Less about the world, more about me.

Month: September 2010

Dying in Kerry

This is an article I had published in the Kerryman in 2009

I took a very grown-up step last year, I bought a house. Now don’t immediately switch off, just because I have mentioned property buying in the middle of a property crash, this is not about the epic financial crisis that our country is experiencing. This is a very uplifting discussion about funerals. Really! What do buying houses and funerals have in common and more importantly how can this be uplifting? Well, put simply, I now have an excuse to write a Will.

Healthy thirty-something year olds don’t usually have any reason to write Wills. It is one of the many advantages of being young and healthy. What I had not realised however, was that despite the eye watering length of my mortgage, the Life Assurance Policy I was obliged to take out, will pay whatever balance is left on my mortgagee, if I die prematurely.

So I find myself in the unexpected position of having an estate to distribute after I die. Of course my first wish would be to take everything with me in a Viking style funeral, but we are all environmentalists now, so I cannot be so irresponsible. I have to therefore sit down and write out what I want done with my possessions, who gets what, who is in charge of the process and how I want my body disposed of. I also get to pay a solicitor to make sure all this happens according to my instructions.

When I mentioned writing a Will to those close to me, I found them staring at me, searching for some hidden signs of terminal ill-health. They did not share my enthusiasm for controlling things from beyond the grave which is what a Will really is. Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, a Will is an exercise in extreme vanity. By signing a piece of paper, one gets to distribute property and listen to particular types of music, even though one is dead. How can one not be attracted to such power? A power I certainly don’t get to exercise while alive.

In writing a Will one must choose a solicitor and one must decide who gets what. That is the easy part of the process. After this it gets tricky. One must decide on an Executor. This is kind of like deciding on a Best Man or a God Parent. Except that liking the person is optional, one can dislike the Executor and prove this by leaving them nothing other than the unpleasant task of fulfilling one’s wishes.

Though in truth, picking a trusted friend is the best option. Again like a God Parent, the nominated person should first be asked. And when you have convinced them of your continuing good health and they are no longer angry at being given a fright, one has to make clear to them one’s specific wishes for how the immediate aftermath of one’s death is handled. It is a heavy responsibility, having to deal with one’s grief for a lost friend or relative and still having to attend to the details of that person’s particular wishes. So some pre-death planning should be done.

Fortunately, humanity has ritualised death to such a degree that in most cases one can go through the practicalities of losing a loved one on autopilot. A good undertaker will understand this and will quietly take almost all the pressure off the grief stricken, by simply doing their job. The process from the very moment of death up to the actual burial will happen almost as if by magic, because that is what a good Funeral Director can do.

Problems can arise however in a situation where one is not a traditionalist. If one wishes to alter one aspect of what is the usual process of burial, then that is where a Will, a well-informed Executor and an excellent Funeral Director become even more important. This only became apparent to me a few months ago. An elderly lady in Donegal died and as she was non-religious, her son ended up having to bury her in Derry.

It can be argued that this was a pointless thing for her son to do; he could have just given her a Catholic funeral and not worry about her wishes. Everyday people who live non-religious lives and lifestyles attend Catholic Churches for ceremonies, because Churches are where ceremonies are conducted. Even the Priests are aware of this ongoing pretence.

Respect for the dead however is something we take very seriously in this country. We are all keen to speak well of someone who has died and to ensure that their funeral is a picture of solemn reverence. So we must decide which is more important, a respect for tradition or our respect for the dead. Not an easy question. But a Will, with clear instructions will allow the Executor and the Funeral Director the opportunity, at least, to fulfil the wishes of the deceased.

I certainly don’t want to end up like that Donegal woman and have my friends and family traveling the country, with my coffin, looking for an unconsecrated hole in the ground. Thankfully however that won’t happen. There are 139 cemeteries in Kerry owned by the Council. So even the dead non-religious have rights in Kerry. But what of our need of ritual?

