Category Archives: Ireland

Tom, Sean, and me

Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

I’ve spent plenty of time in the early 1990s recently, pulled back there by the deaths of Tom Petty and, yesterday, Sean Hughes.

Both men were sides of a coin – or squares on a Rubik’s cube (this was the Nineties, after all) – to a teenager like myself, growing up in a smallish town in Ireland which seemed a million miles from Mulholland Drive or the Edinburgh Festival.

Reading tributes to and – more immediately – watching clips of both performers from 25 or more years ago, led to mixed feelings, some nostalgic and some of – ‘was it really like that?’

Sean’s Show ran on Channel Four, one of the nine or 10 channels we had at home back then. Not owning a CD player, I listened to Full Moon Fever on tape – so much so that I wore out the frail spool. It was one of about 20 cassettes I possessed.

After digesting the obituaries and watching the YouTube clips, and spending too much time chasing teenage memories, I was left with an unanswered question: what the hell did I do with the rest of my free time in 1992?

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Nowadays it’s often a struggle to carve out 30 minutes to listen to a piece of music or watch a TV show; back then it seemed that I was the lord and possessor of vast amounts of time, some of it spent playing soccer, some with my head in Tolkien or Thomas Harris, and none of it linked to anything digital.

Was it a better time? Or a happier or healthier one? Who knows? I can’t really remember. Then again, I can barely remember the album I listened to yesterday on Spotify, or the last long article I read, because both have already been drowned out by the online noise I surround myself with.

Watching an episode of Sean’s Show last night, I was struck by its feeling of space, the slower pace, the unfilled moments devoted to a confused look, a wry glance, or a cut scene. There was nothing pressing about engaging with the show, it was easy to slip into its pace.

An hour later, I made it barely 15 minutes into an episode of Family Guy, because the jokes weren’t coming fast, or funny enough. Maybe it’s me? Or maybe it’s what I’m watching?

Tom Petty sang that ‘the waiting is the hardest part’. I’m not sure that 2017 me would have the patience to sit through some of Sean Hughes’ quirkier set pieces, or the filler cuts on late Eighties Heartbreakers’ albums.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing. But I still have a feeling that – minor as it is in the face of mortal news  – something’s been lost.

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Finding Kavanagh in the canal bank rush

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

On a recent visit to Dublin I navigated through a Tuesday morning rush hour along Herbert Place, a few feet above the slow-moving waters of the Grand Canal.

As I did so, I wondered what the bard of Baggotonia, Patrick Kavanagh, would make of his old strolling ground.

The 50th anniversary of the poet’s death falls in November, and the Dublin that he left behind in 1967 is as dearly departed as the man himself.

The city of pubs and priests, holy hours and holy grail civil service jobs – the city Kavanagh knew, if not loved – no longer exists, thankfully. The 8am surge along Wilton Terrace moves with the same speed and attitude as that on lower Manhattan, or Canary Wharf.

Few wallow in the habitual or the banal in 2017, it seems. Why should they?

And what could a 20th century farmer poet from rural Co Monaghan have in common with today’s Baggotonians?

Canal bank walk, 2017

Canal bank walk, 2017

Little enough, I thought, until – days later – verses from one of Kavanagh’s later poems came to my mind.

‘Thank You, Thank You’ was written as an epilogue to a series of university lectures the poet delivered in the early 1960s. Part of the poem warns against nostalgia:

Don’t grieve like Marcus Aurelius
Who said that though he grew old and grey
The people of the Appian Way
Were always the same pleasant age
Twenty-four on average.

But, more to the point, Kavanagh’s poem celebrates the universal soul – whether it be in 1967 or 2017:

…what it teaches is just this
We are not alone in our loneliness,
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own
Problems that we could not solve
Lovers that we could not have
Pleasures that we missed by inches.

The words resonate across the span of a half century, from a poet seated by still canal waters to commuters whizzing by in 2017, yards from where he once rested. And whether we were there or are here, whether we were then or are now, we are not alone.

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On returning to visit Ireland

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

Every emigrant believes that their story is new.

It’s a conviction woven through the fabric of the emigration itself; a new start, new beginnings, a renewal of outlook and perspective – all these are critical to the experience, and my experience was no different.

As an Irishman, I’m aware that millions of people departed my home country for the United States over the past 200 years, under many circumstances (and a great many of those unhappy). And yet, because I’m me and this is my life, I can’t help but put myself front and center in my own story.

So, when I returned to Ireland for a visit last week – my first since leaving the country more than a year earlier – I expected (naively, of course) the insights to fall like rain from an Irish summer sky. I would see myself, and the country, cast in a new, deeper light; I would achieve understandings that were impossible in the 38 years I’d lived there.

I may not have forged the uncreated conscience of my race since I’d left, but I would have strongly held beliefs on what makes a good taco, for example, among other things.

