“Cloth of Gold” vestments, Medieval Museum Waterford

Over 550 years old, the survival of these vestments (which were concealed to save them from Oliver Cromwell, and were missing for over 120 years) is amazing in itself – what is even more impressive is the beauty and completeness of these products of mid 15th Century Florence and Bruges.


According to the Medieval Museum Waterford website:

The Waterford cloth-of-gold vestments are the only full set of medieval vestments to survive in northern Europe.

They are Ireland’s only link with the Renaissance that was beginning in northern Europe and the survival of such fragile material after being buried for 123 years is truly remarkable.

In what is a very impressive museum, the vestments are dramatically displayed in a darkened room and that heightens the sense of wonder they would probably evoke in any case.  I did find the attempt in the display and audio-visual to link them to W B Yeats’ “He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven” a little forced and incongruous.


Here is a video from 2014 of the Museum Director discussing the vestments


Happy Birthday Edgar Allan Poe, and a cheers to the Poe Toaster

Poe would be 210 if he was alive today, which would be a surprising development for all concerned. And presumably today will see the appearance of the Poe Toaster at Poe’s Baltimore grave. Alas, this is a revival of the original mysterious decades-long toaster:


Poe Toaster is a media epithet popularly used to refer to an unidentified person (or more probably two persons in succession, possibly father and son) who, for over seven decades, paid an annual tribute to American author Edgar Allan Poe by visiting the cenotaph marking his original grave in Baltimore, Maryland, in the early hours of January 19, Poe’s birthday. The shadowy figure, dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and white scarf, would pour himself a glass of cognac and raise a toast to Poe’s memory, then vanish into the night, leaving three roses in a distinctive arrangement and the unfinished bottle of cognac. Onlookers gathered annually in hopes of glimpsing the elusive Toaster, who did not seek publicity and was rarely seen or photographed.

According to eyewitness reports and notes accompanying offerings in later years, the original Toaster made the annual visitation from sometime in the 1930s (though no report appeared in print until 1950) until his death in 1998, after which the tradition was passed to “a son”.[1] Controversial statements were made in some notes left by the post-1998 Toaster, and in 2006 an unsuccessful attempt was made by several onlookers to detain and identify him. In 2010 there was no visit by the Toaster,[2] nor has he appeared any year since, signaling an end to the 75-year tradition.[3][4]

Pleasingly, the revival since 2016 has maintained the anonymity aspect:


In 2015, the Maryland Historical Society organized a competition to select a new individual to resurrect the annual tribute in a modified, tourism-friendly form. The new Toaster—who will also remain anonymous—made his first appearance during the daylight hours of January 16, 2016 (a Saturday, three days before Poe’s birthday), wearing the traditional garb and playing Saint-Saëns‘ Danse macabre on a violin. After raising the traditional cognac toast and placing the roses, he intoned, “Cineri gloria sera venit” (“Glory paid to one’s ashes comes too late”, from an epigram by the Roman poet Martial), and departed.[25]

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

Review of “Homesickness: An American History” by Susan Matt, Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 2012

This is a wonderful book I heartily recommend, indeed re-reading the review I hope the warmth of my recommendation is clear. The balance  Susan Mat strikes between mastery of the academic and theoretical framework and what could best be called common sense (and readability) is highly impressive.


In this review I didn’t have space to expand on the parallels between the State Associations Mat describes (for instance Minnesota or Wisconsin Societites in Chicago or New York) and County Association in Ireland. My father was active in the Sligo Association in Dublin, and at his funeral I was very touched by the many who came to me having been involved in it and also the Galway or Mayo Associations (evidently Connacht folk stick together!) with fond memories of him.

