Monday, February 19, 2018

Attack of the Pod People

Several of my readers have now been kind enough to suggest that I should feature a podcast on this blog.

Well, I've just emailed someone who I think would make an interesting interview subject for such a podcast. Hopefully, there will be a positive response.

You see....I do listen!

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Case of Nellie Organ

In my soon-to-be-published book on Catholic saints, I have a chapter on the theme of childhood. The chapter looks at the childhood of saints (whose childhoods were sometimes saintly, and sometimes far from saintly). One child I don't discuss in that chapter is Nellie Organ, or "Nellie Organ of Holy God". I made the decision to only write about people who have actually been given the title "Blessed" or "Saint" by the Church. Nellie Organ has not even been declared Venerable yet. Indeed, a cause for her sainthood has yet to be opened.

And yet, I personally feel no doubt whatsoever that this child was a saint.




Her name was Ellen Organ, and she died of tuberculosis at four years of age, in 1908. Despite her age, she was given special permission to receive the Blessed Eucharist, and it is said that her story influenced St. Pius X to reduce the age at which children can receive Communion. (In fact, the encyclical in which he does this, Quam Singulari, argues that children should be allowed to receive Communion as soon as they can understand the difference between the Eucharist and ordinary bread and wine, and further insists that this is no innovation but the ancient practice of the church).

Nellie Organ was the child of a family which was devout, but not prosperous. Her father, for want of other work, became a soldier in the British army. Her mother died, also of tuberculosis, a year before Nellie. The father soon discovered he could not care for his four young children alone, and each of them was placed in the care of religious orders.

The child spent the last eight months of her life in the care of the Good Shepherd Sisters of Cork. It was soon discovered she had tuberculosis, and that she was not long for the world. As well as this, she had a disease calls caries, which caused her jaw to disintegrate and produced a foul smell.

Nellie became famous amongst the Good Shepherd sisters for her devotion to the Eucharist (which she simply called "Holy God"), and for her extraordinary fortitude and sweetness. But this is not all; there are accounts of extraordinary favours received, such as answers to prayers and miraculous discernment. Such stories abound in the lives of the saints. Could Ellen Organ, a four-year-old victim of tuberculosis, really be a saint?

Here, the modern reader (myself included) will find himself hesitating. Can we really believe the stories which have been handed down? Was it, perhaps, the spiritual excitement of the Good Shepherd Sisters bubbling over? Is there something rather grotesque in venerating a four-year-old tuberculosis victim as a holy person? Many modern commentators on the case of Nellie Organ, as we will see, believe that there is.

Catholics believe in extraordinary grace. There is no reason to doubt that a four-year-old child can receive extraordinary graces. And yet, in spite of this, the cult of Nellie Organ remains somewhat disconcerting. What if we are wrong, and simply exploiting a tragic story for our own devotional purposes?

I have felt this discomfort, and yet I find the story of Little Nellie extraordinary compelling. Partly this is because it is so hard to interpret in any way except a supernatural one. Partly it's because it awakens in me a greater awe for the Blessed Eucharist. Partly it's because of the familiarity and confidence of her relationship with God (another common motif in saint's lives). And partly it's because it gives me a greater (if all-too-fleeting) sense of urgency in my spiritual life. Little Nellie was hardly alive before she was dying, and yet she lived a life renowned for its holiness. What's stopping us?

The most famous aspect of her life is her hunger for the Blessed Sacrament, and the dispensation she was given to receive it long before the usual age (at that time) of twelve years old.


Bishop Thomas Alphonsus O' Callaghan 

Special permission for Nellie to receive Communion was given by Bishop Thomas Alphonsus O'Callaghan, Bishop of Cork at the time (and one time the personal confessor of Pope Piux IX). The case was reported to him by a Fr. Bury S.J., who was conducting a retreat for the Good Shepherd Sisters and who was told of Little Nellie's hunger for "Holy God". Interviewing her, he asked her what the Blessed Eucharist was. "It is Holy God", said Nellie. "It is Him that makes the nuns and everyone else holy."

This is how the same Fr. Bury describes Nellie's eventual reception of the Eucharist: "Little Nellie literally hungered for her God, and received Him from my hands in a transport of love." Another priest who was present attests: "All remarked the heavenly light that lighted up the child's countenance."

This, in itself, might be dismissed as the touching story of a precocious child's religious experience, and of the impression it made on sympathetic onlookers. However, there is another detail: from the day she received Holy Communion, the foul smell that had accompanied the disintegration of the poor girl's jaw disappeared.

