Everywhere I look these days, companies are trying to get me to sign up to paid subscriptions for their content. While I understand why subscriptions are needed, and I accept fully that companies need to make money from their content, I think the subscription model is oversold. I’m unlikely to pay for a subscription to the Japan Times just to read one article, no matter how good that article might be.

I have a number of subscriptions ongoing. I’m subscribed to The New York Times, The Irish Times, the Guardian and The Irish Examiner. I will readily pay for high quality, relevant content that I’m likely to dip into frequently. But I can’t, and won’t, subscribe to everything. There is a limit to what I can afford and ultimately it would feel like paying for services I am under-using.

Which is why I’m very happy I’ve discovered Readly. This is a content aggregator site that gives me access to hundreds of magazines and periodicals without me having to take out any more than a single subscription. I’m still paying for quality content, but I don’t have to subscribe separately. It’s exactly what a voracious reader like me needs.

Readly has a ton of good content available: from history to science to politics and sport. It also seems somewhat alone in its field: many comparable content aggregators are geographically limited or only cater for free RSS based content. I’m interested if there are other services like this.

One of my big interests is the story of late medieval Ireland. This is a period largely bracketed by the entry of the Anglo-Normans into Ireland around 1170, to the rise of the Tudor dynasty from the 1540s, give or take a few decades.

It fascinates me because we learned so little about this period in school. While other nations were crusading and renaissancing, discovering China, trading spices and being murdered by Mongol hordes, Irish history seemed rather muted, to say the least. The account usually goes as follows: the Normans arrived and conquered Ireland, they built lots of castles, and they eventually became as Irish as the Irish themselves. By the 1500’s English influence was reduced to a small area (The Pale) around Dublin and would have remained this way if it wasn’t for Henry VIII and his daughters and cousins casting their greedy imperial eyes on our green island.

As Irish as the Irish themselves. That single statement seems to cover an an enormous amount of time. Imagine all history since Oliver Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland being reduced to a 6 word sentence, because that’s pretty much the same length of time: 370 years.

I had questions. Precisely how did “Norman” influence get whittled back to a such small narrow area around Dublin? How exactly did the nasty English make friends with their Irish neighbours? What was with all the castles? What else happened in that time period? How can 370 years be passed by so effortlessly?

Even though I still have a lot to discover, what I have learned so far has been engrossing.

First of all, there were a number of hugely disastrous events that get less attention than they deserve in our history books. The Bruce invasion of Ireland in 1315 – an invasion by the Scots affecting great swathes of the country – was utterly devastating. To make matters worse, it coincided with by far the worst famine of the Middle Ages. Then the Black Death came along in 1349, spiriting away a huge proportion of the Irish population. Bubonic Plague was to return every 20 years or so, killing thousands of people each time.

It also appears that climate change had a big effect. The late Middle Ages marks the beginning of the period known as the Little Ice Age. Frequent bad harvests from the later 13th Century through to the 15th Century often resulted in generalised and localised famines. Ireland suffered a significant population loss, resulting in the re-growth of woodland and oak forest across many areas of the country.

The colonisation of Ireland by the Normans was complex, to say the least. The Norman Irish and the Gaelic Irish had a far more bellicose relationship with each other than it might appear. It was often a real clash of cultures, full of hatred and enmity. The Anglo-Irish divided Ireland into ‘lands of peace’, where their influence held sway, and ‘lands of war’: the marshes or borderlands where conflict with Gaelic warlords was frequent and bloody.

This picture is muddied further by the existence of clans and groupings within the Anglo community that went rogue, building fiefdoms and landholdings outside of English control and forming alliances of convenience with Gaelic lords as suited their needs. These “rebel English” were often a bigger nuisance to the English administration in Dublin than the natives themselves.

In these border areas, little progress could be made against what could often be formidable enemies. The rebel clans made copious use of Gallowglasses – foreign mercenary soldiers that neutralised the advantage that Norman armies once had over their Gaelic foes.

The Anglo-Irish also suffered from a wholesale lack of investment from the English crown, who increasingly came to see Ireland as an irritating financial burden. They had wars to fight elsewhere, particularly France; thus Ireland was an unwanted draw on the exchequer. What attempts were made to retake Irish land (and there were quite a few) were often short-lived and limited in scope.

