Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser

Fall of the Titans by Rubens. Image classic

Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser by Trevor Joyce.

Londoner Edmund Spenser, born mid sixteenth century, travelled to Ireland to help put down the Desmond Rebellions. As Secretary to Lord Grey, Queen Elizabeth’s Deputy, Spenser was able to lay his hands on property in North Cork where he settled at Kilcolman Castle.images-1.jpeg

There he wrote much of the great epic poem The Faerie Queen, a work in which the figure of Gloriana represents his queen. The locations reflect the glorious pastoral countryside in which Spenser lived but the representation of Irishness is entrusted to deceitful, treacherous characters such as Malengin.  Spenser also wrote a prose work, A View of the Present State of Ireland, an excruciatingly racist account of the Irish often considered to have influenced Oliver Cromwell’s later earth-scorching and ethnically genocidal practices in Ireland.

spensersfaeriequ01spenuoft1.jpegPublished posthumously with the final segment of the twelve-book poem, are the Mutabilitie Cantos. These tell the story of a challenge that Mutability makes to the king of the gods, Jove. She says that he has stolen her birthright because Jove’s father, Saturn usurped her father, Titan. Now, she mocks, Jove can only keep power by using military might. Eventually, however, Jove’s position is confirmed after a court case overseen by Nature.

Cork-based Trevor Joyce is fascinated by Edmund Spenser and published a translation of his sonnets, Ruines of Rome, retitled Rome’s Wreck (2014). His latest book, Fastness is a reworking of the Mutabilitie Cantos. In his introduction Joyce explains how Nature’s court is on Arlo Hill, a name Spenser used for ‘Galtymore, the tallest mountain in the Galty range, which itself continues the arc of the Ballyhouras’. Joyce points out the similarity between the sounds Arlo and Aherlow, concluding that the setting for the Mutabilitie Cantos is thus the Glen of Aherlow.


Joyce suggests that Spenser, himself a local planter, felt threatened by ‘wolves and human miscreants’ in the glen, which was used by ‘insurgents during the Desmond Rebellions’. Spenser might be explaining to his Protestant queen that only her military power could ensure the safety of her loyal subject on his plantation in North Cork. Famously Spenser was run out by Hugh O’Neill. On his return to London and feeing betrayed by that queen he died, aged 46, in poverty.

As a poet Joyce decides that the best way to refute Spenser’s imperialistic or land-grabbing stance is to recast his verse. He thinks that it is his right to ‘intervene’ in Spenser’s work because he feels that Spenser has intervened in his own heritage. In other words the Protestant English colonists affected every aspect of Irish history and culture so that Joyce and every Irishman alive today is tainted with their stink.

Joyce rejects ‘highfalutin’ language and replaces it with his own vernacular. This is because he feels that the character of Mutability (Ireland) in her need to outmanoeuvre Jove (England) is diverted from her muscular aggression to the ‘high rhetoric’ of the courthouse. Thus she mistakenly decides to fight Jove with his own weapon, the Queen’s English.  Joyce suggests that if Mutability had used different means she might well have succeeded. Had Ireland fought on her own terms and rejected English laws and customs then the island might have been free of the yoke of imperialism much earlier and more completely.

He annexes Spenser’s tale and replaces the rhetoric with something much grittier but arguably more accessible. He writes his own view of late sixteenth century Ireland in the penultimate stanza, ‘I’m sick to death of seeing / this dodgy state of things’. On the back cover David Lloyd calls Fastness ‘a radical postcolonial Irish poem’. It’s worth engaging with.

Works cited

Joyce, T. Fastness: A Translation from the English of Edmund Spenser. Miami University Press. 2017. Print.

Spenser, E. The Fairie Queen. 1609. Print.


A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is reproduced here by permission of the editor.




Was Freud a fraud?

Freud: The Making of an Illusion by Frederick Crews

Unknown.jpegOn the cover of the UK edition of FREUD: The Making of an Illusion the E in the middle of Freud is struck out and replaced with an A. The word now reads FRAUD. This idea is repeated in the subtitle with the word Illusion.

There has long been a fashion for Freud-bashing, one which has been pretty evenly balanced by Freud-adulation. It is like attitudes to Ulysses by James Joyce. Love or hate – there is no middle way. Frederick Crews is set to make hatred reign. His book is described in the blurb as the ‘last word’ on Freud. Literally untrue though this is, Crews himself ruefully presents it as his final work on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) citing as evidence his own age, 84 – a year older than his adversary when he died.

Frederick Crews and Susie Orbach. Image: the Guardian.

Since writing the book, nevertheless, he has found time for an email debate with psychoanalyst, Susie Orbach. She says he is throwing the baby out with the bath water whilst he responds that this baby is a destroyer of men and women.

