Reading History: Preventing the Future by Tom Garvin


As this year’s budget is released in Ireland, I think it is timely to reconsider this book by Tom Garvin.

Garvin, a professor of political science at UCD for most of his professional career, wrote the book in 2004 at a time when – they tell us – we were all partying. Or at least, that’s what they would tell us once the hangover set in late 2008. I read this book while studying at UCC, and so far as I can recall, I didn’t read it until post-crash, sometime in late 2008, early 2009, in the final year of my degree.

The book, I recall, had an extraordinary impact on me at the time. Despite being written at the height of the boom, one reviewer notes that although “there is some discussion of later periods, this is not the place to look for an explanation of the “Celtic Tiger” era.” True enough, but that it was written in that era is not insignificant for how Garvin looked at the 40s and 50s, the period which receives the most sustained attention.

In essence, the argument of the book – and one which at base  I continue to think is nearly impossible to refute in most ways – is that the combined emergence of a new political elite from the revolutionary generation of the 1920s who were largely quite socially, economically and intellectually conservative combined with the rising power of the Catholic Church actively attempt to prevent the modernisation, and indeed secularistation of society in Ireland which was the hallmark of the postwar consensus across much of western and northern Europe. They were intent, as the books title suggests, to prevent the future.

And in some ways we live still with the success of their attempts to prevent the future, whether that be the future represented by the emergence of social democracy or something else entirely.

As the complainers on social media about a €5 increase to social welfare – miniscule in itself when we consider the same government just weeks ago sought to actively refuse €13 billion euro of owed taxes from Apple – indicate, Irish society sees social welfare safety nets not in terms of a collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our society. Emigration has rocked Ireland in the past eight years as it did during the period Garvin examines in Preventing the Future. Our homelessness crisis continues and looks set to continue as rent increases in our major cities show no sign of abating. The resistance to repeal the 8th amendment and finally provide women living in Ireland with the right to choose how to live their lives without fear of criminalisation and stigma remains. The idea that some are deserving of our sympathy and charity and others not persists. Ireland has yet to move beyond this.

Whatever future might have been imagined for Ireland once, it is hard not to feel that any number of these futures have been prevented. In many cases, this has been a mixture of the active insistence of Irish elites that the country works just fine as it is, and the passivity of the population in general not to change its own habits in terms of voting. This has meant the continued acceptance that our elected representatives have more often than not completely failed us as a people in making the choices that will actively make Ireland a fairer, more equal society. That is “just how it is”.

It is further evident from the mean-spirited attitude of those who see the €5 increase as a sign that life on the dole is better than working that many members of the Irish population, rather than reflecting on the experience of the past eight years that has seen services slashed, emigration rise and homelessness reach unprecedented levels, they have swallowed the rhetoric that pits us against one another. The deflection away from the staid thinking of economic policy in Ireland, away from the continued failure to account for the fact the current generation of under 30s have inherited a social and economic mess largely not of their making but for which they have paid the heaviest price, suits those who continue to espouse the orthodoxies of the market as king. In other words, as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, those with power in Ireland continue to prevent the futures of many as those many had imagined it. The longer we continue to accept that that’s “just how it is”, then eventually we will be culpable for preventing our own futures.

From Cork to Christiania: A Postcard

Yesterday in Oslo, myself and herself took a look at the Salgshallen brukthandel (literally the used shop) on Storgata. A veritable Aladdin’s cave of old records, postcards, stamps and books – too many to work through in a single sitting – I quickly made use of the system laid out by the shops owner to take a look at the things that interested me most: chiefly, postcards related to sport and postcards related to places I knew. Rifling through the stacks, I came across several from Prague, and also a handful from Dublin and Cork. The Cork ones were two views of King’s Street (now, of course, MacCurtain Street), the view from Donovan’s Bridge, better known as the Shaky Bridge, and one which showed the opulent houses of Sunday’s Well, including the well-known pink house that runs along the river bank.

