Archive for the ‘Joe’s Blog’ Category

Blanchardstown Hospital Memorial Event

Monday, November 30th, 2015

I was honoured to be invited to represent the Humanist Association of Ireland at a commemorative event held at Connolly Hospital, Blanchardstown, on 30 November 2015.

A psychotherapist spoke of the process of coping with grief and loss, how we can feel lost and that our very identities have changed when someone close to us has died. She spoke of the value of talking about the deceased, taking time out during the day to sit perhaps with a cuppa and a photo of the loved one. Letting memories surface and remembering even their foibles. Often, she said, people can feel distracted and feel that they’re going mad. That certainly echoed in me: I was so absent-minded after the deaths of my mother and brother earlier this year. My mind was elsewhere, as it needed to be.

There were two separate 90-minute commemoration services held. At each there was a choir from nearby primary schools. The kids were great and they contributed a lot to the ceremonies. In the second of the two sessions a Roman Catholic priest, chaplain Tony O’Riordan, spoke from a religious faith perspective; followed by a guitarist playing the Ave Maria. Then Rev Ken Lynsey, a Methodist minister spoke, structuring his contribution around the four words trauma, tears, talk and time. In short, bereavement is a trauma, it’s good to cry and talk, and grief takes time. A Muslim woman spoke and then the choir sang and then a nurse manager read ‘For Grief’ by John O’Donohue. Then the guitarist played the Beatles’ ‘In My Life’, followed by Church of Ireland chaplain Hilda Plant, who chose an apt quotation from anti-Nazi dissident and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The choir then sang the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ and then I spoke. I was conscious that much of the contributions had been from a religious faith perspective and I thanked and commended the organisers for inviting voices inter-faith “and none” and I was happy to be a representative of people who do not believe in any deity or an afterlife.

I shared ‘We Are Leaves’ which I had written this time last year for the Humanist Association of Ireland’s annual commemoration to support the bereaved. A month after reciting it last January, my mother had died, and a month after that, my brother died. And a dear friend, Marist priest Denis Green, died more recently still.

People seemed to get some comfort from it and I enjoyed delivering it, and I was very happy to be there representing people who do not feel the need to believe in a deity or an afterlife in order to find their meaning in life, even in the face of death.

Denis Green, Marist priest, RIP

Friday, October 9th, 2015

DenisGlendalough A man whom I loved, Denis Green, Marist priest, died on Wednesday night 6 October 2015. He will be buried today. He was the priest whose distinctive, lovely voice forms the backbone of my RTE Radio One Documentary, From Belief to Unbelief. He was with me when my father died in 1981. He helped me break the psychological umbilical cord with my mother. Aged 94, he was, to the end, the youngest man I have ever known. He was open. He was himself. He was engaging. He was genuinely interested in people and ideas and books. He was devout. He was, every inch of him, an actor. From the first moment he lectured us in novitiate back in 1980 he stood before us as one who might have leaped from a Shakespearean stage. He loved life. He loved people.

He was one of the worst singers known to human history, but that never stopped him singing! A memory: some 40 seminarians doubled over with uncontrollable laughter in the chapel at Mount St  Mary’s, Milltown, as Denis attempted with abject ineptitude to sing the Eucharistic Prayer.

His infamy as a singer was very closely matched by his reputation as a driver. On one occasion after I was astonished still to be alive I felt something needed to be said.

‘Did anyone ever tell you you’re a good driver, Denis?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I don’t believe anyone ever did.’

‘Think about it.’

And he was the kind of guy you could say something like that to – i.e., be entirely honest with – and nothing would harm the relationship.

He told me years ago that he wanted ‘How Great Thou Art’ sung at his funeral. Yesterday, before his coffin was brought from the chapel at Mount St Mary’s – the same chapel in which his gorgeous voice reverberates in my documentary – I told the congregation gathered there that Denis had told me that he wanted it sung at his funeral. And I, atheist and Humanist celebrant, appealed to those present to sing it with gusto and I led the singing and everyone joined in and we did him proud. The place came alive again, Denis’s final farewell to Mount St Mary’s.

