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We need new words to describe the Putin dictatorship

Sunday, 18 March, 2018 0 Comments

Today in Russia, millions of people will go to polling stations and cast their votes in the presidential election. The candidates will be shown on TV placing their ballots into boxes and smiling at the cameras. Later Vladimir Putin, who is certain to get 64 percent 73.9 percent of the vote, will thank the electorate for returning him to the presidency for another six years and world leaders will congratulate him on his victory. All of this will be reported in detail by the Russian media.

Many of the words used in that paragraph are taken from the vocabulary of democracy: polling stations, votes, election, ballots, presidency, media. Yet, in this case, they have been hijacked by a sham process designed to support a dictator, who intends to rule Russia for as long as he wants.

Garry Kasparov, chairman of the Human Rights Foundation and the author of Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped, examines the language of the farce taking place today in Russia in a Weekly Standard article titled The Truth About Putin. Snippet:

“Russia’s election spectacle on March 18 isn’t only a domestic distraction. It provides Putin’s defenders in the free world with rhetorical ammunition, as do the approval polls and fake controversies over the fake opposition candidates. There is no form of democratic process or opposition in Putin’s Russia. Pretending otherwise makes you complicit in his propaganda. Stop calling them elections. Stop calling Putin a president. Stop calling to congratulate him on his victories. Let us begin the fight against Putin’s lies with the fundamental truth about what he really is.”


Patrician peak

Saturday, 17 March, 2018 0 Comments

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh go léir! (Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you all!)

The holiest mountain in Ireland is Croagh Patrick, five miles from the town of Westport and overlooking island-dotted Clew Bay. According to local belief, Saint Patrick fasted for forty days and nights on the summit during Lent in the year 441 AD, and on the last Sunday in July every year (“Reek Sunday”), pilgrims from near and far climb the mountain in honour of Saint Patrick.

In 1972, the great Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka climbed Croagh Patrick and captured the quintessence of rural Irish Catholicism in one iconic image. The kneeling pilgrims pictured are, from left to right, Sean Pheat Mannion, Paddy Kenny and Martin Mannion from Connemara. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anam.

Croagh Patrick

Memento mori

Friday, 16 March, 2018 0 Comments

The 8th of October 1982 was a Friday and it didn’t rain in north County Dublin. In the wider world, it was the day when Poland banned the Solidarity trade union and the musical Cats opened on Broadway, but it was also the day when Séamus Ennis, the legendary piper and music collector, was buried in Naul. One person, and only one person, could have played the obligatory lament at the graveside and the honour went to Liam O’Flynn, who had studied and lived with the master himself, and who best embodied that tradition to which Ennis had devoted his life.

Today, the lament will be played for Liam O’Flynn and all the grace and gravitas that marked a career and a life that gave so much joy to so many people will fulfill the inexorable mortal destiny of “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” RIP.

Liam O'Flynn lament

Remembering Liam O’Flynn

Thursday, 15 March, 2018 0 Comments

Fulsome are the tributes that have been published following the death yesterday of the uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn. And deservedly so, as he was unique. That mastery of an ancient tradition imbued him with the confidence to place his music before a restless, modern audience demanding progress but still wishing to retain some links with the past and the enthusiastic resonance — from Clonnmel to Copenhagen — ensured the success of the groundbreaking group Planxty.

Liam O’Flynn was charming and erudite, witty and cultured, polite and professional and, above all, human. Those fortunate enough to have known him know how much he’ll be missed. At this time, it’s appropriate to paraphrase C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed: “His absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”

Patricia Teherán sings Me Dejaste Sin Nada

Wednesday, 14 March, 2018 0 Comments

It’s the week of Saint Patrick and as the world prepares to celebrate his feast day on Saturday, we’re paying tribute today to Patricia, the feminine form of the name. In Italy, it’s written as Patrizia and in Poland it’s Patrycja, while in Portuguese it’s Patricinha and in Spanish-speaking countries, the spelling is Patricia.

Patricia Teherán (1969 – 1995) was the most important female voice in the history of Vallenato, a musical genre native to the Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. It’s an Afro-Latin-Euro mix that blends voice with the caja, the accordion and the guacharaca. The melodies and rhythms are infectious and Patricia Teherán embodied the format in all its joy and melancholy. Her death in a car crash on the road from Barranquilla to Cartagena was tragic and untimely. She was just 25.

Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled

Tuesday, 13 March, 2018 0 Comments

Faber & Faber has announced the publication of Seamus Heaney: 100 Poems, a collection of the late Literature Laureate’s most treasured and celebrated verse. Publication on 28 June will coincide with the opening of a major new exhibition, Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, curated by the National Library of Ireland and presented in the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre, College Green, Dublin.

This snippet is from Heaney’s The Glanmore Sonnets and it conjures up memories of happy winter evenings spent beside the fire in the home of Denis and Mary Grogan.

Winter-evening cold.
Our backs might never warm up but our faces
Burned from the hearth-blaze and the hot whiskeys…
As green sticks hissed and spat into the ashes
And whatever rampaged out there couldn’t reach us,
Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled.

The Grogan fireplace

Garech Browne (1939 – 2018)

Monday, 12 March, 2018 0 Comments

Garech Browne, the Guinness scion who died in London on Saturday, was one of the most important patrons of traditional and modern Irish art. His spectrum of taste can be summed up in his friendships, which ranged from the piper Paddy Moloney to the painter Francis Bacon. And in the middle of this charmed world stood Luggala, the exquisite 18th-century house located on 5,000 mountainous acres in County Wicklow, which acted as a magnet for the local and the global, from Dublin poets and East Clare fiddle players to Hollywood film directors.

