a chrysalis,’ ‘odours’ among ‘ever-blooming Eden trees,’ ‘liquors’ that can give ‘happy sleep,’ or can make tears ‘all wonder and delight’; ‘the golden genii who spoke to the poets of Greece in dreams’; ‘the phantoms’ which become the forms of the arts when ‘the mind, arising bright from the embrace of beauty,’ ‘casts on them the gathered rays which are reality’; ‘the guardians’ who move in ‘the atmosphere of human thought,’ as ‘birds within the wind, or the fish within the wave,’

Yeats, however, felt: ‘Shelley’s ignorance of their more traditional forms, give some of his poetry an air of rootless poetry’. Perhaps he believed he could offer greater authenticity in his verse through his childhood contact with fairy-lore in his mother’s country Sligo, alongside his continued investigations.

Yeats identified himself with Ireland (as opposed to England where he spent much of his early life) as he found there vibrant and novel mystical sources for his poetry, containing symbols he considered universal. His Ireland was a Romantic illusion coinciding with a doomed attraction to Maud Gonne whose intense nationalism bewitched him. Building on the work of Standish O’Grady and others, he and his friends, the journalist and visionary George Russell and the folklorist Augusta Lady Gregory, developed a pantheon of Irish gods mirroring Classical, and, importantly, Hindu models. In Yeats’s view: ‘Tradition is always the same. The earliest poet of India and the Irish peasant in his hovel nod to each other across the ages, and are in perfect agreement.’

As with the early period of Christianity, the nourishment of other traditions, Neoplatonic and Oriental, brought texture and colour to the Irish gods. It is also telling that the leading Revivalists came from Protestant backgrounds which emphasises the malleability of immortals ‘immanent in the landscape’. The Tuatha Dé are equal opportunities enchanters that make no distinction based on race or creed, although all should be beware of the amádan na bruidhne, a supernatural being whose very touch brings disablement and death. The fool in Ireland is not always wise.

Importantly at this time, Yeats and his coterie formed the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn which served a role akin to the schooling of the medieval filid. According to Williams: ‘Progress up through the grades of the Golden Dawn was via a series of initiations and examinations, each of which required the initiate to master aspects of occult symbolism and philosophy – a system of considerable intellectual complexity.’ It seems that Yeats who never attended university was alluding to the benefits of this formation when he urged: ‘Irish poets learn your trade’, in his valedictory ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
Largely owing to their identification with heretical Protestantism and deviant theosophy, the Tuatha Dé largely retreat from view after Irish independence in 1922, except to vent a repressed sexuality in the work of Liam O’Flaherty and Austin Clarke. It is revealing, however, that the determinedly cosmopolitan James Joyce proposed that James Stephens, a prominent scholar of Irish myth, should complete Finnegans Wake should he expired before doing so. Sadly, most schoolchildren are unacquainted with the riches of the early sagas which helps explain the continuing decline in the fortunes of the Irish language.

It is instructive that the retreat of mythology from late twentieth century Irish literature coincides with a loss of vividness and magical elements. Thus, in John McGahern’s novel Among Women, perhaps the most famous Irish novel of the second half of the twentieth century, we find a realist portrayal of rural life that is bereft of fantastical imagery. This reflects a wider cultural shift as van der Post bemoaned: ‘The free exercise of fantasy which is the imagination unsevered from its instinctive roots at play, has gone from literature and art’.

Williams suggests that a mythology: ‘furnishes a culture with total worldview, interpreting and mirroring back everything that that culture finds significant’. It is a medium that remains vitally generative in the creative process allowing artists to imagine divine possibilities. Unfortunately its possibilities have been tethered by a dunderhead scientism that conflates all belief in the supernatural. Scientism now operates in the same way as a dogmatic Christianity when it ceased to express ideas in the language of paradox. The location of the Tuatha Dé and other Irish immortals is in the unconscious minds; which is as real as any other observed phenomenon, especially through the work of Jung, who analysed 67,000 dreams, we can approach an understanding of a common and elusive inheritance.

It is also worthwhile recalling the views of the leading art critic of nineteenth century Britain John Ruskin who asserted a belief in ‘spiritual powers … genii, fairies, or spirits’. He claimed that: ‘No true happiness exists, nor is any good work done … but in the sense or imagination of such presences.’ This may have been meant in the sense that we should preserve our ‘childish’ sense of wonder into adult life. Jung also identified supernatural belief with wholeness involving reconciliation to a ‘female’ side our nature.

Mythology can be a constituent of Richard Kearney’s idea of ‘Anatheism’: ‘the possibility of a third way beyond the extremes of dogmatic theism and militant atheism: the polar opposites of certainty that have maimed so many minds and souls in our history.’

John Moriarty is the latest writer to light the torch of the Tuatha Dé in his ‘philo-mythical’ writings dousing his work with characters borrowed from Old Irish literature. His prose is gloriously poetical although it is difficult to keep abreast with the sheer erudition. It is advisable to begin by listening to recordings of Moriarity as he explores the contours of his crooked world, observing all ontologies and mythologies that lie in the undergrowth. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 documentary about his life Dreamtime, Revisited was subjected to attack, with Donald Clarke in The Irish Times describing it as ‘priceless parody of Celtic windbaggery’, although the reviewer acknowledged that he had never read any of Moriarty’s formidable writings and evinced no appetite to do so.

Mark Williams’s book is a tour de force of scholarship by any measure. Naturally there are lacunae in a treatment that spans over a thousand years, including an acknowledged omission to integrate the gods of the Táin Bó Cualígne into his narrative. It may also have benefitted from further concentration on the social structures of early Christian Ireland and the agricultural modes of production, and relations with Nature, that underpinned these. The Tuatha Dé exist in an Irish dreamtime that we dismiss at our peril. Their presence remains etched into the landscape as an undiscriminating font of creativity that may help us unlock our most vivid ideas.

An Enduring Legacy – Lessons from the Great Famine

(Published in Village Magazine, November 2012)

Who was to blame for the Great Famine? This thorny question rears its head with the recent publication of the Atlas of the Great Irish Famine by Cork University Press. We may accept the detached assessment of the American economic historian Joel Mokyr expressed some years ago that ‘Ireland was considered by Britain as an alien and even hostile country… the British simply abandoned the Irish and let them parish’; but we should not ignore how many Irish Catholics profited from this great rupture in our history which led to a population reduction of over two million due to starvation and emigration. The enduring legacy must be explored.