Born on 11 June, 1921, in Clontarf, Dublin, he was a pupil at Catholic University School (CUS), Leeson Street, and he worked there as a chaplain until very recently. CUS is closed today as a mark of respect to him. He entered the Marist novitiate in 1940 and was ordained on 23 March 1947. In 1952 he was offered a place at the Sorbonne but he accepted a place in Cambridge! He worked in England from 1955 to 1975, as a teacher, headmaster and as Provincial of the then English Province of the Society of Mary (Marist Fathers). He came back to Ireland in 1975 and he was one of four priests in charge of us in my novitiate 1980-1981. He also taught at Chanel College, Coolock;  was associated with the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation in Wicklow; with St Killian’s German School, Dublin; and he was for a while Secretary General of the Marist Fathers in Rome.

Denis, I loved you. You were a human being! You lived a good life! You were open and thoughtful, creative and caring, affectionate and loving. Goodbye my friend.


Still loving conducting Humanist weddings

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

I still love conducting Humanist wedding ceremonies. Each one is different. Each couple is different. Every gathering of relatives and friends is different.

Ironically, it’s great when something goes wrong! Everyone relaxes and realizes the burden of it having to be ‘perfect’ is a myth. It’s always great once that first thing happens that puts people at their ease. A baby cries. A song goes wrong. A little ring bearer runs off with the rings. The parents can’t light a candle because the air conditioning keeps blowing the candles out. Someone has a fit of the giggles.

Once, at the very end of a ceremony, the bride was trying to say something to me but the music was loud and she was on the far side of a table and it was hard to catch what she was saying.

Eventually I heard her, ‘He didn’t kiss me!’

‘Stop the music!’ I cried. ‘The groom didn’t kiss the bride!’

And the music stopped and the audience watched and the groom kissed his bride and everyone cheered and clapped and roared with glee and the music resumed and the couple processed down the aisle and there was great merriment, excitement and fun.

And yes there was a little lad who blew out the candles and ran off with the wedding rings just before the exchange of rings. He was rugby tackled by his dad – well, OK, not rugby tackled – but brought back into the ceremony room, and the rings restored to the Best Man just in time.

And yes once a guest dropped the wedding rings early in a ceremony and they were a hair’s breadth from dropping down a gap between floor boards in an ancient stately home.

It’s great when the couple, especially the bride, relaxes and enjoys every moment; realizing that it isn’t about external things at all. It’s about living the moment, cherishing the important things, celebrating the love the couple share for each other and the commitment that they are making publicly to their partner. I think of the bride who decided, when I met her outside the chapel, that she’d be far more comfortable in her boots than her wedding shoes and decided to go up the aisle in the boots instead. She asked my view. I suggested comfort first. ‘I like your style,’ she said.

And once the bride is chilled out and relaxed and living the moment it’s much more likely that everyone else will enjoy themselves too.

Happily, I’ve encountered very, very, very few bridezillas! But, unlike the deities, they do exist – perhaps just one per hundred brides. You can spot them by the state of panic of the unfortunate groom, who might remove something beautiful a florist or decorator did because ‘she’ would see red. Or I’m told confidentially by the venue manager that they’re all on tenterhooks because of the unreasonable demands of the bride. Or the musicians might agree with a small last minute amendment I propose but they wouldn’t make the change because they’re terrified of Zilla, lest the improvement incur her displeasure. Or I spot something that I know won’t work for the ceremony, fix it and come back moments later only to see that someone playing watchman for the bride has changed it back to the way that I know won’t work.

The exceptions might make the good stories but the greatest stories are the ordinary, lovely, gorgeous, hopeful, committed couples who just want a personal ceremony that is about them and who want to show their families and friends their loving commitment to one another. They want to feel relaxed and they want their guests to enjoy their wedding. I think of all the couples that I have met, wonderful people, who have found love and hope and joy, and whose lives have joined together in a union of trust and encouraging mutual acceptance. And they want to celebrate that love by getting married.

