Archive for April, 2009

To America, 1948 (Part 3: The Voyage)

April 30, 2009

Our voyage to New York took 5 or 6 days, and it was a great event for four kids from a small Irish farm.  Both  of our parents had lived in the US previously.  Michael Kenny had emigrated in 1922 or ’23, having been on the losing Republican  side of the bitter civil war which followed when the Irish Free State was set up.  Margaret Conboy came to New York in 1927—on a day made memorable by the ticker-tape parade in honor of Charles Lindberg.  My dad returned to Ireland in 1930, my mom some time later.  There they eventually met, and married in 1937.  (Later on, I will tell about those earlier emigrations.)

Anyway, the Mauretania was a great adventure for us children.  Here are some things I remember:
1. Chris (the youngest) fell down a flight of stairs, but without serious injury.
2. We older three, John, Peter & Pat, had fine times exploring the ship– including places we weren’t supposed to be, like the first-class area.
3. There was a free movie theater, something we’d never experienced.  John & I saw what I think was a gangster film, but I didn’t understand it at all.  Was the hero named “Seán”(Irish) or “Jean”(French)?  Maybe the latter, for I couldn’t follow the dialogue.
4. Speaking of French:  we met a boy whose language we couldn’t understand.  John told me a phrase which he said was French:  “punch-a nah-wah, wee wee”.  Did he use his “French” on that kid?  No wonder he looked blank.
5. We dined in splendid style!  Three times a day, in a great dining room, served by a waiter in tie & tails.  I especially liked the “fruit cup” of diced peaches, grapes, etc.  Our mother told dad “Mike, now you realize we have to give him a good tip when we arrive—at least a pound note.”  Our dad, still conscious of our poverty:  “I swear to you I’ll not give him a pound!”  But I hoped he would relent, or I’d feel sorry for the poor man.
6. That other young man from the Dublin-Holyhead boat was also emigrating.  No doubt sad to be leaving home, he was still drunk every time we saw him (“Ah the poor fellow…”)

My parents were good at making friends, and we met some interesting people.  One was a Maryknoll priest who had returned to Ireland from Korea; he’d be going back there from the United States.  (I believe he was a Fr. Wood or Woods.)  He told them about Korea, which they might never have heard of before.  He was not optimistic about the future there.  After the 1950 invasion, he died (along with other missionaries) as a prisoner of the North Koreans.

Hearing talk of wars, strange countries and politics, John told me a story to explain the world situation:  Russia, the US, Britain and France wanted to divide up the world between them.  They set up a big globe as a target and blasted away—and whatever piece a marksman knocked off his country got to keep.  Maybe he’d seen a political cartoon on that theme?  Though I’m sure he was quite capable of making it up out of whole cloth.  (We were often like Lucy and Linus in “Peanuts”.)  Naive as I was, though, I don’t think I quite believed that one.

Arriving in New York harbor, I remember being disappointed on seeing the Statue of Liberty; it looked rather green and dirty to me.  And I don’t recall anything about customs and immigration processing – I guess we went thru Ellis Island, which was still in use until 1954?

What I do remember is the excitement of a week in Manhattan with Mom’s relatives the Treacys, meeting many other relatives– and lots of parties!  More on all that in my next posting.


To America, 1948 (Part 2)

April 26, 2009

In London (with a ham)  [some corrections, 4/28/09]

After the night boat to Holyhead and a train journey, we arrived in London. The London I remember from 1948 hadn’t recovered from the wartime blitz—and it was a cold and dreary place in October. I remember sitting at a counter in some dismal restaurant, sipping on a weak cup of cold tea (yes, Irish kids drank tea at an early age). And in a department store (as I think it was): the escalator to the upper floor was enclosed by doors; you entered, closed the door and pressed a button to start the mechanism. I know that seems odd, but I could hardly have dreamed it, could I? To save electricity, I suppose. I was afraid it would keep going and crush us all!

We were to sail from Southampton (the next day?).  I think it was in the East End of London that we walked up and down streets, looking for a place to stay the night. I can imagine Daddy saying to Mam “I’ll swear to you we won’t pay those prices for a hotel!” [They were still “daddy” and “mammy”—would only become Dad and Mom in the new world] But at the various houses with rooms “to let” our scruffy Irish family with suitcases and 4 children (Chris, not yet 3, carried by her daddy) – looking like “the raggle-taggle gypsies O” – were turned away. No room at the inn.

Until, as we walked back down a street we’d trudged before, a sharp-eyed old lady enquired of my mother: “What’s that you’re carrying there?”  And my mother showed her: an Irish ham!

“Margaret, why in God’s name are you taking that with you?” our dad had said as we set out from home. But she wouldn’t be dissuaded—”you never know…”. Maybe John & I echoed the question, for I remember her reciting with a little laugh:

Hams alive and their eyes wide open,

Pipes in their backsides and them smoking.

