Dan Conway
Dan Conway is a long serving Ireland’s Own Columnist and he offers his views on a wide variety of local, national and international matters. He sometimes entertains with recollections of his foreign travels and things that caught his attention when out foreign. He is very fond of the books, and quite learned in his discourse, and often intersperse his offerings with snatches of poetry. He has introduced us to a cast of regulars from Dolly Harney’s Select Lounge and Bar, where Dolly herself keeps the peace and mediates in the verbal spats Dan enjoys with the likes of Johnny Begley (‘the Irascible One’) and Little Jimmy Murphy. Literally anything under the sun can get an airing in Dan Conway’s Corner

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The man with the portable microphone kept saying ‘one-two, one-two’, sometimes even in triplicate. He kept at it for the best part of five minutes. And all the time there was loud chattering as though preceding a concert in the parish hall.

Except that it wasn’t a concert; it was Christmas morning in church and the prelude to Holy Mass!

The priest, of course, welcomed everyone and said he was glad to see so many in the congregation. Indeed, every pew was filled to capacity. The priest then welcomed the children, as it was the birth of the Child Jesus. He told the parents to relax. It was OK, he said, for the children to run around and cry and make noise. I have no problem with that, he assured them.

Now, that is where I draw the line. It is one thing to have to endure noisy children during Mass or Sunday Service; it is quite another thing entirely to give them carte blanche, to have the priest actively encouraging them to misbehave. It is, after all, the House of God.
But it seems that respect has evaporated, not just for the liturgy but also the silence in which the words of scripture nestle. Without proper stillness, there is little or no sense of the sacred.

Outside, it was quite the sunniest Christmas morning seen in a long long while. The stain-glass windows came alive with the coloured garments of apostles and prophets, the nimbus around the heads of saints seemed to grow in brightness. A shaft of sunlight seemed to point to the crib by the Sacred Heart altar. The sound of the occasional passing motor car, subdued by evergreen oaks, seemed a natural part of the world outside.

When the sexton pulled upon the rope sending peals from the great metal bell-tower, the call to Christmas Mass must have sounded the same as it had done for maybe a hundred years, as it came to the ears of village folk and those at the furthest reaches of the big parish.

And I can picture the forest of bicycles leaning against the graveyard wall. Maybe a motor car or two. Folk still hurrying forward at the end of their long walk, dipping their finger in the the big free-standing stone font and disappearing into the church.

I wonder what they’d have made of the tumult of talk within the church itself, as the echoes of the bell died away and the congregation rumbled in their pews, awaiting the arrival of the priest upon the altar.

For one thing, the priest and his Mass-servers did not process. Nor did the Mass begin immediately. “We’ll be starting in a few moments,” the priest said, informally. One might be forgiven for thinking it was a concert that was toward, rather than the Mass.

We must preserve a sense of ritual, if we are to maintain a sense of the sacred. The prevailing laissez-faire attitude must be reined-in. The problems reside mainly in loose interpretations of Vatican Two, that seem to vary from parish to parish.
When I was a boy, we always knelt in prayer. Now, even when we’re kneeling, say after the Eucharist, we have to stand up to pray. It all seems to have been turned on its head. Also, in the same church a few months ago, the organist, during the reception and distribution of Holy Communion, played one of Moore’s melodies.
Much as I love the melodies of Ireland’s ‘national poet’, they are not appropriate as a sort of organ voluntary or ‘Communion music’. There must be a thousand pieces of church music and common hymns which he could.

More disconcerting still, one of the congregation to whom I mentioned this after Mass, saw nothing wrong with this, and any way, she added. “it was his favourite piece of music.”

Tom Moore must be turning in his grave at 78 rpm. ■

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“That’s a horse of a different colour,” stated Dolly Harney one evening recently in her Select Lounge. I can’t remember what she was referring to, but the phrase itself got me thinking. I could feel the old Conway cognitive mills begining to grind beneath my hat, and a myriad of horse-phrases galloped across my mind.

I’m not a great aficionado of horses, but I don’t entirely agree with Ian Fleming’s quip about horses being uncomfortable in the middle and dangerous at both ends (it would perhaps seem that the esteemed author didn’t excactly ‘bond’ with his trusty steed). I’m more inclined to agree with the picturesque ancient Arab saying, ‘the wind of heaven blows between a horse’s ears’.

