Columns

Moral Matters is the title of my weekly column in the Irish Daily Mail.  It seeks to reflect on the beauty and wonder of those ordinary things which make life worthwhile.  It aims to provide readers with a brief moment to take stock of what we take for granted, and which we so often appreciate only when it is too late.  Sometimes, Moral Matters deals with topical issues.  Usually, however, it sheds light on my own life as a way of encouraging people to savour every second of their own.  My hope is that you will find encouragement and consolation in what you read here, and that you may see in Moral Matters one man’s honest attempt to make sense of life in troubled times.  Columns will be posted on Fridays, two days after they appear in the Irish Daily Mail.

June 27, 2018

Wherever life may take you, there really is no place like home

There are many reasons why human beings are extraordinary, but one stands out above the rest – we love, and through that love we give things meaning. To love is to place in the orbit of our affections that which will remain there forever. And it is not only other people that we love. We love nature, animals, the sunset, the starry sky and places to which we have become attached. We love them, and they acquire meaning and significance which only we can explain. Why do I love the old house? I love it because I see in it something much more than bricks and mortar – something which far exceeds its everyday purpose. It is a monument to lives lived and lost, to memories which have attached themselves to every crevice and cornice, to every wall, window, chair and curtain. We love it because it has personality which speaks to our needs, our sorrows and joys. Wherever humans lay their head, that place is infused with memory and meaning. It tells a story of who we are and what we value most. It is a dwelling which serves as a window to our soul. That is why we are not naturally nomads. It is why to be displaced, homeless or dispossessed is so contrary to our nature. It is also why we consider such an act a crime against the moral law. To be complete as human beings, we need a home where we can put down roots…

June 20, 2018

Rugged reality in the Gaeltacht and not a mobile phone in sight

It was the quietness, the clean air and the rugged landscape that impressed me most. We had travelled to Carna in Co. Galway, where our eldest is attending Irish college. He departed for the Gaeltacht nearly three weeks ago and, finally, we were reunited in the heart of Connemara. Carna is the essence of old Ireland. Think of John Ford’s classic movie the Quiet Man, where rugged rock protrudes from every glen and valley, and you will have an idea of what I mean. It is, quite literally, the ‘wild Atlantic way’ – a place virtually untouched by technology and the ways of our modern world. There is a gentleness to the place and its people, a serenity that is almost audible in the Atlantic air. It could well be described as remote, but that would be to sell it short. No, Carna and the surrounding countryside is best described as an idyll unspoilt by the ravages of a world addicted to speed, stress and strain. Each summer, hundreds of secondary school children are bussed to Carna, not only to improve their Irish, but to savour life in the Gaeltacht. For many of them, it is difficult to adapt. From their settled city lives – complete with gadgets, phones and devices – they are suddenly immersed in the world of their forebears. All phones are confiscated, and no gadgets are allowed. From the moment they arrive, they are compelled to speak Irish. Each day is divided between the college, their ‘teach’, and the evening céilí. It is like a total reprogramming of the entire person…

June 13, 2018

One for sorrow, two for despair – beware the thugs of the bird world

Regular readers will know that I am a bird-lover. It is not that I spend my spare time moving gingerly among the hedges peering through a set of binoculars. I am simply one of those who sees, in a blue tit or a robin, a small miracle of nature. The blue tit, in particular, is a bird crafted in paradise. It is as though this tiny creature were hand-painted with the most vibrant colours of a celestial rainbow. Blue, purple, yellow, white and green – it is a flying work of art. and who is not comforted by the soothing sound of birdsong? To wake to that blessed symphony, is to hear the voice of creation chanting psalms to all that is good and beautiful. Even as I write, I am being serenaded by a finch who seems intent on making my work as pleasurable as possible. Living side-by-side with such a variety of birds adds wonder and harmony to life. They are glorious to behold, marvellous to savour, and what garden would be complete without them? Like music and art, they render the natural world a place of peace and perfection. Except, that is, for one creature whose goal in life seems to be to cause untold carnage. It is the only bird that I will chase out of our garden – the only one that is never welcome. And yet, however hard I try, I cannot stop its battalions from invading our sacred space. I speak of the magpie, that stalking, squawking nuisance which terrifies and preys on smaller birds…

June 6, 2018

Had your coffee fix? Well, there is always tea and sympathy

Isn’t it wonderful what many of you are doing right now? No, not reading me – although that has, I hope, some small merit. I am referring to the ritual of sipping something hot and soothing as you read. It is almost something instinctive that we do: we make or purchase a fresh brew, settle down and begin to read or ponder. And the staple delight is usually tea or coffee. Whether it is herbal or traditional, cappuccino or Americano, its purpose is to revive, refresh and relax. Now you might say that the contents of your cup have no further significance. You are sipping and reading to take time out from an otherwise hectic schedule. Alternatively, your daily routine is punctuated with little moments of calm aided by your tea or coffee. When I was growing up, we all knew the meaning of tea. Coffee was primarily of the instant variety, and certainly did not have the cosmopolitan complexion it has today. But tea was not only an aid to relaxation, but a drink that symbolised home, family and friendship. Almost everything we did revolved around tea. No matter what the occasion, putting on the kettle was the first thing people did. Somehow, that little cup of tea made everything seem all right. But that was then, and this is now. We still reach for the kettle in times of joy or crisis, but the manner of our caffeine consumption has radically evolved. Now we must say: ‘tea or coffee?’…

May 30, 2018

Don’t judge a book by its cover: soul’s windows reveal the true emotions

They say the eyes are the window to the soul. To look deeply into a person’s eyes is to see their inner self, their true state of being. For it is the eyes that reveal the emotions, the deep feelings that lie beneath the surface. We all project a certain image to the world. Some of us like to project joy, irrespective of our inner moods. Others allow their moods to flow freely, believing that repressing emotion is unhealthy. Either way, it is the eyes that tell the real story behind the outer image. A child’s eyes are, for example, bright and cheerful. They radiate love and a spirit of levity. That is why, when children are sad, they don’t hold back. Their eyes immediately give way to a tsunami of tears. There is no hiding behind masks, no concealing the pain of a broken heart. As we get older, we somehow lose this vital capacity. Is it that we don’t want to appear weak or out of control? Is it that we fear judgement, fear those who would condemn rather than show compassion? The child simply trusts that when trouble comes, he can cry without condemnation. He knows there will always be loving arms into which he can take refuge…

May 23, 2018

Never wait to say I love you …appreciate what we have

Throughout our earthly journey, we strive for this, that and the other. But, in the end, there is one thing of lasting value, one thing that makes you rich beyond measure. That thing is the human life that surrounds you. We spend so much of our time searching for happiness, seeking for that which will provide peace. And yet, all we have to do is look around at the people we are blessed to live with. They are our wealth, the true source of everything worth having. Why is it that we never take prosperity and peace for granted, yet we very often take our family and friends for granted? We worry about a ‘rainy day’, yet we rarely take time to consider the living, breathing riches that are here and now. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what you lack so long as you have such people to love. No-one is free from cares and concerns, and we are all guilty of becoming consumed by them. That, however, is to risk squandering the gifts we already possess. Our spouses, our children, our
parents and friends: they are all that truly matter. That is why each day should be considered an end in itself. By this I mean that we should not put off until tomorrow what we can do and say today. Each day is packed with a promise of peace and prosperity when we see people as the real source of both. To wake each morning to the sound of your loved one breathing, of your children laughing, is to have it all. What more do we really need?…

May 16, 2018

Life is precious, and the greatest gift we can share is happiness…

Nelly lived on a quiet road where people kept mostly to themselves. She was an elderly lady with no children. Her husband had long ago ascended to the angels. Nelly was small with white hair tied in a bun. She always wore a dress with her favourite red cardigan. But the most notable thing about Nelly was her big smile. Nelly’s little house was shaded by a large oak tree. Inside, it was clean, comfortable and decorated with family photos and memorabilia. Nelly loved to gaze back across the years, loved to remember her husband and parents as they once were. Each day, Nelly woke early, made herself a cup of tea and sat in the garden listening to the birdsong. She spoke to the birds, to the flowers and the trees as though they were her children. Her little patch of creation was a sanctuary of love. Nelly regretted nothing nor wished for anything. When she looked back, she did not see the grief and sadness which comes to every life. All she saw were the happy times, those golden moments which also bless each human life. The road slept as Nelly ventured out each morning. In the hush, she moved from house to house doing neighbourly things. She would, for example, retrieve the morning newspaper from a lawn and place it on the doorstep. She would quietly roll any stray bins into their owners’ driveways. She would always ensure that the milk was under the porch and not exposed to the elements. She did this, not for any praise, but simply because that is what good neighbours do…

May 9, 2018

The destruction of nature just shows how far we have fallen

I have just returned from my daily walk. Normally, it is a very pleasant affair, during which I ponder the world and its manifold gifts. Each day something in nature speaks to me of love, life or longing. It might be a pale moon shimmering in a sun-filled sky. It might be a little dog taking its master for a walk. It might even be a tiny bird lying lifeless on a lawn. Either way, what I see nourishes the senses and revives the soul. There are new experiences every day – experiences which soothe, enliven and console. The elderly couple, for example, who pass me hand-in-hand, their love as strong as it was on their wedding day. The old nun in full habit, her walking stick in the one hand and her Rosary beads in the other. The man who looks uncannily like that appalling villain Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. He even has a bulldog the spitting image of Sikes’s canine companion Bull’s-eye. As it happens, the man is anything but villainous for, behind the grim mask, there is the nicest of men. But, sometimes, the world offers a vision of real villainy. Today, for example, I walked along a road in full bloom. The gardens were ablaze with the most exquisite red and yellow tulips. I stopped to admire their velvet petals, to watch the bees extract their precious nectar. Suddenly, it caught my eye…

May 2, 2018

If we look hard enough, there is always light in the darkness…

May: a month of miracles. Not quite spring, not quite summer. A month when nature exhibits its finery and we respond with a smile. The days are long and the nights have fallen away. It seems like only yesterday when it was dark shortly after dawn. Not now: the sun peeps above the horizon well before the world awakes. It is still cold, but the nip is steadily losing strength. On the tree beyond my window, a pair of wood pigeons perch and coo. They sit and stare at the kaleidoscope of colour, at the cherry blossoms and the emerald vista. Like an old married couple, they peck at each other’s feathers. I like to think this is some class of cleaning ritual, or perhaps a little sign of romantic affection. after all, what is a kiss but a peck full of love? They peck and they coo, and it is this lazy sound which heralds the new dawn. Finches and blue tits come and go with lightning speed. They jump, hop, skip and fly away before you can fully savour their glorious plumage. But the wood pigeons, too old to care, remain impervious to it all. They fly in with the light and will depart only when we turn again towards the dark. They are mother and father of the trees, heavenly messengers of glad tidings. Spiders and ants, weeds and bees are all on the move in May. In the crisp, cool morning, the cobwebs shimmer and shine like natural art. The spider creates not for pleasure but to prey…

April 25, 2018

My child sang, with the face of an angel and the voice of a man…

And what is this life except a constant sequence of comings and goings? From the moment of conception to when we lie still in the soil, we are coming and going, staying and departing. We form attachments and then we move on again, detaching from what we have known and loved. As I looked at our eldest on stage the other evening, I suddenly
realised that he is in the first stages of detachment. He was singing at a concert
exclusively dedicated to him and the extraordinarily talented Chloe Burke. They opened with a moving duet of Rewrite The Stars from The Greatest Showman. Rewrite The Stars is a beautiful melody that sings to the soul. Two people yearn to be together, their love stronger than the obstacles it must surmount: ‘Fate is pulling you miles away, And out of reach from me, But you’re here in my heart, So who can stop me if I decide, That you’re my destiny?’  If only they could rewrite the stars, perhaps they could change ‘the world to be ours’. The spirit of Romeo And Juliet hangs over it all – a spirit of thwarted love and shattered dreams. It is moving because no-one has been spared the agony of loss, of heartbreak and departures which are too tough to take. We come and go on the merry-go-round of this strange but beautiful life. The sun shines but the shadows are never too far behind. What we possess is ours but for a moment, and then it is gone – all gone. Those of you who have journeyed with through the years…

