Cecilia Ahern always has interesting themes for her novels, and her new book Freckles is based on a lofty moral ideal. It was, she says, inspired by the expression that “you are the average of the five people you spend most time with”; so she decided to create a character, Allegra, whose ambition is “to become a better version of herself” by reaching out to the five people she considers admirable.
Ms Ahern – Bertie’s daughter, as we know – suggests that choosing good people as influencers helps us to ‘curate’ a higher ideal of ourselves.
It might prompt us all to ask – who are the five people we would choose to make us better versions of ourselves?
It also prompts a retrospective question about the people who have most influenced our lives. And it reinforces an old Christian and Catholic moral theme – that the company we keep can shape the direction of our destiny.
The influence of ‘bad companions’ was a cautionary note often sounded. It’s evident that there can be bad, or negative, influences as well as positive and inspiring ones.
There can be the teacher who opens the portals of learning and high ideals – the psychiatrist Anthony Clare ascribed his achievements in life to a terrific Jesuit at Gonzaga, Fr Joe Veale. But there can be a teacher who has the opposite effect because of a negative, even toxic, attitude. I had a surly piano teacher who rapped me painfully across the knuckles with a pencil every time I played a wrong note, which made me recoil from ever trying to play anything at all.
I’ve encountered good people who showed me a shining path; but it has to be admitted that sometimes the bad boys and girls can be the ones who lead us astray with their charms and beguilements. Sometimes, it has occurred to me, that I was the nefarious influence, the ‘bad companion’.
Cecilia’s novel is underpinned by a serious intellectual idea, and although she may not be consciously aware of it, her ‘higher self’ draws on a Christian aspiration to grow in virtue by emulating the saints, and distance ourselves from the demons who would bring out the worst side of our characters.
One of the people who influenced me was Nuala Scarisbrick, the co-founder of ‘Life’, in Britain, who has just died. Nuala and her husband Jack – the Tudor historian Prof. J.J. Scarisbrick – set up Life in 1970 to provide alternatives to abortion. Nuala and Jack took pregnant girls into their own home in Warwickshire and set up a series of Life houses as accommodation for women with crises pregnancies. They also founded three hospices for disabled babies, ‘Zoe’s Place’, in Liverpool, Coventry and Middlesborough.
Nuala was beautiful, funny, energetic and great company and she showed me that being ‘pro-life’ wasn’t something disapproving and gloomy, but life-enhancing and cheerful. She died on August 31, aged 82, surrounded by her husband, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Nuala also expanded pregnancy counselling services and one of the most successful has been Life Belfast, where a dedicated team from all sections of the community work together.
Her passing calls for mourning, but also the celebratory words “To life!”
The horrors of war
I grew up among a generation who had lived through the Irish Civil War of 1922-23 – my mother, aunts and uncles had all been young people during the 1920s. And not a single word did they ever utter about the experience. My ma preferred to remember the Charleston, the appearance of ‘cocktails’ and the ‘Talkie’ movies of the 1920s; otherwise, a complete silence prevailed over the period.
And now I understand why, having read Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book Between Two Hells: The Irish Civil War. A full review will surely appear on our books pages, but just let me say the story is both riveting and appalling. The suffering, on both sides, was unspeakable. Young men ‘executed’ by one side or the other for trivial offences, or for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; and the pitiful pleadings of mothers, not only bereft of husbands and sons, but left with no breadwinner, plunging families into destitution.
Small wonder Taoiseach Seán Lemass could never talk about it: his brother Noel was abducted, shot three times, his head ‘detached’ from his body, and several fingers cut off. “When his parents were brought to the scene, they could only identify him from his cigarette case, rosary beads and gold tie clip”.
The Church did preach peace and anti-violence, though it was evident the hierarchy’s sympathies were with the Free State, being the legitimate government. But what anguish they all witnessed, and what torment so many went through, God help them.