Thoughts on Ireland from an Emigrant in 2013

January 2nd, 2013

After deciding to write this piece earlier this afternoon, I thought it would be nice to head to a café or pub to work. It would be better, I said to myself, if I could relax with a drink and earwig a bit. It would be better than the bedroom in my parents’ house, anyway.

I’ve spent the guts of two years abroad, spending roughly a year in Montreal and the same stretch in New York. We’ve gone from Bertie to Enda via Biffo, in doing so trading the dregs of one side of a pointless near century year-old civil war for the other. We’ve said goodnight for the last time to Anne Doyle, but Miriam, Dobbo and the ageless Sharon Ní Bheolain are still there every evening to confuse us to oblivion. We’re fucked, says one. No we’re not, says the interviewee. Sure we’ll be grand.

The local cafés with free internet were either closed or about to be and so, after a quick search, I found that one of my local pubs was listed as having WiFi. In I went, armed with one laptop and two questions: Can I get a cappuccino, and do you have internet? It was then that I realised I might be the problem with modern Ireland, and I felt dirty. Oh wash me, yore . . . drench me in mucky pints of Beamish and poke me with overcooked chicken goujons while smothering my face in ham sandwiches.

“We did have internet, but we took it away because people were cheating at the quizzes,” said the barman. An Irish solution to an Irish problem. That’s a phrase we have to describe this kind of mish-mash hodge-podge effort at resolving matters, and this is a good example. A classic example, quite frankly. Yes, it is amazing how many people can suddenly know the name of the storm that just passed through Tuvalu or which Bulgarian city is designated European Capital of Culture for 2014, but there is a better way of arresting the onset of cheating at table quizzes – we agree to stop being arseholes. But no, instead we’ll just get rid of what was once the only public WiFi zone in the entire village of Glasthule.

And here I am, all internetless but writing, just like they did, and did well, in the last century. My plan for a good earwig (eavesdrop) hit something of a stumbling block when I looked around and saw there was nobody else in the entire pub, save one man at the bar drinking cider and watching Premier League Years. For those uninitiated, this show tells, over the course of two hours, the story of a football (soccer) season of times past. It’s the sort of show that you catch by accident and watch for twenty minutes while coming up with something better to do. Nobody thinks ‘God I must rush home to catch Premier League Years!’ and absolutely nobody goes to the pub to watch it by design. The other TV is showing Barrow against Hereford in the FA Cup. That’s two teams ranked somewhere between 100th and 200th place in England, so both TVs are showing absolute rubbish. And that’s coming from a football fanatic. The music has gone from Mariah Carey to AC/DC by way of Westlife and some Christmas classics, because we all know that’s what people want to hear on the 2nd of January.

The limited bar taps offer the usuals (All Hail King Diageo!) plus a new offering called ‘Smirnoff Mojito’ that comes from a tap and looks like it could kill you. We’ll have Joe Duffy telling us in no time that he met a woman whose son died because of a badly cut Mojito. I hear they have Mojitos on the streets now. They’re dangerous, those Dublin streets, but not as dangerous as a Smirnoff Mojito.

Alas, I might not be the problem with modern Ireland. Maybe modern Ireland has neglected to keep up with modern kind. We can be pretty demanding and, by Zeus, if you don’t offer us a bit of internet and some thought and nuance behind your playlist, we’ll get you back by buying your coffee and writing on the internet with deadly sarcasm.

But I’m being harsh, cynical even – that’s what you’re saying. Perhaps I am. My Canadian girlfriend and I just got home from a few days in Galway and the pubs were savage. (Not savage in a Jack the Ripper way, but savage in a Jimmy Rabbitte from The Commitments way. You know, savage, as in deadly. And not deadly in a . . . oh forget it.) Not only were the pubs great, but we went to a cocktail bar in a city centre hotel and they gave us shots on the house because it was her birthday. That was after having tasty, well-mixed and thought-out cocktails made by an affable, I would go as far to say charming, barman. Galway in general was a joy, but then again that town rarely, if ever, disappoints. Not a Premier League Year or Smirnoff Mojito to be seen. St. Patrick must have chased them all out of the west and over to The Pale for the jackeens to enjoy.

