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?

Fiction: A scene

[Every now and again scenes from stories pop into my head, though I have not written them up as I should have, convincing myself that I will eventually have time to flesh them out into something more solid. I’m getting over that, scribbling out scenes which may come to nothing but which need to get out of my head one way or the other. This was handwritten at about 4am one day, it is presented here unedited]

Isaac felt the thud of arrows in his back, felt them stagger him. But there was no pain, only a sense of creeping wonder at how the arrowheads drove deep and hung there. There was a sound then. It came from somewhere far, far away and yet very close. As his hands dropped and he fell to one knee, flashes of colourless light shot across the decrepit stone arch. Not enough. So close but not enough power.

His head dropped to his chest and the sound came again, again, and again. Hollow and ragged. Eventually he realised, dimly, that the sound was coming from his chest, and that he was laughing. That only made him laugh harder.

With one last effort he rose to his feet and turned back toward the forest trail. If I am going to die today, I will die standing and with my face to the enemy. Small men from the town. Even with their hoods up against the cold he could see their faces in the flickering light of the braziers. How triumphant they looked in the darkness, how proud of themselves for shooting a man in the back. How their triumph turned to confusion as the shot man laughed in their faces. How confusion turned to fear as Isaac caught the next arrow and turned it to ash.

The other two hit their target, one in the shoulder an done in the chest, missing his heart. With a flick of dying will Isaac burned off the arrows stuck in his chest, and set fire to those in the quivers too. But his legs were like water now, and his vision blurring. And yet the work was not done.

He stumbled more than walked toward the small, rounded altar. He could feel the heat of flashing raw power behind him as the ruined portal stirred. He fancied he could hear someone, or something, calling his name. Calling him home.

Still laughing, he slumped over the altar. As his blood touched the stone and ran down the carvings of labyrinthine entities he felt a surge of energy behind him and heard the triumphant, joyous song of a thousand angels or devils. “It is done,” he whispered, as his heart gave out.

As Isaac died the ancient doorway opened in a blaze of glory. And hell followed.

Change through small simple steps

Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s a well-trotted out phrase at this stage, used in all sorts of contexts to illustrate that anything and everything takes time. You could apply the phrase to Rome the city or Rome the empire, it makes no difference.

In a world where we constantly need to have instant results it’s easy to forget the power of small changes and how they add up. It’s something I came across during lockdown, and it’s how I ended up in my 20 pages a day reading challenge (still haphazard, but it will overall hit the annual reading target).

I follow and learn from a wide variety of individuals representing a wide variety of backgrounds. One of these is the brain trainer and speed reading guru Jim Kwik. Kwik had a brain injury as a child and struggled with learning but has since retrained his brain to work efficiently and has a prodigious memory. Although he would complain that “prodigious” is the wrong word to use, arguing that there are only trained brains and untrained brains.

I recently watched an interview with him where he discussed limitations and how they are generally down to our own perceptions of ourselves. One quote stuck out for me: “If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them”. Meaning, if you say to yourself “I can’t do this, I’ll never be able to do this”, then you won’t because you’re programming yourself to think that you can’t.

I took a number of online courses since the onset of covid, including several on leadership, organisational design, and management styles as part of a programme offered by Australia’s Macquarie University. Some of these courses were focused on how to be a better, more effective leader, but they also dealt with coaching and supporting employees. One approach that was discussed and which repeatedly pays dividends is, for want of a better name, the power of positive thinking. This is a growth mindset. Believing you can improve is key, much like what Kwik was talking about. And by telling employees they can improve or do new tasks, the research shows they are more likely to actually be able to do them. Provided you ensure they feel supported and that you genuinely believe in them.

But what if the task you need to accomplish is a big one? Well the tried and trusted way of taking it on is to break it into more manageable chunks. So, you want to read more? Do 20 pages a day, it adds up to 7,300 a year. Or read 20 minutes a day. Need to write that novel? Well try 500 words a day and build from there. Stephen King writes six manuscript pages a day, every day. Six. That works out as a book every two months (eg, 360 manuscript pages). A whole project management approach revolves around increments, particularly for software projects.

