Strange Days in Barcelona

People are weird.

Three days ago, a bunch of mindless individuals, mostly kids between the age of 17 and 22, attacked the city of Barcelona. Zealous and driven, it’s obvious their chains were being yanked by some manipulative figure in the shadows, nevertheless, one of them mounted a van onto the pedestrian walkway at La Rambla (not an easy thing) and intentionally ploughed south-west for 500 metres, mowing complete strangers down without any hesitation. I’ve tried to imagine what absence of compassion or empathy it must have taken to cut though human beings like that, cutting them down like chaff and still ploughing on regardless. I genuinely can’t understand the state of the fucked-up mind that could actually do that.

On the day of the attack, my partner and I were in a museum about 50-100 metres from where it actually took placed. We were hurried out by concerned staff who advised us to rush back to our apartment and stay there. On the way, we were passed by a large number of people scuttling past, suitcases click-clacking noisily on the pavement behind them. Many of the hotels near La Rambla had been evacuated and they were rushing to find accommodation.

We were very lucky. Our presence in the museum had shielded us completely from the event so when we emerged about an hour later we’d already missed all the panic, the terrified survivors, the wounded and the traumatised. By the time we’d headed back into the alleyways of the Old Quarter, it was eerily subdued. People were clustered in tight groups around televisions and radios and no-one really knew what was going on. Overhead a pair of helicopters droned noisily past, the heavy sound of the rotors reverberating through the narrow streets and drowning the sound of other sirens. They didn’t leave until well after dark.

Back at the flat, I sent out a facebook post and a tweet to inform people that we were all right. After a number of severe earthquakes in New Zealand, we know not to use phones after a disaster or an emergency as the system quickly becomes overloaded and inoperable – a real hindrance for the professionals trying to help. In my tweet, I mistakenly claimed we were 500m from the area where the attack had happened (I was thinking in feet) but I didn’t bother correcting it in case my family and friends saw it and panicked. Despite all this, the phone was ringing hot for hours afterwards.
The next day at the central Placa del Catalunya, people turned out in huge numbers to protest at what had happened. It was weird – people were incredibly angry at the pointless violence, the complete absence of a credible motive for killing innocents that included children- but there was no-one they could direct that anger at, vent their outrage at. Later when ISIS made their announcement that this had all been part of some cunning plan, it was treated with immense scorn and contempt.

Despite the atrocity that had just happened however, the city just seemed to continue on regardless. Over the following days, people were certainly more cautious and glued to social media but the fact that the Catalan police had arrested a number of suspects and killed five others at Cambrils reassured everyone. It also offered at least some sense that justice had been carried out, particularly when it was learned that an even worse attack had probably been averted.

I had heard that a single cop shot four of the five dead suspect terrorists – which makes you wonder about things like ‘justice’ and ‘due process’. I don’t know if it’s actually true or not but I can understand now how violence could cause further violence. If it is true although there’s no way I’d condone such an action, given the ongoing rawness at the atrocity carried out, I’d also truly struggle to condemn it.

It’s the fourth day now since the attack and this morning was the first time I returned to La Rambla, making my way up the route from the sea to Placa del Catalunya. It was early but crowds had already gathered around the different temporary shrines where notes, messages, candles toys and flowers had been arranged. I saw several notes in English, one from someone called Conor saying “Barcelona, Canada stands with you.”

It’s the kind of thing I’d normally find mawkish and saccharine and distressingly helpless but this morning there seemed no doubt to the sincerity behind it and I felt its impact more than anything else I’ve seen since I’ve been here.

A Dead Queen and Stones on a Sacred Hill (Irish Mythology)

Heading north in County Sligo, the outline of Knocknarea is clearly visible in the distance. The origin of the hill’s Irish name has been lost to time but there’s no shortage of suggestions, varying from Cnoc na Rí (hill of kings – my preferred option) to Cnoc na Ré (hill of the ages, or possibly, moon) to many others.

Like most of the Sligo mountains and hills, Knocknarea has a cairn (an enormous mound of loose stones dating back at least 2500-3000 years that usually conceals a passage-grave beneath) which is also very visible and is probably one of the biggest in the country.

In Irish, this particular cairn is called Meascán Méabha, which roughly translates to ‘Méabh’s Lump’ and it relates of course to Méabh Leathdearg or Méabh of Connacht (anglicized needlessly to Maeve) who played such an important role in the great Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). According to the remaining literature, when she died Méabh was buried upright at that site so that she could face her Ulster-based enemies.

That’s all a bit of a fanciful conceit of course, given that Méabh was originally a land goddess (a representation of Mother Earth) transformed into a human personage over the ages. Needless to say, a lot of people continue to take the Táin Bó Cúailnge literally however, and hence get a bit excited when they come to Sligo and visit it. They also tend to get a bit outraged when they learn that the cairn has never been excavated until you point out there are literally tons of cairns all over the locality and given the unlikelihood of Méabh actually being buried there, it makes more sense to focus limited national archaeological resources elsewhere.

