Immigrant songs – Heaney, Joyce and Ronnie Drew

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

As an Irishman, it’s rare to find a fresh take on emigration. The culture of leave-taking and return, post-Christmas news reports from the departure gates at Dublin Airport, regularly thinking eight hours ahead, finding yourself in an Irish bar at 6 a.m. watching a sports game “from home” – most of these are familiar to the Irish emigrant.

Along with the songs and stories of course – from John Healy’s “The Grass Arena”, to Ronnie Drew’s recording of “McAlpine’s Fusiliers“, to the granddaddy of them all, James Joyce’s “Ulysses’, written in three continental cities but a chronicle of only one.

Historically the message has usually, ultimately, been one of exile – whether by force or choice. This ‘push’ story has often obscured the ‘pull’ narrative, the story of the return to Ireland: there are not as many songs about the prodigal Irishmen and women who came back.

This “pull” is the subject of a short, early poem of Seamus Heaney’s. “Gravities” appeared in Heaney’s first collection, “Death of a Naturalist”. It’s a poem that examines the “strict and invisible” force that pulls people back, to relationships and to countries.

Reading it also reminds me that even some of Ireland’s most famous exiles, Joyce and the monk Colmcille, for all their achievements in other countries, never escaped the pull of the home. (Even if, in Joyce’s case, they would never return.)

“Gravities” 

High-riding kites appear to range quite freely

Though reined by strings, strict and invisible.

The pigeon that deserts you suddenly

Is heading home, instinctively faithful.

 

Lovers with barrages of hot insult

Often cut off their nose to spite their face,

Endure a hopeless day, declare their guilt,

Re-enter the native port of their embrace.

 

Blinding in Paris, for his party-piece

Joyce named the shops along O’Connell Street

And on Iona Colmcille sought ease

by wearing Irish mould next to his feet.

_____

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Death mask in North Great George’s Street

Death mask.

Death mask.

It’s himself.

In a black box, glass-faced, placed in a room on the top floor of a Georgian house.

Looking peaceful.

Little sign of the ulcer that killed him, or the stress of the years unpublished in exile,

Or the pain of the eye operations.

It’s not the original death mask – instead the product of revisions and iterations.

But it’s his parting glance to the world.

Smaller than his stature suggests, and gentler,

James Joyce sleeps in a quiet room, four storeys up, between Eccles Street and Nighttown.

Oddly, he looks at home.

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Rest stop

We arrived the night after a hurricane’s last winds

Had whipped their way over South Carolina.

The beach and the trees were still and empty – the summer washed away,

A clean slate for Autumn.

We had driven from California, three weeks across the country,

And this driftwood beach and empty tourist town was ‘it’, the moment we reached the other coast.

We had arrived.

In 24 hours we would move on. For now, all was clear and endless.

The years of college were over, ahead lay possibility, calm water, storms, inconceivable events,

We ate by a beach campfire, and slept heavily that night, unburdened.

_____

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In praise of rainy afternoons

Saturday afternoon.

Saturday afternoon.

Grey and wet and cabin feverish – in my memory all the rainy afternoons of my childhood holidays merge into one.

Waking on a wet Saturday morning, usually at a grandmother’s house, we would wait and hope, through breakfast and the drizzly morning, over lunch and on into the afternoon, that the rain would stop. By 3pm, after hours of books and board games, and more than a bit dispirited, we would be dragged from the fireplace and out for a spin in my dad’s car.

If we were lucky, the deluge or drizzle would stop. But often it did not, and so another July weekend would be lost to the vagaries of the Irish weather.

The advent of the internet, and a longer concentration span, and my sheer bloody mindedness nowadays when it comes to getting outside and getting soaked, means that a rainy Saturday isn’t the complete write-off it once was.

After moving from one rainy city (Dublin – 29 inches per annum) to another (Portland, Oregon – 36 inches), I’ve finally got used to rain. It’s only taken 40 years.

Just as well, as my wife and I woke to hail, rain, thunder, lightning, and 55mph gusting winds last Saturday. We were visiting our friends’ beach house in Manzanita, Oregon, a very fine property located all of 200 meters from the (very loud and very windswept) Pacific Ocean.

We were away from home. There were no chores to be done, no emails to be checked, or calls placed. My phone was turned off. For the first time in years, I experienced a rainy Saturday on vacation.

What did we do? Well, the same thing I did with my family 30 years ago. We had breakfast, chatted, ate some more, read a bit, watched the fireplace, and read a little more. And ate a bit more. And then we bundled into the car and headed out to the village for a damp stroll.

