Less about the world, more about me.

Year: 2013 (Page 1 of 6)

Column: Merry Christmas

My column in The Kerryman. 23 December, 2013

I’ve been asked in the past if I celebrate Christmas. Not an unusual question for an atheist. To some, atheists embracing Christmas may look like having one’s cake and eating it. None of the guilt and misery parts of Christianity, but huge bunches of all the fun bits of what is supposed to be a religious festival. Am I big fat hypocrite for loving Christmas? Oh yes I am and I don’t care who knows it.

The adage, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ applies. This time of the year has spawned any number of different festivals down through the millennia, today the season is firmly rooted in Christian mythology. We are supposed to be marking the birth of Jesus Christ. The more pious among us still cling to this ideal, but the festival has morphed into something else.

Christmas no longer cares about your religion. Christmas is at once a vast commercial exercise in flogging overpriced toys to overworked parents for their overindulged children and it is also a memory of childhood that inspires millions of men, women and children, to travel from all corners of the planet, on a vast pilgrimage back to their families and friends.

The numbers involved, the miles traversed, the resources expended, are without precedent outside of war or natural disaster. We do not collectively subject ourselves to anything like this kind of stress and expense for anything else. And we do it willingly, just to have those fews days back home, reliving and recapturing those memories of unwrapping presents, over-eating, family squabbles, television and true belonging.

This festive season generates a spirit of bonhomie, this wonderful unique time of the year inspires people to try for a smile rather than a grimace, just because it is this wonderful time of year. That is why Christmas is irresistible. Even a picky and prickly atheist like me cannot but love this festival’s many charms.

Of course as an atheist, I recognise a political context to Christmas. Living in a Christian country, I know everything operates to accommodate the Christian majority. Little or no thought is put into catering for non-Christians. No other time of year so reminds me that I am part of a very small minority.

Even the use of terms like ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’ can be a political choice. Intellectually I prefer the more secular ‘Happy Holidays’ but Christmas has become something of a victim of its own success. It has so penetrated the lives of every nation and culture with a Christian heritage, that it’s outgrowing its Christian origins. I think the less religious term, ‘Happy Holidays’ may become unnecessary even before it gains acceptance. I am often guilty of saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to other joyless atheists and they have said it back to me. Fortunately no one can be thrown out of atheism, so we can indulge in such heresies.

We indulge because no matter what happens in the future, no matter the cultural progress or regression, no matter the economic conditions or political atmosphere, no matter even the climatic calamity to come, or even because of it, our species needs the grand nonsense that is Christmas. A festival that laughs in the face of our darkest hours would have to be invented, if it didn’t already exist.

Kerry Column 05

Column: Nelson Mandela

My column in The Kerryman. 18 December, 2013

When the best of us leave, as Nelson Mandela has left us, there is a need to remember the greatness that had once been among us. A need to describe both the grief and awe and to take a snapshot of an entire species, reduced. For that is the reality we now endure; he who was the best of us, is no more. We are a smaller people. We are a lesser people.

Mandela was not superhuman, he was not a superhero, neither was he a saint nor a god. He was one of us, so to describe him is to describe us at our greatest. But what is greatness?

I do not trust those who would be leaders, nor do I trust those who would be led. When we elevate one to rule us, we’re saying we are unable to govern ourselves. We’re saying we are children, we are sheep, we are slaves. But there are exceptions. In a time of terrible crisis, an individual may rise. In times of terrible crisis, we may need a single unifying figure, with the intellect, charisma and overwhelming ability to lead. Apartheid was such a crisis.

In ancient Rome when the City was threatened, they’d elect a dictator. He’d hold supreme power until the crisis was ended. The Romans hated a tyrant, but a crisis was a crisis. One of the greatest of these dictators was a man named Cincinnatus. The Romans faced defeat and so granted supreme power to Cincinnatus to stave off this ruin. He mobilised an army and saved the city. He then immediately resigned the dictatorship.

