Billy King: Rites Again

Wandering and wondering around the universe

I don’t know if you are into astronomy and astrophysics but the discoveries which seem to keep coming are mind boggling. If you keep an eye on the news or are on mailing lists for new discoveries, as I am, there are constantly astonishing things and new learning to take your breath away: light captured being bent by black holes, a white dwarf star travelling out of our galaxy at two million miles an hour, the capturing of an image of a supernova, wandering planets and black holes (the mass of a black hole may be many million times that of our sun), not to mention the discoveries that await about planets and their moons within our own solar system.

The search for exoplanets (ones outside our solar system) with the signatures of life (most likely microbial) has extended to types of planet different to our own Earth. However there is a huge amount we don’t know about even our own solar system, e.g. whether there is a ninth planet (after the demotion of Pluto) and whether there is microbial life on Mars or the moons of other planets.

Partly because our solar system is in the middle of it, there is much we don’t know about our own galaxy, the Milky Way. Its visible diameter is 200,000 light years or more. It may contain 400 billion stars. And there may be a couple of trillion galaxies in the universe. You do the maths. Most stars have planets. And is there a universe of universes?

Of course there is wonder at the simple time and space involved; learning about objects in space where the light we see was emitted thousands of years ago, or in some cases very considerably more, with the hope to be able to learn more about light emitting from not long after the Big Bang (an event estimated to be 13.8 billion years ago). How about looking in some detail at a system eleven billion light years away? It is being done.

All of this is part of the amazing universe we live in and it doesn’t matter whether you are atheist, theist, pantheist or agnostic, it is all amazing. Whatever your beliefs or philosophy it is hard to get your head around the reality of the universe – of which we actually understand quite little. The universe in its vastness, diversity and scale is a challenge to us all to try to understand.

Meanwhile back on Earth, billionaire businessmen like Branson and Bezos justify their commercial flights to ‘inner space’ (for upwards of half a million dollars you get a short period of weightlessness and you see the curve of the Earth) by the inspiration it gives. Rubbish. This space tourism, for no scientific purpose, must use more than a lifetime’s per capita helping of fossil fuels in just a few minutes. It is a black hole of their own making. As such they should be banned immediately – along of course with, for the same reason, a lot of military manoeuvres which in scale are far more damaging. And at the moment military carbon emissions aren’t even counted in a country’s total.

Helping to destroy the one Earth we have and share is a crime against humanity and should be treated as such however much it might be dressed up in flowery language and it being a different experience for the rich and gullible. If said billionaires seriously wanted to provide inspiration they could do this through education including film about the beauty, knowledge and mystery about the universe (though of course the space flights involved are ego trips more than space trips for both participants and organisers).

Cue the song ‘From a distance’, written by Julie Gold and sung by many including notably Nanci Griffith who sadly died recently (she had great affection for Ireland despite no Irish roots; for her Irish related songs look out for Christmas on Grafton Street and It’s a hard life). Apart from the allegation that God is watching us from a distance – unlikely to please either atheists or Christian theologians who wouldn’t go for the ‘distance’ bit – it is somewhat of a peace anthem through some might consider it a bit schmaltzy (a word of German and Yiddish origin, indicating overly sentimental): “From a distance you look like my friend / Even though we are at war. / From a distance I just cannot comprehend / What all this fighting is for.” It is easily found online.

Our sense of wonder at the universe and at the nature of our Earth should extend to a sense of wonder at human life, and the uniqueness and preciousness or sacredness (in religious terminology) of it. Destroying our world? Killing human beings? Totally nonsensical. We human beings have a lot to learn. There may well be a Planet B but it is likely many thousand or million light years away.

Black, white, and Browne

It was the very start of indoor dining in the Republic, at the end of the hot weather in July but before the resumption of ‘normal’ Irish summer weather, and we were walking around Lough Eske in south Co Donegal, a few hours trek mainly on the circular road around the lake. We booked to have lunch at Lough Eske Castle Hotel en route, and very pleasant it was too. As we were getting ready to leave we noticed some photos on the stairs to the downstairs bar which had been renamed after Fr Frank Browne, the most famous photographer of the Titanic.

Thinking that it might display a dozen or two of his well known pictures, we hesitated and then went down. The bar was closed but the lights were on. It is an amazing collection of well over two hundred of his photos from the first half of the twentieth century mainly of Ireland and Irish people at work and play; the walls are filled with photos. He was a fantastic photographer and must have been a natural with people as well, not least in making friends on the first Titanic voyage from Southampton to Cobh (Queenstown in Cork as it then was) with rich US Americans who offered to pay his passage to the States. Asking permission, Fr Browne received the famous telegram that saved his life, from his superior – “Get off that ship – Provincial” – he joked that it was the only time religious obedience saved someone’s life.

The bar is filled with excellent photographic prints of Irish life of the time including a barefoot girl in winter, a couple of gents waiting for the pub to open after the ‘holy hour’ closure in the middle of the day, people at work and play in countryside and town, and some great photos of children. His work for the Jesuits involved travelling around Ireland so most corners of the country are covered in his photographic work. When the trunk of his photos was discovered in a Jesuit house a couple of decades after his death with 42,000 negatives, many had never been developed. His Titanic photos had earned him free film for life from Kodak – but he didn’t necessarily have the money to develop the photos he took, and any photographic fees he earned went to his religious order.