This thankfully can also be satisfied. Funeral homes, Community Centres or other public buildings will accommodate those who wish to attend the Memorial Service. And perhaps more importantly, one can also get someone to direct proceedings. An organisation called the Humanist Association of Ireland has trained personnel, who conduct Naming Day Ceremonies, Marriages and Funerals. Our need to do things the same as we have always done is still possible. It can look the same and even more importantly feel the same, but it doesn’t have to be the same.

The very last thing we will get to have any control over is our Funeral. Planning for it is not a bad thing.

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Lord of the Rings (The Movies)

In an earlier post I embarrassed myself with my big love of the Lord of the Rings book. In this blog I will embarrass myself further with a description of my ten favourite scenes from the LOTR film trilogy.

If you are the type of person who hasn’t watched (or studied) the extended versions of each of these epoch altering films, then you may find this blog a tad tedious.

My only regret about these movies (other than that they are not much much longer) is that Peter Jackson’s achievements did not launch a raft of large scale adult fantasy films. Understanding this failure is difficult. Did Peter Jackson set the bar too high? Is the film industry too scared to trust the non-fantasy book reader to dip their toes again? Is the source material without peer? Has the world-wide recession just taken too much money out of the movie industry? Or in this golden age for television, would epic fantasy be better accommodated on the small screen?

Anyway, these are my ten favourite scenes.

10 – RETURN OF THE KING – Near the end of the film, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin are having a drink in The Green Dragon. As they settle to their drinks, they share a look, as scenes of rustic oblivion carry on around them. In that look is shared an understanding that they will be forever apart from the others in the Shire. They know and accept that only their exclusive little group can understand what they experienced. It’s a quick look they share and it speaks volumes. It reminded me of those so many movies that showed the difficulty veterans had in adjusting to normal society after the heightened reality of war.

9 – FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING – Gollum and Sméagol’s debate about how to react towards Frodo’s rapprochement is a stand out moment of acting, characterisation and CGI. We get to watch, what is essentially a glorified cartoon, play two dramatic roles which succeed in winning the viewers empathy. It is a near perfect piece of acting. Anyone who bemoans the advent of CGI should watch this and see how Andy Serkis, CGI and fine writing add immeasurably to the art of film making.

8 – TWO TOWERS – As the Urak-Hai approach Helm’s Deep, King Theoden orders all able bodied males, including boys and old men to be pressed into the defence of the Keep. We watch as mothers and old women cry as their sons and husbands are taken away and armed. It’s a short scene, without dialogue and with emotive music in the back ground. It succeeds completely in alerting the viewer that this battle is about the extermination of the Rohirrim not the mere elimination of an enemy fortress.

7 – RETURN OF THE KING – The relationship between Legolas and Gimli is one of my favourite parts of the LOTR book and while the film version of this relationship is perhaps a tad glib it is still thoroughly enjoyable. Though it may be argued that those of us who read the book first would have gotten more out of the film version than those who didn’t. What the film version hints at, but the books detail, is the ‘daggers drawn’ tension and dislike that exits between Elves and Dwarves. This is due to pre LOTR events, but be assured, they don’t like each other. They both however, provide a great deal of the comedy throughout the movies culminating in the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Legolas and Gimli are keeping a kill count throughout the story and when Legolas brings down a mûmakil, with great aplomb, Gimli dismisses it still only counting as one.

6 – TWO TOWERS – Elrond attempts to convince his daughter, Arwen, to take a ship to Valinor. Arwen doesn’t want to go as she is in love with Aragorn and still has hope that he will survive the coming battles. There follows a very emotional and haunting scene where Elrond explains to Arwen her probable fate, even if Aragorn survives and thrives. He paints a picture of her watching him eventually die and her spending a near eternity withering away in grief. It’s quite beautiful and chilling.