The postcard is dated 27th May 1905, and was addressed to Nicoline Bjørnstad who lived at No.9 Inkognito Terrasse in Christiania (now Oslo). The building at No. 9 Inkognito Terrasse, a beautiful redbrick villa is now home to a Christian mission.

No.9 Inkognito Terrasse as it looked in 1910. Photo: Oslo Museum.

The note on the card is written on the front, with just the address across the back as you can see in the scans below.

The postcard itself is part of the “Emerald Series, Printed in Ireland”. A little disappointingly, the actual stamp has been removed – presumably by some avid philatelist before it ended up in the brukthandel, and their use for it had evaporated. Oddly enough, the card says on the back that it is “For INLAND Postage only”, although clearly is was perfectly possible to use it abroad as well.



The front of the card contains a message from what looks like someone signing off as Dr. Emil, but it is difficult to say for certain. The handwriting is not very clear on the card, but seems to suggest that they will stay in Cork for a long time. It also mentions Falmouth in England where perhaps they were going next on a steamer. Whoever wrote the card, and whoever Nicoline Bjørnstad was, they were not resident at Inkognito Terrasse 9 for many more years. The 1910 Census for Norway shows Adolph Wendel, originally from Iceland, living there with his Christiania-born wife, Esther.

Intriguingly there are a great many photographs of the interior of Inkognito Terrasse 9, on the Oslo Museum website with some showing people inside them. The photos are dated to ca. 1910, so they are most likely members of the Wendel family and not the two people in the postcard exchange. These photos offer an extraordinary glimpse inside the building in its pomp showing tea parties, music playing, and plenty more life and activity:

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Reading History: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles

I remember it well, the first time I encountered this story. I was in I think probably fourth or fifth class in primary school in St. Paul’s. Our teacher was out sick, and we had a substitute teacher in the shape of Mr Ryan. Of the many teachers I had over the years, I never was actually taught by Mr Ryan, few have gifted me with something as profound as he did by choosing to ignore the usual run of our schooling while substituting for the other teacher.

The cover of the novelised version of the story in 1902.

Instead, over the course of probably two or three days, he simply read to the class the story The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. At the time Mr Ryan read this story to us, I was first beginning to discover fantasy writing and was reading The Hobbit by Tolkien at home. It seemed to me a lovely coming together of new ideas and ways of hearing stories. Mr Ryan relished the telling of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was often requested apparently that he read it in whole or in part usually when he was prevailed upon to cover as a substitute.

Since then, I have only grown to love this story more and more. It was almost certianly my first introduction to the idea of a meta-narrative – a story within a story – through the letter explaining the Baskerville curse and in Watson’s own telling of things. It is also I am sure responsible, as Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes must be for millions of others, for my love of mystery, detective fiction and historical fiction.

Few stories manage to combine so many elements as this one story. The cleverness, the misdirection of ourselves, the reader, through our unreliable narrator Watson, who is – like us – desperate to emulate and outwit Holmes, is astounding.

There are few books, and even fewer fictional stories, which I can read again and again, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of those rare stories. There have been countless television, film and radio versions of this classic tale that makes us question the gap between what’s rational and what’s fantastical, but there is no greater pleasure than sitting down by yourself to read that opening paragraph that spins out to one of the most remarkable tales written in the English language:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry — dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The story too, after all these years is itself still solid and reassuring. The reason why, when you read it, is no mystery.

A walking stick

At its edges, the floor of the forest is a lively green bed of moss and the sun is bursting down. It’s early September and I am walking in the woods near Harestua. In the woods. Through them. Across them. Zig-zagging up and down between rocks and rotten tree stumps. I spot mushrooms and thick bushes of blueberries. On some rocks, standing entirely alone, there is moss like thickset hair, springy to the touch and knotted in a network of life. I poke my walking stick in front of me, to judge the softness of the ground as I move forward, unsure of my footing. I place it on the stump of an old, moss-covered tree stump, and the bottom of my stick goes straight through the soft and rotten bark, silently. I strafe this way and that. The top of my walking stick glued to my hand with my own sweat. Who hath not one horse may on a staff ride.