Crews who is a professor emeritus of English at University of California, Berkley, has written a number of books critiquing Freud but these 700 pages draw in part on documents which have been made available only recently. It seems, and this is one of Crews’s objections, that many materials had been embargoed by professional and personal heirs eager to maintain a falsely positive view of their hero.images.jpeg Crews thinks that all extant details are now finally exposed to the sceptical critic’s eye and he nominates himself expert enough to write the ‘last word’ on Freud. Crews does not think that any of Freud’s claims can be substantiated. Instead Crews suggests Freudian concepts have led only to ‘noxious consequences’. He cites, as an obvious example, Freud’s view that women are intrinsically inferior to men but this idea is only the tip of the iceberg of damage wrought on other people.

It’s a vicious attack made more extreme by Crews’s righteous anger at what he regards as Freud’s purposeful obfuscation and deceit. He thinks Freud was a plagiarist and that this ‘was a question not of occasional borrowing, and still less of openly shared endeavour, but of chronic dishonesty and the malicious sabotage of others’ reputations’.

Crews positions his own methods in binary opposition to Freud’s, choosing ‘just to display the actual record of Freud’s doings and to weigh that record by an appeal to consensual standards of judgment’.

As an academic Crews is qualified to address the evidence but he fears that practitioners of psychoanalysis are still electing to hang on to a Freudian context in their work. Crews wants them to make the effort to study and teach more scientific theorists thus reducing Freud to the status of a thief and thereby promoting in his place those from whom he stole, such as Paul Dubois (1848-1914) and Pierre Janet (1859-1947).

Letter to Martha. 1883.  Holograph: Library of Congress.

Crews suggests that the key to Freud as a man and doctor is to be found between the years 1884 and 1900. These were the years from his late 20s to his early 40s. One of the previously untapped sources for Crews’s analysis was the entire set of 1,539 Brautbriefe, or engagement letters, exchanged by Freud and his fiancée, Martha Bernays, in the four long years of their engagement up to their marriage in 1886. Only 97 of these letters had previously been in the public domain.

Just as earlier biographers have hidden or ‘redacted’ these letters Crews has probably been at pains to discover and publish the most unstable and neurotic sounding excerpts. But, even taking into account gender relations of the period it is extraordinary to read Freud’s demands of submission to his every whim.

Other unattractive traits of character, to add to misogyny, are hypochondria and Freud’s preferred cure, frequent cocaine use. The personal use of the drug helped Freud with his depression and lack of confidence whilst professionally he was enthusiastic about it as a non-addictive painkiller.


According to Clews, Freud’s literature review, On Coca published in 1884 and the result of a mere four months study of cocaine, its uses and benefits, was lacking in rigour. Clews seems to suspect that the essay was put together during a cocaine-fuelled euphoria in which he thought the drug would prove his break-through to fame.

In this careless frame of mind Freud introduced cocaine to his dear friend and mentor Ernst Flieschl. He was hoping to release him from his addiction to morphine. As a doctor himself Flieschl had been injecting himself sub-cutaneously with morphine to alleviate the pain from an amputated thumb. Unfortunately the result of this advice was that, as Clews puts it, Freud turned Flieschl into a double addict.

Freud and Flieschl.

In spite of observing, at close quarters, his friend’s deterioration, Freud continued to advocate the treatment – at first as injections – and later, when it was obvious to all that cocaine was highly addictive, orally in a solution. Again Clews suggests that these claims could only seem feasible if Freud’s judgment was marred by the effects of cocaine.

In 1885 Freud published his Contribution to Knowledge of the Effect of Cocaine in which he outlined a series of experiments which he had carried out on himself. Of this essay Clews writes, ‘the aspiring physiologist thus declared, in the space of a few lines, that he both did and didn’t try his experiments on other parties, who both were and weren’t capable of matching his own reactions’.

Freud’s 1887 article Remarks on Cocaine Addiction and Fear of Cocaine is for Clews ‘deplorable’ in that he, Freud, ‘sold faked results for the use of advertising copy and published, under an assumed name, a high estimation of his own knowledge and research’. It easy to see why Freud’s contribution to science was rejected in all respects by the 1970s. But his reputation as the father of psychoanalysis lives on.

Freud’s London study in 1938.  A framed portrait of Flieschl hangs on the wall.

Freud completed his career as a medical researcher having broadcast, at best confusion among those considering the future of cocaine, and at worst ideas which would trap many in addiction and expose others to false hope of rehabilitation. The best outcome for cocaine use at that time was as a local anaesthetic, pioneered successfully by Freud’s colleague Carl Koller. The worst was its maturation as a recreational drug.

The remainder of Freud: The Making of an Illusion concentrates on Freud’s development as a psychoanalyst and a paterfamilias. This stage of his career began with a five month trip to Paris in the summer of 1885 funded by a small grant which was embellished by a loan from the wretched Fleischl. In one of his letters to Martha her fiancé doubted that this would need to be repaid as its donor might not live to see his return to Vienna.

B-86_SF_mit_Familie _und_Tante_Minna.jpg
Freud with his wife, sister-in-law and children. 1898. Image: Freud Foundation.