Other remarkable stories have been handed down. My favourite is that in which little Nellie seemed to know, supernaturally, that a girl named Mary Long, who helped the sisters, and who usually attended morning Mass, had not received Holy Communion that day. The first time this happened, Mary Long assumed that Nellie had heard her moving around the nearby kitchen. The next time it happened, Mary had feigned she was leaving for church, and took her boots off while working in the kitchen instead. She was greeted with the same declaration as the first time: "You did not get Holy God."

There are also accounts of special favours received in prayer. When she was told to pray for a particular Jesuit, who had intended to come to Cork but was very ill, she correctly predicted: "He will get better, but he will never see me".

Along with all this, Nellie Organ astonished those around her by her lack of complaint in the face of her agonizing suffering.

The little girl died in the early hours of Candlemas. In her last moments she seemed to reaching towards something, and attempting to speak.

Her body was exhumed a year after her death, in order to transfer her to another cemetery. A Fr. Scannell, present at the exhumation, reported: "Everything...was found to be exactly as on the day of Nellie's death."

Bishop Thomas Alphonsus O'Callaghan, the bishop who gave permission for Nellie to receive Communion, took a specal interest in her case and promoted her cause. However, it seems to have frittered out after his death. There are very few child saints in Church history who are not martyrs; in recent centuries, there was debate amongst theologians on whether a child could posses the "heroic virtue" required for sainthood. Last year's canonizations of two of the Fatima visionaries makes it seem likely that we will have more non-martyr child saints. In this National Catholic Register article, Nellie Organ is mentioned as one of the likely candidates.

The convent in which Nellie Organ lived her last months burned down in 2003. Her room had been preserved to her memory until then. The site of her grave is currently in the control of a bank. Planning permission for it to be redeveloped was given in 2006, but this never happened. Her grave seems to be inaccessible to the public, although the local bishop is trying to address this. (I've written to the diocese to ask how the situation stands, but there has been no reply as yet.)

How extensive is the cult of Nellie Organ in modern Ireland? From my personal experience, I can't claim that it's particularly extensive. I'd never heard of her until perhaps two years ago, long after I started writing this blog.

My father never heard about her, and he's a life-long Irish Catholic. I asked various of my colleagues if they had ever heard of her, and received a universal "No".

Nonetheless, she has certainly achieved lasting renown. There are seven books about her, in whole or in part, listed on her Wikipedia entry. My interest in her grew through a series of articles in The Open Door magazine (a local Catholic magazine to which I contribute articles on Chesterton), taken from a book by Leo Madigan.


Nellie is not absent from the consciousness of modern Irish journalists, though their attitude towards her cult is generally negative. The journalist Victoria White, who has sometimes been a critic of media Church-bashing, is quite emphatic in her distaste: "Every time I see a picture of Little Nellie Organ I want to get sick. The horror of it. The dying four-year-old trussed up in a chair in the bridal gown of a First Communicant. The pasty face and the huge staring eyes. It is a repulsive image." The main target of her article is Ireland's record of public health, but she suggests that the cult of pious suffering delayed its improvement. (Were other countries any better?)

She is also sceptical of the miraculous stories surrounding Nellie: "
When the nuns were in distress over a sick woman Nellie apparently asked if she had children. Told that she was a mother many times over, Nellie said, “I will pray to Holy God and He will see that she’ll be cured.” The woman was cured, or else we would not have heard the story, and no doubt this is among the “miracles” being trumped up in an effort to have Little Nellie venerated."

Donal O'Keeffe in an article in the uber-liberal online newspaper The Journal is just as caustic: 

"As someone who does not have religion, I think this whole story is both tasteless and disturbing. All I can see is a highly intelligent little girl who had a short, painful life and who has been exploited in death by the Catholic Church. I would also question what we mean when we talk of “rest in peace” if the Bishop proposes a third burial for Little Nellie.

"Most offensive of all, though, is a fact which appears to have escaped for a while the notice of both the Bishop and the local residents of Sunday’s Well: Ellen Organ is not alone in the grounds of the Good Shepherd Convent. There is also a mass grave on that site. The Good Shepherds ran a Magdalene Laundry, you see."




Ireland's Magdalene Laundries were laundries run by religious sisters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which women who required asylum for various reasons worked. Lurid stories have circulated about these institutions, and the sensationalist movie The Magdalene Sisters (2003) gave these full credence. Subsequent investigation has suggested they were not the hell-holes they were purported to be, even if they were far from pleasant, but this has made little impression on the public memory.

