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.


“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.’

“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.”

The surprising complications of tide-watching


Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ “Tide: The Science and Lore of the Greatest Force on Earth” has a title that sounds hyperbolic, but is endearing in its combination of a certain rhetorical restraint (noted by the Guardian reviewer linked to above), simple awe and a willingness to get into quotidian detail. I went into the book thinking that the tide basically boiled down to the influence of the moon – there is a lot more to it than that.

Early on, Aldersey-Williams decides he needs to observe an entire tidal cycle. This sounds something very straightforward – just sitting by the sea for a day! – but not so:

It is an odd idea, I admit, simply to sit and watch the water for twelve or thirteen unbroken hours. You might find similes coming to mind to do with watching paint dry or grass grow. But I will shut these unhelpful analogies out of my mind. I do not know what I might see, but I will at least try to note down anything I do. I do not know what I might see, and that will be the best of it. The first requirement was to select a site where I could do this. Every part of the British coast is subject to substantial tidal movement. I live in Norfolk, a county that bulges obscenely out into the North Sea (in old satirical cartoons that depict Britain as a person, Norfolk is always the rump). The coast is correspondingly distended, and so I was spoiled for choice. I considered Blakeney Quay. I’d seen the tide running in there so fast round the bend in the river – I reckoned its speed as about three metres per second, based on counting as pieces of seaweed hurried by – that it sent thick wooden mooring posts into frenzied vibrations. But the place was too overrun with tourists, and I could see that I would be constantly interrupted by curious busybodies. Instead, I selected a site a mile or two away where I knew I would be undisturbed

Aldersey-Williams has even more criteria:

The scene would be nothing like the domesticated sublime of the beach at Lyme Regis that Jane Austen describes in Persuasion, ‘where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the tide’. My prospect would be more like that in George Crabbe’s epic poem of East Anglian life, The Borough. I would ‘view the lazy tide / In its hot slimy channel slowly glide’. I would make myself into what Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend called one of ‘those amphibious human-creatures who appear to have some mysterious power of extracting a subsistence out of tidal water by looking at it’. Reading passages such as these, I saw that writers use the tide as a kind of hypnotist’s watch. It is something to induce a state of reverie or, more dangerously, a trance. I would have to be careful not to fall into daydreaming if I was going to make more incisive observations of the unceasing rise and fall of the seas. Next, I had to choose a suitable time of year and time of day to make my study. The tides are in constant action, washing the world’s shores, but they vary according to astronomical factors that are subject in turn to their own complex temporal rhythms. I did not want to freeze or fry out on the marshes, but more important than that, I would need my thirteen hours to fall during daylight in order to make my observations. Wherever you are, a full tidal cycle, from high water back to high water (or low to low), takes nearly this length of time. This constraint limited me to the months from March to September when the days were long enough. I also wanted to observe a fairly typical tide, not a huge one that would flush me out of my vantage point when high water approached, nor one so meagre that I would miss the things I should normally expect to see


Any thirteen-hour time slot guaranteed that I would see one high water, one low
water, one full flood tide and one ebb. But where in the cycle did I want to start my work? This was more a matter of aesthetic preference and narrative design. To begin with the tide in full spate, either flooding or ebbing, seemed to me melodramatic. An obscure logic told me that low water would be a natural beginning: a bath or a bucket starts empty, after all, and its story is to be filled. This version would give the greatest sense of a flooding. I could watch the flood tide fill the creeks, but I would then have to see them empty again as the cycle came around, and something about this displeased me. Or, I could start at high water. But this was not right either: even though I would then end on a high, it seemed wrong to begin by witnessing the departure of the substance of my tale. I feared that the immediate ebb might be the end of my own story. In the event, I found my choice still more restricted. The tide table showed few days when the tidal range would be sufficient for my needs, the day long enough, the weather likely to be bearable, and the place quiet enough – a weekday during school term rather than a weekend – that I would not be disturbed. In the end, I chose a day when the sun would be rising just as the ebb was gathering pace. I would begin my observations about an hour after high water. The mood should be one of calm and expectation. My morning would see the tide recede and the muddy shore revealed. High water would come late in the day, and provide a well-timed climax. By starting an hour or so after high water, I would then stay on through the subsequent high water long enough to see the ebb begin again. This, I felt, would show more truthfully that the tidal cycle does not in any way peak or culminate at high water, as we might be tempted to think, but that it goes on in an eternal cycle in which no momentary state has any more claim to special status than another