Crews’s biography of Sigmund Freud, each chapter of which ends in a condemnatory summary of his subject’s actions, is hard to believe. The evidence, however, is overwhelming and must be exposed.

Behaviours rewarded early in manhood by a dearth of scrupulous peer rebuttals continued throughout Freud’s career. Because of lack of challenge Freud was encouraged to repeat his habits of ‘chronic dishonesty’ and malicious destruction of the ‘reputations of others’. The inheritors of their master’s papers must also be brought to account for the harm that has been done to patients in the name of fraudulent Freud.

Works cited

Crews, F. Freud: The Making of an Illusion. Profile Books. 2017.

Crews, F. and Orbach. S. ‘How we feel about Freud’.  The Guardian. 20 Aug. 2017. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner published on 2nd December 2017.  Reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Adventures of a Young Naturalist

Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions – David Attenborough

Unknown.jpegIf there was ever an English treasure who is not Mary Berry, it is David Attenborough. He even saw off Boaty MacBoatface to get his name on a polar science vessel. We all love his dulcet tones as he strides, slightly unsteadily now, over tundra and desert. We chat excitedly around the water cooler about the best or the funniest moments. He seems not to have put a foot wrong in his 91 years.

But, have we been snoozing in the last five decades? Attenborough used to be an animal trapper. He used to ship creatures back to Regent’s Park in unsuitable travelling crates and with inadequate diets. He once had to dig for worms in a tulip bed at Amsterdam airport to feed a starving coatimundi kitten. Hours later he handed it over to London Zoo for lifelong incarceration. He smuggled a bag of scorpions, spiders and snakes into the passenger cabin of an international flight. These activities would not be acceptable in 2017 but in the 1950s they were seen as charming and exciting.

Filming and recording egrets.  Image: BBC.

Up to 1954 animal programmes on TV consisted of zookeepers bringing more or less vicious animals into brightly lit studios in which they would crouch in a paralysis of fear or try to injure their captors with teeth and claws. So Attenborough and his peers persuaded the BBC and London Zoo to collaborate in funding expeditions to Guyana, Indonesia and Paraguay in order to capture and kidnap living creatures. This was the birth of Zoo Quest.

Attenborough chases a giant anteater.  Image: BBC.

In Guyana carnivores and omnivores were in worse peril than herbivores since the latter often consume only one specific plant, one that cannot easily be supplied in the UK. These species, mercifully, had to be filmed in situ and then released back into their natural habitat.


Thus the three-toed sloth, with a baby in her left armpit, escaped with nothing worse than the humiliation of being unwrapped from her branch and filmed using her evolutionarily adapted limbs, not for hanging, but instead for hauling herself clumsily along the ground, like a fish out of water. Hilarious footage.

Less fortunate was a manatee. This enormous sea mammal was slung into a water lorry before being immersed in a ‘canvas swimming bath on one of the decks of the ship’. She ended up all alone in a ‘crystal clear pool’ in a London aquarium far, far away from the muddy Guyanese river estuary whence she came.


But it would be unfair to criticise the youthful Attenborough. He was of his time. The three Zoo Quest books included in this volume have been out of print for many years and it is only now that they are republished, presumably in time for Christmas sales as well as to run alongside the Blue Planet II series.

It is honourable that Attenborough does not attempt to whitewash or rewrite what was done in the quest for knowledge and understanding. In spite of the terror and suffering undergone by some of his specimens it cannot be doubted that curators at London Zoo learnt more about conservation. And the television-viewing public began to appreciate how wildlife interacts with humans and habitat. It was the dawn of the Attenborough franchise.


Attenborough and his tiny team of peers were brave and indefatigable. They dealt with endless and frustrating bureaucracy as they sought permission and permits for their antics. Struggling with tiny budgets and skeleton numbers they endured extreme discomfort and sometimes danger. Their equipment was almost always inadequate and often broken. They lived on their wits.

Attenborough holds a 12′ python. Image: BBC.

In Indonesia, determined to capture a large python, Attenborough explained to a group of Javanese volunteers how to manage its head, tail and intervening coils. At the end of the lesson everyone melted into the forest except a boy and an old man. On arrival at the location Attenborough leapt into a tree, sawed off the branch around which the snake curled and gave the order for immediate capture. As snake and branch crashed to the ground his companions froze in horror leaving our hero to manage both ends of the 12ft snake and stuff them into a bag.

The context for these adventures is provided by summaries of the political, economic and geographical qualities of the regions visited.

Attenborough records and plays back local colour.  Image: BBC.

Film and sound tapes were used to record the routines and rituals of the indigenous peoples. Some villagers donated their own pets to Attenborough’s itinerant menagerie whilst others mounted expeditions to collect desirable specimens. One such received four cigarettes for a gourd full of common or garden millipedes. These were later released back into the forest.  But transactions in coloured glass beads or salt cakes resulted in an ever-growing pile of inhabited cages destined for base camp and onwards across the ocean.

