Book review: Saol: Thoughts from Ireland on Life & Living

Catherine Conlon

The Collins Press, €12.99

For current affairs broadcaster Claire Byrne, life has changed irrevocably since the birth of her first child, Patrick. He has made her “more empathetic and I think I operate differently both at work and in my private life,” she says in this collection of thoughts on life and its meaning from some well-known and not so well-known people.

The 66 contributors are all thinkers, writes its author, Catherine Conlon, a lecturer in epidemiology and public health at University College Cork.

One of the questions posed in this book is what sort of legacy (if any) the subjects would like to leave. Byrne doesn’t concern herself with the notion of a legacy apart from saying that as long her family think well of her “when I am here and after I am gone, that will be good enough for me.”

For Fr Peter McVerry, campaigner for the homeless, “the purpose of life is to leave the world a better place than we found it”. Religion can give meaning to our compassion, he says, but adds that it is not the source of our compassion. “I imagine God looking down at our world, seeing one billion people on our planet living on the edge of destitution, seeing people sleeping on our streets, seeing people fleeing from violence and war. And each of these people is God’s beloved child, loved with an infinite love.”

Opting for a quiet life, retired sports broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy says he doubts he has had any influence “on moulding opinion on the great issues of the day. Indeed, if I am honest, I have favoured privacy over taking a stand; that may be understandable but perhaps it is nothing to be proud of either.” He worries about “aggressive secularism growing in the media and among some influential public representatives” which “is damaging to the soul of Ireland”.

UCC philosophy professor Graham Parkes addresses the question of an afterlife by saying it is usually understood as better or superior to this life. But this “tends to denigrate the value of the existence we enjoy here and now”.

Writer Jennifer Johnston, who came late to her career, publishing her first book at 42, says she hasn’t “the foggiest idea” as to why she is here.

Journalist John Waters, says people often tell him they find it strange “that an apparently intelligent man continues to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and hold that the son of God might have come among us to show us how to live, to die on the cross and be raised again”.

He agrees with them that, “from a certain perspective, this idea does seem implausible. But compared to the fact that I myself have come into existence, everything else is relatively credible. It is my own existence that I have difficulty believing. To be at all is the most incredible thing, compared to which nothing beyond me can be regarded as truly improbable.”

This is a book to dip in and out of, characterised by differing world views. Because the contributions are relatively short, it is rarely dull and ponderous.


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