Dark Blue;

Shane Carthy wants to help other young people who suffer from this inner sickness but who are too ashamed to speak about it to anyone.  His honesty and integrity shine through on every page.  His fundamental message is “don’t be afraid to talk about it”! 

In his book “Dark Blue”, Shane Carthy is a man on a mission.  Carthy is a young, gifted sportsman yet he tells the story of a psychological battle with depression.  The sub-title of the book makes this clear; “The Despair behind the Glory, my journey back from the Edge”. 

Shane Carthy wants to help other young people who suffer from this inner sickness but who are too ashamed to speak about it to anyone.  His honesty and integrity shine through on every page.  His fundamental message is “don’t be afraid to talk about it”!  The dedication at the beginning of the book emphasises this point clearly, “To all of those who are suffering in silence in the hope that these words might help the light to shine”.  

Shane Carthy grew up in Portmarnock village, on the North side of Dublin City, where my own mother and sister’s family are now living.  My nephew and nieces attend the same primary school that he attended.  My nieces are in the same club of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA).  It is clear that the Carthy family was a happy one and Shane and his sisters, Stephanie, Mairead and Michelle were loved and cared for by their parents, Gerry and Angela.

They were a “sporty” family and Shane was encouraged to try different sports. He was good at them all.  He had to choose between soccer and Gaelic football.  After he chose Gaelic he played for his local club. Later he was selected for the Dublin Minor Team and then for the Dublin Senior Team.  This all happened while he was still at secondary school, so he became a hero and a legend to many other young people.  He followed the advice of his Dad; “anything you do, do to the best of your ability” but not that of his Mum; “you’ve got to broaden your horizons.  Open your mind and see what life has to offer outside of football”.

Even while enjoying this success, Shane began to notice that his mood changed dramatically and suddenly from time to time.  “Dark clouds” would come causing him to feel desperately sad and disconnected.  For a long time, he held back his tears.  He found it increasingly difficult to live up to the image that people had of him.  His grandparents died just at the time that he had decided to tell his parents so he delayed telling them.  The panic attacks got worse.  Sometimes he felt like his “inner demons” were telling him to end his life.  Later he would learn the words “suicide ideation”.  He wept more and more often.  He tried to harm himself. He never harmed anyone else.

Eventually, after a climatic two weeks of psychological chaos amidst sporting success, he told his mum about his sickness.  Then his parents and sisters and friends rallied around to help him.  He needed to receive psychiatric care in St. Patrick’s Mental Hospital.  He stayed there for eleven weeks. He was on the “secure ward” twice.  He slowly recovered his mental balance and perspective but now he was shy and reserved in meeting people whereas before he had pretended to be confident.

He explains how “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” (CBT) and the “Young Adult Program” (YAP) were used in his treatment.  The Psychologists and Nurses helped him acquire more tools to deal with the depression when he felt his mood changing and the dark clouds coming.  It was interesting to hear Shane describe his feelings as he started the YAP program.  “Will they judge me, will they think I’m weird, will they think I’m different”?

While Shane does not really share much about the content of his conversations with the Psychologists and Psychiatrists, it seems that he began to listen to his mother’s advice which he had previously ignored.  At one moment during his recovery, he interrupted his father who was chatting on about sport.  He asked his Dad about growing up in East Wall.  (East Wall is an old working class community of Dublin which used to be home to dockers and railway workers). His dad, surprised at first, responded.

Even after he left the hospital to return to “normal life”, Shane was not afraid to seek further help when he felt he needed it.  He added more time to his “Mindfulness” meditation periods.   When he travelled to meet the Psychologist again, he called this his “top-up”!

I am left wondering what would happen if Shane Carthy met with Scotsman, Eric Liddell, whose story was represented in the film “Chariots of Fire”.  (Liddell refused to run his 100 metres heat in the 1924 Olympic games as it took place on a Sunday, which was the Sabbath or the Lord’s Day.  Another British athlete let him run the 400 metres race instead).  Would a conversation with Liddell remind Shane Carthy of what his ancestors may have whispered to him long ago about God who loves and redeems him.  