More recently, human remains were found in a Mother and Baby home which was run by Bon Secours Sister in Galway, and which closed in 1961. Further lurid stories suggested that hundreds of babies had been found in a "septic tank", even though this was not the case. The author John Waters tried to bring sanity to the debate, and was roundly condemned for it.


The cult of Nellie Organ, then, has become a battlefield in Ireland's rather one-sided culture wars. Let us hope that this rather petulant moment in Irish social history passes, and that this holy little girl is soon invoked only to honour her memory. Let us pray, as well, that she is raised to the altars as Ireland's youngest saint, an inspiration to old and young alike.

(Many of the biographical facts in this blog post have been taken from the article about Nellie on Glen Dallaire's excellent website Mystics of the Church.)

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Relief of Just Doing It

I've started reading Endymion by John Keats today. I've started reading this poem on several occasions before, but I've never got past a page or two. I've loved poetry all my life, but it's always been lyric poetry that principally appealed to me. The idea of a long narrative poem, or simply a long poem in general, is daunting.

Despite this, I have read long poetry in the past. I've read Paradise Lost, The Canterbury Tales, The Divine Comedy, and many others.

And yet, long poetry still seems to me like terra incognita, a continent I keep intending to explore, but which remains beyond my ken.

I feel such a sense of shame about this. Poetry has brought tremendous pleasure into my life-- sometimes even an almost animal pleasure. And yet, side by side with this, I've felt a life-long shame at not reading enough poetry, or not reading it seriously.

Very often, when I read prose, I feel ashamed that I'm not reading poetry. Prose seems like baby's stuff in comparison.

I don't only feel shame for my own sake, but for the sake of my culture. It bothers me that poetry remains unread, for the most part, and that it's the magnum opera of the great poets that remains unread-- the works (generally long poems) which they would have considered their most important.

I know I've mentioned all this before. I don't mean to bore my regular readers (any more so than usual, I mean).

In this post, I'm thinking more about the strange sense of relief I feel when I finally buckle down to something I've been avoiding for a long time-- a sensation that might be familiar to my reader, as well.

I felt this sensation earlier this week, when I went canvassing door-to-door with the Irish pro-life campaign. As many of you will know, this year there will be a referendum on whether we should remove the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which protects the life of the unborn.

My contribution to the pro-life cause, so far, has been restricted to attending rallies and writing letters to the newspaper.

I've always bauked at the idea of bothering anybody. The prospect of walking up to a stranger and accosting them makes me squirm. I'll even avoid asking for directions as long as I possibly can.

Despite this, I felt it was my clear duty to go canvassing to protect the Eighth Amendment. So on Monday, I found myself knocking on doors in the suburb of Finglas, and pressing pamphlets on unsuspecting householders. It wasn't so bad, in the end; I had somebody with me, and I find it a lot easier to knock on doors than to approach someone on the street.

But, more than anything else, I felt a powerful sense of relief that I was finally doing something that I'd been resisting for so long.

The same tension is at work when it comes to my feelings about the Irish language. As I've explained in previous posts, in my lifetime I've travelled from a sense of outright animosity towards the Irish language, towards an intermittent sense of desolation at its neglect. Now and again, I feel a sense of outrage that, every single moment of every single day, Irish people make the choice to speak in the language of another country rather than their own.

I've often imagined what a sense of blessed relief there must be in choosing to conduct your life entirely in the Irish language, as far as possible. I'm sure it has tremendous challenges and frustration, but what a weight of guilt and shame must fall away from such an Irishman (or Irishwoman)-- to know that you, at least, are doing everything you can to give life to the language!

The most important application of this concept, of course, is sanctity. Very often, when reading the lives of the saints, a sinner like me is struck by the thought: "Imagine the relief that there must be in simply casting away sin, casting away worldliness, and living entirely for Jesus!".

Various passages in the lives of the saints provoke this reaction in mw. One that often comes to mind is an account I read of the Curé d'Ars' daily routine. His entire day was spent either in his parish church, or visiting his flock. Many hours were spent in the confessional alone.

That must have been gruelling-- but surely, such dedication would be accompanied by a lightness of heart, knowing that you were giving everything for Jesus, holding nothing back? "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light".

In the meantime, however, I continue to speak English, and to read prose rather than poetry, and to sin. God help me!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

As Seen on TV and Radio

That was the text of a placard that a fortune teller in Dublin's Henry Street used to advertise his (or her) service. I thought it was hilarious. Sadly, it was eventually corrected to "As Seen and Heard on TV and Radio".