The city of Cincinnati in America was named after this man. They named it Cincinnati in honour of George Washington. He had accepted the leadership of the American colonies in their desperate battle for independence. He could have been a King, but instead he served his term as President and then handed power to his successor.

Imagine the temptation a great person must feel to cling with whitened knuckles and terrible deeds to power gained. Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao Zedong, mighty empire builders but unwilling and unable to relinquish power until assassinated, utterly defeated or brought low by ill-heath.

One of the heroes in the defeat of white power in Africa, was Robert Mugabe. No lesser figure than Nelson Mandela, but Mugabe has never seen beyond the thrill of power. He has led Zimbabwe into an abyss to ensure his continued vicious rule. Nelson Mandela would have been an anointed dictator, his undemocratic rule applauded. Instead he chose to serve his term as the democratically elected President of South Africa and then stepped down. He simply refused to take personal advantage of the power he had, nor the devotion and loyalty he inspired.

In Ireland we know how seductive that cult of personality can be. Over the decades we’ve elevated any number of gombeen men, corrupt little people, to the status of demigods, so that we may fawn over them like slack jawed peasants.

I do not trust those who would be leaders, nor do I trust those who would be led, but with the death of Nelson Mandela the best of us that has ever been, ceased to be. We are less. We are less. We are less.

Kerry Column 06

Column: Man up re domestic abuse

My column in The Kerryman. 11 December, 2013

Up to 1000 Kerry women experience domestic abuse annually, emotional, physical and sexual. Adapt Kerry is the main provider of support for those women. They have a refuge in Tralee that employs outreach workers and has contacts with many other relevant services. They’ve been quietly saving lives for decades. They help rescue women and children from situations that had traditionally been seen as a woman’s lot in life.

While our society has progressed to the point that domestic abuse is now considered to be wrong and illegal, centuries of conditioning means that there is still a degree of helplessness experienced by the abused. Women and their children can find themselves in prisons without bars.

It’s important to try understanding that. To try understanding that helplessness is both taught and learned. It can be internalised to the point of paralysis. And even for those women still independent enough to seek escape, that escape may mean throwing themselves at the mercy of charity, a risk of homelessness and legal proceedings whose outcome can’t be guaranteed. On the other hand, studies show that half of all women who are murdered, are murdered by a partner, past or present. In an abusive relationship, the clock is always ticking.

To help end this abuse, a campaign called Man Up has been started. It’s an attempt to encourage all men to take an active roll in making violence against women a thing of the past. It’s a call to all men, to simply and definitively man up. Every time we turn a blind eye, every time we mutter ‘there’s two sides to every story,’ every time we accept black eyes explained away and every time we allow a friend say something ugly, we are enabling that abuse.

The men who abuse their partners and children are not that hard to understand. We’ve all sometimes felt what they feel. I’ve felt terribly small in the past. I’ve felt threatened, inadequate, scared and out of control. I’ve felt anger and rage and such pathetic self-pity that I could rationalise all kinds of actions I wouldn’t normally countenance. Who hasn’t had that near overwhelming urge to impose their needs on someone else?

Fortunately the majority of us manage those occasional feelings of smallness without resorting to violence, without abusing those least able to defend themselves. Many of us find solace in the arms of our partners, who help us overcome those inadequacies.
Manning up means owning those feelings of inadequacy, not punishing others for them. To man up is to be a role model for all men. To man up is to create a culture where violence of any kind against a woman, means the virtual shunning of that man who abuses, till he too mans up.

To man up means that when we feel the need to control and hurt those closest to us, we resist that easy escape. There’s nothing wrong with feeling small and scared, a real man looks for help in that situation. A real man battles his demons head on. He battles them in such a way that will inspire his partner, he does not abuse her to make himself feel more like a man.