I like my walking sticks to be about shoulder height. This gives you more to lean into going up and coming down. With each walk of the woods, I pick sticks up and test them.

Walk with them a while to see how they feel in my hand. Gauge the grip. It is a strange kind of communion with the dead. Bark hard and dry, knots smoothed only by sanding.  It takes weeks. Patient waiting. The drying process. The removal of the bark. It is best to do in springtime when bark has not yet dried in and a stick is easily shorn. Then you must treat the wood. There is a process to bring the branch back to life.

I picked the walking stick up early on my walk, spotting it among some felled trees. It seemed sturdy and just the right thickness. It didn’t feel brittle like some of the branches I tried first to make my walking stick. It was definitely serviceable for this walk. As I walked here and there through the woods close to the Solar Observatory, I thought about what it meant to call it my walking stick. When does a walking stick taken from the forest floor become yours? Does it ever become yours? Why imbue this dead piece of wood with meaning? To what end? To give life back to it? To extend your own inner life out to one more object that contains a piece of you?

Walking sticks have long fascinated me. As a child, I consider them a sign of infirmity. I couldn’t understand why a person who was fit and healthy would want or need what I thought of only as a kind of crutch. Walking sticks were not then fashion items to me. Nor something for the fit walker who wants to walk further, more expansively, through forests say, or up a steep hill. When I think of walking sticks, I immediately imagine the deep black knottiness of a blackthorn stick. I have always loved the look of a blackthorn stick. I can’t think of them without thinking of a song I once heard sung by a Scottish singer in An Spailpin Fanach at the Singer’s Club in Cork: Erin Go Bragh. A switch of blackthorn I held in my fist / And round his big body I made it to twist / And the blood from his napper I quickly did draw / And paid him stock and interest for Erin Go Bragh.

I also have a vague memory of a blackthorn stick that my dad had for a while, which he kept in our garage. Cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghost and goblin. And of the walking sticks that I remember in my aunt Breda’s house, in the corner of the hallway. I remember running my hands over the knots and the smooth top, fascinated. Walking sticks are close cousins to the wizard’s staff in my mind. I think of Tolkien’s Gandalf and his staff. I think of Merlin. I wonder did Sweeney Peregrine have a stick or a staff on his wanderings.

As I placed my stick in front of my leading foot through the forest I thought more and more about the magic of the walking stick.

The magic that resides in the meaning we affix to things. By itself, this stick was the branch of a chopped down tree. In my hands, it is a weapon – of defence and attack – it is a portal to a world of wizards and magic. It is something once a part of the forest now guiding me through the same place from which it came. The walking staff comes out of the Book of Exodus to us. Moses had one. In Old English it was a stæb. A stave. Staff. Isaiah prophesied that the staff of the mighty would be broken and the earth would be at peace. In the grip of the church it became a bishop’s crozier.

In Co. Clare, it was recorded once that no one would make walking sticks from the white thorn tree. This is because Christ’s crown of thorns were said to be from that tree. No one in the district would cut a lone white thorn tree because it was said that the tree would be in your bed that night. The berries of the tree were understood to be drops of blood, being red. A switch of blackthorn is better for wrapping around the bodies of your enemies anyway.

Elsewhere, to bolster your walking stick, we are told that a rams horn is got and boiled in a pot of water for about two hours. Then, it is taken out and twisted while hot into any shape required. This head is fitted to a hazel stick and secured with glue. In this way, a very good walking stick is made.