Dublin, 2017.

Dublin, 2017.

What I found was what I already knew, but perhaps didn’t appreciate enough before. It’s obvious to some I’m sure, but it wasn’t to me.

For all the tourist ads and Instagram pics, the Ireland I returned to wasn’t a place. The place was there (I was standing in it, after all), but what made it ‘home’ was the people.

And my wife and I tried to meet as many people as possible. Over a short number of days we spent time with family, met old friends and former work colleagues, and even shot the breeze with the owner of our favorite coffee shop.

We didn’t do, or speak about, anything different or groundbreaking or radical to what we had before. The ‘T word‘ may have been raised once or twice, but we got over that quickly enough.

Instead we just hung out, eating and drinking, walking and talking, covering a great number of topics. Not least the greatest Irish conversation starter: the weather. (For the record it rained most days – which added to the sense of homecoming.)

There was no pretense or argument or oneupmanship – just connection.

When I walked into departures at Dublin Airport a few days later, I hadn’t come into possession of any great emigrant insights. I wasn’t taking off with a razor-sharp concept of the 21st-century Irish psyche in my pocket.

My insight was simple enough – that Ireland contains some of the greatest people, who I love and I miss and who I look forward to returning to. Sin é .

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

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There’s no rush – spring’s here

In bloom. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

In bloom. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

In my mind spring always begins on February 1.

In the Irish tradition, this date is St Bridget’s Day, the day on which the traditional Gaelic festival of Imbolg – the start of spring – is celebrated.

In Ireland the days begin to lengthen, the light increases, the rain is increasingly broken by sunshine.

I don’t think I’ll ever shift from this thinking, despite living in a country that heralded the season, this year, on March 20. (Spring beginning after St Patrick’s Day? That’s just wrong.)

It’s taken even longer for spring to reach the Pacific Northwest this year. Only in the past week have temperatures in Portland crawled up into the high 60s (and temporarily, at that). Only now are the longer stretches of rain-soaked days – five, six, seven at a time – disappearing, to be replaced by sun breaks and heavy showers.

The vernal season is upon us, then. And the brighter, and slightly drier, weather is accompanied by another phenomenon – the eruption of cherry blossoms. Every street in our north-east Portland neighborhood boasts at least a couple of these trees, flowering pink or red or, less commonly, white. Not since a spring trip to Japan a while back – where the cherry blossom is truly cherished – have I seen so many in one city.

The light, delicate petals are some way – in reality and in my mind – from the raw, green rushes we used to make St Bridget’s Crosses when I was a child in Ireland. The petals are prettier, but the rushes last longer.

Which one is the true herald of the season? It hardly matters – spring is here.

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An afternoon with the Timbers Army

Providence Park, Portland

Providence Park, Portland

I blame Kurt Cobain.

More specifically I blame his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that launched a cultural movement and, on a slightly smaller scale, ended my teenage obsession with soccer.

Before I heard that song I was a Liverpool FC-obsessed kid, growing up in the late 1980s and following every move of the double-winning Reds team of that era.

Saturdays were spent building up to soccer (Saint and Greavsie) in the morning, watching a game on TV in the afternoon, and then poring over the results on Match of the Day that night.

Then, one afternoon in late 1991, I walked into the old Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay and bought the seven-inch single of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

That was it for the football. The single led to an album which led to more albums. Before I knew it, I was spending my Saturday afternoons trying to decipher Pearl Jam lyrics and saving for a CD player.

Cheers and beers

Cheers and beers

The one nod I made to my former football obsession was a less-than-glamorous one. On Friday nights throughout the early 1990s I would stand on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park in Athlone, usually freezing through the winter soccer season, watching the local Athlone Town FC.

That ended when I left home for college in Dublin. With the exception of the one or two Irish international games, which were more of a social occasion than a sporting one, it’s been a long time since I stood on a terrace shouting at a group of men chasing a ball.

Until last weekend, when I found myself doing precisely that at Providence Park in Portland, in the midst of the Timbers Army, a well-oiled and loud group of Portland Timbers supporters.

Parts of the evening brought me back – the standing on concrete for hours, the shouting, the echoing hum of a few thousand people on a covered terrace.

I was never much of a singer at St Mel’s Park, but someone handed me a sheet with Timbers’ chants. Beer in hand (something else I never encountered back in the Athlone days), I gamely lashed into ‘Rose City, Whoa-oh’. I even chowed down on the plate of steaming tots – not unlike the steaming chips you’d get for IR£1 from a battered van in St Mel’s Park back in the day.

I’m not sure if Kurt Cobain would have approved, though he’d surely have been comfortable with the number of plaid shirts on display. Which led me to think –  watching soccer in the Nirvana frontman’s spiritual heartland of the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the whole thing’s come full circle.