Undeterred in their conviction that this is the final resting place of some famous queen, some of them are driven to continue uphill to gather cairn stones as souvenirs which they then carry away with them.

To the point that it’s now becoming something of a conservation issue.

It’s often part of the human condition that we can’t just look at and respect what’s directly in front of us. Driven to interfere and meddle, we often end up destroying the very thing we love. Fortunately, there are still plenty more stones on the cairn but if people keep nicking them, it’ll eventually end up being unintentionally excavated far sooner than expected.

Father Ted’s Alive and Unwell

During my visit home this week, I found myself in a surreal situation when I was shoulder-twisted into an extended family social occasion and ended up being cornered (literally) by a subgroup of religious zealots.

Just for context, you probably need to understand that religion in Ireland has suffered a huge decline over the past thirty years. Most of the seminaries where new young priests used to enter the order are now pretty much empty. Schools and colleges that used to be run and staffed by Christian Brothers or Presbeterian Brothers are now staffed almost entirely by lay people. There are very few convents still in operation and I personally haven’t seen a nun in years.

In parishes (Church defined territories) where four or five priests used to live in a church residence you now often find single priests living in a huge residence by themselves. Like their congregations, the remaining priests are getting quite elderly and the Catholic Church in Ireland is struggling to deal with empty churches, large property banks and the support and maintenance of their own aging membership. Dwindling church attendance is also an issue and some startling, if ineffective, innovations have been trialled. One ingenious solution used locally was when the priest’s mass service was transmitted out over the open radio for people like my elderly aunt who couldn’t attend due to a disability.

Unfortunately, the church hadn’t done its research properly and was forced to close the service down when they started receiving complaints from Cork airport. Apparently, the priests were using the same wireless frequency as the airline pilots communicating with the airport’s control tower. Planes dropping the gears and lining up for an approach to the landing strip on a Saturday night or Sunday morning were occasionally assaulted by a furious homily from the local priest just as they were preparing to land.

In another recent innovation, one or two priests have also been passing the Eucharist onto regular attendees who haven’t been able to make the mass. Generally, a trusted member of the congregation is given the blessed Eucharist and instructed to bring it to the home of the missing individual. This approach is outside Church policy so only the ‘in’ few get this particular service. Needless to say, it’s all very hush-hush but of course there are plenty of braggers and, as a result, everyone in the parish knows about it. Local wags are now calling them “Church take-aways”.

The Church’s cause hasn’t really been helped by its poor acknowledgement of the enormous hurt and damaged caused by abuse of children in their care, the Magdalen Laundries and of course the recent scandal of the children’s burial ground in Tuam. Neither is it helped by the members of the church itself. In the local parish for example, there are three priests, known as the Gambling Priest (who likes a bit of a flutter), the Drinking Priest (an alcoholic) and the Shagging Priest. The latter is currently shacked up with a woman and her child (but it’s not his child so “that’s all right”!). Church attendance there is pretty slim and, again, the church is struggling to pay for and maintain the priests in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Recently, there was uproar when a letter arrived into the mailbox of all parish households, seeking contributions towards the petrol bill of the main parish priest (The Gambling Priest). Given that most people know most of that money would end up at the bookies, the proposal was, understandably, greeted with substantial scorn.

At a family event, I was sitting at a corner table where I was joined by an elderly relative and two of her friends and finally by the Gambling Priest himself. The Gambling Priest is a bit of a pompous ass, to be honest. A family “friend”, I’ve never actually liked him as he’s always exuded a sense of self-entitlement and led a life of luxury and privilege due to his status in the community. I’ve put up with him due to family connections but otherwise I’ve generally avoided him.

On this particular occasion, the Gambling Priest started pontificating about a local derelict hospital (The Red Brick) that had recently been burned down and he was convinced it’d been put to flame by young people “on the instigation of” one of the new political parties out to make way for housing for the homeless. When K pointed out that this might actually have been a good thing, it quickly became clear he was actually against the homeless (people who were too lazy to get a job and fend for themselves – a bit like, well, priests I suppose), immigrants (including refugees), black people liberals and socialists.

Oh, and anyone who didn’t vote for Fianna Fáil.

While the Gambling Priest was talking, the other three elderly people were nodding servilely in agreement. From their subsequent comments it became obvious they were simply regurgitating the Gambling Priest’s opinions and hadn’t a brain cell of independent thought to share between the lot of them.

Having pretty much avoided religion of any kind since childhood, I was totally gobsmacked to find myself in a situation of such … almost caricature-like grotesqueness. I’d always heard the stories of course, seen snippets of the behaviour and laughed at the Father Ted mocking but I’d never personally experienced the true extent of zealot-like fanaticism that pervades certain sections of the Irish Church.

In the end, I managed to excuse myself without getting too angry but the whole incident genuinely left a bad taste in my mouth. If this is what the Irish Church is truly like, then the sooner it fades away, the better.