Saturday, August 16, 2008

Of Good and Evil - Thoughts for the Victims and Survivors



I remember it well.  It was a Friday evening in 1972.  It was the first day of December.  I was fourteen years of age and lived in Spring Garden Street, North Strand, Dublin, 3.  It was an ordinary day and everyone was tired after a long week, but looking forward to the freedom and relaxation of the weekend.  My thoughts were very far from study at 5 P.M. as my mother and brother headed into the city centre to do the weekly shopping - just normal people doing normal things as everyone else did on that fateful day.  Approximately three hours later a car bomb exploded near Liberty Hall at 7.58 P.M. There were no fatalities but many people were injured. At 8.15pm a second car bomb exploded at Sackville Place, off O'Connell Street, killing a bus driver George Bradshaw (30) and a bus conductor Tommy Duffy (23).    I was sitting reading when I heard the loud dull explosions.  Being well used to seeing the news reports on television of the troubles in the North of our island country I knew immediately that these were car bombs and I suspected and feared that they must have gone off in the city centre of Dublin.  I feared for my mother and brother whom I knew were in town.  Being young and stupid I headed into the centre of the city and met a lot of people fleeing therefrom.  Within a few minutes people told me that bombs had gone off near Liberty Hall and in O'Connell Street. I kept going fearfully until eventually stopped by the Garda Síochána who would not let me pass beyond the junction of Summer Hill and Gardner Street.  I had no option but to turn for home scared and fearful.  I'll never forget that feeling in the pit of my stomach - that feeling of foreboding - that my mother and brother could have been blown to bits.  What a horrible feeling.  I'd never wish it on anybody.

I passed the junction of North Circular Road and Portland Row not far from where the German bombs had fallen on the night of Saturday 31st May 1941.  Later in my life I had spent a year in a Religious House of Studies where one priest, Rev.F.X. Martin OSA was a confrere.  He was Professor of Mediaeval History in UCD all his life.  I remember his telling me how on that night of May 1941 he had accompanied his father, a local General Practitioner, in caring for the wounded and dying of the North Strand bombings.  I also remember one old Christian Brother, Rev. P.A. Mullen telling us that one bomb fell not too far short of the the O' Connell Schools where I was educated, but luckily the ground was soft and it went down very deep and caused little damage to the school. There were 34 dead and 90 injured, with 300 houses damaged or destroyed. The fear and the trepidation must have been unbelievable.  The compression of what we imagine to be the endless length of life in countless years into minutes if not into seconds is certainly an experience not to be often repeated .  While the learned Dr Johnson was speaking of the effects on a prisoner of his impending death by hanging when he said that death "concentrates his mind wonderfully,"  I feel his statement can transfer wonderfully well to our thoughts or more specifically our gut feelings when brought face to face with the possible extinction of either ourselves or our loved ones.

Hence my heart goes out to all the victims and survivors and the loved ones left in the wake of the Omagh Bombing.  The WIKI has a wonderful account of this horrific bombing, the tenth anniversary of which that town commemorated yesterday.  See this link here: OB.  There is an innocent photograph on this site of a tall young man with a little girl on his shoulders.  They are both smiling at the camera - a typical summer photograph on a beautiful sunny day.  Behind them to our right is the red Vauxhall Cavalier saloon containing the bomb. This photo was taken shortly before the explosion and the camera was found afterwards in the rubble not far from these poor innocent victims.  The mind boggles and our hearts shrivel up in fear and terror.  Damn those terrorists.  How could they do such a thing to innocent people?  So many millions of people must have said the same from time immemorial.  The only difference being that "we" can murder more and more poor innocent souls as our methods of destruction become more elaborate.

Now back to my opening story from 1972.  When I arrived home thankfully both my mother and brother Patrick had returned safely from town without any shopping at all.  Just seconds after they had come out the side door of Clery's in Sackville Place and had turned into Marlborough Street a car bomb outside Clery's exploded, extinguishing the two innocent lives I have named above.  To this day my brother Patrick recalls the huge sound and all the sight and sound of the shattering glass in all the surrounding buildings flying through the air.  A year and a half later on another fateful day, also a Friday - Friday 17th May, 1974 in Dublin City, twenty-six people (including a French and Italian citizen) and an unborn baby lost their lives. Parnell Street, Talbot Street and South Leinster Street were devastated. Ninety minutes later, a fourth car bomb exploded outside Greacen's Pub in North Road, Monaghan town where a further seven people died. This has been the greatest loss of life in a single day of the Troubles, including even the Omagh atrocity of 15 August 1998.

