Sunday, 29 November 2015

Death is like a dream

The Denial of Death. By Ernest Becker. 1973 The Free Press. 1975. 

This review was written on May 15th 2015

I found this book in my library recently. It had been lent to me some years ago by Lorcan Walshe but I had not returned it to him. As I am now in  my ninety fourth  year I thought it worth  reading as I find myself thinking about the prospect of death more frequently; but Becker’s book seemed  too complex and too impractical to face what is an inevitable and straightforward event. For example some of the comments by critics in the introduction to the book were as follows:-

 --A magnificent psychophilosophical synthesis of power and insight;
 -- A masterful articulation of the limitations of psychoanalysis;
 -- will be acknowledged as a major work;
  - -unfolding of a mind grasping of new possibilities and forming a new synthesis;
  -- One of the great new books of the 20th or other centuries;
  -- astonishing insights into the theories of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Soren Kierkegaard, Carl Jung, Erich  Fromm and other giants; etc, etc.

The other five commentators write very much along such lines but I stopped my reading of the text on page 35 of the 315 pages as I reckoned that my own purpose in facing death and in preparing my mind for the event will not be served by any of the more theoretical and philosophical aspects of dying as provided by the author of this masterpiece. Nor in the final analysis was my concern about myself of any significance but rather a wider concern about the fate of family, friends, and humanity in general and the world we live in.  

I suppose it was about 2 years or so ago when I began to think regularly about death and its approach. My thoughts included a melange of uncertainty, curiosity and melancholy but not of fear. As time passed the sense of curiosity began to dominate my feelings rather than that of melancholy.  I have already noted my physical, mental, social and psychological changes which have taken place and which have been the principal features  of aging during the third stage of  life, although it is  difficult to say when this stage started, it was certainly later than the date of official retirement.  These changes I have described in some detail in my 4th edition of My Challenge to Ageing which was brought up to date on Kindle in 2014.

I have been fortunate that I have never suffered any serious illness during my lifetime apart from a few remediable injuries. There has been a slow and barely noticeable loss of physical strength in later years, now accelerating in the last year or two, and there has been a gradual and often erratic deterioration in other functional and physical aspects of my life. They include hearing and vision, dry eyes and dryness of the mouth at night, appetite reduction, sensitivity to cold and alcohol, erratic sleeping patterns, a reduction and ultimately cessation of sex, and a  tendency to cramps, particularly unpleasant in the hands after long standing use of books and now the iPad and Kindle.

Mood and other psychological and social changes are inevitable as one gradually loses touch with wider society and particularly as one’s contemporaries and old friends pass gradually from the scene.  However, despite the social and physical changes of ageing, isolation need not prevent us seeking access to the activities provided by family and others, and taking advantage of such means of communication as radio and television, not to mention the computer, the Ipad and the Kindle. I still maintain my regular walking programme although now reduced to about four times a week and perhaps for a distance of about one to two miles. I am careful to avoid accidents – the stairs, the footpaths, the house lighting and the loose rug.  I have no obvious reduction in my intellectual abilities in terms of speech and writing although my initiative to write a new blog has diminished during the last year or two.  It seemed such an easy task until recently. I am now more inclined to forget a name, particularly of a person, flower or tree which I am familiar with but which I cannot recall because of a sudden and unexpected confusion in an attempt to identify the word.

Of course, to return to the subject of one’s attitude to death, the limitations imposed by ageing, whether physical, situational, psychological, are factors in themselves which must influence one’s attitude.  One might clearly welcome death as a relief if life becomes more isolated and less tolerant and relevant in the minds of others of a different age and society.

Blogger and Editor 
Perhaps the greatest change in my life in the recent past has been caused by the loss of contemporary friends whose company and interests I shared and enjoyed so much.   I still share contact with my three generation family and friends but such contacts with the younger generations, added to limitations of hearing and comprehension, can be embarrassing compared to the interests which I enjoyed with my more intimate contemporaries. One is aware of the different interests of other generations and there are the problems of hearing during their more intensive conversations.    Naturally it is not surprising that their interests are different from mine.  My relationship with my wife, now 37 years in duration, has not changed although my more physical means of showing my feelings has reduced since my late 80s.  She is 23 years younger than me and happily her social life is consistent with such an age group and has not been changed by our age gap.   