Aldersey-Williams prepares himself for longeurs:

Though I intended to be diligent in my observations, I imagined there might be long stretches when little was happening, and so I armed myself also with a copy of The Oxford Book of the Sea. It held excerpts of many works I would need to familiarize myself with, from Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us to Matthew Arnold’s allegorical poem ‘Dover Beach’. These poems and prose pieces would remind me of the main to which my insignificant creek, thanks to the tide, was eternally connected and intermingled.

I don’t want to spoil the account of his actual tide watch, which is well worth reading, but can reveal he does find not much time for reading:

I had thought that there would be longueurs in my day. But it is clear now that I will be kept very busy. I find it necessary to carefully plan my activity between each hourly tide reading, because I know I’ll only have the chance to do certain things – like delving in the mud for worms, or observing how the wind whips up waves – at certain states of the tide. Suddenly, my schedule starts to look like a school timetable. I have the whole curriculum covered: plotting water level graphs (mathematics); observing mud life and marsh plants (biology); recording water flow (physics); canoeing (PE); contemplating the cosmic order of things (religious studies?). I will be so busy for the day that English will have to be cancelled; The Oxford Book of the Sea lies unregarded, its pages turning crisp in the dry breeze.

“The whirligig of time” : A note on Fr Pat Noise

“The whirligig of time” : A note on Fr Pat Noise


Seeing that this documentary is to be broadcast next Saturday I thought it an apt time, though any time would be an apt time, to post about my own research into the obscure career of Fr Pat Noise…

Some years ago, when lecturing in UCD, I was working on a presentation on conditions in some ways connected with the passage of time. The best known being deja vu, the perception when in a new place or situation that one has been here before, or the same thing has happened before. Of course, there is a whole psychological science of time.

In those days I had the chance to read more deeply and broadly for this kind of thing than since. I used what was then the UCD School of Medicine in Earlsfort Terrace. It was the last few months of it being part of UCD. The librarians were working on transferring stock of the main UCD Library and many older and more obscure volumes were out and about on various trestle tables. Among these was one which I had dimly heard of but had also come up in some of my reading, Vico’s The New Science. Vico believed that history went in a curve or spiral, and that events recurred.

In the middle of the book, presumably used as a book mark at some stage, I found a faded, worn prayer card. I could barely make out the text on it except for a request to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the soul of Fr Pat Noise, and below this the following words:

Do you want to see what human eyes have never seen?
Look at the moon
Do you want to hear what ears have never heard?
Listen to the birds cry
Do you want to touch what hands have never touched?
Touch the earth
Truly I say that God is about to create the world.

This struck me as somewhat unusual content for a prayer card. Again, having more time than now, I was able to follow up with some research on Fr Noise in the Dublin Diocescan archives in All Hallows. I think I had a vague idea about writing some kind of paper. I am not a historian and was seeking not truth nor likelihood but astonishment. So I found out somewhat more about Fr Pat Noise.

Noise, like Fergus Kilpatrick and Dungarvan native John Vincent Moon is a figure who has somehow been forgotten, by and large, in the so called Decade of Centenaries. Unfortunately, at the time , I made my notes in a file on a laptop which is long defunct.

In the archives what we read about Fr Noise is entirely through the words of others, him being a curate in Berkeley Road who dressed in an extremely flamboyant manner, who was unambigious in his support of the workers in the 1913 Lockout, and also as proposing theological views not entirely Orthodox. However one letter describes him as travelling to the furthest reaches of orthodoxy, but not going over the precipice.

This was contained in another letter from a priest that was otherwise quite hostile to Fr. Noise. According to this priest, Fr Noise stated that there are no two moments alike and every moment is a new moment and that history is in a cycle and life is in a cycle because every moment is new again. The poem that was on the prayer card was reproduced in this letter; apparently Fr Noise read it at a ceremony. It is unrecorded what the congregation in Berkeley Road made of this.