England in late ’48, three and a half years after the war, still had meat rationing (which lasted, I think, until the Labor gov’t was voted out in ’51). We got a place to stay for the night, and shared our Irish ham with the old couple. Our hosts related stories of how they survived the London blitz. Next day we visited the London zoo. I only vaguely remember the zoo animals, and nothing of the war stories.

And then we embarked on the Mauretania, bound for New York. We agreed to stay in touch with our hosts when we arrived in America; but we lost their address, unfortunately.

To America, 1948 (Part 1)

April 25, 2009

In October 1948 my family left Ireland and came to the US on the Cunard liner Mauretania.  Leaving our farm in County Leitrim we hired a car to take us to Dublin.  From there it was the night boat across to Hollyhead, Wales.  I was told it was the “cattle boat” but I don’t remember any cattle; just folks like us, often leaving Ireland for good, as many were doing about that time.

We befriended a young man on the boat; he was also America-bound, and he was quite drunk all the time (“ah, the poor fellow…”).

From Wales we traveled by train to London, still at night.  (I’ll relate my 8-year-old memories of the city in Part 2.)

We sailed from Southampton on the Mauretania.  I happened to see a model of that Cunard liner in the Maritime Museum in Newport News, Va.

Years ago an artist named William Hamilton (I don’t know if he’s still active) specialized in scenes of “bright young people” (I think that was  before the name “yuppies” was coined).  I wish I had saved one Hamilton cartoon, of a dinner party, with the lady of the house telling her guests:  “Oh no, our family didn’t come over on the Mayflower.  We came over on the Mauretania.”

Here is the model of our Mauretania– the one built in 1938 (there was an earlier one):


A “life issues”blog

April 24, 2009

Wesley J. Smith maintains a blog site on the “life issues”, which I appreciate very much.   While he also opposes abortion, lately he has focused more on other life issues.  A recent item on stem cell research:

This is potentially huge: Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, which permit tailor made, patient specific pluripotent stem cell lines to be created ethically without the use of embryos, can now be made without using genetic material.

You could probably find that item reported in the mainstream media, but only if you look really hard.  And asking the question, “do we really need to clone human embryos”?  Forget it.

“Economic Miracle”?

April 16, 2009

Robert Samuelson, I think, talks sense on economic matters, so I enjoy his weekly comumn in the Washington Post. In his op-ed of April 13th he analyzes Barack Obama’s “vision for America’s 21st-century economy” and finds it wanting:

We will lead the world in “green” technologies to stop global warming. Advancing medical breakthroughs will improve our well-being, control health spending and enable us to expand insurance coverage. These investments in energy and health care, as well as education, will revive the economy and create millions of well-paying new jobs for middle-class Americans.

What Obama proposes is a “post-material economy.” He would de-emphasize the production of ever-more private goods and services, harnessing the economy to achieve broad social goals. In the process, he sets aside the standard logic of economic progress.

Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, this has been simple: produce more with less. (“Productivity,” in economic jargon.) Mass markets developed for clothes, cars, computers and much more because declining costs expanded production. Living standards rose. By contrast, the logic of the “post-material economy” is just the opposite: Spend more and get less.

Consider global warming. The centerpiece of Obama’s agenda is a “cap-and-trade” program. This would be, in effect, a tax on fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas). The idea is to raise their prices so that households and businesses use less or switch to costlier “alternative” energy sources such as solar. In general, we would spend more on energy and get less of it.

The story for health care is similarTogether, health care and energy constitute about a quarter of the U.S. economy. If their costs increase, they will crowd out other spending. The president’s policies might, as he says, create high-paying “green” or medical jobs. But if so, they will destroy old jobs elsewhere. Think about it. If you spend more for gasoline or electricity — or for health insurance premiums — then you spend less on other things, from meals out to home repair. Jobs in those sectors suffer.

The prospect is that energy and health costs may rise without creating much gain in material benefits. That’s not economic “progress.” Rebating households’ higher energy costs (as some suggest) with tax cuts does not solve the problem of squeezed incomes. Given today’s huge and unsustainable budget deficits, some other tax would have to be raised or some other program cut.

But I’ll stop quoting—read the whole piece, I think it makes a lot of sense.

For Eastertide

April 12, 2009

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with blooms along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

     from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad

O King of the Friday

April 10, 2009

This Friday is Good Friday, of course.  Here is an Irish poem (as translated by Douglas Hyde) for the most solemn day of the Christian calendar — to be followed soon by the most joyous, Easter Sunday.

O King of the Friday
Whose limbs were stretched on the cross,
O thou who did suffer
The bruises, the wounds, the loss,
We stretch ourselves
Beneath the shield of thy might,
Some fruit from the tree of thy passion
Fall on us this night.

