Snogging At The Polling Station

I was quite shocked and disappointed by a comment in the Irish Times this afternoon in reference to photosnoggraphic coverage of the campaign. The comment reeked of sexism, diminished the debate and sullied the positive result for the Yes Campaign.

 I quote the comment in full for your edification.

 “Yet another photo of two scraggy looking blokes with beards snogging? How about a few pictures of some hot blonde lezzer chicks”.

 I suggested to the young man that there are surely plenty such images on Google to satisfy his needs. I hinted that he might try something along the lines of a sexist search string such as ‘hot chicks getting off’.  As a cautious writer, I do check my references and material.  I Googled the string myself, in the interests of pure research, you understand… But I digress.


The referendum result in favour of Marriage Equality is fantastic. It bodes a better Ireland, an Ireland where equality for all citizens is guaranteed in the foundation document of our law.  It signals a better Ireland where bigots and oppressive institutions no longer hold sway. It is an Ireland that I am proud to live in, a society that I am proud to be a part of.


A less visible but nonetheless seismic outcome impacts on straight people as much as it does on the LGBT community. It is the freedom from that ingrained cultural obsequious treatment of ‘the other’. To grow up in the white, straight, Christian culture is to carry the guilt of our forefathers. We are infected  by ghosts of those pervasive, deeply rooted colonial attitudes that spoke of ‘savages’, ‘dirty Arabs’ and ‘backwards natives’.


Despite the fact that I grew up dirt poor on dystopian Scottish housing estates the threads of that attitudinal arrogance poisoned my worldview. Its shadow was there despite my daily interactions with this not quite normalised social grouping. The referendum forced the attitude out from the shadows and allowed me to slay it, through the act of voting. The LGBT community have liberated themselves from an underhand form of second class citizenship. But they have also liberated the nation from the vestiges of its shameful collusion with colonialism.


 There are heroes in this, such as Senator Katherine Zappone, long time civil rights activist Senator David Norris, Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar who recently came out publicly as gay. a few Campaigners like of Max Krzyzanowski have walked the streets, held up signs and flags, spoken with eloquence and persuasiveness on a myriad of TV and radio debates.  Real heroes are the thousands of first time voters, many still in school, who engaged the electorate with passionate statements, and showed us that this was about the Ireland that they want to grow into.


What about the thousands that came back from their economic banishment abroad to have their say? I was moved. I have never seen crowds returning just to vote, just to engage with the political system.  It sends a message, of caring, involvement, and ownership, not just with regard to full civil rights for the LGBT community, but with regards to the whole political system and establishment.


©2015 John A. Duignan. All rights reserved.

An Archbishop Speaks

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made a remarkable admission today.benedict_roman_curia_2010

It was made in the wake of the overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote that now grants our LGTB brothers and sisters the same treatment under Constitutional law as those of us that happened to be born heterosexual. To quote him in part:

“The Church needs to ask if it has drifted from the young in the wake of the marriage vote.’

He betrays his crass ignorance; many of the LGTB people affected are not young. Senator Zappone is in her sixties and has been living in sin for years.

I understand people getting a sense of social cohesion, belonging, connection through the communal enactment of ritual within the Catholic fold. Their ideas are not challenged within the congregation. There is a space for them to meditate and a comfortable tradition to follow. But the Catholic Church is much more than that.

It is a big multinational corporation. It is a sovereign state with a complex political administration with which it wields great influence with governments in many parts of the globe.

This organization needs to take full ownership of its powerful position. It needs to move forward into our modern social order. The most fundamental reform should be to discard the rule of celibacy in the priesthood. They need to open Holy Orders to women. I think that care and protection of the weak and the vulnerable would be vastly improved if there were a good percentage of female bishops and cardinals influencing the Curia.

They definitely need to embrace the LGTB community. They claim God’s love is open to all, well, the ongoing condemnation of LGTB seems to give lie to their claim. Homosexuality is described as ‘An objective Disorder’ within the canon, ‘…ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil.’ Surely Stephen Fry would contend this assertion.

The Catholic Church has a way to go before they regain the broad respect in which they were once held, respect that they squandered in the most heinous and corrupt wielding of their power.


© 2015 John A. Duignan. All rights reserved.

