Saturday, December 23, 2006


Of Books

“And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”(Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJB).  We are probably all aware of this famous quotation from the Old Testament.  It comes to my mind as I have just returned from doing some Christmas shopping in Dublin city centre and have had the occasion to go into two bookstores in search of presents.  This is a singularly dangerous pursuit for me as I cannot leave a bookstore without some purchase or other to add to my own personal pile of books demanding to be read.  There is a new Chapters bookstore open on Parnell street right opposite the Ilac Centre.  It is a fine big bright and spacious store with lovely leather seats on which to recline should one be inclined to peruse a book or two before buying.

There are many bargains well placed to catch the buyer’s eye and, boy, there were queues at the counters buying all those last minute presents.  Anyway, it’s nice to see that Eason’s are getting some competition not too far from their O’Connell Street branch – they’ve had (or more correctly have) a virtual monopoly of the book trade in Ireland and can charge what they like for a book.  I’ve always found Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street to be the best value in books and to have a range of titles far wider and far better categorized than that of their competitors.  I suppose this latter aims at a more high brow clientele being so close to TCD.

However, the new Chapters shop, like its older brother in Middle Abbey Street, is worth visiting for its unusually low-priced bargains.

Anyway, to cut a long story short I ended up buying 6 bargains for myself and some four others as presents.  Perhaps there should be an addiction called bibliophilia.  

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Spirituality of Depression

Coming up for air - towards a spirituality of Depression

There can be few diseases more distressing than depression.  Not alone has it both physical and mental/emotional components, but it can be notoriously difficult to diagnose.  Added to that, there has always been a stigma attached to an illness that might smack of mental instability.  Thankfully, due to the persistent good work of Aware, this myth is being slowly and surely eroded.  These reflections are occasioned by a severe bout of depression necessitating hospitalisation experienced by this writer.  Now a year later I am reviewing this experience and attempting to put some shape and meaning on it.  I am attempting to plot the milestones on the road to recovery.  What were the signposts that led me from the pit of despair?  Yes, there were medical interventions.  But there was more.  There was also a stripping away of all the more superficial accretions of the ego such as worldly success whether financial or social and a re-appraisal of my ambitions.  In short I began a review of my direction in life, to search for priorities that really meant something to me on a personal level.

Communications Down

The medical experts can give all the most learned definitions of depression, but the sufferers can only live with their experiences and hope to describe them as well and as honestly as they possibly can.  Most of us resort to images to describe this journey into, and hopefully out of, this frightening experience of depression.  The images commonly given by patients are experiences of being in a dark tunnel, being locked in a prison, being left to languish at the bottom of a pit, being in a desert, being lost in a thick fog or mist or being left alone on a huge empty ocean.  For me the experience was literally that of being lost in a thick fog.  Not alone was I lost without any direction home, but everything I saw was away in the distance behind this impenetrable fog.  One of the most appealing and accurate definitions of depression I have come across is that advanced by the psychologist and psychotherapist, Dorothy Rowe who describes it as a lack of communication with the world.  That is what is the most frightening aspect of this illness, the gradual withdrawal into one's own world and the inexorable retreat into the distance of the world out there.  You are gradually being cut off from contact with society.  In short communications are down.

The Dark Night of the Soul

I suppose if spirituality is anything it is most essentially a sense of relationship with the divine, with the source of life, with the Creator of this wonderful, if at times most painful, world.  In short spirituality then is about relationship, connection and communication.  Depression is the very opposite of all this.  It is a sense of lostness, of discontinuity, of disconnection, of lack of all relationship, even a relationship with the self.  One is shipwrecked on an infinite grey ocean with no hope of an island of release in sight.  For me there were a whole two weeks of hospitalisation which I cannot remember at all.  I was reminded by others, both relatives and friends and the nursing staff of the way I was during this time - totally disoriented, unable to recognize others, definitely cut off.  The medical staff had assured my family that I should come through this thick fog of disconnection after this initial two week period once the drugs had  'kicked in'.  They were correct in both diagnosis and prognosis.  Indeed I did begin to get better, and gradually the fog did indeed lift.