On the gun-runner’s boat to Komodo. Image: BBC.

The search for the Komodo dragon was challenging. The beasts themselves were easily tempted by the smell of rotting goat. They were filmed and one was lured into a cage. But in the run-up Attenborough and two friends were becalmed at sea with a gunrunner. Later whilst the expeditionaries were away from camp this man tried to recruit Komodans to travel onwards with the party and relieve Attenborough et al of their worldly goods and the BBC of its equipment.

At sea with a baby orang-utan. Image: BBC.

The episode does not end happily. Although the Indonesian authorities allow the export of a baby bear, a young orang-utan, pythons, civets, birds and so on, the dragon itself is interned. His fate is left unexplained but it seems unlikely that he was returned to his natural home. Attenborough acknowledges that even had the large lizard reached a haven in London he would ‘never have appeared to anyone else as he did to us that day on Komodo when we turned round to see him a few feet away, majestic and magnificent in his own forest’. Exactly so.


The third and final destination is Paraguay. South America, like Australia, retains some surviving species from past geological ages because at one point they became detached from other continents. Although South America is currently reattached to the north it still retains the armadillos, anteaters, sloths and opossum of the age of the Edentates.

Attenborough displays an armadillo in the Zoo Quest studio.  Image: BBC.

Attenborough brought 14 armadillos back to England including four different species. But the Giant Armadillo eluded him in spite of herculean efforts. The first one he ever saw had reached London Zoo by way of a Birmingham rare animal dealer who had bought him in Guyana. According to his keeper and Attenborough the antediluvian creature, ‘ambling up and down his den’ is ‘nice’.

Attenborough with an armadillo in the wild.  Image: BBC.

The colour film negatives were never shown on TV as it was then a black and white medium but extracts, including the python hunt, have recently been shown on BBC4. Some clips are available on the network’s webpage interspersed with commentary by Sir David himself. It’s moving to watch the 26 year old cavorting about whilst the nonagenarian knight of the realm amusedly critiques his younger self.

Works cited

Attenborough, D. Adventures of a Young Naturalist: The Zoo Quest Expeditions. Two Roads. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend supplement of the Irish Examiner on November 18th 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.

The Best Prime Minister we never had?


 The Nearly Man

First Confession: A sort of Memoir by Chris Patten

Chris Patten, long-serving Conservative Member of Parliament, Home Rule Secretary of State in Northern Ireland, ex-governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of the University of Oxford is, perhaps, an enigma. Whenever there seems to be a pigeonhole in which to slot him a ‘but’ appears. He just is different from his friends and colleagues. He is a grandee who isn’t grand. He is a Conservative but not right wing. He is liberal but not a Liberal.

greenford-1950s.jpgGreat grandson of Patrick from County Roscommon, Patten was born in 1944 in Greenford, West London, where he and his elder sister were brought up in modest surroundings. It would appear that it was his brain that launched Patten on his route to success.

images-3.jpegHe won scholarships to school and university. There he was taught by excellent teachers and became a passionate historian. He admires cleverness and often comments on colleagues who are really clever, or, indeed, not as clever as they think they are.

In 1965 he chose to work for the Conservative Research Department turning down a job as a graduate trainee at the BBC. Everyone thought he was foolish. But, between graduating (Balliol College, Oxford) and this decision Patten had won the Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Fellowship and spent a year in the US ending up fund-raising for a Republican mayoralty campaign in New York. Politics had found its way into his blood and was not going to budge. In spite of this infestation Patten still looks to history rather than political philosophy to define his views.


For Patten, the concept of Conservatism comes from Irish philosopher Edmund Burke’s rejection of the French Revolution. He endorses Burke’s ‘opposition to utopianism and political blueprints’ and his objection to an ‘excessively rationalist approach to life’. This latter is important to Patten who was raised as a Catholic and is still practising. He feels that as a society people should respect their forebears and traditions in addition to looking forward to the future of their children. He sees these values as within Burke’s ideals of ‘patriotism, defence of the Crown, country and national interest’ as well as ‘defence of property and of order’.


Another of Patten’s heroes is the long-serving Conservative minister, Rab Butler, who ‘never quite became Prime Minister’. Patten thinks that Butler ‘should have got the job’. This is often mooted about Patten himself: ‘the best Tory Prime Minister we never had’. He underlines the morality and charitableness of Butler, describing him as a ‘consummate man of public affairs’ and quoting Butler’s claim that he knew ‘how to govern the people of this country’. Patten would probably apply a similar description to himself.

Perhaps the most interesting phases of Patten’s career are the two spent in Belfast. The chapter detailing these is named Crazy Irish Knots. As usual he introduces his analysis of the political situation with a potted history culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising which, he says, looked to the Northern Irish like ‘an Irish and Catholic stab in the back’. There was, after all, the First World War to be fought.

