Month: March 2015

Isle of Saints, Scholars and Scoundrels: wisdom, intelligence and wickedness in Ireland, past and present

Ireland, the isle of saints and scholars, has a long history of thoughtfulness (despite the stereotyping by her powerful neighbour of her people as ‘thick’, uneducated, unwilling to be educated, doltish or otherwise unintelligent). Dr Tom Duddy explores this in his book, A History of Irish Thought. What’s interesting, though, is that scholarship is associated with intelligence, a kind of analytic, morally neutral quality of intellectual investigation, whereas sainthood is associated with a focus on ‘the good’: what acts will benefit us, as people, to further the common good?

But, as Nick Maxwell points out in his extensive study of wisdom and the campaign to encourage institutions devoted to learning to extend their remit, and focus on helping humanity learn to live more wisely, wisdom and intelligence are not entirely separable. In fact, it is our unhealthy obsession with research as a tool for profit in business, without any questioning of the basis for such a social and economic model, that has led us into our present predicament.

The tradition of linking wisdom with intelligence, or scholarship with a modern-day interpretation of saintliness (defined simply as the desire to benefit humanity, and the wider world, altruistically, or in recognition of our interconnectedness), has deep roots here in Ireland. Jonathan Swift in his ‘Modest Proposal’ was clearly pointing out the brutality of thinking without an accompanying sense of empathy. Beckett explores the agony, but also the necessity for honest acknowledgement, of living without traditional reference points, and how we still seek to reach for some connection, to make a noise within the absurdity and nonsense, that might mean something to someone else.

However, there are also many Irish examples of the collective, or individual, use of intelligence to undercut, or harm, communities or individuals. Eamon de Valera has a mixed reputation, as does Bono, with his (perhaps understandable) unwillingness to contribute to the tax coffers of the country (coffers that have been ransacked to benefit a tiny proportion of bondholders while the majority of contributors still bear the brunt of the national debt – something of an example of collective scoundrel-ism). Michael O’Leary has not necessarily created social cohesion or benefitted the environment, or even created job security for many of his employees, although his business model has certainly helped make flying more affordable. More seriously, there are no doubt many good reasons why those who joined religious orders became abusers, but the harm they perpetrated is an enduring legacy of horror and shame. No doubt you can think of other saints who were scholars, or scholars – or at least relatively intelligent individuals – who were scoundrels.

What of the future? What of current attempts to create a coherent strategy that will benefit all? Mostly, now, we think of this happening at the political sphere. But scholarship has an important role to play in creating  a thinking space for how to live. Scholarship is never neutral. There are always underlying frameworks, how the scholar imagines, consciously or unconsciously, the world to be, or the world as they would like it to be. An enquiry into how we can live not just intelligently, but wisely, is worth pursuing, even if the questions such an endeavour raises are difficult and controversial.

To see more of Maxwell’s work, go to

Ordinary consumers are better job creators than high earners

The rich do not create jobs in the same way that ordinary consumers do. More equal societies create more jobs, because more people have relatively more money. More unequal societies create fewer jobs because most people can’t afford to buy more than the basics. Jobs are a consequence of a feedback loop between consumers and suppliers. Higher taxes need to be collectible through internationally applicable legislation that does not allow the super-rich to salt money away in tax havens.

A more equal society is a fairer society, but only if the super rich are not able to escape a globally applicable tax system.

Comments? Questions?


The Gamanrad was a tribe that came to (invaded??) Erris from the Continent, probably in two waves, 1000 BC, and around 600 BC or perhaps a little earlier. They were a section of the people known as Fir Domnann. A few years ago, I began to see if I could network with a loose collective of people in Erris who were interested in ecologically mindful action – not just beachcleans, but deeper thinking about how we connect with this place, and what we can do to ‘tread lightly’, as Yeats said, on our own dreams and visions of the future. After some meetings, and with the agreement of the 20 or so people who came along (I advertised these meetings as widely as I could) we decided we would maintain a loose network, rather than form a formal group. I called the group Gamanrad, after this early tribe, because they developed a highly sophisticated culture, but left little trace, except stories and myths. If you want to be a part of this loose collective, if you consider yourself already to be a part, then please get in touch. The kind of things we think about are the status of a large portion of Erris as an SAC, and what that might mean; conflicts in the use of loughs, land and marine areas, and what might be done to respond to these; littering, burning, and other damaging activity, and how to address it; walking access and old rights of way; protection of species; native species restoration; and any other thoughts people have that they want to share. There is no hierarchy to this group. Anyone can be a member. All I would ask is that no one creates a hierarchy or tries to lead it. It has no ideology. It has no end. It is entirely means-oriented, which means it is the way that we interact that counts, each and every single time.

I completed a PhD at University College Cork, here in Ireland, and successfully defended the thesis last October. The thesis was in the field of Environmental Philosophy, entitled, ‘From respect for nature to realisation as agency in response to the ecological emergency’. The focus of the thesis is on the narratives and conceptual frameworks we use to understand our relationship and responsibilities to the ecological context, and on what prospects we have to shift these frameworks so that we respond more effectively, and mitigate some of the impacts that have allowed the ecological catastrophes we are living in to develop.
This site is a record of the thesis, and I am gradually updating it. This is because the chapters on this site don’t correspond precisely with the chapters in my thesis – they’re sometimes earlier versions, and gradually, I hope, will evolve into more precise versions of what I was trying to say in the thesis. I’d like to publish, eventually, but until then, I’ll work on this site. I’m also adding details of postdoctoral work and proposals. My personal situation has meant that I have spent the last 16 years living in an isolated and marginal area in the north-west of Ireland, having come here, originally from Scotland, via Oxford and Kenya, among other places. I was one of the last people who was allowed the privilege of conducting my doctoral research in Cork almost entirely independently, without having to attend formal workshops, or to complete modules. This means that I have a poor publication record, so I want to use this site as an opportunity (along with to address that paucity, by publishing informally here and hopefully developing some interaction with people through comments so that I can hone my writing skills, and get more of a discussion going on the issues I’ve been working to understand.