Kwik, in that interview I watched recently, which was part of an online festival so I can’t link out to, had a formula for progress in which he advocated a variation on this sort of thing: Short Simple Steps.

Like many useful ideas, the simplicity is what makes it works. Think along the lines of what I’ve said above about reading: You might want to kick off by reading, say, 20 books a year and then burn yourself out putting yourself under pressure. Instead, set a manageable target and chances are you’ll find yourself coasting past it because the pressure isn’t there.

I’ve written “Short Simple Steps” on the whiteboard in our kitchen so I can break it out the next time my son is tangling himself up in knots overthinking or telling us he can’t do something.

History repeating

Picture: Suzy Hazelwood via Pexels

The humanities seem to always be under attack somewhere, whether through swingeing staff cutbacks in the UK or most emphatically now with Governor DeSantis’s “war on education” to enforce conformity of thinking across Florida universities that would actually reduce diversity and undermine academic freedoms.

It would be easy to simply state that both projects are driven by conservative authorities. It would be easy too to highlight that arts and humanities teach critical analytical and thinking skills that make for good dissidents, which historically, conservative authorities have not liked. So I won’t say that. I’ll say instead that the exposure to a wide range of philosophies (for want of a better word), critical approaches, and being trained in how to form arguments and spot bias are all huge and transferable assets that come with a humanities education.

Critical thinkers tend to suffer any time a government turns conservative and humanities subjects in universities take a hit if there’s a funding squeeze, as any academic working in a school of arts in this country can tell you from the last downturn.

I’m a historian, as well as a journalist and writer, and what’s happening in America alarms me greatly given how it is surely inevitable – particularly if DeSantis makes a serious run for the US presidency as anticipated – that a similar movement will bleed into Irish discourse,  One would like to think that it wouldn’t, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, as George Santayana said, sometimes misquoted as by Churchill as “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”.

History sometimes gets a bad rep as a subject that is difficult to study, full of dates and events. That’s an antiquated way of teaching and learning history. Dates are important, no doubt, but the emphasis long ago switched to how and why things happened more than simply when and who did them.

Some schools of thinking in history argue that the duty of a historian is to “tell it like it was”. EH Carr, back in the 1960s, argued that history (or history writing at least) was a sort of ongoing process between the events and the day of the historian. This is still an important point, because one’s understanding of and writing about the past can be shaped profoundly by one’s present, something which incidentally became a theme in my PhD. Other historians eschew that and focus on pure analysis. But there’s no point analysing something the reader (or listener) doesn’t know. Otherwise you’re just preaching to the converted and speaking into an echo chamber of perhaps a handful of people. Whatever the perspective, history is, rather than a dusty collection of ancient thoughts and events, a living, breathing thing that needs appreciation and even some nurturing.

Take a walk around and you’ll walk through history. If I walk through Cork city centre, for instance, I can see the house my philandering great great grandfather Michael Verling lived in with his first family, the quays where he loaded and unloaded cargo, the customs office where my (not philandering) great great grandfather Daniel Mahoney worked following his naval career. I can visit churches where my ancestors were baptised. For years I walked past all these things not knowing they were part of my own history. I’ve spent the last number of years reclaiming it, if that makes sense.

An extract from Daniel Mahoney’s naval record referring to his service in the coastguard from Hastings, England, after naval service in Crimea

They key point here is that, compared to four years ago, I actually know where my ancestors come from, and even that I have relatives hitherto unknown (and me to them) alive and well in Missouri. The analytical skills picked up from my training as a historian and journalist have helped me sift through the documentation. One might not immediately think of a genealogy project as history, but in this project alone I can show my family’s connection to the Crimean War, steam ferries up and down Cork Harbour, and the mining industry in Kansas and Missouri. These are parts of a wider story, a wider history, that of Ireland and its diaspora. Your family has its ties to history as well.

