Ireland’s science Nobel Prize winners and Faith

Ireland has only two Nobel Laureates in Science – Ernest Walton and William C Campbell. I am working on a longer post on my perception that there was much more coverage of Walton than Campbell in the Irish media. That is leading me down various interesting byways on Irish science journalism and (as I will post shortly) a rather sad discovery.

For the moment back to Ireland’s science Nobel winners. Both are linked by Trinity College Dublin, and – in different ways – religious faith.

From the Wikipedia bio of Walton:

Raised as a Methodist, Walton has been described as someone who was strongly committed to the Christian faith.[7] He even gave lectures about the relationship of science and religion in several countries after he won the Nobel Prize,[8] and he encouraged the progress of science as a way to know more about God:

“One way to learn the mind of the Creator is to study His creation. We must pay God the compliment of studying His work of art and this should apply to all realms of human thought. A refusal to use our intelligence honestly is an act of contempt for Him who gave us that intelligence”

— V. J. McBrierty (2003): Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, The Irish Scientist, 1903-1995, Trinity College Dublin Press.)[9]

from an Irish Times interview with Campbell:

“I believe in God. I pray every single night of my life, but I have a very complicated sense of religion, and I am pretty fuzzy in that segment of my life.

“My faith, and that of millions of others, has evolved, if that is the right word, as civilisation has evolved. Evolved but not been abandoned. Religion and science can coexist. At least, that had better be true. There are certain intangibles.

“I know about these militant atheists, and I think they make very good arguments, but there is a certain level at which argumentation doesn’t come into it. Believing in something that you know exists isn’t a matter of faith; it doesn’t require faith.

“Gabriel Rossetti, the English poet, felt sorry for atheists because they didn’t have anybody to feel grateful to. That always stuck with me, because we have so much to be grateful for. I believe, and I believe in prayer.

One shouldn’t make too much of this, perhaps, but it is interesting. On the sister


Joe Kane Cross by Candlelight

I previously posted on the ceramic work of Joe and Anne Kane from their studio at Moyra Rectory near Falcarragh in Donegal. The photos illustrating that post weren’t great and I am not saying this is either but it captures something of the austere beauty of this cross by Joe Kane:

Hearing secret harmonies in Dunfanaghy – Arnold Bax in Donegal, from “Farewell My Youth”


The English composer Arnold Bax wrote a witty, entertaining memoir, Farewell My Youth, in 1943. Bax, prior to World War I, spent time in Dublin and the book has some marvellous pen pictures of various Celtic Revival and Nationalist figures. Bax wrote fiction under the name Dermot O’Byrne, and Ireland served as a romantic dreamland for him – although I found the thrust of this paper by Seamus de Barra – ” I do not believe that the realities of Irish life were, ultimately, realities for him” – a little on the harsh side as Farewell My Youth has some asides which reveal a certain clarity of perception. Indeed, some of the most acute writing deals with Æ , AKA George Russell, and his tendency towards mystical utterance.

There are some fascinating passages, some of which I hope to come back to here, but here is one from towards the end of the book:

I was in Glencolumcille in the autumn of 1912 when I received a postcard from “Æ ” suggesting I join him for a week at Breaghy, near Dunfanaghy where he went every September to paint. A day or two later I set off on my bicycle for that faraway place on the other side of County Donegal. I toiled over the vast wilderness of high bogland between Glen and Glengesh, led my machine down that truly awful hill, loose stones clattering and tumbling after me, and pedalled into squalid Ardara and thence to Port Noo on the sea-coast. Then I came unexpectedly upon a wedding, that of one of the comeliest, gayest, and most affectionate Irish girls I had ever known. I have often thought of you since, Mary Cannon, with your laughing eyes and mouth, and have wondered how you fared with your coastguard, and whether he proved worthy of you.

Next day I started again, riding now into the Rosses’ country (with at first rather stiff thighs) over those strangely red roads that look as though dyed with ancient carnage and that work an almost hypnotic effect upon the eye and brain. From Burtonport of the granite I took train to Dunfanaghy Road, and thence after picking up my suitcase went on to Breaghy by outside car. There at the door of a snug thatched cottage on a hill and surrounded by whin-bushes I descried “Æ ‘s” burly and bearded form, his kindly short sighted eyes peering out in search of me. Within the house we were mothered by a simple apple-cheeked old lady, and fed sumptuously on freshly caught salmon, superb eggs, and a huge and monstrously rich home-made cake.

