BlogPublished: Guts, Autumn 2015
It was the American moral philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson who first introduced me to the concept of thought experiments. Thomson would take real life moral dilemmas and transplant them, via some farfetched analogy, into absurd alternate realities, wherein the reader could engage with the essence of the original question, freed from the straitjackets of politics or personal prejudice.
Most famously, in 1971, Thomson made a case for legalised abortion by concocting a story in which readers were invited to imagine they’d been kidnapped and awoke connected, via intravenous drip, to the body of an ailing violinist who, they were told, would need a continual supply of the reader’s blood for the next nine months, if he was to have a chance of surviving.
As a younger man, this approach to thinking really fired my imagination. I would compose thought experiments all the time. Here’s one I came up with while arguing about East Germany with a girl I’d just met in a bar. I was insisting that life under the Honecker regime had been hellish and oppressive. She disagreed, saying things really weren’t all that bad.
It turned out this woman was born and raised in the GDR and had some fond memories of the place. Whereas my own expertise derived largely from having seen the film The Lives of Others earlier that evening. In the circumstances, I felt a game-changer was required… Read the rest of this entry »Published: Irish Independent, 31 October 2015
It’s like a tickertape parade. The streets of Yangon, Myanmar are lined on either side with smiling citizens, cheering and waving in our direction. The line is as irregular as the route we follow: street vendors and Buddhist monks, school children and office drones.
Hell, even the city’s world-weary cops and dock workers are out in force, snapping pictures on their camera phones as we glide by.
For two middle aged English businessmen, Julian Hanson-Smith and Richard Cunningham, competing in the final stage of a 2,300km vintage car rally, this isn’t just the realisation of a long held dream. It’s also a homecoming of sorts. Read the rest of this entry »Published: Dublin Review, Summer 2015Published: Irish Times, 7 November 2015
In One Million Dubliners, Aoife Kelleher’s acclaimed documentary from last year, Glasnevin Cemetery’s resident historian, Shane Mac Thomáis, lays out his formula for conducting a successful tour of the place. Tell visitors something they already know, the late tour guide recommended. Tell them something they don’t know. Say something that will make them laugh and something that will make them cry.
If you ever fancied taking him up on that advice, now is the moment. With the centenaries of the 1916 Rising, the 1918 general election, the War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty all looming, the number of visitors to the cemetery is surging, and management are hiring four new full-time guides. Read the rest of this entry »
Published: Irish Times, 6 June 2015
Here is some work I’ve been doing recently. In the summer issue of the Dublin Review, I wrote a long piece about visiting Charles Haughey’s old home of Abbeville in north Dublin. I was interviewed about the piece on the Sean O’Rourke show on RTE. You can listen to that interview here, if you wish, and that will save me the botheration of explaining it all over again. Read the rest of this entry »
Bus driver Cathal Carroll asks if I’ve heard the news this morning. I haven’t. Four thousand souls have been rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean. All of them African refugees. All fleeing hunger and persecution in their native lands. What do I think of that?
A Roscommon man himself, Carroll recalls the 1,500 inhabitants of Strokestown, Co Roscommon, who were marched en masse to board coffin ships at the height of the Great Famine. Many of them perished on the high seas. “It should be in our nature to want to help these people,” he says.
He pulls to a stop outside the Old Convent in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. Perched on a hill, surrounded by high walls and a remote-controlled gate, this cold, imposing building has always stood aloof from the life of the town below. Read the rest of this entry »Published: Foreign Policy, 21 May 2015
COUNTY MAYO, Ireland — On doorsteps where I live in the west of Ireland this week, voter response to the question of whether or not our country should legalize gay marriage is generally easy to predict. If the person answering the door is under age 40, an immediate “yes” is virtually guaranteed.
If the couple inside are over 60, cups of tea are offered. There is a willingness to engage in friendly debate. But “No” is ultimately the more likely response.
And if there is a statue of the Virgin Mary mounted on the garden wall outside, as one fellow Yes campaigner and I encountered just outside the town of Ballyhaunis on Tuesday night, well — the best you can hope for is that the householder doesn’t set his dog on you. (He didn’t.) Read the rest of this entry »Published: Irish Times, 14 May 2015
One foggy night back in November 2004, I was asked to review a gig by a band called The Polyphonic Spree. The Texans, you may recall, were a 24-piece, pretend-religious cult who, in hindsight, rather resembled the Indiana mole women from the Netflix comedy series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
They were a novelty act, to be sure. But they had slayed at music festivals a year earlier and expectations were high for their return. At Dublin’s Ambassador Theatre that evening, however, the band’s happy-clappy shtick for once came unstuck. George W Bush, the nuclear- armed, evangelical simpleton who once claimed God had instructed him to invade Iraq, had just been re-elected president of the United States. Read the rest of this entry »Published: Irish Times, 9 July 2011
IN THE MUDDY SLUMS OF JUBA, the people are preparing for a party. By 11pm, tens of thousands of them have poured out onto the streets: cheering, honking car horns and waving the flag of their new country, as well as those of the US, Norway and Israel.
At the stroke of midnight, South Sudan becomes the world’s 192nd independent nation. In the new capital, joy is unconfined. In the mud huts that stretch for miles in every direction, residents can be heard singing and ululating well into the night.
By 7am, the BBC World Service reports a crowd of a hundred thousand already gathered at the Dr. John Garang Mausoleum. The speeches here will last late into the afternoon. But despite a complete lack of respite from the sun, the people never once cease to sing, sway and chant… Read the rest of this article here.Published: Irish Times, 19 March 2015
Tá Seachtain na Gaeilge orainn. Or rather, bhi sé. Our two-week national celebration of the Irish language actually ended on Tuesday. But if you happen not to be either a biddable school kid, or an adult whose public-sector job requires paying occasional lip service to the language, odds are the event bypassed you entirely.
As a Gaeilgeoir, I derive no particular pleasure from admitting this. But as minority pursuits go, our first language now languishes somewhere between salsa dancing and Ultimate Frisbee, in terms of its popularity amongst the general populace. Read the rest of this entry »