Ember Days and nature connection

Today, Friday and Saturday are Ember Days. I had never heard of these (though “embertide” rings a faint bell) until I came across this tweet

In a way Fr Schrenk explains it well in this thread so unroll it for the full explanation, or look here or here. Essentially, Ember Days are 3 days in an “Ember Week”, which occurs four times in a calendar year and mark the commencement of seasons. The December days are the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday after St Lucy’s Day (13th December)

They are marked by practices such as fasting and abstinence, though specifics seem a little different depending on the online source.  One site I came across suggested “minor” fasting, ie one full meal and two light meals (which sounds closer to a healthy intake than to a fast to me) as well as marking the day with appropriate prayer.

Traditionally, clergy were ordained during Ember Weeks.



“Ember” is not a reference to fire but a corruption of the Latin Quatuor Tempora meaning “four times.” In Irish, they are Laethanta na gCeithre Thráth  – “days of the four times” – which preserves the sense of the Latin.  Ember days seem to have got a little more attention in recent times as a form of collective repentance related to recent crises in the Church. 

Separate from any theological or ecclesiastic practice, I am struck by the wisdom of observances that are tied with the cycle of the seasons and thereby of growth, death and renewal that follow the year. And I am struck by the wisdom of periods of restraint in consumption (which is what fasting is, as opposed to self-punishment) and of contemplation that relate fundamentally to the changes of the seasons. It is a cliché to bemoan the overcommercialisation of Christmas but it is salutary to recall that Advent was supposed to be a time of reflection, self-denial and preparation.

It seems a pity that the Ember Days practice has fallen into disuse in general. And again separate from any specific religious belief or affiliation, one wonders if the practice of Ember Days did help to connect people with the progress of the seasons (and if their abandonment is yet another marker of disconnection with nature) and whether for this reason observance of Ember Days is due a revival.


New Geneva, a (failed) Genevan colony in Waterford, designed by James Gandon

Recently I came across the placename Geneva Barracks, near Passage East in Waterford. Obviously a slightly unusual name, I wondered was it an Anglicisation of something – but in fact it turns out to be quite a literal name with a very interesting story, totally new to me.

From An Taisce:

New Geneva Barracks was identified as the proposed site for a planned colony for artisan and intellectual Genevan settlers, who had become refugees following a failed rebellion against a French and Swiss government in the city. Ireland had been granted a parliament separate from London in 1782 and it was thought that the creation of the colony would stimulate new economic trade with the continent. James Gandon, who designed the Custom House, was comissioned to create a masterplan for the site overlooking the Waterford Estuary. The plans for the colony eventually collapsed, however, when the Genevans insisted that they should be represented in the Irish parliament but govern themselves under their own Genevan laws. It then became a barracks following the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798.

Wikipedia has a bit more on Gandon’s plan:

James Gandon, the celebrated architect, was commissioned to prepare a plan for the town which would have been almost rectangular in shape with a vast shallow crescent 2,700 ft long overlooking Waterford Estuary. A rectangular site for a church was to be positioned at each end of the crescent which was to be backed by streets and terraces of houses. A central square was to have been overlooked by a central church with an apse and was surrounded by terraces of houses which were said to have been ‘under construction’. There were to be two other open squares, one to the south overlooked by the Academy with the Market in the south west corner of the ‘city’. Another courtyard to the north was to be overlooked by the Town Hall. A prison or hospital was to be located at the north west corner of the city. The city has many similarities with the French city of Richelieu. The Barracks wall which exists today bears little resemblance to this ambitious plan. The original James Gandon drawing of the proposed city still exists.

There is even more on Padraig Rooney’s site:

Ami Melly was the de facto leader of the Genevan exiles. An advance group disembarked at Waterford. They wanted representation in the Irish parliament (Temple’s “very unreasonable in their demands”), a franchise even the Catholic Irish didn’t have at that time. They also demanded the right to their own laws. Thus the project fell foul of Swiss and Anglo-Irish intransigence: neither side was prepared to make concessions. The august tradition of Swiss democracy came up against English colonialism in its back yard. “Some few of the Genevese came over to Ireland, but they soon returned, rather chilled by the prospect before them,” Egan tells us.

It was not just watchmaking that the people of Ireland missed out on. P. M. Egan’s county history cites a local farmer who reminds us of Waterford’s lost industry of silk weaving:

You see, sir, these people that came here were great silk waivers,’ and they expected, of course, to go on well at their trade. Myself doesn’t know, but as I hears. They set a lot of mulberry trees to feed the silk-worms, but sure you know they wouldn’t grow, the climate was too damp, so they gave up the place and went back again to their own country.

There’s more at the Wooly Days blog. I am looking, so far unsuccessfully, for an illustration of Gandon’s town plan online.