Patten felt that the North had ‘turned its Britishness into a sacred identity that most of the rest of Britain could barely recognise or comprehend’. He was uncomfortable with this and is disturbed now to see a rise of Nationalism in Great Britain and other parts of the world. He is scathing about most of the political behaviour on both sides of the border during the twentieth century, although he also acknowledges mainland culpability. The Northern Irish were not that keen on Patten either, when, with his British Irish Heritage and Catholicism, he took, in 1983, the post of Parliamentary Secretary.


It sounds like quite a fun job – apart from the guilt of raising the ‘Peace Wall’ by one and a half metres. He says he ‘built houses, opened health facilities, conserved buildings, ran a railway and spent the public’s money pretty well’. There were difficulties over the nomenclature of ‘Stroke City’. On Patten’s watch the city, remaining Londonderry, found itself inside Derry District Council. Stating ‘you could not make it up’ Patten adds wryly that he was rebranded too: ‘the Minister of Treachery’

images-3.jpegIn 1997 Patten returned to Belfast to become chair of the Independent Commission of Policing in Northern Ireland. This was to prove a more knotty problem. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was regarded as Protestant and Unionist. Patten was asked to develop a police force which ‘is seen as an integral part of the community as a whole’. Only 8% of the RUC were Catholic then but 20 years later 30% of the officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are, more closely reflecting the proportions of the population. Other than balancing recruitment Patten felt that ethos and symbols were central. Badges were redesigned and union flags removed from police stations. Crucially this controversial work was conducted without security, as Patten and his fellow commissioners relied solely on the word of ‘paramilitary terrorists on both sides’, as they visited villages and towns up and down the country and listened to local views.

images-3.jpegDuring a long career Patten worked in many countries and was involved in many conflicts including, when he was a commissioner of the EU, the Balkan War. He worked with China when he was governor in Hong Kong. He worked with American diplomats. He is, he acknowledges, clever and well-informed, although reiterates that he has often met people who are his superior in both these assets. It is worth reading this book as its author sheds light, from a well-versed position, on many of the global political events of the second half of the twentieth, and the first 17 years of the current, century. He seems a thoughtful and reflective man, moderate and deeply suspicious of ideologies and bandwagons.

Using this experience, as well as his historical knowledge, Patten feels able to make strong generalising statements. Bracketing his work in Northern Ireland with his efforts in the Balkans he states ‘identity conflicts, like most others, require for their settlement a combination of force and politics’. He thinks that in ‘Northern Ireland there would never have been peace had not the terrorists in both communities come to understand that the British security effort was not going to run out of patience and energy. Second, in a big conflict, Europe had to work hand-in-hand with the United States. Europeans could not operate on their own’. Reading these words it is clear why Patten is unhappy with the current situation in global politics.


Patten abhors Brexit and despises Trump. Like many people he feels that everything on which a relatively peaceful world order was based is being undermined. He thinks that lies and mendacity have trumped good sense and collegiality. He despises the tool of referendum as oppositional to democracy, ‘substituting crude majoritarianism for discussion and compromise among those we elect to give us the benefit of their judgement’.

Closing the book with, at 73, a meditation of his life as a Catholic, family man, as well as a British European liberal international Tory, Patten has only one great regret: ‘the result of the EU referendum and what it tells us about the populist perils here, elsewhere in Europe and, alas, in America too’. He ends with the hope that Britain, Europe and America do not fragment what has been ‘one of the most peaceful, prosperous and increasingly tolerant periods in history’.

Works cited:

Pattern, C. First Confession: A Sort of Memoir.  Allen Lane.  2017.

Links to other blogs on Brexit:

Unleashing Demons: the inside story of Brexit by Craig Oliver

A version of this review was first published in the Irish Examiner on pages 41 and 42 of the Weekend section on 4th November 2017.  It is posted here by permission of the Editor.

Keneally’s novel of clerical abuse

Crimes of the Father by Thomas Keneally


When visiting Listowel Writer’s Week in 2013, Irish Australian writer Thomas Keneally spoke about his book The Great Shame which chronicles the shameful transportation of Irish famine victims, petty criminals and political activists in the nineteenth century.   One of these was his own ancestor, a Fenian named John Keneally, from Newmarket, Co. Cork.

If the author had returned to Kerry’s literary capital for the 2017 celebrations he would have read from, and spoken about, his recently published Crimes of the Father. Set in the 1990s, mainly in Sydney, it deals with the growing realisation by the Australian secular and religious worlds of child abuse and cover-up behind the lychgates of the Catholic Church.


In the Author’s Note to his latest novel Keneally refers to that week in Listowel recounting how he felt that the West of Ireland had, more than Australia or America, turned its back on their church. He thinks that demands on worshippers in Irish parishes were heavier than elsewhere because of De Valera’s religion-based social structures. Priests submitted their flocks, not only to rigorous daily devotional practices but also restrictive life-style regulations. When parishioners discovered that many church leaders, both local and national, were ignoring the rules and/or colluding with abusers they forsook their daily masses.

