In praise of Arnold Horner.

In Uncategorized on December 17, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

Colette Colfer and I are planning a conference paper on the adaptation of spaces for religious worship in Dublin and Waterford. Colette did some really good work under the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund in the recent past. I’m interested in knowing a bit more about warehouse churches in general. As part of the preparation for this work, a friend told me about a chapter in a book called Surveying Ireland’s Past. This is a ten year old collection of essays in honour of Anngret Simms . Because it is ten years old, it is full of people who had established academic jobs in geography and elsewhere long before I got to it. Aside from being a fine collection of multidisciplinary essays published by Geography Publications, it contains one of the best examples of the kind of geography that may never be written again. One of these is the chapter that Colette and I are interested in building on. It is written by Arnold Horner and is about the changing uses for churches and other religious sites in Dublin since the 1930s. I have had the pleasure of being in Arnold’s company and being in his home on summer days. He shows immense interest in the work that others do and is gracious about the contributions that he has made to the study of Ireland over the last four decades and more. He retains a genuine curiosity about the world that is slowly being administered out of geographical thought and academic research more generally. I never worked or studied under Arnold but I recently shared a lunch queue with him. We discovered that we had a mutual interest in available parish boundary maps. We email each other very occasionally.

The chapter that Colette and I are hoping to advance in our own paper is perhaps the best example of public geography that anyone could hope to read. You may have no interest in church buildings in Dublin. You may not even have read any geography since third year. But Arnold brings you along in a story about the changing religious landscape of Dublin and its people in a way that only the finest writers can communicate. In a single map or table he makes a complex idea simple. In his hands, a changing religious landscape becomes something real. I would be delighted if I could help advance his story into the early years of the twenty first century. Good research doesn’t rock ur world 4eva, it encourages you to proceed with more.Dublin 1 - my own photo.

Here’s the thing though: the chances are, I will not get the opportunity to. Arnold’s geography is of a kind that expresses keen interest, not KPIs. It is a chance to tell a story, not to foster innovation. The kind of geographic thought that he encourages does not slavishly attend to fund-inducing rankings or linked in any way with international best practice. It is a kind of research and writing that is full sure that others will take an interest in what he has to say because it constitutes the fabric of the world around us. It is politically engaged but not freighted with political-economic theory. This chapter on the changing fortunes of places of worship mentions places that many will know or are now only imprinted on the streetscape as memory. It shows a concern for place that may never find a home again. The Irish university that Arnold worked within is changed utterly. Now, universities see more purpose in rebranding bins than encouraging students to be curious. It actually insults his intelligence while at the same time worries about how much paper is being used in the photocopier. It seeks validation from the Anglo view of the world while at the same time talking up its Irishness as an essentialised virtue. Arnold’s geographic imagination (and those of Simms, Nolan and Aalen) will outlast the passing fad of registrars with red pens.

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Reblogged from Religion Bulletin

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

I came to geography late through sociology. I always felt that there was a crucial element of the knowledge missing in my sociological understanding of the world. It turned out that this missing piece was space. Sociologists talk about space but only geography provides a rigorous theoretical unpacking of space and all things spatial. Strange then maybe that I found the best exposition of the spatial and the religious in an anthropology book. Asad’s Formations of the Secular provides one of the most powerful and compelling cases for a relational geography of the religious and the secular. Written as a series of essays, it introduces several important ideas about the social expression about the religious and the secular.  I found his approach vital to my own doctoral research. From an Irish perspective in particular, Asad provides a way out of the analytical dead end within which a normative European model of secularisation revolves.


To understand secularisation, says this analysis, we must accept the increasing distance between private life and public behaviour. Religious social expression, if thought of as a public performance, is given its own space, an allowance to perform as one institution among many. This institutional differentiation allows for clear distinctions to be made between what is public and what constitutes private behaviour. This is reflected back to us as declining religious significance. Survey after survey shows smaller numbers of people attending church services. In this frame, beliefs are central: a belief in god, in the church, in some form of life after death. What replaces these beliefs is something called ‘the secular’. Asad’s Formations… turns this understanding around. It does so by asking some ordinary questions about who the public is, who defines what and where the private can be found. Most importantly, he asks what is public in the first place about the public sphere? For Asad, the public sphere is soaked with pre-existing configurations of power:


The investment people have in particular arguments is not simply a matter of abstract, timeless logic. It relates to the kind of person one has become, and wants to continue to be. In other words, there is no public sphere of free speech at an instant. (p.184)


This way of looking at the public sphere means that it is not merely the background of the people engaging that matters but the very notion of what gets counted as ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ as political principles. To me, this means that many academic understandings of the public sphere rely on an idealised subject. This way of thinking about secularisation involves a conception of the human as a free individual. In short, orthodox theoretical contributions which centre on the distinction between the private and the public are founded on an individualism particular to certain strands of European thought. The public sphere is not an empty space.


