Sunday, April 29, 2007

God-shaped Hole?

Observers as diverse as Louise Fuller in her "The Decline of Irish Catholicism," Mary Kenny's "Goodbye to Catholic Ireland," John Moriarty in his autobiographical mythopoeic "Nostos," Ken Bruen in his "Galway noir" Jack Taylor series--the latest of which at least in the US where we lag one book behind the Brits is "The Priest," Desmond Fennell's series of small-press reflections on "Ameropean" hegemony and consumer capitalism, Roy Johnston's "Century of Endeavour," or Tim Robinson in his new collection of essays on his adopted West Connemara, part one "Listening to the Wind" all wonder about the effects on their Ireland of the cause of the collapse of traditional (at least for the past 150 post-Famine years) Catholicism. Not even all of the authors were raised Catholic. I don't know about Bruen-- although as native of the City of Tribes, odds are in the mackerel snapper's favor. Dr. Johnston has returned in his later career to embrace Quaker principles along with his Red-Green republican- nonsectarian- marxian ideals; Robinson bitterly inveighs against the comforts of faith in a realm he determines totally oblivious to our primitive pleas to the supernatural.

But these educated historians, scholars, literary figures, and/or seekers all agree. The future of an Ireland 10% foreign-born and rising (where in one of my ancestral dioceses, Elphin, finds its dwindling cadre of priests at the average age of 70) is not one where the Church will flourish at least in any sense that we who were raised in the last spasms of post-conciliar counter-reaction in the 60s and 70s even can recognize, let alone our elders. This situation appears to worry few Irish at least on the outside, but within their EU-enamored open-bordered souls, I wonder.

David Williams in a book that's made a splash in Ireland (not published here, but I must get a copy), calls this new generation of Irish raised amidst comparative luxury both morally and materially "The Pope's Children." That is, those whom as captivated post-punks and New Romantics may have cheered John Paul II in his visit twenty-five years ago, but who blithely disregarded the pontiff's appeal that Ireland remain-- as with Poland perhaps-- the bastion of piety that the rest of Europe had abandoned. He applies a pop sociology with catchy names for the new demographic categories and marketing niches in a suburbanizing, yuppified, and affluent Irish society that rejected the scandal-ridden hierarchy, the hypocritical clergy, and the wealthy infrastructure that has now being dismantled and sold off as once Church of England/ Ireland/ Scotland/ Wales vicarages were, turned into designer lofts or artists studios or ashrams over the past century.

These are just a few of the diverse Irish-themed studies regarding what we Pope's children and their parents, or siblings, might be contemplating between trips to the mall. These admittedly are only a few among what I have read over the past couple seasons. Some of them I reviewed, not only for Amazon but for The Blanket. Here's my in-depth Fuller & Kenny review:

A very detailed Johnston review:

A bit shorter Moriarty review can be found under Amazon US for his book "Nostos"

A mercifully brief Bruen review:

Many Irish as their counterparts throughout the West of course celebrate the end of clerisy. Priestcraft dismantled, the age of Enlightenment looms. Yet, is the trade fair? Fennell-- an early participant in the progressive reforms of 1950s pre-Vatican II for instance, finds little to cheer about in the ordum novarum saeculam. I often wonder, in my own pensive self-scrutiny and edgy spiritual life as well as the mentality writ large upon many of my fellow if former communicants, what will replace for Irish Catholicism its own insular shaped "god-shaped hole" that Sartre memorably, bastard as he was, envisioned as our modern predicament.

I'd be curious how an Irish thinker, say around my age so able to remember the past hold of the Church as well as its loss of traction, would weigh in on these changes. Kenny's study I found surprisingly balanced, but she gives the perspective of one of the generation roughly a half-step ahead of mine, by a quarter-century at least in age. Malachi O'Doherty, a Belfast social commentator, has recently penned "I Was a Teenage Catholic" and I reckon he's closer to my own timing-- again, his memoir's out from Mercier Press in Ireland but I have not yet been able to track down here. The Irish American memoirist Rosemary Mahoney, born the same year as me, in her "The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground" about five years ago anticipated in the real world my own mental perigrinations. It had a chapter on Lough Derg, and that drew me into the whole travelogue as she seeks the holy across the world. Not that she falls for it all. She records honestly her mixed emotions. It's one of the few books that I did not review for Amazon as I couldn't think of anything worthwhile to add. Mahoney's a challenging and rather catty witness to her self's lassitude and her strivings, and I like her. But, a lot of readers tend to be put off by her rather Irish acerbity and sharp tongue...not me.

A distinguished observer over on these shores, about the same age as Mary Kenny, today gives his thoughts on the thoughts of one of his contemporaries, more or less. Jack Miles, himself a former Jesuit, wrote "God: A History" a decade ago. Today, he reviews Christopher Hitchens' new book on his atheism. Miles' take fits in well with my own recent reactions to Daniel Dennett, Francis Collins, Sam Harris, and similar appeals to faith-based or reason-dependent arguments upon which we should organize our interpretations of the Big Questions.,1,2740001.story?coll=la-books-headlines&ctrack=1&cset=true
From the Los Angeles Times


'god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything' by Christopher Hitchens

An atheistic rant that is, well, just preaching to the choir.
By Jack Miles
Jack Miles is distinguished professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine. He is the general editor of the forthcoming "The Norton Anthology of World Religions."

April 29, 2007

FIGHTING the good fight for atheism isn't as easy as it looks. The fighter must, on the one hand, proclaim that religion is fading fast and for good reason yet, on the other, rouse fellow or prospective atheists to be on guard against it. If his audience takes the warning seriously, it may wonder whether there is not something to religion after all; if it takes the death notice seriously, it may wonder why the author is bothering to write.

The atheist alternative has been around from the beginning, after all. How dispiriting it must be for the neo-atheist pamphleteer to pick up "The Cambridge Companion to Atheism" and read even Chapter 1, "Atheism in Antiquity." To be sure, several recent works of anti-religious polemic have had heartening success in the marketplace, but even reliable allies are beginning to show signs of market fatigue. Thus, James Wood, a professed atheist reviewing for the New Yorker, writes: "I have an almost infinite capacity for the consumption of atheist texts, but there is a limit to … the number of times one can be told that the Bible is a shaky text, and that Leviticus and Deuteronomy are full of really nasty things."

Such is the challenge facing Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens, self-described as "a tentative and amateur foreign correspondent," leading "a rather tranquil and orderly life: writing books and essays, teaching my students to love English literature," but a man nonetheless who "[has] been writing this book all my life." What his lifelong effort has consisted of, to judge from the now-published result, is the assembly of an anthology of outrageous instances of misconduct under religious auspices. What Hitchens offers, beyond the reporting of these outrages, is the emotional power of his denunciation of them. Here is an example that I find both typical and thrilling:

"By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means — for all I care — let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin."

As the orator mounts through that withering, seven-fold repetition of "By all means," imagine excitement building in the audience and erupting in a roar of applause at his righteous climax: "But the conscription of the unprotected child…. " The strength of this book is the undeniable eloquence of its indignation — in Alexander Pope's famous phrase, "What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd." Its weakness is that the thinking in it has indeed oft been thought. Rhetorically, Hitchens, a repentant and affectingly rueful Marxist, could rally a band of timid schoolboys to storm the Winter Palace. But did the paragraph just quoted tell you anything you did not already know or change your mind about a single thing you did know?

Despite the fact that "religion poisons everything," to quote Hitchens' subtitle and the refrain in his early chapters, he regards it as "ineradicable. It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other." Given that this despair is his premise, it should come as no surprise that his closing call to action — a single paragraph on his final page — is rather half-hearted and slapdash. He calls for a "new Enlightenment" with a platform of just three planks: 1) literary study, attending to both aesthetics and ethics, that "can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected" (this reads rather oddly: Does he mean to depose the enthroned texts or, in the legal sense, depose previously muzzled critics?); 2) unfettered scientific inquiry; and 3) "most importantly," the divorce of our sexual lives from fear, disease and tyranny. He cautions: "We have first to transcend our prehistory and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection." But if the effects of that prehistory are as "ineradicable" as he says they are, what hope have we?

Hitchens' book lacks any definition of religion more intellectually ambitious than the just-cited "fear of death, and of the dark," etc. Fellow atheists Daniel Dennett, David Sloan Wilson, Marc Hauser and others — touched on glancingly or not at all in this book — have found the very religious durability that so frustrates Hitchens a fascinating and legitimate challenge for evolutionary psychology. And contemporary religious thought has followed this research with more interest and sympathy than one would guess from his assertion that "Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago." And yet, "god is not Great" must be judged a success on its own terms, for its terms are not those of exploration and persuasion but of exposé and taunt. Hitchens does not speak to the theistic majority of the world but about that majority to the atheistic minority, and in terms that it will relish.

For him, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a "nebulous humanist." Mahatma Gandhi was "an obscurantist" who would "impose his ego on the process [of Indian independence] and both retard and distort it." The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a plagiarist, an orgiast down to his last hours on this Earth, and "in no real as opposed to nominal sense … a Christian." The Dalai Lama is "a medieval princeling" who, whatever his charm and presence, is the continuation of "a parasitic monastic elite" and who "tells us that you can visit a prostitute as long as someone else pays her."

Most contemporary controversialists aim to turn their worthier foes into friends, taking to heart another of Pope's astute criticism couplets: "Cursed be the verse how well soe'er it flow / That tends to make one worthy man my foe." Hitchens is different, at least here. He finds the worthy man of religion so nearly a contradiction in terms that persuasion is pointless. One cannot win such people over, he implies, one can only smash them, rhetorically, and then only to delight those for whom they are already smashed. In that sense, but only in that sense, "god is not Great" must be judged a smashing success.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Dr. Francis Collins: DNA as God's Language?

I am mulling over posting this on Amazon (#743 at last count!) where about 380 people have already weighed in on "The Language of God: A Scientist Discovers Evidence of Belief" by the director of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins. Despite the moniker he grew up with proto-hippies who had moved in the Depression to the Shenandoah Valley (where The Shakespeare Wars reviewed by me here and Amazon on April 23, the Bard's birthday I remembered only yesterday! Ron Rosenbaum describes how in the titular hamlet there a marvelous theater recalling the BlackfrC.S.Lewis, Christianity, DNA, IWOSC, Occam's Razor. Medieval Philosophy, ontological proof, Religion and Science, Theodicyiars in Elizabethan London hewed in Virgina anew out of raw wood, built due to the philanthropic campaigning and local labors under the goad of one Ralph Cohen). Raised without religion, he drifted into what he might have called "soft atheism," that is, not from any solid intellectual conviction against the existence of a deity, but out of convenience or not analyzing his true beliefs rigorously enough. Well, as a student in his twenties he read C.S. Lewis' classic work of apologetics, "Mere Christianity." Lewis, you may recall, also followed the same path as Collins; although the Inkling and "Kolbitter" of Oxford grew up in the North of Ireland, few recall.