I have followed a life-style which not only leads to longevity but which greatly reduces the length and severity of decrepitude which is still too common among our older community.  Appropriate adaptation to the normal changes of ageing is mandatory.  If we can remain active during the third stage of life and if we accept the inevitable changes which occur at this time; we will continue to have some influence in society despite hearing and sight changes, and loneliness and loss of friends and family. The elderly should be dealt with by education, adaptation and understanding. It is surprising how the occasional ‘phone call from family and close friends can maintain our touch with society.

Have I any regrets in recent years?  Yes, it was our inability to influence humanity about the major disaster which is facing our children and other living things as we are rapidly destroying the natural world on which we depend for our survival. In my short time of 93 years hundreds of animal and plant species have disappeared from the earth and continue to do so.  Because the changes are gradual we are not aware of them. Even more rapid changes are ignored. Witness the abrupt loss of the Passenger Pigeons in the United States (as per a previous blog) with little comment or concern by the public!  During my 93 years the human population has increased by more than three times and continues at a rate of 80 million a year. The drying up of water in rivers and lakes,  and changes in the oceans presage physical changes which may be incompatible with life as we know it now. Carbon changes too will make life intolerable.  The increase of carbon in the atmosphere during the last century is a substantial and glaring warning to us and it is evidently increasing at a semi-exponential rate. It will have a dire effect on living things sooner than we think. Our politicians are represented by an electorate which is deeply committed to wealth, social standing, personal wellbeing, power and comfort, and a disregard for our natural world.  We therefore cannot expect our politicians to lead us in our defence of Nature and the future of humanity. Who else can do so? They cannot deal with the symptoms of disaster let alone its causes – the declining morale and the poverty of some nations, our reaching for the sky in search of wealth, the overcrowding, the Mediterranean problem, the religious and internal political wars, and most of all the continued increase in the human population and the easy availability of the nuclear bomb when the problems of overcrowding and a decaying environment become intolerable. Hopefully the immediate forthcoming Paris conference will wake us up and our leaders too!

To return to my attitude to death, I have no sense of fear and I am comforted by my certainty that there can be no personal sequelae to follow. Death and its fear is an insubstantial illusion, like a dream. We do not even understand the world we are living in, its origins and limitations in terms of time and space. We will never understand these, and our invention of another world adds further to our ignorance and our confusion.  My only fear is for humanity and all our living species and the wonderful world we were provided with and which we may well destroy because of human arrogance, selfishness and ignorance.  My book (Survival and Humanity) appears next Spring and says it all!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Drumlins and other interesting things.

Robert Lloyd Praeger

Irish Landscape. R. Lloyd Praeger. Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland, Dublin, 1961. pp 41.

This review was written on March 18th 2011.

This is one of 14 booklets published by the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland and written by distinguished authors. I bought it in March from Greene’s second-hand list for 9 Euro. These booklets deal with many aspects of Irish art and culture, past and present. Robert Lloyd Praeger was well known as a botanist and naturalist and for his many publications. His autobiography The Way that I Went, bought originally by my father, is a classic about the natural history of Ireland and has a special place in my library. He believed that our landscape is peculiar to Ireland because of our latitude, our position facing the Atlantic and dominated by wind, rain and an equable climate, and the very ancient limestone central plain so suitable for grassland and the rearing of cattle, and surrounded by the beauty of the mountain ranges.

Praeger was born in Belfast and his early research was on the geology of the north-east of Ireland and in excavations there. The north-east is unique in this country in geological terms because its volcanic origin, unlike the rest of Ireland where the rocks are older and have a very different history. Just as the turn of the 19th and 20th  centuries marked the days of the Celtic Twilight, with its writers, poets and dramatists, so at the same time and as part of Ireland’s intellectual revival, the natural history of our country was greatly advanced and led by Robert Lloyd Praeger.

