AngelI was involved in a Cork 96FM radio programme a few days ago, talking about angel belief. Prior to my bit on the programme, a number of women were interviewed. They were deeply invested in their beliefs, many claiming to have seen visions or having received the assistance of angels at important moments in their lives. The women were clearly very religious, many of them describing themselves as “spiritual”, as opposed to paid-up Catholic Mass-goers.

They talked about their encounters with angel healers. According to them, the healers were able to tell them things they couldn’t possibly have known in advance. It was clear that the healers were using cold-reading and warm-reading techniques. Psychologists and mentalists have long discovered that these methods are not at all magical; instead they prey on mental flaws and blind-spots that we all possess. These manipulative and deceptive practices still catch the unwary, hook, line and sinker.

Angel belief has been given a shot in the arm because of a recent pronouncement by the Pope, who recently declared that they exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. The Pope may well be saying this from a position of belief, however part of me suspects that he is addressing a wider problem within his Church. There has been a notable decline in church involvement by women, who have become disillusioned by the behaviour, attitudes and scandals within the world’s biggest boys’ club.

What strikes me about angel belief is the power of the imagery. I doubt if there are many things more potent than the idea that an authority figure is caring for us and nurturing us. It’s inculcated in us from childhood. When things get bad, we can rely on this image to make us feel better. Mary and Jesus are portrayed as nurturing, parental figures for this very reason. While this kind of belief can seem harmless enough, I have some concerns. Should things continue to get worse, then instead of focusing on the problem, people could be wracked by guilt for having disappointed their “angel”; that, in some way they are being punished for a transgression. This could pile additional stress on what is already a difficult situation. Additionally, such feelings of comfort are temporary and unlikely to solve chronic issues and problems fixable with outside help. Far from being a solution, angel belief could morph into a permanent avoidance strategy. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I am not going to condemn people who believe in angels. What people choose to believe is up to them, so long as they are not trying to foist these beliefs onto us, or put other people’s health and mental health at risk. Angel healing is big business, as anyone who has recently visited a book shop will testify. It saddens me that so many people are locked in a parent-child relationship with an imaginary entity. It allows the angels’ real life proxies – the authors and healers profiting from these beliefs – to be viewed very uncritically by their adherents. Given the subject matter they claim to be experts on and the fact that their only “evidence” is personal anecdote, these people are not quite as knowledgable as they make themselves out to be.

Blackrock_CastleWhen we look back in history, it can seem self-evident that previous generations were poorer in almost every way imaginable. To us, they had fewer material resources, a benighted mindset, poorer social structures, rudimentary health systems and a throwaway attitude towards human life. Yet, such a way of looking at the past may be deeply biased.

It may well be an illusion to think of our times as objectively “better” than in the past. Instead, we might only be considering how the past complies with the current zeitgeist. The further back in time we go, the less familiar things become. If we were to apply a percentage to how things comply with the present, then starting at 100% (now), we see this percentage reducing the further back in time we went.

No matter what period people are born into, it’s likely that they would apply the same bias. Whether they lived in the 1920’s, or the Middle Ages, or during the Roman Empire, they would always start at 100%. Their sense of the past would be framed completely by their present, possibly making them believe they were living in the most perfect of ages, irrespective of how bad these same ages might seem to us now.

Such an outlook means we must look at history not as objectively imperfect, but rather relatively different compared to the world we live in today. In the values we measure highly today, the past is unlikely to match up well. However, other measures, of lesser importance to us today, might have been deeply prized in another time. Where a time in the past is 100 – X percent like this world, this missing X becomes hugely interesting. It defines something that we would struggle to appreciate now, but nevertheless would have been crucial to the lives of people of those times, and vitally important if we wish to properly understand historical contexts.