Venturing west and then north a bit into Mayo before coming back, I kept seeing signs and references to ‘The Gathering’ – the official effort that is being made to get the Irish diaspora to visit the island in 2013. It’s weird, because in New York and Montreal – two cities with massive Irish diasporíní– I never heard about it nor saw it advertised. And yet I get home and I’m asked ‘Ah would ya not head home for a bit?’ while feeling as though somebody is trying to recruit me into a new religion, using rashers and strong tea as bait. Why are they only after me here? Why are they only advertising it in Ireland? We’re already here.

Why are we here? Socrates and his mates asked the same question over 2,500 years ago, but I don’t think they were thinking of Ireland in the year 2013. Why the feck are we here? A video that went semi-viral this week attempted a reply to that question with a thousand answers, counting as positives the existence of Bewley’s Café and the possibility of getting badly sunburnt in May, but I think we can do better than mediocre hot beverages and a trip to A&E.

For one thing, we’re now being offered good quality food in restaurants and at a fair price. No longer is the Irish style of cooking to boil the bejaysus out of anything that came up out of the ground and fry the fuck out of anything that ever breathed. We’ve introduced tone and forethought, dare I even say flair, into our cuisine. And we’re washing it down with some better quality, locally-produced booze. I was in my local pub (not the one I’m sitting in now) recently and saw that they’re stocking bottled beer made by a brewery called ‘Trouble Brewing’ – three lads I interviewed for Scope Magazine two years ago who took out a loan and stuck a load of shiny tanks in a barn in a field in Kildare and who, at that time, were struggling to get their product out on the market. That’s a good story, whichever way you look at it. The majority of my generation will probably skip the delicious beer and stick to Coors Light and Smirnoff Mojito, but hopefully enough people shop around a bit and stop consuming rubbish.

Those three men did something that Irish people are never formally told to do. You see, in Ireland we’re taught that the goal of education is to train to get a job. You go to school and then either do a trade or go to college, then apply for jobs. But if we’re passionate enough about something we can get that job, and on our terms, by creating it and investing time and effort in it.

It’s striking, however, how many of my fellow Irish emigrants are doing exactly that, only abroad. My brother is a web designer and multimedia producer in Berlin, two of my best friends in New York are Munster men with their own self-made Smartphone app that allows you to reserve time slots at sports clubs, and I have another school friend in Amsterdam with a startup company that’s trying to coordinate carpooling across the continent. Without wanting to sound all junior capitalist sitting in the corner, there is much to be said for entrepreneurialism as part of a solution to our collective and individual woes, and a lot to be said for eschewing the kind of conservative thinking that pervades within the Irish education system.

It’s inspiring stuff, and a reminder that getting up off your hole and not watching Premier League Years can lead to wonderful things. I have an idea – let’s get all these tech savvy, industrious emigrants back for a while to inspire those at home while spending a bit of money to help our ailing economy. We can call it ‘The Jamboree’ or even ‘The Get-Together’. We can even put Smirnoff Mojito on special offer while they’re all here. If only someone would organise such a thing.

Celtic Thunder, Mythology II

November 16th, 2012

What is a name, and what is a hero? In the pantheon of mythological heroes, there is a place reserved for those who resonate more deeply with us today. Their names, for one reason or another, have become more than merely a means of identification, instead evoking the great acts they accomplished and the values they exhibited. The ancient story of Achilles is perhaps as well known today as it ever was, with his name lending itself not only to a part of the human anatomy, but also toward an acknowledgment that even the strongest among us usually have a fatal flaw. Robin Hood has in some sense become a byword for social justice, while Odysseus is best known for his legendary cunning.

There is a Celtic warrior, however, who stands comparison with any of the world’s great mythic heroes. Cúchulainn, despite the lingering air of tragedy around him that is a component of just about all Celtic mythology, was a classic hero, a man’s man, a young warrior who mastered the Gae Bolga, a spear molded from the bone of a sea monster which split open like an umbrella upon entering a body.