April 18, 2018

Step inside the parlour… it’s another world

The other day, I was telling our boys about dear old Daisy. Daisy was my grandaunt – my maternal grandfather’s only sibling. As I told them her story, you could hear a pin drop in the car. There was nothing remarkable in Daisy’s life. Like most women of her generation, she lived and died simply. But the world she inhabited – a world so different to ours – is one that perished with her. Known to her devoted neighbours as ‘Mrs Mac’, Daisy lived in a small house with her husband and another elderly lady named Una. How Una came to live with Daisy is still a mystery to me. What I do know is that Daisy and Una were inseparable. It was not that Daisy and Una always got on with each other. All day long, they bickered about anything and everything. Indeed, they were so used to bickering that, even when they were being nice to each other, they feigned to bicker. An example. Una walks into the kitchen, collapses in her armchair and says: ‘What ails ye?’ Daisy: ‘You are! Can’t you see I’m trying to clean the floor?’ Una: ‘Will we go and get the groceries?’ Daisy: ‘If you’d give a hand we’d get out quicker!’ And then, irrespective of the weather, they would set off in their overcoats and scarves, their shopping trolleys trailing behind. Daisy’s day always began at dawn – even in the summer…

April 11, 2018

As long as we are still alive, there is hope for tomorrow

Last week, our eldest was chosen to act in the Druid production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Over two nights in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire, he played the role of ‘Boy’. In the midst of a capacity crowd, Mrs Dooley and I were like two cats who got the cream. The production has been critically acclaimed and rightly so. For those unacquainted with the play, it features two protagonists who pass their long days waiting for the elusive Godot. Clad in rags and bored to death, their misery is heightened by the fact that Godot never shows up. As the sun descends, a boy appears to the two men. He tells them that ‘Mr Godot’ will not be coming tonight but promises that he will arrive tomorrow. Tomorrow comes, but Mr Godot never does. What’s more, the boy seems not to recognise the two men when he emerges from the shadows each evening. This raises all the deep questions: are the men dead, lingering in some halfway world between existence and eternity? Is their ‘existence’ a metaphor for the absurdity of human life, where we simply live out our days with the prospect of nothing beyond the grave? At one level, the play is comical; at another, it is dark and desolate. Our son did not lighten the mood, for his purpose is to repeatedly dash, and then to raise, the men’s vain hopes. Godot is either a cruel creator or a bad joke. Suffice to say, our son loved every second of it. However, playing the role forced him to ask what it all means…

April 4, 2018

Consent? Try respect and decency too

One evening the Dooleys were eating dinner. Our eldest was telling us about a person whose story I found rather interesting. Naively, I said: ‘I should very much like to meet her.’ ‘You can’t say that, Dad!’ exclaimed my embarrassed son. ‘What?’ I said. He replied: ‘You can’t say you’d like to “meet” someone!’ It transpired that, for those of my son’s generation, to meet a person is – how to put it? – well, to have an amorous encounter with them. To my shock and horror, he explained that young people no longer ‘go out’ with each other. They meet, which means bypassing all customary norms surrounding sexuality. It is no longer necessary to know someone’s name, and you can forget about a romantic prelude over dinner. Gone for good are the days when you might court a person. Today, as in every sphere of life, delayed gratification has given way to immediate satisfaction. Wasn’t it WB Yeats who poignantly asked: ‘How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?’ Without custom and ceremony, we reduce life to a coarse husk that is lived for pleasure but rarely for love. We live our days as though the radiance of civilisation had never dawned. If any area of human life should be surrounded by custom and ceremony, it is that of romantic attachment. For people are not commodities but those from whom the light of life shines most powerfully. We are not dealing with another object, but with another will, spirit or soul. When I was growing up, there was still something of the Jane Austen approach to love…

March 28, 2018

No alarm bells rang when our son left but it’s a wake-up call

There is a curious fact about me which most people simply cannot understand. ‘Only one?’, you say. You guess right: I have my fair share of eccentricities which provide my children with no end of amusement. But one that even they can’t fathom is this: For more than 20 years, I have not used an alarm clock. And, what’s more, I am always first up in the morning. Say, for example, someone needs to rise at 5.20 in the morning. ‘We will have to set a clock!’, they frantically exclaim. ‘Oh no we won’t!’, I reply with a self-satisfied grin. And then, after much doubt and hesitation, they finally concede that I have earned my right to grin, laugh or cry out with boastful pride. No plane, boat or train has ever been missed on my account. ‘Leave it to me,’ I say, ‘you’ll be called at 5.20 on the dot!’ I can’t fully explain how I manage it. I simply go to sleep and, without fail, wake ten minutes before the appointed time. It doesn’t matter what hour of the night it is; if you want to be woken, I’m your man. Mrs Dooley considers it an affliction. ‘I don’t know how you do that,’ she says, ‘and I don’t care to know’. And yet, as I never cease to remind her: ‘It has served you well every day for nearly two decades. Can you remember when you last had to endure the heart-stopping sound of an alarm?’ And yes, before you ask, I can even do it in different time zones…

March 21, 2018

When Doddy met Hawking… and they set the world to rights

At a time and place unknown to mortals, two lately deceased Englishmen sit together. One is a beloved comedian, the other a world-famous astrophysicist. They immediately
recognise each other, for their faces are unmistakably distinct. ‘I think we’ve kicked the bucket,’ says the comedian through his buck teeth. ‘It’s been a long time since I’ve kicked anything,’ retorts the wheelchair-bound astrophysicist. The comedian howls with laughter, before saying: ‘I’m supposed to be the comic!’ ‘I’m Professor Stephen Hawking,’ says the astrophysicist. ‘And you must be Sir Ken Dodd.’ ‘That’s right, but did you know that I also used to be a professor? Oh yes, when I started out in showbusiness I was known as “Professor Yaffle Chuckabutty, Operatic tenor and Sausage Knotter”!’ Professor Hawking smiles and asks Sir Ken how he got his famous teeth. ‘When I was seven, my friends dared me to ride my bike with my eyes shut. I accepted the dare, crashed the bike and ended up with these teeth. It was the best career move I ever made!’ ‘Anyway,’ says Sir Ken, ‘bet you never thought you’d end up here?’ ‘I don’t know where “here” is yet,’ says the bemused genius. ‘It doesn’t matter where “here” is,’ chuckles Sir Ken. ‘The fact is, you’re in it!’ ‘I suppose you’re right, but it’s too late to change any of my theories! I took thinking to the frontiers of the universe, but here I am one step beyond it and I seem to be in a black hole of my own making!’…

March 14, 2018

A devastating trend where love is blocked off by screens

How can we love if we cannot cry? How can we ease someone’s pain if we don’t know what it feels like to suffer? How can we heal a broken heart if ours is made of stone? When the world is too self-obsessed to care, the sad plight of many goes unnoticed. But people are not intentionally hard-hearted. There is good to be found in everyone, even if it takes a lifetime to unearth. Goodness flows when life offers a glimpse of tragedy, of shattered love, of lives lost without a trace. Goodness flows when we hear the howl of the abandoned, when we see the torment of the abused, when we peer into the depths of someone’s despair. Goodness flows because we cannot help sympathising with those for whom the world can only weep. Digital distraction is worse than a disease because you can’t be immunised against it. The screen robs children of their innocence and compromises their concentration. Quite rightly, this newspaper is calling for a ban on smartphones for the young. But aren’t we all at risk from this sinister plague? Aren’t we at risk of drowning in a sea of distraction, to the point where we fail to notice the tears of those who silently plead for help? People cry, yet we do not hear; their tragedies unfold without a witness. The human heart needs help to grow. Children who never see into the depths will grow up living solely on the surface. Blinded by distraction, how will they cope with the agonies to which all of us are vulnerable? How, without the imagination, can they get beyond the next digital fix?…

March 7, 2018

Milk of human kindness flows in tough times

An abiding memory of childhood is that of my grandparents discussing the two World Wars. When, for example, my grandmother added sugar to her tea, she would invariably mention ‘the rations’. Even in the Seventies and Eighties, they were still haunted by food shortages and the threat of another war. That was why they gave thanks for everything they had. Small though their luxuries were, they received them not as entitlements, but as gifts. Indeed, the very idea of entitlement was foreign to their generation. And, if they loved their neighbours, it was because the wars taught them to value solidarity. You didn’t endure the hardships alone but with the support of your community. People took responsibility, not only for themselves, but for each other. The little they had they shared with family, neighbours and friends. The rationing of food and other necessities made them frugal. Nothing was wasted because you valued whatever you possessed. I was reminded of my grandparents’ way of life when, in the aftermath of Storm Emma, I received a beautiful email from one of our readers. I have never met this person but, through our correspondence, she has become a very dear friend. With typical wisdom, she wrote: ‘Been snowed in for the past few days but, this afternoon, donning boots and gear, I braved my neighbourhood. Have to say, snow brings out the best in people. Everyone I met, as I stumbled along up to my knees in snow, greeted me and were so cheerful. Maybe it takes a crisis for people to come together and help one another. I heard more cheerful words and greetings this day than I have in so long.’…

February 28, 2018

Why I love the trail of chaos left by my son

Last year, I wrote about the domestic carnage caused by our six-year-old. Since then, many readers have requested an update on our tribulations at the hands of this merciless little man. Prepare yourselves, for it is not easy reading. First things first: nothing has changed. If anything, matters are steadily getting worse. Indeed, so bad have things become that even he is beginning to wonder where it will all end. It seems that no matter what he touches simply collapses, breaks or smashes into smithereens. Early each Saturday morning, for example, I calmly bask in the silence of an empty kitchen. There I sit, sipping my coffee, pondering the new day. Then it happens: the door crashes open and, in his loudest voice: ‘Good morning!’ Very cute, you might say, and you would be correct, except for the fact that the rest of the house is fast asleep. Moreover, however many times I caution him to whisper, the same thing happens – every single Saturday. I calm my nerves only to see him reaching for the cereal box. Good: a sign of independence! But, in this case, independence comes at a terrible cost for his father. Invariably, the full cereal bowl ends up on the floor…

February 21, 2018

In his darkest hour, Churchill proved he was a moral titan

I didn’t know what to expect as the lights dimmed in the cinema. My wife had already seen darkest Hour and was determined that I should also view it on the big screen. ‘You will love it,’ she said, knowing that its central protagonist has always been an enormous influence on my life. I was doubtful. How could anyone, least of all an actor like Gary Oldman, play someone as complex and charismatic as Winston Churchill? How could he capture the moral greatness of that flawed hero who resisted Hitler when others ran for cover? The film charts the tense events that led to Churchill’s premiership in 1940, his defiance in the face of seeming disaster and his refusal to countenance any accommodation with the Nazis. The fact that Gary Oldman has just won this year’s Bafta Leading Actor award tells its own story. In my view, he should also secure an Oscar for what was a spellbinding performance. There are many, not least in this country, who consider Winston Churchill a warmonger with a bloody legacy. The question for such people to answer is this: would it have been preferable to live under the Nazis? For without Churchill’s tenacity, his moral grit and courage, that is how we would have ended up. Oldman summed it up perfectly in his Bafta acceptance speech, when he said of Churchill: ‘He held the line of honour and freedom and integrity. For his nation and the world.’ Is there any contemporary politician of which such things could be said today? That is why I was thrilled when our eldest son asked if he could see the movie with me…