Irish people at the time were treated as second class citizens by their government; relief for desperate hungry victims was not a statutory right under the Irish Poor Law, as it was under its English equivalent. Successive failures of the potato crop 1845-50 caused by the blight phytophtera infestans did not lead to market intervention that occurred where grain harvests failed in England. Irish grain continued to be exported and insufficient cheap maize was purchased on the international market at key points. Moreover, the infamous Gregory clause of the Irish Poor Law denied relief to tenants holding more than a quarter acre unless they surrendered their tenancy which turned it into a charter for land clearance and consolidation.

But in emphasising the inaction of remote authorities in Westminster we overlook the gains made by Catholic Irish farmers holding substantial farms above 20 acres. In one contribution to the Atlas Kerby A. Miller writes: ‘an unknown but surely very large proportion of Famine sufferers were not evicted by Protestant landlords but by Catholic strong and middling farmers, who drove off their subtenants and cottiers, and dismissed their labourers and servants, both to save themselves from ruin and to consolidate their own properties.’

A commitment to laissez faire, as well as a sense of providentialism that cast natural occurrences as part of a divine plan, informed the thinking of the leading British policy-makers at the time, foremost the Assistant Secretary to the Treasury Charles Trevelyan who was responsible for relief measures. He concluded afterwards: ‘The result in Ireland has been to introduce other better kinds of food, and to raise the people, through much suffering, to a higher standard of subsistence.’ To the enduring chagrin of Irish nationalist he was knighted for his services in 1848.

The response of British authorities can be situated within a larger context of a shift in Imperial policy and an ongoing Agricultural Revolution whereby: ‘Farming changed from being an occupation primarily concerned with extraction from the soil into one involving the purchase of raw materials which were processed to produce a saleable product.’

The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 was the great triumph of laissez faire. In contrast to most European states where protection was extended to farmers, agriculture in the British Isles was thrown open to the free market.
Those who derived wealth from industry rather than land would henceforth guide British policy. Free trade would drive down the cost of food in the ‘workshop of the world’. Henceforth regions of the Empire would specialise in the production of particular foodstuff for sale on the international market, with the development of steamships making this possible. In contrast, in the same period in France a high proportion of production continued to be consumed on the farm or within the locality.

Politically, the occasionally benign paternalism of the landed aristocracy would no longer hold sway. The first editor of The Economist James Wilson, answered Irish pleas for public assistance with the claim that ‘it is no man’s business to provide for another’.

Within this constellation Ireland would supply beef and dairy for its near neighbour; tillage and horticulture, particularly carried out by peasants at a subsistence level, should be abandoned. By 1900 pastoral farming dominated as never before. It hardly mattered that a succession of Land Acts (1869-1904) had transferred ownership to former tenants. Those independent farmers would continue to generate ‘saleable products’ for the market.

An old way of life died for good as a result of the Great Famine. Subsistence communities, known as Clachan, were wiped out. Granted, Irish peasants were unwitting architects of their demise: plentiful potatoes allowed for early weaning which generated exponential population growth; almost 9 million in 1845.

Parts of Ireland had some of the world’s highest population densities, but according to Mokyr was not overpopulated on the eve of the Great Famine. It was the switch to pasture that made it so. Fernand Braudel observes: If the choices of a society are determined solely by adding up calories, agriculture on a given surface areas will always have the advantage over stock-raising; one way or another it feeds ten to twenty times as many people.’

Perhaps improvement in education levels, especially with the advent of free primary education in 1831, could have encouraged family planning and improved employment prospects. A more ordered transition to modernity might have occurred instead of the fearful flight to cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and New York. But this would have required a government committed to the welfare of the population, and a settlement of the land question whereby gross inequalities, the legacy of seventeenth century conquest, were extinguished. However, Kerby observes that even: ‘Catholic nationalist (wealthy farmers and townsmen) as well as the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergymen were much too conservative to countenance a peasant assault on Irish property relationships.’

A genuine revolution in land-ownership might have achieved this, but the demise of smallholders made the Land War of the 1880s a battle for the spoils of the Great Famine.

Exploring these ‘what ifs’ is counterfactual history, but it is important to recognise that the Great Famine was not inevitable and that the system of land-usage dominated by livestock for the international market that endures to this day is a recent innovation. One Protestant landowner referring in the 1850s to this shift said: ‘the extermination of humans and the substitution of brute animals for the human race on the soil of Ireland, is not an improvement grateful to my mind.’

Prior to the Great Famine Irish peasants were comparatively healthy. Irishmen’s heights were greater than those of equivalent Englishmen in a variety of occupations and situations and life expectancy was greater than most other Europeans except those of Denmark and England.

They had a sparse diet relying primarily but not exclusively on the potato; it actually constituted only one third of the land under tillage in the 1840s. They also consumed oats, especially in Ulster, vegetables, wheat and barley, butter milk, and whatever could be foraged in the form of seaweed, shellfish, berries and nuts. For most meat was a rarity. With a settlement of the land question diets would have become more varied based on the locally-sourced ingredients enumerated with less reliance on the potato.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw a dramatic shift in diet away from what was produced locally; beef and dairy were only for the tables of the well-off in Ireland. Between 1859 and 1904 sugar consumption rose tenfold and with it came increasing mortality from diabetes. Baker’s bread became the staple, and sugary tea the succour of the poor. This was Trevelyan’s idea of a ‘higher standard of subsistence’.

In an article written in 1913 George Russell (A.E.) observed of the transition: ‘There is no doubt that the vitality of the Irish people has seriously diminished, and that the change has come about with a change in the character of the food consumed. When people lived with porridge, brown bread and milk as the main ingredients in the diet, the vitality and energy of the people was noticeable, though they were much poorer than they are now… When one looks at an Irish crowd one could almost tell the diet of most of them. These anaemic girls have tea running in their veins instead of blood. These weakly looking boys have been fed on white bread’.

It is worth considering the effect of colonisation on the eating habits of the Irish who transitioned to a diet that was a product of colonisation, a trend that has continued. As Homi Bhaba puts it: ‘Although colonised subjects endeavour to imitate or mimic the behaviour of the coloniser, the mimicry is always imperfect – almost the same but never quite’.’

In response to colonisation we invented sporting codes, but because our colonisers had a stunted gastronomic culture we did not invent one for ourselves. But as this emerged in Britain in recent times there has emerged a pallid mimicry: our versions of Nigella and Jamie are neither as sultry nor as charming.

