The Tale of a Cat.

About fifteen years ago Finola arrived home from a visit to her friend Deirdre bearing a cardboard box. Air holes had been cut in the box, to allow the kitten within to breathe. Our dog Bran was highly suspicious of the box and its mysterious contents and barked loudly at the intruder. Colm, our eldest son, suggested that taking the kitten out of the box and letting Bran see it might allay his suspicions, as indeed it did. He seemed happy enough to accept the kitten, as this was not the first feline to share our house with him. He stopped barking and settled down now that the answer to Schrodinger’s paradox of quantum mechanics  had been solved to his satisfaction.

We called the kitten Sweeney, as this was the custom in our house. My sister Muriel had been married to Andy Irvine of Sweeney’s Men, so she called their cat Sweeney. She later gave a kitten to Eamon Morrissey, who in turn gave one of her kittens to us. We too called her Sweeney. But that line died out eventually.

Our new Sweeney was an aloof cat; she did not make friends easily and did not wear her heart on her sleeve. She grudgingly accepted petting and signs of affection. I felt that she thought she had come down in the world by being taken from the lovely leafy marine resort that is Howth, to the less salubrious environs of D15, and that she regarded the two baskets in the garage and her own armchair and chaise longue in the living room as her entitlement and the many choices of cat food and other delicacies as no more than she deserved. Her haughty demeanour caused me to add to her name the sub-title ‘Eva Braun’ (Hitler’s mistress)

Recently she has been unwell, so we took her to the vet. On hearing the symptoms and giving her the once over she outlined a few courses of action: one set of tests cost about   € 500, the other menu, which included a colonoscopy, cost about € 700. This might lead to chemo-therapy if the results of the tests proved positive for cancer.

This week our very kind vet did an ultra-sound and took a sample of the growth that had been revealed. We will have the biopsy report next week. The vet mentioned in the gentlest possible way all the probable outcomes of the case, up to and including euthanasia. She gave Sweeney an injection of steroids to tide her over, and some medicines for us to administer to her.

We took our cat home and she headed out to her usual sunny but sheltered spot in the back garden. A few hours later I opened the back door and found the dismembered remains of a sparrow on the mat; Sweeney had practiced some euthanizing herself; Briseann an dúchas tré shúilibh an chait, mar a déarfá.(Breeding breaks out through the eyes of a cat)

The vet reckoned that one way or the other Sweeney hasn’t got too long to go. We are not going to inflict enemas and needles and chemo-therapy and long periods in a strange environment on our fifteen year old family member; she will stay here with us, lying out in the sun, being spoiled, and when the time is right we will ask our kind vet to come to the house and send her to sleep, in her familiar place. She deserves no less.


One of the delights of Perth is King’s Park, within walking distance of the city centre, and corresponding roughly in size to our own Phoenix Park. Mind you, with the Bougainvillea in flower, cockatoos and kookaburras singing in the trees and the temperature in the mid-thirties, it doesn’t really remind you of the Phoenix Park.

The main road through King’s Park is lined with tall, elegant gum trees, which provide just enough shade to make a walk in the park comfortably cool. At the base of every tree is a small plaque, maybe a foot long by eight inches high, and fixed in the ground by a spike coming out of the bottom of the plaque, no other form of fixing is visible. Each plaque bears the name of an Australian soldier killed in the First World War, and they were erected by the soldier’s families. They are incredibly sad, these bronze plaques, put there, under a gum tree, to commemorate the killing of a boy, thousands of miles from home, in Gallipoli or some other cold, wet, scene of mass carnage. I saddened me to think that such commemoration would not be possible in the Phoenix Park; the plaques to our heroes would disappear very quickly.

Nearby are the Botanical Gardens, so after my walk, I would find a place to sit and enjoy the sun, a rare enough treat for any Irish person, especially in the middle of March.

Last year I had the rare good fortune to pay my first visit to Paris. On my first day there I set out to visit the Arc De Triomphe, breathtakingly visible from the Place De La Concorde along the Avenue Des Champs Elysees. Napoleon commissioned the Arc as a tribute to France’s military heroes, but didn’t live to see it built. The view of Paris from the top of the fifty metre high Arc is something you could never forget.