However, timelines and timespans can be lost on people (and to be fair it’s hard to visualise things). That said, a teacher of my acquaintance was recently tearing her hair out that so many of her students had no idea how long the human species had existed. The guesses ranged from 15,000 years to hundreds. Hundreds! It explains why my son, who is 9, asked me recently if we used horses to get around when I was a child. I’m not yet 40. I just feel old.

There isn’t a movement in history that hasn’t used, well, history to support itself one way or the other. There are sound reasons. Showing a tradition, for example. Drawing inspiration from the past is another. The problem is that a lack of historical literacy makes it difficult to understand when history is being co-opted for contemporary purposes – how some members of the current Sinn Féin lay claim to the anti-Treaty fighters who would not see them as successors? – and so don’t have the tools to challenge it. And it should be challenged as often as possible.

Column: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

As those who follow me on Twitter may know, for the past year or so I have set myself an annual reading challenge. This was originally an attempt to read 20 pages every day, but it sort of morphed into trying to read the equivalent of 20 pages a day over the course of a year, which works out at 7,300. Last year I managed to beat it, this year I’m slightly behind schedule. Such is life.

That preamble out of the way, I want to talk a bit about dystopias. Specifically Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the greatest works of science fiction. It seems apt that a book about a society that burns books floated into my reading at a time when there is a serious threat to books in parts of America.

I have always loved dystopic fiction, perhaps ultimately because it forces us to confront wholescale world changes and how we cope with them. I like apocalyptic movies as well, so it’s clearly a genre I find appealing (I wrote about medieval ideas of the apocalypse too, but they’re quite different). This is a classic work, extremely short but essential reading.

In the book, a fireman (who burns books), Guy Montag, starts to come to the realisation that the extreme censorship and what he does for a living is wrong, and that there are other ways of living. Ultimately he decides to spend his days preserving books. That is a very simple summary of a book that has plenty of nuances, but it does the trick.

Ray Bradbury‘s style and the liveliness of the prose – and perhaps that much of the then fantastical technology such as immersive television experiences is not that far ahead of us now – make it easy to forget that the book was written in the early 1950s, when there were book burnings in America, and that one of his concerns is effectively the dumbing down of a population by the growth of television. But he wrote amid real fears about nuclear war – Hiroshima and Nagasaki being recent memories – anti-communist paranoia in America, and mass purges of intelligentsia and dissidents in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Importantly, while it feels like a prophetic text, he himself would say it was about what might happen as opposed to what will happen. At its heart the book asks the question ‘what if people didn’t like books?’ and follows it through to its most extreme end to explore the sort of world that might result.

The most intriguing, and alarming, thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that the book-burning mandate didn’t come from the government or some autocracy. Rather, it grew organically because people felt they’d be better off. Montag is told, “Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” That said, because this is relayed to the reader through dialogue it’s entirely possible that this is a story which was fed out as propaganda in favour of the changes, because it’s made obvious that the government is making what it deems best use of the situation.

News, for instance, is heavily sanitised at a time of nuclear war when bombers regularly fly over the homes of Montag and other characters. In fact the reader could ask if indeed cities across the United States (it’s only confirmed to by the US late on in the book) have been bombed already, given that it’s not clear if these are bombers returning from attacks or if they are attackers. Men are called up to the army, but none of their wives are particularly worried – they tell each other that it’s other women’s husbands who get killed.

Dissent exists, but it’s crushed. This dissent can be passive, such as through the mere existence of Montag’s neighbour Clarisse’s mere existence. She, free thinking and from a family that spends considerable time talking and interacting with one another as opposed to just existing, is in all her actions and force of personality the rank opposite of the sterile world that has been created, and while Montag is later told she was killed by a speeding car there is a strong inference that she was in fact killed by his captain. Thinking for oneself is a de facto crime.