It was an odd entranced week that I spent there, quite dreamlike in the guttering candlelight of memory. Close by our hillock was the fine house and estate of Sir Hugh Law, a Nationalist M.P. who, an old friend of “Æ “, had loaned him a summer house in the wooded grounds above the sea in which he might paint on wet days.

I have not met with many experiences which cannot be accounted for by a rational explanation, but one of these occurred in that place in the dripping Breaghy woods.

My friend was painting at his easel in the middle of the floor, in his absorption allowing his pipe to go out every two minutes and having to cross to to the mantelpiece for a light, so that between the easel and fireplace there was a rack strewn with hundreds of dead matches.

I was reading in the window seat near the door, and we had not spoken for perhaps a quarter of an hours when I suddenly became aware that I was listening to strange sounds, the like of which I had never heard before. They can only be described as a kind of mingling of rippling water and tiny belles, tinkled, and yet I could have written them out in ordinary musical notation.

“Do you hear music?” said “Æ ” quietly. ” I do, ” I replied, and even as I spoke utter silence fell. I do not know what it was we both heard that morning and must be content to leave it at that.

Poem on Ballymanus Mine Disaster, 1943

On May 10th, 1943, a stray mine washed ashore in the Rosses of Donegal. What happened next is recounted in this Irish Times piece on a memorial unveiled in 1999:

Many watched the mine from the shore for several hours as it bobbed in the water. When it finally came ashore, they rushed to see what it was, despite warnings to keep clear.
Some climbed on top of it while others banged on it with stones in an attempt to crack its shell, unaware of what lay inside. Without warning, the mine exploded, killing 17 young men ranging in ages from 14 to 34, including three brothers. Two more died in hospital soon afterwards. The explosion was so loud it was heard over 40 miles away in Letterkenny.

Among those who died were two of my grand-uncles.

At the Donegal Heritage blog there is posted a poem by author unknown on the tragedy. I note that it refers to 18 deaths, not 19 (or 17) which I wonder may help with dating it.

Oh weird and wild the wail of woe now borne

Upon the startled night-winds from the west-

Deep gasps of grief and soul-sighs from men torn

By death, grim hideous unbidden guest-

From where great breakers piling on the shore

Awaken eerie echoes o’er the dunes. Fell waves!

Foul, treacherous for-ever more-

While lethal-laden, chanting […]

the rest is at The Mine at Ballymanus 1943 — Donegal Heritage

“The Glamour of the West”  D L Kelleher, 1928

“The Glamour of the West”  D L Kelleher, 1928

20170605_095717-1The Glamour of the West seems to be part of a series by D L Kelleher, following on from The Glamour of Dublin and The Glamour of Cork. Kelleher is an obscure figure now. Here is his bio from The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature:

Kelleher, D[aniel] L[aurence] (1883–1958),

playwright and man of letters. Born in Cork and educated at UCC, he was associated in his early career with the group of dramatists known as the ‘Cork Realists’ [see Abbey Theatre]. Stephen Grey (1910) was produced at the Abbey in 1910, and thereafter he wrote A Contrary Election (1910). His travel sketches reflect his varied career, and include Paris, Its Glamour and Life (1914), Lake Geneva (1914), The Glamour of Dublin (1918, as ‘D. L. Kay’), The Glamour of Cork (1919), Round Italy (1923), and Great Days with O’Connell (1929). His poetry includes Cork’s Own Town (1920), Poems Twelve a Penny (1911) and Twelve Poems (1923).

The Glamour of the West doesn’t even make this concise list. It is a collection of very brief sketches, the longest a couple of pages. The subtitle, “Bantry Bay to Lough Foyle”, gives a sense of the geographic range, although at times Kelleher veers quite far east (to Anthony Trollope in Banagher and Maria Edgesworth in Edgesworthstown).

20170605_095726I quite liked the Talbot Press symbol (“logo” seems a bit anachronistic) Talbot Press seems to have gone the way of all flesh:


Kelleher’s tone is set from the outset, in a “Prelude”:

“The West’s Awake!” – Awake to what? To its own infinitely small knowledge of itself? That  is as much as one can say in answer.

He ends the Prelude thus:

So, in 1928, this brief book of resentment and hope, coloured with a little love, takes up a few of the threads, and as tenderly, cynically, or dispassionately as may be, for a moment resumes an old story.

