Archive for the ‘Joe’s Blog’ Category

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 :

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.

Joe Armstrong represents Humanists at National Famine Commmemoration 2014

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Joe and Ruth Armstrong after the National Famine Commemoration 2014

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with Joe and Ruth Armstrong after the National Famine Commemoration 2014

I was honoured to be asked to represent the Humanist Association of Ireland at the National Famine Commemoration at Strokestown House, Roscommon, on Sunday 11 May.
My three-minute reflection was made 1 hour 5 minutes into the ceremony, immediately before Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech. You can hear it on this RTE link

for 21 days from 11 May 2014:
Here is my reflection:

Words of Joe Armstrong, Humanist chaplain and celebrant

Famine. Famine. Can I imagine it?
Famine. Either a feast or a famine.
Feasts I know. But famine?
Work drying up, the closest I know. Money tight. Or doing a fast, perhaps.
But famine. Famine!
Hunger. I’ve been peckish for a meal. But everyday persistent aching hunger?
Hunger. Countrywide hunger. A nation on its knees.
Beggared. The shame of hunger. Unasked for. Not chosen.
Crops fail. Shock. Fear. Courage! We are strong.
Crops fail again. And again.
Soup kitchens. Food parcels. No money for rent.
Bodies shrink. Tall emaciated figures on Custom House Quay in Dublin: our ancestors.
Children dead. Relatives dead. Neighbours dead.
The boat to England, America, anywhere away from this godforsaken land of hunger and famine.
Can we imagine it?

Thinking for yourself

Friday, March 14th, 2014

At pretty much every wedding that I conduct, I will say that Humanism is about thinking for yourself and caring for people, that it is about reason and compassion. And I am often struck that some religious people sometimes feel that they think I am getting at them. Why is this? I suppose it’s obvious really: religious belief is based upon letting someone else do your thinking for you – which is not a very adult thing to do.

Nobody can think their way into religious belief. As we used to say in religious circles (while I was in religious circles) religious faith isn’t so much taught as caught.

Like a cold, I might add.

Religious belief is fanciful thinking. It is escapist surrealism. It is living in a dream.

And perhaps that is why religious people get upset when I say that Humanism is about thinking for yourself. It seems it unintentionally rubs the underbelly of the flight from reason and logic that is religious ‘thinking’.

It upsets me when I consider that even today children are being indoctrinated into religious thinking. Their minds are being wired wrong, with fanciful superstitions presented as ‘gospel truth’. Having taken years, decades, to clamber out of the cage of religious thought, I was astonished to discover thinkers who had lived and died generations before me who centuries ago knew religion to be the twaddle that it is. And there was I spending the first quarter of my life (or more should I die before a hundred!) immersed in the mental death of religion.

How indescribably hard I found it to break through the glass cage into which I’d been immersed and into which I had immersed myself. And breaking out of that man-made trap – for all religions are man-made – felt just like walking through glass: imaginary glass. For the constraints of religion are artificial, at least within the mind.

Why do we permit innocent children to have their minds miswired from infancy with religious nonsense – yes, even in this day and age? Why do we hold as a right parents’ so-called ‘right’ to indoctrinate their children with their particular brand of the ‘opium of the people’? If parents were giving their children drugs, would not reasonable and responsible citizens have an opinion on that? Or if they were teaching them as truth nonsensical things as if they were facts, scientifically established? And yet is that not what religious schools do and religious parents do, indoctrinating innocent children’s minds, warping from from reality. Setting up in their minds ridiculous notions of the ‘elect’, the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’; the ‘need’ for ‘salvation’; ‘original sin’; the ‘infallibility’ of the Pope; angels; devils; and the ‘inspired word of god’ – when all it is is what religious leaders interpret various literary works (all written my mortal humans) to mean. Inducing guilt into children when they should be instilling confidence into children. It sickens me that we are still at it, in this day and age. People earning a living by claiming to know the mind of a deity that doesn’t exist. And they pretending to have the ear of the so-called master of the universe.

Do I regret the many years I spent trapped within religious belief? Well, I guess I could have spent them trapped within alcoholism or drug addiction or any other addiction. But, honestly, looking back, I see religious belief as far, far closer to the more socially unacceptable addictions than I ever could have imagined while I was a believer.

Mind you, Humanists are far from perfect. None of us is perfect. I guess it’s the struggle of life. Breaking through constraints of the mind. Someone told me recently that I shouldn’t have asked a question. And it reminded me of getting a clatter on the head when I was in religion class as an adolescent and I asked a question and the religion teacher hit me on the head with the bishops’ pastoral on justice and told me not to be impertinent! Yes, we should all ask questions and no responsible adult should let anyone else do their thinking for them; nor to not ask questions; for asking questions is the beginning of knowledge, understanding, judgment, decision-making and adult responsibility.

I feel like the luckiest man alive

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

When I was in my teens and an ardent believer and I wanted to be a priest, one of my good reasons for wanting to be a priest was to be with people at key moments in their lives – like birth, weddings and bereavement. I wanted to engage with the real needs of people.
After my nine years in religious life, when I walked away from not only my priestly path but, in time, from all religious beliefs, I assumed that gone was my dream of being with people at core turning points in their lives.
I spent five years as a teacher. And I was privileged to work at St Bonaventure’s comprehensive boys’ school at the heart of the East End of London, under the leadership of the now knighted Sir Michael Wilshaw, who was subsequently made head of the English schools’ inspectorate, OFSTED.
But I knew that remaining a teacher for the rest of my life wasn’t what I wanted to do, and so I left teaching after five years.
For the guts of the next 20 years I worked as a journalist, columnist and author, in a self-employed capacity, enjoying being my own boss and working from home. I spent the guts of three years during that time as a publisher too. And then I took time out to delve into my own story, how I shifted from belief to unbelief and I celebrated that story, or part of it, in my RTE Radio 1 documentary, From Belief to Unbeleif, and in an as yet unpublished manuscript of a memoir.
And then, earlier this year, I thought about becoming a Humanist celebrant. And that is why I feel like the luckiest man on earth. If, as a teenager, I wanted to be with people at key turning points in their lives, helping them to express sorrow and joy, laughter and tears, I have discovered that I can do that as a Humanist celebrant. And I could do so without having to pretend I believed in religious fantasies that lost any claim on my allegiance, acceptance or intelligence.
As a humanist celebrant there is no nonsense about ‘ontological change’ happening at ordination. I’m a regular human being just like everyone else. And I don’t have to pretend to have the ear of a deity! Or to know his will! Or to interpret his ‘revealed word’ accurately. I’ve outgrown all that nonsense. All that superstition. I know that we have only one life and that it can be a wonderful life, and that the birth of each child warrants celebration. And that the marriage of two people is usually a happy time, and that it’s OK for people to be sad at weddings too. And I have been privileged to facilitate funerals – celebrations of a life ended, at which I have witnessed laughter and tears, joy and sadness, classical music and hard rock!
Now in my fifties, I realize that being a Humanist celebrant uses the skills and talents I’ve been lucky enough to have: my original desire to be with people at key moments of their lives; my writing skills in drafting ceremonies that are meaningful and personal for the people concerned; my teaching skills of speaking and engaging with a group of people; my empathy and compassion and listening skills; and my gratitude for being able to do this work which I love.