ADAPT Kerry can be contacted at 066 7129100

ADAPT Limerick Women’s Refuge at 061 412354

And visit Man Up at manup.ie

Kerry Column 07

Column: A referendum about children

My column in The Kerryman. 4 December, 2013

I don’t know who I feel more sorry for; those of you with no interest in the subject of marriage equality or those of us who are very interested. With the announcement of a marriage equality referendum to be held in the first half of 2015, the longest referendum campaign this country has ever known has just begun. It’ll be drawn out and it’ll most certainly be ugly.

According to the polls the result will be overwhelmingly positive for marriage equality. That should be taken with a large pinch of salt. The Seanad referendum looked like a slam dunk too and look what happened there. Plus, marriage equality advocates have achieved one very important thing, they’ve made supporting marriage equality fashionable. There are people who’ll nod in agreement, but vote no. So, for those in favour of marriage equality, there’s no room for complacency.

Whatever anyone tries telling you, this referendum is not about a human right, nor is it really about marriage. It’s first and foremost a referendum about children. It’s about giving children the very best chance at a secure and content childhood. Every child, born after the recognition of marriage equality, who grows up to be gay, will finally grow up normal. Today they’re different as they’re not allowed the same aspirations, hopes and dreams as their straight peers.

If this country chooses marriage equality, for the very first time in our history, all of our children will be normal. For the first time it’ll be the bigots and the haters and the ignorant who’ll be the subnormal ones.

That’ll not be a mere symbolic victory for some liberal, god hating, elitist conspiracy. It’s not an attack on a timeless institution. Oh if only it were such a petty thing. If only the stakes were so low. The struggle to define what is normal and what is different is a matter of life and death. Growing up can be difficult enough without having one’s future circumscribed by arbitrary laws. Difficult enough without being defined as less deserving of fulfilment.

Gay teens die at a greater rate than their straight peers. They grow up in a country where gay teachers may be dismissed at the whim of their school. They grow up in a country where their parenting skills are derided. They grow up in a country where their desire to marry is seen as an attack on straight married people. They grow up in a country where the dominant religion would deny them the full expression of their humanity. Even more than the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993, marriage equality will finally make possible an era where children will not be limited by the smallness of others.

This referendum is also about the children born to our gay brothers and sisters. The desire of gay people to start and raise families may not be recognised by our laws, but they exist and they’ll continue to exist. Are these children not entitled to the same status and protections as every other family? Are they not entitled to normality?

It’s going to be a long 18 months. Full of heat and noise and the tumult of unreason. It’s a campaign that’ll be watched closely by our gay children. They are about to be judged by us. If nothing else, remember that.

Kerry Column 08

Column: Supporting gender quotas

My column in The Kerryman. 27 November, 2013

Mayor of Tralee Pat Hussey has served this county for decades. He can look any Kerry person in the eye and say with pride and honesty, that he’s given back to his county. He’s done what we should all aspire to, he‘s tried to make the world he was born into, that little bit better. It grieves me then, that I have to disagree with his stance on gender quotas. His criticism of Fine Gael, a party he has been a member of for over 30 years, for trying to increase the level of participation by women in our political system, is most unfortunate.

I don’t believe for a second that Mayor Hussey is speaking out because of sour grapes, nor is it a fit of pique. I only wish it was a sulk, then he could be easily dismissed. Instead, I believe he’s motivated by a principal. He believes that it is wrong and discriminatory to engineer a situation, where regardless of talent, a certain minimum number of women candidates must be put forward for an election.

There’s nothing wrong with thinking this. It’s perfectly acceptable to view the candidate selection process as sacred. I myself think it a vital part of our democracy. I also happen to hold to the principal that the under representation of women in Irish politics, needs to be immediately addressed. In this, these two principals clash. Some think the purity of the selection process must win out, others think female participation is more important right now.

There has been extensive research into why women are so woefully under represented in our political system. This research shows five basic reasons for the present situation; childcare, cash, confidence, culture and candidate selection. The 5 Cs.

It may be 2013, but women are still overwhelmingly responsible for rearing children and even caring for relations who may need extra attention.