The site became a barracks, one of some notoriety in the memory of the 1798 rebellion. Here is a local story from the National Folklore Collection’s Schools Collection :


In the year 1798 when the soldiers were in Geneva Barracks, there was a cowboy working with a neighbouring farmer named Pat Gough. There were some Croppies prisoners at the time in Geneva Barracks.

One night the cow-boy made a rope ladder and went out to Geneva Barracks and got up on the wall and lowered the ladder down and helped eight Croppies to escape.

When he had the last one up he shouted down, “Is there any other down there”, and a voice answered “There is one other.” This was an officer and he wanted to shoot the eight Croppies and the cow-boy.

He had a gun under his coat and when he was half way up the ladder the cow-boy saw the gun and let the ladder drop and he and the eight Croppies escaped.

The Croppy Boy , one of the famed ballads of 1798,  features Geneva Harbour in its last verse – although a lot of versions I have come across seem to replace it with Duncannon (or, quite geographically incongruous, Dungannon):

At Geneva Barracks that young man died
And at Passage they have his body laid
Good people who live in peace and joy
Breathe a prayer and a tear for the Croppy Boy

Among the Dungannon versions seem to be the Dubliners’ and the Clancy Brothers. Here is Delia Murphy giving Geneva Barracks  it’s due:


“I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him.”

I came across this quote by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys via The Frailest Thing blog – the concept of the “ever denser web of deadlines required by the various social spheres” reminded me of “the unbridled onward rush into the abyss” of this post:

I could spend a lot of time posting quotes and reflections on the time pressure of modernity – so much so all my time could be eaten away….:

A further weighty obstacle to the realization of any ethical life project lies in the way individuals are increasingly caught in an ever denser web of deadlines required by the various social spheres (‘subsystems’) in which they participate: work, family, (school and sports activities of children), church, credit systems (i.e., loan payment due dates), energy systems (utility bills), communications systems (Internet and cell phone bills), etc. The requirement of synchronizing and managing this complicated mesh of imperatives places one under the imperious control of a systematically induced ‘urgency of the fixed-term’ (Luhmann). In practice, the surprising—and ethically disastrous—result is that individuals’ reflective value and preference orderings are not (and tendentially cannot) be reflected in their actions. As Luhmann explains, ‘the division of time and value judgments can no longer be separated. The priority of deadlines flips over into a primacy of deadlines, into an evaluative choiceworthiness that is not in line with the rest of the values that one otherwise professes …. Tasks that are always at a disadvantage must in the end be devalued and ranked as less important in order to reconcile fate and meaning. Thus a restructuring of the order of values can result simply from time problems.’

People compelled to continually defer the activities they value most in order to meet an endless and multiplying stream of pressing deadlines inevitably become haunted by the feeling expressed in the trenchant bon mot of Ödön von Horváth cited by Rosa: ‘I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him.’

Corncrake in UCD 1982

The autum 2018 issue of Wings, the magazine of BirdWatch Ireland, has a piece on the avifauna of University College Dublin‘s Belfield campus. For those unfamiliar this is in the suburbs of South Dublin two or three miles from the city centre.

I grew up here and attended UCD from the mid 90s, and can testify both the campus itself and the surrounding area were a lot more rural then. Still, I was taken aback by this:

A corncrake in 1982 in Dublin seems extraordinary to me now, though on reflection shouldn’t.

Beshoff’s Chip Shop Founder was Last Survivor of Potemkin Mutiny

From his 1987 New York Times obituary:

Ivan Beshoff, the last survivor of the 1905 mutiny on the Russian battleship Potemkin, a harbinger of the Russian Revolution, died Sunday, his family said today. His birth certificate said he was 102 years old, but he contended he was 104.

Born near the Black Sea port of Odessa, Mr. Beshoff abandoned chemistry studies and joined the navy, serving in the engine room of the Potemkin.

The mutiny over poor food was the first mass expression of discontent in Czar Nicholas II’s military and later came to be seen as a prelude to the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The mutineers killed the captain and several officers. The entire Black Sea fleet was ordered to suppress the rebellion, but crews refused to fire on the battleship, and it sailed for 11 days before surrendering.

Mr. Beshoff had said he fled through Turkey to London, where he met Lenin. He settled in Ireland in 1913, saying he had tired of the sea.

Mr. Beshoff worked for a Soviet oil distribution company and was twice arrested as a Soviet spy, but became a beloved figure in the Irish community.

After World War II, he opened a fish and chips shop in Dublin. His sons opened branches elsewhere in the city.

Weirdly (to my mind) Beshoff’s don’t mention this on their website… although we do have this historical tidbit:

Grandfather Ivan Beshoff came to Ireland from Russia in 1913 and lived to 104 years. His father lived to 108 and his grandfather to 115 – enough said about the goodness of fish.