The public sphere is a space necessarily (not just contingently) articulated by power. And everyone who enters it must address power’s disposition of people and things, the dependence of some on the goodwill of others. (p.184)


Those thought of as religious, at least in many European contexts, may have to threaten existing power structures in order to be heard. In formal geographic terms, the public sphere is a series of contestations. The performances, practices and events of the secular and the religious are contested in various places, often in relation to each other. This has vital political consequences. In Ireland, where the Catholic church and the state allied for much of the twentieth century, clear distinctions between private and public space is barely discernable. More generally, religion is criticised for interfering in the proper business of politics and in the private life of individuals. However, as he argues:


…secularists accept that in modern society the political increasingly penetrates the personal. At any rate, they accept that politics, through the law, has profound consequences for life in the private sphere. So why the fear of religious intrusion into private life? This partiality may be explained by the doctrine that while secular law permits the essential self to make and defend itself (“our rights constitute us as modern subjects”), religious prescriptions only confine and dominate it. (p.186)


The individual in society, constrained already by law in their private conduct, conceives of himself as constrained by the religious. In this framing, both politics and religion are interrogated critically but jointly. Beyond this though, Asad’s excavation of the secular provides the basis for a decolonisation of the secular. This is done by placing European conceptions of secular legality in a relationship with the development of Islamic legal thought. In the final chapter of the book, Asad discusses how law has changed over time in Egypt. In particular, he is concerned with two questions:


How did Muslims think about secularism prior to modernity? What do Muslims today make of the idea of the secular? (p.205)


In doing this, he ably demonstrates the ways in which legal systems and their governance develop in relation to legal developments elsewhere. In Egypt, the developing relationship between religion, law and morality is influenced by its history as a colony of Britain. He decentres the study of the relationship between the religious and the secular, taking the focus away from European trajectories of the secular. Instead, the secular is denaturalised to become a conjunction of historical and geographical circumstances. In the Irish context, where Catholic identity is intimately connected with being Irish, Asad’s approach allows a more profound analysis. This analysis is not based on a story of constant decline and privatisation. It locates religion in some places and not others, always in dialogue, not replacement.


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In Uncategorized on December 5, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

December 2014 marks a bit of a turning point if I am honest. This time last year I was mourning my mother (still am really), I was about three months from completing my doctoral thesis and 2014 itself was yawning before me like some 22 month year in anticipation of ‘the oceans of time I would have’ post-PhD. Only two of these turned out to the way I had thought. This year turned out to be a long struggle with both NUIM (now Maynooth University) and the Office of the Ombudsman.

In an earlier post I outlined very briefly how the Registrar’s Office insisted on a fifth year of fees despite completing the thesis to academic satisfaction in four. This struggle was not helped by an intransigent postholder keen to imprint a particular style of management. There was an insistence on rules which were for their own sake, not reflected in common practice. I asked the Office of the Ombudsman to examine my case, in advance of shelling out €3,400 for nothing. It took so long for that office to examine and rule on my case that by September, I felt no choice but to pony up anyway. I wanted my doctoral thesis examined this side of Christmas. I may well reflect on the viva process in a future post but the pre-viva experience has been alienating to say the least. I will not say too much about my interaction with the Office of the Ombudsman until my appeal of their decision has been brought to a conclusion.

In the meantime, things that are more positive from an academic point of view: I successfully defended my thesis (with Prof. Avril Maddrell as external examiner) and I managed to write a couple of thousand words for various upcoming projects. The most exciting of these is making a small contribution to an exhibition of photography to be held at Darc Space, Dublin 1 next month. I’ll be blogging about that once it opens. I’ve also managed to contribute a book chapter to a volume on the bible in Ireland which might be published in 2015. However, and this is where the clouds are a little darker, I need to adjust my writing style for articles. Someone close to me says that I write blog posts well but when it comes to journal articles, I lose coherence and not a little clarity. It is as if  I feel the need to write like ‘an academic’, a style that was cultivated while an MA student in the 1990s. I continue to receive great support from friends and others in my pursuit of a new career. For now, here’s another plug for the RSP interview I did earlier this year which I enjoyed doing very much. Chris Cotter and the wider team have done some excellent work. Here’s hoping that NSRN Online benefits from Chris’s energy and enthusiasm.


The former life of a Talbot Street internet cafe

In Uncategorized on December 4, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

Eoin O'Mahony:

This is one of those blog posts that shows how ‘religious’ places are remade and remembered. Great work here.