Kelleher references “cynicism” quite a bit throughout. The tone of the book is often bantering, scathing  – but in a somewhat indirect way. It put in my mind of a fictional character, Sarah Devlin from J G Farrell’s wonderful novel Troubles  There is a sort of habit of mind that could no doubt be called post colonial in a later age; mindful of the the atrocities but also the slights inflicted on the Irish nation over the years, and complaining of these in a what could be called a passive aggressive tone. Perhaps most suggestively, there is little on the events of the prior decade which led to Irish independence (in part).

Some extracts may demonstrate this comparison – the reader can judge if it is apt or not.

“The 1847 Famine In Mayo” is perhaps a little more emotionally direct than other pieces. It begins with a consideration I have wondered about myself

In the year 1928, when this book is being put together, there are many thousands of living Irish people whose parents were born in or about the Famine times. No wonder, here and there, if a melancholia should appear in the Irish. A generation born around the famine year could not escape the famine complex. In the west especially, life turned black with the black blighted potato. Social historians discuss the incidence of hysteria, and worse, due to the Zeppelin nights in London. The long duresse of the famine of 1847 was deeper shock to the whole population than any number of night-raids. Death might ensue from a bomb, but despair and death both were surer in Ireland. In Mayo the tragedy was at its height. At Westport workhouse, built to hold one thousand inmates, three thousand clamoured for entrance sometimes in a single day. Yet the pride of the Irish poor if well known; they will only enter the poorhouse when ruined and hopeless. The gate of the workhouse would be closed and barred early. Then the desperate, weak, lonely, agonised outcasts would throw themselves down to rest and snatch a sleep at the foot of the wall on the opposite side of the road. As many as seven corpses were found one morning like that, dead where they lay.

“Long duresse” is in the original. I did wonder originally was it a reference to the longue durée  concept of historians of the French Annales School, but this was many years before. “Duresse” must be related to “duress” and mean suffering.

Here is another characteristic extract –  about a man from my father’s part of the country:

A very old man, eighty-five, perhaps more, came into the town of Dunflin, Co. Sligo, one day in 1670 on his way to Dublin. The jolting of the rude two wheeled car, with only a layer of straw thrown down in it to soften the corner where you could sit, had tired him out. So he went to the tavern where he was known (for he had often passed that way) and asked for a bed for the night. He was given his old bed in the room above, and then he settled down by the fire in the kitchen to take a little drop of whiskey to revive him and to rest for a short while. There was a very nice girl serving drink to any that would come into the bar outside. But there was little custom and she came into the kitchen and stayed a long time talking to the old man, for she was a really nice girl and could appreciate him. They were pleasantly conversing when a loud clatter of feet was heard from the shop and a voice calling, “Come on here and fetch it out!

Hurrying from the kitchen the girl recognised the intruder as a well-known loyalist from near Dunflin. As soon as he saw the comely girl he put his hand around her, but she pulled herself away and stepped back into the kitchen where the old man had risen from his chair on hearing the confusion. The intruder followed her in and again trying to lay hold of the girl, said “Come on! Give me a kiss and you, you old —–, turn away!”

But the old man put himself between the girl and the soldier and defied him to touch her, for, as old as he was, he would strike “a foul fellow the like of you.’ The drunken soldier, blazing with insolence and disappointed passion, caught up a knife that was lying on the table and drove it into the old man’s heart and killed him with that blow.

That old man was Duald MacFirbis, once a rich scholar, who had spent his whole life compiling histories and genealogies. He was one of the true lovers of Ireland, keeping a hope for posterity by writing down the story of the heroic past. He did it in poverty and homelessness and now he had murder for his crown.

Here are some photos of the pages this story is recounted in:



It is easy to mock this kind of thing, with references to comely girls and so on. Of course, as I often think, some day our prose will no doubt seem laughable. And the book is an at times nearly Borgesian in its laconic capturing of a person, a society, a nation through moments.

One more extract, and this one is actually in some ways the most characteristic:


This is a personal chapter. It need not lose by that. It is about a trip we took by road from Sligo to Bundoran. It is really about a stop we made on the way when we ran past a desolate-looking harbour of refuge that the Congested Districts Board had made for fishermen, since gone to America. We were able to pass around the empty harbour to the edge of a cliff almost as unreclaimed as nature left it.

