The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do

Published in the Dublin Review of Books: (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-evil-that-men-do)

The unconscious of a whole continent and age has made of itself poetry in the nightmare of a single prophetic dreamer
Herman Hesse

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever written’; while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn’. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, yet proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.

The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology, and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: ‘A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.’ The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump against whom we now hurl opprobrium, rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly-despised leader of the so-called ‘free world’.

As an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles, in a confused Post-Modern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and Utopian ideologies.

Yet, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, but deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.

Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling: ‘me a lot about myself that I didn’t know’.

Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: ‘natures with such a broad sweep… capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation.’ He says ‘others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs’, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.

First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: ‘it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naïve. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.’ To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.

Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.

The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of his mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour having stolen money from his spurned fiancé Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.

Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:

he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.

At least, Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.

Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a ‘Dreary mysticism’, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.

Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.

Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second-eldest brother Ivan is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: ‘We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.’

Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: ‘It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God”. He tells Alyosha: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation’. Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in ‘Christian’ Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: ‘He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.’ For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.

As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate considers. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, ‘Evil’ Jung says ‘does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.’ Jung argued that: ‘The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow’. Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.

Later Ivan is visited by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have ‘turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing’; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: ‘endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail.’ Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: ‘If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse’.
A form of what Nietszche referred to as ‘eternal recurrence’ is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has: ‘ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there’. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.

Dazzled by his intellectual brilliance, Ivan’s spiral into madness is a form of hubris representing a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: ‘Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.’ His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post calls ‘the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind’. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain where the eponymous, aged despot is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: ‘we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings’. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: ‘we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven.’ Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic Church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in Communist Russia.

Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular, and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an ‘odour of putrefaction’, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters: deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgmental responses. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusing he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.

Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of ‘sinful’ characters such as Odysseus that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of Post-Modernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: ‘characters no longer bubble up, fountain like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been “researched” as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy.’

In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.’

This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that ‘nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you’, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.

Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at US President Donald Trump whose lies and raging sexuality deserves comparison with Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or, that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’.

Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the ‘Russia in ourselves’. Dismissing as Hillary Clinton did Trump’s supporters as a: ‘basket of deplorables’ was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with ‘basket cases’ and ‘white trash’, suggesting that his supporters were garbage that ought to be destroyed.

Trump preyed on this but also a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. Trump’s jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a Post-Truth dismissal of expertise.

That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony extends beyond the human species:

If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.

We are urged to ‘Love animals’, and not set ourselves above them as is emerged in Western thought. An apparently Oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species is a striking aspect of his teachings, an idea increasingly relevant to curbing the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the world.

It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents, and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that: ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields’.

Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: ‘What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.’ Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.

The eldest brother Dimitri represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:

I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.

Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.

Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.’ He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.

There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally-ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory, and his childless wife Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef, and trusted confidante. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: ‘it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?’ Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitry is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth familiar to readers of The Devils that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.’ Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew their’s. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitry.

Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era Tolstoy offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: ‘there is nothing more ridiculous …than to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.’

All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.

Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.

One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.

A Necromancer Woos a Dancer

In the interior world the mind
Shackles and confines,
A spirit that seeks an outlet
unconfined, undivined, unrefined.

Layers of history shine,
Subterranean out of time
When the Tuath Dé dreamed
We performed rituals of mime.

Son of intellect, daughter of wonder.
A taxonomist beholds categories,
A necromancer woos a dancer.
Unkempt they crept from asphalt,
Ginger burn on lips return;
Trumpet sounds a laden tumult.
The forms now dissipate,
As the earthy rhythm sounds,
Moving freely to integrate,
The cantor weighs our fate.

My spirit senses movement,
In the languid undergrowth;
Flood waters rise a torrent.
A flame flickers in response,
As the spirit is restored,
Eyes clamp in repose.
A heady brew ferments,
In a barrel of rigid oak,
She intuits her last moments;
In a coffin made besoke.

Smoke rises in return,
All too long this heady burn,
As Étaín takes shape,
The audience looks agape,
Two swans ever more,
With divine Midir as before
The wretched curse had been applied,
To the water where she died,
Until the lazy buzz,
A bluebottle now his beloved.

Performing mysteries in a space,
We travelled at our own pace,
Now seeking compassion for the child,
That crise for the wild,
And the nymphs who would bathe,
In streams that never fade,
Unless the Formorians take shape,
In a vale of unceasing hate,
Until the moon gives a signal,
And the spirits begin to mingle.
the spirits begin to mingle.

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)