Plus ça change, as the French say. And pass the sauvignon blanc. The only difference between a rain-soaked Saturday in 2018 and one in 1988 as the occasional adult refreshment, which eased us into the afternoon and, truth be told, into the early evening as well.

How wonderful it was, to sit and sip and chat and attempt another two pages of the ‘Nighttown’ chapter, and then nibble and sip and chat some more. On occasion, I’d even forget the raging tumult flinging torrents of water on the windows. Until the next thunderclap.

Could I do it every weekend? The 10-year-old me from 1988 would probably give you a short, sharp answer to that – which I’d agree with today. But once in a soggy blue moon? Let it rain.

_____

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Commuting with George Best

New sounds from 31 years ago.

New sounds from 31 years ago.

Portland’s music radio doesn’t cut it.

Not the hip-hop, or the jazz, or the country stuff – but the alt stations. I live in a city renowned for its musical impact, and spend hours every week listening to the radio, but have yet to find a solid alternative station.

When I tune in to the Rose City’s best known one, for every interesting tune I sit through repeat plays of decade-old White Stripes’ numbers, Radiohead’s High and Dry (again), or, I kid you not, Blink-182 songs.

To be fair, the nighttime playlists are more interesting. But I listen during morning and evening commutes, when Mumford & Sons doesn’t cut it. (Any chance of James Blake’s ‘If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead‘)

Maybe it’s an age thing. At 40 I’ve been through the wringer of three decades of alternative movements, from grunge to Britpop to landfill indie to whatever ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion‘ was. Maybe I’m tapped out, and the only alt rock I really want to hear is ‘Goo’, or ‘Let Love In’, or ‘Repeater’ (again).

But every now and then I come across a band or a song that blows that theory apart. The thing is, it rarely happens on radio. Unable to handle another listen to ‘Stupid Girl’ last week, I switched to Spotify for the drive home. And a playlist randomly threw up The Wedding Present.

I’d heard of the band over the years, and once endured a serious ‘come to Jesus’ chat from one of their fans. But I’d never bothered to listen to them. Until ‘Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft‘, the opening track on their best known album, ‘George Best‘, came through the speakers.

Here’s what I’d been hunting – a driving beat, jangling guitars, droll lyrics, a seamless blend of punk sensibility and pop melody. All in three minutes. It’s just a pity that it was recorded 31 years ago.

I almost – almost – told myself: ‘they don’t make them like this anymore’.

But I didn’t, because I remain in hope – hope that the next The Wedding Present, whoever they are, will come over airwaves on tomorrow’s drive home; hope that I’m not backing into a cul-de-sac of ageing musical snobbery; hope that – basically – they still make them like that.

We’ll see. Until then, I’ll be enjoying my honeymoon with David Gedge and his crew. As they sang, “everyone thinks he looks daft but you can have your dream”.

_____

 

 

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Highway 26

Pic: EncMstr

Pic: EncMstr

Every morning: gray and speed and signal lights and merging.

Hundreds of cars entering the tunnel every minute.

Thousands of stories, worries, illnesses, joys, and fears –

Speeding through a hillside at 60 miles per hour.

Most of us doing it to earn enough to

Do it all again tomorrow.

_____

 

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Back to running

Shamrock Run, Portland, March 2018

Shamrock Run, Portland, March 2018

I was never a serious runner. At least, I was never as serious as club runners, or marathon runners, or even friends of mine, who are both marathon and club runners (and have the times to prove it).

Instead I am a slogger. At my peak, and the peak of my cartilage, I was managing about 60k a week, running home from Dublin city center to our Raheny apartment five days a week. I never monitored my times, I just ground it out, day in, day out, along the Clontarf Road. In the years before that, I’d do the same around the Phoenix Park.

Then the injuries started. The plantar fasciitis first, followed by the diagnosis of hallux limitus, which became hallux rigidus, all of which I’ve blogged about previously. I kept running, but ran less and moved my workouts to a stationary bike. It wasn’t the same, but at least I could read and listen to music.

As time passed, the runs lessened and the bike work increased. By the start of this year I was shuffling through 5-10k a week, and feeling a long way off the pavement-pounder that I used to be.

This wasn’t helped by a visit to a podiatrist last year, who confirmed my worst fear – that the arthritis in my left big toe needed surgery and the sooner, the better. This has yet to happen, and managing the pain was the single reason for the fall off in my running.

Until last month. On a whim I joined a group of Nike colleagues who’d signed up to run the 5k Shamrock Run in downtown Portland. This mean training, and training meant a return to running. Over the course of February I moved from 5k to 30k, pushing my time down and spending a lot of rest time with an ice pack.