This will likely be the only book that I'll ever read that I can verify outside of Holy Writ that Newt Gingrich, Robert Schuller of Crystal Cathedral fame, and Naomi Judd have also enjoyed; their blurbs appear inter alia before Collins' text, somewhat undermining its rarified content if not its appeal to the ordinary folks, who surely need Collins' appeal to science married to faith as much as whatever Pasadenaean recalled my copy via its public library, in-- let it be recalled-- that heart of CalTech and The Skeptic magazine-- sponsored in turn by Penn & Teller! In my review, I focus upon Collins' use of Lewis' own argument to prove that the universe could not have been created ex nihilo. Or, as I read Martin Luther's phrase today, "ex Deo nobis est, non ex nobis"-- in my poor version: from God we exist; nothing comes from ourselves.

Do you think I should post this review below? Or will it only be rated according to my reactions and not the merit of the review itself? A problem built-in to the rating system, as I told the IWOSC crowd earlier this month, given the limits of Amazon's binary, thumbs-up, thumbs-down limitations. I'd love to improve it, but on the other hand as we know, it's futile to discuss religion dispassionately. As the Good Book parable reminds us, "pearls before swine" might be my haughty reaction to the brickbats flung my way by Scopes trial fanatics and proponents of a ten-thousand year old planet.

If you have suggestions for fine-tuning my response below, let me know...

Kindly rate the "helpfulness" of this review by its contents and not your bias. On Amazon, it's not whether you agree or disagree with the author or the reviewer. It's whether the review contributes to your understanding of what you could expect from the book before you decide to read it. Here's my guidance.

I can see from previous reviewers that their own beliefs colored their reviews. Trying to avoid this bias for my own comments, I will try for objectivity. Perhaps I am an ideal reader for this book. I share interests in religion and DNA- informed "genogeography" that range widely. My review sums up the pivot of Collins' own conversion which he makes the basis of his defense of theistic evolution. Early in the narrative, Collins shares his inspiration when encountering C.S. Lewis's argument that our own benchmark for right & wrong that we seek within ourselves points to a Moral Rule that is a universal, a irrefutable attraction to the Good which is planted by a supernatural force outside of ourselves.

Whereas Daniel Dennett, in ""Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (also reviewed by me late last year; the book appeared at the same time as Collins' work), might counter that such a leaning towards altruism gives us oldsters a shorter shelf life! That is, we sacrifice ourselves, stop consuming valuable resources, and get out of the gene pool, once we've done our job and reproduced. We're driven towards saving each other even though it's inexplicable or irrational. Collins takes the kinder, ethical alternative that may explain why we'd jump into a lake and save a baby even if we risked drowning, for instance. Collins assumes this inborn unselfish quality we all would recognize-- even if we emulate its nobility only imperfectly-- is prima facie evidence of a supernatural design beyond our ken but harmonious with our spirit.

He cites Lewis: God's the architect. We live inside the house, looking at the wall or ceiling, but from our knowledge have no way to understand the mind of the house's architect. But, where Collins loses me is in his next step. He posits therefore that this Law of Moral Nature cannot be explained as cultural artifact (e.g. enhancing our appeal for mates or our status in the clan) or (contra Dennett) evolutionary by-product.

He supports his theistic claim with Lewis. He argued that "if there was a controlling power in the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe-- no more than the architect of the house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?" (Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952, pg. 21 as footnoted by Collins.) I stopped at this passage and pondered. The rest of the book builds upon this citation.

I found Lewis' argument intriguing. Yet, it did not convince me. I needed Collins to slow down and make sure we understood what he was so impelled by, but Collins wanders off for the rest of this short book into other topics. I wished he'd stuck with the veracity of Lewis' theological proof. Otherwise, why devote so much of a book ostensibly on DNA to the God behind such intricate patterns underlying the fabric of life itself? Since Collins uses this architect example so prominently as the "prime mover" of his own soul towards faith, it demands to be taken seriously by his readers. Yet, is Lewis' metaphor as compellingly persuasive to readers as it was to a twenty-something Collins?

As with his discussion of his version of Rev. Paley's venerable watchmaker analogy, Collins seems to ignore the similarity between this sort of theodicy and Anselm's Ontological Argument for the existence of a God "greater than which nothing can be conceived." Aren't we still trapped in our puny human efforts of trying to explain the vast processes of billions of years? If we cannot get past 10 to the minus 43 milliseconds after the annihilating Big Bang, in the absence of our ability to delve further back, why does this "gap" for Collins give way to a belief in a deity who started it all? How does Collins or Lewis know that the universe demands the absence of its maker from what has been made? Furthermore, the chances of finding an intricate mechanism on a desert floor as if it somehow evolved on its own outside of an external designer may defy probability, but the appearance of the watch or our own amazingly nuanced universe seems not to me to prove an "uncaused cause" that crafted the watch or ourselves. Sure, it's nearly overwhelmingly probable, but there still remains doubt. Chance could have triumphed, this once.

The problem with the Lewis analogy that so convinced a young Collins is that it assumes that a deity cannot be present within the system created, or for that matter has to be outside of the universe for the system to work. But we are making the rules that our God plays by. How can we succeed with such hubris? His assertions of theistic evolution that we cannot fully comprehend then come down more to "it's all part of God's mysterious plan" than a thoroughly investigated and exhaustively defended proposition that will convince skeptics wondering if maybe we are results of the 1-in-50-billion odds of our evolution by non-theistic causes, or one universe among many.

Collins applies Occam's razor frequently, but the fact that causes should not be multiplied without necessity does not always mean there cannot be multiplied causes. Of course, this is a short book for non-specialists. Surprisingly few endnotes, by the way, The author does take pains to remain clear in his explanations, to his credit. But, for such weighty matters, this leaves theological arguments that underly his scientific claims open to charges that he gives too superficial a foundation for his DNA-as-language theory. It's difficult to reduce such complicated material into a few pages, and when he tries to place a defense of the central claims of Christianity on top of science and DNA, it's too many messages for too small a medium.

Collins slips into the simpler explanation: God started it, since the universe is too intricate for chance or unguided design. But this fails to convince. It reminded me of Anselm's medieval "proof" for God's existence. That is, Collins edges near an a priori claim. He dismisses the multiple universes or the "hey, it just happened despite the odds" alternatives for the Anthropic Principle with insufficient consideration. This section is crucial. The subject is enticing. Collins genially presents the commonsense approach: God set it all in motion 14 billion years ago. Engagingly as Collins writes at this stage, his presentation is too brief. He embraces the theistic model too quickly. Without taking the other two possibilities of the Anthropic Principle seriously, Colloins does not fully explore why we need to take for granted the divine clockmaker as the accepted argument for evolutionary processes that unfolded ever since the Big Bang. He too complacently invites a clockmaker to wind it all up and let it tick away. This is not enough to support his claims that the best of the three Anthropic Principle models must be irrefutably that of theistic evolution.

However, intermittently, Collins' book makes complex theological and scientific subjects accessible for the non-theological, non-scientific reader. But it moves too quickly. Collins has the ability to expose false claims made by those too credulous in namby-pamby childish conceptions of deities, as well as those scientists too dismissive of the claims that faith and reason can join to expand our knowledge of the universe.

But here he needlessly complicates his argument. As a Christian, I suppose Collins felt he must testify. But his appeal for religion and science thus weakens. He clings too closely to his own model of religion, understandably as a believer but too restrictively as a scientist who seeks broader ground upon which to allow diverse religious and determinedly scientific proponents to meet and exchange ideas. Near the end he brings Jesus and the redemption/ substitution/ resurrection in as essentials for the religious truth of his assertions. I wondered why he had to make the deity so specifically incarnate in Christ's role. He states that His intercession was necessary to pay the human debt for our misdeeds, but fails to ask why people have had to be under the thumb of such a petty and vengeful taskmaster as the version we know incompletely as Yahweh. Collins by his faith accepts this, but this cannot convince a reader who does not share his belief.

The Anthropic Principle that we evolved in a universe fine-tuned for our evolution into creatures capable of appreciating our existence in that very universe can be fascinating if to me at least still unprovable. Collins seems to think the odds are against any evolution without a kickstart by a Creator. This part of the book, however debatable, shows Collins at his most lively. Curiously, the part on DNA I found comparatively dull. Still, his appendix raises relevant points about the film "Gattaca" vs. a probable future, genetic predisposition vs. predetermination, and pre-implantation genetic technology that are all explained clearly and concisely.

Collins is very convincing in explaining the shortcomings of Intelligent Design. He neatly proves why the "God in the gaps" approach to inserting "then a miracle occurs" into the Great Chain of Being fails as science constantly progresses and what we once thought Providence achieved only through intervention has been found to have a perfectly rational scientific explanation. Here he is at his best, and the book would have been more consistently convincing if he had left off his own Christian witness and kept to what a scientist who believes in God can bring to the debate that Dawkins and Dennett lack, and what creationists and ID proponents remain ignorant about from his genetic discoveries. The strongest feature of this short study is Dr. Collins' ability to sum up the strengths of theistic evolution.He offers an appealing counterargument to Dennett or Richard Dawkins who claim perhaps too smugly that belief in God and endorsement of Darwin cannot co-exist.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Who will guard the guards? Quid custodiet ipsos custodiores?

Amendment IV:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today, as usual (although that will change again as it does triannually when I begin next Wednesday to teach again thirty students plus in my assigned eight-week once-weekly compressed hybrid accelerated night class) I took Metro Rail. There I saw signs all about warning of a six-hour drill tomorrow (at least it's Saturday) in which "law enforcement" will search carry-on bags of passengers. "Expect five-minute delays." Yeah, right.

So, is this the next "rapid transit" innovation? X-rays? Screeners? Hand wands? Metal detectors. If the bad guys are one step ahead, they will not be toting handguns and Exacto knives. Or Colgate in one hand and a t-Mobile in the other. Still, we innocents bear the burden, submitting to increasing inspection for the already obsolete weapons the bad guys supposedly would use once again. so, we carry no unapproved liquid, we suffer, and the bad guys invent some other household product applied to mayhem.

Is it worth this shell game, this bait and switch? No convert to Mike Davis' apocalyptic rants-- I hope he likes tenure wherever he wound up with his fifth or so wife-- but the earnest Marxist agitator who spent some of the 80s in Belfast getting in touch with his born-in-Fontana prole roots before hitting the bestseller list a year before the last riots (which timing boosted him beyond the Verso-Pluto Pressish lefty bookstore niche) with City of Quartz has a point. Note to Mr. Davis: Hey, I grew up not far from where you did, similar class stratification, and look where I wound up, academic yearnings and all. Sigh. I never wrote for the LA Weekly a piece something like "I actually drove a truck and was in a union unlike all you trust-fund radicals and Westside limousine liberals reading this."