A self-respecting Irish gastronomy might hark back to the tradition of the Clachan, instead of the present models of taste that favour the livestock produce of land clearances. The food of the Clochan was light, wholesome and ecologically sensible. It should appeal to the contemporary gastronome.
Moreover, recent research by Goodland and Anhang has shown that up to 51% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions emanate from livestock farming. It may be a sad irony of history that Irish livestock-farming will indirectly contribute to famines in the Third World as climate change brings drought and ecological catastrophes.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2012/11/lessons-from-the-famine/)

Can Justice be Poetic?

The Irish nation is rightly proud of its poetic inheritance. At first glance this sacred tradition has nothing to do with the law, but I argue that by engagement with our great poets we may arrive at a deeper understanding of the broader idea of justice.

The lawyers and politicians who hand down our laws have studied poetry in school of course, some perhaps in university. They may even have excelled in that study, but presumably their interest should cease when they become responsible adults.

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) makes the remarkable claim in his A Defence of Poetry (1812) that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. He says that his kind engendered the social sympathies that are the inspiration for laws.

And poets actually seem to have literally sung some of the first laws into being. The legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

For the Ancients justice and poetry intermingled, the use of meter and rhyme helping people recall civic duties as a Catholic does his faith in reciting the Creed.

But apart from a mnemonic role is there a broader connection? Shelley contends that poetry is the highest form of imaginative expression which precedes philosophical enquiry. Nor does he restrict poetry to verse but points to the poetic imagination in other art forms. The great historians are poetic in their appreciation of human nature he says.

Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own.’ Through his deep sensitivity the poet is therefore powerfully empathic; perhaps our lawmakers should also focus on these faculties.

As a true Romantic Shelley perhaps overstates the benign nature of poets. After all Hitler mesmerised audiences with mellifluous speeches and the Tory and Unionist politician Enoch Powell, a published poet, warned against multiculturalism using the colourful metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’.

Nonetheless poets are often visionaries. Shelley refers to a powerful intuition: ‘he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

That ability to “behold the future in the present” is apparent in Ireland’s greatest poet W.B. Yeats the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. Writing in the aftermath of World War I he memorably predicted in The Second Coming how events would enfold in Europe culminating in the atrocities of World War II just twenty years later: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.’ Here he’ll always be remembered for his immortal phrase: ‘A terrible beauty is born’.

Neither Shelley nor Yeats always embodied the lofty qualities that Shelley alludes to. Yeats’s fascist fellow-travelling and aristocratic hauteur is now rather embarrassing to his devotees, but interestingly as a Senator in the 1920s ‘that smiling public man’ was a trenchant critic of an increasingly Catholic State.

During a debate on the introduction of a law prohibiting divorce in the Seanad he presciently argued that: ‘If it ever comes that North and South unite, the North will not give up any liberty which she already possesses under her constitution. You will then have to grant to another people what you refuse to grant to those within your borders. If you show that this country, Southern Ireland, is going to be governed by Catholic ideas and by Catholic ideas alone, you will never get the North. You will create an impassable barrier between South and North … You will put a wedge into the midst of the nation.’

Yeats argued that the absence of divorce eroded the integrity of the institution of marriage itself: ‘This is a demand for happiness, which increases with education, and men and women who are held together against their will and reason soon cease to recognise any duty to one another.’

I suggest that perhaps the finest example of poetic imagination in Irish law was the discovery by Kenny J. of “Unenumerated Rights” under the Irish constitution in Ryan v Attorney General (1965).The right to bodily integrity was soon followed by the ‘discovery’ of other unexpressed rights by other judges. Kenny was, like the first poet-lawyers singing a new species of law into existence.

Unenumerated Rights have been vital to the development of Human Rights law in Ireland but unfortunately the idealism of the 1960s has given way to a more mechanistic and less imaginative approach to justice.

Poets may not live up to their own ideals but there seems no group better equipped at understanding the human condition and distilling moral principles from that essence.
(Unpublished, 2016)

Imagining Ireland

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

The spark of any human venture is imagination. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1795-1827) in his ‘In Defence of Poetry’ distinguishes this from reason, the ‘enumeration of qualities already known’; whereas ‘imagination is the perception of the values of those qualities, both separately and as a whole … Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance.’

Too often governments, corporations and individuals lack that ignition. Reason in abundance is evident yes, but imagination is rarely nurtured and sometimes frowned on. We strive to proceed from point A to B failing to recognise the possibilities in the remainder of the alphabet. Ireland stands accused.

Scientific reasoning for all its astounding capacity is founded on imagining a possibility beyond contemporary restraints. Thus Portuguese navigators of the fifteenth century first envisioned a route to India and then produced a vessel, the caravel, allowing them to sail windward. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention but really imagination charts the course.

The Portuguese voyages represented the triumph of the Renaissance mind over the medieval. In his autobiography Laurens van der Post relates a story told to him by C. G. Jung ‘that if one wanted to fix a precise moment at which the Renaissance began, it would be the day when the Italian poet Petrarch decided to defy superstition and climb a mountain in the Alps, just for the sake of reaching its summit.’

A poetic imagination can guide Irish people to the heights of their capabilities, removing what is left of the Catholic-industrial-complex. To do so we must move beyond the wisdom of Ireland’s leading public intellectual Fintan O’Toole. His insights can only take us so far: like Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy who guides Dante the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory as far as the border of Paradise.

The utility of imagination is not restricted to mechanical invention or improvements to organisations but also underpins the empathy that makes us identify with others and extend compassion. Shelley writes that for a man to be ‘greatly good’ he ‘must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must be his own;’

Throughout the twentieth century we saw a failure of what the philosopher Jonathan Glover calls ‘moral imagination’; we still see individuals sheltering in the comfort of command centres from which they unleash death and destruction. From this vantage war became like a computer game that obscures the real horror, and yet bewilderment greets the ferocity and depravity in response.

Through their faculty of imagination Shelley identifies poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world who forge social sympathies. In agreement the legal scholar Edward J. Erbile writes: ‘Ancient law often took the form of poetry. Laws were expressed in incantatory rhythms. The oldest Greek and Latin words were also the eldest words for law. For example carmen or carminis in Latin means ‘song’ or ‘statute’.’

Shelley also hails the intuitive capacity of the poet who: ‘not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present thing ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present (not that they can foresee the future).’

Further, he distinguishes between poetry which ‘in the restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man’; and poetry located in other forms such as the story or novel: ‘The parts of the a composition may be poetical without the composition as a whole being poetical’. He adds that ‘all the great historians were poets’ and that ‘poetry is ever to be found to co-exist with whatever other arts contribute to the happiness and perfection of man’.
Seen in this light poetry is a vital commodity in any culture, foregrounding and guiding other artistic endeavours, channelling empathy, and forging justice. Poetry is not restricted to composition of metrical verse: any writer or artist should aspire to it.