Last Sunday I ran the 5k, pulling in a not-bad time (despite the strollers – baby and human). It was enjoyable on the day, but the prep was even more so. For the first time in a couple of years, I’d accessed that clean, good feeling that – despite the foot pain and the burning chest and the rain and the traffic – reminded me of why I’d often ran 50k a week without blinking.

Over the years I’ve hiked, swum, walked, and cycled, but nothing matches the sweat-soaked, mind-clearing experience that comes of stepping out the front door and going for it. Even if my times aren’t anywhere near the old days.

What’s more, my foot’s holding up. For now.

_____

 

 

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Feeling Irish abroad – but maybe not today

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Poet Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

What’s makes up an emigrant’s St Patrick’s Day?

Wearing green? Hitting the Irish bar(s)? Calling home? Listening to the Six Nations? Or none of the above?

It’s probably the latter for me. The most Irish thing I’ll do today is have a glass of Jameson this afternoon. The most Irish-American thing I’ll do this weekend is the Shamrock Run, a 5k in downtown Portland tomorrow morning, which attracts thousands of participants, many clad in kelly green (one of the 40 shades I’d never heard of until I moved here).

But Portland isn’t Boston or New York or even San Francisco. On a run today I spotted, in the early morning murk, a single tricolor hanging outside a house on NE 33rd Street. Yesterday a couple of colleagues wore green (as did I).

But that is the extent of St Patrick’s Day, for me. I’m tempted to pop into the local Irish bar, which is making the most of the weekend, but it looks like rain, and it’s chilly, and I’ll have to walk the dog later, so I’m not sure.

Not that this represents much change from when I used to live in Dublin. As a journalist, I worked every St Patrick’s Day, negotiating the alcohol-fueled mess of Talbot Street and the DART to get home at the end of the day. I’d wade through thousands of pictures of parades, but never bothered going to one.

Living abroad, I feel more Irish in certain moments than on certain days. A particular light in the evening will remind me of the sky over St Anne’s Park in Raheny, or a damp, clear morning will bring to mind stepping out of my dad’s house on a spring weekend. A Planxty song or a Patrick Kavanagh line or an Irish accent in the coffee shop – all of these prompt a certain small twinge, a reminder of my Irishness.

But I’m not feeling any of this today. Maybe next year, until then – go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís.

_____

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If you need reminding

Djuna Barnes,, 1905

Djuna Barnes,, 1905

Joni Mitchell

Djuna Barnes

Rosa Parks

Joan of Arc

Joan Benoit

Mary Shelley

Alison Hargreaves

Marie Curie

Sylvia Plath

Serena Williams

Joan Didion

Elizabeth I

Flannery O’Connor and

Grace O’Malley.

To begin with.

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A (very) quick visit to Dublin

River Liffey, February 2018

River Liffey, February 2018

“Has it changed much?”

I was asked this question more than once last week by friends I met on a visit to Dublin. I also asked it myself, given that it’s approaching two years since I moved away from the city, and the country.

After spending a couple of days walking the streets, visiting a couple of museums, some old favorite coffee shops and pubs, and just hanging out, my conclusion is simple: Dublin is fast.

The people on the pavements are fast, the cars and – even more so – the buses driving millimeters from the footpath are fast, the service is fast, the conversation is fast. Even the clouds whipping westward over the Liffey in the evening are fast.

Coming from Portland, a similar-sized city, this was an eye-opener. It led to more questions. How did I spend 20 years in Dublin moving at this pace? How was good for my shoes, or my timekeeping, or my digestion? And why have I been bumped off the pavement by two shoulder bags already this afternoon?

I’m 40, but a pretty active 40. I get as much done in a day in Portland as I did in one in Dublin. But I just seem to do it a little less hectically here.

Dubliners might pass the rush off as a symptom of a returned economic boom. But I remember the first one, and it wasn’t this busy around town.

The pace had its advantages though. Because of – or perhaps borne upon – the throngs of people I managed to knock off two museums, three bookstores, two coffee shops, a couple of restaurants and four pubs within a day or two, with plenty of time left over to gaze on at the city’s energy.

Could I do this every day, day after day, like I did in when I worked and lived in the city center, rarely venturing outside the canals for weeks at a time? Maybe. But that urge has gone – I’ll leave Dublin to the thousands and thousands of people, both younger and older than me, who still have an appetite for it.

For now, I’ll keep moving a pace or two slower, even if it means a five-minute wait for an americano or feeling duty-bound to let two cars zip merge instead of one. It’s not you, it’s me, Dublin. Right now I’m afraid I might slow you down.

_____

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