The effects of not thinking for oneself are made clear by how Montag’s memory is in many cases weak: For instance, it is only toward the end of the novel that he can remember where he met his wife, and when he asks her this question earlier in the text she cannot remember either (though she places little importance on this).

Interestingly, there is the strong inference that people, at some level, realise that this is not how things need to be. Montag’s wife, who liberally takes sleeping pills, overdoses and he has to call medics to pump her stomach. The medics say they have multiple cases of this every night, suggesting that subconsciously even people who won’t question their reality openly are looking for an escape (a very final escape, but one all the same).

Sport, in this world, is the opiate of the masses (keep people occupied and makes them too tired to think really). But the key point about knowledge, and this is something I had in the back of my head when writing about the edits to Roald Dahl’s books (a decision now partially reversed), is that we need some sort of challenge if we are to evolve as individuals. As we are told in Fahrenheit 451: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

This is not a new concept. In the sixth century, Gildas, who was a crusty old monk writing in post-Roman Britain, referred to how words, in his case vicious criticisms of power and hypocrisy, could be “darts” that lead to healing. He was writing about religious reform, but the point about using words to get under somebody’s skin (or simply into their heads) is the same.

This is Gildas. He is definitely judging you

It was, I’m sure, some subconscious filing quirk that had me put Fahrenheit 451 on top of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) on the shelves, given that my copies are not the same size (one of my usual filing systems). Both grim dystopias but in very different ways, with Orwell’s book putting more emphasis on the use of state surveillance and the abuse of overwhelming power, exemplified in particular by the re-editing of newspapers to match whatever current politics exists: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

I will explore dystopian fiction more in the coming weeks and months as I shake this website into shape.

Femicide special report pages

These pages from 2016 were a different sort of layout package to what I normally do.

We had a report in from Women’s Aid on the number of women who had died violently in Ireland, looking back over the previous 20 years of the Femicide Watch Project – 209 at that point, with 131 killed in their own homes. It was grim reading.

Our editor at the time, Allan, asked me if I could look at doing something different with representing it. We had the unusual option of making the centre pages of the main newspaper, normally where things like features are in the Examiner book, into a special report for news and of trying to get it printed as a panoramic (where there is no gutter down the middle because the pages are on a single plate).

To give this a chance at working it would have to be a four-page mini section (I’ve lost the PDF of the fourth page). There were, if I recall, two narrative pieces of text and it was suggested to me that I try and use as many faces as possible. I decided that our report should have a cover page before turning into the report proper. This is what I came up with:

Women’s Aid had compiled all the names, dates, and who killed the women into one list (some killers were awaiting trial at the time). This was bleak reading but essential to the whole point of the report. Pasting them onto the page and seeing how they filled it was cause for reflection. I had an image planned at first and was going to put the names under or around it but then it occurred to me that their names were the point. So I made sure they were, and faded out the word “Killed” behind the list, with each name in bold so you can read them clearly.

At the time, Clodagh Hawe would have been the highest profile of the names along with Elaine O’Hara but it was absolutely essential that no one person be highlighted as a lead image, contrary to typical design rules (which I only use as guidelines anyway). I spent several hours sifting through the archive and found… well, found that we had a great many of the women who had been killed in our database. Not all the image files were the same size, nor were they cropped similarly, so my solution was to run columns of same-size images.

You’ll see if you tap or click on the spread below that the columns are not mirror images of one another, except for the sort of frame of faces I created around the analysis piece, which needed to be as symmetrical as possible to avoid being too distracting to the reader. Generally though the columns have roughly the same number of images in similar shapes, albeit occasionally mixed and matched depending on whether the available photo was a headshot or more upright.

Regrettably, for reasons I don’t remember, this wasn’t printed properly as a panoramic but ended up with a small gutter down the middle. Thankfully it was the text that took the brunt of this and not a face in one of the pictures, which would have felt unforgiveable.