There are horses for courses, of course. But then again there might not be, if it is a two horse race. In that event, it could be altogether a horse of a different colour. Foinavon was grey, I think. And he emerged from an even greyer mist at Beecher’s Brook to win the Aintree Grand National. Some say he hid in the shrouds of mist, and made only one circuit of the course.

Subterfuge or not, Foinavon pulled off one of the greatest upsets in racing history, winning at sixty-six to one, according to Johnny Begley, who claims to have backed him. Anyway, he was a bit of a dark horse, wasn’t he?

It was the subterfuge of the Trojan horse, otherwise known as ‘the wooden horse of Troy’, that led to the cautionary phrase, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. It seems the Greek army was often worth a trick or two.

When Croton Greeks were outnumbered three-to-one by the rival city army of Sybaris, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, some one came up with the amazing strategy of playing loud music at the advancing enemy. Someone had remembered that the horses of the Sybaris were famed for being trained to dance to music Still, one imagines the Greek soldiers were more than a bit nonplussed at this strange order to play dance music on their flutes. No doubt they were as surprised as any when all of the Sybaris horses started dancing and threw the cavalry into confusion. Faster and faster played the flutes, and faster and faster danced the horses, thus allowing the Crotonian Greeks to complete an unlikely military victory. No doubt, when the music stopped, the Sybarians had to face music of a different sort. Or so the story goes.

Horse-racing has been big business since the earliest days of the Roman Empire, and probably long before that. The notorious mad emperor, Caligula, built a stall made of marble within which stood a manger made of ivory, and all for a stallion named Incitatus, and then he went even further by granting the horse the status of senator (Mister Ed, eat your heart out).

That senatorial appointment, needless to say, met with strong disapproval among the Senators themselves, who no doubt, knowing their Caligula, had nightmarish visions of an equestrian takeover of the Senate while they were ‘put out to pasture’, so to speak.
Nowadays, top racing horses get our modern equivalent of marble stalls and ivory mangers. ‘Stars’ such as Arkle enjoyed the limelight, having twice consigned Millhouse to second place. SL Crawford’s painting of Arkle, Red Rum, and Desert Orchid, three of the greatest steeplechasers in history, hangs on the wall of my living-room. It is captioned ‘We Three Kings’.

Other horses had less pampered lives, as we’ve seen from the plethora of WWI horse articles and documentaries following upon the success of the film ‘War Horse’. And then there was the fictional work-horse in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, which was rewarded, not with ‘grass years’ but a one-way trip to the glue factory.

I’ll leave you with the thought that Anna Sewell’s much-loved ‘Black Beauty’ paved the way for a greater understanding of animal welfare.

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I love Lettice. Let me explain. That isn’t a mis-spelling of the little green salad star, but the first name of an amazing star whom I first saw on Britain’s Got Talent. Her full name is Lettice Rowbotham, and she is the most talented eccentric I’ve ever come across in song and in story.

She sings, she plays a mean rock violin. She’s got all the modern moves. Still, she plays The Londonderry Air (Danny Boy) on the violin with a depth of feeling and passion that belies her “with it” persona.

Lettice has a string orchestra which plays at various venues, and I hope that someday I’ll be able to be among her audience, whether in Chelsea or some more obscure hostelry in her native Surrey.

I watched her being interviewed by a young lady of her own age group (early twenties, I’d guess), and it was, as the blurb said, hilarious. How much was “put on” and how much the real Lettice, one can only guess. However, I doubt that anyone could be consistently “eccentric” without having at one’s core the heart of a true eccentric. For some reason, it warms the cockles of my heart to come across someone who is simply and profoundly eccentric. Perhaps it is more and more important—and rarer —in this overwhelming world of “Apps” and digital conformity, to find someone who is naturally outside of collective culture.

Nowadays, though, people don’t seem to notice very much. Everyone has access to communication devices, which are very useful and even essential for modern living, but which are also high-tech toys that are fast becoming our ball-and-chain. Governments love it. Security firms are in ecstasy over it all. So, I say, thank heaven for wonderful folk such as Lettice Rowbotham.