Flamboyant and aggressive, Cúchulainn single-handedly defended Ulster from invasion by the queen of Connacht, Medb, who sought to kidnap the extremely fertile stud bull Donn Cuailnge. While probably not being as ripe for Hollywood depiction as Helen of Troy, this bull was a great source of wealth, not to mention honour, and Cúchulainn alone was the bulwark between Medb’s greed on the one hand, and the prosperity and reverence of his people on the other.

There is a song, “Dearg Doom” (a rough translation would be “Red Destroyer”), which glorifies Cúchulainn’s deeds. Like the hero himself, the tune has a transcendental aura, opening with one of the most swashbuckling, snarling riffs you are ever likely to hear. For Horslips, who probably did more than anyone to bring Celtic music to a new stage by adapting traditional folk music for a rockier sound, “Dearg Doom” remains their finest hour. But as with mythology itself, the riff is borrowed, inevitably, from a traditional folk standard, “O’Neill’s Cavalry March”. For myth and music alike, what one sees and hears is all influenced by something that came before. It is a manifest trait of Celtic culture that what is truly valuable passes through the generations, in turn being recycled to fit a contemporary audience.

What truly inspires the Celtic mind, as it did for both Cúchulainn and Horslips, is the land one comes from – how it is an unmistakable part of them. “You are the song ever singing in me,” sings Celtic Thunder in “My Land”, an original composition for this tour, “And you are the heart ever true / For you are my land and you always will be, The voice ever calling me home to you.” For them the land is personified, an entity worthy of the pronoun “you”, a substance with a heart, and therefore a heartbeat. The land and people beat as one, and bleed as one.

Returning to the opening questions, what is a land, and what are a people? Throughout the western fringes of Europe – from Gallicia in northwest Spain to Ireland, from Brittany to Cornwall to Scotland – Celts are defined by the land they came to inhabit. You can see it in their festivals, their idiosyncratic and unmistakable humour, their music, their art, their food, and more besides. But if Celts must leave their land, and history reminds us that emigration to new lands is a recurring theme, they always bring their culture with them. Entering a local bar in Quebec, the air is often filled by traditional music with a distinctly Celtic flair. The literature of the American South has been influenced by the very myths that inspired this tour. There have been Gaelic-speaking Newfoundlanders in Canada and Welsh-speaking Argentines. They may have moved, but they never forgot their land. They never do.

Adapting and transforming those old traditions and cultures from old lands to new has been the signature trait of the diaspora – the descendants of Celtic people who moved to the New World. “Voices call from the old days, Voices tell from the past / Ancient laws and ancient old ways to recast,” they sing in “Voices,” another original composition. To recast is to fashion something new out of something aged, giving fresh impetus to the ancient world and making it relevant. Indeed, the very idea of recasting can be thought of as not only the singularly most important concept for the nomadic Celts, but also for this show itself.

The initial formation of cultures and lands of the Celtic world are said to have mythic origins. Consider The Giant’s Causeway, a truly extraordinary series of interlocking basalt columns on the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. Legend has it that the 40,000 or so columns were built by Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool in English, the sort of name television producers spend hours trying to think up) as a walkway to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. When Fionn was then chasing the giant away from his land, he picked up a huge clump of earth and flung it. He missed his target, with the clump creating the Isle of Mann and the void becoming Lough Neagh. The heroes of Celtic mythology are always tied to the land in some way, just as the Celtic people are.

Celts sing about the land in a relatively unique fashion, usually attaching an unhurried melody with lush texture and lyrics brimming with nostalgia – though Horslips’ more ostentatious “Dearg Doom” is very much an anomaly in that regard. Dick Farrelly’s “The Isle of Innisfree,” once a hit for Bing Crosby and the theme song for the romantic-comedy movie “The Quiet Man,” is one of those timeless and international favourites, enduring in the hearts of many as one of the great songs of the Celtic world in general and Ireland in particular. Ireland, given the moniker “Innisfree” in this case, is given a mythical quality. It is a place where rivers laugh, valleys dream, and birds make music. It is a land that, when missed, can bring a sort of wild trauma to the mind of the emigrant and, when that same person returns to the physical soil whence they were sprung, it naturally brings about an ecstatic reaction.