The wonderful site Justice for the Forgotten points out that

The no-warning Dublin car bombs exploded during the Friday evening rush hour - the busiest time on the busiest day of the week - ensuring maximum casualties. An entire family- a young father and mother and their two baby daughters - was wiped out in Parnell Street.

(See this link: JF)

For the sake of completion, there was one other bombing also in Dublin which occurred on Saturday the 20th January 1973. At 3.20 P.M. on that afternoon, as Ireland were playing the All-Blacks rugby team at Lansdowne Road, a car parked in Sackville Place, Dublin exploded, killing 21-year-old Tommy Douglas, a native of Stirling, Scotland. He had been living in Dublin for just four months and working as a bus conductor. His mother was a native of Achill Island, Co. Mayo. This was the second car bombing in Sackville Place within a matter of weeks.

As I explained in the last post, I have been reading a memoir called Days From a Different World by the war correspondent and international journalist and broadcaster John Simpson who was born to parents who fled London during the height of the bombings there by the Luftwaffe.  He recounts similar fear, though raised to a considerably higher degree by a World War then at its height. 

I have attempted to deal with the philosophical and existential problems that evil leaves humankind both to ponder and to endure many times in this blog.  See this link: Evil.  There is no accounting for the evil that lies at the very heart of human beings.  We have long lost our innocence.  Such optimism and innocence died with the two great World Wars of the twentieth century.  The nineteenth century was the century of optimism and of seeming eternal progress for human kind.  It seemed that progress and improvement, brought on by the Industrial revolution, would lead to the eventual perfection of the human project.  This myth was soon shattered.  Human beings never were and never will be perfect. At most we are a far from perfect and incomplete project.  We might swallow our myths whole at times of peace but at times of conflict and war such a diet is indigestible.

Now I'll finish these few thoughts with a sort of poem - a prose poem I suppose:

For all the broken ones left behind - whether of limb or of spirit - my thoughts are with you.  Frail though these thoughts and wishes be, they are with you and for you and above, behind and below you as I remember and transform the sentiments of St Patrick's Breast Plate for this poor effort though done for a great purpose.  I remember the fear I experienced myself as a young boy all those years ago and can only slightly imagine that fear being magnified into the fears and benumbed feelings in the pit of your stomachs.  For you, I wish these words well, I wish them wings, the wings of peaceful doves.  I wish them strength, the strength of support, the strength of compassion, compassion for your brittle broken selves in these moments of sheer loneliness.  I wish you courage as you walk to the resting places of your dead.  I wish you healing, the healing of your very own hearts.  I do not ever, though, wish that you forgive or forget the evil perpetrators, for what human heart can do so?  I know I probably could not.  The forgiveness I wish you is the forgiveness that brings you healing in the letting go of self-destructive soul-destroying hate that makes a crushing weight of life.  I wish you comfort as you dwell and ponder in the peace of graveyards.  I wish you the warm sun of compassion like a cloak of care around you.  I wish you loving memories of the lost.  I wish them comfortable homes in your hearts. I wish you pleasant rain on the parched land of grief.  I wish you strong sturdy plants of hope to come.  These words will pale to insignificance.  These words in all likelihood will fail.  These words may get lost in the billions that flit and flee about this cyber-world of virtual reality.  Let them, oh yes, let them, because they cannot ever diminish my feelings and thoughts for you and never ever express the pain that you must feel.  If per chance these words do comfort then I am especially honoured by your presence in my soul. May you all walk lightly in your grief and comfort the wounded child of your own soul.  I can say no more and like Hamlet, the rest is silence!

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of some bare winter trees in Newbridge House, Donabate two years ago.

Chance That Dares Not Call Itself Providence



It's very hard to believe that there is a all-caring God somewhere behind this world of appearances and of rapidly changing disguises.  It's even harder to believe that there is an order or a pattern or a scheme to what happens, that is, some form of providence.  I'm inclined to be at one with the great contemporary theoretical physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking, who believes that everything in this universe happens by chance.  See the following link for my entries on chance Chance:  Not that I'm going to get too philosophical or theoretical in these musings here.  I'll concretise what I have to same with some examples from my reading and from my own lived experiences.  I am an inveterate reader and these long wet days of summer are ideal for indulging to excess in this wonderfully lazy pastime. 