Grianán of Aileach
The booklet is designed as a travel guide with an introduction in the first 20 pages on the general aspect of the Irish landscape, including its countryside, its towns and villages, its roads, fields, characteristic high hedges and hedgerow trees; its bird life and wild life, including  alien species, such as the muskrat, and most remarkable,  the many  remains of  past  generations – Dun Aengus, Clonmacnoise, the round towers, the Grianán of Aileach and countless others still in a remarkable state of preservation. He describes the topography of the country with its central plain of limestone, often concealed by a thick blanket of bog, now sadly disappearing, and the numerous mountain ranges with their huge contribution to the panorama and scenic beauty of our country.  Nor does he forget to describe the natives of the countryside, their way of life, their occupations and their well established superstitions.

The second half of the book he goes from north to south to describe the physical, panoramic and particularly the geological features peculiar to different parts of the country. He starts with Donegal where he describes the unspoilt beauty of the area. What would he think to-day of the dreadful rural sprawl we saw when myself and Louise were last there in Rosapenna. He writes about the white washed cottages in the hollows, the donkeys, geese and dogs, and the abundance of wild flowers, all too evocative of my own days in Kerry in the 1930s. Donegal is the oldest part of Ireland geologically while the basaltic north east is the youngest part of the country.

Drumlin country in Co. Down
He moves from Donegal, perhaps with less detail, to the north-east, the mid-west, the mid-east, the south west and finally the south east parts of the country. He obviously was most familiar with the fascinating geology of the north east where he was born and where he developed his great interest in geology and natural history. The Drumlin country above the Dublin-Galway line is evident in the tortuous roads of  Co. Down and also the numerous small islands in Clew Bay in Mayo. He writes about Lough Neagh, the largest and least known of our many lakes with the pollen, and its unusual waters.  Other outstanding places of interest in Ireland are alluded to elsewhere and the black and white photographs are an additional feature. I would consider that Praeger gives a good insight into the Ireland of the mid-20th century. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

John Millington Synge

John Millington Synge – a Biography. By David M. Kiely. Gill and Macmillan, 1994.

This review was written in 2009

Bought in the second hand bookshop in Abbey Street near O’Connell Street in April 2010 where a great selection of books is available for as little as 6 or 7 Euros. This volume cost E5.99. I was perfectly aware of the important part Synge played in the development of the Abbey Theatre and of his close association with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. I had not read a biography of his before but I was of course aware of his very controversial role as a playwright. His Playboy of the Western World was the first play to lead to controversy among the Catholic and Nationalist population of Dublin and it was surprising to me that Arthur Griffith was one of its most outspoken and hostile critics. It was Griffith who lead the campaign against Synge and the Abbey. Synge’s portrayal of the native people of Ireland, and particularly those in the West and in his native Co. Wicklow, caused great offence to many of Dublin’s citizens, largely because of his sublects’ earthy and picturesque English language adorned with the Irish idiom. Many of the Dublin nationalists and Catholics at the time lacked the maturity to accept Synge’s portrayal of the native Irish country people’s way of life as observed by his close contact with them.

Programme from the Abbey theatre in 1907
Synge came from a very conservative protestant family who lived in Dublin and Co. Wicklow and he was in striking contrast to the anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist members of his privileged family. He soon became an agnostic, and a thorn in his mother's side who was extremely conservative in her devotion to her religion and was part of the anti-Catholic tradition of her privileged class. Synge became absorbed by the local population and spent his time in lonely walks around the Co. Wicklow and subsequently in the Aran Islands, Connemara and the Dingle Peninsula. He was remarkable in his attachment to the native people in Ireland, to their dialect and to their conversation in English based on the Irish Idiom and full of the colourful allusions of a primitive rural class who had little intellectual contact with the outside world. In his earlier years Synge travelled widely in Germany, France, Italy and England and added German and French to English and to the Irish he learned in Inishmaan in Aran. He was a product of the limited number of landed gentry and the Protestant minority who were to become involved in the cultural Celtic Revival and who were likely to be more nationalistic and more in favour of Home Rule than most of their brethren.