It is a great consolation for me that many writers in the mystical tradition allude to darkness and fog and mist as elements through which God can be encountered. In Exodus 19 and 20 Moses goes into cloud and darkness to meet God.  In this life the divine nature is not to be held or grasped.  Indeed it eludes all definition.  It is interesting for me that many of the mystics use some of the images alluded to above to describe the journey to God, i.e., darkness, fog, cloud and desert.  I am in no way implying, I hasten to add, that an experience of depression is the same as a mystical experience or vice versa.  I am merely pointing out some points of contact or similarity between the two.  John of the Cross divides the spiritual journey of the soul into 'the night of the senses' and the 'night of the spirit'.  The former stage, 'the night of the senses' refers to the 'death' of the senses to the objects and distractions of this world where the self concentrates its desire on God alone, rather than on any external ends.  The 'night of the spirit or soul' is more frightening because the self is stripped of any remaining spiritual gratification.  Psychiatrists speak of anhedonia, that is, a lack of interest in anything as one of the distinguishing characteristics of depressed people.  All their former interests recede and they are left in a totally indifferent state.  In a certain sense, this is a veritable death of the senses.  This is an extremely frightening experience because all the pastimes and pursuits and interests which one once held so dear cease to satisfy the restless heart of the depressed.  Also frightening is the lack of real contact with friends and relatives.  As I said above, I in no way wish to equate mystical experience with depression or vice versa, but what I wish to stress are certain points of contact.  I leave it to the experts to say more.  However, on a personal level I do get great consolation from reading the mystics, the Scriptures and especially the psalms now that I am a certain distance on the road to recovery.

Trusting the Experts:

The most important milestone on the road to recovery from any illness is most certainly that of trusting the specialist.  It is a definite prerequisite in recovering from a psychiatric illness.  For me this was certainly a major contributory factor in my getting better.  Without that trust or faith in the expertise of the specialist one is without direction. The experts refer to different types of depression: (i) reactive depression which occurs when faced with exceptional loss or profound trauma, (ii) endogenous depression which basically means depression coming from within, i.e., it is basically a chemical or biological type, (iii) manic depression which is also biological in origin and is marked by swings in mood from depression to elation or mania, and (iv) secondary depression which describes mood changes which result from an underlying medical problem e.g., depression following viral infections, glandular fever, flu etc. Mine was diagnosed under the fourth category as it followed a dreadful bout of the flu, but undoubtedly I feel now that there were other contributory factors over the years which obviously left my resistance low and consequently susceptible to viral infection.  These factors I now realise were certainly stress related and the result of taking on too many responsibilities.  Trusting the specialists meant taking the required medication and being involved in other ancillary therapies like workshops on meditation, creative writing, art, relaxation, music etc.  Pray yes, but also take the medical treatment.  We hear much about alternative medicine which to my mind is a definite myth as it writes off all too cavalierly the scientific knowledge of generations of medical research.  The appropriate terminology is of course complementary medicine.  It is definitely a case of 'both-and' rather than 'either-or.'

Courting the creative Muses:

There is perhaps no greater therapy than the discovery or re-discovery of the creative impulses which reside deep inside each of us.  For me writing has always been a hobby, from poetry to short stories and articles for various journals.  Indeed not all of my creative outpourings have seen light of day, but that really does not matter.  Immediately after my release from hospital I set about writing a novel which attempted to deal in some creative way with my breakdown.  Whether it gets published or not is really not at issue.  It was part of the healing process, a way of coming to terms with what had happened to me.  The encouragement of my medical specialist in this enterprise was also significant, as was his patient listening.  There is much aggression and no little violence in today's world, and this is because people's natural creativity has been thwarted and even eclipsed by a society governed more and more by materialistic success and progress.  The arts in general from music to dance to painting to theatre have all inherent within them precious doorways to the life of the soul and the spirit.  It is little wonder that writing, painting and music play such an important role in various complementary therapies.

The Healing Silence of Meditation:

I have found that giving some time to meditation on a daily basis very helpful also.  Real silence is a great gift.  It is so much more than the mere absence of sound.  Being still in the body is a necessary prerequisite to the stillness of mind and soul.  Entering the sanctuary of one's innermost self can be at times daunting, but occasionally very rewarding. During my recovery it was with great gratitude that I recalled the sessions on meditation guided by William Johnston, S.J. which I had attended some years previously.  His books have since been a constant source of inspiration and guidance.  I have also attended courses given by some Buddhist masters of meditation also.  Having said this, needless to say, I'm aware of the long tradition of Christian meditation.  I also find meditating with music in the background very rewarding and relaxing.  Recently I was asked to make a copy of a meditation tape for a friend of a friend who is dying from cancer.  I decided to meditate while copying it.  This way I felt I had forged some connection with this unknown woman.  When I had finished I felt I needed to write a poem about this experience.  In this way I had blended both meditation and the creative urge.