Note Dante

In this book I make reference to the 14th Century poet, Dante Alighieri and his work The Divine Comedy. Dante was many things, a major political figure in the city state of Florence, andante-reading- ambassador and even a soldier. However, he is most widely remembered as a poet. As a student, I took a keen interest in Dante’s magnum opus the Divine Comedy. An oft quirky and inspiring lecturer, Dr. Daragh O’Connell helped me decode the grammar, syntax and the social and political upheavals that frame the narrative, providing me an enriched insight into the spectrum of life in Italy in the late medieval period. In this work, sinners and saints are painted with such astonishing clarity that it is difficult to conceive that they are all dead and buried for the greater part of a thousand years. The work is essentially a morality tale in the form of an epic poem. It is also a political and social commentary of its time. My prime source of inspiration is the first of the two books of The Comedy: Inferno and Purgatorio. These books served as a literary framework upon which I was able to throw the chaos that has been my life. It provided a sense of order to the emotionally tumultuous circumstances through which I lived. Too sensitive for my own good, I carry this burden of unceasing dismay at my powerlessness in the face of a stream of human violence against the weak, the outgunned, outfinanced and outnumbered. Those who wield power without conscience are an affront to all that I hold dear. I am so often overwhelmed at my insignificance in the face of the multiple tragedies that play out in the world around me. Would it be a better course if I just shut it all out and focused on me and my troubles? But I am not made like that. I do care about others and I am less of a human if I am not at least willing, in my small way, to try to do something to account for the damage the avaricious and narcissistic leave in their wake. I would fall into a very dark place indeed if I did not have at my disposal the emotional outlet that literary and artistic figures provide through their work. Music can free me to cry. There are films that allow me hope. Literary works that voice my frustration so that in a blaze of righteous fury, I can cast crime lords and bent politicians into a universe where justice is meted out in accordance with the evil they committed in the course of their nasty, avaricious lives. As we journey with Dante and the poet Vigil through the depths of hell to the gates of paradise in Dante’s Divine Comedy, we see that many of the characters that we encounter were the cream of the Italian establishment. Notoriously corrupt Cardinals, priests and princes are gleefully placed for perpetuity under Lucifer’s most fiendishly conceived torture regimes. In contrast, Dante also describes many truly pitiful characters that are so poignant in their damnation that it is simply impossible not to empathise with them. This brings one to question a celestial hierarchy that would refuse to mitigate on behalf of such tragic souls. For me, the guiding spirit for The Comedy is not so much the ghost of the Roman poet, Virgil, but one that takes something of a quieter background role. This is Beatrice, a partly fictionalized characterization of the poet’s ideal of perfect womanhood. Beatrice was Dante’s unrequited love and his muse. She died quite young and there is some doubt as to whether he ever even spoke to her. He admired her from afar and she became his central romantic fantasy. In the course of the trilogy we discover that Beatrice has been beatified and sits in the hierarchy that is closest to God. She has interceded on behalf of the straying poet and devised his travails in order that he returns to the righteous path. There are aspects of Dante’s Beatrice that, at least in my telling, parallel the central character of this book, my mother, Madeline. She passed away when I was just eleven years old and I have been trying to find her ever since. Dante’s opus found me lost in that dark forest and allowed me to navigate my own private Inferno and to traverse my personal Purgatario. The paradise that I sought out was to find peace with my mother, a conversation with her that would heal the scars she left me with by dying far too young.

© John Anthony Duignan 2015. All rights reserved

Le Sorrelle Dei Poveri

Deh, quando tu sarei tornato al mondo, e risposato de la lunga via
ricorditi di me, che son La Pia; Siena me fé, disfecimi Maremma.
Pray when you are returned to the world and art rested from the long way do thou remember me who am La Pia. Siena gave me birth, Maremma death.
Purgatorio Canto V