Coming from the Place De La Concorde the first part of the Champs Elysees is a park, the road is lined with trees, and on the footpath on either side of the road there was an exhibition of sculpture. Priceless pieces of art, on the footpath, you could put out your hand and touch them, Picasso’s six foot tall woman, Giacometti’s frail thin man, Henry Moore’s squat Locking Piece. And I thought, what a wonderful expression of confidence by the City fathers in the cultural refinement of the citizens of Paris, that these works of art could be left unguarded on the footpath.

Later on in the year I went with my family for our holidays to Sligo. One of the things we do every year that we come here is to have a picnic in Hazelwood, on the shores of Lough Gill. It is a small wood, dense with undergrowth, with mossy paths leading through the trees, and the lapping sound of the lake reminding you of its presence. There is nowhere on earth nicer for a walk.

Dotted here and there in clearings in the woods, are pieces of sculpture, commissioned originally I think by Sligo County Council. And as befits their location, they are all made of timber. The largest piece is by James McKenna, and is called “Fergus Rules the Brazen Cars”. It consists of three elements, of heroic proportions, two horses and a charioteer. The horses are about nine feet high and ten feet nose to tail. Fergus is of the same noble stature. To walk through the trees of Hazelwood, to turn a corner and see this inspired piece of art in front of you would take your breath away.

But this year was different. Someone, using a sharp implement, a hatchet or a rock, had gouged lumps out of the horses. Fergus had lost a part of his head. The horse’s heads had been attacked, pieces were broken off their legs and tails, and worst of all, their backs and haunches were mutilated and were no longer weatherproof. In time the rain will lodge in the holes, and slowly rot away the entire, wonderful work of art.  God knows how long these pieces could have lasted if left alone, many generations to come could have been delighted by them.

Further along the trail is another of my favourite pieces, two wooden doves sitting on perches, framing the view of the lake. This too had attracted attention since my last visit; one of them had been decapitated.

My picnic sandwiches had a slightly bitter taste that day. I think it will be a while before I go back to Hazelwood.




Last year I spent the best part of ten months reading and translating the memoirs of Ernest Blythe: one time Minister for Finance, one time Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre, but full time lover of the Irish language and patriot. I didn’t succeed in getting permission to go any further with my translation, the copyright holder had promised them to someone else.

But I didn’t mind. I was disappointed not to be able to show my work to potential publishers, but on the other hand I had started the work out of a feeling of duty to a man who did me a favour when I was a young actor, and consequently changed my life. Because his memoirs were written in Irish they would never have been read by more than a couple of hundred people, and the fact that Blythe was unpopular after his stint as Minister for Finance for taking a shilling off the old-age pensioners would have lessened his readership even more. But I did the work, I went as far as I could; I was happy with that, so what next?

One night last autumn I watched a programme on BBC4 presented by A.N.Wilson on the subject of T.S.Eliot. Apart from some of his famous one liners, ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’, from his wonderful Love Song of  J.Alfred Prufrock, I knew little or nothing about Eliot. Wilson’s programme explained that Eliot had in fact studied Philosophy in Harvard, and while engaged in that wrote poetry as a sort of hobby.

I bought a biography of Eliot, Young Eliot, by Robert Crawford and learnt a lot more about these formative influences on the young genius. Around this time I also came to realise that Iris Murdoch, the novelist, had also spent many years studying and teaching Philosophy before she became a writer. The penny dropped that I knew nothing about Philosophy, so to rectify this deficiency I had a look at the website of the Philosophy Dept. of TCD, and discovered that they had an extra-mural course for people such as me, to introduce us to the ‘Big Questions in Philosophy’. I enrolled before Christmas for the course which was due to start in January. I am also attending another course in the same college on the subject of Paleography, which I started last October.

When I arrived outside the Thomas Davis lecture hall in the Arts Block of TCD last Tuesday for my first lecture, who did I see sitting there but one of my oldest and dearest friends, Paddy Murtagh. He was also waiting for the lecture on Philosophy, a subject he has been studying on and off for years.

Paddy and I met in 1961. We both joined an amateur drama group, The Young Dublin Players, on the same night; I was working as a fitter in the Air Corps, Paddy doing the same job on the diesel engines for C.I.E. Another recruit that night was John McColgan, who later went on to fame and fortune with Riverdance.