Women still make significantly less money than men and have less access to the wealth that does exist here.

With relatively few roles models and limited opportunities for participation, it’s been more difficult for women to acquire the confidence, both personal and professional, that men take as their due.

Politics can be a cutthroat business and is no respecter of time or any other commitments a politician may have. Parties have also been run by men, for men, since the beginning. They have become boys clubs with boys’ manners and boyish decorum.

Finally the most important C, candidate selection. Without time, money, inspiration and confidence, it’s far more difficult for women to develop the networks or acquire the resources necessary to just get onto bottom rung of the political process, selection to run in an election.

We cannot change the culture of Ireland, we can’t even change the culture of our politics, at the stroke of a pen. We can however get more women onto the bottom rung, we can at least get them onto the ballot paper. That’s all gender quotas will do, ensure women are selected as candidates. After that it’ll be up to them to get the votes and only then can they change the system which was designed for men, by men and that only benefits men, to one that benefits all.

I just wish Mayor Hussey could lend his considerable talents to that worthy cause.

Column: Teaching atheism

My column in The Kerryman. 20 November, 2013

A few years ago I had the privilege of speaking at the Educate Together school in Tralee about atheism. There were three of us invited to speak, a Muslim, a born-again Christian and me the atheist. The children were very young and to my surprise, very polite. I would’ve been bored silly at their age and made sure everyone knew it.

As I prepared for the talk, I had to fight the urge to turn my presentation into a sales pitch. I like being an atheist and it is a common thing for people to confuse contentment with having all of the truth. It’s a problem one sees a lot in couples. Once two people become a couple, they suddenly become fanatical about pairing off their single friends. They have ‘seen the light’ of coupledom and are certain our salvation is to be found ‘in the light’ of a romantic relationship exactly like theirs.

So I had to dial it down, keep it factual and speak mostly about me. It was a fun experience and I think I managed to avoid lecturing and evangelising. It was also heartening to know that a school was exposing its students to as many different traditions and ways of thinking as possible. I went to Roman Catholic schools, they did not teach about the many possibilities.

My only criticism of my talk was that it was written and delivered by an amateur. I’m neither sufficiently well read, nor qualified enough to offer children a comprehensive understanding of atheism. The well meaning amateur has a contribution to make, but children deserve better than amateurism. An ordinary atheist, like an ordinary Muslim or an ordinary Christian, are useful as examples of lives lived in certain ways, but they do not offer the breadths of history, philosophy and inherent tensions, which lay behind those chosen paths.

Most importantly, the well meaning amateur cannot always be relied on to stick to educating instead of convincing. Convincing someone of anything is easy. Look at the sort of people we vote for, or homeopathy.  Educating someone on the other hand is mind bogglingly difficult.

Fortunately, this gap, which willing amateurs have tried to fill, is finally being addressed by the professionals. Atheist Ireland is a body which seeks to promote atheism and tackle the legal discriminations against Irish atheists. It has begun the process of creating a primary school course about atheism.

It’s an expensive and time consuming project. They want to create a course of ten, 30 to 40 minute classes, for a yet to be decided Primary School age cohort. It will be trialled and then amended where necessary. The aim is to teach these children of many faiths and none what atheism is.

If successful, it’ll mean that the small (though growing) minority of children who attend nondenominational schools, will be able to speak knowledgeably about a whole host of our planet’s philosophical traditions and faiths.

While this course will not be taught in the 90% or so of schools controlled by the Roman Catholic Church, the plan is to make the information available online. It will become a useful tool for parents in parts of the country without an Educate Together School.

Kerry Column 10

Column: Keeping hurling alive

My column in The Kerryman. 13 November, 2013

Sports fans can be divided into two types, those who prefer the best and those who prefer the underdog. I love the best, so despite this being the best All Ireland Hurling Championship ever, I still feel a little let down as Kilkenny were beaten. I also feel privileged to have been alive during the pomp of the greatest team to have ever hurled, so I’m not too disheartened.

