A disability campaigner is a welcome face

A disability campaigner is a welcome face

I hear the words “Marie Antoinette” increasingly used about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex – invoking the late (largely naïve) Queen of France as a symbol of privilege without responsibility. “Doing a Marie Antoinette” is shorthand for availing of every entitlement possible while play-acting at being just a simple milkmaid or shepherdess.

Duchess Meghan’s latest caper is to guest-edit the September issue of the fashion magazine Vogue, in which she nominates 15 women who are leading social change throughout the world. A certain degree of scoffing has occurred at her choices, which are seen as emblems of “wokeness” (the new name for the Politically Correct) and celebrity: disabusing privilege while being privileged.

Although for some of us of an older vintage, we might be hard put to identify the exact role of these ladies. I am little acquainted with the activities of Juameela Jamil, Yara Shahidi, Adwoe Aboah, Adut Akech, and Chimamanda Ngozi. Some of them are models and actresses: some are apparently well-placed to speak about “privilege”, being women of wealth.

However, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern has no doubt earned her spurs, Greta Thunberg has awakened the world’s conscience on climate change, and Francesca Hayward is an exquisitely accomplished ballerina. Jane Fonda is Hollywood royalty and has enjoyed all its privileges, but let’s say she represents old age with some glamour.

And I do think it’s excellent that Sinead Burke, the attractive Irish disability rights campaigner, has been included and is to the fore. On those grounds alone, I’d personally welcome Meghan’s list.

Disability rights are a really important and compassionate cause. I suppose, however, it would be going too far to hope that Duchess Meghan might campaign to extend disability rights to the unborn?


Benedict Cumberbatch in The Current War

There’s a movie just released called The Current War – about bringing electric light, and power, to America, in which Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) rivals George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon). I found the film lacking narrative coherence – we learn little about the back stories of the two rivals – and it’s a bit over-technical about AC/DC electrical currents.

But it does illuminate the power of light, and the impact of electricity, and it turned my mind to the remarkable achievement of the Ardnacrusha Shannon Scheme, which brought electricity to Ireland in 1929.  It was a major innovation by the early Irish Free State, and had a huge psychological, as well as well as material impact on ordinary lives. There’s a 90th anniversary exhibition at Ardnacrusha – until September 13 – and I hope to see it before it finishes. Incidentally, the Catholic clergy greatly supported the electrification of Ireland. And doesn’t the Book of Genesis contain those stunning words: “Let there be light.”


A Life Well Lived

During the month of August, a weekly focus on a personality who appears in the most recently published volumes of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, which shows portraits of Irish lives.

Cyril Barrett, (christened Denis) who died in 2003 aged 78, was a Jesuit priest, art critic, historian and philosopher, who was noted for his “charm, eccentricity and intellectual brilliance”. His father was assistant commissioner of the old Dublin Metropolitan Police: his mother died of cancer when he was three, and his father remarried. Cyril formed a warm and affectionate relationship with his stepmother and subsequent half-siblings.


The family were sometimes described as “Castle Catholics” and Cyril was educated in both Clongowes and Ampleforth. He joined the Jesuits in 1942, when he was only 17, but encouraged by the order, went on to study Latin and philosophy at UCD, which had a strong philosophical department. Barrett continued studying and teaching philosophy in Ireland, France, London and the University of Warwick, where he built a reputation as an outstanding academic, specialising in Wittgenstein. He was also a champion of modern art and did much to popularise contemporary art in Ireland. He was something of a bon viveur, liked a bet on a horse, was an accomplished cook and a great pal of Sean MacReamonn, with whom he attended the Merriman School in Co Clare.

I met Cyril Barrett back in the 1980s with my late friend Fionnuala O’Shannon (sister of Cathal) and, being ignorant in the ways of philosophy, didn’t really appreciate just how distinguished he was. But I argued with him about Pope John Paul II, who I supported, having recently been to Poland, and who Father Barrett did not.

He died in Dublin, his birthplace, of cancer, having written a “philosophy autobiography” and a revision of the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius Loyola.