You Bet Your Life – Fr. Brendan Quinlivan – Clare Champion Article

I have a great fear that if this lockdown continues much longer, we will all have forgotten our party-pieces. You know what I mean: the one poem or the song to which we know all the words and which we can sing or recite when we receive the noble call in the pub or at the house party.

In my seminary days we had a spiritual director who would always entertain us on Christmas night in the common room with his recitation of a poem called Tangmalangmaloo. Written by Monsignor Patrick Joseph Hartigan under the pen-name John O’Brien, the poem is contained in a collection called Around the Boree Log and Other Verses. Hartigan was an Australian priest with his emigrant roots in Lissycasey. Tangmalangmaloo recounts the story of a Bishop administering the sacrament of confirmation in the Australian outback at some galvanized church. The Bishop becomes frustrated by the lack of religious knowledge of the young people who he is about to confirm in the faith. He calls upon an overgrown two-storey lad and asks him; “what is Christmas Day?” The poet tells us that, hit by a squall of knowledge, the young man replies; “It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangmaloo.”

I must confess that I find it difficult to be too judgmental of the lad with Sunday clothes and staring eyes and ignorance profound from Tangmalangmaloo. In my youth and childhood if a bishop were to ask me at my Confirmation; “what is Easter Sunday?”, I’d be just as likely to answer; “It’s the day of the races on the Turret Hill in Dromoland.” The point-to-point races on Easter Sunday at Dromoland were one of the social, cultural and entertainment highlights of our young and innocent lives. By and large we didn’t have much interest in horses or racing but we were there for the sideshows and carnival atmosphere.

We set out on foot in the early afternoon with ten shillings, (or a pound if you were flush), burning a hole in our pockets. The swingin’ boats and the candy floss were our first ports of call. It was important to do them in that order because if you started with the candy floss on top of the Easter Egg you had for breakfast there was a strong chance that they’d appear again when the swingin’ boats were at their highest trajectory. As the day wore on the funds would go into decline leaving us with just the one option, to gamble to get back in the black. We were too young for the bookies so our only option was the roulette wheel. I don’t wish to cast retrospective aspersions on the operator of the roulette wheel and suggest that the game was crooked but the side of a hill is no place to set up a fair and balanced game of chance. Instead of numbers you placed your money on the image of a harp or a round-tower or a celtic cross and could win back up to 4 times your stake depending on the frequency of the image on the roulette wheel.

As we celebrate this weekend the key events at the heart of our faith and the wonder of the resurrection, I find myself recalling an argument from philosophy posed by the French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal, whose thought made the computer possible. Back in the 17th Century he put forward the theory which has become known as the Divine wager. He proposed that all thoughtful and rational people should live and behave as if God exists and seek to believe in Him. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures, luxury, etc.), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in Heaven) and avoid infinite losses (eternity in Hell).

When Pascal died in 1662, it was found that he had stitched a piece of paper into his coat, so that it would be next to his heart. On the paper was a cross surrounded by the rays of the rising sun. Under the cross he had written the year of his conversion and the day and the hour, “from half past ten at night till about half past twelve.” Then, on a line by itself in capital letters, the word FIRE. And then: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. I know! I know! I feel! Joy! Peace!”

Pascal said there is within every person a “God-shaped vacuum.” I like the idea of Pascal’s wager – it certainly offers more hope and better odds than a wonky roulette wheel on the side of Dromoland hill.

Fr. Brendan Quinlivan lives in Tulla and is Vicare Forane for the Ceantar na Lochanna parishes of East Clare

Clare Champion Article, 2nd of April 2021