Luggala played a decisive role in the fortunes of the Cockburn family in the mid-1950s as Alexander Cockburn recounted in Corruptions of Empire: Life Studies & the Reagan Era. His father, Claud, author of the novel Beat the Devil, had found temporary refuge from his creditors at the estate and then John Huston arrived:

“Quite apart from the simple comfort of not having water on the floor, and bailiffs at the gate, Luggala was a wonderful place to go in the mid-1950s. Writers and artists from Dublin, London Paris and New York drank and sang through the long hectic meals with a similarly dissolute throng of politicians and members-in-good-standing of the café society of the time. And during this particular Horse Show week Luggala was further dignified by the presence of the film director John Huston and his wife of those years, Ricky. My father was a friend of Huston — from his stint in New York in the late 1920s perhaps, or maybe from Spanish Civil War days — and quite apart from the pleasure of reunion there was Beat the Devil, ready and waiting to be converted into a film by the director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

My father spoke urgently to Huston of the virtues of Beat the Devil, but he found he had given, beneath fulsome dedications, his last two copies to our hostess and to a fellow guest, Terry Gilmartin. These copies were snatched back and thrown into Huston’s departing taxi. A week later, Huston was in Dublin again, shouting the novel’s praises. He and Humphrey Bogart had just completed The African Queen and were awaiting the outcome of that enormous gamble. I can remember Huston calling Bogart in Hollywood and reading substantial portions of the novel to him down the phone — a deed which stayed with me for years as the acme of extravagance.”

Note: Garech Browne’s father was Dominick Browne, the Fourth Lord Oranmore and husband of Oonagh Guinness, daughter of Honorable Arthur Ernest Guinness, the second son of the first Lord Iveagh. Dominick Browne had the rare distinction of sitting in the House of Lords for 72 years until his death at age 100 in August 2002, without ever having spoken in debate. May they all Rest in Peace.


Window on the world above the Yellow River

Sunday, 11 March, 2018 0 Comments

There’s only one Chinese photographer among the World Press Photo nominees this year, but Li Huaifeng’s image of two elderly brothers delighted by a laptop in their yaodong dwelling on the Loess Plateau is really beautiful. Those who say technology is destroying society should check their privileges.

World Press Photo

The Nominal “Be”

Saturday, 10 March, 2018 0 Comments

“To be” can take on many different meanings as a verb, but it’s also flexible enough to become a noun. “Has-been” has been a noun since the 17th century, when the Scottish referred to ancient customs as the “gude aulde has-beens.” Now “has-been” is a succinct way to say “person who once was important in a field but no longer has that importance.” There are also nouns for future states, as in “bride-to-be”; states that never came to pass, as in “might-have-been”; and desired states, as in “wannabe.” These are just a few of many uses the ancient, flexible, large, and messy “be” has been put to. Without it (to use an example of “identifying be”) English just wouldn’t be English.

That item of grammatical erudition is the work of Arika Okrent, a linguist who has carved out a nice of her own thanks to a series of popular Tube videos about language. “The Little Verb at the Heart of the English Language” is a piece she wrote last month for Curiosity, and it’s a useful outline of the history and structure of that most irregular English verbs, “to be.”

The thing learners of English find so challenging about “to be” is that it looks nothing like “am”, which looks nothing like “were”. All of this is due to the fact that “am” and “is” date back to one verb, while “be”, “being” and “been” have their origins in a verb meaning “to become” or “grow”. And if that wasn’t enough, “was” and “were” go back to verb meaning “remain” or “stay”. Down the generations, these concepts merged into a verb with a unique identity, but a vast number of precise meanings.

Crowdfarming: Naranjas del Carmen

Friday, 9 March, 2018 0 Comments

The next agricultural revolution will connect people with food and farmers will grow only what’s going to be consumed. Says who? Say the brothers Gonzalo and Gabriel Úrculo of Bétera, a village in Valencia. They founded Naranjas del Carmen in 2010 as an online business focused on the direct sale of citrus fruits, but disruptive times require flexible business models and now, instead of selling oranges, they sell orange trees. And people from all over Europe are trekking to Bétera to see their threes and collect the fruit of those trees. This means a boost for regional tourism as well.

Gonzalo and Gabriel came up with the idea after inheriting a disused orchard from their grandfather that was set be sold. Today, they have some 11,000 orange trees in the orchard, and more than 5,000 would-be-owners on a waiting list. Naranjas del Carmen sells 50,000 kilograms of oranges a week, shipping to owners throughout Europe. Annual sales have climbed from an initial €25,000 to €2.5 million.

Business model: Each tree is planted specifically for customers, who have the right to receive its produce whenever they want. In return, the customer pays an annual upkeep fee for up to 25 years. What happens before the purchased tree begins to produce fruit? The company offers the customer oranges from a fully grown tree that doesn’t yet have an owner. Muy inteligente.

Naranjas del Carmen

The World Obscura: Taj Mahal

Thursday, 8 March, 2018 0 Comments

Simon Mulvaney says he’s currently on a round-the-world trip, “working my way east from India to the United Kingdom.” You can follow his adventures on His visit to the Taj Mahal, one of the New7Wonders of the World, was “consumed by a fascination of it’s visitors desperation to capture their moments on camera.” Apropos our obsession with recording every moment of every experience:

“As I myself spent most of my time capturing their moments, it became brutally clear to me that neither this film, nor their photographs can ever capture the heart-wrenching beauty of that stunning building, yet only succeed in completely detaching us from the moment itself.”