Published Irish Examiner bylines

Paddle Steamer Entering the Port of Cork, by George Mounsey Wheatley Atkinson

While the pace of publication here has slowed it’s not from lack of writing. Rather, some of the pieces that began life as potential posts here have ended up in the pages (print and digital) of the Irish Examiner.

I’m particularly proud of this one, written up to coincide with International Women’s Day. It was inspired by one of my female farming ancestors, my great grandmother Ellen Connolly, aka Ella Collins, aka “Granny Coll” to my mother and her siblings. Along the way it became a call to celebrate the legacy of women who worked the land.

Remembering Ireland’s forgotten farming women

My writing draws heavily on aspects of my own family’s history, which sort of parallels the history of many other Irish people. The furore over the ending of the eviction ban in Ireland brought up our angry, wounded association with the word “eviction” but to me also recalled a word that followed it, particularly in Famine time: workhouse. One of my ancestors was born there.

‘Eviction’ brings up other grim aspects of our history

Just last week I wrote a piece that was intended to fill in for one regular columnist, but ended up filling in for another on a different day (such is the way of the warrior). It focuses on Cork’s relationship with the water, which is as much one in its head as it is something tangible and real compared to how it used the water in previous years.

Back when the Lee was Cork’s life blood

I currently don’t have anything else in the pipeline for the Examiner but then again these weren’t planned long ahead so who knows what the future will bring? In the meantime I will work away on a piece about Frankenstein, one of my favourite books and one which I reread just a couple of weeks ago.

St Patrick: More man than myth


As we celebrate fifty shades of green and celebrate the most famous of Ireland’s patron saints, it seems only fitting to go back and look at what we know about Patrick himself.

Stripping away centuries of myth and miracle, shamrock teachings and banishings of snakes, we can look at him through the lens of his own writings. They are the earliest extant texts from Ireland and there are two: His Confession, and a letter he wrote excoriating the soldiers of a man called Coroticus after the soldiers killed people who had just been baptised.

Much of what is taught about Patrick came from a narrative driven by Armagh in a sort of ecclesiastical and propaganda coup, and is best articulated in Muirchu’s Life of Patrick which was written at least 200 years after Patrick had died. But even Muirchu says there are conflicting stories about the saint, and it should be read more about what people in his lifetime thought about Patrick than what actually happened.

Better, then, to go to the man’s own words. The Confession was written toward the end of his life (he is traditionally held to have died in about 461). This is not a confession in the sense we might understand – “forgive me father for I have sinned” – but a defence and justification of his evangelical mission to Ireland and his actions as a bishop. For Patrick, you see, had gone on something of a solo run.

There is no indication that he was given the nod by Rome, because surely he would have just said this rather than writing hundreds of words defending himself. That honour had gone to Palladius, sent by the pope in 431 “to the Irish who believe in Christ” and now mostly lost to history, eclipsed and probably absorbed into the Patrick mythos (and there may have been two Patricks anyway). Muirchu wrote that he ended up in northern Britain after encountering resistance in Ireland, but we may never know.

Patrick’s Confession, sometimes referred to as the Declaration, is a very personal document. He clearly misses his home in Britain (his Coroticus text says his family no longer recognises him), says he lives every day in danger, that he has been taken captive multiple times, and that he has evidently been accused of going to Ireland to enrich himself by accepting payments from people he baptised (he says anything given to him was returned). It is hard not to feel empathy for him when he writes about how some unexplained but apparently grievous sin that he had confessed to “a very dear friend” had been made public by that same friend.

Patrick writes that he is “a simple country person”, “unlearned”, “imperfect in many ways”, and that he had delayed writing this text “because I did not learn as others did, who drank in equally well both the law and sacred writings” even though his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon.

While his lack of formal education or training is clearly an issue held against him, his use of modesty as a theme is subterfuge of a kind. The Confession is full of biblical quotations, both explicit and just as turns of phrase, while the form of the document would not look out of place in the scriptoria on the Continent or any other more staunchly Christian (and educated) regions. By incorporating so much of both the Bible and older literary forms, Patrick is able to piggyback on established literary genres and rhetorical methods to get his message across.

And it is, at its heart, a simple message: That he had returned to Ireland on a very personal preaching mission that he felt was inspired by God. There are no works of thaumaturgical power enacted by him, though he does recount visions sent to him both while a slave in his youth and in his later life. While the rationalist in me argues these were brought on by a combination of fasting and religious fervour, he is very clear that they were for him, not in front of witnesses to show him as being holy.

That said, this “simple country person” shows himself to be well versed in biblical analysis and deep theological teaching. He emphasises, for example, that he can “imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!”

He writes also that there are now clerics and believers “at the end of the earth”.

Don’t underestimate just how remote Ireland and Britain were in the late antique and medieval imagination. It was widely held that Ireland was the most westerly inhabited region, and that there was nothing habitable beyond it (Bede, in the 730s, describes it as a land of milk and honey). Some medieval maps, drawn in a sort of circle with Rome or Jerusalem at the centre like the Hereford mappa mundi, have Ireland and Britain almost off the edge of the margins. All that’s missing is a rubric saying “here be dragons”.