Examples of that missing X could be music, folklore, poetry, humour or religious practice, all now lost to the sands of time. It could be skills and handiwork, no longer practised. It could be the toys and games played, the foods and the sports, of which we know little. All of this possibly lead to lives worth living for those times. When we hear older people bemoaning how older times were better, perhaps we hear echoes of this missing X.

The missing X applies not just to time, but to space too. Foreign cultures may not be poorer to our minds, as they are different. To understand it properly would require living there. To make a spot assumption that our culture is somehow better (or for them to assume it for themselves) is dangerous territory indeed.

All this is not to say that the values of our time are worthless and immaterial. Issues such as feminism, LGBT rights, racism, slavery, child-cruelty, empiricism, medicine and science have made this world a better place and, I would argue, objectively so. However we still need to be mindful of a creeping bias that turns the past into a caricature of itself. Making this mistake blinds us to what might really have been going on. At best, it leads to an imperfect view of our past. At worst, it deepens prejudice and intolerance.

Last night, my eldest son, who is preparing to do his Junior Cert this year, asked me a question. Why should he study history, he asked, wanting to know what jobs might be available after doing it.

In truth, I don’t think there are many directly related jobs, unless you fancy being a historian or an author, but I think that’s missing the point. History is a vitally important subject for reasons that transcend basic job market economics.

First of all, it gives us a sense of who we are, and how we came to be. It tells us stories about our locality, our country and our civilisation that in turn, give us an insight into why things are how they are. Great historical events don’t die quickly. They create echoes that last to and through our present day. History is there in everything we experience. By understanding this we enrich our minds.

Secondly, the stories it tells can often be related to decisions relevant to the present day. History is bubbling over with stories of people who had great decisions to make, and the consequences of those decisions are often described in gruesome detail. History is probably the only laboratory in which many of our decisions can be tested. In history we find context, and from that context we can move forwards, mindful of the mistakes made in the past that lead nowhere, or even to disaster.

Thirdly, history can do wonders for our critical thinking skills. Where there is a narrative, there are often one or many counter-narratives. We learn from our past that nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and that the stories we are told often have gaping holes or mind-boggling complexities. We discover that that simple stories often deliberately overlook or distort events in order to push a particular viewpoint or ideology. Being sensitive to these distortions is no bad thing. A careful reading of history asks us to look beyond propaganda and to seek out the untidiness, while also valuing expert consensus where it exists.

History is a powerful subject. It would be a pity to see it commoditised or deprecated simply for its job-winning value. History has to be seen as more than the means to an end, as there is so much to be learned beyond our first job. It’s a type of learning that can accompany us throughout our lives.
It’s a friend to the grave.

Last Sunday, we went on a boat trip in West Cork. We were hoping to come up close and personal with a large pod of fin whales, but, despite excellent weather on the day, they were nowhere to be seen.  Photos of these magnificent creatures will have to wait for another day.

The trip was remarkably uneventful. Not only did we not see fin whales, but we also failed to spot any sunfish, dolphins or minke whales either. Even the skipper couldn’t hide his frustration on the day, as the previous few days had been marvellous for spotting marine creatures. 

We did manage to see seals, but this time of the year they’re not likely to go too far as the females are heavily pregnant. And no, we didn’t see any newborn seal pups either, in case you’re asking.

The upside is that I managed to take some nice photos. The coastline around Castletownshend is gloriously photogenic, even if its marine inhabitants were in hiding.

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The Stags

The Stags

Seal Rocks

Seal Rocks

So, yet another local politician has put his foot in it. He requested that the only people allowed to work on a new motorway be Irish, with the dark implication that those damned for’ners go back to the countries they came from forthwith. I’m sure, no doubt, we’ll hear that some of his best friends are “non-nationals”, just you wait.

via Mike Licht (CC Licenced on Flickr)

via Mike Licht (CC Licenced on Flickr)

But who are the Irish anyway? Is it people who were born in Ireland? Then what about the kids who were born here, but are not allowed Irish citizenship because their parents don’t come from these parts? How about Six County Nationalists or, God forbid, Ulster Unionists? Can we include them?