My walking stick was plain and seemed strong. It guided me between the pines, across the mossy floor of the forest. I rested it against the same rocks I rested. To let a walking stick fall when setting out on a journey is believed to foretell disappointment. Men have made whole tress their walking sticks to fend off giants. They have walked the land to talk to the king of Leinster and to cheat death with branches shorn of twigs that took them across their country. Over land and mountain, through hedge and thicket, forest, bramble and briars. Hermes, mercurial, walked with caduceus. Shepherds tend flocks with a crooked walking stick. Sometimes as I walk the woods near Harestua I hear the clanking of a bell around a goat’s neck. I have never seen a shepherd but they are safely ensconced in the forest and its paths. I have walked man made paths and I have walked those beaten by the goats. I have walked paths that only I have created. Created topographies of my own. I have done this with the help of a walking stick I took from the forest floor.

What still moves when it is dead? A walking stick.

A branch of a tree cannot be a walking stick before it first dies. Some people take down a tree to make a walking stick. Deciduous trees are best. Sturdy and strong, their bark is hard, not wet like evergreens. You can use Ash. Here in Norway Ash was the first man. Ash and Elm, Adam and Eve. Two trees given life. Then from the throng did three come forth, from the home of the gods, the mighty and gracious; two without fate on the land they found, Ask and Embla, empty of might. Soul they had not, sense they had not, heat nor motion, nor goodly hue; Soul gave Odin, sense gave Hönir, heat gave Lothur and goodly hue. Yggdrasil, the world’s tree, was made of ash. It reached the heavens and the depths. The oars of the Vikings. The spears of Odin and Thor too. Healer and aid, the ash tree is magic. Gandalf walked in Tolkien’s world with an ash stick. Der Berggeist. He could easily have been Krkonos. Walking sticks aid and abet journeys of all kinds. As my feet drift in one direction, my mind drifts in another. Drifting feet and mind have their anchor, arm’s length and shoulder height ahead.

Norway’s Nasjonalgalleriet

One of the first things I learned when I arrived two months ago in Norway was that the Nasjonalgalleriet was free on Thursdays. Finally, I got to go this past Thursday, and it is a place which I can see myself visiting many times over the coming years.

When you walk in and place your bag and coat in a locker, you walk up a simple stairs but are met immediately with the sight of not alone a famous painting but a painting which depicts a famous scene: Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson voyaging to America c.1000 CE. The painting was completed in 1893, and must surely reflect something not just of the story of Norwegian discovery in the viking age, nor the country’s history of migration to America, but also the impending desire for independence from Sweden, which would come about in 1905.

Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson’s discovery of America in c.1000 CE.

As you turn up these stairs, either left of right of the Krohg painting you begin your jounrey through the highlights of the Norwegian national collection. Currently what’s on display ranges from antiquity to 1950, and so as you make your way through each room you come a little closer to the present, and encounter most of the major movements in European art along the way. The experience can be something of an overwhelming one. For the first time in my life, I decided to take notes as I walked through the rooms – partially to slow my pace down but also so that I could remember which artists struck me most and so that I could actually go back and eventually find out a little more about some of those who interested me especially.

In the early rooms we have some examples of classical antiquity which are not entirely interesting – unsurprisingly much better examples of this kind of thing can be found elsewhere. Some of the christian art from Novgorod in Russia in the third room you enter is perhaps the most interesting of the first half of the exhibition.

There are old masters of the Baroque and Dutch schools to be found but what I was most interested in going to the Nasjonalgalleriet for was the Norwegian artists, whose work comes into prominence from about the mid-way point in the journey through the rooms.Rooms 9-12 give an excellent show case of Norwegian (and Danish – Denmark and Norway didn’t split until 1814) Romantic landscape painting including the work of Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley (a Norwegian whose grandfather came from Hull), and Peder Balke, to name just a few.

NOR Stetind i tåke, ENG Stetind in Fog
Peder Balke’s eerie looking Stetind i tåke (Stetind in fog).

Among my favourite works as I passed through the gallery was Tidemand’s Low Church Devotion, which shows lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching to poor farmers in the hearth-room of a family home.

Adolph Tidemand’s depiction of Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching.