If he heard Eric Liddell talk about his baptism, about his dying and rising to a new life, would Shane Carthy hear this as a new message or would he remember it as an old truth that he has not yet paid attention to? Could his life journey become more meaningful and his resolve to help others broaden, if he developed a personal relationship with God?

Irresistible and Excessive Appetites

In this blog, I will reflect on Jeffrey Shaler’s “Addiction is a Choice” (2000), Jim Orford’s “Excessive Appetites” (2001), Christopher D. Ringwald’s “The Soul of Recovery” (2002), Bruce K. Alexander’s “The Globalisation of Addiction” (2008), and Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” (2017).

Since returning to Ireland after twenty-seven years spent in Cambodia, I have been puzzled by the links between addiction and spirituality.  Perhaps the link passes through an ecological conversion.

Five books on addiction have provided me with some useful insights.  In this blog, I will reflect on Jeffrey Shaler’s “Addiction is a Choice” (2000),  Jim Orford’s “Excessive Appetites” (2001), Christopher D. Ringwald’s “The Soul of Recovery” (2002), Bruce K. Alexander’s “The Globalisation of Addiction” (2008), and Adam Alter’s “Irresistible” (2017). 

Jeffrey Schaler argues cogently that addiction is a psychological phenomenon not a physiological one. In other words, he argues that addiction is not a disease and cannot be successfully treated as such.  People should be left free to follow their own free choices in life so long as they do not impede on other people’s free choice.  This debate echoes a debate from long ago in the history of Christian theology. Pelagius insisted that all human beings possess free-will and so can make the good choice.  However St. Augustine argued that our free will can be progressively captured by disordered love until only a modicum of true freedom remains.  It is a question of ‘both-and’ not ‘either-or’.

Jim Orford uses detailed psychological and social research to argue that addictive behavior patterns occur not only in relation to substance abuse (alcohol, drugs and food) but also in relation to gambling, sex, exercise and other activities. He then studies how these addictions develop over time until the attachment becomes so strong that inner conflict threatens to destroy the person concerned.

The criteria for determining the existence of a behavioral addiction might include, salience (prominence), mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse.  Orford recognizes three similar paths to recovery, spontaneous remission, 12 step programs or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  Rates of long-lasting sobriety are similar in all three cases, about 25%.   Orford concludes that long-term recovery depends on the development of a personal spiritual life.

Christopher D. Ringwald travelled all over the United States of America to visit and evaluate the myriad programs and clinics that have been established to treat addictions.  He analysed programs for the middle class and in poor areas as well as among women and Native Americans.  He evaluated recovery statistics from secular and faith-based programs.  He monitored harm-reduction programs and healing in therapeutic communities.  He interviewed alcoholics, drug-addicts, expert counsellors and family members.  He concludes that in a Democracy, it is vital to allow and encourage all addiction recovery programs that integrate the development of personal spirituality, even when these approaches are faith-based.  The development of a personal spirituality is essential to long-term sobriety.

Starting from the example of his own city, Vancouver, Bruce Alexander argues for a “paradigm-shift” in treating addictions.  He prevents historical evidence to show that the roots of all addictions lie in the adoption of a Free-market society which causes severe dislocation to families, communities, ethnic groups and whole peoples.  This dislocation prevents traditional forms of psycho-social integration so addiction becomes a way of adapting to this dislocation.  If Governments and the Mass-media continue to promote increased consumption in a Free-market economy, the pandemic of addiction will only increase until humanity becomes paralyzed and our civilization collapses like the Roman empire did.  