Shelley embodied a revolutionary altruism, visiting Ireland in 1812 where he wrote a pamphlet An Address to the Irish People urging non-violent resistance: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’ He would have deplored the Easter Rising and anticipated the loss of liberty that emerged after the independent state’s violent birth pangs.

But Shelley was perhaps too idealistic in assuming that poetry conflates with justice in the objective sense handed down in the Western tradition. Poetry has its dark arts. Audiences were mesmerized by the flow of Hitler’s speeches. Stalin and Radovan Karadzic both composed verse. Another published poet Enoch Powell summoned the vivid metaphor of ‘rivers of blood’ in his opposition to multicultural Britain. Nonetheless the best poetry articulates the highest human ideals.

This is quite urgent considering Nietzsche’s erosion of Enlightenment values and the huge challenges in this the Anthropocene. We must learn how to live in the natural world and avert runaway Climate Change, as well as addressing hideous human inequalities. We demand new poetic legislators.

It is assumed that we in Ireland are of little relevance to the wider world. But that is a failure of imagination. Since the arrival of literacy (alongside Christianity) this small, remote island has nourished visionary poets in a wide variety of fields from artists of the Book of Kells, to Swift’s satire and Joyce’s iconoclasm that have, as Shelley suggested in his Address to the Irish People, been a beacon to the world. Even the Easter Rising for all its flaws was the realisation of the poetry of Pearse, Plunkett and McDonagh.

James Joyce playfully mused: ‘is this country destined some day to resume its ancient position as the Hellas of the north? Is the Celtic spirit, like the Slavic one (which it resembles in many respects), destined in the future to enrich the consciousness of civilization with new discoveries and institutions?’

Joyce’s Irishness was as a state of mind beyond purity of race or linguistic conformity, for ‘no race has less right to make such a boast [of purity] than the one presently inhabiting Ireland.’ Instead: ‘Nationality must find its basic reason for being in something that surpasses, that transcends and that informs changeable entities such as blood or human speech.’

Joyce brought poetic expression of this idea to Ulysses in the personage of the Jewish Leopold Bloom who responds to the question of the Cyclops (modelled on the founder of the GAA Michael Cusack) as to what nation he is from by saying: ‘Ireland … I was born here, Ireland.’

That ‘Ireland of the imagination’ awoke during the Celtic Twilight or Irish Renaissance. Alas after independence its animating spirit W.B. Yeat retreated to his Tower of aristocratic seclusion.

But before then Joyce anticipated that: ‘The economic and intellectual conditions of his homeland do not permit the individual to develop.’ And was sure that: ‘No self-respecting person wants to stay in Ireland.’
Eireann’s sons and daughters continued to depart in droves after independence. Leaving in Joyce’s words: ‘The old, the corrupt, the children, and the poor to stay at home where the double yoke etches another groove upon their docile necks. Standing around the death-bed where the poor bloodless and almost lifeless body lies are agitating patriots, proscribing governments, and priests administering their last rites.’

The “double yoke” for Joyce was the Empire and Catholicism. He saw liberation from the Church as a prerequisite for a sustained awakening: ‘I confess that I do not see what good it does to fulminate against English tyranny while the tyranny of Rome still holds the dwelling place of the soul.’

The full extent of this necessary purgation is incomplete. At primary and even secondary level most state-funded educational institutions are still controlled by the Church. The Archbishop of Dublin recently slid into Easter Rising commemorations draping unctuous imprimatur on that sordid affair in spite of its obvious contradiction of Jesus’s pacifism.

The present Pope Francis may display more compassion than some of his predecessors but the continued institutional fusion of state with spiritual power remains suspect. This was appreciated by Dante in the fourteenth century who bemoaned the apocryphal ‘gift of Constantine’ which purportedly created the Papal States after the end of the Western Roman Empire: ‘Ah Constantine, what wickedness was born – / and not from your conversion – but from the dower / that you bestowed upon the first rich father!’

Moreover, as John Moriarty points out it in his Dreamtime: ‘In our behaviour now, we are aids virus to the earth. We are doing to the earth what the aids virus does to the human body: we are breaking down its immune system. Assumptions and axioms of our classical Christian inheritance enable us to do this. Our classical inheritance is therefore suspect.’ A stateless Christianity, rejecting the papacy with clear water between itself and state institutions, that identifies human beings as living among a wider natural constellation needs poets such as John Moriarty to sing into being.

Since independence most poets have shrunk from Ireland’s shores, preferring to allow the Irish muses of Ériu, Bamba and Fodla to breathe creative fire in exile. But the well spring of the Irish Renaissance is running dry.
Only in music which at times rivals, but really compliments the animating effect of poetry, has great expression been preserved. But even here, with notable exceptions, the originality of the lyric has declined: the absence of poetry is felt. Just as words without music do not create the greatest poetry, similarly music without words fall short of the highest artistic expression. Recall that Beethoven’s glorious ninth symphony, widely regarded as the greatest composition in history culminates in a choral rendition of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

We have seen a grubby culture grow up in Ireland, leaving its mark on a landscape of one-off incongruous bungalows and groves of clear-felled Sitka spruce; in lurid sports apparel that serves as fashion and the sordid drunkenness that haunts every city and town. Worse: gangland murders fuelled by middle class recreational drug habits and nonsensical laws; approaching the highest rate of obesity in Europe; and a cruel and self-centred agricultural industry. All this alongside a bewildering level of homelessness.

The wounds of the “double yoke” run deep, and are compounded by a collision with the zombie-culture of our smart-phone post-modernity. Ever extreme in virtue as in vice: the Irish are the biggest phone-internet users in the world.

We seem to be lurching from the Celtic Twilight towards Flann O’Brien’s Celtic Toilet. And each of us bears responsibility in the sense understood by Dostoyevsky in his novel Devils. In this Stavrogin reveals his appalling crime to the elder Tikhon, who responds by asking the forgiveness of Stavrogin: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin. I’m a great sinner, perhaps greater than you.’

But in the 1980s a path to liberation was laid by the brilliant journalism of Fintan O’Toole. As Tom Hennigan wrote recently in the Dublin Review: ‘For many of us whose first ever vote was cast for Mary Robinson, O’Toole was a formative influence. In a society politically dominated by two populist conservative parties and an arrogant, authoritarian Catholic church, he appeared not just as a pathfinder towards a more liberal, liberalistic society but also a scourge of those forces that fought against its emergence, most thrillingly dissecting the real state of Irish republicanism by detailing the corruption clustered around Fianna Fail.’