5 – RETURN OF THE KING – Annie Lennox helped write and she sang ‘Into the West’ which is on the LOTR soundtrack. So good was this song that it won an Oscar. It is a beautiful song and even though it is the culminating piece of three epic films, it in quite melancholic. It tells of the passing of an Age and the loss of magic. Those who have read the book will recognise a quote from Legolas, about hearing the sea birds and will know the significance of this. It is a song that still has the power to bring a lump to my throat.

4 – FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING – Boromir’s last stand against the Urak-Hai is as heroic as it is redemptive. Having failed to resist the lure of The Ring, Boromir sacrifices himself to protect Merry and Pippin. We get to see him at his warrior best, standing bravely against overwhelming odds. Better still, he recognises Aragorn as his King and receives absolution from him. His momentary aberration is washed away and he dies a warrior, his honour intact.

All my top three moments from The Trilogy, all feature King Theoden. I found this character interesting in the books, but no more than that. Bernard Hill however gave a wonderful performance and I think he managed to steal every scene he was in. Theoden is a torn man and a torn monarch. The time lost under the influence of Wormtongue are a source of shame for Theoden and eat away at his confidence as King. This Theoden is inspirational as he strives to be the King he thinks he should be while he leads his people through their darkest hour.

3 – TWO TOWERS – As the Urak-Hai approach Helm’s Deep, Theoden is helped to don his armour. As he does so, he asks his aid de camp if he trusts his King. Theoden doesn’t appear to expect to survive the coming battle and is stealing himself for it. There is so much self-doubt and yet so much determination in him as he recites a poem. They also slowed down the action, which ad to the atmosphere.

2 – RETURN OF THE KING – This was my favourite scene in all three films from the moment I saw it. Though at the time of writing this, it is my second favourite, but ask me in a week and it may have swopped places again with my present favourite. Theoden at the head of the Rohirrim crests a hill and looks down on a sea of Orcs covering Pelennor Fields. Even with his 6000 men, charging the massed ranks of Orc would be near suicidal. Despite this however, Theoden inspires his soldiers to make the charge anyway. He gets them so excited that they embrace their deaths. Then they charge and it has so much momentum that nothing and no one can stand against them.

1 – RETURN OF THE KING – King Theoden’s death is as near a perfect ending of a life as one could ever hope for. Theoden had the opportunity to restore his honour, the honour of this throne and the honour of his people and he seized that opportunity. His inspired charge broke the Orc lines, he charged the mûmakil and in the end it took a Nazgûl to bring him down. His parting words (again beautifully acted by Bernard hill) to Éowyn are I think Shakespearean, ‘I go to my fathers, in whose mighty company, I shall not now feel ashamed’. He doesn’t pass just then however, there is a moment of fear as he dies. A fitting end to a man and monarch worthy of respect.


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A New Politics

As appeared in Letters – Kerryman – 15 September, 2010 Edition

I have written to you before about my anger towards the great and good of Ireland and their destruction of our Nation. Who could not be angry at their actions and enraged that they will not face any consequences? I would however like to be more constructive in this letter.

One of the most important elements in our economic ruination was our politicians. Their ignorant self interest made it possible for the bankers and the developers to behave as they did. I am of the opinion that this happened because we don’t elect people to sit in our national parliament, we instead elect men and women who’s primary job is to screw over all the other constituencies.

We in Kerry have seen this played out since 1997. In electing Jackie Healy-Rae, South Kerry was more than just fortunate, it hit the jackpot. As an Independent, who’s vote was and is needed by the governing parties, he gets to attract a great deal of money to South Kerry. Such money that we in North Kerry are left watching, with pot holed roads, green with envy.

At the next election the situation will change and Mr Healy-Rae will not have the same level of influence, but that doesn’t mean North Kerry will be doing the screwing. There is no realistic electoral arithmetic that will give any of the prospective North Kerry TDs any clout. We may get a junior Minister, but in a government with an overwhelming majority and during a decade of cut backs. We will not get our turn, we’ll be lucky to even get our passports back.