If you are into photography or recent Irish history it is well worth a visit for the price of a pint (which seemed reasonable to me) or a coffee and scone. It is perhaps ironic to name a bar after him given that he never took photos inside pubs so presumably did not frequent them but ignore that and visit if you get the chance – if you manage to visit when the bar itself is closed you can probably have the whole exhibition to yourself. When the bar is serving then clambering over people to see a photo might not be appreciated at the best of times but in the Covid era is impossible to do. Don’t forget your vaccination cert either to get in if current guidelines require it.

It was a brilliant surprise on our walking route around Lough Eske and is an amazing permanent exhibition. We will go again.


I have written before about bandes dessinées, and I proclaim this (‘illustrated strips’) is a more appropriate term in French than the English – the terms cartoons, comics or even graphic novels don’t seem to be appropriate (they may not be novels). In the case of the latter, graphic as an adjective has different meanings including detailed and explicit with possibly harrowing detail. But that would be appropriate for a classic of the genre, Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’, published three decades ago.

I bought a copy of ‘Maus’ (300 pages, Penguin) some time back but set it aside to read when I had the time and concentration (and it is a book which does require some of this) and I read it this summer. The Wall Street Journal is quoted on the back cover as saying it is “The most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust”; I could not possibly say if that is true but it is certainly both affective (creating emotion) and successful in telling its story, the survival of Polish Jew Vladek Spiegelman, the father of Art, the author and creator of the book.

The Holocaust/Shoah was such an apocalyptic event that it is difficult to do it justice in any narration. Art Spiegelman’s methodology is simply brilliant however in doing it through two main innovative mechanisms; portraying different groups as different animals (Jews as mice, Nazis as cats etc), and interweaving the story of his father in later life as Art works to get his survival story from him. The animals artifice and the juxtaposition of an elderly (and often stubborn and awkward) survivor and his previous existence as a young man intent on living make for a remarkable and thought-provoking work which will stay with you.

Another amazing aspect of the book is the stages- and strategies – which Vladek and his wife Anja had to go through to survive. They tumbled from one frying pan into the fire, to revert to another frying pan and another fire, and so on before eventually ending up in Auschwitz and being separated. At any one of these points they could have succumbed. At the end of the war neither knew whether the other had survived. They were then reunited until Anja killed herself in 1968; her mental health had never been good but going through the Holocaust would have incredibly difficult to process for anyone.

If someone should say that bandes dessinées cannot be serious works of art and political or historical commentary (some people may still do so despite the genre’s evolution over the last couple of decades in the English speaking world – the genre is more accepted in France and Belgium) this book is a major refutation of that argument. Maus is an important work of historical recall in the struggle against the dehumanisation of supposed enemies, and in remembering this terrible period in European history.

It seems appropriate to end this mention of Maus on an affective note which comes from the very end of the book. The final frame (or penultimate one if you take into account a final illustrative and informative flourish) shows the elderly Vladek, ill and tired, in bed, having finished telling his son Art the end of his survival story and reunification with Anja. In telling Art that he is tired from talking he calls him Richieu, the name of Vladek and Anja’s first son who died – was killed – as a young child in the Holocaust. If that does not bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat then possibly nothing will.


It was recently announced that the population of the area occupied by the Republic is just over 5 million, a couple of million more than at the start of the 1960s at which point the population of the 26 counties stopped going down (from the time of the Famine). With the North being around 1.9 million that takes us to almost 7 million on the island, only a bit over a million less than the population in 1846 at the start of the Famine; another couple of decades and it will likely catch up with that – two hundred years later, a unique demographic profile.

The population of Dublin is over 1.4 million. The scattered habitation pattern in the countryside in Ireland stretches back at least 5,000 years, to the Céide Fields of north Mayo, but in terms of the cost of infrastructure and ecology, urban can be much better (it depends on the nature of the urban and there is a huge task in retrofitting housing to implement the greening of Ireland). But if the move out from large urban/city areas under Covid breathes new life into towns and villages in the countryside that can also be a Good Thing for the country as a whole.

Obviously inward migration has played a role as well as natural population growth – and this has been an important cultural factor too. While family size has decreased it hasn’t done so in the same way as other relatively prosperous societies; maybe Irish people just like having children despite the huge cost of child care and rearing. And that is a nice and positive thought to hold on to…..even if it does raise questions about asset and resource use with an increasing population and increased numbers of older people.

Letter of the month

It is only occasionally that I pick a ‘Letter of the month’ so maybe it is a ‘Letter of the season’ or ‘Letter of the year’ but anyway….. You might not think every last detail is the same but still, here is a letter from Brendan Lyons in the Irish Times of 19/8/21: ““A war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” Rev GR Gleig writing in 1843 on the first Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42.”

Well, here we are at autumn again, not quite a normal autumn with Covid but not quite like last year either. Every season and time of year has its plus and minus points but there is still time to enjoy some September warmth, I hope, before you have to start generating your own. I hope things go gently for you anyhow, whatever you are up to, and I will see you again in a month’s time, Billy.