John Milliton Synge
Kiel’s book was absorbing and worth reading. It is worth a more detailed review, if only because Synge's life gives a clue to the importance of the cultural revival at the turn of the century which involved some of the Protestant minority whose increasing commitment to Irish culture and identity might have played a crucial part in the emergence of Ireland as a self-ruling 32-country in happy co-existence with Catholic, Anglican and non-conformist and in a close association with our neighbouring island and the Commonwealth. All this may have happened were it not for the misfortune of 1916 and the unhappy consequence of the Civil War and the division of our country.

Synge died from Hodgkin’s disease in March 1909 after recurring illnesses in his later years. He is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold’s Cross in his family grave.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The O'Rahilly

Winding the Clock – O’Rahilly and the 1916 Rising. Aodogán O’Rahilly. The Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1991. Pages 245.

This review was written on February 2nd 2005

I borrowed this book from Ulick O’Connor and I read it rather quickly but intermittently during the first few weeks of February 2005. The book is badly written and poorly edited, with some repetition and ambiguity. One has to re-read sentences to understand their contents. It is somewhat lacking in references of primary sources and one might like to have confirmation of the veracity of some of the author’s statements, particularly in view of the major role which his father appeared to play in the national movement, in the formation of the Volunteers, in the encouragement of the Irish language and in the part he played in the 1916 Rebellion.

The GPO clock  when it stopped during the rising
When the evacuation of the burning GPO became an urgent matter, and Pearse favoured immediate surrender, O’Rahilly heroically lead twelve volunteers into the adjoining Moore Street to attack the British barricade in the hope of continuing the rebellion and the fight against the British. If the author’s account is true, it was a gesture of heroism bordering on the suicidal and to the detached observer it must have seemed that he perceived himself in the light of a martyr, willing to sacrifice himself and his twelve men in this quixotic way despite an apparently hopeless situation.

O’Rahilly was born into a North Kerry Catholic family which was apolitical and which like all the Catholics at the time supported the Irish Parliamentary Party. His father ran a general store in the small town of Ballylongford on the Shannon estuary. They were relatively well off. As he matured O’Rahilly became more and more interested in the national cause, in separatism and in the Irish language. He was born Michael Rahilly but, as his gradual interest in the national cause developed, he added the O’ to his name.  Later, as he moved to Dublin and became more acquainted with the leaders of the national movement, he signed his surname only, O’Rahilly, and eventually the O’Rahilly – an unusual eccentricity in a lad from the country, even if he had graduated to living in Herbert Park in the upmarket suburb of Donnybrook.  Perhaps eccentricity was the norm in those times but it must reveal both courage and vanity on O’Rahilly’s part which may account for his remarkable confrontation with death. His letters published in the book may suggest that he had a death wish to satisfy his patriotic commitment. Perhaps love of country can be as irrational as the more conventional form of love. Or perhaps love of self and an obsession about others perception of self may be the clue to self immolation.

O’Rahilly had no career in terms of profession or active business but he had been left relatively well off after the sale of the family business following his father’s death, his mother’s retirement to County Limerick and his own unwillingness to take over. One of his two sisters married one of the Humphrey family, a family which was to become rabidly anti-treaty and to take part in the Civil War.

I thought the author tended to be a little disparaging about Eoin MacNeill and even about Pearse but his carping appeared to be based on his anxiety to elevate his father’s role rather than diminish that of the two leaders. He talked about Pearse’s closest confidantes as his ‘cabal’. The author is also dismissive about the role of the IRB in the formation of the Volunteers and, oddly enough, in view of McAtansey’s biography, McDermott gets little mention. 

The reader’s impression, having read his account of the formation of the Volunteers, the build up to the Rising and the Rising itself, was that O’Rahilly was one of the most inspiring proponents of radical nationalism and one of the leading influences in the separatist movement. It is difficult to know how much is fact and how much is speculation for there is little evidence of primary sources of research apart from the personal letters which have survived. He refers to McGoey as the person who kept the British informed about the communications between Clan na nGaedhel and Germany but gives no information about his sources nor does he describe the source of his assertion that the British knew of the forthcoming Rising and, for Machiavellian reasons, allowed it to proceed without arresting the leaders beforehand. O’Rahilly was certainly full of passion in his later years and his full conversion to the cause of separatism is reflected in many others who started as supporters of limited home rule and finished in taking part in the Rising or, later, by opposing the Treaty.