Paddy and I stayed in touch over the years, we’ve played golf together on occasions, and both our sons are PhD graduates in engineering from TCD. So although we haven’t met for the last five years or so the old links have been re-established and no doubt will produce a lot of interesting chat and discussion over coffee, on philosophy and hopefully, less demanding subjects.

The Ascent of Man

About forty five years ago one of the best TV documentary series ever was broadcast by the BBC, and to the best of my knowledge it has never been repeated. In it was charted the progress of mankind, from its origins on the plains of Africa millions of years ago, to the discovery of the intricacies and structure of DNA in the 20th century. This 13 episode documentary series was written and presented by the scientist Jacob Bronowski. He went on in episode after episode to show the evolution of the human; how the increase in skull and brain size allowed man to fit himself to all environments; to use his imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness to change his environment.

He details man’s switch from hunter/gatherer to farmer, and how this allowed him and her to settle in one area. We learn how man’s use of fire allowed him to make new tools and weapons, and says that ‘there is nothing in modern chemistry more unexpected than putting together new alloys, with new properties; to turn iron into steel.’ We learn how the invention of the wheel and the domestication of oxen and the horse propelled man forward.

Along the way he lights our darkness with dazzling displays of scholarship on science, philosophy, art, literature, and all the achievements of the human race. He explains to us the huge importance of the Roman arch in architecture, and how a later refinement of this, the flying buttress, allowed masons to insert massive stained glass windows in walls that had previously been used to support a roof. This gave us the magnificent cathedrals of the 12th century.

He recounts for us how Copernicus and Galileo fought conservatism in thought with mathematics and imagination. He explains in understandable language the findings of Newton and Einstein, and how the pioneer of atomic science, Ludwig Boltzmann, came to commit suicide in despair before his theories were taken up and expanded and developed by Niels Bohr and Rutherford and others.

It is a work of immense scope; a wonderful celebration of the genius of mankind, and yet in one of the final episodes Bronowski is found kneeling beside a pond in Auschwitz, where he says the ashes of four million people, including most of his family, were washed away. And he says ‘that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave’. He quotes Cromwell  addressing people who wield power ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ; think possibly you may be mistaken’.

He goes on to say ‘I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and as a witness’.

In this day and age of the primacy of the ignorant in politics, we could do with a repeat of this wonderful celebration of humanity.

*Man is used in the OED meaning: human beings in general; the human race.

Bronowski, J. (1973) The Ascent of Man. London: Published by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Poets and Patriots.

A few weeks ago I watched a documentary on BBC, Return to TS Eliotland, presented by the eccentric but brilliant AN Wilson. I would say that Wilson cultivates this image of mild eccentricity; he is like Jacob Rees Mogg with a brain, and his dress sense is so bizarre he could be mistaken for the offspring of Dame Edith Sitwell.

But watching his skillful presentation, in which he neatly encapsulated the life and work of Eliot, made me aware that I knew little if anything about the poet; I had a passing notion about ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘Prufrock’, but little beyond that. A few months ago I was given some book tokens in Maynooth University in thanks for delivering a couple of lectures on theatre there, so when I was next in town, after having my appetite for Eliot whetted by Wilson, I went to one of the few remaining bookshops in Dublin, a city that had once been a city of bookshops. I treated myself to ‘Young Eliot’ by Robert Crawford, and Faber and Faber’s Collected Poems 1909-1962.

I finished a project a few weeks ago, a project that took nine months to complete, and a lot of hard work every day, six days a week; I translated the autobiographies of Ernest Blythe from Irish to English. He had been an organizer for The Gaelic League, the IRB, and The Irish Volunteers, and post-independence served as Minister for Finance and in other departments. Later on he was Managing Director of the Abbey Theatre for thirty years. My modus operandi was to translate for three hours in the morning, and then spend another couple of hours in the afternoon preparing for the following day’s work; finding the English version of remote Irish placenames and surnames, and investigating and translating as best I could the many uncommon words and phrases employed by the self-taught author in his wonderful account of a decade and more of loyal service to the idea of an Irish Republic. He was renowned for his use of unusual and little-known words in his writings.

But as a result of finishing these three great books I am now free to read other material, and Eliot is going to be a fascinating and rewarding subject.

So on we go into ‘The Waste Land’ and the world of the man who wrote the immortal words ‘I grow old, I grow old, I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled’ when he was only in his early twenties.