But Hennigan offers a damning assessment of O’Toole’s capacity to understand Ireland’s economy. O’Toole failed to anticipate that the close union with Europe he advocated led us precisely to the likelihood of some form of economic maladjustment. His book Ship of Fools: ‘skips past the crucial fact that shaped the Irish crisis, not the country’s supposed land hunger, or the moral vacuum left by the disintegration of the Catholic church, but rather its membership of the euro.’

He also failed utterly to anticipate the recovery that took place predicting
‘a vicious downward spiral of depression and debt’; that ‘reduces the EU to the status of a banker’s bailiff’.

Hennigan exposes O’Toole’s limitations: ‘In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.’
The point of this excursion is certainly not to depart from O’Toole’s aspiration for Ireland to become a fair society modelled on Scandinavia, or to discourage his esteem for European fellowship, but to identify the limitation of his vision in terms of guiding the Irish people to their highest capacities.

It is apparent that O’Toole’s lifelong noble ambition to rid Ireland of populist Republicanism has failed: Fianna Fail methodologies have been co-opted by Fine Gael, while Sinn Fein waits in the wings alongside a raft of parish-pump Independents. His own flirtation with seeking political office as a tribune of the people in the middle of the bailout came to nought. He realised that his ideological children were too skittish, unengaged and ultimately materialistic to press his claim.

It is revealing that O’Toole’s strident left-wing voice is used to sell a paper such as the Irish Times which nurtures a consumer society through the contagion of a Saturday magazine that has spilled into the rest of the paper. Increasingly scant space is devoted to writing unconnected to selling one thing or another be it property, food, sport or increasingly the arts.
Rather than entering politics as a latter-day Arthur Griffith, a more noble gesture might be for O’Toole to depart from the Irish Times. As a critic with an international profile he could surely ignite another publication consistent with his values. Then we might start to see a media diversity lacking since the Irish Renaissance.

The marriage equality referendum might be considered the triumph of his Liberal Ireland but sustained political engagement did not materialise: the youth vote that brought that landslide did not come out to vote for ‘boring’ parties in the ensuing election, and does not display the self-sacrifice required to enter politics and engage in the slow work of reform. Mirroring O’Toole, many of them have given up on politics altogether.

It is also apparent that there is a serious gap in O’Toole’s coverage of the environment: he has never had a raised ecological awareness. Of course no columnist can cover every issue but occupying such an influential position as an almost weekly op-ed contributor it is surely incumbent on him to pay more attention to the most pressing concern for a wider humanity.

But this enquiry is concerned, above all, with the connection between poetry and the exercise of the imagination, and the idea that it beholds “the future in the present.” Fintan O’Toole writes extensively on literature for the Irish Times and other publications including the New York Review of Books, and it is to an example of this coverage that we turn.

O’Toole offered exegesis on the work of Ireland’s formative poet W.B. Yeats in a BBC Radio 3 series last year celebrating Yeats at 150. His essay was called ‘Not Liking Yeats’, although the title is misleading as he argues that not liking Yeats is a prerequisite to loving him.

As expected O’Toole’s command of the cannon is exemplary and his delivery faultless. He helpfully identifies the tension in Yeats between a benign poetic vision and his often chauvinistic views. But distilling O’Toole’s criticism to its essence we are left with him honouring the poet as ‘magical, strange and transcendent’; ‘with vestiges of the marvellous’. Without elucidation these encomiums are however superfluous.

O’Toole has Dante’s Paradise in sight but we do not taste oblivion from the waters of Lethe, or the river of Eunoe where the memories of good deeds in life are strengthened. These we find in Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium as ‘the artifice of eternity’ and as the golden bird who sings to ‘lords and ladies of Byzantium’ of ‘what is past or passing or to come’.

Dante’s Divine Comedy is as Robert Durling puts it: ‘a system of metaphors for the process by which a living man, on earth, comes to understand the nature of the cosmos and the state of souls after death’. Yeats developed a similar symbolic system and unless we absorb this we only skim the surface of his vision.

O’Toole reveals no understanding of the Neoplatonism that has informed all the great poets from Dante, Shakespeare, Militon through Shelley and down to Yeats. Ira Zinman suggests this is a two way process: ‘Spiritual truths are often not readily apparent in scriptures or verse. Uncovering the deeper meaning requires a heightened awareness, which is itself a sign of spiritual growth.’

The ‘timeless’, ‘transcendent’ and the ‘remarkable’ that O’Toole attests to in Yeats’s poetry are glimpse at the shoreline of a Paradise to which his own insights have not, so far, ascended. For the moment O’Toole does not envision “the future in the present”.

Kathleen Raine might appear dogmatic in her assessment that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance,’ but the historical accuracy of that statement in a European context is difficult to counter. In Defending Ancient Sacred Springs she refers specifically to the overwhelming Neoplatonic influence on the Irish Renaissance especially Yeats. Irish poets, consciously or otherwise, drinks from these waters.
Neoplatonism offers an initiation to what Shelley calls the “imperial” faculty of poetry, and all its imaginative possibilities. Of course non-European cultures have found their own eternal forms climbing the same mountain on different tracks; just as Indian music has a different system of scales but offers a coherent and logical aesthetic.

Poetry has a wide variety of devices. According to Theodore Zeldin the Japanese poet Sogi (1421-1502) ‘has a place in humanity’s common memory because he was unrivalled in creating sensitive links between different collaborators … he held poetry parties that revealed how, in a country plagued by violent political conflict, art could create bonds between strangers. The philosophy of the artistic way, gei-do-ron, was the art of socialising with strangers allowing individuals to grasp at higher truths.’ We may also draw inspiration from this less individualistic approach.

Ireland also has a distinctive, crooked genius that has informed the imaginations of poets. Perhaps it really is the faeries that have been held down by Church dogma and middling intellect which nourish “the Irish soul” that Joyce refers to. Revealingly some of the brightest Irish musicians casually concede inspiration to an Otherworld.

We can call the imaginative impulse for poetry what we please, a muse to the Greeks, faeries for the Irish, but clearly in its finest form it encourages empathy, justice and beauty.

The poet-philosopher John Moriarty was one such visionary. He imagined ‘another Patrick, A Patrick in our time for our time. A Patrick who not only seeks to bring a richer Christianity to Ireland, he seeks also to bring what is best in its Celtic and pre-Celtic inheritance to Ireland.’