However, allowing for these criticisms, the book is not without interest. It gives a very detailed if somewhat jumbled account of the communication between Germany and Clan na nGaedheal in America before 1916, and the part played by Casement and others who were active in seeking German assistance for the Volunteers. It gives a detailed and interesting if somewhat undocumented account of the Casement landing in Kerry and the various shenanigans which went on in the attempt to land the arms from the German ship in Tralee Bay.

O'Rahilly with wife Nancy and three of his sons incl. Aodogán
Another aspect of the biography is the reminder of how quickly, within one generation, so many of the Irish people in the provinces rose from a peasant culture to success in the business, professional and political life of Dublin. His life encapsulates many of the social, cultural and political aspects of an Ireland where the disenfranchised Catholic majority of the population emerged to take their rightful place in the forward march of the nation. O’Rahilly, with his wife, spent some years in America where his business failed to thrive. He left America and went to live in Paris before eventually returning to Ireland and to live in Herbert Park in Donnybrook. He and his family were privileged in comparison to most of the emerging native Irish and he was unusual in that a person of his status should have got so involved and so committed to political and cultural separatism.

Etched in stone, O"Rahilly's dying note to his wife Nancy
Just after I had finished the book I met my cousin Joe McCullough at a history meeting at Trinity. Joe apparently knew the author well and described him as an impossible person because of his deeply fixed ideas and his rigidity. No doubt he must have been a chip off the old block, his father being so committed to such radical political ideals that he was willing to part from his wife and his four young children and to sacrifice his life and that of the other twelve volunteers who accompanied him on his foolhardy attempt to attack the British barricade in Moore Street. One of the twelve volunteers who accompanied him on his last journey was killed. Another was injured but there is no mention of the remaining members of the party. I expect they might have been more prudent about exposing themselves to the easy fire of the British while O’Rahilly, as stated by the author, forged ahead towards the barricade and certain death, refusing to look back in case he might demoralise those who were following.

To those of us who live in more prosaic times it is a reminder that a commitment to a cause which leads to martyrdom may be, like any powerful emotional state, such as love, a form of madness. O’Rahilly deserves a biography based on objectivity and on adequate research, not a hagiography. He emerges from his son’s account as a passionate, vain, sad, courageous, quixotic and heroic figure.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Penguin - not just a flightless bird.

Penguin by Design – a cover story 1935 – 2005. Phil Baines.  Penguin Books, pp 256.  Richly illustrated.  

This book was presented to me by Paddy and Julie Mackie on the 13th of July 2012 on the occasion of my 90th birthday.  There is quite an amount of text scattered amongst the illustrations which describes the origin of paperback publishing from 1935 and which continued with increasing success up to 1946 as described in chapter 1.  My interest in the book was largely due to my own experience of attributing my education to a very considerable extent to my reading of the sixpenny paperbacks issued by Penguin in the 1940s and the 1950s.  I counted about 300 of these old books in my library at home and my daughter Barbara has about the same number in her library in Ranelagh.  She tells me that my son Hugh may have some as well in his home.  They were all collected when we were living in Lissenfield and were divided amongst us after Lissenfield was sold in 1988. It would be difficult to exaggerate the important role these early classics had on my education, on my increasing interest in reading and on my gathering interest in the history and evolution of the English language.

The illustrations in the book are mostly those of the various front cover titles, some of which showed the different coloured paperbacks of the early years. The colouring depended on the nature of the subjects – fiction, literature, science, etc.   The Penguin motif was presented with the bird in different postures and other birds, such as the pelican and the puffin, were added to special subjects. The books were an absorbing source of interest and included all the great fiction writers of the mid-century including Maugham, Forester, Waugh, H. G. Wells, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and the works of Bernard Shaw and other literary authors. Many of the older classics included such favourites of mine as The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, an Essay on The Principle of Population by Malthus and the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine.

The editors are certainly justified in saying that the Penguin paperbacks have played an important and evolving part in Britain’s culture and design history.  It claims the distinction of providing inspiring images in its cover designs and rightly states in its first introduction “Filled with inspiring images, Penguin by Design demonstrates just how difficult it is not to judge a book by its cover”.