Anyway, I had a piece on RTE Radio's Sunday Miscellany arts programme today. Here it is.

Friday, February 9, 2018

From my Diary

My Penzu diary, which I've been keeping since June 24th 2015, is over nine hundred thousand words long now. I frequently browse it. I haven't missed a single day.

Whenever I mention it, people ask me if I'm worried about it being hacked. Not really. Who would be interested? Besides, it's so bloody long at this stage, who'd read through it? As for the danger of losing access to it, Penzu allows you to "export" the whole thing to yourself as a PDF, so I've developed a habit of doing that on the twenty-second of each month, and I keep them in different places.

The diary is addressed to myself, though I like the thought of somebody else reading it some day, when I am old or dead. So there aren't very many passages suitable for reproducing here.

However, when I came across this entry for the twenty-fifth of January, 2016:

The first Mass of the new term will be celebrated in a few minutes, as I sit here on the level two desk writing my Penzu diary. Nevertheless, I'm remarkably content at this moment. Now and again, I take a pleasure in the most banal, ordinary things. This isn't exactly the kind of blazing ontological wonder that we feel when we look at the stars or ask the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?". It's more an intense pleasure in the sight of someone holding a cup of coffee, or using a computer catalogue. You think: "There's this, at least. They are holding a cup of coffee instead of being tortured or fleeing a warzone or something." But even that sounds too humanitarian and I don't mean it in a humanitarian way, particularly. It's not a lofty feeling at all. It's almost anti-lofty. It's a sheer joy that there is room in life for things like doughnuts and tweets and jokes. I feel this especially when I look at Robert Picardo's tweets (which I used to) and when I see the posters in the Costa coffee shop underneath the library, or the posters in the bookshop. (In fact, the 'Penzu podcast' in the corner of the screen, which has nothing to do with diary-keeping, is an example.)


(Robert Picardo is an actor from Star Trek Voyager. I followed his Twitter feed before I was even on Twitter. It's hard to explain why I did, and what exactly I got out of it. Eventually I stopped following him completely, when Trump came along and he joined in the badmouthing.)

Thursday, February 8, 2018

My Article in Ireland's Own

Hey kids, rush out and buy the Valentine's Day issue of Ireland's Own, now on sale!

It contains my article, "The Oft-Forgotten Irishness of C.S. Lewis"!


The Romance of Conservatism

(NOTE: This is an article I submitted, rather ambitiously, to First Things magazine last year. They said, "No, thank you"! They also passed on some of my poems a few years before, although the poetry editor did call one of them "Auden-esque"...)


G.K. Chesterton and the Romance of Conservatism

Can conservatives be more than just disillusioned liberals, or those who were never so gullible as to require disillusioning? Must conservatives concede ownership of the heart to liberals, reserving only a claim to the organ of intellect for ourselves? Must we take as our symbol the flaming sword which turned every which way, warning Adam and Eve against any return to the Garden of Eden?

There may be a touch of hyperbole in my questions; but only a touch. Having surveyed the landscape of conservative thought for the last ten years or so—ever since I realised that I was a conservative, in my late twenties—I have been dismayed at the forbidding exterior of that countryside.

I say ‘exterior’, because I realize that conservatives— though they present a dour face to the outside world— are the most romantic of folk by their own firesides. Sadly, they are embarrassed at their own romanticism, like yokels who fear the laughter of the city slicker. When asked to defend their social philosophy, they tend to cite the corruptibility of power, the dangers of utopianism, the frailty of a priori reasoning, the ‘crooked timber’ of humanity, and other counsels of prudence.

The poetry of conservatism has been confined, almost entirely, to literature. Names like Eliot, Larkin, Yeats, Lewis, Betjeman, and Tolkien spring to mind. Even here, however, the poetry is nearly always that of of loss and regret, rather than the enthusiastic expression of an ideal. I am indeed profoundly moved by poems such as Betjeman’s ‘The Plantster’s Vision’:

Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong,
Pouring their music through the branches bare,
From moon-white church towers down the windy air
Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
Too many babies have been born in there,
Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
Carried the old their garden paths along.



But why should the poetry of conservatism always be expressed indirectly, in satire or jeremiad? I hungered for prose, for ideas clearly stated. I wanted something to cheer, rather than many things to weep over.

I found glimmerings of what I was looking for in some of my favourite conservative authors, especially those two great Englishmen, Peter Hitchens and Roger Scruton. Both evoke (in lyrical prose) the ideal of home and tradition, of tangible things. Both, however, are self-conscious mourners of things past, or passing. Hitchens describes his masterpiece, The Abolition of Britain, as an epitaph, while the title of Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy speaks for itself.