That surely female Patricia would be a poet capable of imagining a Hellas of the North like Beatrice guiding Dante through Paradise, with the potential to make Ireland a beacon for an increasingly intolerant world. She would undoubtedly practice yoga and be attuned to the vitality of scientific reason, and its limitations. Certainly this lady will carefully distinguish the good faeries from those slippery ones in the Irish character, and accept the poet Wallace Stevens’s insight that ‘God and the imagination are one’.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/imagine-2/)

‘Irish poets learn your trade’

Poets are banished from Plato’s Republic where the philosopher-king is the sole guardian of Truth. Their lyrical distortion is identified as a revolutionary threat to the singular established idea. This was recognised by James Joyce who wrote: ‘Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality’;

Joseph Stalin was also unnervingly conscious of the capacity of poets to undermine Communist ideology, describing them as ‘engineers of the soul’. He treated some such as Mikhail Bulgakov as a cat would a trapped mouse to be disposed of when he felt bored. Others including Anna Akhmatova were harassed and not allowed to work but as a determined witness she wrote: ‘Terror fingers all things in the dark, / Leads moonlight to the axe. / There’s an ominous knock behind the wall: / A ghost a thief or a rat.’ Eventually she was compelled by the imprisonment of her son to produce patriotic verse but was freed from constraints after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Another Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam argued that a civilization should be measured by the number who read poetry. He died in a Gulag in 1940.

Poetry eschews convention and draws vitality from rebellion. Yet paradoxically adherence to form seems essential for the mystery to be effectively conveyed. Where an ideology becomes ascendant whether Nazism, Communism or Catholicism in Ireland poets are censored and persecuted. But in this Neoliberal age, the poet is often corrupted by market conditions and imagination is not given free rein in a zeitgeist of high rationality where authenticity and irony are prized above form and transcendence.

Poetry is located beyond poems and is the source of literature, it also vital to the evolution of language. Walter Benjamin provides a broad definition of language, arguing that: ‘all communication of mental meanings is language, communication in words being only a particular case of human language and of the justice, poetry or whatever underlying it or founded on it.’

Poetry is found in film and, notably, music. Indeed the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler observed: ‘One must beware of overestimating orchestral music and considering it the only high art. Music without words gained its great importance and its full extent only under capitalism’. In this respect it is revealing that the same word in Old English was used for song and poem: leoð; another word they used was giedd, which means ‘riddle, poem, tale, song’.

It appears that poetry and music evolved together and it is only in the early modern period that we see a significant rupture. This is often to the detriment of classical varieties of both which are increasingly marginalised and inaccessible to a general audience.

We find in W.B. Yeats a strict adherence to a form that give his words a musical ring. Although it is believed he was actually tone deaf, he used a metronome to measure metre and usually adhered strictly to rhyming sequences. His method, allied with intense sensitivity, brought great popularity, and he revolted against an empire to sing his nation into existence. In his parting poem Under Ben Bulben he urges: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made.’

Contrary to the stereotype, the poet is no dilettante, far from it, as Yeats asserts in Adam’s Curse: ‘A line will take us hours maybe; / Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been naught’: it is the trick of great poetry to sound as if it has rolled off the tongue, but the apparent simplicity is the product of hard labour. We might recall Pascal’s apology for not have time to write a shorter letter.

The initial inspiration, or donné, for a poem gives way to the slow labour of moulding coherence, like a potter shaping clay on a wheel into a recognisable object. Slightly melodramatically Yeats says: ‘Better go down on the marrow bones / And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones / Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather; / For to articulate sweet sounds together / Is to work harder than all these.’ And the reward is only to ‘be thought an idler by the noisy set.’ That is not say that poetry simplifies, quite the contrary, as the poet and critic Kathleen Raine asserts: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’

Unfortunately in Ireland, as elsewhere, poetry is today largely removed from a popular audience. Seamus Heaney received widespread acclaim and a Nobel Prize in 1995 but his verse while rich in metaphor and word play does not flow like the greatest poetry: hardly a line of his has entered popular speech.

There is also a suspicion that as Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-94) he was not at heart a rebel, and grew comfortable with his accolades. Recall that Yeats thrived on the tension of being an outsider: a Protestant, (usually) liberal in a conservative Catholic Ireland; an Irishman pining for Sligo in London; a Fenian when the Irish Parliamentary Party dominated Irish politics.

A rousing anger is rarely heard in Heaney; though the collection North (1975) is an exception, written at the height of the Troubles. In Ocean’s Love to Ireland he writes: ‘Speaking broad Devonshire / Raleigh has backed the maid to a tree / As Ireland is backed to England / And drives inland.’

The words have a frisson often missing from his oeuvre; perhaps he recoiled from a capacity to foment violence contenting himself with often obscure metaphor and personal recollection. But by generally removing himself from the cut and thrust of politics did he also hold back from challenging Ireland’s conservatism to the extent that Yeats had?

Led by T.S. Eliot, the second half of the twentieth witnessed the retreat of poetry from a popular audience. A morass of formless post-modern experimentation has followed that usually alienates the listener. But poetry reasserted itself in a different form with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s as rhythm and blues and jazz combined with the folk revival. Accompanied by the essential instrument of the guitar, words were flowing again and a generation was almost stirred into global revolt.

Simultaneously in the Soviet Union, Russian chanson, simple songs also usually accompanied by guitar, emanating from the criminal underworld and the gulags challenged the authority of the state. Elsewhere, Bob Marley became a prophet to many in the Third World.

Unfortunately the music of the 1960s was corrupted by its commercial success and descended into narcissism, drug addiction and obscene materialism. There was also a racist dimension to its decline. In an interview last year Bob Dylan talked about starting off:

I was still an aspiring rock n roller. The descendent, if you will, of the first generation of guys who played rock ‘n’ roll – who were thrown down. Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis. They played this type of music that was black and white. Extremely incendiary. Your clothes could catch fire. When I first heard Chuck Berry, I didn’t consider that he was black. I thought he was a hillbilly. Little did I know, he was a great poet, too. And there must have been some elitist power that had to get rid of these guys, to strike down rock ‘n’ roll for what it was and what it represented – not least of all being a black-and-white thing.

He concluded that a bifurcation was orchestrated whereby ‘the black element was turned into soul music, and the white element was turned into English pop.’ Audiences were manipulated by big labels who asserted control over disk jockeys, and some black stars were persecuted. Chuck Berry at the height of his fame in 1962 was arrested on spurious charges, specifically ‘for transporting a minor across state lines for immoral purposes in violation of the Mann Act.’ This came shortly after he had established a racially integrated night club in St Louis.