Irish Australians were slower to reject Catholicism suggests Keneally, because, in the face of imperialistic prejudice against their inherited Irishness, they clung to the vestiges of the old country including its religion. They had also been told stories of starving Irish Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism during famine years and thus were denied life-saving victuals. It would be a betrayal of these devout forebears to reject Catholicism.


Crimes of the Father, a novel about clerical child abuse is a passionate treatise. There is an indignant campaigning tone to the writing which, while engaging the reader, reflects Keneally’s deep ongoing disappointment with some aspects of his church. He feels that many senior churchmen in the upper echelons of the organisation have lost touch with Christian principles as well as with their flocks. His own work on the other hand presents as brave and honest.

Thomas Keneally. Photo:

Born in Sydney, Keneally was, himself, a seminarian. Much of the book’s narrative and some of the characters are versions of real events and real people on the periphery of Keneally’s life. The main character in Crimes of the Father is Frank Docherty, also, a former seminarian. Docherty, having been expelled from his Australian bishopric, for expressing anti-apartheid and anti-war views, has spent most of his adult life in an order in Canada. There he became an expert in paedophilia in the Catholic Church and, as a trained psychologist, counselled both the victims and the abusers. He was commissioned to study the problem for the rather more liberal and pragmatic church hierarchy in Canada.

The novel begins in 1996 when Docherty returns to Sydney to lecture at the Council of Clergy, and to see his elderly mother now living in sheltered accommodation.   His aim is to return to the city of his birth, if he can persuade the Archbishop to allow him to reengage with his parochial duties in the Congregatio Caritas Divini.

Image by Simon Fieldhouse

One of the anxieties that Docherty expresses is that the Australian church, through a structure called In Compassion’s Name, continues to cover up abuse and to pay off victims in exchange for their silence. Instead the Catholic Church should inform the police of allegations against individual clerics to prevent the whole ecclesiastical institution becoming poisoned.

Eventually, Docherty warns, in Australia and elsewhere, the civil arm of nations will intervene, investigate and punish illegal acts. The ‘opprobrium’ of the crimes would taint all Catholic priests. To some extent this is what happened in some countries, including Ireland.

Image: clericalwhispers

Much of the novel is taken up with an account of a ground-breaking case in which Devitt, a now adult survivor of a particularly egregious offender, takes the Australian Catholic church to court. Much of the trial centres on whether it is possible to sue the trust and trustees of the church’s assets.   Docherty feels uncomfortable, seeing church lawyers and churchmen yet again allow legal niceties to overshadow the true issue – that of predatory and serial child abuse being enabled by clerical authorities.


Image: clericalwhispers

Docherty concentrates, in particular, on what he names the two c’s: confession and celibacy.   The point that he makes about celibacy is that it is an unnatural regime for most men. He feels that sexual desires demand an outlet. He provides, from his studies, a figure of over 60 per cent of priests admitting to sexual experience and draws the conclusion that if that number volunteer their transgression then of the silent remainder some must also be guilty of breaking their vows.

One of Keneally’s objections to his own training at the seminary was that he was encouraged to objectify 51 per cent of the population as evil temptresses. His character, Docherty, suggests that many priests who might have homosexual leanings forced themselves to retain a sort of psycho-sexual immaturity. This, of course, made them unhealthy emotionally and unable to counsel their parishioners effectively.   Some priests felt forced to have the only ‘safe’ sex possible in their roles – that of raping children. If reported, which was unlikely, it might not be believed; if believed it probably would not be punished or made public. Instead offenders were moved to other locations in which they resumed their nefarious activities.

Still from the film In Bruges: written and directed by Martin McDonagh

In Crimes of the Father Keneally suggests that for some priests the confessional box became a grooming salon.   One character describes it as a ‘dating agency’. He mentions a ‘predator quizzing him about sins that he had never heard of’. The priest was introducing his charge to masturbation and would later give a personal demonstration and encourage mutual participation.

Docherty suggests that the shame of sexual practices, forbidden by the church, sometimes prevented the children from exposing their abusers. In addition these priests were able to absolve the child victims of their carnal sins before visiting their own, carefully selected, confessors for absolution.

Crimes of the Father is not a light read in any sense of the word. The hardback, at nearly 400 pages, is hefty but more than this the novel deals with a very serious subject. There is no attempt to ease the difficulty of understanding complex legal and religious concepts and there is no attempt to shy away or avoid descriptions of rape and assault.

Keneally is keen to probe the psychology of those, within the church, who abuse or condone abuse.   The novel can therefore be read as a piece of expert evidence contributing to the debate about how Catholic priests, at all levels of the hierarchy, reacted to what Docherty’s mother refers to as ‘kiddy-fiddling’.


Currently, Keneally is what he describes as a ‘cultural or delicatessen’ Catholic. He was driven to this not only by the church’s attitude to abusive priests as detailed in this novel but also by the encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968. Pope Paul VI confirmed that only abstinence and the rhythm method were permitted as contraception. This conservatism threatened the allegiance of many practising Catholic married couples throughout the globe.