We don’t normally put content above the Irish Examiner titlepiece but do it when the occasion warrants it, so I made the argument that this was one of those occasions. The stock image I used is deliberately grim, and I had our graphics department convert it to mono but to colour the drops of blood on the shoe a very strong red so they stood out.

This is one of the packages I’m particularly proud of and the names concept, as I’m sure you’ve realised, was one I revisited in a different form for the Bessborough page.

Editing Roald Dahl’s books is wrong

To say the decision by Puffin Books to edit Roald Dahl’s books is perplexing to say the least. The intention is to make the language more inclusive, and to remove or replace more problematic words. As an intention this is actually meant well, but in practice it makes little sense. Some changes are baffling. Making the Oompa-Loompas gender neutral is one, because it’s completely unnecessary (how was their previous description problematic?).

Now, let’s be clear: Language matters and inclusive language matters a great deal. When I was writing up the Irish Examiner style guide, which dictates what terms and linguistic styles we use, I made a point that we should not refer to people who have a condition in such a way that that condition defines them. So, somebody with diabetes as opposed to diabetic. As a father whose son was diagnosed with autism in the years after writing up that document, I am more acutely aware of the need for such language when you do not have the issue referred to yourself.

But I digress slightly.

I don’t agree with the claims from some critics that the Dahl edits are “woke” or for “snowflakes”. The changes, some of which are highlighted here, are meant well. I see the point of the publisher and recognise that it worked with a group that focuses on inclusivity. But my first reaction to the Roald Dahl news was that it was absurd. These are books, not instruction manuals. Indeed, the French publisher is not going to follow suit. Works of fiction are, by their very nature, works of art and just as importantly works of their time. You don’t have to agree with what’s in them, and you certainly don’t have to agree with how the author expresses themself. Words carry an abundance of  meaning and nuance and it is impossible to avoid something objectionable to someone being written somewhere by any author.

My second reaction was more a question. Where does it end? One only has to look at the campaigns by conservatives in parts of the United States to restrict – sorry, vet – what’s available in school libraries, and in particular the targeting of texts with some LGBT content, to say that censorship on a wide scale has the potential for a very bleak future indeed. We as a species are already grappling with the seemingly endless tide of conspiracy theory and misinformation (as opposed to mistaken interpretation, which is different even though it can also be damaging). Do we really need to hide ideas instead of engage with them?

And logically, where would it end? How far back do you go in terms of sanitising? All of medieval literature would be in the bin, if that’s the case. I did a PhD on it, trust me. Most works considered “classics” would face redaction, some more extensively than others. The Bible endorses genocide and murder in some parts. Heart of Darkness is explicitly racist. Nietzsche is a misogynist. There is a short Marvel series where Captain America – Captain America! Supposedly all that’s good! – expresses disquiet about working with the X Men because “they’re not like us” (and X Men as a whole is a way of challenging racism and all its forms). Perhaps we should pay more attention to how adaptations take the essence of a story without the racism (eg, Apocalypse Now, the Chris Evans version of Captain America).

Decades ago, the Cork Examiner would have referred to women with jobs somewhat patronisingly as “girls” (eg, shop girls). I don’t propose to go back into the archives and change those. It makes me feel a bit too much like Winston Smith from 1984:Disney has taken to adding notes to some of its films, such as the original Jungle Book, to say they reflected older views which were wrong (and certainly the song at the end, where the girl dreams of a future “cooking in the home”, is extremely dated and I have repeatedly said this to my children, who love the rest of the film). I think this is reasonable enough, because it leaves the actual film intact as it was. And it’s a chance to explain to children what is or isn’t appropriate to say.

Some of Dahl’s phraseology is dated, and has been for years. He made antisemitic comments in real life. His work can be cruel toward overweight people – think Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where his weight is equated to his character as a human being. But then David Walliams is equally antagonistic when it comes to people’s differences, and I haven’t seen any campaigns to edit back his work, though the Telegraph claims it could happen. Elsewhere Dahl’s narrator betrays a certain patriarchal approach to the place of women and girls, like in Esio Trot, though some of it is kind of excused by the way he frames the narrator’s voice.