In the American writer Russell Kirk, I also found lyricism—but once again, it was mostly a lyricism of lament. Kirk’s deep love of tradition leaped from the pages of The Conservative Mind, but the book mostly seemed a negative critique of modernity. Indeed, all of the conservative authors who most valued tradition seemed to view it as a kind of fossil fuel—doomed to gradual depletion, the rate of depletion being the only question at issue.

This didn’t satisfy me. I yearned for something less lachrymose, more affirmative.

Being Irish might have something to do with this. In the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, Ireland was gripped by a wave of cultural nationalism which sought, not only to arrest the decline of tradition, but (crucially) to reverse it. This was seldom considered to be a conservative cause. Yet it is hard to think of anything more conservative than the great mass of a nation united in a popular effort to revive a national language, national sports, national literature, and national traditions in general.

To some extent, this effort was triumphant—the Gaelic Athletic Association, which came into being in 1884, continues to be a massive popular success. To some extent, the effort failed—the dream that the Irish language might once again become a language of everyday life never materialized.

But, in the words of Yeats, “it was the dream itself enchanted me”. It is an inspiring fact that, for more than half a century, traditionalism was the dominant ideal in Ireland. Not was this the traditionalism of prudence, but rather a romantic traditionalism, a traditionalism that took the form of a quest rather than a siege.



Eamon De Valera’s St. Patrick’s Day speech of 1943, though much mocked, is probably the best expression of the national ideal during these decades:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

If nationalism could inspire the masses with such an ideal—such an essentially ‘backwards-looking’ ideal— why couldn’t conservatism? Why was its poetry confined to the ironies and obliqueness of elite literature? Why did populist conservatism, on the other hand, have to focus so relentlessly on the evils of government and the wickedness of reforming elites?

Outside the tradition of Irish cultural nationalism, indeed, I found an accessible ‘conservative sublime’ expressed in only one writer; the great English journalist, novelist, poet, and Catholic apologist, G.K. Chesterton, who died in 1936.

Chesterton was remarkable for many things, but one of them was the manner in which he defended tradition; not with the melancholy of so many other writers, but with gusto. Though he was not a self-described conservative, he seems to me a nonpareil at evoking—in prose written for his beloved ‘common man’—the romance of conservatism.



Take his famous defence of the very idea of tradition from his masterpiece Orthodoxy:

I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record… Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.

Or take his defence of the family as a romantic institution in Heretics:

This is, indeed, the sublime and special romance of the family. It is romantic because it is a toss-up. It is romantic because it is everything that its enemies call it. It is romantic because it is arbitrary. It is romantic because it is there…When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.

Chesterton can even be wildly romantic about domestic economy, as in this passage from his volume of sociology What’s Wrong with the World:

God is that which can make something out of nothing. Man (it may truly be said) is that which can make something out of anything. In other words, while the joy of God be unlimited creation, the special joy of man is limited creation, the combination of creation with limits….For the mass of men the idea of artistic creation can only be expressed by an idea unpopular in present discussions—the idea of property. The average man cannot cut clay into the shape of a man; but he can cut earth into the shape of a garden; and though he arranges it with red geraniums and blue potatoes in alternate straight lines, he is still an artist; because he has chosen. The average man cannot paint the sunset whose colors he admires; but he can paint his own house with what color he chooses, and though he paints it pea green with pink spots, he is still an artist; because that is his choice. Property is merely the art of the democracy. It means that every man should have something that he can shape in his own image, as he is shaped in the image of heaven. But because he is not God, but only a graven image of God, his self-expression must deal with limits; properly with limits that are strict and even small.

In his essay ‘A Defence of Rash Vows’, he appeals to monogamy not as a sacrifice due to society, but the expression of man’s natural exuberance:

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—'free-love'—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-flavoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

This is the sort of stuff, one imagines, that might convert even the most resolute philanderer.



The irony that Chesterton—who sometimes described himself as a liberal—wrote more passionate paens to tradition than many a self-professed conservative, is strangely paralleled in these lines of his own, from his book Charles Dickens—perhaps my favourite Chestertonian passage of all:

But Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England.

Surely conservatives don’t have to confine themselves to the bullish cynicism of the talk radio host, or the rueful nostalgia of the cultured old fogey. We can be wild romantics, galloping idealists, twenty-first century Cavaliers.

Where to start? Well, steeping ourselves in the works of G.K. Chesterton is my suggestion.