It’s encouraging to note that after he left the seminary Keneally began a successful career as a writer publishing the first of 31 novels in 1964.  He was married to Judith in 1965, he has two daughters and is now a joyful grandfather of four.

Thomas Keneally. Photo:

Works cited

Keneally, T. Crimes of the Father.  London: Sceptre. 2017.

—. The Great Shame and the Triumph of the Irish in the English Speaking World.  London: Penguin Random House. 2000.

This review was first published on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 28th October 2017.

James Joyce and Hardiman face the facts

Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law by Adrian Hardiman

Supreme Court Judges, President of the High Court & President of the Court of Appeal during a sitting to commemorate Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman.               Photo: The Irish Examiner.

The late Honourable Mr Justice Adrian Hardiman, Supreme Court Judge, had completed a rough draft of this book when he died suddenly last year. His name was well known to the public because of his fearless fight for, and defence of, the Irish Constitution and Irish Law. He was a believer in freedom within the law and abhorred prejudice. He refused to be swayed by media pressure and stood for honesty and integrity in every area of society, including and especially the Gardá.


The published text of Joyce in Court had to be edited by Neil Belton, who had commissioned it. The two men had worked successfully together on the early chapters so it seems likely that Hardiman would have approved of the result.   The book reads like one of his elaborate court arguments and it is redolent with the knowledge for which he was renowned. It is a seemly memorial of his professional life in the courts as well as his parallel life as literary scholar.


One of Hardiman’s pet hates was the obfuscation that is the result of the “contrived terminology cultivated by so many Joycean critics”. Hardiman, whose papers on James Joyce, unlike those of some of the academics he criticised, kept to the facts. He researched the court cases mentioned in Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Joyce’s journalism. In addition he studied the legal context of Joyce’s life as a child and young man at a time when Ireland was moving from fin de siècle to twentieth century. As an opening quotation to Joyce in Court Hardiman chooses Joyce’s own words, “I tried to keep close to fact, to reality, which always triumphs in the end”.

Hardiman thinks that Joyce was so concerned about facts because he discerned a laziness all around him, in newspapers, for example, or at the bar – in both public houses and criminal courts – to establish what is beyond reasonable doubt. In other words Joyce, like Hardiman, was fascinated and horrified by miscarriages of justice caused by prejudice of one kind or another.


Hardiman points out that the most egregious cases at the turn of the century in Britain were those in which prejudice, either gender or ethnicity based, was at work. He also explains that it was following these that the Court of Criminal Appeal came into being. It would, of course, be many years before Ireland, then still called the Free State, got her own appeal court in 1924. A theme of the book is a comparison between British and Irish law and the tendency for Irish law to be left behind because of British prejudice against the Irish and their competency as a self-sufficient society.

Hardiman mentions that Ulysses includes references to 31 different criminal and civil cases from both Ireland and Britain. He also lists those who conducted them, including 11 judges, 13 barristers and any number of lesser professionals including a variety of hangers-on or disgraced practitioners. Hardiman obviously takes delight in minutiae as he details not only the participants but also the types of case from the momentous to the petty.

In September 1899 Joyce attended the three-day trial of Samuel Childs for the murder of his brother, Thomas. This, according to Hardiman, was life changing for 17 year-old Joyce. He states that it began a “lifelong preoccupation with guilt, innocence, proof, framings and officials who were ‘unscrupulous in the service of the Crown’”. Hardiman argues that Irish trials like Childs would have been forgotten had they not figured in Ulysses. He relishes the power of the great novel to keep them alive partly because he feels that they help provide the rich context of legal, political and social practice of the time.

Additionally Hardiman sees Joyce’s references to the law as a key technique in the novelist’s aim to achieve universality whilst writing only of Bloomsday. Part of Joyce’s technique, according to Hardiman, is to have his characters speak or think of the cases without any authorial explanation. They were part of the fabric of that day.

For many readers, however, the cases might be less familiar and this is where Hardiman’s helping hand becomes desirable. Thomas Childs was a rich, miserly, single recluse. His brother Samuel, the only other key-holder of the house in Bengal Terrace near Glasnevin Cemetery, was the sole heir to Thomas’s estate. He needed money as he had been made redundant and had insufficient to meet the needs of his wife and children.

The Crown’s case collapsed in front of Joyce’s eyes. This fed his suspicion of the police and the prosecution. They were seeking the death by hanging of a man against whom they had a weak case. Hardiman, to the joy of the reader, assesses the case himself and comes up with a likely scenario, considering that no one alive today saw what happened. One of Joyce’s and Hardiman’s interests in the Childs case is the fact that Samuel’s wife is not allowed to give evidence because of her status as his spouse.


A further chapter, fascinatingly intricate, is on the subject of life insurance. Here a focal point is the question of suicide and the fact that life insurance policies did not pay out in that event. In addition it proves to have been the case that many citizens mortgaged out or sold their policy, resulting in possible non-payment on death. This applies to Joyce’s character Patrick Dignam who dies suddenly leaving his wife and five children impoverished as well as bereft. Joyce concentrates on the fate of the children especially the elder two who will be apprenticed to augment the family’s income.


