Thursday 24 December 2009

Christmas Greetings

Wishing you

A Very Happy & Blessed Christmas

and all the very best for 2010

The Petrograd Madonna painted in 1918 by Kuzma Sergeyevich Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939). This painting has an icon-like quality, reflecting the artist’s teenage work with icon painters at Khvalynsk on the Volga, where he was born. For me it is a reminder that the Christ-child comes to us in every age, even in the midst of turmoil and strife.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone

Winter Wonderland

The countryside around, like the rest of Ireland, is a winter wonderland, dusted with a light snowfall two days ago and frosted hard ever since, with hoar-frost glistening on every twig the pale morning light has not reached.
Frosted pink Hebe

It is very beautiful, but dangerously slippy on roads like ours that have not been salted. Susanna and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary two days ago and booked ourselves for a dinner at the Whiskey Still in the village. But when we came to drive there, the car's wheels spun on the compacted ice just outside our drive entrance and we slipped back. Eventually, I let the car slide into the rough margin of the road where rough grit gave enough traction to breast the hill. And we enjoyed an excellent dinner, reminiscing about our Florida wedding and Sarasota honeymoon, spent in shorts sunbathing by the side of a pool, observed by a green-masked heron!

It is a hard time for the birds, which Susanna is assiduously providing with food and fresh water. The familiar common birds visit the birdtable and hanging feeders in a constant stream, including Chaffinches, Greenfinches, occasional Goldfinches, Sparrows, Dunnocks, Robins, Great Tits, Blue Tits, Coal Tit's, a single hen Blackcap Warbler and a juvenile cock Blackbird. I can see them through the bedroom window, and observe their pecking order. The Blackbird rules the roost and the others stay away when he is feeding. Next in order are the Greenfinches, but they tolerate others feeding beside them so long as they are not too close. Then comes the Blackcap hen, who is faced off by Greenfinches, but agressively chases away all the smaller birds, like a garden fascist as I previously described it. The Tits and Chaffinches just muck in together.

Elsewhere in the garden, blackbirds maintain their territories despite the weather. I have just seen a Pied Wagtail exploring the gutter for insects outside my upstairs study window. Yesterday there was a Robin on the ground outside the greenhouse which was unable to fly, and later I found it dead and threw its little body into the hedge, where no doubt it will provide a meal for some other creature.

Saturday 12 December 2009

Nenagh bells rang out – and the people came

The Nenagh Churches Together team
l-r: James Armitage, John Armitage, Joc Sanders, Sr Patricia Greene,
Rev Marie Rowley-Brooke, Rev AnnaGretta Hagen (visiting from Norway)
photo by Padraig O Flannabhra

The bells rang out on Sunday 6th December to announce the Nenagh Churches Together prayer vigil for the Copenhagen climate talks, held in St Mary’s Church of Ireland from 4.30 to 6.30 pm. And the people came, from many different church traditions including Catholic, Methodist, Church of Ireland, and Lutheran. Some came for just a few minutes, others for the entire two hours, but between 20 and 30 were present at any one time, substantially more than attended the Day of Prayer for climate change in Teach an Leinn in October, according to the organisers.

The focus of the vigil was a table covered with a green cloth symbolising creation, on which were placed symbols of the faith shared by all Christians, a cross, a bible and a candle, together with a globe symbolising the beautiful God-given planet earth, now threatened by global warming.

In a calm, contemplative atmosphere, those present listened to readings and music, reflected in silence, and prayed for the success of the Copenhagen talks. They prayed too for the world leaders gathered there including our own – it is not nations that make decisions, but individual human beings, who must feel the heavy burden of their responsibility. And they also prayed for an end to the human greed which is damaging our God-given planet. Young people played a big part, among them: Thomas and Ellen Langley from Templederry who read prayers; and Leaving Cert student Maggie Starr who read her poem ‘It’s a sprint to the line’.

It is pleasing to note local TD Máire Hoctor was there - she will no doubt convey the message of the vigil to An Taoiseach Brian Cowan and Minister of the Environment John Gormley, who lead the Irish delegation at Copenhagen.

Afterwards people shared refreshments of tea, coffee and delicious home-made cakes, and chatted. Among comments overheard were these:
  • “Let’s hope that the governments can wake up and see what the average everyday people are seeing over the world”;
  • “The poor earth needs all the prayers we can manage”;
  • “It was moving and meaningful, and especially so because it was a shared witness with Christian traditions working together”.