Wild Law Lecture

Delivered in Anglo-American University, Prague 19/11/15

It is sometimes observed in jurisprudence how Hitler came to power by legal means and continued to govern in accordance with the German constitution. Of course an American might argue that this could never happen there because of the separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislature in their constitution. But slavery was allowed to cohabit with the original constitution until the civil war and some describe what happened to native-Americans in the nineteenth century as genocide.
But few would argue that what Hitler did was justified or even, in a sense, legal. That’s because most of us subscribe to a view that human beings have certain rights that are inalienable (cannot be given away) and imprescriptible (do not lapse with time) antecedent and superior to positive law. These include inter alia the right to life, property and one’s good name. Of course most of these rights are limited (although I would argue that a person’s right not to be tortured is absolute). Courts therefore often have to weigh up competing rights. Thus we are allowed to defend ourselves proportionality if someone attacks us and the police are allowed to enter a property if they believe someone inside has committed a crime.
We might conveniently and perhaps confusingly consider such rights to be a part of natural law. But the scope of natural law is limited to human actors and I will argue that we must broaden it to encompass all of Earth and the beings that exist here. I say this not merely because I think that fairness demands that we extend compassion to all life on the planet but also because without radically re-appraisal of our relationship with nature we are endangering our continued existence on the planet.
I believe that what has come to be known as Wild Law or Earth Jurisprudence is not just an intellectual curiosity, a neat concept that gives us a warm glow of satisfaction, but really I predict that this is could be a huge area of work for the lawyers in the future as we consider the competing needs and interests of all the living world and attempt to bring a harmony that will be to the advantage of all including the human species.
Moreover, I argue that the propositions I am making this evening are nothing new and would be recognised by most faith systems especially those closest to nature in the small number of hunter-gatherer communities still existing. But what I am saying is also firmly rooted in science and in former NASA scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. This is the idea is that the earth’s organism interact with inorganic surroundings to form a self-regulating, complex system that maintains life.
Thus for example: ‘around 21 per cent of the atmosphere is made up of oxygen, which is highly reactive, while methane is found at a fairly constant level of 1.7 parts per million. In sunlight, oxygen and methane react to produce carbon dioxide and water. Maintaining methane at this level requires living organisms to produce about 500 million tons of methane a year. If life on Earth were to cease, all its elements would continue to react with one another until no more reactions were possible and the planet would become a hot, inhospitable place without oxygen and water.[Cullinan, p.80]’.
What’s encouraging about the Gaia hypothesis is the assumption that as the Earth is a self-regulating system it will redress any imbalance: this suggests that humans as a part of the earth community will mend their ways and find a more symbiotic relationship with the rest of the life on planet Earth. But this requires a change of heart on the part of many of us leading to radical changes to our behaviour. One author points out: ‘Many of our so-called “material comforts” are not only in excess of, but are probably in opposition to, basic biological need.’ Most of us could easily consume less than we do now, and be healthier for it. Indeed, the global obesity pandemic shows we are consuming too many calories or are relying insufficiently on our own energy for transport and in the manufacture of products that have built in obsolescence.
The laws that govern most of our societies are really a product of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century and the so-called Enlightenment. In particular the ideas of Rene Descartes have had a powerful effect. ‘Descartes set out to entirely reconstruct philosophy on the basis of mathematical reasoning’. He distinguished between a rational mind and an animal, wild body and understood the physical world as a complex machine ‘that could be understood by reductionist analysis (i.e. by dissecting it and looking at each of the parts to understand how it works)’. In Descartes schema, which was formulated at a time when Europeans were subduing and colonising the rest of the world, only man had the power of reason and as such this placed him above all other animals an idea that was inherited from earlier Christian philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas. The colonisation of the world beyond Europe also brought about the subjugation of nature, as European technologies have allowed ever wider encroachment on regions which often displayed an approximate balance between human beings and the rest of their ecology.
The superiority of men over nature is affirmed in the American Declaration of Independence: ‘ When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind require that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation. We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Prior to European subjugation many human groups saw themselves as being on the same level as other animals. Shamans would communicate with animal spirits requesting that they offer themselves as prey for hunters. This gratitude towards nature is also evident in other religions including Islam where under halal rules thanks is given to the animal for the food they offer to the human community. Even in Christianity until recently meat was off the menu for much of the year. It has been argued that prohibitions during the period of Lent reflect the need to restrain consumption during the months of the year when little meat was available. Today where religions have fallen into decline we have few limitations on our consumption.
Until very recently (and only in Europe and South America) do we find that rights are conferred on anything other than human beings. There is simply no recognition of the limits of natural profusion or the extent to which human actions could be destabilising Earth systems and could have terrible repercussions for ourselves and other creatures.
There is no doubt that human beings have displayed extraordinary resourcefulness and have made up for a lack of physical prowess since they left Africa less than 100,000 years ago. This has allowed them to survive in all parts of the planet, discovering every manner of food source and even overwhelming far larger animals. We may call this intelligence a capacity for reason but if it leads us to consume so much that we endanger most other species and our very survival then that capacity for reason is in fact stupid and self-destructive. In the place of reason what we really need is wisdom.
Since the departure of human beings from Africa where we evolved various megafauna including the woolly mammoth have been hunted to extinction which may have had an effect on the earth’s climate. But the real troubles began when certain high-performing seeds and docile animals were domesticated. This allowed settled humans to create food surpluses for cities that reached over one million people more than two thousand years ago.
This expansion of humanity was amplified by the discovery of fossil fuels starting primarily with coal which rapidly accelerated urbanisation, made travel far easier and led to the industrial revolution and the emergence of consumer societies. All of this was underpinned by the rapid expansion of agriculture which entailed the deforestation of huge swathes of the world (including much of Europe) mainly to make way for our animals to graze. This process was accelerated by the crucial invention of artificial fertilizer (the Haber-Bosch process) in the 1910 which led to the Green Revolution after World War II and an extraordinary expansion in food supply.
It is amazing to consider that in 1901 the world’s population stood at about 1.5 billion with less than 20% living in cities while today we have 7 billion with over 50% living in cities. And it is not just the number of humans that have increased: our lifestyle expectations have altered considerably. Many in the West (and the East increasingly), expect to drive a car. We aspire to travel by aeroplane to far flung places and most people want to eat meat every day whereas before it was a rare luxury and often restrained by religious obligations that have gone out of fashion.
The loss of other species due to this expansion has been staggering. Will Tuttle informs us that 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, free living animals made up 99% of the biomass and human beings made up only 1%. Today humans and the animals that we own make up 98% of the biomass. He says: We’ve basically stolen the world, the earth, from free-living animals to use for ourselves. It is a staggering statistic that over 50 billion animals are killed to feed humans each year. Moreover, since 1970 half of all mammal species have been made extinct mostly because of human actions.
But all our travel, deforestation, domesticated animals (particularly ruminant cattle and sheep) are adding up to one terrifying outcome which is runaway climate change which could create billions of refugees from many parts of the developing world and is already causing great turbulence in our weather patterns. We have seen droughts giving rise to crop failures on a more regular basis this century and this is set to increase as the century goes by. 97% of climate scientists believe that climate change is man-made so denial of it is increasingly absurd.