The model of the securocrat state, Davis hazarded, was Parker Center-- where the "civil unrest" downtown truly flared up as night fell the first day of the "people's uprising." But, since 1994, we have more comparisons to make downtown to Bentham's Panopticon. This total surveillance circular "carceral" (favorite adjective of Davis) construction may have been only a model despite attempts at Kilmainham, Wicklow Jail (Leo and I visited there and he happily submitted to the actors' harangue as we were locked up), or Pelican Bay. Yet, who needs a direct line of sight and a peephole when we have the Clark Kent see-through technology? The booming military-industrial complex-- almost exactly ten years later-- found its post-Berlin Wall End of History Cold War dividend, what will we do now that we have no more enemy, profit line.

We can always refuse, like a drug test, and walk away from the aircraft, subway, or bus. Just as we can keep our constitutional right, object to the drug test, and walk out the door. No harm done. Civil liberties intact. Free to be you and me. No hassle from the Man. Live free or die. Jobless.

The war on drugs I suppose gets a boost from these "reasonable searches and seizures," and I know the rate of pilfering and theft by those entrusted with rifling through our loot is soaring. As the Romans said: who will watch the guards themselves? We already have the guard's attack dogs leashed and ready for action on the platforms once in a while, but I doubt if they'll make their minders any more honest. The sheriffs in their intermittent displays of municipal crowd control at Union Station stand about and generally talk sotto voce in pairs, steadily, constantly, day or night. Not much patrolling. Must be a sought-after gig. Better than the LASD rookies stuck their first two years in running the jail a few blocks away.

Meanwhile at this Patsosauras Transit Center pleasure dome of crystal that towers over that Vignes Street Detention Facility we indentured servants-- to mortgage, to children's lifes, to our own cars, to our credit cards, to our own livelihood and all the books, music, and trinkets we all love, we dash out, like, well, inmates out of prison. But we cannot see north towards the carceral hub. No windows, only up, not out can we gaze. Solid subterranean corridors channel our steps, despite the con of the glass dome rising above us towards sunny skies. Shell game. Which pea are we?

We rush below the dome into the depths of the old Station. Suitable that "Blade Runner" captured the cathedral light as it angles across the dust of the lobby. But, I rarely glance that way on my head-down, lemming-like path from Gold to Red Line. The future of Los Angeles: half-Depression era Art Deco, half concrete monstrosity. They meet here. This tall headquarters of MTA can be seen for miles, standing alone, ribbed for your pleasure, aesthetically towering, eagerly trying to look like the New Federalism, as if dignified amidst rail yards and empty lots around the jail. That growth industry creates jobs. Today's news: California doles out $8.2 billion for new prisons. The prison guards: long many a pol's major supporter; along with longshoremen the jailers stand as one stalwart union that cannot be outsourced. They say hands-on jobs are the only ones safe from being shipped off to Poland if not Bangladesh.

Thanks to our taxes, not only prisons expanded in that riot-torn, quake-ripped, recession-plagued past decade. Next to the Spanish style grace of Union Station under the palms was erected MTA headquarters at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, aping City Hall itself in its noir- meets- Dragnet style. Marble floors, too. Welcome to a notorious pork barrel project by the same MTA who now puts on an béal bocht, the poor mouth. Sure, this "for your own protection" cordon sanitaire campaign combined with spartan seating, the huddled masses, and a fare hike-- how can this combination fail?

The MTA board chief in today's LA Times smarmily harangues us riders for freeloading. We only pay 86 cents a ride, Roger Snoble sniffs, despite many dollars stuffed into fare boxes each day in my case. (I don't ride enough a month to justify the cost of the pass, so he's getting his money's worth from my patronage.) He rationalizes that the fare increases will still only have us paying about the same few pennies, averaged in with all the other 10 million Angelenos who don't use the system but who pay for it too. What's wrong with this logic? Why should we the users get hit hardest with fare hikes? Last time I rode, uh, yesterday, there weren't many affluent passengers from my p-o-v, unless they were slumming.

(Update: my wife's pal's husband has been promoted to the CFO of MTA. I ask him three people removed to keep the fares down, barring that to give me a monthly pass at a discount rate.)

By the way, the MTA has other ideas once they get the TAPs running. Charge more the farther you go to hit, they reason, the "wealthier" riders from farther-flung locales. Charge more if you ride at rush hour. Charge more, it can one day soon be extrapolated, by your occupation or lack. By biometric scans of your retina to trace your abuse of race privilege. From each according to his ability, to each according to his means. Mike Davis and I might recognize this Marxist tenet, but most of our fellow citizens think it's from the Declaration of Independence, pollsters chortle.

Don't worry, the head of the MTA reasons: most of you million daily freeloaders get passes anyway, and it's your fault your discounts come out of the MTA's pockets. Captive audiences? Wish my expenses were subsidized by my employer. MTA can raise daily rates as high as the $8 or $9 in Boston or Atlanta, he boasts, with no ill effects. Passes from $58 to 90 to $120. No problem, as long as service and quality persist. After all, it's not as though all the million riders a day have alternatives. They're trapped.

Or else, sneers Snoble, we'll be sorry and have to wait even longer for the MTA to shuffle by our sidewalk stance. Then we'll wish we paid more like those other hapless passengers in Boston or Atlanta do. These two cities are notoriously trafficked burbs with nightmare commutes. Of course there's no cause-and-effect.

Another snazzy ad campaign will convince millions more to leave their Tundras or Ford 150s in the driveway and double their commute time as I do. Our fare hikes will teach us not to commute on the largess of fellow taxpayers disdaining to share themselves with we dogged train and bus riders. Oh well. Today the NY Times tells us that 4% of those polled blame the end of the world Biblical prophecies for global warming; 2% blame "space junk." Maybe my diminished "footprint" of emissions balances some ozone damage wrought by the forty-second in a row diminutive Starbucks-sipping, BlackBerry texting, darting and halting Fourunner lurching past me as I stand at the bus stop.

Am I jealous? Do I sound like Mike Davis? One of the Trotskyite organizers of the Bus Riders Union? Is this merely another cockeyed populist rant akin to those about those damned surveyors next door who on cue popped up just now planning how to raze half-century old shade trees and put up another McMansion? Good fences make good neighbors, and a wall to maximum height or instant foliage appear to be two options for our northern-facing near future.

Well, at least I study my Irish, forcing myself into a bus-Ghaeltacht rather than a breac or broken-Irish one. It allows me too to escape my pacing about underground or muttering on top of it. I sit and think. There's a sense of using one's prison cell to liberate yourself. I figure that via the limited options for entertainment or education offered by my habitual public transportation confines that I will be able to get listening and reading time in if I limit my stimuli as Béarla.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Books, Trains, Wallets, Dystopia, Honesty

My wife at her CasaMurphy blog detailed my brush with fate the other day as I slipped on the train and my wallet slipped out. I found out by the time the Gold Line reached Union Station. I got back on the same train and returned where after scanning the platform and the tracks and even the tops of the trashcans in futility, I then wandered off to my car to-- albeit without a license-- drive the twenty-five miles to work. I had no choice; the next train would put me in a position of missing class, due to the calibration needed in my day to leave on, as they say in Irish on "Giota Beag," ceathrú tar éis an ocht a chlog nó ceathrú chun (go dtí i Uladh?) a naoi a chlog. As I headed towards my car, I saw a worker in an orange vest getting into a beat-up brown van. I asked him how to get in touch with the Lost and Found. Confusingly, after I explained in detail what had happened, only then, after I said I lost my wallet, did he pull it out of his coat pocket. (There was some "native-language interference" impeding this vatic exchange, admittedly. He told me he saw it fall out as I got on the train. My wallet had no cash. I thanked him, wishing God's blessings upon him (no atheists in foxholes) and apologized for not having any money for him as a reward. He assured me nothing had been touched inside, and he was right. Leoga, beannachtaí Dé air.

Intermission: Now, I beseech that same deity not to allow the MTA to make good on their threat to jack up their fares. From $3 to 5 for a day pass and then up to $8 or 9 in a few years: insane. How this will ease our City of Angels gridlock, ease pollution, and do a bit more to save this rapidly roasting planet (3 inches of rain here this year; 33 inches two years ago) is beyond me. Looking around the Blue Line, few of its passengers from my p-o-v look like they can afford it.

My faith in humanity restored if momentarily, I was as one of my speech students told me, still bugging out by the time I told my first class about the wallet as they filed in and I made small talk. I urged them all to spread the good karma about and be honest if they found a wallet of purse. A student in my next class told me that only last week she had lost her wallet and two hours later a man showed up at her door returning it to her. Often I have left the day pass stuck at the ticket machine in the window at the end of my commute home. Perhaps, I reckon, some poor soul or cheap soul may have used it in need. Did what goes around comes around at the Heritage Square station?

When the MTA makes us all buy TAP passes that can be electronically tracked and debited, such monkeywrenching largess will be made technologically impossible. Those TAP turnstiles stand at Union Station now, waiting to be activated. This portal will eliminate multiple uses of a pass by workers during the day, supposedly, although how Metro Rail will know one person gave it to a co-worker for use during the workday before giving it back is beyond me unless fingerprinting. GPS with RFID, or DNA comes into the picture. I guess the government knows more than I do. Another step towards centralized data collection, monitoring of citizens in the name of course of public safety and security, and a way to eliminate cash and anonymous transactions as we all leave our financial trails along with our daily itineraries in the hands of Big Brother, under the scrutiny of the police, and enriching by fat-cat contracts supposedly benign corporate entities. Soon we will not be able to go about and get lost in the crowd. The city will offer no refuge. For our own good, we will be told, we must be watched.

Later that jittery day, defying that future Mike Davis "City of Quartz" panopticon dystopia, on the Gold Line back home a cheerful conductor, # 14980, with bolo tie, ponytail, and I suspect Native American heritage happily strolled out of his driver's compartment. He wished us all a heartfelt good afternoon. I returned the compliment politely with a bit of a bemused half-smile (the Irish for "smile" can be mionghaire or leathghaire, i.e., a "small" or a "half-laugh.") as I stood in the aisle near what was the front and now would be the back of the train immediately behind the driver. I stand there often since I get off in three stops anyway and others need the seats more than I do.

Right after that happy conductor departed, presumably for the other end of the train, a man who looked like a teacher, but ten or fifteen years older than me, stood opposite me with I.B. Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" in a handsome new edition sticking out of his messenger bag. He took a picture on his phone of an older black woman all dressed up in a hat and green dress, like you might see at a funeral or church event. He then showed it to her, and asked politely if he could send it to her. After a bit of surprise, she answered she had no computer, but gave him her son's contact info, which the man wrote on the inside of his battered Spanish-English dictionary. I swear I saw written there Hollywood Adult School in his writing.

Today, a woman sat in the same seat the lady had the day before and pulled out "Anna Karenina" in the new Pevear-whateverofsky translation in Penguin, a great cover of a woman's legs with flowers clutched demurely or provocatively between them, no upper body, only the lap. I figured I'd better not ruin the ending for her as she was only a hundred pages in, but suffice to say I found it suitable that she was reading it on the train. Earlier a youngish Latino man going to work-- I think he wore a parking attendant's jacket-- on the Red Line held a Vintage edition of Kafka's "Metamorphosis and Other Stories." It made me consider how infrequently I saw non-students (or so I assume) reading literature. I rarely notice anyone reading books that I can identify. On the Long Beach buses, it's a few newspaper readers, some students, rarely with a textbook open. Not much book action on the LBTA.

