Obama's Smoke Signals; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS

Article excerpt

Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge

QUESTION Does Barack Obama smoke?

IN JUNE this year, President Obama rushed through the Tobacco Regulation Act, a historic piece of legislation which gives the U.S. Food And Drug Administration unprecedented authority to regulate what goes into tobacco products, make public the ingredients and prohibit marketing campaigns aimed at children.

This resulted in feverish media speculation over whether the new President, a confirmed smoker since his teens, had given up. He revealed that he had - almost.

In 2007, before the presidential nomination campaign, his wife Michelle agreed he could run - provided he quit smoking.

He could often be seen chewing nicotine gum on the campaign trail.

However, when quizzed on NBC's Meet The Press session, Tom Brokaw noted that the White House is a no-smoking zone and asked Mr Obama: 'Have you stopped smoking?'

'I have,' Mr Obama replied, smiling. 'What I said was that there are times where I have fallen off the wagon.' 'Wait a minute,' the interviewer interjected.

'That means you haven't actually stopped.' 'Fair enough,'

Mr Obama replied. 'What I would say is that I have done a terrific job under the circumstances of making myself much healthier. You will not see any violations of these rules in the White House.'

Derek Gould, Los Angeles.

QUESTION What, in Irish mythology, is meant by the term immram?

THE word, immram, comes from old Irish mythology and it means voyage. Immram, or immrama in the plural, are stories of supernatural heroes and their epic journeys by sea, searching for the land of the gods or utopia, and they usually have a strong Christian element.

The immrama were first recorded in the seventh century AD but they were mainly written in the eighth century AD and they are a mixture of Celtic myths, classic legends and Christian voyage literature.

As early as the fifth century AD, Irish monks had been going off on lengthy pilgrimages, sailing from island to island in search of the perfect place for meditation. The Irish monks sailed as far as the Faroe Islands and Iceland and then of course there was St Brendan's incredible voyage across the Atlantic; he was widely credited with having discovered America in the sixth century AD.

All these voyages helped inspire the creation of the immrama. Characters in the stories were often wandering religious people and the main source of inspiration for the immrama was probably the Christ-ian punishment of setting people adrift at sea so that their crimes could be judged by God.

The number of immram written was limited; one list of ancient texts said that just seven officially recognised immram existed. Probably the best known in modern times was the Immram Bran - the Voyage of Bran.

This told the story of a man's journeys across the sea to avenge the death of his father.

While the content of the story owed much to ancient Irish mythology, it was written by monks in the eighth century AD.

This particular story was revised in the late 19th century by the great German scholar, Kuno Meyer, who did so much to help revive Irish. He published it in two volumes, between 1895 and 1897. While immrama are well-known examples of old Irish writings, they are sometimes confused with another genre, echtrae or adventures.

The echtrae were written about a century before the immrama and they had a strong pagan element, in contrast to the Christian overtones of the immrama. The two kinds of story were different in another respect. In echtrae, the hero voyages to just one single location, whereas in the immrama, the hero always has multiple adventures to several different islands.

In modern times, the immram theme has been revived by at least one writer. C.S. Lewis, the Belfastborn writer who died in 1963, wrote a book called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. …