Scientific questions are rarely addressed in legal settings because as I have noted we are still enduring the intellectual legacy of Descartes where most of us reside comfortably in our respective specialities. But the challenges to the world we are living in requires holistic thinking so that sciences draw on humanities and the humanities draw on science. We need to start thinking of the big picture and connectedness and that is what Wild Law and Earth Jurisprudence are all about.
Moreover, physics the most important branch of science is teaching us to look at the world in a very different way from Descartes’s. Werner Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ states that the mass and velocity of an electron could not be determined simultaneously.’ Physics is essentially accepting mystery as implicit and that nature does not act in the mechanistic way that Descartes proposed. Quantum physics exploded the view that the universe is a vast mechanism constructed of many tiny ‘building blocks’. This gives further credence to Lovelock’s Gaia theory. As ‘the nature and behaviour of part is determined by the whole rather than the other way round. This point of view is fundamental to what today is often referred to as ‘systems thinking’. If we accept mystery is implicit then simply because we don’t fully understand how observed processes occur should not deter us from drawing lessons from them. The earth is not a machine which we can dismantle into parts but a highly complex system that may always defy human understanding.
So what is this Wild Law that I have been skirting around the edges of? In my view it is an extension of natural law, involving a more rounded picture of the world that encompasses the whole planet. As Cormac Cullinan observes: ‘Probably all human communities once regulated themselves with the purpose of ensuring that their members lived in accordance with the requirements of the wider ecological community.
We have become so powerful that geologists now refer to the Anthropocene the era of human geological time that began around 1945. With this unprecedented power comes great duties and to simply ignore the plight of the rest of the planet is unconscionable. We cannot insulate ourselves from other inhabitants of the planet. We need the diversity of nature for clean water, air and healthy food. A good example is wild bees whose populations across Europe are under pressure, apparently due to the use of certain pesticides. These bees are vital for the pollination of many our food crops. Under our current laws nobody can make a claim on behalf of the bees, though they are crucial to our agriculture. We have to realise that we are part of nature not opposed to it or in competition with it.
According to Thomas Berry, ‘The Universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects’ and every member of the Earth Community has three inherent rights: the right to be, to habitat, and to fulfil its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community.’ That is not to say that human beings should go around policing nature or stopping foxes from hunting rabbits. There is a balance to be struck and most natural processes will continue to go on without us. We are talking about light touch regulation and laissez faire as far as possible but when our own actions start to seriously interfere with the natural world we need to be able to enforce the rights of nature.
The important thing is for us to modify our own behaviour so that we desist from encroaching further on the natural world. One has only to look to look to see the forest fires in Indonesia to realise that there is a crisis of our own making that looms as a threat far greater than terrorism. The destruction of mangrove forests in that area to make way for agriculture is causing an ecological catastrophe, but our media sources prefer to concentrate our minds on far lesser dangers. It has been estimated that each year 2 million people die due to air pollution. Just this week I met a Chinese girl who showed me pictures of Beijing which is now enclosed in a smog that requires people to wear air masks to filter the air.
Of course you might wonder how a change in our ideas about the ambit of the law will make the slightest difference to the world. But there is no doubt that laws influence our behaviour and generate moral outlooks. Just look at the attitude of younger generations to drink-driving compared to their parents, or the positive attitude many people now have to recycling. And although I have been critical of the US constitution there is no doubt that it contained advanced ideas on human rights that are firmly installed in the global consciousness. Other instruments like the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights have had a similar effect. These legal instruments are still very important they just need renewal.
In the Descent of Man Charles Darwin argues that the history of man’s moral development has been a continual extension of the objects of his “social instincts” and “sympathies”: Originally each man had regard only for himself and those of a very narrow circle about him; later he came to regard more and more “not only, the welfare, but the happiness of all his fellow men”; then “his sympathies” became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals”. It is argued that the history of the law suggests a parallel development. Thus for example a Roman father held power of life or death over his family. But we may question Darwin’s description of “lower animals”; I would argue that there is nothing inherently superior about human beings. We have remarkable capabilities but this certainly does not make us superior to other creatures, especially when you consider some of the things that human beings have done to each through history, and even today we observe terrible things around the world. All creatures have remarkable features or they would not have found their ecological niche.
Let us pause for a moment and consider how we go about creating the new world order that has been proposed. How do we re-frame the legal instruments in order to protect nature? No doubt this will be a difficult process and unfortunately it is impossible for us to understand the earth’s great complexity. We will of course look to science for guidance. Conservationists for example can tell us what will happen if a certain river is polluted and climate scientists can tell us what the effect of a car or a cow is but really what we need is a change of heart and for us to start dignifying other creatures with equality of consideration.
All creatures have different needs and we should acknowledge that humans have needs too and can continue to consume in line with them but in such a way where harm is minimised. This change of heart that our legal system can inculcate must influence those at the top in corporations and governments but it can begin at the bottom and it is worth living by Gandhi’s idea ‘to be the change you want to see in the world’. Any change begins at the level of the individual level. We should try to avoid despondency and never give up hope. Humanity has the capacity to change and can do so very quickly if we pull together. In our technological age we have unique ways of sharing information so that processes that would have taken decades in the past can now happen almost overnight.
One moral question that Wild Law poses is whether human beings have the right to kill other animals for food. I was particularly struck by a description in Laurens van der Post’s autobiography Yet Being Someone Other on this question. As a young journalist van der Post observed a number of expeditions on a whaling vessel in the south Atlantic. He records:
‘I could not deny the excitement and acceleration into a consummation of archaic joy which the process of stalking and hunting, even at sea, had invoked in me, although I was at present now only as an observer. On the other hand, hard on these emotions came an equal and opposite revulsion which nearly overwhelmed me when the hunt, as now, was successful and one was faced with the acceptance of the fact that one had aided and abetted in an act of murder of such a unique manifestation of creation. The only dispensation of the paradox ever granted to me in the past, unaware as I had been of the immensity of it until revealed to me in this moment at sea, was that in hunting out of necessity, all revulsions were redeemed by the satisfaction one felt in bringing food home to the hungry. That such satisfaction was not an illusion, nor a form of special pleading in the court of natural conscience, was proved to me by the profound feeling of gratitude one invariably felt for the animal that had died in order for others to live … [but] what could this possibly have to do with the necessities which were essential for the redemption of the act of killing … in this increasingly technological moment of my youth, when control of life was passing more and more from nature to man, and when there were already available all sorts of artificial substitutes for the essential oils which animals like the whale had once been the only source of supply, what, I asked myself bitterly, could justify such killing except the greed of man for money … Worse still, I was certain that our imperviousness to the consternation caused by such killing in the heart of the nature could be the beginning of an enmity between man and the life which had brought him forth that could imperil his future on earth itself.’ He concludes: every one of us – not excluding the disabled, maimed, blind, deaf, dumb and the bearers of unbearable suffering – matters to a Creation that has barely begun
There are situations where human cannot survive without exploiting other animals for food making them in a sense obligate carnivores but living in developed cities where there are ample alternatives it seems that this argument is less compelling. Some argue that eating a small amount of meat does little damage to the environment but can we tolerate the way most animals that we eat are treated in factory farms and feeding lots? It seems to me that any natural law should not exclude such excesses or prohibit such suffering. Moreover, as the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields.’ It may be that the violence we exert against other animals leads in ways that we cannot grasp to violence in human societies. Moreover extension of compassion to other sentient creatures will extend our compassion to the wider planet as those animals are part of a wider nature. We should appreciate the beauty of a tree, even if there are times when we must chop it down in order to survive.
