Tag Archives: Ireland

Islands I’ve made my own

Columbia River from Sauvie's Island, July 2018

Columbia River from Sauvie’s Island, July 2018

I’ve always lived near marshy islands.

As a kid I remember taking part in the religious processions around Our Lady’s Island in Co Wexford. Thirty years later I ran most days on Bull Island in Dublin, when we lived in nearby Raheny.

This weekend I paid my first visit to Sauvie’s Island, just outside my current home in Portland, Oregon. It’s a little larger than its Wexford or Dublin equivalents, but it has many of the same features: low brushland, boggy beaches, and a huge sky above.

I can’t offer any great insight into why I’m attracted to these peninsular places, other than the solitude and immersion in nature they offer.

Aside from that, each place has its own unique feeling. To this day, Our Lady’s Island remains a ghostly place in my mind because of the exposed and lonely grottos that pilgrims stop and pray at as they circumnavigate the island.

Bull Island, September 2017.

Bull Island, September 2017.

Bull Island is weather and wind, an elemental place near – but completely alien to – Dublin city. My main memories of the place are of running there on a summer morning before dawn, and walking over it on a winter night after a huge rainstorm. On both occasions it was a vast, cacophonous place, even when silent.

I don’t yet know what Sauvie’s Island offers. The ghosts of dairy farmers and Indian tribes, perhaps. On the summer morning I walked there it was a calm – I imagine its shoreline is a very different place on a December night.

Thinking about this at my desk, I came across these lines written by the 19th century New York poet Emma Lazarus, about Long Island, which go some way to explaining the lure of my three islands, and why I’ll return to all three some day.

The luminous grasses, and the merry sun 
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide, 
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp 
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide, 
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep 
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon. 
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own. 

_____

 

 

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Waiting out ‘May gray’

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Lido, 1917. Pic: Foretpan/Vargha Zsuzsa

Spring is in full swing in Oregon, which means more light and heat and greenery.

The greenery is ever-present here, but the high, diffuse May light is not. The bright gray above reminds me of the Irish Midlands, where whole childhood weeks would pass under the off-white dome.

Back then it usually meant dry weather, which meant football outdoors. Now it’s almost oppressive, however, particularly when temperatures warm into the 70s and the heat seems trapped by the uniform sky – or lack of one.

Under the gray this morning my memory – which may or may be accurate – called to mind Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice”, and the oppressive skies above the Lido that provide a backdrop for the main character, Aschenbach’s, fall.

While the absence, or concealment, of the sun worked as a metaphor for Mann, it’s also what’s most oppressive about ‘May Gray’ (as the Californians call it). Without the sun in the sky, there are no shadows, time seems to slip off schedule, there is no clear dawn or sunset.

Nothing to do but wait, of course. Until the end of the hour, or the day, or the week, when the clouds clear and high blue returns. And with it, hopes and memories of summer.

_____

 

 

 

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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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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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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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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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Of reeds and rhymes and religion

Saint Brigid of Kildare

Where I’m from, Spring began today. Where I live, it won’t start until March 20.

In the Celtic calendar, February 1 is known as ‘imbolc’. The midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it’s seen as the first day of the earth awakening from winter.

In Ireland it was, and is, Saint Brigid’s Day, a celebration of the pagan (later Christianized) St Brigid of Kildare, a patroness of medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and sacred wells.

The sacred bit is important. As a schoolkid in Ireland, we’d make St Brigid’s Crosses from reeds – a plentiful resource in my then-hometown of Athlone, on the banks of Ireland’s longest river. The crosses would be pinned up at home – a religious talisman of sorts, ahead of the spring season.

Today I’m a long way from the River Shannon, or from spring – that won’t happen until late March in Oregon.

But, after the dreary month of January, I’m trying to get in the spring mood. So I’m seeking out seasonal verse.

St Brigid was known as “the goddess who poets adored”, but I’m not aware of Philip Larkin’s thoughts about her. However I do know – and enjoy – his take on spring, which contains the wise call, despite some cynicism, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

_____

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A man you don’t meet everyday

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

Shane MacGowan. Pic: Redadeg

“Will MacGowan make 40?”

That was the question buzzing around among my music-listening peers in December 1997. Former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan had cancelled a pre-Christmas show with his then-band The Popes at the Olympia.