February 14, 2018

A day when both love and death must be on our minds

It is Ash Wednesday, St Valentine’s Day and, as it happens, my eldest son’s 13th birthday.
How do you have a party on a day of fast and abstinence? Luckily, our son has planned his festivities for another day. Still, I wonder how many will prioritise romance over penance today? How many of the millennials even know it is Ash Wednesday? How many are there who still care? You might be surprised. Lent continues to have a curious attraction for many people. Today, the churches will be unusually packed with penitents, many of whom will attend daily Mass for the full 40 days. The priest dips his finger in ash and makes the sign of the Cross on the penitent’s forehead. The ash comes from the palms used during last year’s Palm Sunday celebrations. Burned and broken down, they are now used to remind us of our mortality. But who wants to be reminded of death and decay? Who wants to be reminded that from dust we came and to dust we shall return? Why bother with such gloom in an age of glitz and glam? Actually, I think there is a way of looking at it that dispels the darkness. It is not that you are having death, quite literally, shoved in your face. Rather, it is a gentle reminder that time is a gift. The one thing this generation cannot claim as an entitlement is time. Yes, they talk of wanting ‘my time’, but is it really their time? The truth is that we are all on borrowed time. The ash is a symbol that time should never be taken for granted…

February 7, 2018

Science gives answers… but our world is still a miracle

I behold the sky, that ocean of blue under which we live, labour and love. A single white cloud seems to smile at me. ‘Someday,’ it seems to say, ‘you shall drink me, and I shall nourish your soul.’ I smile back and am taken into space. I behold the moon sitting there among the stars. The sun has extinguished their golden light, but the moon continues to glow. I behold the endless expanse, the infinitude of the heavens. What is outside the universe, beyond the fabric of space and time? I look deeply but am lost for words. I behold the soil beneath my feet, the grass in the gardens and the fields. They call it ‘muck’ and ‘dirt’, but this is the realm of miracles. The cloud falls from the sky, and as the sun raises it up, a kingdom of beauty is born. I behold the fresh daffodils, a new growth of grass and the wild herbs as they spring from the soil. All that we could ever want is right here: food, beauty and the wonders of an eco-system that sustains everything. I behold, and I give praise. I behold the trees in whose shade I now stand. Tiny green leaves are about to erupt from their cocoon. I am taken back to the sky where the mighty fire beckons them to break free. I behold the birds of the air as they perch high upon the branches. They sing to the world before soaring downwards to feed from the soil. For the garden is their Eden too, a place of abundance where nothing is off-limits. I behold the fresh water as it trickles by…

January 31, 2018

On stage, you can see what we all treasure

He stood in the centre of the stage, a single spotlight shining above his head. The packed theatre was silent and still, the children mesmerised by the enchanting music. And then, in his best West end voice, our eldest began to sing: ‘I was the one who had it all, I was the master of my fate, I never needed anybody in my life, I learned the truth too late’
We were at Arclight Drama Studio’s production of Beauty And The Beast in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. I have previously written about Paul Cullen and Ciara Phelan, both of whom run the studio in Dublin. As with so many children, it was they who first gave our boys a passion for stage performance. Beauty And The Beast ran for eight shows and was a sell-out success. each night, a new batch of children joined the cast to show off their acting skills before a live audience. Our eldest sang the heartrendingly beautiful evermore at four of the shows. In our digital age, the theatre testifies to the enduring power of the arts to shape our moral perspective. The lights go down, we suspend reality and enter a world of possibility. There, before us, stand real people inviting us to share their pain, savour their joy and look at the world through their eyes. Serious acting is, in many ways, a moral vocation. The good actor asks us to go with him on a journey and to be changed in the process…

January 24, 2018

A good life is making the person next to you happy

The world is full of wisdom on how to live a good life. Walk into any bookstore and you see the shelves heaving with guides to happiness, health and inner harmony. But, in the end, it all boils down to one precious insight. Leo Tolstoy had much to teach the world. For example, how much bloodshed might have been avoided had we listened to this: ‘In our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.’ And think of how content we could be were we to heed this: ‘When you love someone, you love the person they are, and not as you’d like them to be.’ Tolstoy proved his own maxim that ‘the greatest truths are simple’. But even he excelled himself when he wrote: ‘The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.’ A powerful truth in simple wrapping. The pursuit of life is not to make yourself happy, but to make that one person at your side happy. It could be your child, your spouse, the postman or the person sitting next to you on the train. It doesn’t matter: in that moment, the most important pursuit is to make them happy. Why does he say, ‘the person standing at your side’? Simply because you may never have dealings with another human being. The person you are with now is the only person that counts. Think about how many people we ignore, or simply don’t see, in the course of a day…

January 17, 2018

A day in my life straight out of Poe’s stories of absolute terror

Last week, I celebrated my birthday. I have long gone past the age when you think you will live forever. at a certain stage, mortality takes hold with an icy grip. I suppose that is why, on my big day, I am prone to remembering my childhood. and do you know, in such moments, the strangest memories arise. This year, the oddest memory was provoked by a discussion regarding birds. We were on our way to school when a large black crow landed beside the car. ‘Oh, look, Dad, there’s a horrible bird staring at us!’ It was, indeed, a ghastly
creature, one that could have flown straight off the pages of Edgar Allan Poe. It was when I gazed into its beady eye that I recalled the bizarre tale of Mrs Doyle. My boys were rapt as I began to tell them of that day when I was only five or six years of age. My grandmother took me by the hand and led me to what appeared like an ordinary terraced house. ‘Go on, Dad, go on!’ urged the boys, knowing by my tone that this would draw them to the edge of their seats. My grandmother knocked. Nothing. she knocked again. still nothing. as we turned to leave, the door slowly opened. My grandmother pushed it but there was no-one on the other side. I gripped her hand as we entered a shaded room…

January 10, 2018

Don’t jog away from the joy… January can be lit up easily

Christmas has been recycled and our hibernation is over. Here and there, you notice the odd reminder of Yuletide merriment: a listless tree lying on a lawn, a dilapidated wreath slowly dying on a door, seasonal rubbish that never made it to a bin. But now it is January – a guilt-filled month of mourning for bright lights and festive fun. I have heard it said many times already: ‘This is such a depressing month.’ I have seen it in their grim faces as they seek to jog away the pounds. Some call it ‘dry January’ – as if cold turkey will somehow restore balance. Why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we feel we must repent for Christmas? Why do we feel we must earn absolution on the treadmill? Mortify the flesh and the sins of seasonal indulgence will be washed away. With such an attitude, is it any wonder that people dread January? Is it any wonder that children suffer when returning to school? The lights that have been blazing since October are no more. The high-octane joy has given way to a sombre sadness. We are in a very dark place without so much as a lamp. Yes, look closely and you will notice a slight stretch in the evenings. You will see the afternoon light has changed as the sun hangs a little higher in the sky. Things are turning, but not that fast. We are still in the depths of winter – a time beyond growth and gladness. So why, then, do we extinguish the light, put on cold faces and punish ourselves for small joys? There is a reason the Church postpones Lent until the first shoots of spring…

January 3, 2018

I finally get why my son is so staunchly vegetarian

Regular readers will know that my middle son detests meat. No matter how I try to camouflage it in herbs or gravy, he just can’t stomach the sight of a dead animal on a plate. ‘Why do we kill animals?’ he asks plaintively, before feigning a bout of nausea. I don’t know where he acquired this phobia against red meat. There has never been a vegetarian in the Dooley family. In fact, his grandfather and great-grandfather were both in the meat trade. Whence, therefore, his instinctual loathing of something even his brothers enjoy? And it doesn’t stop there: his tender care extends to the earth, its creatures and all creation. His morality is loving kindness to everyone and everything. ‘You just have to accept that I don’t like meat, Dad,’ he tells me. I tried to sneak some steak into the Christmas diet and was caught red-handed. Enough is enough, I thought, he doesn’t like meat and that’s the end of it. It’s not so much that he dislikes the taste of meat. What bothers him is that we haven’t evolved sufficiently enough to see that we are senselessly consuming fellow creatures. This does not mean he thinks we are on a par with the animals, but that we ought not to consume them when we have alternatives. Neither is this something he has picked up at school. It has been with him from the dawn of reason. No point, therefore, in resisting what won’t go away. So, no more meat for my little nine-year-old. But, as I say, his love for creation extends far beyond budding vegetarianism. He desperately yearns to adopt a dog. That’s right, the Dooleys don’t have a dog, a cat, a rabbit, or, indeed, any quadruped…

December 27, 2017

Nothing more pure than the love between old and young

What is more beautiful than the love between old and young? Innocence at both ends of the spectrum. Purity of heart without the pollution of stress or strain. In the loving arms of the elderly, our children feel secure from the snares of life. They experience the apex of human affection, an ocean of tenderness in which they swim for joy. The alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, joined together in blissful tranquillity. Our boys are especially attached to their grandparents. and aren’t they lucky to have them! Aren’t they lucky to have that font of love which lavishes them with gentle care! At this time of year, as the home fires burn bright, we focus on the past and the future. We cherish the old for having laid the foundations of our lives. We cherish them for the sacrifices, their wisdom, the strength amid our weakness. But this is also the time of youth, a time when we give thanks for our little ones. Through our tears, we watch them make merry in joyful wonder. It is their season to shine, their season to soar. The old understand the young. Having travelled down the decades, grandparents know what life has in store. They know that once innocence goes, it is gone for good. And so, when they look upon their grandchildren, they see life at its very best. they see that source of gentleness uncorrupted by cynicism and care.Tthey see it, they love it, and are moved by it. I sat listening to our son chat on the phone with his grandmother. ‘I hope I’ll see you soon,’ he said with a voice full of emotion…

December 20, 2017

In the bleak midwinter there is that sparkle of joy

It is the bleak midwinter and we’re all on the move. Short days, long nights, so why can’t we stop? Running here, running there, running everywhere. Pantos and plays, they’re all the rage. Little angels and elves take to the stage. It’s their big day, those who pine and pray for Santa’s sleigh. It is the bleak midwinter and time has begun to turn. It’s the eve of the shortest day, then a fresh season is on the way. Just a little more light and spring shall be in sight. It’s cold and then mild, but what does it matter to a little child? For these are days of glad tidings, of a star that brings good news from afar. A stable of shepherds, angels and sheep, a blessed mother who lulls her baby to sleep. It is the bleak midwinter and the sun barely shines. Are we ever this happy at other times? The world is forlorn, nature has died, but somehow we still get up and glide. It’s their smiling faces, the tears on their cheek, the joy in their heart, that makes us complete. We shop and we shop ’til the shelves are bare. And then we get cooking the great Yuletide fare. It is the bleak midwinter but the log fires blaze. As you wrap gifts in ribbons and bows, you wander down old memory’s maze. And there you see faces both ancient and new, some of which look distinctly like you. A time to weep, a time to mourn, it’s a time to praise a tiny newborn. They sing from the churches, from street corners and shops. They sing out loud ’til the mayhem stops. And then all is calm as we retreat indoors. We have worked to the end so now we can rest. It’s also a time to be at our best…

December 13, 2017

Candles bring hope all year round, not just at Christmas

Dawn and dusk: what’s the difference these days? But don’t despair for I am always with you, always there whenever you want me. I am the warm glow that drives back the darkness, that makes all things bright and beautiful. Treat me as an old friend for I have been with you from the beginning. When they poured the sacred water on your tiny head, I was there keeping watch. Where I am, there is always life. There was a time when I was
everywhere. Nowadays, I am no longer in high demand. But wherever I am, things always seem brighter, better. Look back on the most memorable occasions of your life, and you will see me there amid the merriment. I have never missed a single birthday, never forgotten to shine for your special day. Things change, people come and go, but I have always been there as you mark yet another year. They say I make things warmer even when there is little heat. They say that no amount of gloom can withstand my gentle glow. That is why I belong to Christmas, to that time when the weary world rejoices. Light came into the world through a child. No bells or trumpets, no rolling thunder or awesome fireworks. Just a flicker of light and the whole world changed….