It was a day in mid-June when primroses rambled over the grass, and sea-pinks with them. Under the cliff the rocks cut into a smooth sea. The view extended almost to Donegal. There was no ship or boat or any sign of life except ourselves.

“Where are we now?” said I.

“I don’t know,” said the man who owned the car. “I came here once before and don’t know whether it is Leitrim or Sligo.”

“Is Leitrim on the coast?”

“It is – a couple of miles of it. But I think we are in Sligo. Leitrim is further on.”

We made tea on the sloping cliff side and watched the perfect solitude.

“Nothing ever happened here,” said my friend. “There is no glamour to write about.”

Nothing only primroses in mid-June, gold sands shining up through blue water, the smell of sea-wrack from the caves, the caress of soft aqueous air.

Glamour enough! Go there and see!


Birthplace of St Columba, Gartan, Donegal

Birthplace of St Columba, Gartan, Donegal


Traditionally, St Columba’s birthplace was near Lough Gartan, Church Hill, Co Donegal. Church Hill is a village near Glenveagh National Park, and is on the fringes of the Derryveagh Mountains – nearby, the rugged albeit farmed land of the eastern part of Donegal gives way to the wildness of the highlands.
According to the website, there are two possible candidates for the birthplace in the Gartan area. The “official”, signposted one is Leac na Cumhaidh.

These photos are not very well taken but hopefully capture something of the place. The reputed birthsite itself is a flagstone which has been discoloured by coins, at the upper left of the rock arrangement seen below. A sign sternly warns visitors not to leave further coins:


The site is visually dominated by a massive cross erected by Cornelia Adair, amiable American widow of the notorious John George Adair. Cornelia was popular, relative to her husband who achieved lasting notoriety due to the evictions that led to the creation of the Glenveagh Estate.

Columba evidently was, like St Patrick also, seen as a figure who could unify Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter alike. The below inscription reads “Preserve With Each Other Sincere Charity and Peace”Finally, and most interestingly in many ways, this site is still evident attractive for contemporary would be prophets. The below image was attached to the railings around the site. img_2511

Kacou Phillipe’s page picks up the story:

Like the prophets of the Bible, In April 1993, a man who had never been in a church receives in a vision, the visitation of an Angel who commissions him for a Message destined to the entire earth in fulfillment of the ministry of Matthew 25:6 and Revelation 12:14..

For those who are a little rusty, Matthew 25:6 reads

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom comes; go out to meet him.

And Revelation 12:14:

And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

Kacou Phillipe’s page also informs us:

Prophet Kacou Philippe got out of prison on Tuesday night, August 16, 2016.

William Branham was also new to me. His Wikipedia page begins:

William Marrion Branham (April 6, 1909 – December 24, 1965) was an American Christian minister, generally acknowledged as initiating the post World War II healing revival.[1][2] Branham’s most controversial revelation was his claim to be the end-time “Elijah” prophet of the Laodicean Church age.[3][4][5] His theology seemed complicated and bizarre to many people who admired him personally.[6] In his last days, Branham’s followers had placed him at the center of a Pentecostal personality cult. Other than those that still follow him as their prophet, Branham has faded into obscurity.

There are indeed those that still follow him as their prophet, and this is their webpage. From the Wikipedia page again, Branham had a range of prophecies:

Branham claimed to have had a prophetic revelation in June 1933 that comprised seven major events that would occur before the Second Coming of Christ.[70] He believed that five of the seven predictions, relating to world politics, science and the moral condition of the world, had been fulfilled. The final two visions, one related to the Roman Catholic Church gaining power in the United States and the second detailing the destruction of the USA, would be fulfilled by 1977, subsequent to which Christ would return.[71] A comparison of Branham’s descriptions of the prophecies reveals his tendency to exaggerate and embellish his actual predictions.[72]

In December 1964, Branham also prophesied that the city of Los Angeles would sink into the Pacific Ocean. This was subsequently embellished to a prediction that a chunk of land fifteen hundred miles long, three or four hundred miles wide and forty miles deep would break loose causing waves that would “shoot plumb out to Kentucky.”[48][73]

The line “his theology seemed complicated and bizarre to many people who admired him personally” reminded me of a passage in Anthony Storr’s book on gurus, Feet of Clay. Storr has a chapter on Rudolf Steiner, and writes on how Steiner’s work in education, especially for those who we would now describe as “special needs” children, was entirely admirable, and his personal life unimpeachable (I paraphrase), and yet his cosmology and theology were unintelligible and, for Storr, close to the delusional systems seen in schizophrenia.