Still, you never know. I finished Ron Rosenbaum's "The Shakespeare Wars" and wrote about it here a few days back. It's a hefty tome in size and theme. Well, less than a week ago, I saw a younger white man transferring from the Green to the Blue Line-- and so perhaps a traveller returning from LAX-- perusing a LAPL library copy of that same book!

A year ago, a demure Asian woman looking like a non-local by her dress, demeanor, and mien was making her way through "A Portrait of the Artist." On the same Gold Line-- where the Pasadena crowd coming to downtown looks markedly better off in terms of fashion worn and burdens carried-- I did see this very morning a woman holding a newish trade-sized Penguin Classics (the ones with darker covers and fine artwork) but I could not make out which one. The newer printings place the title at the bottom and not the middle or top of the cover, confounding erudite snobs like me. Handsome as the new editions are, I liked orange covers, smaller sizes, and the no-nonsense, sans-serif typeface. Penguins, at least since they gave up the severe Gill-inspired typography of the WWII period, carry often quite fine artwork however! But the press seems to be dumbing itself down with a lot of ephemeral titles and trivial mass-cult detritus. Yet I guess the publishers today want more than selling the Eliots or Jameses to us.

Blue Line readers tend towards Spanish tabloids, La Opinion, the free Hoy, dog-eared Bibles or, if desperate, Jehovah's Witness tracts. The scruffy (0f course) bum poring over Maeve Binchy's "Evening Class" one day on the Blue Line did make me pause one dull morning. He only pulled out of his plastic bag a battered paperback after spending about half an hour arranging his piece of pan dulce and shaking out from that same bag its crumbs. He had eaten it curled up away from me-- I sit in the single aisle end of the section seat over the wheel and not the usual ones facing the windows-- in the opposite seat, hiding from me as he munched. $250 fine, you know.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Necropolitan Life: How Christians lost their groove-- or grave?

This is from a teaser (although a dozen years ago there was an alphabetically organized and quite comprehensive site on-line that I suspect was what became the book from which these few teaser entries are taken) under "Dead" from Conor Kennedy's book Ancient Ireland: A User's Guide (Killala, Co Mayo: Morrigan Books). (Image: Ennistymon Cemetery.)

I found this link via Aniina Jokinen's meta-archive. She's compiled an on-line "Anthology of British Literature" using public domain (so pretty stilted, but I appreciate the immense effort!) translations of earlier texts as well as later ones at Her ""Letter from the Editor" at this site's root address tells how as a college student (at Temple) she began this in 1996 to gather sources and texts on-line. It grew into a from a single posted page on Middle English sites into a massive library of Medieval- Renaissance- 17c and now18 c texts and supplemental materials, all from free sources. She is right in explaining the value of her site to those of us outside universities with massive database subscriptions. She does apologize for giving in and putting Google AdSense on her site finally to help meet expenses, but also mentions that the ads can be helpful in alerting her to books she'd otherwise have missed. A worthy project, and as the editor's just entering her thirties, this looks like a labor that her love will continue to nurture for many more years. (I sent her a thank-you note today-- as one independent scholar to another.)

At the site, of course, there are many sub-divisions. Gathering both musty tomes scanned by volunteers (thanks again) and modern data from, well, folks sort of like me and you reading this who add our widow's mite to the electronic collection box, the site's quite graphically handsome and well organized. Luminarium collects information from those late Victorian-early 20c versions of texts as well as late 20c-early 21st c online sites (will these seem as quaint a century from now?) One category offers many useful links to "Irish Literature, Mythology, Folklore":

The teaser is from an A-Z of Ancient Ireland site linked from the Irish Lit (etc.) site. But the abecedarium in a manner that would madden Umberto Eco's monkish bibliolators and bookish enumerators only goes to "D," and a few entries at that under those four letters.

So, wanting more, I tried contacting Conor Kennedy ( a year or two ago to ask where his book could be found; I had skimmed it when visiting the Cruachan Ai visitor's centre near the site at Tulsk in 2004. (In fact, I sent another note right now, just in case.) No reply from the author (so far), strangely enough, as his site sells his newer novel. But this entry, whatever your position on its concluding sentence, summarizes an argument that necrologists of the 19c have advanced-- among them Philippe Aries. I broke up the entry into three paragraphs-- the typeface is awfully small at the original site:


Victorian municipal graveyards marked the end for Christianity. Up to then people were buried round their churches and places of worship. The living prayed surrounded by their dead; they had a reason to visit Church every sunday, a psychic reason which had nothing to do with doctrine, rationale, or even with faith. It is part of us to visit our dead and there, in the presence of we-know-not-what, communicate with the world of Spirit. Once the huge hygienic cemeteries were constructed the link was broken; there was no reason to go to church anymore, no psychic pull, as it were. This is the real reason Christianity lost its grip on the masses.

The decline of religion has nothing to do with the Industrial Revolution or the rise of a better educated type of individual. Individuals nowadays are more sheep-like than ever, following the diktats of advertiser and lifestyle guru with slavish obedience. No. Christianity went into a nosedive of decline because of the construction of large cemeteries away from the churches. It has now petered out as a mass religion in the Western World. Ancient man was very attached to ancestors. In Ireland a whole archaeological class of tomb ('court cairn') were constructed in such a manner as to accommodate ritual beside or, in fact, inside the ancestral graves. The nature of this ritual is obscure, but perhaps we may be guided by the practice of certain peoples in the present day world in 'less developed' areas. These people, on a particular day, journey to their ancestral graves, take out the corpses or bones or whatever, dress them up in clothes, and party! The concept of personal spiritual salvation or immortality was not as strongly developed in the ancients as with us. Their concern was more with the psychic cohesion of the tribe or group. Individual freedom is a luxury created by group effort. Paradoxically, the more successful the group is at creating the conditions for individual freedom, the sooner it collapses !

In the ancient scheme of things a person developing individuality was regarded as a threat to the leadership and promptly eliminated. 'Leadership' represented the spirit of the group and had to be protected. This concept developed into the 'Divine Right of Kings' of later eras. Anciently then, the psychic cohesion of the group was its strength; this was a force that reached backwards in time through the ancestors, and stretched to the future through the young. Modern man does not have psychic cohesion. We have no graves, as such, and we slaughter millions of our children in the womb for our convenience. Essentially we are suffering from a psychic madness; this goes undiagnosed only because we enjoy the symptoms !
Bob Geldof: How to retire gracefully

As my wife commented when I sent her this piece apropos of our discussions about how contact with the West must change the perceptual and not only the material reality of isolated tribes-- well, Bob Geldof never was much of a musician. I commented more of an entertainer-- if you count how he named his kids-- or perhaps an organizer who had visions and rallied others to help him make them come true. And I admire Sir Bob's classy retirement from showbiz into public service. Which has its perks, as this photo of him with Birhan shows via SudanWatch. He may be a preening prat, but he's smarter than the average idol these demotic days. Pity more rock stars and athletes and celebs can't find such outlets for their abundant post-publicity tour leisure time. Did you know his family came from Belgium to Dublin where they run (ran?) a fine restaurant way back when I suppose that trans-Channel stretch was about as long a leap to as exotic a cuisine as you could find near the mouth of the Liffey? (By the way, I must read Mark Abley's book on disappearing languages. I have it on the shelf.)

Bob's big book of many tongues

Present Tense: On the northern coast of Australia, in a remote land near the Timor Sea, live the last two native speakers of the language of the Mati Ke tribe. Patrick and Agatha are brother and sister, and their language is structured in a way quite different from ours. Objects are arranged into one of 10 noun classes. Weapons, for instance, are in the same class as lightning. Space and time go together. Apparently it's really something to hear. But it is rarely heard, because Patrick and Agatha do not speak to each other. Haven't done for 50 years.

Their tribe's customs forbid communication between a brother and sister after puberty. And they will go to their deaths, and maybe that of their language, without so much as uttering the Mati Ke word for "goodbye".
Which is a shame, because they might have had something big to talk about this week. Bob Geldof is coming.

He wants to build a "Dictionary of Man", a catalogue of the human race; to record "all those sounds, voices and jokes so they never disappear again". Given that a Mati Ke "knock knock" joke mightn't have been told in decades, if he gets the chance to deliver one you really hope Patrick doesn't fluff the punchline.

Of course, Geldof himself won't come loping over the creek with a tape recorder. Instead, camera crews will set about attempting to record the core ethnic groups and tens of thousands of tribal offshoots. It'll all go towards a BBC series and a website that will form "an immense digital catalogue of all current human existence and an enormous resource for the exchange of ideas and information".

The idea, Geldof says, came to him 20 years ago, as he sat on a tree stump in northern Niger, and was told that more than 300 languages had disappeared in just two years during the famine there. "I thought, why don't we compile a record of every single culture that exists?" The theory is that only by cataloguing them can we know what's being lost. But there will then be the question of what to do when we have the information. Because this record will be compiled during a time when cultures are not only winking out of existence, but when concerns are being raised over the "civilised" world's patronage of tribes.

With a romanticising of tribal cultures comes the danger that, as we learn more about their cultures, we'll seek to preserve them in aspic and stem their development; that we'll admire their purity and view any pollution of this as a tainting of the planet's cultural pool.

On its website, Survival International, one of the organisations that works on behalf of tribal peoples across the world, answers the question of whether it believes that tribes should "stay as they are". It says: "Survival has no opinion about how tribal peoples should be in the future - it believes they should be allowed to decide for themselves. Survival believes that tribal peoples - like all peoples - have always adapted to changing circumstances, and will continue to do so." Bruce Parry's excellent BBC series, Tribe - in which the former British marine instructor spends a month in various communities - explores the astonishing complexity of their traditions, and the dangers of them being subsumed within more dominant cultures. There are similar programmes scattered across the channels, even if none is quite so absorbing - and absorbed - as Parry's. And with each, there is never anything more jarring than for a camera crew to make its way slowly to some remote tribe, only to find the kids running around in Manchester United jerseys.

But Parry's series also shows that tribal cultures have practices that can be considered barbaric in any community. That they kill and maim and circumcise - and in one case cannibalise - in the name of tradition. And in doing so, it raises the notion that not every aspect of an endangered culture is worth saving.

The Dictionary of Man will be a vital resource. It should reveal mankind's diversity, and harden the realisation that languages and customs are dying out just as quickly - if not more quickly - than the planet's species. It may bring us to the idea that the next great extinction on earth could be a cultural one.

But it may inadvertently serve as a new bible for the modern West's mission not to "civilise" but to preserve other cultures. And if we are going to catalogue the planet's tribes, it's worth debating what we're going to do with the information once we have it.

As for the language of the Mati Ke, it will cling on through at least one student (a nephew of Patrick's), and in books, such as Mark Abley's Spoken Here, from which its story is taken.