Days shy of his 40th birthday, it was rumored that the songwriter had collapsed, or was gravely ill, or on bender of some sort. Whatever the reason for the no-show, the consensus was that the Tipperary man had been lucky to make it this far, given his voluminous consumption of drugs and alcohol.

Twenty years later MacGowan is still around. What’s more, he’s still performing – albeit in a short bursts. He took to the stage at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last Sunday night, closing out a show staged in his honor.

MacGowan sang ‘Summer In Siam’ with Nick Cave and then performed a version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, rounding out a night which saw performances from the great, the good, and the ‘well, maybes’ of Irish and international music.

It sounded like a good evening, albeit one far removed from the merry, beer-stained chaos of any Pogues show I’ve attended – then again, it’s a long way from the Pindar of Wakefield to Earlsfort Terrace.

Plenty of classic Pogues’ songs got an airing, of course, including that Christmas one. But one composition that didn’t – as far as I know – was a song MacGowan wrote but never himself recorded.

‘The Dunes’ is a song of horror, a Famine survivor’s account of the burial of bodies in the sand dunes of a Co Mayo beach. Children play among the grave mounds, the bones of the dead are revealed, and grieving relatives pray.

Forms of the dead rise and dance on the sand. The singer, enraged by the deaths, shoots a bailiff and a landlord. He blames them for stealing food from the dying.

As verse, it has a simple, arresting cadence. To hear it performed – or declaimed – by Ronnie Drew is a whole different experience.

Shane MacGowan wrote a number of songs that will go down in the canon, but none of them are tragic, as angry and as chilling, as ‘The Dunes’. I can think of few others who could have written it – which is probably what makes MacGowan unique. Now, is it too late for him to record it?

_____

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Spies, sex, and snow – a new ‘Fairytale’

'Fairytale of New York'

‘Fairytale of New York’

It’s December 13 and I’ve yet to hear ‘Fairytale of New York‘. Is that a record? (Sorry.)

After 30 years of the song every Christmas, this is probably not a bad thing. Over the years I’ve heard it often enough – at Pogues’ concerts, in convenience stores, badly sung in crowded bars, blared out in taxis, whistled by a guy at a bus-stop, and so on.

The fact that I now live in a city where the song is rarely played on radio (in my experience, at least) or in a bar, and is unknown to most people I encounter, has been something of a relief. There was a time when it wasn’t Christmas until I heard those first piano notes but, away from Ireland, they’ve become less, not more, resonant.

Of course, as an Irish immigrant in the U.S., this surely amounts to a form of treason. After all, there are few songs of the last 30 years that speak so specifically to one particular aspect of the Irish-American experience. (A gritty, mid-century, Irishman in New York experience that seems a million miles from what’s sold nowadays to planefuls of shoppers by Aer Lingus, it must be said.)

Much as I still admire its craft though, Shane Macgowan and Jem Finer’s song doesn’t speak to my experience. But that also doesn’t mean that I haven’t been seeking out voices from home, and so, in recent weeks, I’ve been listening at length to another emigrant Irish songwriter.

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty

Seamus Fogarty is a Mayo man based in London, who writes songs about bodysnatchers, Vincent Van Gogh’s ears, working on building sites in England, missing a bus and sleeping in a church in Carlow town, the health of Irish traditional music, and burial at sea, among other topics.

Luckily enough his new album, ‘The Curious Hand’, also contains a Christmas song, and – joy to the world – it’s not a million miles removed from the beer-stained, exhausted mood of ‘Fairytale’.

‘Christmas Time On Jupiter’ begins with the singer waking on Christmas Day in a Chicago hotel room, to find a Mexican spy he’s spent the night with rifling through his wallet.

From there – with a touch Shane Macgowan would be proud of – things go downhill.

I struggled out her door, into the winter snow,
I was alone with my thoughts, my feet were crunching away,
I was sitting by a fire on Christmas Day.
‘Mented from the drink, a shadow from the night before,
When I got into my house I was offered more.
And we sat around, a momentary family, raising a brief glass to our asylum…

As family Christmases go, it’s hardly traditional, but – as much as ‘Fairytale’ three decades ago – Fogarty evokes one type of immigrant life at Christmas, where casual friends and booze might be just enough to keep the loneliness or the homesickness at bay.

It may not prove as enduring as the Pogues’ song but it updates it, and so it’s taken the ‘Fairytale’ spot on my Christmas playlist. Not that – thankfully – I’m likely to hear either in the store tomorrow.

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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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