Originally posted on Come here to me!:

Five Star Internet Cafe (Talbot Street) Five Star Internet Cafe (Talbot Street) Image by Ciaran (CHTM)

Covered in graffiti, the Five Star Internet Cafe on Talbot Street is an interesting building to look at from outside. Inside it is taken over by computers, telephones and pool tables, which give no real hint of the former life of this building.

This building was once a church – a Welsh Presbyterian Church to be precise. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1838, and as Howell Evans has written “its original intention was not for the Welsh in Dublin, but mainly for the Welsh visiting the city.” Its proximity to the docks of Dublin ensured that visiting Welsh seamen would avail of the church. A contemporary sailors magazine noted that  “In Dublin, English and Welsh seamen hear the Gospel preached to them several times a week, in their respective languages.” Another article in a sailors magazine…

View original 460 more words

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No money? No degree.

In Uncategorized on April 24, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

I know that doing a PhD degree and (mostly) paying for it myself is a position of cultural and educational privilege. This makes the following a little trivial in the bigger scheme of things.

EDIT: I registered for the first time in January 2010. I handed my approved-for-examination thesis to the Exams Office at NUI Maynooth on February 26th last. The submission form was not signed by the Fees Office because I knew that they would not sign it. They had previously confirmed that I had to pay one more year’s fees (€3,427) before it could be ‘accepted’. The Exams Office took in the form and thesis volumes although phoned me later to say that the form was incomplete. Earlier this month, I went back to the Exams Office and collected the incomplete form but was not asked to take back the volumes. So the thesis has been accepted by the university’s Academic Council for examination but not by the Fees Office. The Registrar of the university will not send the thesis volumes to the approved internal and external examiners until I pay a fifth year of fees. No money? No degree.

According to a Graduate Studies online policy, a full time doctoral student can be examined following four semesters (two years) having paid €10,194 in fees. Why are part-time students asked to hand over €17,135 for a five year (it used to be six) period for the same outcome? In other words:

2 X years Full-time PhD, €5,097 p.a. = €10,194
5 X years Part-time PhD, €3,427p.a. = €17,135
There is no stipulation for full-time students that they must register for a minimum number of years. Right now I am asking the Registrar and Graduate Studies Office to justify the differential in fee structure at NUIM. I also want to know how the examination process on my thesis can be resumed as soon as possible.

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Conference season

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

Like decorative gourd season, conference season is upon us again. This year it is odd for me to be planning on presenting papers at two, maybe three, conferences. I am not really any longer a student of geography at NUIM (but I wait for the viva date) and I am not an academic or researcher in a university. So, here are the abstracts for two forthcoming conferences. It was odd putting them together and at times it seemed like I was writing nonsense just to make a deadline. Oh right. That was the PhD. 


Conference the first: ISASR 2014 “Religion and remembering”, Belfast, late May.

Religion, place and memory in Ireland: the substitution of ordinary time for higher time.

Memory is a central part of how people make place. People draw upon recent and distant memories to create place and share the significance of places with others. This is particularly evident in the ways in which religious place is made. Memory is not just drawn upon in religious place making, it is often constitutive of the ‘right way’ to do religious place making. There is a longer duration of time (Taylor’s higher time) employed in the recreation of these religious places. In this paper, I want to examine how religious place, memory and time interact in an Irish context.

Arising from data conducted during my doctoral fieldwork, I propose that religious place making is often marginalised for being ‘out of time’. Where place making is contested between religious and secular meanings, religious places are relegated to a past. In this process, the higher time of religious place making is cut short, evacuating it of its other meanings. The paper presents a case for a more open-ended understanding of how religious places and secular places are co-produced.

Conference the second: CIG, Dublin, earlier in May. 

Contested landscapes of the sacred and the secular: three cases from Ireland. 

More than a decline of religious practice, secularisation is about how some places continue to be religious while others are made secular. Distinctions drawn between places as secular or religious place them in relation to each other. Secular meanings in place do not replace religious meanings but remain as sites of ongoing contestation. Place-making occurs through struggles over resources and symbols. This relational understanding of place foregrounds the continued contestations of religious and secular practices, sites and landscapes. These contestations about place-making allow geographers to go beyond the micropolitics of religious spatial expression. It enables geographers of religion to connect contestations over place to broader political processes.

In this paper, I explore three different contestations over religious and secular place-making in Ireland. The first of these is the maintenance practices at statues of the Virgin Mary sited on public land in Dublin city. The second set of place-making relations I examine are at sites of pilgrimage performance: a small island in a lake in the north west of Ireland called Lough Derg, a walk around a Norman castle in Wexford and an arduous climb up a sacred mountain where St Patrick preached. Thirdly, I examine Catholic primary schools, places where children are made both as faithful and as citizens. Together, these three contested landscapes make up a changing geography of religion in Ireland. However, in different ways, they connect with larger political processes. The paper concludes by examining these processes and proposes a new way in which the geography of religion can move beyond simple dichotomies to adequately represent place.