In fact I’ve been spoiled by these last ten years and what’s amazing is that I can look forward to being even more spoiled for the next ten years. In this post-Kilkenny era, there are now eight counties (including Kilkenny) who harbour realistic ambitions of winning the McCarthy Cup. Eight counties! Never has hurling been so competitive.

So when my father taps me on the shoulder for my annual lotto and membership money for Lixnaw Hurling Club, I’ll be even more enthusiastic than usual. It’s like a tax, but a tax I don’t mind paying as it goes to hurling. It means that as I watched Lixnaw in the County Championship this year and Clare win the All Ireland, I knew that in my tiny way, I helped. I helped fund the joyous spectacle that is hurling played on stages, small and large.

It’s a very tiny contribution when compared to the countless volunteers who keep hurling going. Tiny compared to the boys and girls, men and women, who commit themselves to training regimes of unrelenting toughness. All to play a game where the only guaranteed return is abuse from fat men like me and being rained on. Not that I hold with the idea of hurling being better than soccer. One may as well argue that blue is better than red.

The only real difference, a vital difference, is that hurling requires nurturing in a way soccer doesn’t. Soccer’s strength is it’s simplicity. Hurling requires an investment of time, expertise and money and again time. It’s too complex and too rare to ever be left to survive organically.

So when we celebrate the new openness of the Championship we must still think of those teams outside the top eight. There’s Wexford and Offaly. They teeter on the brink of being cut adrift, but they’ve a culture of hurling that makes their return to the elite, realistic.

Behind them are Carlow, Antrim, Laois and Westmeath, who are doing so much to try bridging that gulf between them and the very best. Then there’s Christy Ring Cup holders Kerry. I fear the big-ball game has such a strangle hold on this county, that adding to our 1891 title is getting less, rather than more likely.
That’s why it’s important that the top eight don’t circle their wagons. Without regular contact with the best players the game has to offer, second tier teams will be forever condemned to the second tier.

That’s beyond disheartening, it’s wrong. The attempt to keep hurling alive and make it thrive outside the heartlands of the game is being made by people who love the game in a way that can only be deflated and defeated by the game itself turning its back on them. An eighth team elite is tempting, but a top 14 helps guarantee the game’s future. Nothing is more important than that.

Kerry Column 11

Column: A Consistent Health System

My column in The Kerryman. 6 November, 2013

I’m rather fond of politics, that’s why I write this column. The things that politicians do, why they do them and the results of those actions fascinate me. In certain company that makes me very dull indeed. Though if you want boredom, you should hear me go on about Lord of the Rings.

My dullness extends as far as political philosophy and the really interesting thing about political philosophy, is that there’s so little of it here. Take for example the Government’s decision to provide free GP care to all children under five years of age. If a political philosopher was told about this provision, but didn’t know anything else about Ireland, the philosopher would react in one of two ways.

If the philosopher was right wing, he or she would wail about the destruction of society. If the philosopher was from the left, then the wailing would be about the citizens still denied free GP care. Then they’d both argue about how this care should be paid for and how a health system is best organised.

This left versus right argument happens in most democracies, but not here.

The use of the terms left and right to describe political beliefs, originated during the French Revolution. In their Assembly the moderates would sit to the right of the Speaker and the radicals to the left. After every purge, the radicals would move to the right, replacing the beheaded moderates. The radicals themselves would be replaced by even more radical radicals.

Broadly speaking today, those on the left prefer higher taxes to pay for services provided to citizens. The right prefer low taxes and citizens paying their own way.

In Ireland this left right way of looking at the world never really caught on, as things like nationalism, Catholicism and mass emigration got in the way. Meaning that in 2013 we still can’t even decide on how to decide about what kind of health system we want.