Alexander does not deny the effectiveness of recovery programs for individuals but he asserts that these individual recoveries will never form a “critical-mass” to overturn the addiction pandemic.  By reflecting on many historical examples, he argues convincingly for the creation of alliances of concerned citizens who will cooperate together to create a new “Republic” by dialogue about values and virtue like Socrates did at the start of our democratic civilization.   It is the impending destruction of our planet that will stimulate this cooperative effort

Adam Alter writes about the rise of addictive technology and the techniques it uses to keep us hooked.  The first part of his book deals with the biology of behavioral addiction.  The second part of the book deals with the features that internet companies devise to engineer addictive behaviors in us.  They include, setting goals, providing feedback, measuring progress, providing escalation, cliff-hangers and social interaction.  He notes that Face-book’s popularity soared once it added the “like” button that could count because suddenly, everyone could compare themselves to everyone else.  He tells stories of young people addicted to computer gaming and illustrates the devastating consequences for themselves and their families.  In the third part of his book, he offers some solutions and tactics to nip these additions in the bud before they develop.  Adler essential point is that Big Tech is slowly turning us and all into internet junkies who become incapable of real human relationships and independent thought.

It seems that all these authors are indicating that the problem of addiction in modern society is really mal-adaption to the ecological crisis promoted by the Free-market economy and facilitated by big Tech. Only a spiritual conversion to a collective effort to downsize in dialogue with those on the margins will allow regeneration of our planet and human communities.  Addictions will disappear in the process! 

Apeirogon

Rami’s thirteen-year old daughter, Smadar was blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends, while Bassam’s ten year old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli policeman while out buying candy with her friends near her school. From these two true stories, McCann has created a wonderful, hard-hitting yet tender novel, that seems to respect both traditions, cultures and religions.

Two men, Rami Elhanan, an Israeli and Bassam Aramin, a Palestinian, have both lost a young daughter to the violence of the conflict between the two Nations.

Rami’s thirteen-year old daughter, Smadar was blown up by a Palestinian suicide bomber while out shopping with her friends, while Bassam’s ten year old daughter, Abir, was shot by an Israeli policeman while out buying candy with her friends near her school. From these two true stories, McCann has created a wonderful, hard-hitting yet tender novel, that seems to respect both traditions, cultures and religions. 

The two men join a fellowship for parents of who have lost children to the conflict.  They become friends.  They share their stories together.  They find that they understand each other on the deepest human level.  It is as if they choose to become brothers.

Each man rows against the current of public opinion on their side of the fence in order to embrace the truth on the other side of the fence.  In this way, instead of remaining small and insignificant cogs in a war machine, they become giants in the creation of peace and understanding.   

Yet Rami and Bassam are nothing without their wives, Nurit and Salwa.  Each woman develops a uniquely intimate understanding of her husband.  The solidness of this love encourages each man to become free to reach the best of himself.

The novel places Rami’s and Bassan’s stories in an evolving political and ecological drama.  The tragic history of both nations is remembered and the geography of the land is nurtured.  In this way, the novel becomes an extraordinary hymn of hope arising from the ashes of the most violent and intractable conflict on the planet.  The novel draws the key to the Kingdom in lyrical prose.

If you read one book in 2021, Apeirogon is the book to read.  Gabriel Byrne is right.  This is Colum McCann’s masterpiece. 

a million little pieces

He does not spare us the gory details. There is plenty of blood, urine and vomit each day. His aggression and humour ensure that we are led on a roller-coaster journey of pathos, violence, serenity and fear both inside his head and in the clinic. Frey wants us to understand the mind of an addict. Perhaps he succeeds.

In this novel, James Frey, describes the inner experience of a twenty-three year old alcoholic and drug addict who is brought by his parents to a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota.  James tells his story of withdrawal, encounters with the other inmates and care staff. He recounts his progress through the 12 step recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).  He does not spare us the gory details.  There is plenty of blood, urine and vomit each day.  His aggression and humour ensure that we are led on a roller-coaster journey of pathos, violence, serenity and fear both inside his head and in the clinic.  Frey wants us to understand the mind of an addict.  Perhaps he succeeds. 

During the story he makes new friends, especially with Leonard, the crime boss, who rescues him from self-destruction but also with Joanne, the one social worker who seems to understand and trust him. The clinic arranges for the addicts to meet the parents and guardians and James bravely tries to reconnect with the parents whom he abandoned so long ago.  The ambiguity of these encounters is not glossed over and we are left wondering if the reconciliation is real and long-lasting.