Hermeneutics of the Constitution?

April 8, 2009

The other day I received an email from a German publishing house.  The sender was obviously confusing me with somebody else of the same name:

In the course of a research at the university of Chicago, I came across a reference to your thesis on “Modern Hermeneutics and Catholic fundamental theology:  The use and critique of the philosophy of Hans-George Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur in Edward Shilllebeeckx, Claude Geffre and Francis Schuessler Fiorenza”.

I informed the publisher’s rep that he had the wrong party– I was not Peter Kenny the theologian (must look him up sometime). And since I had only a vague idea of what hermeneutics meant I referred to Wickipedia and found some interesting material– which even referred to Gadamer and Ricoeur:

Traditional hermeneutics involves interpretation theories that concern the meaning of written texts. These theories focus on the relationships found between the author, reader and text. E.D. Hirsch argued that the meaning of a text is determined by the author’s intent. Hans-Georg Gadamer argued that the meaning of the text goes beyond the author, and therefore the meaning is determined by the point where the horizons of the reader and the writer meet. Paul Ricoeur argued that the text is independent of the author’s intent and original audience, and therefore the reader determines the meaning of the text.

It occurred to me: isn’t what legal scholars do when they discuss the US Constitution the same as “hermeneutics”? One can see the same divergent schools of thought. (I again consulted Wikipedia on this). What’s done to the poor US Constitution? Some speak of original intent: what did the founders intend to establish in that document? That’s not quite the same as being an originalist or formalist, like Justice Scalia: he says, look at what the text meant when it was written – the original meaning. And if you don’t like that, he says, amend it! And then, the many advocates of the living constitution, the most flexible document you could imagine: the idea of a living constitution, which says that the judiciary has the power to modify the meaning of constitutional provisions to adapt … to “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

It’s understandable that theologians would devise many non-obvious interpretations of Scripture, since it isn’t acceptable to just change what the presumably-inspired authors wrote – that would be considered mis-translation or even blasphemy. But our constitution isn’t really a sacred document, and it can be amended! I think the “living constitution” advocates are just amending it by fiat—putting into effect those “reforms” that they have trouble getting the unwashed masses to approve.

So I tend to agree with Justice Scalia: For Scalia, this idea [original intent] misunderstands and negates what he calls the “anti-evolutionary purpose” of a constitution. A society that adopts a constitution, he says, “is skeptical…that societies always ‘mature,’ as opposed to rot.” Scalia notes further that many important social advances, such as women’s suffrage, were achieved not by judicial fiat but constitutional amendments – whose adoption, Scalia adds, is slow and cumbersome by design. The idea is that amending of the Constitution allows for democratic change as opposed to top-down rule by judges. He also compares his interpretation of the Constitution to general interpretation of other laws or statutes, which are not thought to change over time. When questioned by Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan about his support of a “dead Constitution,” Scalia replied: “I can package it better than that. I call it the enduring Constitution.”

DC: Voting & Guns

April 2, 2009
While I’d support an amendment to the Constitution giving the District of Columbia a vote in the House,  the Congress prefers to accomplish that goal in a faster but unconstitutional way– by just passing a law.

I’m no legal scholar, but I don’t see how they can ignore the plain language of Article 1, Section 2 of our basic law:   “The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”

Democratic leaders seem to think this can be negated by citing Article 1, Section 5:   “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members…”  Does that justification seem even remotely plausible?  I think not.  (If it is, the same argument could be used to give representation to other non-states, like  Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, etc.)

And the Republicans?  They’ll accept the deal if the District’s gun laws are gutted!  (“D.C. Weighs Price of Securing Vote in Congress”; The Post, March 21st).  What a travesty, to say in effect:  we’ll go along with violating Article 1 if you accept our view of Amendment 2 (the right to bear arms).  Neither side seems to have any respect for the Constitution itself.

When and if this passes (with or without the gun provision) I hope and expect that the Supreme Court will strike it down.  And then perhaps we can do the job right:  support a constitutional amendment giving DC a vote in Congress.  While the push to make the District a state failed, I think that giving them one House seat would be widely seen as only fair.

Note: I originally sent the above (in a slightly different form) as a letter to the Washington Post, a paper which doesn’t seem to worry about constitutional niceties.  In any event they didn’t publish my letter (not the first time that has happened).
Today I see in that same newspaper that:
Justice Department lawyers concluded in an unpublished opinion earlier this year that the historic D.C. voting rights bill pending in Congress is unconstitutional, according to sources briefed on the issue. But Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who supports the measure, ordered up a second opinion from other lawyers in his department and determined that the legislation would pass muster.
I hope for a 9-0 decision– not constitutional– on this if it is enacted into law and a challenge goes up to the Supreme Court.