And a "Dictionary of Man" is already being slowly, haphazardly written, across the various media. Much of it, of course, is on Wikipedia, whose Wiktionary includes three words of Mati Ke. A marri is a type of cockroach, a wayelh a type of lizard and mi warzu is the fruit of a peanut tree.

No knock knock jokes, though.

© 2007 The Irish Times (21 April) via

{My P.S.: The BBC concludes its introduction of Dictionary of Man in a 17 April press release: Geldof's Ten Alps media group will also provide the administrative and infrastructural backup for the Dictionary of Man. Ten Alps CEO, Alex Connock, said, "This is a fantastic, hugely ambitious project on a scale that only Bob Geldof would contemplate. Ten Alps is delighted to be part of it and support it in every way possible."}

Leo, or the Other White Meat

Yes, son #1, my firstborn, I have wanted a pic of you to put up, since little brother got his mug up last Saturday the 21st here for baseball prowess. (His team hung on last night, barely, to best their freeway-- well, one exit or two up off the freeway that whooshes past the park where they play-- rivals the Highland Park Angels.) Sitting down this morning, big brother left his MySpace page running on the computer all night. A no-no as he knows. But, since it was open, here's a snapshot he was sent. He can be a handful, to put it mildly, but he has taken his parents' love of music and film, if the latter to extremes with his horror-zombie kick. I do love him, naturally.

Note his jaded mien. Note his sloppy hair-- all the rage now among disaffected adolescents, sort of 70s gone limp and suitably beige attire rather than horizontal stripes, shirts with Western yokes (which I liked back then), or those collarless knit ribbed form fitting shirts with rings to zip up from at the breastbone. Finally, note his vintage Joy Division pin, inherited from yours truly.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Irish-Language Podcasts for Learners & An Líonra Sóisealta

I've been wanting to download to my iPod some Irish-language blog at a learner's pace. Kay Uí Chinnéide's "Gaeilge na Seachtaine" has five small entries perfect for my level of (or lack of) skill, and I heard them in Ulster-accented sweetly spoken form as I followed the two that so far I had earlier printed out and annotated with vocabulary notes to study on my commute. (Don't worry: I take the bus & train, even before yesterday's Earth Day.) But, no way to copy the audio unless Save Target As appears, no?

Fearghal Mag Uiginn's chipper and very Norn Iron "Giota Beag" series accompanied hours of my listening and rehearing the "wee bit" past few weeks once I finally figured out how this set-up embedded on my PC (oh for a Mac if it was not for the wife) of damned Windows Media Player plus iTunes plus a damned Music Match that won't go away file set-up works in wretched practice. Dissociation of sensibility, out of Coleridge and T.S. Eliot when you find yourself mumbling the phrases beamed out earlier to Ballymoney and Ballymurphy, Islandmagee and Tandragee to be learnt while this learner's instead walking about the subway station beneath downtown LA, earbuds (I mean IEMs) in place, surrounded by Spanish ads for mushroom McD burgers, pugilists, and Dos Equis.

The BBC-NI site is full of help for learners and speakers both big and small, far better in being practical than the more summarizing at Foras na Gaeilge ( across the border. Well, at least FnG's linked from the An Líonra blog below. By the way, FnG shines next to Gael Linn's awful web presence with sadly but a "giota beag" of value. I go to Gaeilge na Ghreasan (smo.uhi site below) for its meta-links but even here so many links float abandoned. [By the way, I spent considerable time putting in the hyperlinks in html to these boldfaced links only to have them all evaporate on this latest edit. Sorry. See for yourself.

My social networking and Horslips interests are being mulled over for a paper to IASIL at UCD in July. Come Back Horslips and HorsLit: The Literary Roots of Horslips Lyrics have the advantage of a media-savvy organizer and one who keeps the focus more or less on target. By contrast and due to the fluid subject, perhaps, the whole infrastructure of material for fluent and struggling Irish-language learners resembles what the author of the piece below finds: no organization! Like this blog and the blogosphere. Which is doubtless why host Google has ownership in its attempt to control all information retrieval on the Net. Well, they assure us of their credo to "do no evil."

I have earlier critiqued RTÉ'sTuras Teanga, and found a similar reaction to TT on a breac-Ghaeilge mostly Béarla site An Spailpin Fanach one Dub (but really a Mayoman) and his own efforts to blog, linked in turn to the An tImeall (on the edge) podcasting and blogging site in turn to the straight outta Béal Feirste Letter to America blog's promotion the effort in the Sept. 25, 2006 press release below. The show ended last December.

I will road test the site's suitability for those of us with the big red L on our backs, but I wanted to post this notice first. The more web coverage such media gain, the better for all of us learners, gaeilgoirí, and the far-flung curious. Happy to note in the release an acknowledgement of we such the last.


Long-time listeners of that Ireland Podcast Letter to America know what huge fans we are here of Conn O Muineachain and his podcast An tImeall. Well he's got a new project up and running, An Líonra Sóisialta, here's the press release:]

Ground-Breaking New Radio Show To Teach Internet
“As Gaeilge”

Radio listeners across Ireland will join internet users worldwide next Monday, as they tune in to the first episode of a new series focusing on the social aspects of the internet.

It’s the first time an Irish radio series has been devoted exclusively to the phenomenon of “online social networking”, of which the best known example in recent months has been Bebo. What’s more: all 59 episodes of the show will be in Irish.

The programme is called An Líonra Sóisialta, which translates to The Social Network. It will broadcast a 12 minute episode each day for 12 weeks.

So far, 7 Irish radio stations have confirmed that they will broadcast the show and its producer believes several more will join over the next few weeks as the series gathers steam.

Thanks to the internet, however, the show will be available to anyone who wants to hear it, anywhere in the world. An Líonra Sóisialta will also be a “podcast” – a downloadable MP3 sound file that users can listen to on their PC, or copy to a mobile device to enjoy at their convenience.

The new series is the brainchild of independent producer Conn Ó Muíneacháin from Ennis, County Clare. After a successful career in local radio, he gave up broadcasting for the computer industry. 10 years later, he sees the two fields converging as technology has put the media into the hands of anyone who has access to the internet.

“Anyone can publish. Anyone can speak. Like a letters page, or a phone-in show, the internet gives the public a voice. The difference is that there are no editors or programme controllers.”

To some this sounds like a recipe for anarchy. How is all this self-published material organised? How can the consumer be helped to find information which is useful and interesting to them?

“That’s the most exciting thing about it”, says Conn. “Nobody knows for sure!
The tools and rules are being developed as we speak. New services and business models are launched every week. Some fail. Some develop and grow. All of them help us to understand how this new kind of media is supposed to work.”

These kinds of ideas are discussed daily in the “blogosphere” – the global community of self-published websites: weblogs, or simply “blogs”. They are familiar to people who collect the “feeds” from scores of such sites for easy reading in “aggregators”. They are debated in interviews and panel discussions on podcasts.

Conn Ó Muíneacháin wants to bring this discussion to a wider audience. “An Líonra Sóisialta is designed for non-technical people. It’s for people who are interested in media, but not necessarily in technology. It will introduce new ideas gently with short daily episodes over 12 weeks.”

But why do it in Irish? “Irish is why I became interested in citizen media in the first place. People employed in Irish language media do a wonderful job with limited resources. But the choice isn’t there. And what is there may be broadcast at a time, or published in a way, that does not suit someone who would otherwise be interested. But if you look at the web, you see that there is a global community of Irish speakers and learners who are contributing their own efforts to media in the Irish language.”
As an experiment, last year Conn launched An tImeall, the first podcast in the Irish language. The project has been extremely successful, reaching a global audience. In March, the site was honoured for it’s use of Irish at the inaugural Irish Blog Awards.

In addition to the radio show and podcast, An Líonra Sóisialta will also have a daily feature in the Irish language newspaper Lá. There’s also a website: Over the next few weeks the site will grow and develop as it becomes the focus for audience participation.

And participation, Conn says, is the key. “These new forms of media make much less distinction between producer and consumer. An Líonra Sóisialta will encourage audience participation in every way possible: by phone, by text, by mail or by leaving a comment on the website.” The series has been planned to appeal to people with a wide range of abilities in Irish, and in particular, it has been designed to be suitable for use as discussion material for Irish classes at Transition Year level in Irish schools.

Conn will co-present the show with Fiona Ní Chéirín, a native of An Spidéal, Co. Galway, and a recent graduate of the multimedia degree programme at Tipperary Institute.

The series has been provisionally approved for funding under the “Sound and Vision” scheme operated by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland.

The 7 radio stations which have confirmed their participation in An Líonra Sóisialta are: Flirt FM in Galway, Raidio na Life in Dublin, Ocean FM (Sligo, North Leitrim, South Donegal), Clare FM, KCLR (Kilkenny and Carlow), Wired FM in Limerick, and Raidio Fáilte, Belfast’s new Irish language station which launched last week.

Now, I don't speak Irish - but I'll probably listen just to hear Conn's oh-so-soothing dulcet tones. If you do speak Irish and are interested in this new world of media production and distribution we find ourselves in you could do a lot worse than listen.

Posted by Letter to America on September 25, 2006 at 05:49 PM in Blogs.

[It's me again: URLs boldfaced by me above are here below. Please visit my unwitting sponsors-- well, maybe the Come Back Horslips site already knows me. Happy hunting!]

Ron Rosenbaum & "The Shakespeare Wars"

This is a review written for Amazon US today (hey-- I made it to #750 and over 700 reviews. Thanks for voting, hint, hint.) on a book that while it took forever to finish and gained three stars for its author's tendency to gobble more than it could digest, nevertheless deserves its turn before the literary limelights. Proof too that you need not have a Ph.D. (although lots of research money, tenure, and endless acclaim from one's peers at conferences seem to all be perks) to explain lit crit. This image is from a wonderful cover of the NY Times Book Review on this book, showing little Willies cavorting about Central Park, or the Forest of Arden, all reading about themselves as they played.

In studying and teaching the Bard, I always wonder if I am over-praising or under-estimating Shakespeare's achievement. "Is it him or is it we who are not making sense?" (524) Rosenbaum replies we are at fault. But this is a felix culpa, a happy fault. He energetically plows through dozens of topics revolving around reactions of critics and directors of Shakespeare. This is not a biography; Rosenbaum has choice words for Stephen Greenblatt's recent "Will in the World." Rosenbaum's dogged pace shows his journalistic knack for standing outside the "public fiascos, palace coups" of his book's subtitle, the better to examine "clashing scholars." Digging in, he holds his ground against formidable experts.

He's able to summarize Stephen Bloom's rhetorical application of antanaclasis in Sonnet 40: "like pulsating alliteration, evokes a sense of insecurity, of flux, of motion..." (471) This whole book, in fact, is Rosenbaum's effort to come to grips with a day as a grad student at Yale when he first realized this disassociation, this suspension between meanings, this either-and-or-plus-more capability that he argues Shakespeare, more than any other writer ever, at his best conveys to us. Still, this "exegetical despair" at never having enough time to get to the bottom of Shakespeare's "floating signifiers" persists.