What emerged was a war of attrition, with Crown forces pitted against Irish and rebel clans, and Anglo-Norman landowners vacating their lands due to war, famine and disease.

Despite this, many towns and coastal cities remained in English control. They were frequently harried and attacked by native and rebel forces, but still retained their colonial character, and indeed, survived well. Many of Ireland’s market towns date from this period.

The Gaelicisation of Ireland emerged in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a result of extensive inter-marriage between Irish and Anglo-Irish families, general depopulation and abandonment of lands, and increasing neglect by the English. Events such as the Wars of the Roses in England afforded little time for Irish affairs, though interestingly, some of the great families supported both Lancaster and York, and even fought a battle in Piltown, Kilkenny under these opposing banners. Powerful dynasties emerged from this that were largely unimpeded by the increasingly powerless English administrators. These families developed their own sensibilities, borrowing from both Irish and British culture as they saw fit.

The most significant of these dynasties were the Kildare FitzGeralds, with the greatest of them all – Garret Mor FitzGerald – becoming a de-facto ruler of Ireland well into of the sixteenth century.

The “Norman” castles is an interesting one. The many tower houses that pepper the Irish landscape are often not Norman at all, but very late Medieval and Early Modern. They were often built by Gaelic chiefs, copying from more international trends. This indicates that the traffic towards Gaelicisation was not a simple one-way affair. Well-to-do Gaelic families coveted what Britain and wider Europe had to offer and in doing so became cosmopolitan and less insular.

So, it turns out that Late Medieval times were very complicated. Ireland was a broken patchwork of polities, communities, alliances and enmities, difficult to control and impossible to tame. The period was dominated by great disease and famine, which in turn broke the colonial classes. The grim choice was to retreat to the urban walled towns or to find ways to interact with the Irish enemy through marriages and alliances. Eventually, even the English themselves began to disown the colonial families, referring to them as aliens. Yet, the Anglo Irish community made a huge mark in the country, with laws, boundaries, towns and villages that persist to this day. Ultimately, it was an Anglo-Irish chieftain, Garret Mor Fitzgerald, who united the country, bequeathing to the Irish a sense of nationhood that would persist over the subsequent centuries.

Does any other adult feel

Like they are a wall?

Stopping waves of pain crossing

From one side to the other?

Sometimes that wall

breaks

Or is insufficiency high,

Then the pain washes

Into unprepared garden spaces

Where inky torrents

Do their worst damage.

No more bright flowers

In once pleasant beds

Only sticky detritus:

Dark mud

A lasting stain

That cannot be

Washed away.

A stone hit me

Square in the head.

It hurt me quite badly.

Dazed and in great pain

I sought it out.

I said “Hey stone,

Why did you hurt me so badly?”

The stone remained silent,

Impassive, uncaring,

Unresponsive to my predicament.

It was, after all,

A stone.

Years ago, I listened to a great story in a public speaking club I attended. The storyteller, who I will call Steve, was very talented.

The story went like this: He had a best friend Tom; they went way back to when they were school kids. Unfortunately, Tom was dying of cancer. Tom’s great wish was to climb Carrauntoohil: Ireland’s highest mountain. So, they made a plan, and a couple of weeks later, without telling anybody, they both set out on a mountain trek, walking the long road, negotiating the rivers and high rock faces. It wasn’t easy for Tom, but he was determined to see it all the way through. Eventually, they reached the top and they both looked out over Ireland one last time. Tom died three months later, but it was a moment that, literally and metaphorically, marked a high point in Steve’s life.

In the pub that night, Steve made a confession. He had invented the story out of whole cloth. Tom, this best friend from school, never existed. The story was a complete and utter fabrication.

I felt cheated, but Steve’s story taught me something valuable: that storytelling is like a superpower – the superpower of persuasion. But, like any superpower, we can use it for good, or for evil.

The ability to tell good stories is the mark of a great communicator. From our earliest days, we are told to grab the audience, to have a beginning, a middle and an end; to build up the tension and the drama, to conclude with aplomb and to finish the story with no unanswered questions. Our goal is to place our listeners in the palm of our hands, so that not only will they believe what we tell them, they might act on it also.

