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Apr 09

As you can see the avatar has been changed. The new image is of a salmon leaping so that it grasps its own tail. The salmon was a symbol of wisdom and knowledge in Irish myth. The Fiannaidheacht (Fenian cycle of stories) include a tale where Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicised to Finn McCool) was set by his master, the druid Finnegas to catch the salmon of knowledge who lived in a pool on the Boyne. Whoever ate the salmon would gain all the world’s knowledge. Finn caught the fish and was set to cook it for his master. However Finn burned his thumb on the fish and instinctively put the thumb into his mouth, swallowing a tiny piece of fish, and gaining the knowledge. The image is based on a drawing in a manuscript (Royal MS 13 B VIII, c. 1196-1223) in the British Library. The manuscript is a copy of Gerald of Wales’ Topography of Ireland (pdf), with other works of his, dedicated to King Henry II. There is a blog post here, including the original image of a salmon...


Medieval snap; or The necessity of martyrs

Medieval snap; or The necessity of martyrs

Apr 03

An early horse meat scandal in Ireland (via “Topography”) A look at the history of Irish philosophy shows that a rather high proportion of our well known philosophers worked abroad. But we do know that bishops capable of debate were around before John Toland aggravated Bishops Edward Synge and William King. Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) came to Ireland to visit his Barry relatives in 1186-7. He wrote a description of the country in his Topography of Ireland. As in his works about Wales, Gerald is less than complimentary about the nonNormans he encounters. In his Topography (pp 79-81) he argues that the Irish people have many failings, and attributes this to the failure of prelates to preach to them. To support that preaching was lacking he cites the unparalleled lack of martyrs in the story of Ireland’s conversion to Christianity. If there had been a “voice like a trumpet” preaching to this uncivilised nation, says Gerald, there should have been martyrs. He once (he tells us) put this argument to Maurice, archbishop of Cashel, (probably Muirges Ua hÉnna?) “a discreet and learned man” who retorted: It is true that although our nation may seem barbarous, uncivilized, and cruel, they have always shewn great honour and reverence to their ecclesiastics, and never on any occasion raised their hands against God’s saints. But there is now come into our land a people who know how to make martyrs, and have frequently done it. Henceforth Ireland will have its martyrs, as well as other countries. It’s not clear if Gerald got the insult to the Normans (note this reported conversation would have been ten years after Thomas Becket in Canterbury) or that it showed him that Irish toleration was as good an explanation as inadequate preaching for the lack of martyrs. But in any case, SNAP! 16 March 2014: Patrick took great care in negotiating his way through the complex, fragmented and hierarchical Irish society he found himself in. More at...


Borges on Irish Philosophy

Borges on Irish Philosophy

Mar 17

I was intrigued by these quotes from Jorge-Luis Borges in Richard Kearney’s Post-Nationalist Ireland. My father introduced me to Berkeley’s philosophy at the age of ten. Before I was even able to read or write properly he taught me to think. He was a professor of psychology and every day after dinner he would give me a philosophy lesson. I remember very well how he first introduced me to Berkeley’s idealist metaphysics and particularly his doctrine that the material or empirical world is an invention of the creative mind: to be is to be perceived/esse est percipi. It was one day after a good lunch when my father took an orange in his hand and asked me: ‘What colour is this fruit?’ ‘Orange’, I replied. ‘Is this colour in the orange or in your perception of it?’ he continued: ‘And the taste of the sweetness—is that in the orange itself or is it the sensation on your tongue that makes it sweet?’ This was a revelation to me: that the outside world is as we perceive or imagine it to be. It does not exist independently of our minds. From that day forth, I realised that reality and fiction were betrothed to each other, that even our ideas are creative fictions. An early diet of Berkeley explains a lot, I think! Borges also had thoughts about whether there were any particular common strands in Irish philosophy… Berkeley was the first Irish philosopher I read, from the Principles and the Three Dialogues to Siris, and even his messianic poem about the future of the Americas: ‘The course of Empire takes its sway… etc.’ Then followed my fascination for Wilde, Shaw and Joyce. And finally there was John Scotus Erigena, the Irish metaphysician of the 9th century. I loved to read Erigena, especially his De Divisone Naturae, which taught that God creates himself through the creation of his creatures in nature. I have all of his books in my library. I discovered that Berkeley’s doctrine of the creative power of the mind was already anticipated by Erigena’s metaphysics of creation and that this in turn recurred in several other Irish writers. In the last two pages of the foreword to Back to Methuselah, we find Shaw outlining a philosophical system remarkably akin to Erigena’s system of things coming from the mind of God and returning to him. In short, what Shaw...


Double Irish

Double Irish

Mar 17

Johannes Scotus Eriugena. One of the best philosophers this island has ever produced. Second only to Berkeley probably. Double Irish? Scotus (Scot) was the name for a Irishman at the time, but many lived in Scotland (due to invading). Eriugena means “born in Ireland”. So Johannes Scotus Eriugena means “Irish John born in Ireland”. Sadly, I don’t understand him. (Yet!) So I’m going to tell a story about him, probably not true (you know that William of Malesbury!), which is rather appropriate for St Patricks Day. Eriugena was the court philosopher, Greek expert and all round clever guy for Carolingian King Charles the Bald. Sitting at table one day, the king asked (in Latin) Quid distat inter sottum et Scottum? (what separates a sot (drunkard) from an Scot (Irishman)?) Eriugena looked him in the eye and replied, Mensa tantum (Only a table). So remember that next time a king gets cheeky. And he was the guy who used to be on the five punt note. The day we stopped having philosophers on our banknotes was the day it all went downhill. A moment of silence please. links Leonard O’Brian Janus Journeys:Explorations in Irish Philosophy. Johannes Scotus Eriugena Johannes Scotus Eriugena on the SEP (by Dermot Moran), Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western...