Some of the greatest songs elicit those same feelings, be it for a lover or for a place. In the case of the songs in this set list, it reminds us that patriotism can be a positive, perhaps even necessary, force in all our lives. When channeled correctly, patriotism is love, something for which we are all constantly yearning.

The great heroes of Mythology generally reveal themselves to be true patriots first and foremost. Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill were both tied to their land more than they were tied to any physical person, even speaking of that land as if it actually were a person. This sort of affection has been carried down to our present day, as “My Land” testifies. If this tells us anything, it is that love is not a quality that should be reserved solely for our fellow human beings. We can love the soil that gave us sustenance as much as we love the parents who brought us food and life.

Celtic Thunder, ‘Mythology’ Tour

October 25th, 2012

Belmullet, a sleepy fishing town in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast, was once described by John Millington Synge, the famous playwright and poet, as “without appeal to the imagination.” Cowered on an isthmus between Broadhaven Bay and Blacksod Bay on Ireland’s west coast, the town eschews the lure of the open Atlantic Ocean on the other side of the peninsula, preferring instead to look to the calmer waters of the bays for sustenance. Fishing has been a lifeline since long before Sir Arthur Shaen began building what soon became a tiny village of thatched roofs in 1715.

Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, widely regarded as his magnum opus, was indeed based on the playwright’s experiences in the area around Belmullet. For a town without appeal to the imagination, he certainly squeezed every ounce of inspiration he could from a place he had dismissed just a couple of years previously.

Imagination often works in this way. We dismiss something – a place, a person, a pastime, a piece of art – as insipid or simply quaint yet plain, only to return and view that very same thing in a whole new light for reasons that seem beyond basic comprehension. A good example of such a thing is the sea.

Around the time St. Patrick was active as a missionary in Ireland – that is, around fifteen or sixteen centuries ago – a humble fisherman named Aífraic went to work one day near what is now the town of Belmullet. Heading to the shore he saw four swans – the children of Lir, Lord of the sea – dancing on the waves and singing sad songs. The children were famous for their beauty and were the most beloved of the tribe of the old Gods of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Their grief was the result of suffering an extended period of purgatory at the hands of Aoife, Lir’s second wife, who, jealous of the fact that Lir’s children were born to him by her late sister, and Lir’s first wife, Aoibh, condemned the two sets of twins to 900 years of living in the bodies of swans.

“Out with you upon the wild waves, Children of the King!

Henceforth your cries shall be with the flocks of birds.”

The children still retained their human mental faculties, however, and Aífraic went to see them every day. They came to love each other, and the fisherman, who moonlighted as a poet and storyteller (indeed, the prefix ‘Aí’ means “poetic inspiration” in Old Irish Gaelic) told the story of their suffering to neighbours at evening gatherings. The tale eventually spread across the Kingdom of Connaght in the West of Ireland, where the known world ended and the great Ocean began. Beyond the waves, so they say, lay the Otherworld, Hy Breasal – the haven of lost souls.

It is claimed that if you still believe in the old Gods and Godesses of of the Celtic world, it is possible to do as Aífraic did and hear the songs of the children of Lir. If your boat approaches the island of Inisglora, off the Erris peninsula near Belmullet, you may still hear their beautiful laments from the waves.

Only one of our human senses, sound, is stimulated. The eye is left unprovoked, though one cannot help scanning the horizon for the source of the call, while the wind in the air continues to bring the same sweet, salty air to the nose and tongue as it did before the ear became so excited.

“Celtic spirituality is awakening so powerfully now because it illuminates the fact that the visible is only one little edge of things.         The visible is only the shoreline of the magnificent ocean of the invisible.”