Why, even the very name itself is nothing if not an eccentric nomenclature. And it’s real. At least, I haven’t heard of anybody who says otherwise. Lettice, when being interviewed, has a head of iceberg lettuce on her lap and which she adverts to at the smallest opportunity. “My little lettuce,” she coos, obviously quite happy to send herself up. And that is very much a part of her charm.

She reminds me a little bit of Susan Boyle, in character, and in the amazing talent at her command. It’s a great pity Lettice didn’t win the final of the competition. But then, neither did the singing Scot.

Lettice also sings in a very good operatic voice; Susan has a voice that, when she touches a high note, seemingly borrows the wings of angels to reach truly celestial heights of performance. I feel, though, that Lettice’s talents are being overshadowed by her eccentricity, whereas Susan’s blessed simplicity and charm of personality are an integral part of her persona on and off the stage. There is also a ‘vulnerability’ about Susan that endears her to us; there is no such sense of vulnerability about Lettice Rowbothan as far as public performance goes.

But there is, however, a danger that Lettice’s talents may play second fiddle to her eccentric persona.  

That would be a shame. Much as I love the idea of her eccentricity, this multi-talented young lady has a great capacity to enrich the world of art and entertainment. As well as being a virtuouso violinist, she is also a visual artist, and has a fine operatic voice (as she showed for a few brief seconds in her semi-final performance on Britain’s Got Talent). She writes songs, too.

There’s a video of her on YouTube, from a few years back, performing her own composition ‘In The Orcan’ (apparently a place specific to orchids).
A bit on the naive side, perhaps, but an indicator of the kind of talent that peeps out from behind the eccentric blonde bombshell named Lettice.      

By the way, I love lettuce too.

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Saint John Paul II said that a “democracy” disconnected from truth becomes a “thinly disguised totalitarianism” where, among other things, basic rights like the right to life and religious liberty are subverted.

The word democracy is thrown around so much these days in support of this or that agenda, that one can only laud the truth and clarity and timeliness of John Paul’s statement.

Karol Wojtyla was a wise and heroic figure even before he became Pope John Paul II. There have been countless books and biographies about the newly-canonised saint, but the most enlightening and enthralling, for me at any rate, is the book simply entitled “Stories of Karol – the Unknown Life of John Paul II”, translated by Peter Heinegg from the original Italian of Gian Franco Svidercoschi.

The book chronicles the schooldays of the future Pope, his family life, his vocation and the theological and intellectual training that stood him in such good stead as he prepared the ground for the deconstruction of the old Soviet Union and the re-construction and re-unification of nations within Europe and eastern Europe.

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Dan Conway pays tribute to the late Albert Reynolds

Albert Reynolds did not enter political life until he was forty- four years of age, and he served as Taoiseach for less than three years.

But he made an impact on Irish politics that that belies his relatively short political career, and that few other Irish political figures have equalled since the foundation of the State.

And yet, while he was achieving great things in every ministerial position he held as part of government, and even while he worked so hard behind the scenes as leader of the country, there were those who looked down upon him from their dizzy intellectual heights, not fully able to comprehend how a man who liked, even loved, country music, could even aspire to the highest office in the land. I heard a man say that Albert Reynolds was the best Taoiseach Ireland ever had, bar none, and the man standing next to him replied “You might be right,” in that curiously Irish way of nearly agreeing with someone, or not quite disagreeing. I think he might be right. I’m almost sure he is. For I can think of no other Taoiseach who achieved so much in so short a term in office, and indeed in a relatively short political career.

That said, though, each and every leader performs to uniquely meet the needs of the time in which he serves.

They each have their day; and each leader has a unique socio-political climate in which to make a good and positive impact upon the country. I heard the names W. T. Cosgrave, Sean Lemass, Garrett Fitzgerald, and Charles Haughey punctuate conversations going on around me. There were others too, but these are the names I recall most readily. And among them, in that Irish pantheon, the name Albert Reynolds rings clear.

The late Albert was, I guess, the quintesssential man of the people. He was an astute businessman, the owner of a successful pet food company, and a dance-hall entrepeneur. He gave the impression that he always, or nearly always, had a song in his heart, and a Country & Western song at that.

He was an honest man, and perhaps that and an inherent decency, coupled with political nous, enabled him to play such a significant role in the Peace Process. I was very pleased to see the former British Prime Minister, John Major, at the funeral Mass.