That voice in Matilda for example is very clearly somebody addressing the reader directly (including the interjection, during an extended riff on how it would be delightful to write caustic reviews of awful students, “but enough of that, we have to get on”). That somebody is not necessarily Roald Dahl, though on balance of probability it is. However, if you’re reading the book aloud to a child then that, in effect, makes you the narrator. It’s supposed to. They’re written as you would tell a story to a child, not just as a child would read them. And the way he plays with language and creates words in the BFG is masterful.

I have read a good number of the books to my sons, and we have listened to them in audiobook as well. I read some of them as a child in the early 1990s (or thereabouts) and at this remove can’t recall word for word any of them, let alone say a particular phrase influenced my thinking. What I can certainly say though, and it was only apparent while reading Matilda to my son, that Matilda instilled in my a lifelong hatred of bullying (and fascism) and an appreciation for kindred spirit bookworms (as I was at Matilda’s age and well beyond), as well as a warm affinity for teachers.

My approach, any time I came across something that I felt was wrong, was to simply tell the boys “you shouldn’t say stuff like this” or words of that ilk. They are not cruel and they understand this. But they do love the stories. And going back in to change the language changes those stories to some extent, and that is wrong.

Michael Verling – man overboard

It’s not often that your ancestor’s death graces the pages of a daily newspaper, but this is how the then Cork Examiner reported the death of my great great grandfather Michael Verling in October 1886. There was a terrible storm across Ireland and Britain which resulted in a number of fatalities at sea, including two crew members from the same shipping company which were combined into one story for the Examiner.

For clarity, the relevant part for us here says: “The SS Upupa, belonging to the same [shipping] company, was the scene of the second fatality, which happened while the vessel was at sea, on her way from London to Plymouth, for Cork. During the story of the previous night some hands were at work on the forepart of the vessel, and amongst them was a man named Verling, formerly captain of the Erin, one of the boats of the Citizens’ River Steamers Company. A wave breaking over the steamer carried the unfortunate man overboard, and he was swept out of the sight of his companions in an instant. Under the existing circumstance it was impossible to rescue the man from his doom. He leaves a wife and several children to mourn his loss.”

This is the Upupa on the right, immortalised in rescuing the crew of a ship called the Clan MacDuff, though I have no idea if Michael was on board at that stage. I imagine the stormy conditions here were not a million miles away from the night Michael died

It’s interesting that it says “wife and several children” because that glosses over the fact that he had children with two women, and that he had married the mother of his daughter Mary (Minnie) after his first wife Martha died. There’s nothing in my family lore that says children from his first marriage lived with his second family – in fact one of his daughters, Catherine, appears to have been listed as an orphan in Haulbowline school (an island in Cork Harbour) while Michael was still alive. Michael was from Cobh, then Queenstown, so it’s possible she lived with some of his relatives because Cobh and Haulbowline are easily reachable by boat. Coincidentally, I grew up not far from Haulbowline.

Catherine Verling-Tracy with an unknown child (photo via my American cousin Mary)

This is her in later years, by the way, after she had moved to Missouri to live near some of her siblings and her mother’s kin. She appears to have been a bit of a badass and nursed a fierce rage for Michael and how he had treated her mother. He certainly had a severe drink problem though whether he had tamed it in later life I cannot say, only that Minnie is said to have spoken highly of him.

Whoever wrote the Examiner report had obviously spoken to people who had been on board the Upupa (my uncle heard his mother mention this name once while they were travelling on a bus and it stuck with him all his life; the ship itself later sank) because the details included about his death are not in the official log of sea deaths. This is it:

It says: “Knocked overboard. The strap on which the hatch blocked was hooked on broke & struck Verling, pitching him overboard”.