December 6, 2017

The miracle that comes but once a year…

Today is the feast of St Nicholas of Myra, otherwise known as Santa Claus. He died on this day in 343 and is buried in Jerpoint abbey in Co. Kilkenny. Isn’t it astonishing that the mortal remains of Father Christmas rest here in Ireland? I have previously written of the Dooleys’ pilgrimage to that hallowed site. For our boys, this great saint epitomises all that is beautiful about the Christmas season. Renowned for his charity, especially to children, St Nicholas symbolises all that we should aspire to be in these sacred days. And yet, only recently, a Catholic priest hit the headlines for suggesting that we should drop the word ‘Christmas’. ‘We need to let it go,’ said Fr desmond O’Connell, because ‘it’s already been hijacked, and we just need to recognise and accept that’. It has been hijacked by a secular society that identifies Christmas with ‘Santa and reindeer’. The philosopher Roger Scruton calls this the ‘Disneyfication of faith’. We take the most sacred features of our religion and commercialise them. Instead of sanctity, you are left with kitsch. Poor old St Nicholas is, perhaps, the greatest victim of this process. In so many ways, he has become a caricature of the noble saint he is. But isn’t this what happens when the secular seeks to make sense of the sacred on its own terms?…

November 29, 2017

How the Mr Men have kept me company for forty years

It seems that the Mr Men series of books are in my life to stay. After our youngest underwent his initiation, we packed them away thinking that our grandchildren will be next. But, no, those books, many of which have been in my possession for forty years, are back out in full force. My love affair with the Mr Men began in 1977, when I was only seven years of age. My grandmother was then living in Coventry and I expressed a desire to visit her. And so, that summer, I flew to stay with her in a quaint suburb of the city. The Queen was visiting Coventry on the day I landed. Elvis Presley died during my vacation. But none of that could compete with my discovery of Mr Bump, Mr Uppity and their friends. ‘I am lonely, and I want to go home tomorrow,’ I said to my grandmother that first night. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘we’ll have you on the first flight. But first, let me read you one of these.’ There, in her hand, was a bunch of little white books which I have to this day. She read Mr tickle and I was hooked. I went to sleep knowing that I was staying put for the summer. In that moment, I entered a new world of humorous and heartwarming characters. Slowly but surely, I amassed the full collection of books. At the core of each was a lesson in good manners, compassion and courage. Their seeming simplicity belied a depth of moral truth…

November 15, 2017

The blazing comet who lit up my life

I still remember the first time I saw him. I was a student and he was a lecturer with the unforgettable name of Liberato Santoro-Brienza. He walked through the door of the theater, a man of elegance, panache and great taste. those were the days when you could smoke indoors, and Liberato puffed on a cigar. Despite being in Dublin for more than 20 years, he was quintessentially Italian. He dressed immaculately, sported a small goatee and had a fiery Mediterranean temperament. it was not surprising that the topic of his lecture was art and beauty. He used his cigar as a prop, showing how it was an example of perfect proportion. In that moment, we saw the cigar as a work of art – a revelation of the human desire for perfection…

November 8, 2017

Without good manners, our morality dies

Where have all the manners gone? It is nearly a decade since I last wrote about their decline, but I never imagined it could get this bad. Do we fear that small gestures of kindness will somehow compromise our self-sufficiency? A small boy steps from Mrs Dooley’s car. He has spent the day playing in our home. ‘I hope you enjoyed yourself,’ she says. ‘Whatever,’ he replies. ‘Whatever.’ With this one word, the child displays contempt for his friend, his hosts and for the world. But he is only a child and who can blame this little one for the sins of his society? Children learn by example, by what they see and hear and absorb from the ether. They are not naturally rude, but they can be corrupted. Their innocence is merely on loan. ‘Whatever’, and then he turned his back and skipped indoors. What can you do? We know his parents would be mortified, shattered by their son’s insolence. Our little boy could only ask: ‘Why didn’t he say, “Thank you”?’ A hard lesson in life from a little friend. ‘Manners make the man,’ they say, but they crown a child…

November 1, 2017

What good is a selfie when death comes?

November: the month of the dead. Dusk descends shortly after noon as if to remind us of the immortal darkness. We mourn for what can not be revived except through the miracles of memory. It is up to us to keep alive our dead. They smile at us from the things they left behind, from the world they made. We are their heirs, their testimony to a life well lived. In the dark days before those of limitless light, November was silent and still. They streamed to the churches to honour the Holy Souls, to give thanks for their lives and for the fact that they gave us life. One month to remember, one month to give thanks. The dead do not linger but they whisper their secrets – if we listen. Having lived and died, they know much more than we do. They have made mistakes so that we can avoid them. But now there is no silence, no respect for this month of mourning. We must have light and noise around the clock. We must banish the darkness for fear that we might think of death. They say the so-called ‘millennials’ are losing their religion. Some 80% of Irish people between the ages of 18 and 34, say they would be happy without religious belief. The millennials don’t do God, but neither do they do death…

October 25, 2017

Truth vs love? The answer lies in a family beef… over beef

Welcome to the Dooleys’ dinner table. Dad has just lit the candles and put on some soothing music. He removes the meat from the oven and begins to carve. Then the clarion call: ‘Dinner’s ready!’ They emerge from the four corners of the house ready to be fed. ‘What are we having tonight?’ asks the active child. ‘Roast beef’, to which he replies: ‘I can’t stand roast beef!’ Seeing an opportunity to get one up on his little brother, the chatty child says: ‘I can’t tell you how much I love roast beef. Did you know that, until now, I didn’t like beef? ‘But now, I love everything about it. I love the smell, the taste and the fact that it is full of protein. Did you know that it is full of protein? ‘By the way, even though I like beef, I really would like to become a vegetarian. How old do you have to be to become a vegetarian? But where will I get my protein if I am a vegetarian?’ The active child, now swinging perilously on his chair, roars: ‘Stop! You’re only saying that to make me sad.’ ‘Stop it you two,’ says Dad, as mum and the mature child arrive…

October 18, 2017

To truly love, we must see life through a child’s eyes

Last week, as we travelled to school, our middle son made a distressing declaration. One of his schoolmates told the class that Santa was a hoax. Even worse, the boy described in vivid detail the ‘true story’ of what happens on Christmas Eve. I nearly crashed the car because, as I glanced in the rear-view mirror, I could see the colour slowly drain from our youngest. ‘Of course, I didn’t believe him and I told him to stay quiet!’ he said. ‘Yes,’ I said frantically, ‘you are a very good boy! Imagine not believing in something so wonderful and beautiful.’ ‘That’s right, Dad, and you have even brought us to see st Nicholas’s grave!’ Another quick glance in the mirror and then relief. Both faces looked satisfied. I spent the rest of the journey nervously waxing lyrical about how, if only we are open to it, our world is so full of magic. What price can we put on innocence? What price can we put on this, the true essence of childhood? It is invaluable because, once taken away, it is gone for good. Innocence is not naivety. It is not gullibility but a state in which we are fully open to surprise, to wonder, awe and love. It is how we were before the proverbial ‘fall’. The opposite of innocence is suspicion, distrust and doubt. It is characterised by a loss of hope, trust and faith. The world becomes threatening rather than a source of miracles. We love children because they are so full of innocence. And in their innocence, they shine with joyful wisdom. There is no darkness in them because there is so little distrust or doubt. That is why it is shocking when we encounter a child caught in the clouds of doubt…

October 11, 2017

A moment at the school that broke my heart

Last week, I saw something that broke my heart. a parent had just collected her little boy from preschool and, as they strolled along, they held hands. Lovely, I thought to myself, until I saw that in her other hand she held a mobile phone. Nothing wrong with that, you might say. Don’t we all clutch our mobiles as we go about our business? True, but in this case the woman was glued to her screen. the little boy trailed behind his mother with his head bowed low. She gazed smiling at her screen, walking as though on autopilot. they had been separated for the morning and yet she had nothing to say to her child. Now, we are all guilty of favouring our phones over other people. The phone sounds and, no matter what the circumstance, we can’t resist the temptation to have a peek. It is impolite but, because everybody seems to do it, we no longer take offence. It is, however, quite another thing to opt for a screen chat while walking with a child. When they emerge from school, children are bursting with excitement and news. Indeed, you often get vital information about their lives in those precious minutes. the little boy was in the world but his mother was far from it…

October 4, 2017

Those simple things worth fighting for…

There is a moment in Robert Harris’s novel Munich which gave me profound pause. Munich is the story of how, in September 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sought to save Europe from Nazi aggression. The most remarkable aspect of Harris’s treatment is that you see Chamberlain, not as an appeaser of Hitler, but as a courageous statesman who did all he could to prevent global suffering. The Munich agreement served only to delay the inevitable. Within a year, Hitler had consumed Czechoslovakia and was preparing to smash Poland. Chamberlain failed to prevent war, but he bought Hitler’s enemies vital time to rearm and prepare for conflict. What’s more, Chamberlain’s attempt to secure peace may have won the war for the Allies. In an epigraph to the book, Harris cites Hitler speaking in February 1945, months before his downfall. ‘We ought to have gone to war in 1938,’ he remarks. ‘September 1938 would have been the most favourable date.’ In other words, had Chamberlain not interfered with Hitler’s timetable for war, the Nazis may well have triumphed over an ill-prepared enemy. Neville Chamberlain died on November 9, 1940…

September 27, 2017

Living with a six-year-old wrecking ball

Just when I thought I had mastered the art of parenting, our youngest has decided I need to be brought down a peg or two. It is not that he intentionally sets out to thwart his father, but that he can’t help himself making life difficult for me. I delight in doing something well, and then, within minutes, I find it undone. I don’t mean that a freshly cleaned surface is suddenly covered in handprints. that is something I have got used to and now take for granted. No, what I mean is wholesale destruction – complete and utter devastation. the school year started well. Despite our worries, our eldest made a seamless transition from primary to secondary school. The other two scamps returned to school triumphant that their big brother was no longer observing their every move. I breathed a sigh of relief, believing that this year would be the easiest yet. Parenting, it seemed, had suddenly become much less stressful. The boys were showing signs of independence and, after all the years of fretting and fussing, we could finally relax a little. How quickly our dreams were dashed…

September 20, 2017

What we can all learn from the good thief

There are many beautiful stories in the Christian scriptures, but there is one that stands out for me. I was only a small child when I first heard the account of the ‘good thief’ who died beside Christ. It touched me then and it still moves me now. As his fellow thief mocks Christ from the cross, the good thief defends him by saying that, while they deserve their punishment, the young Nazarene does not. Then, he asks that he not be forgotten when the saviour comes into his kingdom. Christ turns, perhaps even smiles, and promises the thief nothing less than paradise. What a beautiful thing it is for one dying man to offer the other a gift of peace. A scene of horror is suddenly transfigured by a gesture of healing love. The good thief falls silent and dies redeemed. That everyone knows who the ‘good thief’ is means he is not a minor historical figure. In defending Christ unto death, he has been immortalised down the ages. he proves that, even in their last agony, people can be saved. For Christians, this unnamed criminal was the first person to enter paradise. It is a beautiful and consoling moment that teaches us much about the quality of mercy and forgiveness. There is, however, another dimension to it that is equally powerful…