Tired. Emotional.

In Uncategorized on February 17, 2014 by Eoin O'Mahony

On Saturday I had a conversation with someone who detected one of the significant features of political culture in Ireland: the over personalisation of public debate. If I understood her correctly, and alcohol was involved, there seems to be little sense among many in Ireland of a public interest. Even if normatively defined as ‘things that we might disagree about’, this public interest is external to individual interests and resides somewhere as an abstracted public. I have long speculated that in Ireland, a public sphere exists but it is an atrophied kind of public sphere. It is bisected by so many competing interests and whatabouterries that it can be hard to recognise. And then this morning, I noted Richard’s question about how matters of democratic deliberation are often left hanging in mid-air as if nothing can be done about Shatter or Callinan or Burton or Irish Water: “it isn’t just a matter of outlining how dreadful [Shatter] is, but at the very least to pose the question: how do we eject this f***er from office?” The ideas seem to be linked. There is a disabling politics at work here: isn’t it dreadful that Shatter comprehensively abuses his office and misrepresents issues but “sher, what can we do about it? Aren’t they in charge?”

I’ve been listening to this disabling politics for about three decades now. In a state where a Centre for Public Inquiry can be skewered by rumour alone and where all it takes to shut down a debate is to throw a lawyer’s writ across a table, how do we get beyond the idea that elected power is unassailable? One of the most awful symptoms of this is when anyone half-way articulate stands up at a meeting and expresses a coherent opinion, people ask afterwards if they’re a politician. The ability to speak in public, even if not encouraged through the Best Education System in the World, is thought to be the preserve of a class of individuals who can only be understood in the narrowest of terms of what politics means. Another terrible symptom of this is the notion that the mildest of NGOs like the ICCL or the Penal Reform Trust are committed to overthrowing the dominant ideological system as opposed to asking mundane questions about policies that matter to all of us. They are always irritants in the smooth functioning of a system that makes the visit of Brian Hayes to a flooded Limerick the sign of regal mercy itself. “These people are never happy, are they? Always whinging about their rights and justice” goes the line. A further symptom of this disabling politics is that the local elections and the European elections can be held on the same day without any regard for what a FF-dominated council means for Roscommon because really, local councils do not matter. They’re sorting stations for the bigger game; the bigger game that hoists prematurely-ageing males aloft as they crawl over the line in Dublin south east. And yet, we are told, all politics is local. I don’t hate The Local but I want it my local to have meaning in your local.

Alan Shatter should resign as minister, Callinan should go too. And they should do this not because they are bad people or because they are mean. Or even because I think they are incompetent. They should do it because they have poorly served us. Having watched the two of them in Templemore grinning alongside each other, the worst part of this GSOC thing is not that the office was bugged but that they think we do not care. They gurn and patronise their way into the game, the terms of which they themselves believe they set. They don’t. We set those terms. The disabling realpolitik that valorises the tallyman while denying restitution to the women of the Laundries  is our politics, not theirs. We have to own it first and then destroy it. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the colonisation of a developing political terrain of this politics in the silencing of Panti. The terms of this argument were set early on by the deployment of the law by some parties. When this worked financially, but not emotionally, some relied on tearful victimhood. There is no doubt that being argued against by a student must be quite difficult for a teacher, particularly when many teachers rely on students’ cultivated supplication for most other things. I am not saying that emotions should have nothing to do with political opinion forming. I am saying that there are bigger things than your hurt feelings. Which is kind of what Panti was saying from the Abbey’s stage.

(WARNING: I’m not going to get into class here, that’s another post. Can you handle that?) This local elections we need to take the issues that matter to us all to those who look for our vote. I’m forever fulminating about candidates dropping calendars with their serious features plastered on them through my door. This is stupid politics. It relies on the idea that they are the brokers to things that we all collectively own and maintain. I know what day of the week the third Thursday in March is and I can look it up if I want to. A political party doesn’t need to tell me that. We need to make politics in Ireland about really mundane things. Boring public resource kinds of things: water access in this area, not what John Tierney said. How the continued payment of promissory notes means that people I know cannot get treated for cancer. This is why politicians like Shane Ross are also part of this disabling politics: it is not about issues, it is about us. I want Richard’s children to have a better education and cleaner air. Not because I know Richard personally but because it is in all of our interests, as members of the public. The sooner we rip back the curtain and reveal the man with the levers and a megaphone the better. To me, it cannot come soon enough.

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