That’s it, the total official log of my great great grandfather’s death. The Examiner report is more poetic, if grim.

It says something about Michael’s reputation that it was important for the Examiner reporter to refer to his captaincy of the Erin, a steam ferry that travelled up and down the harbour and in particular stopped at Michael’s hometown of Queenstown. This was… a problematic captaincy. He was a very popular captain but ended up prosecuted for a collision, the details of which I’ve transcribed into a small book for family and which I will explore a bit in a later post.

O’Mahony and Verling children in Cork

Maura and Michael O’Mahony at Tonyville, High Street, Cork,

Meet Maura O’Mahony, my grandaunt. She’s here with her brother, my grandfather Michael, outside their house in Tonyville, Cork, just up the street from where their mother Minnie Verling lived at the time of her marriage.

Maura is about 4 or 5 here. My grandfather, who with the blazer, tie, and glasses looks well into his 20s, is actually about 17 or 18 we think. Maura was by all accounts his great favourite and he taught her to whistle, which she did all the time once she had mastered it.

Maura had Down syndrome. She was born in 1927 when her mother was 47 and her father 53, and she was probably the last of their seven children (I can’t find the birth date for one, Celia, which either means she was either born after 1921 – more recent birth records aren’t available on – or registered under a different name. I have found several of these incidents in my family tree).

Poor Maura died of scarlet fever in 1936 when she was just 9, in Cork Dental Hospital, at a time when scarlet fever, dyptheria, whooping cough and other illnesses were rampant. Because of the limit on what birth records are available I didn’t even know about her until my aunt referred to her while we were discussing other relatives. Even my father didn’t seem to know about her. Every now and then I like to make sure she isn’t forgotten.

She, alas, was not the only O’Mahoney (or Mahoney, or O’Mahony, the records alternate) from that family to die in childhood.

Her brother Daniel Joseph died in 1913 at the age of 3 of “hydrocephalus and exhaustion”. Heartbreakingly, the death record shows he died at home with his mother. He was their first child, and my relatives had not heard of him so I like to think I’ve contributed to research in that way. Hydrocephalus is a build-up of fluid in the brain and a child can be born with it – possibly because the mother was infected with mumps or measles while pregnant – or it can develop after birth. Either way it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the brain so I don’t like to think about what he went through. I do, though, like Maura, like to make sure he is not forgotten.

The death registration of baby Daniel, age 3

Daniel’s death, incidentally, is also the breaking of a chain. I can find Daniels in the family all the way back to the early 1800s, but after Daniel Joseph’s death I can find no more.

Child mortality also befell Minnie’s father’s children. I choose the words deliberately because Minnie (Mary) was born after an affair between her father Michael and a woman called Mary Madden. She was their only child, but Michael had had at least 11 with his wife, Martha Kenneally.

The many children of Michael Verling and Mary Kenneally

In many cases, I was unable to find a death registration, though I deduced that previously siblings had died because the names were reused. This seems grim, but it was a way of remembering the dead children. So Thomas William Verling, died 1868, is followed that same year by William James Verling. There are also a number of Marys in the family – Mary (Maria, 1863-67), Mary Kate (b. 1871), Mary Margaret (b.1873), and finally Mary (b.1875).

I did, and still do, think of them often. For if I don’t, who will?

When I did my initial detective work it seemed very much as if his entire line had died out (I could only find one child who lived to adulthood, Hannah, who dropped off the records after that) when his son Michael John died in 1882 in Cork Fever Hospital, now long gone. Until… an unexpected DNA match and message from Kansas City, where not one, not two, not three, but four of the missing Verling children (as they were to me at that time) had emigrated and built lives for themselves. They seem to have had in many ways a wild existence, which in itself befits the sort of wild reputation I can find for their father (a brute to Martha when drunk according to his daughter in the US, almost a saint according to his daughter Minnie). But more of that anon.

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.