But of course any lawyer will ask how can all these high-sounding ideas be turned into something tangible in terms of legislation or constitutional expression? In his seminal article on the subject Can Trees Have Standing (written in 1972) Christopher D. Stone explores how wild law might apply. He argues that natural objects could have legal standing by analogy with companies, states, infants, incompetents, municipalities or even universities. Thus a court appoints a trustee when a corporation has become incompetent. He says: ‘On a parity of reasoning, we should have a system in which, when a friend of natural object perceives it to be endangered, he can apply to a court for the creation of a guardianship … The guardian would urge before the court injuries not presently cognizable – the death of eagles and inedible crabs, the suffering of sea lions, the loss from the face of the earth of species of commercially valueless birds, the disappearance of wilderness areas.
He also draws an analogy with the law of patents and copyright: ‘I am proposing that we do the same with eagles and wilderness areas as we do with copyrighted works, patented inventions and privacy: make the violation of rights in them to be a cost by declaring the piracy of them to be the invasion of a property interest.
He even suggests that this could involve modifications to our democratic systems: ‘I am suggesting that there is nothing unthinkable about, and there might on balance even be a prevailing case to be made for an electoral appointment that made some systematic effort to allow for the representative “rights” of non-human life.’ Considering most of our laws are framed in national and regional assemblies this argument could have some merit, although it is hard to imagine how it could actually happen. If it does, it seems very unlikely that the representative for turkeys will be voting for Christmas…
He envisages that a change in our legal culture would have an effect on the wider social norms: ‘such a manner of speaking by courts would contribute to popular notions, and a society that spoke of the “legal rights of the environment” would be inclined to legislate more environment-protecting rules by formal enactment.
He speculates that ‘What is needed is a myth that can fit our growing body of knowledge of geophysics, biology and the cosmos’ and considers ‘that we may come to regard the Earth, as some have suggested, as one organism of which mankind is a functional part’. Another leading author on the subject Cormac Cullinan developed an earth connection when he was on a Buddhist retreat. He records: I suddenly knew with great clarity that I was part of a single whole.’ But it is doubtful whether existing religions offer the guidance required. Even the spiritual beliefs of the Chinese and Indians ‘in the unity between man and nature had no greater effect than the contrary beliefs in Europe in producing a balance between man and his environment.’ Perhaps James Lovelock’s Gaia theory can offer that idea for our time as it is clear that most human beings have a need for some form of spiritual connection but that scientific rigour is also required for us to understand all of the earth systems. Perhaps in the future American money will have written on it: In Gaia we Trust.
Happily there are signs that human beings are coming around to the idea that the natural world has inalienable and inherent rights. Thus in September 2008 Ecuador constitution commits the state and citizens to seeking well-being in a manner that is harmonious with nature and that recognises the rights of nature. It is stated that ‘Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, and maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its evolutionary processes.’ A duty is also imposed on all Ecuadorian men and women “to respect the rights of nature, preserve a healthy environment and use natural resources in a rational, viable and sustainable manner.”
This was followed by the declaration on 17 October 2009 by nine countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America supporting the call for the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights. It reads
1. In the 21st Century it is impossible to achieve full human rights protection if at the same time we do not recognize and defend the rights of the planet earth and nature. Only by guaranteeing the rights of Mother Earth can we guarantee the protection of human rights. The planet earth can exist without human life, but humans cannot exist without planet earth.
2. Just as World War II caused a serious humanity crisis that in 1948 led to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, today we are suffering the enormous consequences of Climate Change making it essential to have a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.
3. The ecological crisis which global warming is part of, is showing so palpably an essential principle that has been argued for centuries by the native and indigenous peoples all over the world: that human beings are part of an interdependent system of plants, animals, hills, forests, oceans and air that require our respect and care. The system is what we call Mother Earth “Earth does not belong to man, but man to earth.” The Earth is not a group of things that we can appropriate of, but it is a group of natural beings with whom we must learn to live together in harmony and balance respecting their rights.
It is revealing that this statement was framed in one of the poorest parts of the planet where resources are scarcest. It seems that many of those enduring poverty more easily recognise the limitations of nature and it is simply untrue to suggest that environmentalism is not concerned with human welfare. The opposite is actually the case, it’s just that environmentalists takes a longer term view and see humans and nature as one.
We already have enough resources for the whole planet and the technologies required to change the way we consume. Krishnamurti observed: “If all of us said, ‘Look let’s all get together and solve this problem’ they could do it. Science has the means of feeding people. But they won’t because they are conditioned to function so as to destroy the security which we are seeking.” We need to alter that destructive way of thinking and get people to focus on the outcome of their actions. Significant re-distribution of global income among humans is I believe implicit in our acceptance of Wild Law. Lawyers have tended to shy away from pursuing socio-economic rights but what use is one’s good name or property if one is dying of poverty.
The Declaration also states there is no contradiction between human rights and the rights of nature. In fact they are one and the same as one flows from the other. The challenge of global warming in this the Anthropocene should be the moment for humans to act individually and collectively.
At least it would appear that the Catholic Church is moving in the right direction with Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si. The pope draws on the legacy of his namesake St. Francis saying: “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.””
The recollection of these sentiments is encouraging, but the relationship that the encyclical envisions between humans and nature at large remains essentially hierarchical with humans atop the food chain due to their capacity for reason. But perhaps we simply do not understand the capacity of other species for reason. At least there is acknowledgement that: “If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”
It is clear that the notion of Wild Law brings lawyers out of their comfort zone and exposes the limits of our language to define the reciprocal relationships that the complexity of the natural world involves but this should not deter us from the task since as Wittgenstein wrote: ‘Ethics cannot be put into words’ but ‘make themselves manifest’. Cormac Cullinan observed: ‘The language of the universe is primarily experiential. It speaks to us in the language of hot and cold, beauty and fear, patterns of events, symbols and associations. However, we must engage with it to ‘hear’ this language. Book learning and scientific rationality can only take us so far. We also need direct experience of nature, intuition and emotions. Therefore in order to become ecologically literate once more and to regain an awareness of the principles which govern life on Earth, we must strive to reconnect and engage empathically with wildness and nature, and if possible, with wilderness.’
Cullinan also warns that ‘we must beware of succumbing to the temptation of devising the ‘Great Solution’ that will enable all of human theories of jurisprudence to be transformed instantly into a reflection of the Great Jurisprudence’. Too often we have seen utopian ideas being appropriated by dictatorships that justified their actions on the utilitarian grounds that it was for the greater good. Instead he says: ‘doing very small Earth-caring things on an ongoing basis is probably more important than the odd grand gesture (or World Summit), though both can have their place.’ In a revolution such as this it seems to me that change is more likely to come from the periphery than the centre.
Perhaps it is in poetry an art form whose ambiguity puts fear into lawyers that offers the best expression of Wild Law. In writing this lecture the closing lines of a poem by W.B. Yeats were in my mind:
Oh chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from dance?
The dance is more than the dancer, the tree is beyond its constituent parts. We are greater than ourselves, connected to an earth that brought us into being and through engagement with the earth, a deep listening, we may start to understand in all our limitations its shifting laws.