The amnesia of our age: the lonely passion of Brian Moore

When I became aware of “serious” literature in the late 80s/early 90s, Brian Moore was quite a substantial figure – repeatedly nominated for the Booker Prize, his books made into films such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Black Robe.

While reading about the Belfast Blitz of 15th April 1941, I came across Moore’s reminiscences of that night, and also that wartime Belfast was the setting for his novel The Emperor of Ice Cream.

I also came across this piece, The Second Death of Brian Moore by Patrick Hicks. Hicks was the last person to interview Moore (on the phone)

Hicks recounts finding an absence of Moore online, when preparing for a class:

Moore abandoned Northern Ireland after World War II and moved to North America where he went on to write 20 novels and win a slew of awards. Before his death in 1999 he was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. The guy was prolific — he produced a novel every other year — and he was totally devoted to his art. But as I search the internet for him, he’s almost nowhere to be seen. It’s like Brian Moore has suffered a second death.

To be fair, I didn’t really notice his absence on the internet until I was prepping for class the other day. I thought it might be nice for my students to see a TV interview with him. But I found nothing. Radio interview? Nothing. How about a webpage devoted to his life and his powerful novels? Again, almost nothing.

Even though he did plenty of radio and television interviews, I’m beginning to realize that his death in 1999 meant that no one thought to digitize these interviews and put them on the web. He died before the internet took off and it became the warehouse of information and entertainment we know it to be. Not being on the web nowadays means that you don’t quite exist, and as I thought about this electronic absence, I began to feel like he was dying all over again.

Hicks also describes salvaging some of Moore’s childhood home from demolition:

While living in Belfast in the early-1990s, I heard that his childhood home was all but destroyed. Apparently the IRA was using it as a sniper’s nest to pick off British soldiers, so it was torn down. When I arrived, it was surrounded by a metal fence—only the kitchen floor remained. I’d heard that everything was going to be smothered under a thick layer of asphalt to make way for a parking lot, so I decided to take a chunk of the floor. Why not? Why not preserve something of literary history?

That’s when I heard the click-click of a round being chambered into a machine gun. I looked up and saw a British soldier aiming his weapon at me. My chest was in his crosshairs.

“What’re you doing here?” he barked.

I raised my hands with part of Moore’s childhood in my fist and explained. The soldier shook his head and told me to bugger off. “This is a restricted area. See that fence? Get out of here.”

And I did get out. Quickish, I might add.

To the best of my knowledge, the only part of Moore’s childhood home in Belfast is now in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a paperweight on my desk. As a matter of fact, it’s sitting under the monitor as I type this very sentence.

I have written before about the illusion that all knowledge is online. Hicks describes the same thing:

It’s also a good reminder for me that the internet doesn’t house everything. We’d like to think it does, but it has plenty of gaps, holes, and missing pieces. One of these sizable holes, at least for me, happens whenever I search for “Brian Moore novelist” and I don’t see any videos or radio links. His obituaries pop up, but that’s about all.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this. Maybe I wanted to do something that would bring new readers towards him. He’s worth your time. I promise.

Aside from a couple of short stories, I have not read Moore. I have always wanted to read Black Robe and find his dual Canadian-Irish identity interesting. I am going to take Hicks’ advice; and also remember that there are plenty of missing pieces online.

“the unbridled onward rush into the abyss”

From “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield:

“Optimistically, the more benign form of frenetic standstill is not a new thing. In the terminology of popular media we have been ‘living on a hamster wheel’ since the 1950s, while we have been ‘on a treadmill’ since the 1970s. And we can go further back still. In February 1920, in a letter to his colleague Ludwig Hopf, Einstein observed how he was ‘being so terribly deluged with inquiries, invitations, and requests that at night I dream I am burning in hell and the mailman is the devil and is continually yelling at me, hurling a fresh bundle of letters at my head because I still haven’t answered the old ones’. And further back still. ‘Everything is now “ultra”,’ Goethe wrote to the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter. ‘Young people are . . . swept along in the whirlpool of time; wealth and speed are what the world admires and what everyone strives for. All kinds of communicative facility are what the civilized world is aiming at in outpacing itself.’ That was in 1825. Regrettably, not all of our new acceleration is benign. Rosa concludes his book with a worst-case scenario, an endgame he calls ‘the unbridled onward rush into the abyss’ – death by time. It will be caused by our inability to balance the conflict of movement and inertia, and ‘the abyss will be embodied in either the collapse of the ecosystem or in the ultimate breakdown of the modern social order’. There may also be ‘nuclear or climatic catastrophes, with the diffusion at a furious pace of new diseases, or with new forms of political collapse and the eruption of uncontrolled violence, which can be particularly expected where the masses excluded from the process of acceleration and growth take a stand against the acceleration society’. Happy days.”