In fact, Rosenbaum's status as a drop-out from an Ivy League doctoral program in English enables him to return to textual studies, critical debates, academic cogitation, and performance anxieties with aplomb-- and perhaps a wish to settle scores with fusty scholars and fussy thespians.
I found myself certainly eager to return to my student seminar on Lear, to pick up for the first time since college Antony & Cleopatra, or to re-discover the overlooked Troilus & Cressida. But, admittedly, the amount of detail, the intricacy of the arguments, and the rapidity with which parts of this study move too quickly all present any prospective reader of "The Shakespeare Wars" (not the best title, either) with reason to reflect. This book took me over two weeks on and off, and it demands-- as is only fair given its subject-- close attention and unwavering recall.

Often Rosenbaum sets up a point that he may not return to for hundreds of pages; he takes up as an aside concerns that far ago at a later stage in his quest to uncover Shakespeare's spell. [Part not on Amazon I added later: For instance, he builds up Booth's amazing ten-minute talk at Shenandoah but the climax-- where the prof's going with the idea of the Wall in "Midsummer's Night's Dream"-- gets muffled and barely's mentioned, after Rosenbaum's expended enormous energy on Booth's earlier two points. (Hard to believe the lecturer however learned packed so much into so little time, no matter how erudite the conference.]

[This book, as this example shows, is both too fast-paced and too-detailed. Rosenbaum has so much to say that he seems to forget his larger point in places such as I have mentioned. Dealing with how we deal with what's Shakespearean, what makes his work so dazzling, depends upon intricate arguments that in turn demand that we rise to a considerably higher level of Shakespearean literacy than I gather most of us have. Nothing wrong with that, but fair warning and be prepared for a long cruise through choppy waters.] He expects more than that elusive "generally educated reader" for you need to have read the plays he talks about. No plot summaries here; he takes what is odd for a mass-market account of the drama in that he writes at a level thankfully more accessible than the usual critic (which isn't hard these days, admittedly) but nonetheless a tone that implies on every page you need to have done as nearly an intensive scrutiny of the plays as he has had the stamina, the intellect, and the passion to pursue over thirty-five years.

The high points for me were his treatment of Shylock as performed too genteely by actors today afraid to admit that Shakespeare may have been one of his time and not above it in some universalist humanism in presenting a Jewish villain. Rosenbaum confronts Steven Berkoff and Henry Goodman, both British Jewish actors who in Rosenbaum's estimation have with varying degrees of success tried to make this play and its main character still worthy of a post-1945 performance of a drama more controversial now perhaps than it presumably in Shakespeare's London. Rosenbaum's own determination to argue for the play's antisemitism as its central and essential core despite "universalist" efforts to soften its edge make for stimulating reading.

He also, after a suitable interlude treating that Shakespeare on film for us can best its theatrical productions today-- by virtue of close-ups, subtle vocal expression, voiceover of soliloquys, and crafting of scenes without the stage's necessity to thunder out and soldier on for hours more. He recommends Welles' Falstaff, Burton's Hamlet, Olivier's Richard III, and Brook's Lear above all else. To his credit, he gives fair space to Harold Perrineau's stunning Mercutio in Luhrmann's Romeo; on the other hand he barely mentions Taymor's Titus, Parker's Othello, Branagh's Hamlet & Henry or Almeyredra's Hamlet although he seems to like much in them at their best. Not to mention his lack of explanation of what's good and bad in the 1980s BBC TV series that filmed for the first time the entire set of plays. Much more is needed than what his film chapter gives.

Too often, Rosenbaum mentions asides that to me proved more appealing than his main examples. I never figured out what adds up from Brook's "Secret Play" concept or the cumulative effect on stage of Cic Berry's vocal experiments in rehearsals. The Socinian heresy may have much to suggest about Merchant and Empson in "Milton's God" had much to provide about the Doctrine of Christian Satisfaction, but Rosenbaum raises such points only to then rush past them in his determination to transcribe yet another interview with an actor or director. These conversations are often enlightening, but there lurks an understandable if still awkward tendency of the journalist to put himself too forward as the antagonist, the devil's advocate, the naysayer.

There are places, as with his demolishment of Harold Bloom's ridiculous claims for Falstaff as the epitome of Shakespeare's "invention of the human" as we have inherited his conceptual paradigm, where he seems to have that personal agenda come out too much. Revenge for those Yale sherry parties when he witnessed his classmates fawning over Bloom is understandable. But it does undermine the intellectual rigor of his critique of that orotund mandarin.

Unfortunately, this hefty and handsomely designed book lacks any way to track down quotations from his sources. Bibliographic endnotes are engrossing, but the lack of specific citations for hundreds of quotes is disappointing in a book that tries to connect a wider audience to insider debates. Despite an imperfect result, this is one of the rare books that bridges the gap between the ranks of (in the phrase of one of them, Linda Charnes) "yuppie guerrilla academics" and the rest of us. Rosenbaum, for all this book's unevenness and exhausting mass of half-digested material, cares about getting us to share his enthusiasm. Pleasure-- how rarely do we find this concept at the heart of a critic's search for aesthetic wonder? Grace, infinitude, love, sea change, the abyss, forgiveness, transport outside of ourselves: Rosenbaum seeks the source of his "reader reception" by hunting down everyone he can who may guide him to the elusive source of Shakespeare's power and control over him-- and, he urges, if we wish to follow him, Shakespeare's trail blazed for us.

I don't understand, apropos, why Rosenbaum agrees with an assertion that we are the last generation who will be able to comprehend Shakespeare's language before it becomes as antiquated and inaccessible as is Chaucer's Middle English to non-specialists. He raises this point, typically, but never elaborates on it. He raves about Kevin Kline's Falstaff but skims over how Kline's acting in part 2 of Henry IV alters from part 1: a topic that previously Rosenbaum insists upon for many detailed pages. Too often, Rosenbaum seems so excited about his adventure that he forgets we have a hard time keeping up with his dash.

He's no Bardolator. Rather, he wishes us to uncover the intensity of what we read and witness as "the language of thought" as it emerges onto paper or into the spotlights. He argues for what matters in Shakespeare as an aesthetic achievement-- in fact one more apparent to those of us outside today's academy. We may be mocked by those claiming "the institutionalist debunking of the bourgeois subject" from ivory towers to speak rather for the oppressed. I teach some of these less- privileged, literarily-challenged students every day, far from the Ivy League. I'd ask Charnes: how should I teach them Shakespeare? How explain his appeal to the person next to me on the bus? Getting "ordinary folks" to understand a bit of Shakespeare's art brings the original aim of the playwright home. As one critic mentions, anyone can experience the complex reactions Rosenbaum or critics or directors know. The only difference is that the professionals know how to articulate it, and can re-experience it with increasingly adept awareness. What Wordsworth labelled as simultaneous dissassociation and association: this quality marks Shakespeare's inexhaustible, endlessly renewable "moral complexity" as well as artistic achievement.

The inexhaustability of good art may sound old-fashioned, but Rosenbaum near the opening of his book shows how Shakespeare rewards our investment-- with compound interest. For many people today, accustomed to obvious presentation of vapid messages, Shakespeare may nudge them out of their shell. They are often scared of him. Rosenbaum likewise demystifies Shakespeare for a wider audience. He understands the academic arguments and translates their findings to those of us whom scholarly articles and learned books may rarely reach: the common reader.

[P.S. Happy birthday, Man of Stratford!]

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fionnbarra's mother: Mary Ellen O'Doherty

On my first visit to Derry around the start of this decade, my host was Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh, a veteran from the earliest days in the second half of the 1960s. This author of "Ulster's White Negroes" (reviewed by me on Amazon) was both a NICRA Civil Rights spokesman and a militant republican activist. There's lots of his Ó Dochartaigh/ Ó Donnghaile clan around the Maiden City, near their ancestral origins; he has also written a book on the O'Dohertys and has been a prime mover in their Clan's center now in the heart of the walled city. That January afternoon, his sister and his mother kindly greeted me, fed me with delicious brown bread and tea, and later a warm meal before I had reluctantly had to dash off down the hill to the Foyle to catch the last bus back to Belfast that night. They made fun of me for asking where the "restroom" was and not the "toilet." Cute little brown dog rascally romped about my feet. I complimented Mrs. O'D on her culinary skills; she admitted the bread was not homemade. You'd've fooled this "green" Yank.

Derry News, Thursday, April 19th 2008. Report by Darinagh Boyle

US honour for rights veteran

Mary Ellen O’Doherty, the 99 year-old widow of an IRA volunteer who fought
in the campaign for independence has been selected for a prestigious
Irish-American award.

The Celtic Cross Award will take pride of place in the family’s Crawford
Square home alongside her late husband Harry’s decorations-the Tan War and
Truce Medals. The latter was struck on the 50th anniversary of the
declaration of the ‘Truce’ which sparked off the Civil War.

But Mrs O’Doherty will, this time, be honoured in her own right-for her
contribution to the Civil rights movement, social justice, women’s rights
and the welfare of prisoners.

Speaking to the Derry News days ahead of her 99th birthday, Mrs. O’Doherty
said she was “deeply honoured” by the award.

“Many, many people, especially women, worked tirelessly, often in very
difficult circumstances during the civil rights era and long before it for
the rights of others. And they did so without any recognition whatsoever.
I’m thrilled to receive this award in recognition of my role.”

During the Civil Rights era the O’Doherty’s family home became a melting pot
for local leaders and journalists from all over the world.

The Protestant former mill worker, Betty Sinclair who became secretary of
the Belfast Trades Council was a frequent visitor in Mary’s home. And on her
recommendations journalists from all over the world were directed to Mrs.

Mary Ellen’s son, Fionnbarra, recalled an occasion when a Pravda
correspondent refused to return to Moscow without his mother’s recipe for
scone-bread. It was during this time that she came to know the late Mary
Holland and retained a life long respect for her coverage of the northern

But her efforts were not limited to political activism. Mrs. O’Doherty
helped equip the city’s first Women’s Aid Centre with the late Kathy Harkin
who pioneered what was then a groundbreaking project.


Mrs. O’Doherty, whose husband was incarcerated in Derry Gaol in the 1930s,
was until recently actively involved in various prisoners’ campaigns. In
2003 she addressed a conference on prisoners’ rights in the city and a year
before was made an honorary member of the Ladies Division of the AOH.

At the age of 90, she was awarded Pensioner of the Year by Age Concern Derry
having been nominated by several local organisations.

More recently she made a presentation to Sheila Kelly, widow of the Late
Captain James J. Kelly at a press conference in Derry.

Born Mary Ellen Hegarty in 1908 in the Co. Tyrone village of Ballmagorry
outside Strabane, Mrs. O’Doherty spent her early adulthood working as a
nursery nurse in Dublin.