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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)

Song is Existence

(Published in Village Magazine May, 2015)

In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.
Sean O’Faolain

Donal Dineen recently described this as a ‘golden age’ in Irish music. We might take heart when a DJ of his calibre with knowledge crossing genres and continents makes such a pronouncement. His sets and peripatetic shows reveal a remarkable and unyielding musical engagement; his vocal input merges clarity, wit and pathos even if at times he does wander.

Of course it will be for posterity to judge whether such a description is warranted, or whether Dineen ‘has gone off on one’. Nonetheless it is worth assessing this creative outpouring in our midst, track its merits such as they are and even plot future directions.

Any golden age in music cannot be divorced from the wider socio-economic and cultural context. Musicians are not free floating forms insulated from broader currents. If this is a golden age for Irish music then to some extent it extends to Irish life at large, or at least there’s a cloud with a very silver lining.

On many levels we’ve ‘never had it so good’ in spite of the Celtic Tiger failing a dope test: the country has maintained its population unlike after other historical crises albeit with a diminished standard of living and increased emigration. But the brain drain is not all in one direction. Immigrants from all over the world continue to arrive in Ireland. In terms of music, there is sufficient wealth for patronage of concerts to continue and a comparatively generous social welfare system (for all except the under-25s) forces few musicians into serious poverty.

Importantly those who have arrived are keen to integrate and a garrulous culture is happy to accommodate outsiders. Ireland doesn’t have the colonial baggage of some of its neighbours and there is little obvious racism.

Of course there is serious inequality, a public health time bomb, far too great a concentration of economic activity in Dublin and an often atrocious attitude to the environment. And yet there is a spirit in Ireland that visitors and even residents remark upon. Strangers actually talk to one another. Distasteful efforts to brand and commodify the Irish welcome does not mask genuine warmth.

In the sphere of music many New Irish are asserting individual creativity and drawing on international influences shaped by appreciative Irish audiences. In jazz and world music, the Congolese guitarist Niwel Tsumbu, the Italian pianist Francesco Turrissi and half-Sierra-Leonean-half-Irish singer Loah could enjoy a global audience.

Meanwhile traditional forms have been nourished by interactions with foreign styles. The ‘session’ which blurs the boundary between audience and performer thrives, particularly outside Dublin.

Surveying the wider culture we have long been a country on the geographic edge, but also on edge creatively. A unique history in European terms of colonization, suffering what has been defined as the worst famine in human history then emerging at the end of the nineteenth century as a noisy underclass uncomfortably situated near the centre of an empire where the sun never set. An accident of geography gave the Irish population a modern education and substantial equality in the United Kingdom.

Exploring the context of the Irish cultural revival that began at the end of the nineteenth century, the literary historian Joe Cleary identified ‘conjunctures’ or intersections of socio-political and economic forces that generated impressive artistic achievements.

Rather like the profusion of nature at the fault line of two clashing tectonic plates, the meeting of a peasant society with an advanced industrial society generated an embarrassment of cultural riches. The Irish acquired the language of the colonizer but some chose to distort it and question the prevailing Positivism of the period. In Ulysses and Finnegans Wake the English language was subjected to an almost mocking treatment by James Joyce and W.B. Yeats was inspired by peasant lore to a mysticism central to his oeuvre.

Both Joyce and Yeats were also profoundly musical. Yeats in particular developed a remarkable sonorous quality to his verse, quite at odds with the Modernist rejection of form that has transformed much contemporary poetry into a largely academic pre-occupation. This loss of a wider relevance for poetry could have dangerous, dislocating consequences.

In Songlines the travel writer Bruce Chatwin recalls how the Aboriginal population of Australia believe their ancestors sung their land into existence. He writes: ‘In Aboriginal belief, an unsung land is a dead land; since if the songs are forgotten, the land itself will die.’ He concludes that ‘the Songlines were not necessarily an Australian phenomenon, but universal: that they were the means by which man marked out his territory, and so organized his social life.’ Or, as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: ‘Gesang ist Dasein,’ meaning ‘song is existence’.

Songs are of course both music and words, but the inspiration for song seems to originate in a different part of the brain to speaking. Fascinatingly, some stroke victims who lose the use of their brain’s left hemisphere can no longer speak but retain a capacity to sing. The right hemisphere is associated with nuance and metaphor which are the lifeblood of poetry.

But when a musician plays her instrument she is largely working from the left hemisphere. This is not surprising considering the mathematical basis of chord progressions and rhythm. To some extent the playing of an instrument is the operation of a noise-making machine which is in the responsibility of the practical left hemisphere.

But when composing the musician enters the domain of the right as symbolic meaning interacts with the relative order of a musical key. A sensitive instrumentalist can also recognise the sentiments expressed in lyrics, echo and embellish them. This coordination of hemispheres helps explain the power of music, especially singing in combination with instruments, to lift us out of our seats.

The psychiatrist and literary scholar Iain MacGilchrist explains that: ‘both hemispheres are importantly involved. Creativity depends on the union of things that that are also maintained separately.’

Religions have long understood the power of songs. Hymns have always occupied an important place in Catholicism and Martin Luther said: ‘Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.’ John Lennon’s claim in 1966 that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus was not as naïve as it may seem. Their success arrived at a time when organized religions were in decline and the enduring connection between spiritual devotion and song music gave Beatlemania characteristics of a religious revival, although any movement was forestalled by the egos in the band.

Religious songs take a meditative form quite removed from an exoteric tendency in religions towards legalistic control. It seems that if a religion rejects song that oppressive tendencies become manifest: this is apparent in the austere form of Islam expressed by Wahhabism which forbade the use of musical instruments. The only verse permitted to be sung was the Qu’ran which was learnt by heart. Exponents chant programmatically with little scope for revealing their emotions. Wahhabism informs the ideology of Islamic State and other conservative variants of Political Islam. In contrast Sufism, another branch of Islam, embraces song and poetic expression. Without the symbolic insights of song, religions can become judgmental and absolutist.
Irish Catholicism also took an oppressive turn in the twentieth century. Its music was perfunctory and removed from the common people: the Church enjoying an uneasy relationship with traditional music which tended to be associated with pagan superstitions, including the idea that tunes derived from the faeries.