Often they may have their children there and we include the children in the ceremony. Often the kids make the ceremony. We might have planned to stand for the vows but junior decides he’s crawling up on his mother’s lap and we adjust and do the vows sitting down. Or up come the kids to pour sand or tie ribbons or have candles lit for them.

I love my work – being with people at such important turning points in their lives.

Ireland’s Metamorphosis: the Marriage Equality Referendum

Monday, June 1st, 2015

I’m very happy with the outcome of the marriage equality referendum!

I watched a wonderful documentary last night on BBC2 Television on Metamorphosis: The Science of Change. Metamorphosis: the Science of Change Filmmaker David Malone explores the science behind metamorphosis – the astonishing transformation of one creature into a totally different being. The programme asks how metamorphosis happens and why?

And I reflected on my own metamorphosis from religious belief to the intellectual freedom and the lifestyle liberation that comes from breaking out of the cage of religious belief. And it occurs to me that Ireland too is undergoing a similar metamorphosis.

Life as a frog is far more interesting than that of the limited tadpole. A butterfly’s life is far more exhilerating than that of a caterpiller. Transformation from religious dogmas and non-sensical beliefs lead to a life more interesting than the tadpole or caterpiller could ever have imagined!


Also interesting, this Science Museum online exhibition on metamorphosis : http://www.wellcome.ac.uk/en/metamorphing/

This is great too: Metamorphosis: Animal Shape-Shifters by Prof Stuart Reynolds, University of Bath.

My brother’s death

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

My brother hanged himself this day last month, on 23 March 2015. He was 60.

He took his own life four weeks to the day after I buried my mother.

It’s a lot to take in. I haven’t had asthma for 15 years, but I have it again. Doubtless, stress-related. Grief-related. Struggling for breath as my brother did this day last month.

It’s hard to know what to say. And yet writing is therapy. A poultice. Get it out. Express. Like struggling breath.

David was gay. He had a miserable time at home. And a miserable time in Ireland.

He wanted no prayers at his funeral. He told me so 26 years ago, just after I had left my priestly path. And he told his life partner the very same thing within the last two years.

Ireland was a cold place for gay men. Let us hope that Irishmen and Irishwomen will declare to the world for once and for all in the forthcoming referendum that gay and lesbian people are equal citizens. Let us hope that the fairness and justice of the Irish conscience will triumph over those who seek to muddy the waters.

Those hideous posters that shift the debate from equality – which is what the referendum is about – to canards.

Why is it that people of religious faith so often seek to impose their rules on others who choose not to be of their faith? Who would have gay men and women believe that there is something sick with them. It is the religious mentality that seeks to impose itself on others that is sick.

Why do they not protest to their god whom they claim is in charge of the universe – omnipotent, omnipresent, all powerful – and yet he does nothing about the children who are left orphaned by parents who die. Why don’t religious folk raise their banners and posters against their god found so wanting in compassion for his creatures? And why, instead, take out their unjust ire on minorities like gay and lesbian human beings? Why don’t they protest to their gods and deities, and their priests, about the so-called all-loving god who supposedly wants the little children to come onto him ‘for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ when he inflicts cancers and illnesses upon those whom he supposedly created with love?

But rather than confront their manmade god, they seek to say onto their fellow human beings that equality is not for all. I beg you all: vote Yes for marriage equality.

And for those who seek to deny men like my brother the right to marry in Ireland I say: Shame on you! Be just to all. And be humble. Save your moralizing for your own conscience. Vote Yes!

Death of my mother

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

My mother died this day last month.

The finality of death. In her early nineties, she had not been well but hadn’t been dying. So her death was unexpected. I had been dreading her funeral for years and yet, when it came, it went better than I could have imagined. Like so many of our fears, I might have imagined something positive and avoided myself the wasted energy of fear.