Let’s for example examine my wish list for the health system. I want to always be able to access the best care available. I don’t want to die just because I’m poor. If I can afford health insurance, I don’t want to pay the high taxes needed to make sure the poor don’t die just because they’re poor. I want old people to have a choice between home help, full time care in their own home and access to affordable quality residential care, and I want that to happen in time for my old age. And I think the health system is best run by the private sector, but their profit motive has to be muzzled.

Now imagine being the politician who has to try making sense out of that kind of contradictory and self-serving bullshit. I’m smart enough to know that if a politician agrees with me on this, they’re not worth voting for.

We need to start at the very beginning. Ask this one question; should everyone, without exception, be entitled to the best health care this country has to offer? It’s the ‘without exception’ principal which will define the system. It’s the left right divide boiled down to its most simple parts. Answer this question then all else will become mere detail.

Kerry Column 12

Lord of the Rings Nerdgasm


I love this John Green quote. It’s the only way I can explain how cool this last week has been for me. On October 27 I attended the O2 to watch the RTE Concert Orchestra and Choir perform the sound-track from Lord of the Rings; Return of the King.


On October 31 I visited the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons to see props and costumes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This mad love caused me to travel over 12 hours, spend a lot of money, desert my sick partner and have to ask my mother to walk my dog in the rain, but I’ve no regrets. The concert was as wonderful as the previous two had been.

The exhibition, though small, had some very choice pieces. The exhibition lasts till November 17. If you can make it, then I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Column: No sympathy for the young

My column in The Kerryman. 30 October, 2013

The Victorians had firm ideas about dealing with the poor. If you were too sick, young or old to work you were the deserving poor. If able bodied but couldn’t find a job, then they’d make your life as unpleasant as possible. You’d be admitted to a workhouse, where families were separated, one’s possessions confiscated and the inmates put to work in unsanitary and disease ridden conditions.

So feared were workhouses that some people chose jail.

When this style of ‘charity’ ended, some of the workhouses were converted into Industrial Schools, where the children of Ireland’s poorest families were incarcerated, left to the tender mercies of the violent and sexually deviant religious.

Fortunately these days there are just too many lobby groups representing the interests of children for them to be so obviously abused. It’s also considered very politically incorrect to jail poor people, just for being poor. So our politicians have had to develop the skill of hitting hardest, the people less likely and most incapable of hitting back, while still appearing civilised.

That doesn’t make them bad people. We elect them primarily to make decisions on how much of our money must be taken from us, to pay for services we may never need. That’s why we loved the Fianna Fáil Bubble so much. Not only were we being charged less in taxes, we had our egos stroked by their being so much more money spent on the deserving poor. We didn’t even worry much about the undeserving poor. Great days.

In 2011 we elected Fine Gael to work out how best to divide our newly decimated pie. And they’ve got to do it in such a way that’ll help them win re-election. They can only hope to win re-election if they’re careful to keep certain sectors of society on-side. Those sectors include first and foremost, people likely to vote.

People least likely to vote are those in consistent poverty and young adults. People least likely to vote for Fine Gael are people who work with and support those in poverty and young adults. Who have been targeted most by the recent Budget; the poor, those who support the poor and young adults.

I do have some sympathy for the poorest, but we live a country which will not countenance tax increases for their sake. That’s democracy. Many of us are also happy to hear people on the dole being demonised. We know there are no jobs, but we still have this sneaky suspicion the unemployed are having a ball.

I’ve no sympathy for young adults. Not because they deserve to suffer. Not because a 23 year old adult is entitled to less social welfare than a 27 year old adult. Not because young adults traditionally suffer most during a national crisis, they either fight our wars or emigrate en masse.

My sympathy is exhausted because young adults could resist, but choose not to. They could stop themselves being disproportionately targeted. All they need do is vote. The Institute of Technology in Tralee has over 3,000 students, foreign and domestic. They are all entitled to vote in next year’s local elections. Three thousand votes is enough to win a seat on the County Council. A block of 3000 voters will convince any politician to pick on someone else.

Kerry Column 13

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