September 13, 2017

She lived only in fiction… but helped make sense of reality

It was only when a single tear fell onto the page that I realised I was weeping. I was reading the final instalment of a trilogy of novels when one of the characters died. She was old and ailing, but, somehow, I had grown to love her. The novels traced the entire course of her life and now she was a great-grandmother. And then she died, as she had lived, with grace. I placed the book on my knee and wiped away the tears, incredulous that the death of a fictional character could have such an impact on me. We have all had this experience when watching a movie. A character dies or is slain and the atmospheric music forces us over the edge. The human heart is touched by the sight of someone finding redemption in their final agony. This is true of even the worst villains. I remember watching a television drama on the life of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He was played by American actor George C Scott who, in the last minutes, poured out his soul to his long-suffering wife. Only the
hardest heart could not have been moved in that moment. It is different in literature because we are in the realm of pure imagination. There is nothing to see, no visuals to work on the senses. And yet, we see in a way that is more real than anything on the screen. As I lowered the book to my knee, I realised that I loved a person who did not exist…

September 6, 2017

Communists offer paradise, but deliver hell

When I was in school, we had to write an essay on ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. It was the time of the Cold War, a time when we faced the real prospect of nuclear war. That we have
reached that point once again is not surprising in a world where communists still govern.
Even as children, my school mates and I were acutely aware of the distinction between good and evil. There was no attempt on our part to mitigate the crimes of communists.
As far as we were concerned, they and their rotten system were wicked. Because we read the grim statistics, we knew that Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot and Chairman Mao were the greatest mass killers in human history. Theirs was not the new ‘heaven on earth’ as promised in their demented speeches and pamphlets. It was, if anything, hell on earth.
So, when we wrote about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’, we wrote about that diabolical experiment called ‘communism’. We wrote about Pol Pot’s Cambodian ‘killing fields’, about the ‘gulag archipelago’ and the frenzied terror of Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’. We wrote about mass murder. North Korea is a remnant of that benighted era when communism spread like a virus across half the globe. It provides ample proof of a thoroughly evil system: starvation, paranoia, death camps and people without hope. That it has been ruled by a single family since its inception shows that communist despots are royalty in everything but name. To my children’s generation, North Korea is a world away. To them, it is barely conceivable that, in my childhood, the people of Berlin were terrorised by a menacing wall that signalled the end of the free world…

August 30, 2017

All you need is love…And silence helps

The basic therapy is love. Love is the imperial medicine for any illness or  disorder.’ Those are the words of Fr Gabriel Mejia, a Colombian priest who has dedicated his life to saving what he calls ‘the disposable ones’. The ‘disposable ones’ are children abandoned to the streets, destitute, exhausted and often near death. In his sanctuaries of light, Fr Mejia provides these children with food, care and education. Those are things they need, but what they desire more than anything is love. In love, they learn how to live again. It doesn’t stop there. Fr Mejia believes they must also learn how to love, how to fill their lives with the pulse of God. That is why he teaches them meditation. ‘When a child closes his eyes and begins to meditate, they open themselves to the field of all possibilities… The world opens for the child. And then the child discovers their essential nature – which is love.’ To witness young lives being delivered from despair to love is beyond beauty…

August 23, 2017

No amount of darkness can stop the sun shining within

These are the dying days of summer, the last light before the early dusk. It is the last growth before the fall, the sun having grown weaker in the sky. The world is turning and we are moving with it. The children are gearing up for school, the holidays are almost over and we are ‘getting back to normal’. Life falls from the trees as the last rose of summer smiles from the tired soil. Soon, it will smile no more. Everything ends. What is given is always taken away. The rose smiles, bows and, then, the end. ‘If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work’, says Shakespeare. We know it is true, and yet we don’t want them to end. We don’t want to get back to normal. There is nothing ‘normal’ about life. Simply to open your eyes is to reveal the miracles of a world that comes to life through us. We see this more clearly when the burdens have been lifted and we break from normality. It is like the picture hanging on your wall. Most of the time, you don’t even see it. It hangs there unnoticed – a gap in the fabric of time to which you have become blind. But then, one day, it catches your eye…

August 16, 2017

Hearing Bob’s hymn brings it all back home

There was a quite unremarkable movie released in 1973, called Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid. It was a Western that starred James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson. It might have had no impact on the cultural register except for one remarkable moment. The soundtrack included a song that was composed and sung by another of the film’s leading actors. It appears in the middle of the movie and only lasts a couple of minutes. It is, however, a masterpiece of modern music. The haunting opening chords are delivered with sublime delicacy:
‘Mama, take this badge off of me; I can’t use it any more; It’s getting’ dark, too dark to see; I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door’
Bob Dylan’s music is saturated with religious imagery. But this song is particularly poignant because it could well be a hymn to those who perished in the Holocaust. To read it in this way is to see the ‘badge’ as the yellow star, the darkness that of oblivion. Dylan’s genius is revealed not so much in his melodies, which are comparatively simple and straightforward. Rather, you find it in his lyrics which are laden with meaning and metaphor…

August 9, 2017

Even the kids of Cyberia just long to belong

Last weekend, I found myself sitting in Sunday Hill Farm listening to a trio of musicians playing Beethoven. Sunday Hill Farm is the Wiltshire home of British philosopher sir Roger Scruton. As his biographer, I was there to hold a public conversation with him about his life and thoughts. Sunday Hill Farm is situated on the outskirts of Malmesbury and is ‘an old cottage of Costwold stone’. In this rustic idyll, Scruton writes and farms his way through the day. He calls it ‘Scrutopia’, a rooted place shaped by culture and custom, animals and Aristotle. Our conversation takes place at the ‘Scrutopia Summer School’, an event that seeks to give delegates a taste, not only of Scruton’s thought, but of his daily life. That is why, as the sun begins to set, we are assembled in his library. It is a converted barn that
contains two pianos and thousands of dusty tomes. Oozing antique charm, this library is a place that reveals the beauty of old things. It is a storeroom of memory, where the ghosts of Scruton’s past smile down from the rafters. It is a true home that bears witness to the ‘remnants of a life’…

August 2, 1017

A cup of tea, a smile… it’s the small things that save lives

It was a crisp, sunny morning as Daisy Shortt left for work. She smiled at her purple hydrangeas which were in full bloom. Smiling and talking to her plants was, she believed, the key to their happy growth. Daisy lived in the suburbs but worked in the city. Each day, she travelled by train to her little café which she had bought with a modest inheritance. She ran the café with her sister Claire who spent the day baking bread, scones and pastries. As she walked from her house to the train station, Daisy inhaled the fresh morning air. She loved nature, believing the world was a gift, not to destroy, but in which we should delight. For her, each step was a miracle – an expression of life in all its beautiful abundance. She stood waiting for the train. Just then, an old man shuffled up and stood beside her. He wore a cap and an overcoat despite the sunny weather. Daisy smiled and said: ‘Good morning! Isn’t it a lovely day?’ The man stared suspiciously at Daisy before muttering: ‘As long as it doesn’t rain.’ ‘Oh, I don’t think it will,’ she said, ‘there isn’t a cloud in the sky.’ ‘Do you live around here?’ Daisy inquired. She could not resist conversing with strangers even when it was obvious they wanted to be left alone. She had learned that people often hid their troubles behind a mask of reticence…

July 26, 2017

It’s summer, so stop buzzing around and bee in the moment

The gentle breeze blows and you close your eyes. The sun is warm and the days are long. The world is still except for the sound of nature’s symphony. You have so much to do, so much that needs tending. There is the morning mess – don’t we all have to deal with that? Yes, but this is summer so the mess can wait. School’s out and the children are squeezing joy from of every second. Can’t you hear them giggling as they perfect their mischief making? Is this a sound of summer too? No doubt they will add to the mess, but time will take care of that. Time: a summer luxury that allows you to excel at doing nothing. But how can you do nothing? Aren’t we always doing something, even if it is only sitting here savouring the silence? Perhaps it means opting out of the fast lane for a while. Perhaps it simply means slowing down to catch a breath. Nature neither speeds up nor slows down. You hear a buzz by your ear, a bee at work in the shrubs. No deadlines, targets or goals, just a gentle rhythm that gets the job done. Bees don’t take vacations…

July 19, 2017

Our creations will still speak long after we have departed

I passed this way once, a long time ago. The place looked different then and you were not here. I passed this way but nothing remains of me now – nothing except the wall I built. Yes, that wall you are leaning against – I built that with my own hands. I picked the stones myself and, over the course of a week, I slowly constructed a wall that would survive the test of time. That it still stands shows that I built it well. You lean against it, sit on it as you are waiting for the bus or for your friends. But why do you never think of me? I know it is only a wall, but it is what remains of me – my monument. Remains: the world is full of them. The chairs we sit in, the houses we inhabit, the street itself – they all cry out to be heard, for they all have something to say. Through them, the dead live on and speak to us from the place of the living. I passed this way once and left something behind. To you it is just a wall, or a tree or the road you walk along to work. To me, it is my life’s work – my legacy here on earth…

July 12, 2017

When words speak louder than actions

The Guardian newspaper runs a weekly feature entitled: ‘My Writing Day.’ The concept is simple: famous authors describe their writing routines, habits and ways of working. That it continues to attract a wide readership shows just how intrigued people are by authors’ lives. I know this from first-hand experience. Whenever I appear in public, someone invariably asks how many words I write each day. Another favourite is: ‘Where do you get your inspiration from?’ I never have any easy answer to such questions simply because there are no standard rules to writing. The truth is that you go into a room, shut the door and sit at a desk. After many hours, you emerge again and get on with the ordinary tasks of life. British novelist Hilary Mantel is correct: writing is not glamorous. You sit alone in front of the page and hope that your muse will rise to the occasion. This demands dedication, devotion and great patience. It is often lonely, dispiriting and frustrating – especially when the ideas refuse to flow. Indeed, some writers will do anything rather than write…

July 5, 2017

Cherish the blaze of light in every word: the eternal footman waits

They begin to sing and, only then, do we realise that it’s all over. Eight years since their first day in primary school – eight years of ups and downs, highs and lows. But this is a high note and we shall not drown their moment in a sea of tears. Fr Aquinas Duffy, whom you have met before, takes to the stage and says Mass. He does so with tenderness and a smile. His warm presence is enough to remind us of the deep goodness which still stirs at the heart of the Church. The boys know their time is nigh. You can see it in their damp eyes. They are but a step away from a new life and the thought weighs heavy. From infants to young men, they stand before us as the product of a school in which they have so much pride. They don’t want to leave, but they must and we all know the moment is at hand. Tears of love, of pride, of mourning. Yes, mourning: that is what I began to feel shortly before the graduation ceremony. Why was I mourning when I still have two other sons in the school? I mourn the years holding his hand, watching him grow in life and learning…