 I finally find the buildings that house Le Sorelle dei Poveri di Santa Caterina da Siena having tramped all the way the down Via Banchi di Sopra, taking a wrong turn or two along the way.
I locate the little booth that Sorrelle de poveriguards the entrance to the private chapel and cloister. A tiny, wimpled sister directs me across the square. ‘All’angolo, numero Quattro’ – ‘on the corner, number four’ she tells me, frowning at my dishevelled, travel-worn state. I am back at her booth ten minutes later. The wizened sorrella displays a distinctly unchristian impatience.
But I cannot seem to find the entrance to the hostel. She had been perfectly explicit. I am just being a bit stupid. In a huff she pulls her creaky frame up from the desk and grabs my arm, nearly getting belted by my bulky backpack as I spin around to follow her back out of the hallway to the square.  I blush. I had actually stood at the right door, but second guessed my choice. The justifiably irate nun stomps back to her desk behind the glass pane.
I am dirty and sweaty from two days’ hiking the dusty byways and ancient pilgrim trails between Moteriggione and Siena when I ring the bell. I need to freshen up and change my clothes. I am buzzed into a big hallway. There are two elderly nuns behind a long table handing out food parcels and clothes to a crowd of Kosovo-Serb refugees. These people, I am told, are fleeing persecution and the fear that another shooting war will break out following a flare up of ethnic tensions in the Kosovo region.
A pretty, blonde, settled refugee and part time volunteer at this centre, Katya, describes the terrifying prospect of another spate of violence. Back in 1994 her family had lost everything and would have ended up as casualties had it not been for the intervention of an Irish priest working with a mission in the midst of the madness. He secured housing for the family and schooling for the children. Katya went on to graduate from university in Pristina. She is a refugee again and works with the sisters to look after her fleeing countrymen.
She tells me of her struggle to get a visa to stay in Italy. She is studying for a post graduate degree in psychology and needs the visa to practice here in Siena. We speak in Italian and English; she is fluent in both. I watch her marshalling toddlers, mothers and grandparents around food tables, clothing boxes and taking the recently arrived to shared dormitories on the second and third floors. She is full of positive energy, wit and empathy.

I am introduced to La Madra Superiora, Sister Cataterina, who runs  Le Sorelle dei Poveri. She must be in her late sixties. HHHHHHer eyes are kindly, her movements, efficient. Only her voice betrays her weariness. She seems to be able to be everywhere at once. She checks me in and shows me to my dormitory. By the time I am settled in and showered she is making dinner for the resident refugees, guests and staff. It is simple fare, but good. I eat with Katya and watch Sister Caterina take the briefest of pauses for her meal before getting back to work.
Later on I stroll up Via dei Rossi to Santa Caterina’s Fountain. Some of the refugees I met at dinner are sitting here letting their children mess around with the water. They have the faraway look of the dispossessed. Across the road there is a bar. I order un caffé, a short, intense espresso, from the grumpy owner.
Two doors up is a mini market. I pop in to pick up a few bits and pieces that I am running low on. I bump into Sister Caterina and Katya loading up with shopping to feed the hungry crowds in the morning. They smile in greeting and I tell them that I would be out for a few beers and would be back before they shut the hostel for the night. Sister Caterina pulls a face, I am not sure she approves of my beer drinking plan.

After exploring some of the little side streets and squares I wander into a friendly looking bar back at the ‘Campo’. I sit there sipping on a nice cool Peroni and munching on free pizza slices. I am relaxed, watching people on the street and listening in on a couple of animated conversations. I am intrigued by a Canadian couple with very rough Italian trying to talk to the barman who has rather patchy English. I go over and strike up a conversation with a group of Sicilians and we chat and drink a few beers together.
The Canadians are still there an hour or so later and run into difficulty understanding something the barman says. I help translate and join their discussion. We talk back and forth for a couple of hours. The bar will be open till three in morning, so there is no hurry. It is past midnight when I suddenly remember that the hostel has an eleven thirty curfew. I leap up, say my goodbyes and run along the confusing lamp lit streets, getting quite lost.
It takes me a good thirty minutes to find Via dei Baroncelli again. The place is dark and shuttered. I make a tentative ring on the bell and wait across the street for half an hour or so. Then I begin to mull over alternatives. I am not going to make a fuss and wake up the nuns. That would be bad form. I could try to book into one of the cosy looking hotels that I passed as I wandered around earlier. I am dissuaded when I calculate my tight budget and anyway, staying, even for a night, in the cosseted luxury of a hotel would defeat the principals with which this adventure was conceived. I am after all, on a pilgrimage.
There is no reason why I, an embittered anti theist, cannot take those meditative aspects that my Catholic upbringing instilled in me and employ these to find peace, find reconciliation with the ghosts that haunt my every waking moment. I have been wandering the ancient Tuscan pilgrim pathways these past ten days, unplugged from the intrusiveness of Facebook, Skype, emails and telephones. I have been seeking quietude and I have found it among the hills, woodlands and ancient walled villages that punctuate the rough tracks and winding roads I have been following. It feels right then, that as I come to end of my sojourn, that I would bookend it with a vigil. A long, cold, sleepless night spent wandering the steep, cobbled alleys that wend their way between the ancient, looming walls of shuttered apartments, shops, museums and churches. And I dedicate this night and this vigil to the memory of Madeline. So I walk, freeze and remember.