Returning to the Scriptures:

The Scriptures have always been a source of much nourishment.  The psalms are always brilliant as they can mirror our many moods.  Then of course there are our favourite texts from various parts of the Bible for consolation.   But for the Christian the focus must always be Christ himself.  One of the most obvious ways of meeting him must surely be in the Gospel stories.  Who then is this Jesus for me?  He is the one who reaches out to all seeking to liberate us from all that oppresses us, whether in body, mind or spirit.  The Jesus I meet in the Gospels is a Jesus who seeks to reach out to me, to heal me, to establish communication with me, to listen to me.  If depression is at base a lack of real communication with the world at large, spirituality is the presence of a healing communication with others, and most especially for the Christian with the person of Jesus Christ himself.

Coming up for air

The darkest moment, they say, is often before the dawn.  Those of us who have at any occasion reached rock bottom in life know that when we do so we also realise that for our own good, for our own health, for our own sanity, the only way is up.  It is rather like hitting the floor at the deep end of the pool.  In a short while we know we will be breathing air.  To come safely through this ordeal requires trust and faith in the medical profession, in our family and in our friends.

The above essay is one I wrote some seven years ago when I was in a Christian phase of being.  I am now in my more Buddhist agnostic phase.  I re-worked this article, leaving out all the overtly Christian allusions for an article for the Aware magazine, the main journalistic organ of the mental health organization of the same name here in Ireland.  It appeared with the following title: “Coming up for air – towards a Spirituality of Depression,” art. in Aware, Spring 2003, Vol. 16, issue 1, p.3.


A Sense of Place

What's in a Place?

It is often said that we Irish traditionally have, or had, an acute sense of place or locality. Many of our popular ballads may often consist of little more than strings of place names. When we meet others for the first time the question, “Where are you from?” is one of the first questions to be asked. Moreover, there is much current interest in the origins of place names, or in “logainmníocht” as it is called in Irish. This strong attachment to place would seem to be rooted in our history. Firstly, there was no Industrial Revolution to displace the population. Secondly, there was instead the long and painful tragedy of emigration. Little wonder, then, that those who stayed felt all the more identified with the places where they lived and that those who left tended to exaggerate the beauty of their native island with dewy-eyed nostalgia.

“Dindshenchus”, or the lore of places, was traditionally part of the common culture. The preservation and promotion of this lore was a specific duty of the poets who shared a lot of responsibilities with lawyers and historians. Place-lore was second in importance only to genealogical lore which, when recorded and recited in poetic form, laid the basis for the taoiseach's claim to power. The term 'Dindshenchus' refers to that body of 300 poems with prose synopsis which was compiled into one great unit in the twelfth century. Each of these poems sought to explain the origin of their title which was a place name. Their explanations were often strained and highly imaginative.

However, this attachment to place was a strong literary convention which reached further back than the twelfth century. From the earliest times, for example in the sagas and the romances, a story was fixed topographically and the characters were defined in terms of where they came from. For instance, let us take the example of the supposed origin of the name Sliabh Mis, south-west of Tralee in Co. Kerry. Several strands or layers make up this story: a definite foundation in mediaeval place-lore, a romance written in the fifteenth century and a further literary retelling from the eighteenth century. We read that Mis was the daughter of Dáire Donn who was killed by the Fianna at the Battle of Ventry. Having found her father's dead body on the battlefield and having drunk his blood, she became insane and fled to Sliabh Mis. She terrorised the whole barony until the local taoiseach sent his harper, Dubh Rois, to tame her with his music and his sexual prowess. He succeeded admirably in his task and restored her to sanity. On a similar note, it takes little imagination to see why the ancient holy mountain of Cíocha Danann or the Breasts of Danu (in Sliabh Luachra, Co. Kerry) was so called. Dan£ or Dana was the mother of all Irish gods and the great earth-mother, and she was worshipped from antiquity by the Celts.  

While the texts of the 'Dindshenchus' had little influence on the oral tradition, folklore shows an enduring interest of its own in local lore. It embraces such matters as historical happenings, supposed connections with heroes and saints, ghosts and fairies. Many humorous legends grew up with regard to the origin of place names. For instance, a beggar man was said to have complained that the inhabitants of a certain Derry town were 'done giving', thereby leading to the invention of the name Dungiven for that particular place. Another hilarious etymology relates to the story of St. Patrick who, having been struck by a stone, complained of the 'wicked low' people who lived there - no prizes for guessing the name of this town.

