Why Lady Luck can be a fickle mistress for some - but thankfully not for me
Three times in my early life, I was rescued by a stroke of luck. When I was a very young child, I very nearly choked to death on some small edible object - it might have been a nut. I was just turning blue when a young man walked into our kitchen who happened to be a medical student. He quickly turned me upside down and thumped on my back until the object was disgorged. Had he not chosen to visit at that moment, little Mary might have demised.
Then, when I was four, climbing on an old dresser, I fell down with a cup in my hand, which broke: the gashed china was within a centimetre of losing me an eye. It put a scar on my cheek, but I didn't go blind in one eye.
At the age of 12, I swam across an enclosed stretch of water in Donegal which, it was later revealed, contained a dangerous whirlpool that had swallowed previous swimmers. But fortunately, not me.
Luck: fate: divine intervention: good timing: random chance? How crucial a role does it play in the course of our lives? An American academic, Robert H Frank, has carried out a study of luck in life's pattern - with some surprising conclusions.
You might think that conservative people are more likely to believe in luck - because they may be more traditional in their thinking. You might also think that liberal or progressive people dismiss luck as a load of old superstitious codswallop. But the studies show it's quite the opposite.
Conservatives are less likely to believe in the luck factor: they more usually believe that good fortune is earned by the virtues of hard work and well-deserved rewards. The motto attributed to golfer Gary Player (as well as to Thomas Jefferson and Sam Goldwyn) could be cited: "The harder I work, the luckier I get".
It's liberals who think that luck is more a matter of random good fortune - and of being born into a society which has provided the opportunities for luck. By this thinking, Bill Gates (and Donald Trump) didn't get where they are today just by being clever innovators or shrewd businessmen: they were lucky in their parents, lucky in their educational opportunities and life circumstances. They were opportunistic at manipulating their luck, yes. But their social circumstances provided luck.
If you're born to wealthy parents who send you to Harvard, you have a much better chance of being lucky than if you're born in Zimbabwe or to parents who don't support you. Napoleon was a great believer in luck: he said that the most important attribute in an officer was whether he was lucky. Yet he also said: "Ability is of little account without opportunity". And Professor Frank, in his study, Success and Luck - Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy - ascribes most luck in life to chance and opportunity. Luck and ill-luck can both be random: whether it's winning a lottery, or being on the doomed aircraft that goes fatally missing - it's just chance.
He claims, for example, that in the arts, success is often down to luck. The Mona Lisa only became the world's most famous painting by chance. The books on the bestseller lists are often simply lucky. Many a deserving book has sunk without trace, because it didn't have the right luck - or timing. He quotes the actor Bryan Cranston, who only got lucky in late middle-age when he landed the part in Breaking Bad (John Cusack and Matthew Broderick had turned it down): "Luck is a component that a lot of people in the arts sometimes fail to recognise: that you can have talent, perseverance, patience, but without luck ... no successful career."
Yet there are those who believe that you can attract luck. A woman who wears a red dress may be luckier in love, or in money: waitresses who wear red get bigger tips. Many women believe in "lucky" clothes, and if you're wearing your "lucky" outfit, you may radiate more confidence. Goethe believed that attitude influenced personal luck: the moment one commits to an idea or a goal, providence responds. Jung thought that luck was being able to see the synchronicity of events. Amit Roy has written that "concentration attracts the luck factor".
Every gambler has had his own rituals and "systems" to keep luck on his side. But if all gamblers were lucky, bookies would be beggars, which they clearly are not.
Superstitions about luck were often attempts to control the vagaries of a fate over which people had little agency. Irish country people would shun the colour green. Even into the early 1900s, country superstitions endured about "changelings": a woman going into labour must have her hair loose - if she did not, she might give birth to a "changeling". I once came across a letter to a priest in a devotional magazine, written sometime in the Thirties from a woman in a small town in Munster. There was a girl in the town, she wrote, whom the local people said was "unlucky". Should this "unlucky" girl be shunned? To his credit the priest denounced this as wickedly unChristian: nobody was "unlucky", because we were all children of God. But it was an insight into darker notions of ill-luck that still lingered.
Luck does exist, in both good and bad forms. "The web of our life is a mingled yarn," wrote Shakespeare, "good and ill together". When I think of my lucky escapes, I count my blessings.