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.

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…