Here is the original link


The wonderfully named French physician Louis-Alexandre-
Hippolyte Leroy-Dupré wrote that acute homesickness “becomes
more rare each day thanks to rapid communications which modern
industry is beginning to establish among people who will soon be
nothing more than one big happy family.” One might imagine that
this observation was written for the age of Facebook, Skype and
Twitter, but it is fact over one hundred and fifty years old, dating
from 1846.
Susan J Matt is a historian at Weber State University in Utah; her
specialty is the history of the emotions (a previous book is entitled
“Keeping Up With The Joneses: Envy in American Consumer
Society 1890-1930”) This admirably lucid book, based on primary
sources such as diaries, letters and personal interviews, is an
overview of the history of a particular emotion, homesickness.
American society is famously built on the archetype of the pioneer,
the rugged individualist, cheerfully moving on from place to place
without demur. This archetype finds different forms; the
immigrant, the cowboy, the “Organisation Man”, the pilgrim
settler, but all have in common a sense of perpetual motion and
freedom from ties.
As with all archetypes and grand narratives, the details of reality
were very different. Very many pioneers and immigrants returned,
despite the social pressures to remain. Matt places centre stage
the men and women who actually lived these experiences, and
who were often beset by overwhelming homesickness. This was
especially so for women, less in control of their destiny than men.
From the first settlers on, thoughts of home contended with the
various religious, political and economic motives for perpetual
motion. While official rhetoric emphasised the importance of
forging on with the pioneer spirit, diaries and letters allow Matt to
reconstruct the emotional lives often lost to history.
In 1865, twenty –four Union soldiers officially died of nostalgia [2019 note – I should have said “the official cause of death for 24 Union soldiers was nostalgia].
Among the American forces in World War 1, only one casualty had
a cause of death listed as nostalgia. Matt records the varying
opinions of psychiatrists, alienists on physicians on the causes and
management of nostalgia-as-an-illness. Contemporary concerns
such as racial and ethnic purity (“weaker” ethnicities such as the
Irish and Southern Europeans were often held to be more
susceptible) and venereal disease were implicated as risk factors
for nostalgia cases.
Over the later nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public
attitudes to homesickness hardened. Once, children who crossed
thousands of miles to return from boarding schools to families
were celebrated. Their attachment to home was seen as evidence
of a tender sensibility. How homesickness was addressed by the
military in the various wars in the era Matt’s history covers is
revealing. Armies have to balance the motivating power of
attachment to country with the demotivating power of separation
from that same country. In the American Civil War, homesickness
among soldiers was seen as evidence of a nobility of nature. This
attitude persisted through the century. The sole nostalgia fatality of
the Spanish-American War of 1898 was treated with great
sympathy bordering on glorification by the contemporary media.
The inter-war years saw the cultural shift gain momentum. This
was the era where the child rearing “expert” began to opine in
the popular press; no less a figure than the seminal behaviourist
John Watson weighs in on the importance of avoiding excessive
affection with one’s children. The following fifty years saw the
denigration of homesickness gain pace. Where the home-loving
children of previous eras were celebrated, now over attachment to
parents and to home was seen as “sissifying” and a manifestation
of “Momism.” An ethic of universal cheerfulness which celebrated
the “can-do” spirit further cast homesickness into disrepute. The
interests of corporate America were in creating a mobile workforce,
ready to cross the continent at short notice. While this is not a
matter that Matt discusses, this aspect did get me thinking how
the anti-family jeremiads of R D Laing and David Cooper ironically
dovetailed neatly with this corporate imperative. Perhaps, as the
Marxists say, there are no accidents.
Anti-homesickness rhetoric persists today, although the picture is
complicated by the rise of technologies which allow instantaneous
communication, and the global availability of familiar brands. Yet
these developments are palliatives for homesickness, not cures.
Skype, Facebook and similar technologies allow a certain abolition
of distance, and Matt shows how they have perhaps helped in the
rehabilitation of homesickness as a valid public emotion. Indeed,
one of her themes is “the surprising persistence of the extended
family” and how emotions and their expression can be moulded
and shaped by social forces, but are also strangely resistant to them
Indeed, this is a history of the resilience of homesickness, despite
everything. So many approaches in contemporary humanities
emphasise the contingent and socially constructed nature of
things; what Matt manages to do is to acknowledge the role of
social and economic pressures while making a strong case that
emotions are less fungible than theorists, pundits and social
engineers of all political hues would believe. There is also very little
of the jargon and theoretical ballast which many contemporary
historians freight their work
Matt’s title clearly indicates that this is an American history of
homesickness, but the book is of great interest to an Irish
readership too. The Irish immigrant experience abroad is of course
familiar to most of us; a sizable chunk of Irish popular music is
eloquent testimony to the force of homesickness. More
fundamentally, homesickness is a universal emotion; all readers will
find someone to identify with among the lives Matt describes. We
may not always go through the same social transformations as
America at the same time, but we always seem to get round to
them sooner or later. In our age of ghost estates and resurgent
emigration, many of the concerns of the book seem all too
Academic careers rival medical careers in demanding frequent
moves (and in requiring a certain insouciance as the proper
response.) In her acknowledgements, Matt salutes her husband
and observes “since we met in Ithaca, New York, in 1990, we have
lived in six different states and travelled many places, but no matter
where we are, when I am with him, I am home.” It is a poignant
note, and one which sets the tone for a humane and thought-
provoking work.

Schrödinger’s Cat panels at the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies

The Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies was established in 1940 by Eamon de Valera’s government with three constituent schools of Cosmic Physics, Theoretical Physics and Celtic Studies. By far the most famous name attracted there was Erwin Schrödinger. He gave the lectures that became his book, What Is Life?  there in 1943.

The DIAS now stands on a rather unprepossessing building in Dublin 4:
Along the basement windows, however, are panels illustrating the thought experiment Schrödinger is most famous for:




While I could explain the idea of the experiment easily enough to my children (well, not the equation) I struggled to explain its significance… obviously their focus was on the welfare of the hypothetical cat and not entanglement or whatever. This YouTube video was no help at all:


“Where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows”

I just posted about the centenary of the Soloheadbeg ambush. This event is commonly considered to mark the outset of the War of Independence, a rebellion which ultimately did lead to an independent Irish state (for most of the island of Ireland)

There is a political saying that “where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows.” Soloheadbeg didn’t randomly happen in Tipperary – the country would be the hotbed of the early stage of the conflict   and indeed the activities of the 3rd Tipperary Brigade in rendering South Tipperary ungovernable provided a blueprint for insurgency movements to this day (I recall someone observing that national liberation movements across the world paid close attention to 1919-21 in Ireland, and much less attention to 1922-3)

Tipperary had already seen the 1848 Rebellion, less gloriously referred to as the Battle of Widow McCormack’s Cabbage Patch. It was again a hotbed of Fenianism It also saw the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association, whose influence on Irish life is hard to quantify.