The Nenagh Churches Together team look forward to working together on many such shared events in future.

It's a Sprint to the line, Or a race against time.
By Maggie Starr

In the dying sunlight of my evening,
My thoughts smell of burning fear.
I've over-dosed on my anger,
And the antidote has yet to be conceived.

We've blinded our views of previous failings,
Unwilling to comprehend their probable conclusion.
We've smoked this animal from his caving,
Our deafness anaesthetizes our guilt.

Our knowledge-seeking conscience have tasted the antidote,
Some have touched the formula in moral experimentations.
Our selfish race have evaporated the referee,
Our league must now trust in our own resourcefulness.

A great poet once said;
*"I had a dream, which was not all a dream,
The bright Sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander."

This problem is the religion of our age,
Self-righteous, intolerant based on dissent.
But, the best time to do something worthwhile,
Is between yesterday and tomorrow.

It's a sprint to the line,
Or a race against time.

*Lord Byron

Friday 11 December 2009

Unseasonable flowers

At last a fine sunny day after weeks of rain and dismal gloom! I went out to look around the very sodden garden, which is a mess because I have not been out to mow or tidy. I was surprised to find so many flowers unseasonably blooming and picked this bunch.

Here we see penstemon, primrose, tobacco, rambling rose Dorothy Perkins, lavatera, dog daisy, erigeron, hebe

And here we also see fuchsia, a David Austin rose and a South African diasy whose name for the present escapes me.

And if I had taken the long-arm with me I could have had Spanish broom and other rambling roses Veilchen blau, American Pillar and an unidentified giant shrub rose with tiny pink flowers.

We have survived the floods here, being on good high ground, though the road has been wrecked by the torrents of water that ran down them. Susanna drove into a pothole and her tyre went flat. The Shannon has risen far higher than ever known before. In this picture you can see the Lough Derg Yacht Club clubhouse with water lapping at its feet. The boathouses and jetties are all flooded, and you can see the angle made by the floating jetties in the background, beside the RNLI inshore lifeboat.

We have had it so much better than other poor souls in Cork, Galway, Clare and Kildare. It is heartening how the Irish people and agencies like St Vincent de Paul and the Irish Red Cross have rallied round to help their neighbours whose homes, farms and businesses have been wrecked, though the Government was rather slower, distracted no doubt by framing a swingeing budget.

People are wondering whether this is a sign of climate change. I don't think anyone can say so for certain, because climate change is a statistical thing. But climate scientists are saying we can expect higher winter rainfall in the West of Ireland, and more extreme weather events. I think it would be wise to take these floods as a wake-up call to start responding to climate change, by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as adapting to the difficult future we all face.

Friday 4 December 2009

Budget blues

View from the Pew is a regular column I write for Newslink, the magazine for the Diocese of Limerick and Killaloe - this article appeared in the December/January 2009/10 issue.

Minister of Finance Brian Lenihan

Can you visualize €1,000,000,000?
Ireland is in an economic mess – commentators, politicians and interest groups all keep telling us so. The Government promises us a harsh budget, and says that if we take the nasty medicine now we will all be better for it. Figures of billions of Euro in budget cuts and/or higher taxes are bandied about – on top of billions to recapitalise the banks, and yet more billions for NAMA. It is all quite bemusing, isn’t it?

€1 billion = €1,000,000,000

One billion 1 Euro coins placed end to end stretch 23,250 km

That’s more than 100 times the distance from Limerick to Dublin

€4 billion would fill one carriageway of the Limerick to Dublin motorway with 1 Euro coins

The hole we are in
As a citizen of this Republic, I feel I should try to understand our situation. So I have just been reading the November 2009 Pre-budget Outlook published by the Department of Finance – you can download it free from It summarises the context in which Minister of Finance Brian Lenihan will frame his budget for 2010. To my surprise it is quite easy to read, and at just 30 pages a good way to get an overview of our economic woes, even if it is rather depressing. For me, the key facts are these:
  • National output (GDP) has fallen by around 7.5% this year and is expected to fall by another 1.5% in 2010. Unemployment has soared; pay rates have fallen (in the public if not the private sector); prices are falling; consumption is falling; savings are up; investment is minimal.

  • The government deficit – the difference between what is raised in taxes and what is spent – has ballooned to around €20 billion in 2009, largely because tax revenues have collapsed and social welfare payments to the unemployed have surged.