The Hereford map depicts Caesar Augustus as a composite emperor-pope and locates him next to Ireland and Britain at the north-western oceanic limits of the known world (via article linked above)

I wrote about the place of Ireland in the medieval idea of time and space extensively in my doctorate, drawing on the UCC (holy) trinity of Damian Bracken, Diarmuid Scully, and the late Jennifer O’Reilly. The islands are not just the physical ends of the earth. They are an allegorical one too.

In the Bible, Jesus prophecises that his gospel shall be preached  “in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then shall the consummation come”. “Consummation”, as you might have guessed, here refers to the actual end of the world in all its second coming/last judgement sense.

In the medieval Christian interpretation of time and space, converting Ireland and Britain to Christianity mean the last judgement could now happen at any stage. Rejoice! It’s all over. This was considered a very good thing, by the way.

Relax, it’s only the end of the world Picture:

So by incorporating this whole theme into the Confession, and saying that he and his comrades are witnesses to this prophecy, Patrick actually telling his critics that he has the same sort of education as them and that he has the Bible on his side. They couldn’t really dispute biblical authority, so this is like an early Christian equivalent of flicking the V sign at his begrudgers.

Lewd rustic my eye.

While we may never know for certain all the details of Patrick’s life and times, we can at least appreciate that he was just a man living at the end of the world, doing his best despite seemingly endless opposition. And isn’t there something to be celebrated in that simple example?

Starry nights

This striking NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image captures the galaxy UGC 477, located just over 110 million light-years away in the constellation of Pisces (The Fish)

Wilderness Ireland tells us that on a clear night you can see over 4,000 twinkling stars, planets such as Venus or Jupiter and even meteor showers with the unaided eye. Such viewpoints are up to 40 times darker without the intrusion of city lights.

But we must not take this celestial joy for granted, as scientists warn that by the time a child born today reaches adulthood, they will see fewer than half the stars visible to them today.

These lines from an Irish Examiner editorial this week are quite sobering but it’s something I’ve experienced in my own not-quite 40 years on this blue dot hurtling through space.

I grew up at a glorified crossroads and don’t remember many streetlights, if any, though there were possibly some in a group of houses nearby. It was dark enough that as a family we could sit out at night and watch meteor showers from a bench in the garden. That, I remember, was a very cold night but it was still a wonder to just stare up at the night sky and see the streaks of light. And when there weren’t meteors there were simply the stars to look at.

We moved to a more urban area when I was 12 or so and as time has gone on the skies I’ve lived under (Waterford, Abu Dhabi, various places in Cork) have been more brightly lit and cluttered.

But one counter moment stands out. In a previous life, an academic life, I spoke at various conferences and symposiums on medieval studies (I will eventually get around to publishing some of those old papers here). One was hosted at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. This may seem like an odd place to have a medieval symposium but some of the brothers there are experts on various aspects of medieval history. The silent lunch was weird, plenty of clattering cutlery while a monk read a homily in the corner, but I digress.

Statue of St Benedict at Glenstal Abbey. The monks there follow his rulebook

We stayed overnight and, as you do, wandered down as a group to a pub nearby. Although when I say “nearby” I mean “a fair walk away”. Our contingent stayed out beyond the curfew before walking back to our rooms.

We had arrived there while there was still some daylight. We left there in pitch darkness.

But the stars, dear reader. For the first time in I don’t know how long there were absolutely no streetlights or house lights to interfere with the stars. It was like seeing them for the first time, thousands and thousands of them. It was like having your soul refreshed.

When my wife and I moved to our house in an estate outside Cork City, we did, for a time, have a clearer sky. We lived in an unfinished part of the estate and there were no streetlights, so we could see a great many stars or planets looking out. They’re mostly gone now though. The estate is finished, and with it comes strong lighting. An enormous housing estate has been built in what were once fields wrapping around ours, blasting various shades of light into the cosmos as we constantly try to show mastery of the world by pushing back the dark.

Now, on a good night, you can still see some of the constellations, such as Orion, but the general milieu is more or less hidden. I hope some day to be able to stand out on a dark night and recapture that sense of wonder, a sense I detect in my children. We can but hope.


This is one of the most important projects I’ve worked on, probably ever, and it was certainly one where we couldn’t afford to get something wrong in tone or treatment.

Bessborough was one of the most notorious mother and baby homes – where hundreds of children died over nearly 80 years, and where the resting places of 859 have never been found – and is in the Examiner’s heartland. This page was planned about a week in advance of the publication of a government commission into mother and baby homes nationally. Or begun, at least.

The general concept became clear almost immediately – how else could you commemorate the deaths of hundreds of children without putting their names front and centre? We had different options: Just the names with the years and dates, or the names with years, dates, and cause of death. Even a quick draft with the latter showed that it was too much information and it took away from the names, so that concept was dropped.

It was a rare case where I suggested dropping ads off the front page. It made sense given what we were trying to achieve. There were 13 or 14 variations in the end, many with only slight differences in things like opacity of the text frame sitting on the image by Larry Cummins. There were different crops of the image, there were a couple of versions with the image in black and white, and various measures of leading and kerning to balance fitting everything without making the names too small.

The response to this was overwhelming, and not only did it get picked up internationally but it was projected on a grand scale as part of an art installation to honour the survivors of mother and baby homes across the country.