What about the thousands of people from all over the world who have acquired Irish citizenship through a lengthy and expensive process? Are they now Irish, or should we try to take their passports away when they aren’t looking? Can we overlook the fact that many foreigners pay tax here, thereby bolstering our public services?

Then there are the emigrants who left the country to better their prospects and now cannot vote in any of our elections. Should we drop them from the list too? Or the sons and grandsons of emigrants who find they can play on our national soccer team if they are good enough? Maybe if they lose the accent can we leave them in?

Maybe the accent clinches it, leaving us therefore with a “South Dublin Problem”.

And what about those people who hold a sentimental attachment to the aul’ sod? Should we ask them to refrain from calling themselves Irish Americans or Irish Canadians lest they dilute the magic of Irishness? Should we divide St. Patricks Day in two – a “real” one and a “continuity” one, perhaps?

Does Irish mean Catholic? Or lapsed Catholic, because, well, you know, actual Catholics are somewhat in decline these days.

Does it mean you need to have a surname like O’Carroll, O’Casey, Boyle or Desmond? Do we stop at the Norman invasions or can we let a few Old English in before we close the doors? Should they at least follow the hurling or the football, or must they have played it up to senior level? How then, in God’s name, should we deal with a women’s rugby team or Irish cricket players? The state of them.

Could we somehow leave Cork people from the list? Surely they want to secede anyways?

Oh dear. I despair. It’s such a hard thing these days figuring out what “Irish” actually means. Maybe we should leave it to the esteemed councillor Fahy to sort it out for us.

99 Percent InvisibleOver the past few weeks, I have been listening to the 99 Percent Invisible podcast on my journeys to and from work. If you are a fan of This American Life, you will love it. It discusses the influence of design in contemporary society and how its presence is often overlooked, as if, er, by design. Over the past few weeks I have been listening to the nuances of fire escapes, nuclear bomb shelters, and signage designed to last ten-thousand years. From these few episodes alone, I’m eagerly looking forward to hearing some of their older offerings.

I thoroughly recommend their recent episode “The Sound Of Sports“. It opens a window on audio production in sports television and radio. It was originally produced in 2011 for the BBC, and is slightly dated because of it. Despite this, it makes compelling listening. 

I never fully appreciated the lengths to which sports producers introduce a sense of hyper-reality into our living rooms. Their aim is to make the experience much better than being there in person. The cameras are up close to the action, the microphones strategically positioned to pick up the nuances of the play, and at times, sound effects are introduced because the real effects are, well, not good enough. This might seem like cheating, but sports broadcasters will tell you that some of their biggest competitors are video game designers. TV audiences now expect experiences at least as good as what gamers will encounter. It’s a kind of arms race, with both teams borrowing ideas from each other so that the end effects excite us in a way the actual event might not.

We have become accustomed to the hyper-real. While long the stock-in-trade of Hollywood with their foley artists and special effects departments, such enhancements are now available to the public for free. Photos are now routinely scrubbed and filtered by the likes of Photoshop and Instagram. Home movies are slowed down, sped up and dispensed of shake and stutter. We don’t see this as a problem because it’s all about pleasuring the senses and getting across the desired intent than portraying hum-drum reality. Perhaps there will be a backlash to this, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Hyperreality is likely to push us in directions we cannot imagine today. It’s going to be a fascinating journey. 

One of the real attractions of Ireland (if we get the weather for it), is our long summers. The sun rises at 5 am and sets at 9 pm with darkness taking its time to arrive, if it does so at all. Our latitude is so high we don’t actually have a proper night for 2 months.

This year has been wonderful. The summer evenings have thrown up a variety of coloured skies and cloudscapes. I took a few photos close to home that give a sense of it all.