The exuberant poetic rebellion of rock ‘n’ roll was contained within music, that most ancient and ideal of artistic forms. According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’

Also, instructively, a number of more traditional poets shot to prominence in the 1960s including Alan Ginsburg. It was as if a generation was listening but they soon closed their ears.

But hope remains, and since the 1960s countless individuals have been stirred to strum a few chords and, often clumsily, express themselves, questioning perceived ideas and trawling their experiences as poetry does. Importantly, the accessibility of lyrics does not require strict adherence to a form that we associate with classical poetry as music has its own timeless patterns. A sweet melody hooks the listener as in, for example, Van Morrison’s word-in-song “Rave on, John Donne”, where the romantic vision of the poet or ‘Holy fool’ is set up in opposition to industrial civilisation.

Each generation must recast an art form, breathing fresh life into it and questioning the assumptions of their elders; new technology also spurs adventure, but sometimes ruptures can carry a movement down blind alleys. Since the 1970s the integration of music with the lyric has been on a downward spiral. Popularity is now overwhelmingly dictated by a resourceful industry that in recent times overcame the loss of revenue from direct sales of CDs and records by ratcheting up the prices of concerts and using television shows to generate publicity. It has reached a nadir in the diabolic X-factor shaping of Simon Callow.

Moreover, since the 1980s electronic music has re-invented itself – Terminator-like – assuming monstrous guises that have overwhelmed the human interaction with instruments. In the past an individual would spend the proverbial 10,000 hours learning her instrument, now all too often today the melodies are sampled. Just as the hard labour of developing rhyme and metre imposed a discipline on poets that makes their work accessible, the challenge of using one’s fingers to point to the right intervals inculcates a deep appreciation of music. The passage towards great art is usually the slowest.

Now the beat is all important at the expense of the melody and emotion. The word is sometimes an afterthought and the facility of the laptop allows experimentation ad nauseum producing bewildering arrangements that fail to evoke emotion.

In Emotion and Meaning in Music the musicologist Leonard B. Meyer argues that the arousal of emotion through music is the product of surprise after repetition: ‘the customary or expected progression of sounds can be considered as a norm, which from a stylistic point of view it is; and alteration in the expected progression can be considered as a deviation. Hence deviations can be regarded as emotional or affective stimuli.’ Measured dissonance is key to the exercise, but excessive deviation nullifies the effect.

Of course subtlety is not entirely absent in modern electronic music but generally the subservience of the melody to the beat leads to a loss of emotional arousal, seen in the robotic dancing of individuals in clubs around the world. Is it any wonder that a generation turns to drugs for the ecstatic?

The absence of emotion in music finds a parallel in the fetishisation of authenticity which in literature has found its apotheosis in the dreary autobiographical tomes of Karl Ove Knausgaard who subjects readers to the minutiae of his every experience as a microscope does a petri-dish. This might be situated in the tradition of Marcel Proust but the latter sought transcendence in the quotidian. Knausgaard simply grinds the reader further into the putrid details of his life as a dog-trainer compels a puppy to smell his shit.

In Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission the prizing of authenticity above other qualities is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In recent music, we find that in Amy Winehouse her great talent squandered in autobiographical recitation linking to her tragic self-immolation.

We fail to devote sufficient attention to the imaginative possibilities of the unconscious mind. Yeats’ poetry emerged through interaction with a fairy realm which he believed in profoundly. As Micheal Mac Liommar points out: ‘Yeats’ belief in ‘that nonsense’ was the most fundamental thing in his nature: it was at least as passionate and unshakable as the faith of any devout Christian, Buddhist, Jew or Mohammedan; if a little more restless in its search for some permanent shape’. Indeed his decision to self-identify as Irish, when he could easily have seen himself as English was grounded in a ‘conviction that Ireland had preserved … among less admirable things … a gift of vision.’

During the 1920s Yeats drew inspiration from the automatic writing that his wife George undertook as a medium. The investigation of the unconscious was also central to the Surrealist movement. In its 1924 manifesto, Andre Breton referred to: ‘psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought.’ Breton believed that a surrealist should be ‘Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern’.

Reversing Stalin’s dictum, Breton attributes many of the great scientific breakthroughs to the harnessing of the poetic imagination, arguing: ‘the conquests of science rest far more on a surrealistic than on a logical thinking.’ Today much art, including poetry, are over-thought and self-referential. But ‘True art’ wrote Yeats ‘is expressive and symbolic, and makes every form, every sound, a signature of some unanalysable imaginative essence.’

Contemporary art often lapses into an irony which pervades contemporary ‘hipster’ culture where meaning is conveyed by using language that expresses the opposite. Raine contends that: ‘Above all, the voice of true imagination is never ironic; that is the mark of a divided mind, whereas the imagination is above all at one with itself, the principle of unification and harmony.’ Ironic art is art that does not believe in itself and runs contrary to the poetic surrender to the imagination. Irony can only poke fun and subvert form.

Irony is the dominant note in a recent short film Our Kind by Alan Phelan that is currently exhibited in the Hugh Lane Gallery. The film is a counter-factual rendering of the life of Roger Casement which finds him in Norway in 1941 having survived the 1916 Rising. Instructions are required to understand its ‘meaning’. The artist writes:

‘there are few historically correct elements in the story presented. Instead we are given a very different scenario which in itself reflects the flaws common in the genre of historical drama for film, with its need to find drama in history, resulting in stories that speak more of the present than the past. Much of the scholarship surrounding Casement is similarly muddled, caught between interpretative approaches, political prejudices and at times an inverted homophobia that cannot come to terms with Casement’s personal and public lives. Several of these angles are woven into the story, often mis-represented and incomplete.’

It is a film made to look like a pastiche; a deadpan dismissal of the genre of historical fiction without value in itself. He continues ‘Our Kind cannot be viewed at face value. The meaning lies between the lies’. Or rather the meaning is in the accompanying notes. The film has no ‘vision’ or value in and of itself.

Critical ignorance is also conveyed in one review written by Aidan Wall in Totally Dublin who says that ‘The surreality of this fictionalised situation is heightened by the ever-shifting cinematography which refuses to settle into one coherent style’. The film actually runs contrary to the surrealist project which surrenders to an imagination which is never ironic. But by now the term surreal is debased coinage.

That is not to say that Ireland has lost its ‘vision’ entirely. Irish music often maintains a vibrancy and Dylan Tighe’s recent album Wabi Sabi Soul reveals a poet with a rebellious spirit. The singing is at time jarring and declamatory but a powerful lyrical effect is produced by the sweetness of the accompanying melodies that include contributions from the bass clarinet of Sean Mac Erlaine. Tighe raves on with references to mental health and a medical establishment which pathologies behaviour that might actually prompt artistic output. There is also a judicious sampling of Pope John Paul II’s speech in the Phoenix Park in 1979.