Fortunately, unlike in England, traditional Irish music survived as a signature of Irishness, and perhaps some of the vitality and warmth apparent in Ireland is drawn from a resilient musical tradition. MacGilchrist writes that music ‘has a vital way of binding people together, helping them to be aware of a shared humanity, shared feelings and experiences, and actively drawing them together’.

Of course many forms of music have been popular since independence from the Show Bands to Rock and Roll and even House and Hip Hop today, but the important thing is that music remains in the blood; the Songlines enduring in shifting genres.

Pace Cleary, the decline of the Tiger might be identified as the ‘conjuncture’ out of which emerged the rich stream of musical creativity that Dineen observes. The shock of a renewed acquaintance with poverty after years of mindless consumerism has seen many return to the creative musical well.

But arguably this golden age comes with a significant caveat as much contemporary Irish music is removed from the deep insights of poetry. This might owe something to an enduring discomfort with the English language as a foreign imposition, but also to the excesses of Modernism in poetry. This lacuna creates an imbalance in collective Irish hemispheres.

Mike Scott of the Waterboys who lives in Dublin recently claimed that Ireland is a great place to write songs. Though not Irish by birth he has tapped into the Songlines.

A recent album An Interview with Mr Yeats (2013) is a homage to the poet. It transposes a number of the master poet’s work into song, but the result is perhaps too reverential as the poems are retained in their entirety and not subjected to Scott’s own poetic inspiration evident in other work. Poetry should be recast each generation otherwise it atrophies and a distance emerges between it and our ever-evolving language.

One band that does display a balance between the poetic and the musical is The Loafing Heroes led by an Irish singer-songwriter named Bartholomew Ryan. His words are joined by musical virtuosity from an unusual instrumental array that intensifies the experience of the lyrics. The creativity of the right hemisphere and order of the left are harnessed to powerful effect.

Like many who have drawn from Irish Songlines, Ryan has spent much of his adult life beyond his native shores. Often the greatest insights accumulate from a distance. We just have to observe the legacy of Joyce, Wilde, Beckett and Yeats all of whom did not live in Ireland for much of their lives yet played a huge role in forging what we pereive as Irishness.

One song ‘Dream of the Celt’ from Ryan’s recent album Crossing the Threshold concerns Roger Casement: ‘A seeker and a poet who sailed from shore / That enigmatic gentleman who lives beyond his name’. Casement was one of the 1916 conspirators and was executed after landing in Kerry in a failed mission to join the Rising. Casement had a genuinely global sensibility exposing the horrific crimes of Leopold in the Congo for which he was knighted. But he was a convinced Irish nationalist and situated that struggle within the wider constellation of his opposition to colonialism.

We find a subtle reference to Yeat’s poetic homage to Casement in the Ryan’s lines: ‘There’s a ghost knocking / there’s a ghost beating down my door.’ Thus the spirits from another age inform our present relationship with what it means to be Irish: The Songlines of the ancestors, or as Ryan puts it in another track, ‘Into the Nothing’: ‘Walk along the songlines and into the heart / Dream the dreamtime and bring us back to the start’.

A golden age of music in Ireland could become a golden age for poetry too. There are great exponents working in Ireland today, many with a playful, irreverent approach to language, but their work tends not to enter the mainstream. If poetry and music draw closer rather than seeing one another as separate domains we might find a more powerful drawing from our Songlines, and a balance of the hemispheres.

The nuanced communication of ideas through wider poetic appreciation might help us contend with the serious challenges of our time. A golden age in both music and poetry could inculcate greater sensitivity to nature and empathy with human suffering. Our great music can make words dance.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/05/song-is-existence/)

A Lost Martyr

A Lost Martyr
(In memory of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington)
by Frank Armstrong

Ireland lost its vision in nineteen-sixteen;
Then bad poetry incarnate,
Engendered all we’ve seen,
Through a century of hate.

Kaiser Wilhem are you willing,
To take our land for a schilling?|
Ladies take your place,
Srub the dishes don’t deface.

Of Pearse we should take the piss,
McDonagh make fun of,
Even Connolly I can’t resist,
Or Joseph Mary to make a pun of.

A nation needs its heroes,
And for poets to sing their deeds,
The real martyr and our sorrows,
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and his creeds.

A feminist from the start,
Joyce knew and held apart,
A vegetarian taboo,
And socialist who knew.

When the Rising came,
He did not seek a lasting fame,
Tried to round up a crew,
To bring order and renew.

Dear Willie Yeats, acutely,
Why did you conjoin,
That terror with a beauty
From your withered loin?

Can man escape a fate,
Not laden with hate?
Let Ireland not be the answer,
If we’re to have a chance here.

The poet sings her song,
Of the nation to which we belong;
Lilting tune from our wind,
Crashes wild as we sinned.

Hard liquor in our demise,
Such as Percy Shelley espied,
When he came to accept the blame,
All nations live with shame.

Sheehy-Skeffington was his heir,
For a country in despair,
But those men took up the gun,
And a sorry tale begun.

The Easter Rising 1916

(Published in The London Magazine, April/May 2016)

The one hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising will hardly register in most London Magazine readers’ minds, but for Irish people the anniversary prompts reflection on who we are. It occurred in the context of World War I where esprit de corp was merging the Irish experience with that of other ‘imagined communities’ in the British Isles; a term for the archipelago that makes many Irish people squirm.

Without the Rising ‘Irishness’ might have become a scarf to be worn only on match days. A form of Home Rule would in all likelihood have been granted as an enabling Bill had by then passed through Parliament. But it could have arrived without the lingering bitterness of a War of Independence when the infamous Black and Tans terrorised the population, which included burning down the house of my own great-grandfather.

It is even possible that partition of the island could have been avoided and with that the pressure cooker of sectarian division that incubated the vicious Northern Troubles (1968-1998). As a Dominion it is very unlikely that Ireland would have remained neutral during World War II or become a Republic in 1949.

Georgian Dublin might have been lost to German bombs but we may have seen less pot-holed roads and even universal healthcare. More generous Marshall Aid after World War II could have developed indigenous industry and stemmed the damning tide of emigration that saw independent Ireland’s population in continuous decline until the 1960s.