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Flock of crows by Ballymacoda beach

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Haystacks

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Sign from the skies

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Giant Haystacks

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Eerie happenings in Shanagarry

The garden has been abuzz with insects over the past few weeks, going about their chores, unconcerned by the to-ings and fro-ings of us humans. I have been particularly taken by bumblebees. Industrious to a fault, full of variety and character, yet highly unlikely to lose their cool and sting. If you get too close to them, they’ll just fly off, or if they are particularly tired, out will come a leg to ward you off. Getting stung by one of them really is a last resort. Other visitors have included butterflies, moths, hover-flies and dragonflies, with the dreaded wasp conspicuous (so far) by its absence.

Here is a selection of shots, taken on my iPhone, which give a sense of the garden’s busy denizens this year.

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Bumblebee on Ligularia Dentata

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Bumblebees on Echinops

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Common Blue on Lavender

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Peacock Butterfly on Buddleia

Magpie Moth

Magpie Moth on Phormium

Ballywilling Beach, close to Garryvoe but far more isolated and deserted, is a marvellous place to go for walks, relaxation and photographs, particularly as sunset approaches. Here are some of the photos I have taken there over the past few weeks. I really like how many of these shots came out. I first shared a few of them on Instagram, but I’ve gone back and re-edited them from the originals to see what I can do with different software.

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"Gunman Mural" CC Licenced by Still Burning (Flickr)

“Gunman Mural” CC Licenced by Still Burning (Flickr)

Every second house was daubed with murals of gunmen, hidden by balaclavas, proudly holding their Armalites. Across the city, the murals changed. The only differences were the colours and the slogans.

This was Belfast of the early 1990’s. The men depicted on the walls were adored. Heroes to their communities. To the hard hit residents on both sides of the conflict, the men with guns were their protectors. For a teenager, to be a man with a gun was something to be admired. A career aspiration, as it were.

I’m not sure if the same murals still adorn the gables of Dee Street, the Falls and the Shankill, but no matter. Similar images can be seen today in the Ukraine. In Syria. In Iraq. In Libya. In the Central African Republic. In Israel. In Gaza. Across the world, people are still in thrall to the men with the guns.
Even in more peaceful places, we still honour our gunmen. We commemorate their bravery. We thank our lucky stars we were not born in their time, in their place, when they had little choice but to do or die. We try to forget the horror of what they experienced.
In doing so, we often forget what violence they may have wrought on others, how many lives were lost or destroyed at their hands. As a generation, we pride ourselves on minimising violence, yet we seem to treat the destructive bloodshed of war as some kind of noble exception.

Many studies have pointed to a decline in our long-term love affair with violence. The likelihood of us being killed through violence has greatly diminished in the last thousand years, great wars notwithstanding. Whereas witch burnings, scalpings, torture and beheadings were once commonplace, for most of us they have passed into dim folklore. Today, most countries, there are strong proscriptions against murder, assault, abuse, cruelty and rape. Our moral perspective compels us to be repulsed by such outrages.

And yet war, perhaps the greatest outrage of them all, is still lionised. The martial ceremonies, the pomp, the glamour. TV programmes portray war as the most noble of causes. Movies glamourise it. How quickly we forget the mass-graves, the orphaned children, the torture and unimaginable suffering, the maimings and preventable losses that last lifetimes. War’s legacy is always one of sorrow, hurt and hatred.

We need to grow up as a species and put the war-mongers in their rightful place. In a civilised society, sporting weapons should be as shameful as pedophilia, human trafficking and genital mutilation. When a man picks up a gun to resolve differences, we should see it not as a badge of honour, but as a mark of shame.

I am not so naive as to think this easy to do. Just one gun-toting idiot in a peaceful society is enough to have us all rushing for armed protection. Armies are a necessary evil in the world we live in. Nevertheless, to look at gunmen as glorious, and not as a sign of failure and last resort – that attitude needs to go. We need to end our love affair with the men with the guns. They symbolise nothing more than throw-backs to our brutal, bloodstained origins.
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