Tighe could easily write commercial songs that would not confront his listeners but he chooses to confront Ireland with its patriarchal legacy, countering that ‘women are healers’. In “Cult Leader” – the song featuring the Pope – he vows to ‘start my own religion’ with love as ‘the only weapon to fight the death of time’. It will be interesting to discover what direction this mercurial talent will take next.

Today poetry operates within the confines of a Neoliberal system which demands, no matter the occupation, that we constantly sell ourselves. Of course artists have always struggled to earn a living – it has become a cliché – but rarely has there been an era which has placed greater emphasises on self-promotion through a litany of online platforms and identities.

Writing in The Atlantic, William Deresiewicz argues that: ‘we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial self.’ This, he argues, has come about because ‘The internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’

He asserts that: ‘What we see in the new paradigm – in both the artist’s external relationships and her internal creative capacity – is what we see throughout the culture: the displacement of depth by breadth.’ Thus it is more important for an artist to be able effectively to fill out a grant application than actually produced a compelling piece of work.

Deresiewicz concludes that in an environment where the customer is always right: ‘It’s hard to believe that the new arrangement will not favour work that’s safer: more familiar, formulaic, user-friendly, eager to please – more like entertainment, less like art.’

But actually what we define as ‘art’ might become increasingly confined to the elite environment of initiates with access to the notes accompanying the product. These ‘artists’ make their way by securing grants from public funds whose paymasters are persuaded by the strength of the proposal. Abstruseness seems to be prized based on an assumption that if it is inaccessible then it is worthwhile. As ‘difficulty’ becomes a criterion for success, the appeal of accessibility – that Yeats argued required the hardest labour – is ignored as it would be dismissed as a ‘lower’ art form.

Society at large is left to stew in X-factor detritus and dance mechanically in ecstatic parody. In these circumstances it might be argued that commercial failure is a poetic form of success. But there are undoubtedly audiences out there for true poetry. It is crucial that its dissonance and disjunction endures. Otherwise the creative possibilities of the imagination retreat and a crucial form of rebellion against the Neoliberal project is not advanced.

(published in Village Magazine, May, 2016)

Protecting Agriculture from Emissions Targets Will Cost the Wider Economy

(Published in the Sunday Times, November 9, 2014)

In a week when the International Panel on Climate Change said that current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have not been seen in at least 800,000 years the European Council agreed to set no specific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction in the agriculture sector. The move was instigated by the Irish government who persuaded other leaders that agriculture should be given special treatment.
Irish authorities are keenly aware that a startling 32% of Irish emissions emanate from agriculture already. Ambitious targets to expand dairy production outlined in the Harvest 2020 document would be impossible without the deal.
A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency report states that emissions from Irish agriculture will increase by 9% between 2012 and 2020. The EPA report asserts: ‘This is predominantly driven by a projected increase in dairy cow numbers of 14% between 2015 and 2020 following the abolition of milk quotas in 2015’.
The proportion of emissions from Irish agriculture is higher than for any other EU state, and second only to New Zealand’s among developed countries. This is because of the dominance of cattle and other ruminants in our farming sector. There are almost seven million cattle in Ireland, and a mere 8% of agricultural land is devoted to crops, fruit and horticulture production.
Livestock are responsible for significant emissions for a variety of reasons including their digestive process, fossil fuel inputs in feedstuffs, and clearance of forests and jungle for grazing and feedstuffs.
Calculating their global impact is a complex exercise. Estimates will depend on criteria used which could include historic loss of forest cover and mitigation strategies.
A 2014 UN report, that leading environmentalists have questioned, estimated that the proportion of emissions emanating from livestock had dropped to 14.5% of total anthropogenic emissions compared to 18% calculated in a 2003 report.
At first glance this suggests livestock emissions have declined by nearly 20%. In reality an increase in emissions from other sectors in the intervening period has masked the livestock sector’s apparent decline of a modest 5%.
At the other end of the scale, a 2009 World Watch report authored by Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang estimates that livestock account for 51% of global emissions.
It might be argued that unlike, for example, air travel all human beings require food, making agriculture untouchable. The Irish government advances the further claim that emissions from Irish livestock tend to be lower than elsewhere, although the intensification envisaged in Harvest 2020 could erode that argument.
This one track, industry-driven approach ignores the value and simplicity of encouraging a dietary shift towards food alternatives with far lower emissions profiles. Essentially this means human beings eating more crops directly as opposed to animals expensively converting grass or grain into flesh.
A 2014 Oxford University study found that an average ‘vegan’ (or ‘plant-based’) diet in the UK had emissions less than a third those of a person on a diet with a heavy share of meat. Considering the near convergence of UK and Irish food supply chains we can assume those figures apply in Ireland too.
A change in the profile of our agricultural production would cost far less than a rapid shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Thus, the decision to remove the agricultural sector from the emissions reckoning could harm the wider Irish economy as industry, households and transport sectors will be compelled to bear the entirety of scheduled reductions.
There is an onus on the Irish state to protect marginalized rural communities. But the current arrangement is not even rewarding most farmers. Despite annual subsidies of over €2 billion in direct farm payments, four-fifths of farms actually lose money. Just last week meat packaging plants were blockaded around the country.
Minister Simon Coveney has publicly blamed low European demand for beef on the economic downturn but it could be indicative of a long-term trend as ethical, environmental and health arguments weigh in against meat consumption particularly in more affluent countries.
The global dairy industry has marshaled powerful nutritional arguments that feature in many government’s nutritional recommendations, but nutritional epidemiologists are increasingly questioning their validity. For example the Harvard School of Public Health states on its website: ‘It’s not clear … that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it’s also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.’
It has become almost axiomatic that Irish agriculture cannot produce anything bar animal products. But our history defies that assessment: only after the Famine did the extensive commodification of cattle for export begin. Today Irish farmers have access to a global seed bank and a warming climate offers prospects for novel crop varieties.
Reducing emissions is arguably this generation’s most significant challenge if we are to believe the assessment of 97% of climate scientists who say that human activity is responsible for climate change and that there will be devastating consequences. It is surely regrettable that any sector should be given a free pass, especially if the food alternatives are healthier and far simpler than implementing reductions in other sectors.
Moreover, there may be a creeping obsolescence in Irish agriculture’s overwhelming focus on producing animal products as opposed to healthy crops for direct human consumption. Irish rural life should be protected but the argument for substantial agricultural reform is compelling.