We are faced with a classic deflationary spiral, like the great depression in the 1930s. Keynes’ remedy then was increased public borrowing and spending, to put people back to work and stimulate demand, leading to renewed confidence and a return to investment and growth. This is what other countries are doing now with stimulus packages, and it is what our government has been doing too, by increasing the government deficit.

But the Government says this can’t go on, because even if financial markets would keep lending to us, paying them back would cost too much. Last April they declared they would reduce borrowing by €4 billion in 2010 and another €4 billion in 2011, in order to get borrowing down to 3% of GDP by 2013. Most economists and politicians seem to agree that this scale of adjustment is necessary, though the trades unions argue that the adjustment should be over a longer period. I for one am persuaded a €4 billion adjustment in 2010 is appropriate.

How to reduce borrowing by €4 billion?
But the big question is how to do it. I believe our Christian faith demands social justice – a ‘preferential option for the poor’, in the phrase used by liberation theologians. Can there be any doubt that Jesus calls us in solidarity to protect the poor and the vulnerable?

I am therefore dismayed by the media chorus, on the one hand urging cuts in social welfare for the poor and vulnerable because consumer prices are falling, while on the other asserting that the well off cannot afford to pay more in taxes. Both arguments are nonsense, I think.

First, basic living costs for those on social welfare have not dropped as they have for other groups. Most of the fall in the price index is due to lower mortgage interest rates, but few on social welfare have mortgages, so cuts in line with the index would cause real hardship for those already struggling. St Vincent de Paul points out that the planned removal of the Christmas bonus already represents a 2% cut, at a time of year when poor families need to spend more on basics such as heat, light, food and clothing. A new carbon tax is expected in the budget. This will promote the transition to a low carbon society which we must make to avoid climate change catastrophe, and I am in favour of it. But the poor spend more of their income proportionately on high carbon fuels. Without compensating measures a carbon tax will increase fuel poverty. Social justice requires benefits to be raised, not cut.

Second, those who are well off are well able to pay more in taxes to help out their less fortunate fellow citizens struggling to live on social welfare. Most of those who profited from the bubble economy remain very rich. Sean Quinn, for example, has been able to pass €200 million to his four children this year, despite his losses in the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank. Salaries for Irish professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, business managers and government ministers, remain very high by international norms. Such people will suffer no hardship if asked to pay more. Those who suggest they would skip the country to avoid tax are arguing that we should give in to blackmail, as well as impugning their patriotism.

But more than this, income tax rates for those of us lucky enough to still have good incomes are very low by international standards, as Garrett Fitzgerald has been arguing. Most Irish taxpayers pay tax on income at rates between a quarter and a half of the rates in other western European countries and the USA. Even at higher income levels our rates are still a quarter lower than these other countries. These low rates of tax on incomes are a result of grossly irresponsible government decisions during the boom to fund cuts in income tax from stamp duties and capital gains tax arising from the housing bubble. If we want to enjoy decent health and education services and an acceptable social welfare safety net, we must all be prepared to pay more in tax. And ways must be found to relieve the interest burden on ordinary families who were persuaded to take out mortgages to pay absurd stamp duty on over-priced homes.

Back in April Brian Lenihan appeared to accept this, saying he would raise €2.5 billion in increased taxes in 2010, with a more manageable €1.5 billion in expenditure cuts. More recently he has been saying the whole €4 billion must come in cuts. Is he really preparing to throw social justice to the winds in budget 2010?

And what about overseas aid?
Social justice must not end at home. It should also apply to the poorest of the poor in the developing world. My own key test of Budget 2010, as it was last year, is what happens to development aid.

Ireland has a proud record for overseas development aid. Like all rich countries we promised to increase development aid to 0.7% of GNP to achieve the UN’s Millennium Goals, which include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. By 2008 we were the sixth highest per capita donor, giving 0.58% of GNP, on track to meet our commitment to achieve 0.7% by 2012. I awarded Brian Lenihan a cheer in October 2008 for protecting the overseas development budget for 2009.

But what has happened since then? The overseas aid budget has been cut by 24% since February - three times higher than the fall in GNP. This year, for the first time, 1 billion people are going hungry. This shames us all – our government has shamed us! To their credit, 30 TDs and Senators from all parties wrote to the editor of the Irish Times on 14th November earnestly calling on the Government not to cut overseas aid any further. I pray that Brian Lenihan will listen to them, and even restore this year’s cuts.