The alternative to a system of public representatives working mightily to get one over on other public representatives, is to elect men and women who’s job it is to look after our country, not our medical cards. This system is called the List System.

Put simply, each party will present a list of it’s candidates and depending on the number of votes the party gets, the bigger the number from the list are deemed elected. Now there are many ways to fine tune this system so that voters can have more or less influence on which particular people from a list get elected, but in the end, our TDs will have been elected to do one job and that job is running our country, not acting as messenger boys for the rich and powerful or pushing their snouts into the trough at the expense of the other pigs.

There are also two side benefits to this system. The first is that we would require fewer politicians, as we could decide on a number of TDs per citizen, instead of trying to make sense of the differing counties, constituencies, cities and populations.

The second is that instead of teachers and lawyers running our economy and heath system, we could actually access experts. Men and women who wish to offer their expertise to their country but not their lives to a career of meetings, bake sales, golf outings and boot licking.

Kerry has seen the best and the worst of our present system. The sighs of relief coming from our shock absorbers as our cars pass into South Kerry should tell us that this system is rotten. Even those in South Kerry must acknowledge something is wrong as they face the loss of access coming with the next election.

We can continue to elect hard necked shouters, hoping that luck and hunger for power will play the ball into our paths, or we can choose legislators whose job it is to govern all of us equally. I support the green and gold of Kerry, I don’t know what colours a constituency wears.

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LOTR Homage

Other than pontificating about how much better the World would be, if only everyone thought as I thought, I have also always wanted to blog about Lord of the Rings. I love this book, I really do. I have to be careful however not to claim this book as being one of the most important books of all time, just because it is so important to me.

I’m not suggesting that it is a brilliant book. I read a quote once that described it as a book about scenery. It is a book where the female characters are underwritten, there is little if any moral ambiguity and it is, in Tolkien’s words, too short. I must confess that when I reread it, I tend to skim over large sections, usually large chunks of the beginning and much of the Frodo and Sam narrative.

As a lifelong reader of epic fantasy I don’t think LOTR would even make my top five fantasy books. It remains however one of the most important books I have ever read. It remains the fantasy book that all others are judged by and none have yet surpassed. The reasons for this are; the term ‘epic’ and the mad genius of Tolkien.

Tolkien set out to create (or restore) an Anglo-Saxon mythology which did not survive the Norman conquest of the British Isles. Added to this insane desire was his in depth knowledge and passion for Norse languages. Thus he created an entire World, Middle-Earth and then told a little story about this World and called it the Lord of the Rings.

It is in this that LOTR has yet to be emulated. It is a book that appeals to the historian in us. References, hints, asides and allusions permeate the text and instead of being lazy back story, they all exist as historical facts that he has already written. Think on that. LOTR is but the tip of the creative iceberg. It is World War II or the Fall of the Roman Empire or the Renaissance. His World even has its creation myth, as detailed in The Silmarillion.

Erikson, Jordan and Martin write on impressive scales. Tolkienesque however remains the domain of just the man himself. Peter Jackson realised this and attempted to render this historicity on film, quite successfully in my opinion.

Scale alone however, does not explain the hold LOTR has over me. Timing is the vital second ingredient that makes LOTR so addictive. In this, one of its weaknesses becomes one of its strengths, namely the moral certainty. A modern novel without moral equivocations would be unreadable. I first read LOTR in my early teens.

It was in my early teens that I had begun to realise just how bleakly amoral the World really was. I had begun to see that black and white were really infinite shades of grey and it didn’t help that Spitting Image was showing me that an intellectually challenged Ronald Reagan had his shaky confused finger hovering over the nuclear button.

LOTR offered certainty, it offered heroism and it was moral. Granted it was an anti-feminist, xenophobic, violent and Christian ethic, but it was still something more worthy than what was being offered by reality.

That is why this ardent and strident atheist still returns to LOTR. I already know the truth about death but in LOTR I can find some truths about living, or at the very least, some stirring distractions.

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