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Holy Catholic Ireland, Batman!

Irish Blasphemy referendum

Ireland has a blasphemy law.

Take a few minutes to digest that.

Because whatever you think it means, it means.

I had thought that my wife had got it wrong or that she had mistranslated what her mother had said or it was simply another my-mother-in-lawism.

But no.

‘We’ve got the Blasphemy Referendum on the same day as the presidential elections, you know,’ was the way the conversation went between my better half’s mother and her self.

‘What?’ the wife had responded incredulously, and somewhat confusedly. Her mother could have literally meant anything. Is it blasphemy to her to have another referendum? Do the Irish wish to place the Catholic Church back into a place of centrality in the constitution and Irish society and so therefore are about to commit blasphemy against all that is decent and good by swearing loyalty back to the holy Catholic Poobah of Rome in all his piousness? Or did my beloved simply mis-hear her own mother’s accent? Was my m-i-l sick of making decision through plebiscite? Was it with a heavy sigh that she said ‘we’ve got that blasted referendum’ over re-nationalising sewage treatment or something?

She clarified.

‘Because blasphemy is illegal, you know. You could be fined €25,000. €25,000!’

And a few moments of knowing acknowledgement of the Irish character of old and a google search or two confirm the laughably theocratic thing you think “blasphemy referendum” means, is what it means. The Irish are about to go to the polls to decide whether blasphemy should still be illegal in Ireland.

Which is interesting.

When I was I wee slip of a study abroad student at the tenderly legal age of 21, I left my native America and set foot on The Emerald Isle’s shores for the first time.

I had been raised Catholic but was not very good at practicing, well, at what I had been raised. But something vaguely spiritual awakened in me in the land of saints and scholars, land of my forbears, holy, holy hosanna in the highest, holy Catholic Ireland where St Patrick ran out the symbolic pagan serpents, and I thought, why not, for shits and giggles, why not see a real, devotional Catholic, pious country as it celebrates the most divine panus angelicus, the consecrated mysteries, the inner meaning of which always seemed to elude me (question as a child: why was Jesus keeping his heart secret?)? So I did.

I had been raised ‘Irish American’.

I have reconciled myself to the fact that ‘Irish American’ counts as a culture. I don’t think it entitles you to call yourself Irish, but it does require you, it seems, to buy into the stereotype of the Catholic Ireland myth, a place second only to Rome in its Catholicity, a land where the aisles up to communion are paved with potatoes and gold (neither of which are indigenous to Eire).

I had somehow not been privy to the many scandals to do with the Catholic Church, child abuse, rape, molestation and rank hypocrisy.

I had not been privy to Ireland’s secular awakening during the economic boom in the 90s known as the Celtic Tiger, a time when the Irish fairly quickly shirked off the shadows of groping priests and the shackles of roman collars.

I had also never seen Father Ted.

So my vision of a pure and Jesused Ireland remained untainted on a Sunday morning when I wandered into a church in the suburban village of Maynooth, just west of the capital, expecting at least some of the mass to be in Latin, expecting at least three miracles before the second reading, the whole church bursting with song and several hours of Irish people soberly and self flagellatingly meditating on the most divine.

An Ireland that was happy to give the Catholic Church a special place in the Irish state enshrined in the constitution of 1937.

An Ireland that would ban the joyously scathing satire of Joyce, Beckett and O’Casey (to be fair, it’s been a while since there’s been that scale of censorship).

An Ireland, bless it, that would write, and keep on the books a law that would sanction the the act of blasphemy (whatever that means and whoever decides what it means) with a fine of up to €25,000.

An Ireland in which a man from Ennis in County Clare would lodge a complaint about actor and writer Stephen Fry who, in an interview with Irish Radio and TV personality Gay Byrne, questioning the existence/benevolence of a god who would allow obscene amounts of children to suffer in horrible ways.

An Ireland in which the same man, clearly finding himself at a loose end, called up the police to find out if they could please update him on the status of his complaint two years later as he would like to know when they’d be prosecuting that awful auld Stephen Fry fella to the full extent of the law.

An Ireland, in sum, that pays gravely serious attention to its religion.

What transpired was a mumbled gathering of assorted worshippers, garbling through their prayers at speed, barely an intelligible ‘amen’ in the house, whilst all kept their coats on (in America’s puritanical Catholic Churches we were always taught to make ourselves comfortable in the house of god), a muted, dark and glum acknowledgement of a shared religious upbringing, with barely a bit of eye contact and not a note of music struck by a single vocal chord.

Far from genuflecting in front of our lord on the way out, the almighty was lucky if he got a curt nod as the becoated parishioners scurried out like rats from a sinking ship and blessed themselves as some hurried ritual to superstitiously ward off the holy cooties they might have contracted within doors, with Christ, as Beckett writes, ‘all crucified in a heap.’

It was not, suffice to say, the ossified holy Catholic Ireland that Irish America venerates. It was not an Ireland had time for a church steeped in constant controversy from the Magdalene laundry revelations to ‘illegitimate’ babies buried in mass graves by sisters of ‘mercy’ in whose care young mothers were entrusted bearing up against the then shameful badge of a pregnancy out of wedlock.