Perhaps the most poignant relationship in the novel, is the friendship between James and Lilly, a pretty crack addict, brought to the clinic by her grandmother.  The two addicts learn to support and respect each other.  After Lilly hears that her grandmother has cancer, she breaks down and flees.  In one of the most dramatic moments of the novel, James defies all the odds to run after and rescue her from a “crack-house”.  This act of love saved Lilly once but the real tragedy of the novel is that it is not enough to save her twice.

All through his recovery, James furiously resists the 12 step program as he refuses to believe in a “Higher Power”.   Nonetheless, by having to formulate his arguments against the program he enters into real communication with other human beings who are different from him.  He learns to appreciate the beauty and silence of nature in the park around the Clinic.  He drinks in silence and peace from it.  Somebody gives him a book of Taoist sayings.  He ponders the deeper meaning behind the apparent paradoxes.  It seems that Taoism offers him a sort of Emptiness that functions like the Higher Power in the 12 step recovery program.  James insists that only his decisions will heal him and bring him recovery.  As soon as he is released, he asks his brother to give him money to buy a drink which he inhales and pours down the sink.  He is able to say no.

At the end of the novel it is clear that James Frey is no longer an alcoholic or drug addict.  However it is not yet clear if James has become an “other-centred” person or not.

There was significant controversy about this book in the States about fifteen years ago where is was originally marketed as a “memoir” rather than a novel.  Many people blamed James Frey for dishonesty since he made up some details and added them into his story as if they really happened.  Once you read this novel as he first intended, you do not need to worry about the details.  It is still a wonderful story about addiction and recovery!

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

The most dramatic aspect of this novel is the secret journey to Istanbul in Turkey and then across the sea to an island off Greece. The couple eventually reach Athens where Nuri has to engage in clandestine work to earn enough to pay the smuggler who will arrange for them to reach England

The “The Beekeeper of Aleppo” by Christy Leffteri tells the story of Nuri and Afra, a Syrian couple, who flee Aleppo after their young boy, Sami, is killed by a bomb explosion. Before the explosion, Afra refused to leave Aleppo because it was the home of her ancestors and a dynamic centre of Arabic culture and Islamic religion.  Even after the war destroyed the city and their friends Mustafa and Dahab left, Afra refused to leave.  When Sami was killed, Afra went blind.  She could see no more.  Only when the Islamic militia came to recruit Nuri to fight in the war did she agree to escape with him first to Turkey, then to Greece and finally to England.

Afra cannot see but she knows what Nuri is feeling.  Nuri can see too much.  He notices, Mohammed, a dark boy who joins them on their journey.  Nuri has many conversations with him.  But Afra knows that Nuri’s mind is not working properly.  The boy is imaginary. Nuri and Afra make this long and arduous journey across Europe to reach England. However the novel really charts their journey from a loss and grief that has torn them apart to a deeper love that reunites them.  Afra begins to paint again even before she can see.

Yet, the story is not a romance.  The vicious cruelty and violence of the war in Syria has destroyed not only their young son, Sami, but also their city, livelihood and shared past.  The one thing outside the marriage of Nuri and Afra that the war has not destroyed is Nuri’s friendship with Mustafa. He is the beekeeper who has already fled Aleppo with his wife after they lost their own child.  Mustafa prepares a way for his friend Nuri to join him in England.  They will become beekeepers again.

The most dramatic aspect of this novel is the secret journey to Istanbul in Turkey and then across the sea to an island off Greece.  The couple eventually reach Athens where Nuri has to engage in clandestine work to earn enough to pay the smuggler who will arrange for them to reach England.  The description of the people they meet on their journey, both the cruel ones and the kind ones, is realistic and credible.  The novel highlights the hypocrisy of European refugee policy in that the only way that Nuri and Afra can claim asylum in the United Kingdom is to arrive there by illegal means and then destroy all trace of their journey.  In order to claim asylum as a refugee, you must first become a criminal.   However if your criminal activities are discovered, then your asylum claim will be rejected.

Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, “Hamnet”, is quite different and distinct from all her previous creations. Her other novels have revolved around modern families in crisis. This new novel seems to tell the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet.

