Ah yes, the seasons are a-changin’ and winter is a-comin’ in [I think I’ll breathe in here with a large ‘a’ – Ed]. How do I know? Is it the cooler weather? The earlier darkness in the evenings? The traffic being much busier in the mornings with schools being back (as I trip by gaily on my cicycle)? Not at all. It’s that my diary is getting fuller, my days busier, and the hectic pace of ‘normality’ has imposed itself on my life again. Thus I know, by the grindstone, it’s into autumn and nearing winter.
I was looking back over my newspapers before they went for recycling, ‘doing my newspaper cuttings’, when I came across a most excellent prediction from the Belfast Telegraph of 12th April: “Ulster to swelter in record summer” it said. “Northern Ireland will almost certainly be hotting up this summer with temperatures threatening to smash records set 30 years ago. Weather experts at the Met Office also said today that, at this point, there is nothing to suggest that the sweltering heat will be offset by a healthy helping of rain.” Yes, well, April was a good month, it had been a dry and warm Spring – and the summer was not necessarily cold but none of your record smashing temperatures, and it was wet, wet, wet (keep repeating at infinitum). Just goes to show the unpredictability of predictions.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a climate change denier, I fully accept that Ireland is getting hotter and ‘we’ are headed for big trouble on this globe that we share with a few others, I believe. But while overall trends are clear, the future in detail remains, ahem, a bit sketchy and what was predicted as a record breaking summer for sun became a record breaking summer for rain. That’s the thing about the future. It hasn’t arrived yet and is usually different to what we imagine. And with global warming, when it does arrive in the shape of much higher sea levels, we will be wishing that it hadn’t.
Some of you may not know this but there was a period, briefly, in the early 20th century when Belfast had more people than Dublin. At that stage, of course, Belfast had an industrial base in linen and shipbuilding when Dublin just had Guinness and a small government bureaucracy. But now Dublin is racing to become a megapolis while Belfast, growing again after the Troubles with lots of infill housing and apartments, is left way behind in the numbers game.
I suppose rivalry between Belfast and Dublin is a bit muted by the border, but exists to some extent nevertheless. Dublin went and got a spire, in O’Connell Street on the former site of Nelson’s Pillar. Now Belfast has a spire or spike as well, except Belfast’s one happens to be sticking out of St Anne’s (Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Donegall Street, the epicentre of the relatively recently devised ‘Cathedral Quarter’.
Art, or architecture, is in the eye of the beholder but I am not at all convinced that a metal spike sticking out of a hiberno-romanesque cathedral (if one only a century old) exactly works. Yes, they were looking for something iconic but it looks to me more like ironic. Not too spire-itual either. Symbolising a fresh start, hope for the future? Or a dissonance and clash of styles or cultures (in which case maybe it is could be considered representative and symbolic not of the future but of the recent past and the Troubles)? My feelings about St Anne’s are also partly coloured by the extent of British military involvement in building parts of it, I confess. How the ‘Spire of Hope’ goes down with people in the future is impossible to say, but I take it that the spire in Dublin has already been accepted in a way that I’m not sure the St Anne’s spire will be in Belfast. But stranger things have happened. Look how the brutalist, ‘modernist’ Eiffel Tower became an essential symbol of Paris. Come back in twenty years time and maybe St Anne’s spire will be the ‘must see’ feature all visitors to Belfast aspire to see (but somehow I doubt it).
But, to finish off, I decided to see, in good oul Dublin fashion, if I could come up with some rhyming slang for Belfast’s new spire. Inspire-ation was not exactly hitting me but I came up with a few suggestions. St Peter’s, Catholic, Cathedral in Belfast, in Falls/Divis, is known, for obvious reasons, as the ‘Twin Spires’; St Anne’s could now be labelled the ‘Thin Spires’ or ‘Slim Spires’. My other suggestions for the new edifice include the spire in the choir, the screw in the pew, the dirk in the kirk, (‘dirk’ an anachronistic term for a dagger), the stave in the nave, the pile above the aisle, and, my favourite, the needle in the cathedral. I’ll leave it at that, I didn’t want de’spire’ation to set in or to perspire too much in trying and we’ll just have to wait and see what transpires in people’s opinions in the future. [Spire me any more of this – Ed]
A man of steel
And so to the Presbyterian Historical Society meeting in September when Prof Ian Hazlett spoke about Rev William Steele Dickson (1744-1844) (some of the comments here about him are attributable to my reading about him and not necessarily Prof Hazlett’s account). Steele Dickson was mentioned briefly in my Colm in Nonviolent News 148, having been at his grave in Clifton Street Cemetery, Belfast, though it would seem the Steele of his name is spelt with and without an ‘e’ as the final letter [bet you had to steel yourself to tell us that – Ed].
Dickson was a former Presbyterian moderator (so a fair few people thought highly of him - and his congregations in Portaferry, and later Keady, stayed loyal to him throughout). In his sermon on ‘Scripture politics’ in 1781 he argued his case that ‘religion and politics are inseparably connected’ - which could be the statement of a liberation theologian today though he did argue that politics was part of morality, while religion comprehended the whole. ‘Politics’ at the time was understood in a broad sense, Hazlett said, and Dickson’s thinking was grounded in scripture, particularly the prophetic tradition, but he also assimilated British, American and European thinking.