My mother. What can I say? I’m lost for words in this public space. I was reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant: one, perceiving only the tusk, thought that ivory was the total truth of the elephant. Another touching a leg, proclaimed that elephants were like the trunks of trees.  A third blind man touched just the tail and thought that that was what an elephant was like, while another touched the ear and was confident that he alone knew the whole picture. All thought likewise, though each one perceived something entirely different, limited to the part of the whole that they touched. None saw the bigger picture.

I too am, metaphorically, a blind man. Yet, being her son, I’ve touched more than just the tusk or a leg or an ear or the tail. Yes I know that my mother was more than any one or two or three or four or more simple descriptions of her, and it’s nice that many retained a high regard and affection for her. She was complex, as are we all. I think of things my dad told me, and things close relatives of hers and mine told me. And I recall my own experience – not always a happy one.

One cousin said to me after her funeral that when your ma dies, it’s your whole life before you. And it’s true: I have been reflecting on my whole life, a life so influenced, for the good and bad, by my mother. Leo Tolstoy said it well in his opening line of Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Raif Badawi, defending the right to self-expression & brutality of Saudi Arabia

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Humanists believe in the human right of self-expression. Hence as I Humanist I deplore the treatment by Saudi Arabia of Raif Badawi.

The National Union of Journalists and Amnesty International are co-hosting a protest in solidarity with Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for setting up a website championing free speech and facilitating public discussion. His lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair, is himself in prison, serving a 15-year sentence for his peaceful activism. Raif’s family, his wife and two children are exiled in Canada and the website has been shut down.

In the aftermath of the brutal slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris we have witnessed a global outcry in defence of free speech. Millions marched in Paris and throughout France including the Saudi Ambassador to France – however the same freedoms are not extended to Raif Badawi. The treatment of Raif Badawi and the hypocrisy of the Saudi regime cannot be left unchallenged. Already international pressure has resulted in Badawi’s case being referred to the Supreme Court. However much more needs to be done.

The protest takes place this Thursday 22 January at 6.00 p.m. outside the Saudi Embassy on Fitzwilliam Square. Support Raif Badawi, lend your voice to global solidarity and defend freedom of speech.

Tempus fugit

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Where does the time go? It falls like sand through our fingers. Cannot be stopped. Races, gallops, charges along. It will not wait for us.

Twenty years ago today my son was born. Fiche bliain ag fás. Twenty years a-growing. Twenty years since I gave up my permanent, pensionable teaching post in London, teaching Religious Education to boys who are now in their early to mid-thirties! How did that happen? Boys whom I remember as teenagers who are now fully-grown men with children, even with teenagers, of their own.

Ah the shock I got years ago driving back to Donnycarney where I grew up and seeing mature tress in Grace Park Meadows which were planted in my childhood. Those saplings had transformed to full-grown trees – now what did that say about me: only that, when I was not looking, I too had been aging, maturing, going further along my personal finite lifeline.

All we have is now. All I have is now. This now which is whipped from me like a leaf sundered from its tree on a gusty day. The cacophony of life resounds around us. And sooner than we think all will be still. We will be as we were before our conception: that is, not at all. We are not traumatized by our non-existence before our life: why should we be after it?

And by not relying on imagined existence after death, we can live this moment as best we can.

Enjoy this day, my son, and every day. Live each moment to the full. Be yourself. Dare to be you. Ignore any detractors or anyone who might seek to pull you down. Surround yourself with people who love you and whom you love. Carve your own path in life. Think for yourself. Never let anyone else do your thinking for you. Choose what you want, not what you think you ought to do. Be reasonable. Be compassionate. Be willing to take a calculated risk. Trust yourself.
 

Five tips for planning your Humanist wedding ceremony

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

I have been so busy over the summer that the only additions I have made to my website were uploading unsolicited feedback that I have received for Humanist ceremonies that I have conducted (see ‘Unsolicited feedback’ tabs for weddings and funerals on right of my Home page).