And it was this relatively brief interlude in her young life that was to
unfold an unusual twist. For the young Tyrone woman had been employed as a
nursemaid to William Martin Murphy. He was prime organiser of Dublin
employers against the trade unions, led by James ‘Big Jim’ Larkin and James
Connolly. The conflict of interests culminated in the famous 1913 Lock-Out.

Picture caption:

Right: Mrs. O’Doherty and her late husband Harry with Dr. Nora Connolly
O’Brien, daughter of the Rising Leader James Connolly. Also included is one
of Mrs. O’Doherty’s sons, Fionnbarra.
Fergal's brother: Shane Paul O'Doherty
Kelly Clark, in her blog "The Lady in the Pew," is a Bostonian Irish Catholic who likes being all four of those descriptions. She writes in her blog her reactions to the print article vs. that on the net that I accessed. What led me here? In searching for images for Mary Ellen O'Doherty (see the entry immediately following this one) whom I wanted to profile here, I found instead my friend Fergal's brother, Shane Paul. Perhaps fitting as they all know each other, these Derry Dohertys, and F. and S.P.'s father taught at the local CBS them and members of the Undertones, who were classmates of younger sibling Fergal (he appears as a backgrounded fan in the BBC video "Teenage Kicks" on that classic late 70s-early 80s pop-punk band). Shane Paul's snapshot here is presumably from his prison stint. (More pictures that accompanied the article can be found on the Boston Globe's site photo gallery, including one of him in academic regalia proudly getting his BA from Trinity. Maith thú!)

Literary expertise the brothers certainly share; Fergal after a stint in Act Up and a PhD from CUNY now teaches English to a motley crew of college students near San Diego. Great guy; he and his partner-- Kevin, Irish-Jewish and a perfect guest!-- attended Leo's bar mitzvah. I did not get to talk with them or Dan (who introduced me to him in the first place) much that hectic night, but I heard Henry and Fergal hit it off with the craic at 90 (as the Northerners say) delighting each other with Ulsterisms. The snap I came across in googling "O'Doherty" accompanied a rather melodramatic article from the Globe Sunday magazine on his transformation. News to me as last I heard from F., S.P. was in Sweden working as a consultant. Perhaps the information Kelly Clark shares is why this article's revelations are news to me?

Kelly adds the following to the original web article August 7, 2005 on SP O'D.

Former IRA bomber now a seminarian
The Boston Globe Magazine's cover story profiles a former Irish Republican Army terrorist (parenthetical comment -- interesting to see the Globe using the term "terrorist") now studying for the priesthood.

The cover itself blaringly headlines what evidently the Globe considers news:

"The Catholic Church believes no man is beyond salvation."


The sentiment is repeated in the article's kicker:

He was a teenage terrorist. He tried to kill a bishop. After 14 years in prison, he got married. Now the Catholic Church wants him to become a priest. Is no man beyond salvation?

Judge for yourself the merits of the article, and the motivation, if any, behind it. But do so with all the facts. Here's what you won't find in the online version of the Globe Magazine, but will if you've got the hard copy:

When Globe reporter Kevin Cullen tracked down former terrorist Shane Paul O'Doherty at Ireland's last Catholic seminary, he wasn't sure the school would let him in. But when the silver-haired Cullen (below, at left, with O'Doherty), in his customary black pants and windbreaker, approached a guard, the man nodded and called him "Father." The mistake was a stroke of luck, because this week's cover story is one the church is not anxious to talk about and declined to cooperate with.

Okay, the reporter gets in under false pretenses. Some might call that dishonest from the get-go. Still, the seminarian evidently was okay with being profiled.

But what's with the "declined to cooperate with" slur? (Which is what it is.) And how is the Globe defining "church?"

The answer, if you want to call it that, is almost at the end of the multi-paged feature. (Please keep in mind that the seminarian once tried to murder a bishop, which is more than just a "no-no" when it comes to becoming a priest, and evidently requires a papal dispensation.)

The Rev. Kevin Doran, who recruits candidates for the priesthood for the Dublin Archdiocese, says O'Doherty was accepted last year with the understanding that neither he nor anyone in the Church would publicly discuss his story during his study for the priesthood. Doran, in an e-mail, says: "There is, undoubtedly a `story' in Shane's journey to seminary. The diocese has taken the view, however, that this is not the time to focus on that story."

The Boston Globe overruled the Dublin Archdiocese.

My question is this: did O'Doherty, whether intentionally or not, screw up his own candidacy? The wording in the beginning of the quoted paragraph is confusing. Does the "he" refer to Father Doran or to O'Doherty himself?

Here is the original article:


"LET'S GO FOR A WALK," SHANE PAUL O'DOHERTY SAYS. The Long Corridor at St. Patrick's College, Ireland's last remaining seminary, is a vision out of Harry Potter's school, Hogwarts, dark and slightly foreboding. The oak walls are lined with solemn portraits of clerics who have educated more than 11,000 Roman Catholic priests since 1795. Inside College Chapel, heels click on the marble mosaic floor, under the gaze of a procession of saints and angels painted on the ceiling. Outside, the three Gothic buildings that form St. Mary's Square overlook a lush garden and a pond with rocks positioned as steppingstones, designed to symbolize man's spiritual journey toward God.

In the sleepy college town of Maynooth, 15 miles outside Dublin, we walk through a stone archway into an idyllic Gothic quadrangle called St. Joseph's Square, gravel paths snaking through grassy swaths dappled with bright red flowers. The only sound is bird song. At 50, O'Doherty still boasts a boyish appearance, thin and fit, bone-china skin, his brown hair closely cropped.

Between 1993 and 2002, seven seminaries closed in Ireland, leaving only St. Patrick's. Though it reeks of history, it also seems a lonely place. In the 1960s, as many as 600 seminarians studied at St. Patrick's; today, 60 do, a drop that's been attributed both to a more materialistic Ireland and to the country's own ongoing clergy sex abuse scandals, which mirror those in Boston and other American dioceses.

The last time we had gone for a long walk together, a decade earlier, I was covering the conflict in Northern Ireland for the Globe, and he was a married man six years removed from prison. Before his arrest, he'd become the most wanted man in Britain, a hero for the Irish Republican Army whose letter-bomb campaign had maimed a dozen people and terrorized all of London. We had walked the streets of Derry, his hometown. At that time, we paused at the rooming house for British soldiers where he had planted his first bomb in 1970, when he was 15. We passed the spot in the Bogside where Barney McGuigan's brains spilled out onto the pavement on Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British paratroopers shot and killed 14 civil rights demonstrators. We walked by the apartment in Crawford Square that O'Doherty used as a bomb factory, the one that blew up, killing Ethel Lynch, his 22-year-old assistant.

He was given his middle name because he was born on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, who was a zealous killer of Christians before his own conversion on the road to Damascus. But O'Doherty's story is not about a miraculous religious conversion as much as a gradual spiritual evolution. He had a tug of war with God, and God won. His odyssey, from teenage revolutionary to middle-age seminarian, is a story of redemption.

"Hell," he says, shrugging. "If I can be saved, anyone can."

IN 1965, WHEN HE WAS 10 YEARS OLD, HE tore a sheet of paper from a notebook he used to copy lessons at school and wrote down a pledge: "When I grow up, I, Shane Paul O'Doherty, want to fight and, if necessary, die for Ireland's freedom." Even at his tender age, he knew his words were treasonous, and so he hid them under the floorboards of the attic of his family's home and forgot about them until 10 years later, when he was sitting in an interrogation room, under arrest, and a detective shoved the yellowed paper under his nose. He blushed, more embarrassed by his childish idealism than terrified at the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

O'Doherty was born in Derry in 1955 during a winter so cold his mother called him the Snow Baby. Unlike most of Northern Ireland, Derry had a Catholic majority, and an established Catholic middle class, one of the reasons the Catholic civil rights movement bloomed there in the late 1960s. O'Doherty was part of that middle class, one of eight children in a family that wasn't especially political. His father was a teacher and principal at a school run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic order. His mother hailed from a prominent business family. Two of his uncles fought the British in Ireland's war of independence in the 1920s. But O'Doherty's father never spoke of any of this and quietly aspired to unity with the Irish Republic while opposing violence as a means of achieving it. Despite holding the majority in Derry, Catholics were excluded from power through gerrymandering and other discriminatory practices of the Protestant unionist government that was loyal to Britain.

Most of O'Doherty's neighbors were Protestant, and he never heard a sectarian word in his home. But as a child, he would sit alone in his family's well-stocked library, reading about Irish history. "There was something about the tragedy of British rule in Ireland against the wishes of the Irish people," he says.

He was spellbound reading about the Easter Rising of 1916, when a quixotic band of patriots staged a rebellion they knew was doomed, determined to ignite a wider revolution. As a 10-year-old living in British-controlled Northern Ireland, Shane O'Doherty offered himself up to martyrdom, which was something of an empty pledge, not because of his age but because, at the time, there was no rebellion to join. The IRA, widely regarded as a small bunch of dreamers, was dormant.

But that all changed when the Protestant government's response to the demands of the Catholic civil rights movement was to beat protesters off the streets. In 1968 and 1969, around the time O'Doherty was turning 14, Derry convulsed with protest and attacks on demonstrators by loyalist mobs and the predominantly Protestant police force. By the time British troops were deployed, O'Doherty had thrown Molotov cocktails at police, and the IRA had become active again. A new group, the Provisional IRA, or the Provos, had sprung up, determined to bring the fight to the British, and 15- year-old Shane O'Doherty began an almost farcical search for them, knocking on doors, so he could join. He eventually found two men who inducted him into the secret organization.

"I was no longer an insignificant teenager, "he says now. "I became heroic overnight. I felt almost drunk with power."

At 16, he threw nail bombs at British soldiers and almost hoped he'd be shot dead, fantasizing that his sacrifice would inspire a mural or, better yet, a song, ensuring his immortality. He jumped out of alleys, firing a revolver at soldiers armed with automatic rifles. In 1971, he loosed a rocket at a British Army observation tower. It missed but hit another army post by dumb luck. Soldiers then opened fire on a passing car, wounding a woman and two children. O'Doherty went home and prayed that the woman and children would survive. They did, but his having almost caused their deaths had shaken him. He stopped reporting for duty.

Any chance he would stay away from the IRA for good evaporated five days after his 17th birthday, however, when British paratroopers opened fire on Catholic demonstrators on January 30, 1972 - what became known as Bloody Sunday. He saw unarmed men and teens gunned down. In the chaos, he bumped into a priest he knew, and the two went to the local morgue, where O'Doherty saw police and soldiers laugh and joke about the shootings. He accompanied the priest to the homes of the dead and the injured, and his fury smoldered. He reported back to the IRA and was flattered when his commander eventually asked him to go to London to launch a letter- bomb campaign.

"I had come to the conclusion that all these British soldiers from working-class backgrounds that we were shooting and blowing up in Northern Ireland were deemed expendable by the British government," he says. "The idea was to have those in high places in British military and political circles face the consequences of occupying Ireland."