In sermons in 1792 and 1793 Dickson explored the decline in Christianity from the time of Constantine when it was incorporated into the state. He attacked the penal laws against Catholics. In some ways he was remarkably modern, e.g. in stating that church and state should be separate but religion and politics are inseparable.
The lecture I attended explored the influences on him (including Adam Smyth at Glasgow University) and his theology which was Presbyterian ‘New Light’ but basically orthodox – more of his sermons survive on church and religious matters than on politics. He was portrayed as someone firmly grounded in Christian and Presbyterian thinking at the time of the Scottish enlightenment. He was not a political figure masquerading as a Christian minister but a Christian minister who felt politics was part of his calling.
I would say that if we think of modern Presbyterian ministers and politics we might think of Rev Martin Smyth, former Orange leader and Unionist MP, or the Rev Ian Paisley himself (who named his church ‘Free Presbyterian’ but had no real connection with Irish Presbyterianism otherwise). Neither of these might be considered anything remotely like ‘liberation theologians’, the opposite in fact, though Paisley has, eventually, seen some political light. Both are a long way away from Rev William Steele Dickson, erstwhile 1798 leader (though the state never managed to pin down his role and get him, he did have a few years in exile in Scotland in relative comfort along with other leaders of the time). He died in poverty but left a mark as a man not only of his time but of the future as well.
Being Briteish….and Ireish
Different countries have different senses of humour, or parameters of humour I suppose. A competition on the BBC website for a ‘British motto’ brought a huge response, this was following reports that Gordon Brown was looking for a statement of British values (I thought ‘Pounds and pence’ rather than ‘Euro and cents’!) if not a British motto on the lines of the French ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ (which the Second World War Pétain regime turned into ‘Travail, Famille, Patrie’). Some of the entries were deadly serious, some were the old and, I would consider, tired clichés (‘For Queen and Country’), some were clearly anti-immigrant or welfare state, but most sought to be light-hearted at least. Here’s my selection.
Weeny, weedy, weakly
Britain – nation of shoplifters
‘Your logo here for £1m’
Delivering imperialist solutions
Britain – home of the tubular bandage
Per ardua ad Ikea
In Gods we cussed
Come on Tim!
Let nation speak English unto nation
A Simple Beautiful Oasis or ASBO for short
All Britons Are Equal But
‘Now available in Spain’
Is it still raining
Obesité, Apathé, Hostilité
In Gord We Trust
May Contain Nuts
Don’t steal – the government doesn’t like competition
Smug in victory, arrogant in defeat
Four nations in a […..] state
This Sceptic Isle
Britain: The worst of all possible countries. Except for all the rest.
There were various references to or in Latin, including the suggestion of the Latin for ‘Whatever’ as a motto being given as both Quidvis and Quisquis. I wondered whether ‘Britain waives the rules’; would appear, and it did, but only at No.941 out of 1,000. Still, 7 out of 10 for these inhabitants of Britain not taking themselves too seriously.
And what would Irish or Northern Irish mottoes be? Now there’s an interesting one that could be an entertaining pub conversation for an hour or so…..Here’s my suggestions for a few starters, some original, some rather less than original:
For God and Ulcer
A Notion Once Again
The Emerald I’ll kill for
No sir, end her
Not an Inch (Co Kerry)
In brown envelopes we trust
Céad Míle Fáilte My Arse (cf. Christy Moore’s ‘The Siren’s Song’)
Ireland of the Wellcome’s Pharmaceutical Company
Home of Ancient Kings and Modern Motorways (usually in the same place)
Prices Dublin Every Few Years
Watch the Bertie
‘Ireland’ – the first letter ‘H’ was dropped, everything is for sale
Ulster will give up fighting but Ulster will be right wing
The rich man in his castle, the poor woman at his gate
Four Green Fields – all flogged to developers who’ll sell them on at an exorbitant price
Neutral Until We Get (Got ?) A Better Offer
Kathleen Ni Houlihan – What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?
I bind unto myself today, The strong name of the Celtic Tiger
Hibernia – Where you can enjoy winter weather all year around
Wetter Than Wet
Norn Iron – Some Assembly Required
Ulcer Monster Line Stir and Conned
Dublin, Derry, Cork and Kerry – tell me that without any incineration plants
Land of Feints and Scullduggery
We have the best politicians money can buy
The rest of the country Pales into insignificance
Northern Ireland Sectarianism – Simply The Best
Northern Ireland – Where Protestant and Catholic live together in pieces
Quis Sepera Bit (slight adaptation of NI motto adopted by UDA)
and (more gently) A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man.
- - - -
And after that I will call it a day. Which reminds me of the cartoon about God creating the world and saying to the angels that ‘he’ has created alternating periods of lightness and darkness. What are you going to do next, God is asked, and replies “Call it a day”. At this point in the year the light is losing to the dark and the end of October brings the ‘real winter’. So wrap up warm and I’ll see you in a month, Billy.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).