Of course that’s all counter-factual star-gazing and the idea that a peaceful resolution to the Irish Question that proved so intractable for the decades leading up to World War I is perhaps unrealistic. Moreover, an irreconcilable Irishman Other – intemperate, uncivilised and disorderly – had been in gestation since the Middle Ages.

The differences between Ireland and its neighbouring island at the start of the century were significant. Only in the majority-Protestant North East had the Industrial Revolution taken root: Dublin was a dreadfully impoverished city smaller than Belfast and most of the rest of the island was a pastoral landscape supporting few farmers and dominated by a cruelly-rigid, Victorian Catholicism.

In any event, the blood-letting of the Cromwellian invasion in the seventeenth when the population declined from about two million to approximately five hundred thousand was perhaps a wound too grievous to heal. Albeit if the Crown had risen to the challenge of feeding the peasantry during the Great Famine of the 1840s there might have been a measure of forgiveness; instead Charles Trevelyan and his officials treating it as an act of Providence that would result in a better form of subsistence. Even in the War Irish Volunteers were not trusted to put forward their own officers.

The virtual extinction of Irish as a spoken language by the end of the nineteenth century triggered a revival that extended to the emergence of a distinct Irish literature in Hiberno-English; a Renaissance that continues to astound. The great socio-economic divergence between the islands also contributed to the creative ferment as where two tectonic plates collide a profusion of novel life forms in the cracks.

More than James Joyce whose themes, local and general, identify him as a Dubliner first, a European second and an Irishman third, W.B. Yeats was the poet and chronicler of the Irish Revival. In Easter 1916, he breathed an eternal and heroic imprimatur: ‘All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.’

Secular nationalists have since sought to sunder the religious association with the Rising: the historian Diarmuid Ferriter suggesting recently that the date for the commemoration should be its actual anniversary on April 24th. But the significance of Easter, a passage from sacrificial death to spiritual renewal cannot be overlooked and was in the minds of the participants. With a few notable exceptions, the United Irishmen movement of the 1790s failed to implant the ideal of the Irish nation beyond Irish Catholics.

For readers who do not know what happened in Dublin on that fateful week it is worthwhile providing background. On Easter Monday two or three thousand nationalists under the command of Padraig Pearse and a few hundred socialist revolutionaries led by James Connolly occupied strategic buildings around Dublin including the General Post Office where a Proclamation was unfurled declaring ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’; and promising to guarantee: ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to its citizens.

More controversially the support of ‘gallant allies in Europe’ was courted at the height of the Great War. This was not an idle aspiration: just prior to the Rising a German vessel the Aud was captured with 20,000 rifles and a number of machine guns. Another leader, the internationally-renowned diplomat Sir Roger Casement had visited the Kaiser and was captured after landing from a German submarine. The old Fenian adage; England’s Difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity seemed applicable.

In the event the Rising did not spark a more widespread rebellion against British rule as only a few shots were fired in the rest of the country. Indeed failure seemed certain from the outset as the wider Irish Volunteers had already been advised against coming to Dublin in a controversial countermanding order.

Both sides bore considerable casualties and many innocent civilians died: when the dust settled the toll stood at under five hundred deaths. The authorities subdued the rebel-controlled strongholds with unexpected ruthlessness; that included the sailing of a gunship up the River Liffey to shell Sackville Street – now O’Connell Street – the city’s prime boulevard. One atrocity was the summary execution of the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a deranged Irish Guards officer. The cutting down by the Rebels of the Sherwood Forester Regiment was a feat of blood-minded cruelty.

But as every student of Irish history knows it was not the Rebellion itself that changed the course of Irish history but the aftermath. Initially at least the populace seemed to have reacted unfavourably. But fatally the British administration created martyrs, executing all the signatories of the Proclamation and battalion commanders: sixteen in all. The future Taoiseach Eamon de Valera escaped perhaps on account of being born in America. Another leader the Countess Markievicz was spared due to her gender.

It emerged that James Connolly had been shot by firing squad though confined to a wheelchair from his injuries. Padraig Pearse was executed along with his brother Willie, cruelly it seemed as the latter was not a signatory or battalion commander. Afterwards, martial law was declared and thousands interned. The mood of the country hardened against British rule and in the 1918 election the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped out and Sinn Fein, previously a fringe nationalist party, won almost all seats outside the north-east. Their elected representatives withdrew from Westminster and formed the first national parliament in Dublin since the Act of Union of 1801.

In the collective memory the Rising was a Battle of Britain, a Gettysburg address and a storming of the Bastille rolled in one. We might enquire as to why hundreds of men would assemble for near certain death. This has been criticised as a vainglorious and atavistic act of blood sacrifice.

But it needs to be situated in the general maelstrom of the Great War where thousands of young men, Irish included, were being sent to their deaths each week. The macabre events on the Western Front and beyond were echoing through the continent: as the ballad The Foggy Dew asserts: ‘Twas better to die ‘neath an Irish sky than at Suvla or Sud el Bar’.

Death being so commonplace why not die for your own nation as the rest of Europe seemed to be doing? It is instructive to read how as late as 1940 Winston Churcill would tell his cabinet: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ There was nothing unique or particularly chilling about Pearse or Connolly’s concept of self-sacrifice.

My personal objection to commemorating the Rising is founded on the reactionary ideology of its leader Padraig Pearse. He wrote in 1913: ‘Against Mr Yeats we personally have nothing to object. He is a mere English poet of the third or fourth rank, and as such is harmless. But when he attempts to run an “Irish Literary Theatre” it is time for him to be crushed.’

Of course Yeats was no angel, as his later fellow-travelling fascism exposes, but the artistic revival he sponsored led to the greatest flowering of Irish culture since the arrival of Christianity. Pearse was clearly the insignificant poet if you care to parse his sentimental verse, and his art calls to mind Stalin’s chilling statement that the writer is the engineer of the soul.

The following statement of Pearse’s written in 1913 has also had an unfortunate resonance through Irish history: ‘bloodshed is a cleansing and sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood; and slavery is one of them.’ Violence was inextricably bound with his ideal of the nation.

A source of pride among Irish nationalist apologists of 1916 is that the Rising set in train a series of anti-colonial movements that diminished the British Empire; as the Foggy Dew puts it ‘And the world did gaze in deep amaze at those fearless men and few / who bore the fight that freedom’s light should shine through the foggy dew.’ There may be some truth to this sentiment but it breeds an assumption that armed rebellion represents the only way of achieving freedom.