ONCE IN LONDON, HE POSED AS A STUDENT and bought a copy of Who's Who, to draw up a target list. One of his bombs injured Reginald Maudling, the British Cabinet member in charge of security on Bloody Sunday. He sent a bomb to Bishop Gerard Tickle, the Roman Catholic chaplain to the British Army, after reading a newspaper story quoting Tickle as saying British soldiers did nothing wrong on Bloody Sunday. (He later called the story a "press misrepresentation.") The bomb, stuffed into a hollowed-out Bible, failed to detonate. He sent a letter bomb to 10 Downing Street, the prime minister's residence, and it sat unnoticed in a wastebasket for 24 hours. It didn't explode, but O'Doherty's ability to pierce security at the heart of the government made him, as the mystery letter bomber, the most wanted man in Britain.

Other bombs sent by him exploded at the London Stock Exchange, the Bank of England, and a government building. The injured included secretaries and security guards, and, as a result, O'Doherty's doubts returned. He went back to Derry to fight on the home front and knelt in a confessional at St. Eugene's Cathedral, where he had been a choirboy a few years and a whole lifetime before. He told the priest he was in the IRA and wanted to talk about the morality of violence in a liberation struggle. But the priest was in no mood to debate.

"Murder and violence are always wrong," the cleric told him.

O'Doherty left that church a more tormented 19-year-old than when he entered but continued fighting.

In 1975, the IRA called a cease-fire, with the promise from authorities that IRA operatives would not be arrested as a political compromise was hashed out. But that promise turned out to be empty, and, in May 1975, police descended on the house of O'Doherty's mother. Sarah O'Doherty, who had no idea her son was in the IRA, was making him lunch; she looked on in bewilderment as he was bundled into a car, shirtless, and whisked away.

The IRA shot a police officer in retaliation for O'Doherty's arrest. The dead cop was the son of the chief officer at the Belfast prison where O'Doherty was being held, and the guards beat the 20- year-old mercilessly the next day. Guards ripped sheets into long strips and placed them in his cell, advising him to hang himself, because it would be better than what they had planned for him. One guard sat outside his cell and turned the light on and off, so O'Doherty couldn't sleep. Years later, the warden who had presided over his torture was murdered by the IRA, and O'Doherty could not muster sympathy for him.

In September, O'Doherty was flown to London and charged with the letter bombings. As he prepared for his trial, he read the reports that chronicled in clinical and shocking detail the extent of the injuries he had inflicted on 12 people. A secretary was blinded by glass in her eyes. A security guard had his hand blown off and an eye blown out. Another man lost the tips of his fingers.

Even as O'Doherty second-guessed himself, he remained defiant. He refused to recognize the authority of the court that tried him in London. The feeling was somewhat mutual, as the elderly judge frequently nodded off. But the judge woke up long enough to give O'Doherty 30 life sentences.

If St. Paul's transformation was on the road to Damascus, O'Doherty's was in solitary confinement in Wormwood Scrubs, a London prison. His conversion was in the monastic tradition of Ireland. For more than a year, he was isolated in a cell, where he read books on the theory of a just war.

"I was trying to justify the violence I had used," he says.

Where guards saw only a stubborn man who refused to wear prison clothing and who insisted he was a political prisoner, the Rev. Gerald Ennis, the Catholic chaplain, saw a pilgrim.

"Your little brother is an extraordinary young man given very special gifts, and I believe those gifts are going to be used for the greater glory of God," Ennis wrote in a prescient letter to one of O'Doherty's brothers in 1977. "I have never worried particularly about his being in the [solitary] block, because he was always a person who was searching for the truth. Once the discovery was made, his prison cell became a monastic cell where he was alone with God and his own thoughts."

O'Doherty emerged from solitary still defiant toward a prison regime he saw as needlessly cruel, but he was changed. At great personal risk, he left the security of the IRA, associating with English prisoners at a time when the Irish in England were held collectively responsible for ongoing IRA violence.

Back in his cell, he began reading the Bible more intently. The Gospel of St. Matthew nagged at him, especially one passage:

So, if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

"I had rejected the Church's doctrine of a just war," O'Doherty says. "I had come to believe that only pacifism was truly moral, truly Christlike. But, as I was trying to make myself a better person, to distance myself from the violence I had committed, I couldn't really move forward until I had addressed my victims."

O'Doherty then did what no other IRA member ever had: apologize to his victims. He never heard back from them, though one, the security guard who had lost an eye and a hand, told British newspapers he opposed the prospect of O'Doherty being released from prison. O'Doherty said he didn't expect or need to be forgiven. The point was his being able to apologize and admit he was wrong.

In September 1985, after demanding repatriation for a decade, O'Doherty got into a taxi with two guards for the drive to Birmingham's airport and a short flight to Belfast. One of the guards handed him a religious paperback. Inside was an inscription from the guard saying that he and his wife had been praying for O'Doherty for months. After 10 years of abuse, physical and psychological, in British jails, O'Doherty left the country with tears in his eyes, moved by an Englishman's kindness.

Upon his release in 1989, O'Doherty enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin, pursuing a degree in English and writing his autobiography. A few years later, he met a pretty blonde from Chicago named Michelle Sweeney, who was getting a doctorate in medieval history. They married, settling into a small house in Dublin. He got a job as a computer software trainer. As he prospered in Ireland's booming high-tech economy, he tried to soothe a troubled conscience. He edited a magazine sold by the homeless. He volunteered to help Bosnian Muslim refugees. He taught computer skills to children from itinerant families.

Sweeney accepted an offer to teach in the United States, but O'Doherty could not get a visa to live there because of his criminal record. In the late 1990s, even as other former IRA members who never expressed remorse for their violent deeds flitted in and out of the United States promoting the peace process, O'Doherty was repeatedly denied permission to enter.

Their separation caused the marriage to collapse. Sweeney sent him an e-mail, saying she wanted a divorce. O'Doherty wanted an annulment. He wrote a 50-page letter to the board that oversees annulments in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He got his wish.

In the spring of 2001, O'Doherty was sitting at his desk in Stockholm, where he had begun working for Ericsson, the mobile- phone maker. He was a former terrorist, former prisoner, former husband. He had a good salary, and he was miserable. He decided to go back to Dublin. In just a generation, Ireland had gone from being one of Europe's poorest countries to one of its richest. But the sudden, widespread pursuit of materialism disturbed O'Doherty.

The priesthood intrigued him; it had even as a kid. But if his record precluded his getting into the United States, how could he possibly get into a seminary?

On a religious retreat, a priest sidled up to him and asked him if he had ever been on a retreat before.

"Yes," O'Doherty said.

"How long was it?" the priest asked.

"Fourteen and a half years," O'Doherty replied.

IN THE BASEMENT KITCHEN OF DUBLIN'S Pro-Cathedral, on the city's gritty North-side, Gemma and Triona King, spinster sisters in their 50s, are making sandwiches and explaining how they became two of the approximately two dozen consecrated virgins in Ireland. Their virginity is a gift to God, a symbolic gesture of their giving themselves to serve Jesus Christ. They have worked with Dublin's disadvantaged for years. They also offer intercessions, or prayers, for those who want to become priests. They realized something was up when O'Doherty, who had been volunteering around the cathedral and visiting inmates with the prison chaplain, asked them to pray for him.

"We encouraged Shane," Gemma King says, sipping tea as O'Doherty and another seminarian stand in another part of the kitchen, making plans to visit a homeless shelter. "Shane has sinned, like all of us. But he knows the power of repentance, of forgiveness, of redemption, of God's love, not as abstract concepts but as real life. What better qualities could you have for a priest?"

Walking the grounds at the seminary, O'Doherty acknowledges he could do good works as a layperson. But becoming a priest, with five to seven years of intense study and soul-searching, was to him the logical, spiritual conclusion of his odyssey, something he calls "my journey through the largely unknown, praying for the three gifts I have never had: humility, patience, and gentleness."

However long it takes him to be ordained, at 50, he is still 10 years younger than the average priest in Dublin.

Gone are the days of long, flowing black cassocks. In jeans and sweaters, the seminarians blend in with the 5,000 other students who, since 1997, have shared the bucolic campus that is National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

O'Doherty was elected class representative by his 27 classmates, the largest seminary class in Ireland in more than 20 years.

"What's the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist?" a priest asked the seminarians at one of their first classes last fall.

No one raised a hand.

"You can negotiate with a terrorist," the priest said, answering his own question, as all eyes drifted to O'Doherty.

"They want me to argue," he says later, almost as if he can't believe his luck. "I can start an argument in an empty house."

His classmates had told me an illuminating story. In one class, they engaged in role-playing. The instructors hung three signs around their necks and asked the seminarians to stand behind the person who most needed the support of a priest. Most stood in back of the person labeled as religious. A few stood in back of the person labeled a prostitute. Only O'Doherty stood behind the person labeled a homosexual.

Asked about it, O'Doherty shrugs.

"Hey, I was in prison. I was married.

I have a gay brother. Who am I to judge anyone?"

Having been married didn't exclude him from becoming a priest, because the marriage was annulled. Neither did his past membership in the IRA. But there was the small matter of having tried to kill Bishop Tickle.

THOMAS GROOME, AN IRISH-BORN THEOlogian at Boston College, explains that canon law forbids anyone who has killed or tried to kill an ordained cleric in the Catholic Church from becoming a priest. Such a sacrilege requires dispensation at the highest levels of the Church. "Technically, only the pope can forgive this," says Groome, a former priest.

Tickle died of natural causes in 1994 and could not vouch for O'Doherty, but Bishop Edward Daly could. Daly is one of the most venerated priests in Ireland, a fierce critic of violence. A photograph showing him waving a white handkerchief as he and a group of men tried to get first aid for one of the casualties of Bloody Sunday is one of that day's indelible images. Daly, who was especially kind to O'Doherty's mother, had corresponded with O'Doherty and visited him in prison and believed his conversion to pacifism was genuine and Gospel-inspired. Daly assured the Vatican in general and Pope John Paul II in particular that O'Doherty had the potential to become a good priest. With Daly behind him and with the sponsorship of Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, O'Doherty was accepted at St. Patrick's College.

The Rev. Kevin Doran, who recruits candidates for the priesthood for the Dublin Archdiocese, says O'Doherty was accepted last year with the understanding that neither he nor anyone in the Church would publicly discuss his story during his study for the priesthood. Doran, in an e-mail, says: "There is, undoubtedly a `story' in Shane's journey to seminary. The diocese has taken the view, however, that this is not the time to focus on that story."

Groome says some will see O'Doherty's candidacy for the priesthood as a sign of just how desperate the Catholic Church is for priests. But Groome believes a defining characteristic of Catholicism is at play.

"At its best, Catholicism has great magnanimity," Groome says. "We believe in last-minute conversions. We like the story of the good thief who repented on the cross. O'Doherty's life story is about redemption, but it redeems all of us. The great saint, the great soldier, and the great lover are all similar. They are gamblers, full of idealism, looking for a noble cause."

When, God willing, he is ordained, Shane Paul O'Doherty says, he knows where his ministry lies.

The prisons.