Maggie O’Farrell’s latest book, “Hamnet”, is quite different and distinct from all her previous creations.  Her other novels have revolved around modern families in crisis.  This new novel seems to tell the story of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet. He died as a child and supposedly provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s famous play “Hamlet”. 

However the novel really tells the story of the enigmatic Agnes, Will’s wife and Hamnet’s mother.  She is an interesting and unorthodox country woman with “elfic” tendencies.  She knows the medicinal and healing properties of the local flowers, plants and roots.  She communes with nature like an alternative priestess even after falling in love with Will.  She moves to live with his dysfunctional family.

The drama of the novel however is found in the intimate relationship of Hamnet with his identical twin sister Judith.  It is in the description of this special dynamic that O’Farrell displays her literary mastery of the intricacies of close family encounters.  The manner by which Hamnet takes on Judith’s illness is surely poetic license rather than historical fact.   The intense grief of each family member at Hamnet’s passing almost causes the family to disintegrate.  It is only when Agnes realizes that, in creating the play Hamlet, her husband is transforming his grief into memory. Thus she can be reconciled with him.

The language and imagery of this novel is poetical and lyrical.  It reads beautifully.  The other characters emerge as realistic, the irascible and unpleasant father, John, the jealous and vindictive step-mother Joan, the rustic and reliable brother Bartholomew and the practical older sister Susanna.  However I found this novel somehow stilted and laboured unlike all O’Farrell’s other books.  I wondered why.

In most of her modern stories, an unusual sickness or medical condition casts a shadow or poses a challenge to her range of feisty, credible characters.  This detail furnishes a link with Hamnet.  In “After you’d gone”, one person is left in a coma. in “Instructions for a heat-wave”, one daughter has reading disorder.  In “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”, Esme spends her adult life in an asylum.  In “This Must be the Place”, the son has a serious skin ailment while his father is an alcoholic.  In O’Farrell’s autobiographical account of close encounters with death, “I am, I am, I am”, the most striking event occurs in Italy when O’Farrell and her husband race to find a local hospital to treat their daughter who is  having a severe allergic reaction.    

However in these stories, the inter-play of medical science and common sense work themselves out in a credible and realistic way.  Not so in Hamnet.  Agnes is powerless against the plague which attacks Judith first, before leaving her to attack Hamnet.  Somehow there is an inconsistency here.  Agnes has been presented as wise but “unorthodox” or as living outside the normal faith traditions of the community.  Their ordinary medicines never work anyway.  But now her own medicines don’t work.  It’s as if her “non-faith” is just as illusory as the others’ “faith”.   In this sense, the novel is hopeless.  It does not lead anywhere.  It offers no new way of reflecting on family difficulties and tragedies.  O’Farrell’s previous novels offered new insight.    More than this, one could sense in her previous works that disaster was averted (just about) because the characters’ malevolence was somehow curtailed by a benevolent presence hovering at the very edge of her stories.   Perhaps this presence is missing in “Hamnet”.

Spiritual Direction

From afar, it seems that they could be following a bright star on their spiritual journey even it leads them into the dark. It’s like Frodo and Sam entering the land of Mordor to destroy the evil power of the ring.

In Hong Kong, Mr. Joshua Wong and Ms. Agnes Chow and Mr. Ivan Lam, have chosen to plead guilty to a charge of unlawful assembly.  They are in custody awaiting trial having pleaded guilty at a pre-trial hearing.   These two young people are freely choosing to make a personal sacrifice in the struggle for democracy.  From afar, it seems that they could be following a bright star on their spiritual journey even it leads them into the dark.  It’s like Frodo and Sam entering the land of Mordor to destroy the evil power of the ring.  Only this struggle is for real.

Since returning to Ireland from Cambodia, I have been trying to discern a personal star in the sense of finding the next step on my spiritual journey.

Two books have offered much encouragement.  The first is an old book by a French Jesuit, Jean Laplace and the second is a new book by a Dutch Jesuit, Jos Moons.  Laplace’s book was published in French in 1965 as “La Direction de Conscience ou Le Dialogue Spirituel” which was translated into English as “Preparing for Spiritual Direction”.   Moons’ book was originally published in Dutch in 2019 with an impossible title (De Kunst Van Geestelijke Begeleiding) which has been translated into English as “The Art of Spiritual Direction”. 