Tomorrow, the Irish go to the polls to vote for their president, a largely symbolic figurehead role (another discussion for another day with another host of issues) but the more important vote will be a kind of symbolic confirmation.

If Irish voters do as polls indicate they will, after years of far more important referenda embracing marriage equality in defiance of a homophobic past and bravely embracing reproductive rights in defiance of a chauvinistic and misogynistic past, across the country, they will be confirming their faith in themselves and humanity and liberal, progressive values, and away from a failed moribund model of morality.

In contrast to the cynical votes that brought about Brexit and President Trump, it will be an optimistic vote for the future. And for Ireland, simply a sign of the times.

So I say again, with less ambiguity, Ireland has a blasphemy law.

Soon it will not.

Praise be.

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For Shame, Homeland

Trayvon Martin

Image taken from guardian.co.uk

Good God, America.

Good God.

I try to be a good ambassador. I really do. I argue that we have culture and intelligence and that we’re an ethnic melting pot built on the highest ideals. But you know what? You make it hard not to have contempt for you, my country, when things like this happen.

The internet is already awash with a raging war of words about Trayvor Martin, by individuals far wiser and more eloquent than myself, as is right and to be expected. This kind of case rips open the sensitive scar tissue of a nation. It sparks fears and riots and intense divisions.

One of the best that I’d seen though, shared by a friend on facebook earlier today was not from a pundit on either side, but from a great novelist. Ah those amazing observers of human behaviour and psychology. The storytellers. The novelists.

Trayvon Martin

image from frrole.com

The empty calls for calm ring hollow in the midst of such clear injustice and since your various feeds will be saturated, I’ll be quick and share a poem I like an awful lot about what use words, poetry or beauty are in the face of such callous disregard for the principles of fairness. It’s called “For Saundra” by Nikki Giovanni. You’ve got to stick around for the end. That’s the kicker really. Enjoy.

For Saundra
Nikki Giovanni


i wanted to write
a poem
that rhymes
but revolution doesn’t lend
itself to be-bopping

then my neighbor
who thinks i hate
asked -do you ever write
tree poems – i like trees
so i thought
ill write a beautiful green tree poem
peeked from my window
to check the image
noticed the school yard was covered
with asphalt
no green -no trees grow
in manhattan

then, well, i thought the sky
ill do a big blue sky poem
but all the clouds have winged
low since no-Dick was elected

so i thought again
and it occured to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply

perhaps these are not poetic
times
at all
 

I’ve got the power! But how much Choice?

Election2012

Just look at all those Candidates!

To paraphrase The C & C Music Factory, we’ve got the power. This is a cropped bit of my absentee ballot, which, after much negotiation I had emailed out to me by the good people at the Monroe County Board of electors. And with the race as close as ever, and the GOP making a last-ditch effort to throw my home state back into play, this will be in the early pickup tomorrow, post-haste as every vote counts and the latest polls have Romney and Obama in a statistical tie.

Still, I have to admit, it’s not as exciting as it used to be.

I remember excitedly ripping my envelope marked Board of Electors in elections past and relishing the long list of names and choices competing for everything from local councils right up to the top job and marveling to myself, “Ain’t democracy grand?” This year of our lord two thousand and twelve, I can’t help but feel palpably disappointed. Four candidates? Is that all? Are there are only four possible political platforms in our vast and socially diverse nation from which to choose our next leader? No, I’m not so naive as to think there’s effectively any more than two, but in theory at least, the choice is there. I still think, as I have always done, that our system needs to allow for more room for third parties and a plurality of representation of different voices, but that is a debate in which we’d have to talk about overhauling the whole election system and anyhow would that even get third parties themselves to take responsibility and learn from their European counterparts that you have to start from the ground up?

But in theory, in theory, we are supposed to have an openly representative democracy. Is it becoming less so with each election? Back in 2000, I would have had no less than seven candidates from which to choose a new president. Four years later, that number would be reduced to six. In the year in which we elected our first black president, we had a total of five candidates who had enough ballot access to win 270 electoral votes. In a week’s time, it seems we will have a measly four candidates making up our pool of potential head honchos.

My worry is this: with an ever-diminishing choice of potential candidates, are we becoming a more closed, polarized nation divided in bitterness and rancor and unable to open ourselves to the plethora of possibilities that a democracy should be? I lament the loss of Nader. He consistently brought our attention back to issues that candidates, this year especially, refuse to acknowledge as important. I feel for someone like Gary Johnson, a man who has admirably consistent, intellectually grounded freemarket, independent principles. I could never vote for him, but it is thoroughly loathsome that Republicans in some states are trying to prevent me from doing so. If we refuse to even allow certain candidates to play the election game, whose voices are we excluding? And more importantly, what are we refusing to talk about? What are we afraid to hear?

Election2012 Thirdparty candidate

We certainly haven’t heard much in the national discourse this election season about climate change, have we?

You might also like to check out this fascinating article on the marginalization of third parties in US Presidential politics from the AlJazeera website.

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