The Brother

‘C’mon, if ya push i’ doon the stairs, yu’ll be able ta see all the wee men inside.’ This little piece of manipulative drama was going to define my relationship with my big brother for the rest of our lives. It was a formative moment, too. It marked me as a gullible dupe. The scenario was to be repeated throughout my life. Different actors, different products sold to me, only my capacity to be taken in remained unchanged.I was five and he was six. Christmas morning 1968 and a kind person had bought us each big 2012-06-11-tonkahandsome, chunky Tonka trucks. Mine was a tipper with a red cab and had a clever latch and lever that raised a big yellow dump bed. I was so looking forward to taking it out to the back garden where I would load it with earth and stones and haul them over to the castle I was building by the fence. Jeremy got an elaborate, red painted fire engine. It had ladders and pumped water from smartly wound, white pressure hoses. Being Jeremy, he thought it would be a great idea to push his fabulous new toy down the stairs. Of course it was smashed to smithereens by the time it hit the floor. The loss of his fire truck was bad, but seeing me joyfully playing with my fully intact tipper truck only served to rub salt in the wound. He had an intuitive grasp of the manipulative arts, even at that age. He was also keenly aware that I was a credulous little twit. Playing on this weakness and my childish curiosity, he told me that if I pushed my truck down the stairs I would see all the amazing bits inside it. I wanted to see the amazing bits. ‘Are there wee men in there that drive it?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and y’ll be able tae see them when it hits the bottom,’ he enthused. So I knelt beside my freckly, red haired brother on the top landing and pushed. Much later my brother became a fundamentalist Christian evangelical preacher. The skills that he developed at that moment on the landing, getting the credulous to kneel and to believe that magic can result from broken things, served him well.

In an ironic twist of fate, with the collapse of his preaching career, he ended up driving trucks in America, and spent ten lonely and often frustrating years in the cab of a freightliner. His radio tuned to the more extreme end of the talk radio spectrum. I found it impossible to have a conversation with him during that period. He was channeling Rush Limbaugh.

A diet of hate and fear is profoundly unwholesome. For every waking moment to be filled with a noxious stream of paranoia undermines vitality, it drains the spirit. It was his pain, that legacy of bereavement and his inability to articulate his grief that drew him to this procession of apocalyptic venom-spitting evangelical radio preachers.

It was only after he sold the truck and began working with a crew of supportive, nurturing friends that this hyper-stimulated state engendered by a toxic mix of isolation and pain began to dissipate. He sent me a letter on yellow legal stock apologising for preaching when we should have been talking.

My arrogance was such that I, by way of response, left a message with a relative who frequently talks with him requesting that he download Skype. I considered snail mail too quaint, too outdated for a busy, published author of my standing.

It was nigh on eight years since I ejected religious superstition from my life. I left it behind me on the cerebral scrapheap, that towering monument to the unattainable. I now found comfort in the solidly anchored rationalism of Dawkins and inspiration in Bentham and Mill’s coldly reasoned Utilitarianism. The smug pleasure of my victory over the irrationality of the Christian extremists was bolstered that night by a marathon session immersed in Hitchin’s debates on YouTube.

The sense of consternation that engulfed me as I stared at the broken bits of my wonderful tipper truck scattered on the doormat at the foot of the stairs darkened my life. It was a bitter lesson. It marked the end of that phase of childhood innocence. Wariness flooded in to take its place. This was the paradigm shift that nudged the child over the cosseted threshold of toddlerhood into a harsher world where the things you love can be broken, a world where pain and loss are inevitable.

Sometimes a person experiences an event that alienates him from his fellows, that leaves him feeling untethered and insecure. In his efforts to rebalance, he will do everything in his power to level the field, consequences notwithstanding.