June 28, 2017

The book of life continues after we die

Years ago, the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida announced the ‘end of the book’. He was vilified because Derrida spent his life writing dozens of books. In the very act of writing that sentence in a book, he had shown it to be false. Why would an intelligent man write such a silly thing? Derrida, who was a close friend, had many virtues. However, one of them was not clarity. When he spoke of ‘the book’, he didn’t mean an object like Great Expectations – something you can pick up and read repeatedly. No, he had in mind something like a biography which claims to provide a comprehensive portrait of a life. The idea that a biography could somehow provide a full and perfect picture of a life was, to him, a myth. No life can be reduced to what is recorded in a diary, in records or in an archive. Even when, unlike our ancestors, we possess a visual archive of our lives, there will always be gaps which only memory can fill.  And, even then, we have to contend with memory loss…

June 21, 2017

We must have high hopes… even in times of real sadness

Too much sadness now, too much desolation in a world too weary to respond. Fractured hopes, shattered dreams – people unable to cope with their lot. Uncertainty and doubt make it seem like all is lost. And yet, we sense that beneath all the turmoil there is something good and real and enduring. Sometimes, we can’t name it, but we know it is there. Sometimes, it simply catches us by surprise. The child – our child – sings in the school concert. He and his friends are leaving soon and this is their last chance to shine. They sing an emotional version of High Hopes, a song by the Irish group Kodaline. I have never heard of the group or the song. But once they start to sing, their parents’ tears begin to flow. The boys have so many high hopes and it is our prayer that they shall realise each one. A simple song and the worries of the day drift away…

June 14, 2017

A taoiseach with that rare quality: grace

There was a time when I was virtually alone in singing Enda Kenny’s praises. When others decried him as unfit for office, I used these pages to argue that he was a politician in the mould of former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Without glitz or glamour, he would get the job done – and he did. You can’t spin people like Liam Cosgrave or Enda Kenny. Both men are proud patriots who knew what their country needed. Mr Cosgrave sought to safeguard the State from the IRA; Mr Kenny brought us back from the brink and restored our sovereignty. They weren’t manufactured politicians in the style of Tony Blair or David Cameron, but real people who put country before career. When, for example, Mr Cosgrave was defeated by Jack Lynch in the general election of 1977, he immediately resigned and was rarely heard from again. As the oldest living former prime minister in Europe, he is an example to all the rest. And now, for the first time in my life, I shall be governed by someone who is younger than me…

June 7, 2017

Compassion is in accepting imperfection 

There are many sources of compassion, but one of them is not perfectionism. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the perfectionist is often the least sympathetic person. That is because he can rarely empathise with those who can’t live up to his impossibly high standards. From the start, let me confess that perfectionism is something I have battled with all my life. You begin by seeking to a do a good job, but soon find that you have become enslaved to exactness. You desire everything to be just right: no blemish, crease or wrinkle. But life consists of wrinkles and creases, of failure and foolishness. What I have come to understand is that only a puritan will seek to iron away the wrinkles and deny the foolish. Only a fanatic will strive to impose his picture of perfection on the rest of this, our struggling humanity…

May 31, 2017

Change can be painful – but it will give way to fresh peace

And what is life except a series of transitions? We move from one great change to the next hoping that each will be as smooth as possible. Then, after the tumult, the dust settles and we are restored to a period of peace. Each life, yours and mine, is characterised by this sequence of change and certainty. For a while, we are certain of our circumstances, confident in our expectations. But then, there comes a day when our certainty is undermined as we pass through yet another transition. Our eldest is about to face his first serious transition in life. In one month, he will leave primary school for the last time. Naturally, he is beset with anxiety for his future and hesitating before the unknown. In my clumsy attempt to offer some consolation, I told him that he had already experienced one of the most frightening transitions in life. ‘Which was what?’ he inquired, to which I answered: ‘Your birth.’…

May 24, 2017

In the face of hate, we must unite in love

We know that among the dead are children, little ones enjoying a concert by their favourite star. We know they were murdered by a suicide bomber simply because they were British. we know that to call their killer ‘evil’ is appropriate given the scale and horror of the crime. Little children: how could anyone intentionally bomb them into oblivion? And yet, on Monday night in Manchester, someone set out with precisely that intention. As a parent, I am speechless before such wanton wickedness. However, it is now more than a decade since I began writing on this form of terror threat. When, in 2004, I published a series of articles in a Sunday newspaper on Islamic fanaticism, I was threatened for my troubles. Despite proving that extremists were using Ireland as a base to wage jihad elsewhere, my revelations were routinely dismissed. It is true that I was invited to brief the American ambassador, but our own authorities seemed, at best, apathetic. Indeed, the
greatest support I received was from various sections of the Muslim community…

May 17, 2017

Simple, special words for our little miracles

The words were so simple, yet when spoken with such passion they seemed to make the world stand still. For when it comes to words, nothing matters more than delivery. Winston Churchill knew this, which is why we remember him as someone who could move a nation simply by speaking. I doubt the parent in question would thank me for comparing her to Churchill. But every now and then, you hear something so powerful that you may as well be listening to a great orator. The parent was Gemma and she spoke at our son’s First
Communion last Saturday. In the concluding moments of a beautiful and memorable ceremony, Gemma approached the altar and read, A Parent’s Reflection. Most of the congregation had already been brought to tears by the reverence of the boys as they undertook their various tasks. Then, just after they received Communion, Gemma spoke for us and, indeed, for every parent throughout the land…

May 10, 2017

For all its faults the Church has also been a guiding light

T his weekend, the Dooleys will celebrate yet another sacrament. This time, it’s our middle son’s First Holy Communion. As you read this, we are frantically trying to pull everything together before the big day. As I see it, Holy Communion is a major milestone in a child’s life. Under the guidance of their superb teachers, all 60 boys have been preparing for this moment since September. Each has a sense that it is much more than just a special day out. And yet, we live in a country that seems to have had enough of the Catholic Church. The old order is crumbling as we embrace secular creeds and orthodoxies. It is as though the Church has become our tribal scapegoat, an institution we like to blame for all our faults and failings. I do not dispute that the Church is primarily responsible for its own troubles. The abject wickedness of those who preyed upon children, the heartlessness of those who tormented people in the name of Christ, is something that we cannot erase from our collective memory. It cannot and should never be denied, downplayed or excused, for those are grave sins which cry out to Heaven. The Irish Church is mortally wounded from self-inflected scars. It is a shell of its former self, a mere remnant of a once-dominant body. But even now, when it is on its knees, we appear incapable of looking upon it with mercy…

May 3, 2017

Being happy? It’s a delicate balancing act

Ask anyone what they desire most in this life and they will invariably say ‘happiness’. But where is happiness to be found? Some search for it at home, others in their job, on the track or at the end of a bottle. Is happiness the fulfilment of desire? You desire a new job, house, relationship or degree. You work hard in pursuit of your dream, believing that it alone will make you happy. Finally, you succeed only to discover that the happy high soon subsides. What you thought would provide lasting happiness gives only a temporary buzz. The new car quickly dates, the night out ends in exhaustion and the achievements of yesterday become today’s forgotten memories. We all know that having money does not, in itself, make you happy. It provides security and rescues people from a multitude of problems. But we also know that there are many with money who are plainly miserable. At a time when so many are suffering from stress and burnout, from exhaustion and despair, we need to know the true source of happiness. What all the great thinkers agree on is that it cannot be found in objects outside ourselves. Happiness, they say, comes from within…

April 26, 2017

Ancient truth in a familiar Disney song

It was a sweltering day in Los Angeles. It was mid-summer 1992, and I was on a trip to Disneyland in Anaheim. I went thinking that I was above it all, but, as so often happens, it changed me forever. Being much more daring than I, my friends went on all the most adventurous rides. This meant that I took refuge in the theatres where popular Disney productions ran throughout the day. It was in the middle of the afternoon when it happened, an experience that still brings me to tears. Just as I strolled into an outdoor amphitheatre, Angela Lansbury’s beautiful voice rang out over the sun-soaked hills. Many will remember her as amateur detective Jessica Fletcher, in the television drama Murder She Wrote. I remember her as the voice of Mrs Potts in Beauty And the Beast. Her voice was beautiful in the way that antique things are. It was the voice of my grandparents’ era, one that issued from the heart and rang with deep conviction. No glitz or affectation, but just that authentic homely sound which promises to keep you warm and safe…

April 19, 2017

Let’s not lose touch with sacred things

As I see it, the biggest problem facing our society is the loss of respect for sacred things. I don’t mean religious things as such, although they are intrinsically sacred. I mean all those things that command awe, reverence and esteem. Traditionally, sacred things acted as barrier to our impulses. Such things stood beyond the ordinary flow of life, tempering our desire to violate or dishonour. They summoned the better angels of our nature, forcing us to recognise a threshold that we dare not trespass. When I was a child, for example, the news that someone had died was received with communal mourning. My grandfather ran a butcher shop in a small village, and when a cortege was due to pass, he and his employees stood respectfully on the street. Indeed, the whole village shut down as a mark of respect for the deceased and the bereaved. It is to their great credit that many towns and villages in rural Ireland continue this ancient practice. For them, the dead are not to be shoved out of sight. In closing their shops, and putting life on hold, they reverence those in whose sacred shadow we stand…

April 12, 2017

Easter shows us sacrifice is intrinsic to life

Sacrifice: what can we know of it, in an egotistical age? What can we ever know of that noble act when one person abandons himself for others? When the self reigns supreme, the very idea of sacrifice seems absurd. And yet, what is Easter if not
a tribute to sacrifice, a tribute to the heroism of laying down one’s life so that others may live more abundantly? That, however, seems to have been forgotten in an ocean of
chocolate eggs and bouncing bunnies. New life, yes, but let’s bypass the sacrifice bit. When you cut through the layers of history and go straight to the core, what you find is a beautiful story of sacrifice. Of course, there is nothing beautiful about Golgotha or the torment of the cross. The beauty resides in the fact that, at the very centre of our civilisation, is a story of how one individual lay down His life for others. Our civilisation came to life on a hill outside Jerusalem one Friday afternoon. and on that hill, a young man showed the world what true morality consists of…

April 5, 2017

Our children’s big day bound us all together

We sat in silence and, dressed in their white robes, the three boys began to sing. Their voices were those of the angels: gentle, pure and clear. The words were immediately recognisable as those of Fr Liam Lawton: ‘Even when the rain hides the stars, even though the mist swirls the hills, even when the dark clouds veil the sky, You are by my side.’ Accompanied by a child choir of more than 100, and set in a 200-year-old church, the three soloists gave new meaning to that familiar song. It was the occasion of our eldest son’s Confirmation, and his classmates sang with deep emotion and reverence. It was one of the many moving moments in a ceremony which proved why First Communion and Confirmation are such precious milestones. The three altars were ablaze with candlelight. The liturgy gave faithful expression to the sacred. Fr Aquinas Duffy, who confirmed the boys, showed how a priest can truly be ‘another Christ’. It was, however, the boys themselves who made the ceremony unforgettable. Under the direction of their fine teachers, Ms Cadogan and Ms Hayes, each student contributed either in song, word or deed. Each rose to the occasion with a profound sense of respect, reverence and camaraderie…

March 29, 2017

The blooming flower teaches us how to live life to the full

The Dooleys don’t like change. It is not that we seek to cryogenically preserve the present, but simply that we don’t appreciate life robbing us of our certainties. For those little certainties give us a sense that we have more than temporary status on this earth. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to live forever. However, none of us can easily comprehend our extinction – the fact that, one day, the flame will be quenched and we shall be no more. And yet, death is the ever-looming horizon toward which we inevitably move. That is why we dislike change. It is a painful reminder that nothing lasts perpetually, and that all things are on the path to extinction. Life and death: two sides of the same coin. Our eldest is about to make his Confirmation – the last sacrament before he departs for secondary school. When I started writing for this newspaper, he was only aged one. Now he is 12 and about to make his first great transition since leaving the womb. ‘I don’t want to grow up,’ he says ruefully. ‘I am happy being a child.’ With growth comes age, and with age comes decline. If only we could put a pause on time, steady its rapid rush towards the end. If only…

March 22, 2017

Once we learn how to give, we receive far more in return

I learned to give and everything changed. I learned to give and found that I needed far less. I learned to give and received back much more than I gave away. I gave away my time, the most precious thing we possess. It is the last thing we desire to give away, yet it is the one thing that others need most. I gave it away and their worries were no more. I gave a hand and saw lives transformed. For some, it meant their burdens were easier to carry. ‘Let me lend you a hand,’ we say, but a hand is not something that can be borrowed. It is freely given as a gift without hope of return. To others, I literally gave my hand. She sought consolation and I held her hand. No words, just a gentle clasp and the clouds cleared. He sat in a pool of tears and, as my hand embraced his, the storm subsided. I gave my hand as a symbol of peace. That’s all it takes to heal a lifetime of hurt – a hand reaching out to yours with hope. And then, as you return the gesture, the past is transfigured in a tender touch. I gave a simple smile and it was as though I had given gold. I smiled, his face thawed and the sadness drifted away. I smiled and took aggression by surprise….