At the moment I have two books half-read, one a memoir by the war correspondent, journalist and broadcaster John Simpson and the other the most authoritative biography (by the famous biographer Ronald Hayman) of Carl Gustave Jung, the founder of the Analytical Psychology - a school of psychotherapy distinct from that of Psychoanalysis.  Anyway, to get to the point, John Simpson underlines the fact, in agreement with Hawking, that life is pure chance. (However, I might add here, parenthetically, that Carl Jung would not agree with this contention and he worked out a rather elaborate theory of synchronicity which is, I think, really a spiritual or at least a parapsychological take on the law of cause and effect.  However, Jung's argumentation is too intricate and far too complicated for this present post.)  I intend reviewing both books in this blog over the coming days, that is, before I go back to work.

John Simpson's book is a wonderfully gripping read.  He was conceived in London during the bombing of that city and remained in it until just a few weeks before his birth.  His father and mother, plus the child in the womb, were almost blown to bits during one bombing raid by Goering's Luftwaffe.  In wartime London life was very cheap and indeed, very much a thing of chance.  Let me quote some relevant lines from Simpson.  He has already alluded to his father's and mother's many lucky escapes from Hitler's bombs - chance, of course - and then he muses about how they first met and the sheer chance of it - in a railway carriage in wartime:

Chance rules our lives utterly, and everything flows from it as a result.  A few more yards' distance, a ten-second delay, an instinct or two ignored, and all the pain and dullness and boredom and pleasure and duty and failure and happiness which constitute the lives of Roy and Joyce [his parents] and the rest of us would have been ordered completely differently.  No me, no children, no grandchildren, no great-grandchildren.  Our small world would have been an entirely unrecognisable place, unpeopled (sic) by us and repeopled (sic) by others instead.  This book in your hand would not have been written; and by the same process of random chance you yourself would not have been reading it at the critical moment if a few extra seconds had elapsed, a few more yards had intervened in your own pre-history. 

All chance, all randomness.  Remember that, the next time you feel a sense of your own significance, your own inevitability.  We are left to make the best of it, and get on with our chance-ridden lives as though there is some sort of fundamental order to them.  (Days From A Different World, John Simpson, Pan Books, 2006, 28)

Well put indeed and very true existentially.  Undeniable, existentially, I'd contend.  However, the chance that you or I or that John Simpson exists is even smaller than this author conceives.  Even given the small chances of say our mother and father meeting, especially in a city, the chances of my being born with my particular biological makeup, which makes me me, is even more ridiculously and alarmingly small by way of occurrence. Biologically in any one ejaculation there are 500,000,000, yes, that is 500 million individual spermatozoa of which only one brave warrior will penetrate the egg.  Then every woman is born with immature eggs in her ovaries. Just before birth, the number of eggs in the ovaries is roughly a few million but by the time puberty begins, this number has diminished to about 400,000. Of these, only three hundred or so will ever be released. As you age, the number of eggs in the human ovaries continue to diminish, which isn’t so surprising when you remember that about 20 or so immature eggs begin to develop and then die off when the one dominant egg is released every month. Let's then go with the 20 eggs (rather than the number 400, 000 to make our rough sum a little more credible) of which one will be released, that gives the chances of say me, Tim Quinlan, being born in any one session of sex or act of copulation as 1 over 500 million multiplied by 1 over 20, that is 1 chance in 10,000,000,000, that is 1 chance in ten billion.  Insignificant or what!

This is a deliberately cool and calculated post, but no less sincere for all that.  The fact that I exist, being just one chance in ten billion at a very conservative estimate, is nothing short of "miraculous" when looked at through a certain lens.  This lens I call the story lens or the mythic lens or the poetic lens or even the mythopoetic lens. Those of a religious frame of mind might see all the above through a religious lens or through a spiritual lens.   The real question is not which perspective is more correct or which perspective is the right one; which lens is more correct or which lens gives the clearest picture.  The real question to my mind is being able to ask the questions, to see reality from as many perspectives as possible without writing off any.  Maybe all the lenses have a role to play - some rational, some aesthetic, some ethical or moral, some cultural or sociological etc.  There is much food for thought here.  After all, is not thinking a great activity?  Is not philosophy a wonderful subject?  Is not the ability to wonder and to ask questions one of the greatest gifts humankind has at its disposal?


Above I have uploaded a picture of a woodland scene I took at Dalgan Park, Co. Meath.