I continue to enjoy conducting Humanist ceremonies. Each one is different. It is a privilege to be with people at key turning points in their lives – births, weddings and funerals – celebrations of a life well lived.

Such is the demand for our services that we often have to turn down requests to officiate at ceremonies. We frequently get several requests for ceremonies to be conducted on the same day. That is normally impossible so the people who book us first get the booking.

Five tips if you are planning your Humanist wedding ceremony:

  • Make sure that your venue is open to the public. Some venues sell their services on the basis that they are ‘exclusive’ or ‘private’. Well, sorry, folks but you cannot legally get married at such a venue. There cannot be signs up saying ‘Private Function’ or ‘No access to the public’ or anything like that. In fact, for your wedding to be legal, the public must have unrestricted access. Surprisingly, some venues appear not to be aware of this. Any member of the public has the right to pry  at your wedding – and if they can’t, your wedding isn’t legal!
  • When contacting a celebrant, let him or her know:
    • the date of your wedding
    • names of bride and groom
    • your phone number(s) and email address(es)
    • the full name and location of your venue
  • Do you really want a Humanist wedding? Humanist weddings are for non-religious people. They do not involve readings from ‘holy books’ and they don’t involve hymns or ‘holy’ or religious songs. They are secular ceremonies for people who think for themselves and who do not let other people do their thinking for them. There are magnificent secular readings and poems and prose about love, friendship, commitment and marriage. I encourage my couples to choose about four such readings to  include as part of their wedding ceremony. And it’s a lovely way to involve some of your guests, who are usually delighted that you asked them to participate in your ceremony
  • In approaching a celebrant, you do not need to have planned your ceremony in advance. The celebrant will already have quite a bit of experience about what works and what does not work in ceremonies. There is no need to reinvent the wheel for every ceremony. When I meet couples, I guide them through my template and then the couple make choices along the way for what they want to include or exclude. But please also remember that the celebrant is not a parrot of the couple. We also think for ourselves and are people of integrity. Generally, I decide what I shall say at ceremonies and usually people like what I say.
  • I always encourage couples to have live music at their wedding. Sometimes couples haven’t thought about this. They might have musicians booked for later in the evening but they forgot about live music for their wedding ceremony. Music settles people. Many musicians do not charge much to play or sing five or more songs or pieces of music at your marriage ceremony. Do please think about it. You will remember the music long after you have forgotten the words. And live music is almost always better than recorded. What’s more, often some of your guests will be musical and they could provide some or all of your music as you walk through the threshold to married life.


Ireland 2014: Tuam Babies

Monday, June 9th, 2014

 

Ireland 2014

By Joe Armstrong

 

Tuam Babies. Human remains of babies and children

Found in a septic tank.

Hundreds more buried in a mass grave.

Our shame.

 

It’s safe to feel outrage at religious bigots in foreign lands

Where girls are raped and hanged from trees

Where small minds issue death sentences and

Shoot a girl in the head and

Kidnap hundreds more for going to school.

 

Even safe, if uncomfortable, to feel outrage at Ireland’s collusion

With our own religious zealots of yesteryear

Breeding the vile religious doctrine of

Legitimate and ‘illegitimate’ children

Stigmatizing innocent children from birth

As lower than the lowest.

 

It’s easy to feel outrage at foreign lands and the distant past

But tricky to admit equal cause for shame today.

Then, in Irish mother and child homes,

Medical experiments, forced adoptions, mass graves.

Today, de facto forced baptisms of infants by parents

Just so their children can get a place

In their local primary and secondary school,

Most of which remain Catholic-controlled

In an Ireland where it remains lawful in 2014

To discriminate in these State-funded schools

Against anyone who isn’t a baptized Catholic.

 

So let’s save some of our outrage for ourselves

And the abject failure of Irish politicians to make good the

Tattered guarantee of the 1916 Proclamation to

Cherish all of the children of the nation equally.