March 15, 2017

Tears of pride for my son’s stage heroics

He walked on stage, paused and slowly began to sing:
‘Stars, In your multitudes, Scarce to be counted, Filling the darkness with order and light. You are the sentinels, Silent and sure, Keeping watch in the night, Keeping watch in the night’
Our eldest was dressed in the full costume of a 19thCentury police inspector. He was performing Stars from Les Misérables and posing as the puritanical yet tragic
Inspector Javert. Somehow, without any accompaniment, he managed to capture the beauty of a song that sounds incongruous coming from a man intent on vengeance. The occasion was our annual outing at the poetry and music fheis organised by Paul Cullen and Ciara Phelan of Arclight Drama Studio in Dublin. It’s not the first time I have mentioned Paul and Ciara here, and if I do so again it is because I am overawed at the opportunity they give so many children. In opening up the arts to our aspiring thespians, they give them so much more than an outing on stage…

March 8, 2017

An emotional diet balances body and soul

It is Lent, a time when Christians are called to conversion. Although ‘conversion’ is synonymous with religious awakening, it also means a transformation in which we turn ourselves around. We stop, take stock and travel in a new direction. This need for personal transformation is not unique to religious experience. Every day, we open our newspapers and magazines to find promises of personal renewal. Whether it be exercise programmes, diets or self-discovery seminars, the promise of a new person is just around the corner. The great miracle of humanity is that each person can, indeed, become a new self. We can all turn around and head for a new horizon. In the fullest sense, the power of conversion is something we each possess. The dieter desires a new self, one that looks different to the old. In shedding the pounds, we seek to transform our physical appearance. It requires great discipline but the end result is a prize worth fighting for…

March 1, 2017

Real freedom is fought for and cherished

Where are all the people of principle gone? Where are those who would, without exception, defend virtue, law and honour? At a time when democracy is but one step away from dictatorship, where are those who would sing a hymn to freedom? In this age of self-interest, when too many put their own needs before that of the common good, the liberties we take for granted are very often left unprotected. Having little interest in politics beyond the platitudes of ‘equality’, the ‘plugged in’ generation rarely vote or engage in public debate. Neither do they ponder the fact that genuine freedom comes at a price, one that demands engaged and responsible citizenship. Freedom – real freedom – is not a gift of providence. It must be fought for and cherished more than anything else we prize. The great lessons of history stand before us as stark reminders of what happens when we opt to let freedom take care of itself…

February 22, 2017

How I learned treachery is never forgiven

Much to my embarrassment, my father often recalls a story from my childhood. One day, a man approached him and asked: ‘How is your son Julius?’ ‘Julius?’ inquired my bemused father, to which the man replied: ‘Yes, how is little Julius?’ It seems that this individual had witnessed me impersonating Caesar and came away from the encounter believing that my name was, indeed, Julius. I suppose it says something about my skill as a mimic that, at the age of five, I could convince a man that I was Julius Caesar. I do remember holding my sceptre and ‘globus cruciger’, the orb which ancient royals carried on ceremonial occasions. I also remember the man in question peering at me as I gave some pompous address to the people of Rome. Surely, he must have seen my performance for what it was: the play-acting of a child obsessed with ancient intrigues? Obviously not, for this man knew me only as ‘Julius’…

February 15, 2017

We too can be renewed come spring

As I write, a band of misty rain is falling outside. The grass is sodden and the naked trees look desolate. And yet, even on a morning that most people would describe as ‘miserable’, who can deny that spring is struggling to be born? On sunday, I awoke to a familiar sound, one that I haven’t heard in many months. It was the sound of our beloved wood pigeons returning after winter. Their unmistakable cooing was definitive proof that the season of hope is finally upon us. Spring: a season when the world begins to unveil its beauty. Already, the daffodils are up, even if they have yet to bloom. Soon, they shall open and smile, revealing the majesty of nature in its infancy. Last week, as I strolled beneath a low spring sun, my eyes caught sight of the first cherry blossoms. The cherry blossom is always the first tree to show its splendour in spring. Almost overnight, the tender buds break open to display their delicate white flowers…

February 8, 2017

Will this death open our eyes to social media?

Last week, I heard a radio discussion while sitting in the barbers with my boys. I didn’t know whether it offered me vindication or if the matter was worse than I previously thought. The topic revolved around people trying to wean themselves off Facebook. In the old days, it was conventional for many Irish people to give up alcohol for January. What I learned when listening to that programme was that they now seek to give up Facebook for a month. So hooked on social media are they, that many of its users now consider it a narcotic. I say ‘vindication’ because, for many years, I have used this column to warn of the dangers of social media. I even wrote a book on how people could escape their virtual existence for life in the real world. It now seems that even the most committed
netizens of ‘Cyberia’ are discovering the dangers for themselves. People texting the programme told of their joy in rediscovering reality, real people and real communication. There were stories of those who, having given it up for a month, decided to have a ‘Facebook-free life’. It was as though they had suddenly been liberated from prison…

February 1, 2017

We all have an ocean of calm below surface

Lately, my middle son is obsessed about the fate of the ozone layer. One day, he arrived home from school in a panic. ‘What are we going to do about the ozone?’ he frantically inquired, before listing off all the associated risks. When I was in school, we worried about Soviet bombs hailing down over Dublin. We worried about what would happen if the IRA succeeded in taking over the country. We also despaired at the massively high rates of unemployment, concerned that we would leave school without any prospects. The environment was completely off our radar. So, too, was immigration, the EU and the Middle East. Naturally, we were shocked by the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, but such events seemed like they were happening a world away. When I contrast my boyhood
worries with those of my sons, I realise not only that each generation has its own problems, but that we can’t afford to live solely on the surface…

January 25, 2017

Without books life is pathetic and impotent

It is a simple truth that I owe my life to books. Through books, I secured a career, first, as an academic, and then as a journalist and writer. Without them, I would not be who I am. I clearly remember the very first books I owned and read. Enid Blyton’s Noddy and Brer Rabbit were among my most treasured possessions. So, too, were the first editions of the Mr Men books, all of which are still read by my youngest son. For me, books opened up a world in which I saw my own potential unfold. They gave me a sense of belonging, of history and identity. They connected me to the past in a way which enabled me to understand it. Books were never an optional extra in my life, but the very things which shaped my vision, philosophy and values. What’s more, they were alive with their authors’ intentions, feelings and beliefs…

January 18, 2017

Learn to lean on others, as a child would

Mrs Dooley stands, raises her hands and the boys begin to sing. It is a preparation Mass for our middle son’s First Holy Communion which he shall make in May. By the time the hymn is over, there is hardly a dry eye in the church. The words are so simple and the melody so sweet. The boys and girls sing with such purity, innocence and tenderness. From the mouth of babes, we hear a hymn of love that will sustain them for a lifetime. Before she agreed to train the children’s choir, neither my wife nor I had ever heard the hymn. Then, one evening, she played it and we were profoundly moved by its heart-warming words. When she first conducted the children and they sung this song, it was like listening to a choir of angels. Cares Chorus is a perfect expression of trust and faith…

January 11, 2017

Thanks to my son, much I have learned

On my desk sits a small figure of Jedi Master Yoda from the Star Wars movies. For those unacquainted with the epic saga, Yoda is a tiny green creature who is considered the greatest of all Jedi knights. The Jedi are a priestly caste that uphold peace and justice throughout the Galaxy. And why, pray tell, do I have such a figure peering at me as I write? Living, as I do, with three Star Wars fanatics, it is difficult to escape the drama. Yesterday, I nearly fell down the stairs trying to avoid a Star Wars battle scene. My boys love the idea of courage confronting evil in a bid to restore harmony and justice. In Star Wars, the evil empire is governed by Jedi who have turned to the ‘dark side’ and who are intent on eliminating their noble opponents. The fact that the Jedi are spiritual masters only adds to their mystique and allure…

January 4, 2017

Laughter is key to having compassion

We do it so often every day, and yet we rarely think about the meaning of laughter. Like weeping, it is something that expresses deep human emotion. It is a physical act, but one that is the sound of the soul. We laugh when we are happy, when we meet people and when we see something comical. We laugh to express our approval, to make others feel at ease and to lighten the mood. We laugh at jokes, in times of excitement and, sometimes, for no reason at all. Evil also expresses itself with a laugh. Think of the villain who responds to despair with laughter. The menacing snigger of the crime lord is synonymous with agony and devastation. Mostly, however, our laughter is a spontaneous reaction to moments of love, humour and a shared sense of fun…

December 28, 2016

Savour every day of 2017 and put every second to use

All death gives birth to new life. Each day, something is carried away by the tide of time. Each day, the old gives way to something fresh and beautiful. We make such a fuss of the New Year, lamenting what might have been but never was. We regret our lost chances, our fears and failings. And then, as the old year dies, we commit again to the better angels of our nature. I have never thought in terms of years but only of days. It is too much for any person, no matter how strong, to commit to anything for more than a day. The human will may be willing but the ceaseless pressures of life make us all weak. Each night, the sun declines as we wrap up the day in peace. Each night, we experience the death of the old and the birth of the new. A unique day has passed and, from its fading embers, a fresh dawn lies on the horizon. As the new sun rises, we receive yet another chance to climb higher than before…

December 21, 2016

A festive time for the children … and for the child in all of us

The night falls and small flames twinkle in the window. The long wait is over and the world is at peace. Peace: somehow it descends like the dewfall and calms the soul. In the peace, the magic begins. It is not an invention, but something we all feel. Everything is quiet, except for the sound of homemaking in the kitchen. The fire looks lazy, the embers
glowing like a winter sunset. The scent of roast ham fills the house, a reminder of tomorrow’s feast. The tree beckons and you don’t hesitate. Sitting there in the peace, carols playing in the background, you get the sense that this is how it should always be. There is no time like it because you are at home and that is where your heart is. It comes and it goes, but the memories remain long after the magic fades….