Fifty-four years of rapid cultural development separate the two books yet they share some common themes.

The relationship of spiritual director or companion or guide to the searcher is individual and personal.   The key skill of the spiritual companion is the ability to “listen attentively” to what is moving the searcher.   The principal role of the guide is to help the searcher articulate these spiritual movements and to interpret their meaning.  The searcher discerns.  The spiritual director only helps this process.  He or she must remain neutral “like a balance” once a choice about action presents itself.

Both Laplace and Moons insist on the need to be patient and to spend time with the searcher.   The process cannot be rushed. Even the naming of the movements “from the Good Spirit” or “from the Bad Spirit” should come from the searcher.  Help can be offered when requested but the searcher makes the journey.  There are no short-cuts to enlightenment on the spiritual path.

Discernment is the task to be accomplished.  The gold or spiritual treasure that is being sought is goodness, peace, light, love, harmony, mercy and justice.  These will be signs of the Higher Power or God’s presence (or Dharma).   However we can find these signs in human form like in the gospels.  All that is hateful, vindictive, dark, violent and divisive is what is to be avoided and rejected.

Laplace emphasizes the need to situate the spiritual dialogue within the context of mutual prayer and the life of the Church.  Moons emphasizes the need to pay attention to the small details of the searcher’s daily life and their relationships with others. Each offer some practical advice on how to become a good listener and how to ask simple questions to help the searcher further articulate their own inner experience.

In Cambodia, some Buddhist monks serve as spiritual guides to young searchers. The young people still  choose their form of action in society.

It is an amazing mystery to believe that the answer to our spiritual search is already there hidden in our experience just waiting for us to find it.  I wonder what the future holds for Mr. Joshua Wong and Ms. Agnes Choi.

Curlew on Dollymount Strand

In front of St. Anne’s park, I found a natural flower bed where the bees were busy. Inside the park, I followed a new trail for children. Along the trail, 15 indigenous trees had been planted with plaques to show the young people what Irish native species look like. I felt like I was being led by small steps in the right direction.

While on retreat near Dollymount strand during October, I opened my window each evening.  I wanted to listen to the sounds of the sea, the wind and the birds.  No matter hard I strained my ears, I could no longer hear the call of the curlew.  This plaintive sound had accompanied our daily life as Jesuit novices forty years ago.  The curlew was our faithful companion on a lonely spiritual search.  It is amazing that the number of breeding pairs could have declined so dramatically inside a bird sanctuary. 

I have also been struck by the small numbers of bees, wasps and insects both inside and outside the house.  While the sea-gulls, magpies and crows are numerous, the smaller birds, like sparrows, robins, blue-tits, thrushes, starlings, swifts and black-birds are far less numerous than before.  At the same time some foxes and badgers have adapted to urban life.  We never saw these when we were small.  However the hedge-hogs have all but disappeared.  (During quarantine in Co. Kildare in August, I rescued one large hedge-hog with a paper cup on its head from running around in circles).   

In front of St. Anne’s park, I found a natural flower bed where the bees were busy.  Inside the park, I followed a new trail for children.  Along the trail, 15 indigenous trees had been planted with plaques to show the young people what Irish native species look like.  I felt like I was being led by small steps in the right direction.   

Solace

The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby. Aoife enters the world. Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

Nobody recommended “Solace” by Belinda McKeon to me at all nor did I ever hear anyone talking about it.  I picked it up from the bookcase at home.  What a find it has proven to be!

The novel describes the spiritual dissonance experienced by young people who have left their family farms in the Irish countryside to live in the “big smoke” (Dublin).  After graduation, these young people live a frenetic, chaotic life-style bingeing on alcohol, drugs and sex at the weekends while performing as young professionals during the week.