There were, of course, many friends and admirers and contemporaries in the crowded pews as well, but to me, the presence of Mr. Major was perhaps most significant of all the visiting dignitaries to pay their last respects. The Holy Father, Pope Francis, paid a fulsome tribute which was read at the funeral service. In his letter from Rome, Pope Francis wrote that he’d learned with sadness of the death of Albert Reynolds, expressed gratitude for his efforts to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland, and prayed for the eternal repose of his soul.

Once, the late great American country star, Johnny Cash, was about to perform at an Irish venue. It was 1963, I think. Albert, who owned the premises, came in and told the manager to cancel the concert, as he had just received news of the death of Pope John XXIII. It is very unlikely that this would happen today. I can’t imagine a Garth Brooks show being cancelled for a similar reason, such are the ways of modern, ‘secular’ Ireland. Yet, the honour and respect shown to the late Albert Reynolds, the splendour of his send-off, the solemn funeral ceremony in the sacred Heart Church, in Donnybrook, belies such thoughts and bespeaks a Catholicism and a religiosity that is still vibrantly at the heart of this nation.

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The memory of Mr. Reynolds and his achievements will long reside in the heart of the nation, and in pages of modern Irish history. 

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Hasn’t it been a marvellous summer? Naturally, the weather is the chief topic in Ireland, even when we haven’t any. Weather, that is. No weather signifies bad weather.

At least where Johnny Beglwey is concerned. It’s been a great spell, he admitted, but added the caveat that before the start of the long summer, we had no weather at all.

The ‘weather birds’ on Sky News and the BBC, not to mention CNN, RTE, and all the assorted alphabet of new channels, seemed a bit left out of things, and tried their best to look happy for us out there in weather-land. I’ve long suspected that our various weathermen and women love it a tad better when the chart is awash with clouds that, in their potty parlance, ‘bubble up’. Talk of mixed metaphors.

The Irascible One licked the Guinness-froth from his upper lip and took a deep breath.

Then, while we waited upon his considered pronouncement on the matter in hand, he changed his mind, said nothing, and went back to contemplating his pint. Which was nearly as puzzling as going on a sunshine holiday when there was plenty of sunshine here. I can’t understand the folk who booked a Spanish holiday in the middle of our splendid summer. It might have been a few degrees warmer along the Iberian peninsula, but if one only goes to coastal Spain for the weather and the ocean, they might as well have stopped at home and enjoyed what we had here. And then came something of enlightenment from an unlikely quarter.

“You can’t get a Spanish suntan in Ireland,” Little Jimmy Murphy piped up. “I think you have something there,” Dolly smiled from behind a large glass bowl, which she was filling with pot pourri. Grunt, from Johnny Begley. And then we found out why the Irascible One was being so disgruntled. He was off to Spain himself the following Wednesday. It came as little solace to him that he had booked his Spanish sojourn away back in March, when the proverbial ‘many weathers’ were at play in field and village and town and suburb. Even though the leaves were littering pathways, still the sunny skies procrastinated over Autumn. The sun shone on, as though saying that the arrival of autumnal days would happen soon enough. Still, there was the unmistakeable ‘feel’ of autumn in the air even though it was still summery at the height of the day. And underneath it all, the orchards, with heavy-laden boughs, around which tractors and pickers atop mechanical things congregated to harvest whatever variety is in vogue nowadays.

And there’s a hint of nostalgia, too. I’m thinking of the late Gerald Spencer, proprietor of the now-defunct orchards of Silverspring Fruits in county Kilkenny, and his good wife, a lady of the old school, who died some little while ago. Good folk. God rest them both. It’s a cultural thing, I guess. This summer of summers, our heat has been ‘clean’ and not at all like the humid days we have been subjected to in years gone by. September, I gather, has been the warmest on record. And that’s saying something.

September has traditionally been a reasonably good month always to be relied upon to provide a modicum of good weather even at the end of a disappointing summer. Perhaps we really are getting, more and more, Mediterranean-style weather. In which case the weather-birds may have to revise their ‘script’. Less variation in the weather means less to talk about, less clouds and weather fronts for the computer graphic artist to shove hither and thither on our telpevision screen, or from Billy to Jack, as my old grannie used to say. I’d love to know who Billy was and why things went from him to Jack? – whoever he was.


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