Gandhi would soon show there were other equally effective non-violent tactics. Moreover, it was actually Sinn Fein’s idea articulated by Arthur Griffith of unilaterally setting up a national parliament that really brought independence, but this non-violent constitutional act has received nothing like the chest-thumping approval of 1916.

I have to admit to the same queasy feeling for the 1916 commemorations in Dublin as I did for the Royal marriage of Prince William in full military regalia to his bride in virginal white.

Independence was important for Ireland however mishandled it has been: too many grievances had been stored for the relationship to endure. But the tradition engendered by 1916 is an unhealthy one creating a country in thrall to a violent tradition and prompting hundreds of impressionable people to kill and to die for their nation without ever pausing to consider the frangibility of that concept.

Ireland can never be at peace if Pearse’s vision holds for each generation must renew the nation with acts of violence. That is a spectre horrible to behold and turns away from the original perspectives gained from the Irish Revival which should have informed the Irish free state with open-mindedness and creativity. Pearse’s ideas were regressive and inward-looking: a pale reflection of the chauvinistic views of the Little Englander.

One might look more sympathetically on James Connolly who identified in his writings the primary cause of Ireland’s terrible social and economic decline in the nineteenth century: the dominance of pastoral agriculture which demanded low employment to be profitable. The small urban-industrial base that an Irish socialist worked from perhaps made him feel compelled to combine with nationalists. But was it not foreseeable that his movement should be subsumed by the more powerful nationalist one? Could he not see the conservativism of Pearse’s ideology?

It is hard to imagine the Ireland of Pearse as anything more than a dark, conformist place, regressive beyond even the state that emerged. His heralded book on education: The Murder Machine reads more as an advertisement of the patriotic methodologies, if there be such. This informed the values of the school he founded St. Enda’s. A visit there, now the site of the Pearse Museum, reveals a proto-madrassa where heroic warfare is cherished above anything else. According to Roy Foster in Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 by the time of the Rising the school’s ethos ‘had become more like a sect’.

The sad thing is that it is that poet of the third or fourth rank that has been a greater influence on Independent Ireland than the true poets of international renown from the early twentieth century. Ireland’s birth pangs were not pretty. We can acknowledge the significance of the 1916 Rising but look forward to this divisive and potentially dangerous event passing into obscurity.

(http://www.thelondonmagazine.org/the-easter-rising/)

Grace Gifford and the Abortion Debate

(Unpublished, 2016)

Written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1985 and sung by the Dubliners among others, listening to Grace for the first time might bring you to tears. It recalls the circumstances of the marriage between 1916 revolutionary and poet Joseph Mary Plunkett and the artist Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail on the eve of his execution.

Plunkett explains to Grace how love of country and comrade compelled him to rise from his sick bed and join the Rising. He reflects on its failure, but consoles himself with the momentary bliss of their romance in a churning chorus: ‘Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger’.

The song changes key in the last verse as Plunkett is left alone with his thoughts. Overwhelmed he closes with the lines: ‘I loved so much that I could see His Blood upon The Rose’, a reference to a religious poem written by Plunkett: ‘I see His Blood upon The Rose’.

Just as the song ends on a religious note similarly the Irish revolution developed a decidedly Catholic hue after 1916, with the leaders soon being hailed as latter-day saints. In Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 Roy Foster writes: ‘Very rapidly, the language of mystical Catholicism fused with national purism in a new – or ancient – revolutionary rhetoric.’

Revealingly, inside the GPO rosaries were said communally every night and confessions heard. In the aftermath independent-minded figures such as James Connolly, Countess Markievicz and Roger Casement converted to Catholicism. This had important repercussions for the feminism, secularism and socialism that animated participants in the preceding cultural revival.

Moreover, women who had previously played prominent roles were reduced to subservience during the Rising, an ominous foretaste for their position in the independent state as both Cuman na nGaedhal (later Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail usually acceded to the wishes of the Catholic Church on moral questions.

By the early 1920s observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms. His 1937 Constitution (and ours) commits the state to ensuring ‘that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’.

Today the constitutional issue of most concern to many feminists and others is the prohibition against abortion on demand which leads on average to twelve women travelling to Britain every day for the procedure.

The story of Grace Gifford might prove instructive on this issue. After her fleeting marriage Grace seemed to have led a fairly lonely and impoverished existence, illustrating cartoons for fringe Republican publications. Her husband’s family refused to recognise the validity of Joseph’s will, and only in 1932 when de Valera’s government granted her a pension was she able to live in a measure of comfort.

It is possible that the animosity of the family can be traced to Grace being pregnant with a child other than the infirm Joseph’s before her marriage. She may have had an abortion.

In her private papers Joseph’s sister Geraldine reveals that ‘Various friends kept telling me that I must not let her go [to America} because if she had a child it would make a greater scandal.’

The Castle had informed her that Grace was pregnant but that Joseph was not the father. She visited Grace and found she was in bed and beside her ‘a big white chamberpot was full of the remains of an abortion etc.’

No words were passed between the two women but Geraldine consulted another visitor who agreed with what she had seen but ‘did not know if Grace had induced or not’. Geraldine also claimed that Grace and her sister had shocked the republican hero Rory O’Connor by demanding that he spend a night with them.

It is plausible that the Castle were attempting to cause a rift between Grace and the Plunkett family but there is no reason to disbelieve the account of the abortion or miscarriage. The shame of illegitimacy might have caused Grace to expose herself to the danger of an abortion.

The sex lives of the participants in the 1916 is not a subject-matter that is commonly exhumed, but the prevailing mores did not preclude extra-marital encounters. As Ireland digs deeper into the revolutionary shrine more unwelcome skeletons might emerge.

In particular there has been debate around the sexuality of the leader of the uprising Padraig Pearse. There is a prevailing view among historians that his orientation was homosexual which was obviously not alluded to for most of the state’s history.

But of grave concern is that he may have used his position as a school headmaster in St Enda’s for exploitative behaviour. There is what Roy Foster describes as ‘a disturbing implication’ in the final verses of his poem ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ that an encounter with a student perhaps occurred. The poet addresses a ‘child of the soft red mouth’ and found that ‘there is fragrance in your kiss / That have I have not found yet / In the kisses of women.

It is said that you should avoid meeting your heroes. One wonders whether this will be the case as Ireland confronts the human frailties evident in the birth pangs of this state.