Nonetheless when Mark meets Joanne, it is the fact that both come from family farms in Longford that allows an intimate relationship to develop quickly.  Both young people have difficult relationships with their parents but Mark continues to help his father Tom on the farm from time to time at weekends. The contrast between the two men could not be starker.  Tom is an old-style, reserved, Irish farmer whose whole world-view is circumscribed by the land. Mark is writing a doctoral thesis at Trinity College in Dublin.  His thesis concerns a famous female novelist of the previous century who lived in the same area of fertile farmland.

Many Cambodian factory workers and students experience a similar dichotomy between their professional life in Phnom Penh and that of their former rural life in the Cambodian countryside.

In the novel, it is the stormy relationship between Mark and Tom, rather than between Mark and Joanne which provides the back-bone of the novel.  While the hedonic life-style of both Mark and Joanne at first mirrors the life-style of the characters in Sally Rooney’s novel “Ordinary People”, the concern of Joanne for the exploited Mrs. Lefroy and the sporadic commitment of Mark to work on the farm marks the two characters in this novel, as more authentic and real than first appears.  Mark’s mother, Maura understands both her husband and her son and like many Irish mothers, she acts as the go-between to facilitate their difficult communication.

This novel has two striking and unusual turning points.  When Joanne finds to her horror that she has somehow become pregnant, she makes the extraordinary decision not to abort the baby even though she is just starting out on her legal career.  Mark is so relieved.  The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby.  Aoife enters the world.  Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

The next turning point comes after Tom and Maura have reluctantly accepted the unexpected arrival of a grand-daughter and by extension an unofficial daughter-in-law.  As the family seems to be moving towards a peaceful compromise, disaster strikes in the form of a traffic accident.  To be honest, this accident arrived so suddenly eliminating two of the main characters in the story so violently, that I felt cheated and angry.  I wanted to throw the novel into the dust-bin.   However after I calmed down, I decided that sometimes life does not turn out as we expect, so I should give the story-teller the benefit of the doubt. 

 

Now it is Mark’s turn to make a surprising decision.  He refuses to let other people raise Aoife.  He will do it himself. Step by step, he learns how to do it.  Now the whole point of the novel comes into focus.  This is a story of two Irish men who cannot communicate because they do not understand their own feelings.  Like many other Irish men, they have always relied on their mothers, wives, sisters, grand-mothers, aunts or nieces to take care of them and communicate on their behalf.  Neither Mark nor Tom can cope with their grief.  Mark nearly loses his sanity by concentrating on his thesis and Tom nearly loses his farm by forgetting to care for his cattle. 

In an ironic twist, it is tiny, stubborn, feisty little Aoife who can only speak three words who becomes the focus of solace.  She insists on attention to her life pulling both men back into relationship with her and with each other.  While Aoife rages at Tom late at night in the farm-house, the friendly silence of the cattle in the neighbour’s shed enable Mark to come home to her and Tom.   Aoife saves them both from permanent grief.  She brings them back to life. 

While Mark and Joanne have explicitly rejected any religious belief or practice even at Christmas, Mark recalls at one point a legend that he heard about St. Mel during his schooldays.   When St. Mel was consecrating St. Brigid as Abbess, he used the wrong prayer.  Instead of ordaining her Abbess, Sr. Mel mistakenly ordained St. Brigid a Bishop.

Solace is a robust, unsentimental portrait of a modern Irish couple whose values may have no religious content as such but who become “other-centred” and authentic on their life journey.  In this sense, the characters become mature adults and cease to behave as self-indulgent adolescents.  In this way Belinda McKeon’s “Solace” seems to me to be a deeper and more reflective novel than Sally Rooney’s “Ordinary People”.  

Home is a Strange Place

In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books; Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of six children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.

When I left Ireland in 1993 for Cambodia, the troubles in Northern Ireland were still inflicting murder and mayhem on both the Unionist and Nationalist communities there.  The media were constantly reporting on brutal atrocities followed by funerals, both Protestant and Catholic. 

When the peace process finally produced the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 thus ending the violent hostilities, I counted it as one of the most extraordinary miracles that I have witnessed in my lifetime.  I could never quite understand how Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness could subsequently cooperate together in the governance of Northern Ireland while becoming “chucklers” into the bargain.