And therein lies the problem. To persuade, our stories don’t have to be true.

One of the problems is that we can choose our stories to frame things in very self-serving ways. Take smoking for instance. Reams of scientific evidence tell us that smoking is very dangerous to us, and if you were a health professional or literate in statistics you might be shocked by what these studies tell you. But all this evidence has been undermined by simple stories, such as great aunt Mary that lived to 104 on 3 packs a day. Stories like this have persuaded millions of people that cigarettes were not as harmful as doctors made out. And millions of people tragically suffered the consequences.

To tell a good story, you need to edit. You can’t say everything, so you bring it down to a few salient points. But editing, by definition, leaves out lots of stuff, and what gets cut might be really important. If I told you the story of a self-made man who rose to the very top of his profession through grit and hard work, you might be impressed, but if the story omits the fact that he originally came from great wealth and used threats and shady dealing to get to where he was, it changes the narrative quite a bit. What do storytellers cut out in the telling of their tale? That’s always a good question to ask.

And don’t forget the power of exaggeration – the adjectives we use – the choice of words. All these things matter. The evil villain is truly awful and the worthy hero can do no wrong. Really? Would the presumptive villain agree to that portrayal? Maybe not, and maybe they have a perspective that’s worth listening to.

And then, the story might just be a bunch of lies – half-truths and conspiracies designed to appeal to fear or self-interest. You are the good person. All these people around you are criminals who want all your stuff for themselves. Only I can protect you. These are the narratives of fraudsters and cult-leaders, and the problem is, they work. We only have to look around us today to find examples of people persuaded into believing great untruths that could damage their health and destroy their lives.

To persuade, stores don’t have to be true. They just have to be convincing.

So where does that leave us?

As members of an audience, as people receptive a good story, we must be aware of the power and misuses of storytelling. We’ve got to look critically on what we are told. Where is the evidence? What is being left out? Is the narrator using excessively emotive language to manipulate us? When hearing stories that might affect what we are to believe, we can’t be passive – we must engage, we must question.

As story creators, we have an obligation not to deliberately deceive. We might have strong opinions on a subject but we owe it to our audience to ensure we are providing factual information, basing our views on proper evidence, and acting with humility if there are things we don’t know. This is not easy, but it is something that we must do as best we can.

Our goal should be to leave our audience educated, to open their minds and not close them. We should aspire to make them think and ask questions. We should make it our mission to leave our audience smarter and not dumber, because persuasion without support is insulting and potentially deceitful.

Storyteller Steve taught me a valuable lesson those many years ago – that good stories don’t have to be based on truth, and that a clever manipulator will use stories to deceive us and divide us. We don’t need to be like Steve. We can do better. We can still climb our mountains and reach for the lofty heights of great storytelling, but let’s not take shortcuts getting there.

In the early months of 1914, nobody thought war was on the horizon. Sure, there were dark clouds, but war? No.

All it took was the death of an arch-duke, of a declining power, in an obscure nation, to change everything. Within months, all the great powers of Europe were ranged against each other, fighting on multiple fronts, with armed technology they barely understood. Soon, whole armies were digging deep trenches, defending their supplies against legions of rats, while storms of explosive shells rained down from the skies.

And it didn’t even end 4 years later. There was a respite, resuming 21 years later with an even worse war, that turned whole cities into smoking husks and sent millions to the gas chambers.

I wonder how close we are today to 1914.

Everything is wrong. Fascism and hatred and conspiracy is on the march. Governments and bad actors have weaponised our mediums of communication to spread fear and hatred. The people who can decide things and solve things no longer bother to listen to each other. This can only result in pain and nightmares down the road.

I wonder how close we are to 1914.

When I was a young man, I was a very bad driver.

In my mind of course, I was a better driver than everyone else. 

I used to overtake 10 cars in a row regularly, because I was far more capable than all those other losers.

I used to overtake on bends, on blind intersections, you name it. According to me, I was shit hot at driving.

Until I nearly killed myself and my dad. I avoided hitting an oncoming car by mere inches.

Soon afterwards, I got stopped by the cops. They wanted to take the car from me.

Turns out, I wasn’t such a great driver after all.

It was then that I began to realise that all these ‘slow’ drivers (or so I thought) were actually quite good drivers. It was I, in my arrogance, who was the bad driver.