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No regrets – Raymond Carver and the rain

Raymond Carver

Raymond Carver

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.

I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.

Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.

This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.

Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.

“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.

In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.

‘Rain’

Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.

Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.

Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.

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The next time you hear “Ride On”…

Jimmy MacCarthy

Jimmy MacCarthy

There is something peculiarly folk music about the fact that the name of the man who wrote some of Ireland’s greatest modern ballads is not widely known, internationally at least, despite his songs travelling the world.

This occurred to me recently when I stopped into Kells Irish pub in downtown Portland one evening, and heard the performer on stage break into “Ride On”. The song was made famous, of course, by Christy Moore, on his 1984 album of that name and in thousands of live performances since.

The singer in Kells duly cited Moore’s performance of the song. I’m sure he has, at one point or another, performed “Missing You”, or “No Frontiers”, two other staples of modern Irish folk music.

And which were written by Jimmy MacCarthy – a name, though not as well-known as Moore’s or The Corrs’ (who’ve also recorded his work), ought to be.

“Ride On” alone secures MacCarthy a place in the choir of great Irish songwriters; the addition of “Missing You” would settle any debate on the matter.

But his greatest composition, to my mind, remains his poignant ballad about the tragic boxer Jack Doyle. Outside of song, Doyle’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story is relatively well-recounted. “The Contender” charts the Corkman’s rise and fall across five verses, from “the contender to the brawl”, as MacCarthy frames it.

It’s a masterclass in songwriting, a work that’s tragic without being sentimental, that’s affectionate but open-eyed. Perhaps fittingly, my favorite version of the song is the one below, recorded live by Moore in 2006. (MacCarthy’s own studio version, from his 2002 album “The Moment”, sounds overproduced, though his live performance of the song, which I saw in Wexford that same year, was wonderful).

Accompanied by guitarist Declan Sinnott, Moore mixes up the pride and the pathos of Doyle’s story. He also pays tribute, at the outset, to the man who wrote the song.

The next time you hear “Ride On” then, or the great London-Irish emigrant song “Missing You“, or even The Corrs’ breathy take on “No Frontiers”, tip your hat to Jimmy MacCarthy.

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Snowmaggedon falling faintly and faintly falling

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead" (1987)

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” (1987)

Snow was general all over Portland this week. It was falling softly upon the Japanese Gardens and, further westwards, softly falling on the dark Willamette waves.

Snowstorms don’t happen very often in this part of the world. Mercifully so, as the city slides to a halt when they sweep in. Pavements are ice rinks, roads lie untreated, movement is all but impossible. It’s almost as bad as the notorious Irish ‘Big Freeze‘.

That country came to mind this morning as I lay in bed, shivering and reading “The Dead”, the short story which ends James Joyce’s’ “Dubliners”.

Its famous closing lines depict snow falling on Dublin and, as Gabriel Conroy experiences his epiphany, across the midlands to the western seaboard. The precipitation was, Richard Ellmann believed, a metaphor for human mutuality, the experience of life and of death that we all share.

Joyce’s words, like the quiet, empty streets of Portland’s ‘snowmageddon‘, are a calming break from the general run of things. And worth reading, before the Christmas rush descends.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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Ringing the changes – the music of moving

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

“If you fear change, give it to me.”

There’s a guy who panhandles on the corner of North Broadway and North Vancouver Avenue in northeast Portland. His message, written on a piece of cardboard, seems to work. Well, it did for me last week.

Change is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past few months. Despite the common advice to remake and remodel, to constantly develop and progress, it’s not something that comes naturally to most people. I include myself.

A friend recently pointed out, however, that leaving a place or a job (and, in the process, a state of mind) is the only way to grow. A couple of months ago my wife and I did both, relocated to relocating to Portland, Oregon from Dublin, Ireland.

The journey’s been like nothing before. We are learning a new city, a new (to me) culture, job and apartment hunting. Some days it’s a natural fit, others demand a doubling down on resolve. But the change has come.

What downtime I have, between the hunting and unpacking and lifting and meetings, has been spent listening to music – on the MAX to the market, in line at the DMV, driving to a house viewing.

And so I’ve put together a short playlist with two intersecting themes – change and American popular music.

All the songs contain some trace or theme of change, from the social (Buffalo Springfield) to spiritual (Nina Simone) to the local (Cisco Houston’s version of a song Woody Guthrie wrote when he lived here in 1941).

Elsewhere there’s personal development (a track from Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions), a scorched-earth new start (courtesy of a Louis Armstrong solo) and a simple call for contentment from Elliott Smith.

And what better way to end it all than the famous largo from Dvořák’s ninth symphony, ‘From the New World’, the composer’s musical testament to America – a composition of progress, hope and, above all, change.

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