From here we get a stronger impression of new movements in art which include works by Cezanne, Rodin, Gaugin and of course, Norway’s most famous artist – Edward Munch. The Scream, his most famous painting, is housed in the 19th room of the gallery.

Some realist painting is represented in the works of not just Krohg,but especially Erik Werenskiold. Krohg’s Braiding Hair is a good example of this genre in Norway, as is Werenskiold’s A Pauper’s Burial. I also enjoyed the energy of the painting of Halfdan Egedius, especially spil og dans (play and dance).

Werenskiold’s En Bondebegravelse (Pauper’s Burial).

In the 22nd room the standout painting for me was Per Krohg’s Cabaret from 1913-1914. The second to last room is the one which contains the work of Picasso, includng GuitarGuitar and Glass, and Poor Couple in Cafe. 

In all, the gallery is a tour-de-force and requires probably two visits, at least. Certainly, by the time I had seen the main exhibit my energy to go see the exhibition about the influence of Japanese art on Norway was non-existent. It gives me a good excuse to go back, and if you are ever in Oslo, make sure to make this gallery a part of your trip! You won’t be disappointed.

Any flat surface will do

Any flat surface will do, but not every table is a desk.

A week or so ago, on the train into Oslo, I read Michael Smith’s Maldon & Other Poems. I reread his translation of the “Lament for Art O’Leary” from the eighteenth century. My favourite passage in his working comes early, in (ii) of Dark Eileen’s opening. It runs:

I had no regrets:

you brightened a parlour for me,

painted rooms for me

reddened an oven for me,

shaped loaves for me,

there was roast on the spit for me,

beef you felled for me;

I slept on duck-down

until the middle of day

or later if it pleased me.

This stanza has an unusual, almost Anglo-Saxon quality to it. In fact, I wonder if this is one of those sections that, as Smith admits in his preface to his version, came from the working of Trevor Joyce first of all. It feels Joycean. When I moved to Oslo I brought a handful of books that I hoped would reflect and would help in the achievement of what I wanted moving here to mean. Of the poetry I brought there is Smith’s Maldon, Trevor’s Selected, the Christopher Ricks edited Oxford Book of English Verse, and Eliot’s Wasteland. Any flat surface will do, but it needs to have room for the books of others. Other people’s books offer me a crutch when writing myself. The current crutches are Smith and Joyce.

The thing I think I love most about the passage in “Lament for Art O’Leary” is that many of the things Dark Eileen chooses to remember her dead lover by are in some senses the domestic jobs of feeding someone that we – erroneously – associate with the role of the woman in the home. It shows that, whoever is doing it, cooking for someone is an expression of love for them.

There is warmth – the cosy bed of duck-down, the warmth of the reddened oven, the fire over which the spit was roasted. Heart and hearth. Again we come back to the centrality of the kitchen – of food and feeding (any food any feeding, feeding, drink or clothing?) as an expression of love. Wining and dining, not just our guests or thanes, but those we make a space for in our lives – the people with whom we eat, giving them a place at our table, physical and metaphorical. The people for whom we cook and keep warm, who we nourish and who nourish us – physically and emotionally – in turn.

I have always loved the action of the kitchen. In my experiences, it is the centre of every house. It is the central point always. I loved the small tight kitchen of Carrigeen Park, my Granddad’s house, with its big old range.The kitchen table always seemed to be where the action happened in houses when I was growing up. Our family has gone through a lot of kitchen tables over the years.

I have always enjoyed the idea of a table full of scratches and dents, discolouration and stains. A palimpsest of the meals and conversations, the growing up, moving out and moving on of the house. A table in a kitchen free of blemishes was a table without a story to tell. A table should be able tell their own stories. Of their encounters with their users. At the table is where we tell stories.  We spin them out like sailor’s yarns. Serials that will never be collected into novels. The place at which we sit and eat, sit and talk; people, politics, joke and laugh, celebrate, commiserate.  Any flat surface will do, but not all can be a desk for writing, or a table for a kitchen.