December 14, 2016

Perfect health is the one true Christmas gift

It happened in a split second. Our middle son was happily playing in the shower when, all of a sudden, I heard a thud. It was only when he began to scream that I realised this was more than high jinks. He had slipped, seriously smashing his chin in the process. to our dismay, he had sustained a sizeable wound which would require immediate
medical attention. As it was Saturday night, this meant taking a trip to the A&E. In the midst of all the Yuletide merriment, we can very often forget the fragility of life. Driving our brave little boy to hospital, I reflected on the fact that we can never take each other for granted. This is something I constantly try to keep in mind, but when a crisis strikes you are reminded of just how precious people are…

December 7, 2016

Life should be governed by just one law – that of love

Plato said that you should not become a philosopher until after the age of 50. Without such long experience of life, how could you be expected to reflect on its deeper meaning? As I edge ever closer to that venerable age, I am discovering that the secret to a happy human existence is really very simple. I used to think that the meaning of life could only be cracked through serious intellectual insight. Today, I realise that our lives are governed by only one law, which is that of love. The secret is to die to oneself in order to live for others. It sounds simple, but like all great wisdom it is easier said than done. To defy your own needs and interests to serve another is a supreme challenge for most of us. And yet, once we surrender, we realise this is a blessed path…

November 30, 2016

Good things come if you learn to wait

Why is waiting such a burden? It wasn’t always so, but it has become something which we seemingly cannot bear. The phrase ‘I cannot wait’ used to signify excitement, but today it signifies an unwillingness to anticipate what is to come. In this age of instant gratification, when every desire is immediately fulfilled, the very idea of waiting is denied. Why wait when you can simply press a button and have your yearnings satisfied? Why wait when the answer to any need is at your fingertips? Waiting is directly related to that other great virtue of patience…

November 23, 2016

Life’s miracle reveals itself in winter too

In the midst of darkness that never seems to subside, there is a light that never ceases to shine. That we are human allows us to see beyond the gloom, beyond our limits to those things which make life a thing of wonder. Even when the worst strikes, we can transfigure it into something beautiful. The stories that we tell of our dear departed lessen the raw agony of death. With the insight of hindsight, the tragedies of our lives can be seen as stepping stones to enlightenment. We glance back and see that what looked like a disaster at the time was actually something that made us stronger. It is the way that we look at things which makes them either bad or good, beautiful or ugly….

November 16, 2016

Only in silence can we learn to live and love

Last week, my publishers sent me one of the first copies in English of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Last testament. It is a beautiful book that shows a saintly man looking back upon a long life of service to humanity and the Church. My editor at Bloomsbury wrote me a note saying: ‘What other pope has ever expressed regret, sorrow or dealt with his shortcomings so honestly and humbly?’ The Pope Emeritus is now blind in one eye, wears sandals ‘like a monk’, and prefers to be known simply as ‘Fr Benedict’. He has never regretted his decision to abdicate and, with a bow to Pope Francis, remarks: ‘Perhaps I was not truly among the people enough.’ However, it is in the final line of his Last testament that Benedict offers his most touching insight. From the seclusion of his monastery, he ends his long life with this: ‘It has become increasingly clear to me that God is not, let’s say, a ruling power, a distant force; rather he is love and he loves me – and as such, life should be guided by him, by this power called love’…

November 9, 2016

How Lego can teach us to love art and culture

As I observed them in the Lego pit, their little faces shining bright with joy, I saw again the power of play. We were staying at the Legoland Hotel in Windsor for the mid-term break. It was not our first visit, but it was still special. To see children imaginatively
engage with the world is such a rare thing today. For the ‘plugged-in’ generation, playing with toys is so much hard work. It is not until you realise that play is essential for health and harmony that you understand the perils of ‘Cyberia’. We all need periods of recreation. ‘Recreation’ means, quite literally, to remake or to renew. We take time out from our responsibilities to recharge and to refresh ourselves. To play is to recreate the self. We do nothing in particular, and yet we do everything that makes life worthwhile. All work and no play makes us all dull…

November 2, 2016

Memories are precious, even to our children

The Dooleys don’t like change. It is the gentle certainties of life that give us
consolation. This is especially true of our sons, three little boys who look to us for the comfort of constancy. That said, even in the midst of our certainties change is ever-present. No matter what we do to preserve the present, it is always compromised by time. Ours is but an illusion of permanence. That is why we often longingly gaze back to the past. At least there, in our memories, we can find the certainty we crave. The past is, after all, set in stone. In our memories, we rediscover those loved ones long gone. In our memories, we revisit a childhood full of joy. In our memories, we look upon an eternal landscape beyond erosion…

October 26, 2016

Autumn is to be embraced… just like ageing

Matt is a senior member of the church choir. He is an octogenarian with a wonderful sense of humour. Each week, he tells me a joke which I feign to dislike. ‘Two cannibals were feasting on a comedian. One turns to the other and says, “this tastes a bit funny.”’ My eldest and I cover our faces in pretend disgust and Matt laughs out loud. He knows that humour possesses the power to burn away any cloud…

October 19, 2016

A troubadour of truth, Dylan got us all right

He gave me my first glimpse inside the world of real culture. I was too young for classical music and, to me, the synthetic sound of pop was meaningless. Then, at the age of 15, I listened to Bob Dylan’s album Street Legal. It was one of those moments we call a ‘milestone’. As I listened to this ‘man of constant sorrows’, I heard pain, loneliness, joy and tenderness. For the first time in my life, I saw how words could reach into a person’s heart and offer them redemption…

October 12, 2016

Extraordinary lives led by ‘ordinary’ folk

One thing I have learned in writing this column is that there is no such thing as ‘ordinary people’. Those who have written to me over the years, many of whom I now consider dear friends, have extraordinary stories to tell. Their lives bear witness to the beauty and magnificence of our human condition. Mary Flynn modestly describes herself as a ‘backroom’ person. A regular reader of this column, she began writing to me last year. Since then, we’ve corresponded on a weekly basis. I have never met Mary, yet I feel as though I’ve known her all my life…

October 5, 2016

When they ask about Papa the memories come flooding back

Our middle son asked: ‘Do I have any great-grandparents?’ He enquired because two of his friends have great-grannies who recently received letters from the President and Queen Elizabeth. ‘Do you know that one of them is 104 and the other is 102? That means they get a few euro!’ Beneath the smile, I could not help noticing the slight look of sadness on my son’s face. I could see that he, too, wanted to boast about his great-grannies to his classmates. Last year, he seized every available opportunity to tell his class about the life and times of his grandparents, how they make him happy and proud. The love that unites the young and the old is a thing of rare beauty…

September 28, 2016

From pure evil bloomed the poetry of love

Today, I want to share the inspiring story of Agnes Flanagan. Agnes’s grandniece Kay Reynolds wrote to me with information about her life. If I write about it today, it is because we ought never to lose sight of those who suffered so that we might live in peace. Agnes was born in Birr, Co. offaly, in 1909. In time, she became a nun and travelled to live in either France or Belgium. Towards the end of World War II, she ended up in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany…

September 21, 2016

The simple look that can save the life of a stranger

Look at me, I am the man standing beside you on the street. I look different to you, but inside we are pretty much the same. I also have my problems, my sorrows and joys. Look at me, I am the child toying on the grass. I am only learning how to live, how to grow up and be like you. Whenever I annoy you, please remember you were like me once. Look at me, I am the granny strolling to the shops…

September 14, 2016

It’s September, pause and see the world alter before our eyes

September is what I call the ‘bridging month’. It is the bridge between seasons, a transitionary time between summer and autumn. It is neither bright nor dark, hot nor cold, short nor long. In September, the world grows weary, yawning more with each day. It is heading towards hibernation, the sleep of peace that serves as a prelude to a new year. Like an old man shuffling towards home, the days are in retreat as the drapes slowly fall across the sky…

September 7, 2016

In art, children see the beauty of the world

The other morning, I was walking behind two mothers who had just dropped their little boys to school. One turned to the other and said: ‘No, they certainly won’t be doing art! I mean, what do they need art for?’ The second mother nodded vigorously before declaring: ‘Mine won’t be doing it either! You’re right, they don’t need it. It’s soccer all the way for my
fellas.’ how sad, I thought to myself. how sad that those little boys will be deprived of something so fundamental to our happiness as human beings. Indeed, I would say that art ranks alongside religion as our primary source of consolation and hope…

August 31, 2016

His first day at ‘big’ school… it’s hard on us fathers too

It is at times like this that the words of the great German philosopher Hegel come to mind. ‘the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end,’ he famously wrote. It is a cryptic saying, but one that goes to the heart of what the Dooleys are currently experiencing. tomorrow, our youngest begins ‘big school’. Unlike his parents, he cannot contain his excitement. It is the biggest adventure of his life and he is all set and ready…

August 24, 2016

Our greatest superpower is forgiveness

My sons have spent the last week of their summer holidays dressing up as superheroes. Having recently watched the film Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, they are giving us the full treatment at home. In fact, only a moment ago, I very nearly tripped over Superman’s silk cape. ‘I want to be a superhero when I grow up,’ says our youngest. It is difficult to dash his hopes, especially when you see how convincing he is at leaping through the air. However, it is a parent’s sad duty to do just that…

August 17, 2016

The old horse show united communities

Last sunday, I found myself in a familiar setting. My parents had organised a horse show at the Coilóg Equestrian Centre in the heart of Co. Kildare. It is a stunning location owned and managed by Chris and Gwen Byrne, two people who have devoted their lives to the sport. I was there to commentate, something I first did when I was only 17. I had toured the country competing on the pony show jumping circuit, but now it was time for something I had always longed to do…

August 10, 2016

Our time does not fly in… we let it slip away

I’ve heard the expression ‘time is flying’ repeatedly in recent weeks. ‘We’ll soon be at Christmas,’ said one person, to which Mrs Dooley shrieked with alarm. Of course, time does not have wings and thus cannot fly. Time moves at a constant pace, never speeding up or slowing down. each minute comprises 60 seconds, no more, no less…

August 3, 2016

Father Hamel’s final moments were his finest

His name was hardly known before he was slain. Now, Fr Jacques Hamel is the most famous priest in the world. From obscurity to international renown, this gentle pastor was laid to rest yesterday with all the solemn rites a martyr deserves. From the moment of his death, I have been in deep shock…

July 27, 2016

Only in silence can we locate our true selves

Why are we so afraid of the silence? Why do we fear being alone and why do we dread the sound of our own stillness? Is it that we live in a culture that cannot abide peace, or is it that the demands of silence are simply too hard to handle? I have always been drawn to silence, drawn to that place where noise cannot intrude. Even as a child, I intuitively felt that only in that peace is it possible to experience the height of our humanity…

July 20, 2016

Being human is the greatest miracle of all

Before breaking for the summer holidays, my eldest son was scolded by a teacher for saying something which seems to me quite obvious. ‘Human beings are a higher species,’ he said in the course of a class debate. David is a deeply sensitive child who loves all creation, especially animals. Like his brothers,…

July 13, 2016

True beauty does not fade as time passes

The world is starving for beauty. That might sound strange to a culture saturated with ‘beautiful’ images. Indeed, our ideal of perfection is the ‘body beautiful’ that smiles from every screen. That ideal is brought to fruition by athletes and actors, by popular singers and by those who make a living from the ‘beauty industry’. It is, however, an ideal that refuses to admit ageing, sickness or frailty. It is one well suited to our narcissistic society, but one that is ruthless in discriminating against those who fail to make the grade…

 

July 6, 2016

My Brexit pals believe in a better Europe

In the midst of all the hysteria following Brexit, it is easy to forget the real reasons why so many British people opted to leave the EU. No doubt there was an element of racism motivating some voters. However, it is simply unfair to condemn 52% of the British voting public as narrowminded Little Englanders. First, we should remember that we, in Ireland, have on two occasions rejected EU treaties. The fact that we were forced back to the polls to ratify the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon cannot obscure the reality that we too, have expressed serious worries regarding the EU project. Does that make us ‘Little Irelanders’? The EU is not Europe. This means…