Fr Noise’s sympathy for the 1913 Lockout and for the poor of Dublin seems to have, in a similar way, gone right to but not past the limit of what the Church hierarchy could tolerate. There are hints in another letter, by an anonymous outraged parishioner, of accusations of Socialism and Communism, but in this area Fr Noise crafted his sermons in the words of Christ Himself, and remained at the dangerous edge of orthodoxy.

The link with Peadar Clancy came through being one of the genuine customers of Republican Outfitters. This was a well known meeting place for the IRA in Dublin. Dan Breen said that really if you were an IRA man you shouldn’t stay there too long. In the letters about Noise it is mentioned that he wore quite elaborate capes and top hats which were sourced from Republican Outfitters.

He also apparently translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Irish, but there is no trace I could find of this. There is also a clipped article by Fr Noise, but from an unidentifiable periodical, on Festspiele – festivals in Switzerland in which thousands of people , possible the whole population of a town or area will renact historical events in the place where they happened. In this piece he suggests that this is something that Ireland and Dublin should emulate and and there were all these hints that the 1916 Rising was a reenactment of a previous event that had happened before in history.

Fr Noise pops up in letters beween Peadar Clancy and Sean Treacy and also seems to have been an intermediary for Clancy. Surprisingly these activities do not make it into the accusations of his various foes, and in the letters what Clancy describes are purely philosophical and theological discussions.

Fr Noise is now commemorated with a plaque on O’Connell Street, but otherwise his life is nearly totally forgotten by both the worlds of the Church and of Official Ireland. Perhaps in the narrative of commemorations and the rather self-congratulatory rhetoric about How Far We Have Come, a priest with cosmopolitan intellectual influences does not fit neatly into our perceptions of a cleric or a revolutionary. His plaque is, by coincidence, on the spot on O’Connell Bridge beside which the Millenium Clock, a digital clock inserted into the Liffey in 1994 but which was beset by all sort of problems, including time running backwards.

Leandro Herrero: Never Sell Your Time

I have blogged quite a few posts featuring the work of Leandro Herrero on my other, more medical blog. His observation that a team is not a meeting. And that “inspirational” leadership can be a cover for less than enlightened management. And lessons from monks. And the hype associated with the prefix “neuro”

Anyhow, here is a post on how time is the greatest resource we have:

Time is man’s last asset. Sell time, you will be depleted soon. It’s a finite asset. As a consultant I have professional fees, but not daily or hourly rates. I never charge per days or per hours. I respect others to do so. Some do, from psychoanalysts and lawyers, to plumbers and locksmiths. Other people don’t. Executive search firms usually charge a percentage of the salary of the appointee. Private schools don’t charge by the number of hours the kids are in the place. Brand and advertising companies don’t charge by the number of creative directors or principles or assistants involved, or the number of days taken until the concept is created.

In my Consulting and Speaking engagements, I provide value and I am paid for it. My advice, thought leadership, speech, consultation, collaboration, or hands-on-deck project execution has a value and a fee. My time is unaffordable.

Why people still buy luxury watches – From “Timekeepers”, Simon Garfield 

“But there is another reason for the proliferation of the wristwatch beyond our innate desire to preen. Telling the time has, since sometime in the fifteenth century, been the way we display our mechanical and technological mastery. A watch may be something to show off to a colleague at work, but may also represent something grander, something astronomical: we have achieved this magnificent feat of engineering, and in so doing we have aligned our stars and gone some way to mastering the very nature of time itself. What began as a pendulum and evolved into an escapement has now become a tiny, light and elegant contraption to regulate a frantic world. The world we have made, accelerating almost beyond our control, was created in large part by the clock and the watch – the ability to take our destinies inside, away from the universal cues of the heavens. A watch of precision may still suggest that we are nominally in charge. But does a more expensive, rarer, thicker, thinner and more complicated watch suggest we are more in charge than others, or more in charge than before? The advertisers would have it that way.”
 (from “Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time” by Simon Garfield)