Tipperary is a predominantly rural county, but with urban centres which would have been more industrialised than most Irish towns. Left wing politics had a receptive audience.  In April 1922 a “soviet” was set up in Clonmel:

With the ending of the war, came the inevitable economic depression, with a dramatic fall in exports. This coincided with our own struggles for independence. The firm [Condensed Milk Company of Ireland] said it was losing money and proposed a reduction in wages. The workers said the company had made “a million” during the war. The stand-off led to a strike, which, in the climate of the time, was a special sort of strike which has become known as The Clonmel Soviet.

The Russian Revolution had cast long shadows over the Europe of the early decades of the 20th century. In many countries so-called soviets were established by workers taking over industries from “capitalist owners,” with the objective of operating them for the benefit of the workers, with all the profits accruing to themselves. That was the theory.

The Clonmel soviet was established in the last week of April 1922, when the workers demanded from the management the “keys,” and then hoisted a red flag on the factory building. The popular belief was (there is no written evidence) that this was done at “the point of a gun.”

It was not the most propitious time for ideological experimentation. The coinciding Civil War, with consequent damaged bridges, disrupted railways, roads and postal services, left Clonmel isolated. For the first time since the Famine, soup kitchens were set up in the town. In the initial few weeks there had been some limited public sympathy for the strikers or sovieters, but this quickly evaporated, especially when elements of anarchy took over and butter was walked into pavements and milk was overturned and poured down Sarsfield Street from a site opposite the Main Guard. Clonmel had enough!

The far left retained a hold in Tipperary. Séamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group was first elected in a by election in 2000.  This was some years before the 2011 election saw quite a few far left candidates elected.

Tipperary also has been represented in the Dail by Michael Lowry since 1987, for the first decade for Fine Gael and from 1997 as an Independent. Lowry is a pariah in national politics, but has been re-elected handsomely since, even when the Tipperary constituencies were merged. Again, some years before this became a national trend, Tipperary therefore saw the emergence of the “gene pool” independent; a candidate originally linked with one of other of the major parties and retaining a constituency organisation and a local commitment. As with the Healy-Raes,  metropolitan hand-wringing and sneering doesn’t do local popularity any harm, though I would feel this is secondary to a local responsiveness and a perception (real or otherwise) that They Can Get Things Done. (incidentally I do not think localism is only a rural phenomenon – Shane Ross in Dublin South evidently can operate the parish pump as enthusiastically as anyone)


The low-key centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush

About ten years ago, a friend of mine working in a ministerial department told me about the concern the government had about the “decade of centenaries” marking the anniversaries of the events leading up to Irish (partial) independence. There was a concern to commemorate these properly, so that extreme elements couldn’t hijack them, without alienating Unionism. Thus the lavish 1916 centenary, and associated events in the years before (and since)

A few months ago I wondered what official commemoration would mark the 100th anniversary of the Soloheadbeg ambush, which marked the outset of the War of Independence.  The ambush took place on 21st January 1919, and on 20th January (ie tomorrow) there will be ceremonies to mark the anniversary.

I mean no disrespect to Minister Josepha Madigan by suggesting her presence as the government representative is a little less high profile than that accorded to other events.

I remember as a child visiting Kilmainham Jail, which sold a booklet which went into great detail about the various Fenians and 1916 leaders who had been imprisoned and executed there, and a brief page on the War of Independence. There’s always been an ambivalence about the War of Independence, largely due  to the Civil War which followed, and the ambiguity about the outcome with partition of Ireland. Also, one surmises, while 1916 was a military failure and is therefore something of a blank slate (the commemorations of both 1966 and 2016 reflected contemporary concerns and attitudes as much as anything else), the War of Independence did lead to an Irish state and involved almost all of the main political protagonists of the first few decades of that state.

Clearly the political dynamics of 1919 have not gone away and right now are taking centre stage in not only Irish or British but European politics. On Monday 21st 2019 Theresa May will present (or is supposed to) her “Plan B” after a Brexit plan floundered, to a large extent on the “Irish Question.”  Furthermore, while Soloheadbeg had a far smaller death toll than 1916, there is something much more personal about the killing of two local Catholics who happened to be RIC men. The reality that the Irish state (like every state, pretty much) was born in conflict, and that all the main Irish political parties arose from or were strongly linked with paramilitary forces of various kinds is one that a veil is often drawn over.

All in all, one wonders if the current Government would rather not make much of a fuss about the whole thing, and one wonders if this could backfire somewhat. A whole raft of centenaries – of ambushes and assassinations and of the Treaty and the subsequent debates – is following in the coming years.