Lough Neagh also attracted the myth-makers. Its waters were said to be able to turn wood to stone. The great Fionn Mac Cumhaill was said to have scooped Lough Neagh out and to have thrown what he had scooped out into the sea to form the Isle of Man. Such lore lives on in the poetic imagination as instanced in Seamus Heaney's 'A Lough Neagh Sequence':

                The Lough will claim a victim every year.
It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.
There is a town sunk beneath its water.
It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.          (1)

In practically all Irish writers a sense of place is central, and Heaney is no exception, but perhaps Kavanagh is its greatest exponent. Seán Ó Tuama judges the poetry of the latter to be the best example of the continuity that occurred between Irish literature and English literature in Ireland as regards this attachment to place. (2) As an emigrant in England, Kavanagh could not rid himself of his obsession with his native soil. In a poem entitled 'Kerr's Ass' he found himself naming the 'several names' of local Irish towns from the distance of London,

                Until a world comes to life-
Morning, the silent bog,
And the God of imagination waking
In a Mucker fog.                    (3)

Here, we have illustrated for us this enchantment with locality: a dynamic mixture of landscape, town land and imagination - a very Gaelic trait. Kavanagh did not lack a sense of humour as regards his native place. In The Green Fool (1938) we read: “The name of my birthplace was Mucker...The name was a corrupted Gaelic word signifying a place where pigs were bred in abundance. Long before my arrival there was much aesthetic heart-aching among the folk who had to put up with, and up in, such a pig-named townland. In spite of all this the townland stuck to its title and it was in Mucker I was born.”(4) But those “black hills”, at once inspiring and terrifying, make their presence felt often in his poetry and reflect his love-hate relationship with the soil. He calls them sarcastically his “Alps” and his “Matterhorn” – “hungry hills” forsaken even by the snipe. (5) These very hills, he realises, are the centre of his universe. In another poem, “Epic”, he informs us that he has lived in “important places” and that a local row over boundaries by two neighbouring farmers almost killed his faith in the importance of such local townlands like Ballyrush and Gortin. But then he remembers that Homer made his epic, the Iliad, “from such a local row.” (6) Ó Tuama argues that Kavanagh is here following in the Gaelic tradition of loyalty to place and that, further, his final line “gods make their own importance” suggests his hankering after the ancient Gaelic mythology associated with place. (7)

Brian Friel's excellent play, Translations (1980), centres around the anglicization of Irish place names by the British Ordnance Survey (1833), spearheaded by officers and men from the corps of Royal Engineers. Many themes intertwine in this play. It is at once a play about language per se, the death of the Irish language, land-surveying, a sense of place, the activity of naming places, transition from the old to the new and the fear of change along with all the complications and complexities these issues promote. All in all, the wholeness and the integrity of the Gaelic past pervade the play, coupled with the fear of the people of Ballybeg for its future and their own. Their hedge school is going to be replaced by one of the new national schools where tuition is totally through English; there is recurring potato blight; they have to acquire a new language; and because their townland is going to be renamed, everything that is familiar is becoming strange.

The sense of attachment to place has haunted practically every writer of Irish nationality whether in Gaelic or English. At the beginning of this century the poet, Pádraig Ó hÉigeartaigh, wrote a moving lament for his son, Donnchadh, who was drowned in Boston. The father regretted the fact that his son was buried on foreign soil and wished that he could be buried in more homely and welcoming earth:

Dá  mbéadh an codladh so i gCill na Dromad ort nó in uaigh san Iarthar         
mo bhrón do bhogfadh, cé gur mhór mo dhochar, is ní bhéinn id'dhiaidh air. (8)

Louis MacNeice, who was born in Belfast and spent the first ten years of his life in Carrickfergus before residing in England for good, was haunted by his native land even though he was often very critical of her violence, provincialism and conservatism: “And I thought I was well out of it.../ Though her name keeps ringing like a bell in an under-water bellfry.” (9) Are there echoes here of that mythical saint's bell that woke the four children of Lir from their spell and from their  centuries' captivity in the shape of swans, and which welcomed them home to the dry land of their birth and a Christian burial?


1. Seamus Heaney, see 'A Lough Neagh Sequence' in Selected Poems, Faber, 1980, p. 40.      

2. See Seán Ó Tuama, “Omós Áite: a rian ar scríbhneoirí in Éirinn', alt in Comhar, Bealtaine, 1992, lch., 177.

3. Patrick Kavanagh, see 'Kerr's Ass' in Collected Poems, London,     1972, p. 135.

4. Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool, Penguin, 1977, p. 8.

5. Patrick Kavanagh, see “Shancoduff” in op. cit. at 3, p. 30.

6. ibid., p. 136.

7. See S. Ó Tuama, op. cit. at 2 above, lch. 178.

8. See Caoimhghín Ó GÓilidhe, Díolaim Filíochta, Folens, 1974, lgh. 399-400.

9. Louis MacNeice, see 'Autumn Journal' in Collected Poems, Faber, 1980

The above picture is one I took of Dublin Bay from Clontarf. You can see the two ESB power station chimneys in the background.