When I walked with my family down a country lane in Donegal to the (supposed) birthplace of St Columba, I did not think I would end up learning about Kacou Philippe or William Branham.



Gola: The Life and Last Days of an Island Community


Recently I read this book, published in 1969 by Radio Telifis Eireann, on Gola Island. Gola is a mile from Magheragallon Strand in Gweedore, three miles from Bunbeg harbour.

When the book was written, Gola seemed about to be permanently depopulated. When I was young in the 80s and early 90s, it was supposedly depopulated, and yet in recent years the population has officially risen to 15 at the 2011 census (2016 census result awaited, I guess) and polling opens there, like the other islands, the day before the “mainland.”


This book, now nearly 50 years old, is itself something of a relic. It is very much a book of two parts; the first written by the TCD geographer F.H. Aalen, the second by the sociologist Hugh Brody. Both spent considerable time on the island, joining the various “intellectuals and semi-intellectuals” the boatmen describes as making the bulk of non-local Gola visitors.

Brody’s part gives an outline of the geographical context of the island and of the somewhat atypical rural life of the North West coast of Donegal. As he points out, and this was something I took for granted as a child but appreciate now, there is a paradoxical combination of remote isolation and relatively high population density in the strips of land along the coast of the Rosses and Gweedore (and to a lesser extent Cloghaneely) – a density bordering on urbanity at times.


Aalen’s writing comes acrosss as very dated. Words like primitive, neglected and backward recur regularly, without any contextualising. The words of “improving” landlords such as Lord George Hill are taken at face value. The evil of the “rundale” system, whereby land was subdivided and subdivided among families until unworkable plots remained, is presented as a straightforward matter of benighted local custom getting in the way of the obviously right, progressive thing to do. There is little real context, beyond an emphasis on isolation, as to why this system developed. Indeed, there is no sense that, in what is a harsh environment, that the local people may in fact have been highly adaptive in how they managed and coped.


There is a rather despairing tone to all this, and the sense is that a primitive way of life is, not without some sentimental regret perhaps, gradually fading away. Aalen is of course being  clear-eyed and realistic in many ways. He writes of how the economy of the area is dependent on remittances and seasonal work from Scotland. There is no doubt that, as contact with urban modernity increases, the traditional life of the islands declines. Aalen quotes the original Paddy The Cope testifying to an Oireachtas committee in the 1920s that, without remittances from Scotland, the economy of the Rosses would not last a year.


Things change quite considerably in Brody’s section on the sociology of the island. There is a certain wry humour here and more of a human sympathy with the islander’s point of view. Brody finds that elementary sociological facts, such as the actual population of the island, are hard to estimate. This is because life on the island is, and has always been, seasonal. Traces of this kind of transhumance remain not only in Gola but on the nearby mainland. My own family, to a certain degree, have engaged in it. Indeed, the rundale system of small plots divided by borders marked in memory and perhaps a wisp of wire of a fence also persists.

Brody finds that what would frustrate many investigators is actually one of the strengths and resilient features of the island. Indeed, he has a wonderful passage on how the islander’s stance is perfectly rational from their point of view. I don’t have the book to hand to quote it in full, but it conveys a much more open view than Aalen’s, and one which now, given that after some decades of depopualtion Gola is repopulated again, seems far more perceptive than Aalen’s very positivist view of human activity.

I have blogged before about how the decline of island life marks, not the irresistible march of progress, but a loss of a way of life, and therefore a loss of diversity. The irony of the rather self-congratulatory contemporary celebration of diversity is that all too often the diversity of ways of life and of living is receding; the diversity that is celebrated is a somewhat atomised one of individual or family existence in a more homogenised society overall.

I feel that my comments above on Aalen’s writing may be a little harsh, as the book overall is an enthralling read for anyone familiar with the area, or simply interested in island life and Irish sociology. It is also worth noting that this book, written nearly half a century ago, very much has an overall message that the days of a populated Gola were imminently over- it is after all subtitled “The Life and Last Days of an Island Community”-  and yet here we are in 2017 awaiting the 2016 census population of this island.