In spite of its being set in 1904 Ulysses is infused with references to the romantic Irish hero Robert Emmet. In Joyce in Court there is a chapter on his trial in 1803 and at the end of the text there in an appendix with an account of it. Both Joyce and Hardiman, like many others, are mightily impressed by Emmet’s speech. It is quoted at length and admired for its elegance, balance and content. They are also both, somewhat gorily, insistent on detailing the process of hanging, drawing and quartering.

Finally Hardiman turns his attention to censorship and legal attempts to prevent the publication of Ulysses. These focus mainly on America and England although it is impossible to overlook the heinous behaviour of the Irish Censorship of Publications Board. It is wonderful that today anyone can read Joyce’s work and then check out the legal context in Hardiman’s book.

Adrian Hardiman. Image: Irish Examiner

Joyce in Court is not entirely cohesive because it is to a great extent a collection of the papers written, for differing purposes, during Hardiman’s lifetime. Some chapters skim over vast areas whilst others go into the forensic detail of one case. In the latter there is a tendency to repeat sections from the former – not only in terms of content but also the bon mots which are so much a part of Hardiman’s style. It is impossible, however, not to feel a tear at the corner of an eye in reaction to the poignancy of the words of such an eloquent man, one who devoted his life to law, history and literature. And to facts.

Works cited

Hardiman, A.  Joyce in Court: James Joyce and the Law. London: Head of Zeus. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 21st October 2017.  It is republished here by permission of the Editor.

How the Irish teach us to die

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die  by Kevin Toolis.

His legs bestrid the ocean.

It is astonishing that this line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra does not appear in Kevin Toolis’s book, My Father’s Wake. This may be since Toolis favours quoting from the Iliad, preferring the ancient Greeks, to the English bard. This is not unusual: Irish literati are often fond of the classics as can be seen in great works such as Brian Friel’s Translations or James Joyce’s Ulysses.


The description of Mark Antony is fitting as Toolis’s legs have, since babyhood, bestrid the ocean that is the Irish Sea. And, his second favourite word, not far behind his absolute favourite – death – is ocean. Toolis prefers ocean to sea to the point of repetitiousness. But this is because he is talking about the Atlantic – the grand ocean that crashes against the west coast of Ireland, and in particular, Achill Island. For Achill Island, although unnamed in the book, is the seat of his ancestors. Toolis, like so many of the diaspora, has a leg in both camps, the West of Ireland and the UK.


Toolis writes powerfully about the coast ‘where huge Atlantic storms break onshore, scouring the landscape … surging in assault, striking at the rattling roof, the shaking windows, to suck you out, every living soul within, up into the maelstrom’.   He relates how many, most, of his family had, over the years, been driven out of the island by its hostile weather and infertile land. Men and boys had left for the building trade, resulting in the family homestead being abandoned and left to rot.

Toolis himself was brought up in Edinburgh and suffered at an early age from the threat of death. In a chapter headed Intimations – an allusion to Wordsworth’s poem, Intimations of Immortality – Toolis describes his two month incarceration, at the age of eleven, in the Male Chest ward. He was waiting for test results to prove that he merely had tuberculosis and not lung cancer. Men around him coughed and wheezed, visiting the smoking lounge to irritate the surfaces of any bit of lung unexcised by surgery.


This intimation of his own mortality, along with his brother’s death at 26 from Leukaemia, is what started Toolis on his life long obsession with the phenomenon. He worked with death, mostly as a journalist, in theatres of war, terrorism, mortuaries, famine, AIDs and the Troubles. Toolis became intimate with death, incessantly and intrusively questioning the bereaved until one day he decided that he, like death, had lost all purpose.

The subject of this philosophical memoir is how the Irish prepare for death from an early age. It is centred in rituals of reposing, removal, mass, internment and, especially, wake. Toolis, Irish by heritage, and Scottish by birth, writes critically about the Anglo-Saxon approach to death. He abhors modern habit of hiding behind euphemisms and condemning the moribund to agitated deaths in frenetic hospital wards. He calls this the Western Death Machine.

MI Irish Wake 1873 sketch Irvine.jpg
Sketch of an Irish Wake 1873. Image: Irish Central

In the first chapter, Mortalities, Toolis’s father is dying. Surrounding the bed the family and neighbours pray, chant, and keen in unison as if they were one sorrowing creature not separate selves. Interspersed through the rest of the book are chapters returning to the deathbed, the death and the aftermath. Toolis celebrates the fact that on Achill, when someone dies, hundreds of people, from children to centenarians, participate in what he calls teaching ‘us how to live, love and die’.

Works cited

Toolis, K. My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die.  London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. 2017.

A version of this review first appeared on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 14th October 2017.  It is reprinted here by permission of the Editor.