The Republic of Ireland has also changed beyond recognition over the thirty years that I have been away.  Gay marriage, legalised abortion and the turning away from the Catholic Church that happened in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis are only the outer manifestations of a profound transformation of inner attitudes regarding social issues. Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern once commented that there were three great “institutions” in Irish society, the Fianna Fáil party, the Catholic Church and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association).  Now only the GAA has weathered the storms and continues to thrive.  The recent RTE (Raidió Telefís Ēireann) program on “New Gaels”, shows why.  I mean, even my seven-year old niece is into Camogie. 

On my last visit home to Dublin, I met the Protestant rector of my home parish on the 42 bus.  He cheerfully informed me that this year the number of Church of Ireland ordinations to the priesthood exceeded the number of Roman Catholic ordinations in the Dublin diocese for the first time since who knows when. 

In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books;  Seamus Mallon’s autobiography,  “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of ten children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.

In the first book, Seamus Mallon traces his political journey as SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) councillor and MP (Member of Parliament) with laconic wit and honesty.  He remembers all the killings and murders in his own area and attends all funerals both Protestant and Catholic even when his presence is not welcomed.  His story is one of perseverance and courage in a time of despair lived out over a life-time.  He is vilified and persecuted at different times by militant Nationalists and by militant Unionists who speak the language of hate.  He never flinches. Even the title of his book “A Shared Home Place” demonstrates his commitment to peace and harmony.  He articulates “parallel consensus” as a political principle to guide future discussions about the future status of the society in Northern Ireland.  Only when both Unionist and Nationalist communities agree on a way forward, can there be a way forward.  I sense that my Protestant forbears would concur.

In the second book, Patrick Radden Keefe, amasses a wealth of historical detail to weave together a tapestry of characters involved in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) of West Belfast.  By focusing on the Price Sisters, Dolours and Marian, Keefe is able to link, personalities, events and stories together over a period of nearly fifty years.  The Loyalist characters and British officials offer an alternative viewpoint throughout the narrative so it seems balanced in the end.  The wonder of the book is in fact the person of Dolours Price who listens to her conscience and instead of “saying nothing”, says something.  The something is not much, mind you, but Keefe follows each thread right to its end. He solves the mystery that the police force could not solve (the abduction and murder of Jean McConville).  The fact that certain key characters refuse to recognise the truth about what they did in the past, means that they lock themselves into their own world.  It’s the world of the living dead. No character in this long story is able to speak of forgiveness like Timothy Knatchbull did in his story “From a Clear Blue Sky”.

In the third book, Samantha Power, describes leaving Ireland while still a primary school student as her mother launches out into a new life in America away from her alcoholic father. Samantha’s candid love of both father and mother enable her to negotiate the family tragedies cheerfully.  She makes a new life for herself each time her new family moves.  During a trip abroad she discovers an interest in finding out the truth about conflicts that cause suffering to many people.  She spends time in war-torn Bosnia and learns how American political action can help or hinder the peace-process.  She returns to study Law and becomes involved in political action.  However it is the description of her time as US Ambassador to the UN, while remaining a dedicated mother of two kids, which is the most interesting.  She moves from crisis to crisis. Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, etc. 

Power has a simple honesty which makes these complicated situations and issues easy to grasp.  While her account is personal, it does not seem self-serving and she is able to learn from her mistakes.  It is also interesting that for someone dedicated to dialogue for peace, the one outstanding regret regarding the Obama administration that she voices is the decision not to strike Syrian military targets after the regime used Sarin gas on the population of Aleppo in March 2013 until the US Congress approved such strikes. They crossed the “red line” and nothing happened. 

In a funny example of Democratic dis-connect, Power describes the house party she arranged for all the female ambassadors at the UN in her home on election night to celebrate the upcoming victory of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  She was not the only one who got it wrong.

These three books witness to the enormous transformations that Ireland has experienced over the last thirty years.  However a few long hikes up Lugnaquilla and Mullaghcleevaun in the Wicklow mountains have allowed me to savour the beauty and tranquility of what has not changed.  It will be a challenge to find the right words to speak to the new spiritual language being whispered here and there.