I thought I was better than everyone else. I wasn’t.

That, to me, is how I see Covid deniers today. They think they know more than everyone else. They think we are all stupid, that they are better informed; that they are asking all the right questions, and we are sheep, happy to go along with the consensus.

In reality, they know almost nothing.

They don’t have degrees in medicine, nor virology, nor epidemiology, nor public health. They have no particular knowledge or expertise on the virus. They have not held the hands of people as they slip away from this world. They have not had to survive on caffeine and adrenalin as a patient is sent to the ICU, while another is zipped up for the morgue. If they did, it might give them an opportunity to reconsider their beliefs. Even if they had an opportunity to show empathy with those on the front line, they might reconsider their beliefs.

Alas, they won’t. They are so full of the importance of their own ideas, and the stupidity of everyone else’s.

Arrogance like this does not serve these people well. A little bit of humility might be more appropriate.

When I see Covid deniers, I don’t see thoughtful intellectuals with whom I must have a considered debate about the facts.

No. Instead I see young men in cars, who have a lot to learn about the world and their fellow travellers, and who could yet do great damage before this pandemic is finished with us.

After the last book has been read

The last Netflix series watched

The last puzzle solved

The last tweet, the last Like,

The last Zoom meeting endured:

The virus persists

And we are left with

Nothing,

But our own empty thoughts

In this relentless merging

Of days into weeks into months.

Here are some photos I took this year. 2020 wasn’t a year for travel, so most of these shots were taken in or near the 5km zone around the house. Inevitably, I kept on returning to the same subjects: Ballycotton and Garryvoe in County Cork. This reduced range forced me to consider new ways of looking at the same things. It was also the year I got a 400 mm lens, giving me much more visibility of objects in the far distance.

Garryvoe hotel at sunrise. I took a few photos like this during the year, when the conditions were right. Morning fog has a profound effect on the local landscape.
The short summer hiatus afforded us an opportunity to go slightly further, and this one was taken by the cliff walk.
The ghost ship MV Alta washed up on the Ballycotton coast just a few weeks or so before lockdown. A harbinger of what was to come as we too became trapped by the forces of nature.
Ballycotton moonrise This one was very popular indeed. I love the colours and the shine off the waters. The evening wasn’t very clear, but the clouds added a mysterious quality to the moon.
It seems like ages since Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE lit up our night skies in the summer. The camera required some serious tweaking to get right. Taken in the back field around midnight back in mid-July.
A fortuitous one, this. The island swathed in fog, apart from its topmost parts. Like an otherworldly city in the air.
Birds departing in a line from the local wood. An almost oriental quality to this photo.
A boat in Ballycotton bay, awaiting the setting of the sun. This was taken while out with a few other photographers in Ballycotton.
Stormy waves in Garryvoe, looking east to the signal tower by Knockadoon.
A funny one this: a goose washing itself in The Lough in Cork.
Ok, last one: a tree illuminated by the sunrise, with fog in the near distance.

Wishing you all a better year ahead. Stay safe.

What is a story? A set of events in time, in sequence, possibly with a beginning, a middle, and an ending.

Yes, but what makes a good story?

Perhaps it’s when you move from not knowing to knowing- knowing it all. A good story begins with great ignorance, but ends with all the loose ends tied up. In essence, a good story preys on our natural sense of curiosity – wanting to know. It gives us a chance to second guess, and to be pleasantly surprised when our assumptions turn out to be wrong.

Perhaps it’s when you get a bunch of characters, each of them doing their own thing, and you bring them together in interesting and unexpected ways.

Perhaps is when you get to know the characters. You feel for them. You want to know what they are about, what drives them. You need to care about them.

Perhaps, good stories need conflict. They are driven by it. They need that sense of dissonance – the itch that needs to be scratched.

Perhaps, they need repetition and clarity. Do it wrong and the reader gets lost. Do it right, and you keep their interest. To tell a good story is to build on solid foundations.

I’m asking myself all this because I don’t know much about stories, or how they are constructed. I’m asking myself this because I believe storytelling – good storytelling – is one of the most powerful weapons in our intellectual arsenal. To be a great communicator is to be a great storyteller. I want to know more.

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