John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Exploring our Yearning to Belong

One could point toward meteorological conditions or a trick of the mind to explain the voices in the wind (the Celtic nations are, after all, the windiest in Europe and some of the windiest in the world, lands where every draft, breeze and gust seems to carry a whisper sent to tease us into believing, perhaps only for a moment, that some soul has absentmindedly left the door to the Otherworld slightly ajar for a while after popping outside for some fresh air), but to completely reject any possibility of a more transcendental reality that lies outside of what can be seen would do a great disservice to our innate yearning for truth beyond our immediate experience.

Mythology, that soft blend of entertainment, ideology and religion, was, of course, originally unwritten, and poets such as Aífraic were oral storytellers. Like those moments when one believes in the reality, or rather the legacy, of the children of Lir based on the perception of a call from the ocean or lakeside, mythology in its truest form was and is an entirely oral and aural phenomenon. This is in spite of the fact that today we are more likely to consume mythology as a visual experience, focusing on words written on a page rather than sounds carried through the air.

Had Aífraic and others like him not divulged their stories to others, those myths would no doubt have been lost to those same winds that today still hint at a heroic past. Even Homer, without a doubt the most eminent storyteller in the history of mythology, drew on a large well of rhapsodic oral poetry in his native Greece.

Celtic Thunder offers a route back toward what mythology was when Aífraic went to work one day and met the children of Lir, back to what mythology was before mass production and uniformity. The aural experience is elevated above the other senses, followed by the visual. Words are to be heard, not read, and when they are heard they are to be heard through song. And just as J.M. Synge had to look twice to find inspiration tucked away in a corner of the Celtic world, what we have is a thread of Ariadne – through a labyrinth of modern distractions, we can wind our way back to where we started, back to something truly worth sharing.

Celtic Thunder, Voyage II

October 5th, 2012

A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.

This article was the second one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.

 

When the SS Nevada docked at Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, it had been twelve days since the ship left Queenstown (now Cobh) on the coast of County Cork, Ireland, having previously departed from Liverpool. It was the usual route for an emigrant ship, but there was something distinctly extraordinary about this particular journey.

The Nevada exited the soft tranquility of Cork Harbour and entered the Atlantic Ocean on December 20, 1891. With the City of Paris and Victoria also due to spend Christmas at sea while bound for New York, and Ellis Island not yet operating as an immigrant landing station, it is very probable that those on board had no idea they would be the first to be processed at the new facility.

The first immigrant to pass through was steerage passenger Annie Moore from Cork, a rosy-cheeked girl of fifteen years, who, along with her two younger brothers, was joining her parents in New York City. The elder Moores had arrived fours years previously at Castle Garden, which was neither a castle nor a garden but a squalid crime-plagued immigrant station at the southern tip of Manhattan.

To mark the occasion, an American Official presented Moore with a $10 gold piece, a sum of money that was greater than any she had ever previously owned. It is fitting that the first immigrant off the Nevada was an Irishwoman, as people of Celtic origin were playing an increasingly prominent role in social, economic, and political life in North America. It was a time when women, particularly young women, were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, and it would not be long until they achieved the right to vote.

Annie Moore’s story is usually told in this happy-go-lucky way, but it is often forgotten that every immigrant is, by definition, an emigrant too. The song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears – a staple of the Celtic Thunder repertoire — evokes the more nuanced, bittersweet reality that was no doubt felt by every emigrant setting foot on foreign soil for the first time. For them, every feeling of hope was balanced with pangs of sorrow, each enthusiastic thought compensated with melancholy. Rather than being exclusively a feel-good story, the reality of the Moores and others like them — $10 coins notwithstanding — was much closer to what the Ancient Greeks called pathos, more heartbreak than joy. Even with the exciting prospects of her new life, the song reminds us that, for Moore, the ‘isle of home is always on your mind’ and one ‘you’ll never see again’.

The Celtic Thunder set for this Voyage tour is filled with songs that poignantly elicit those same feelings, in doing so reminding us that, in spite of the material comforts and opportunities offered by the modern world, missing home is a human constant. A rendition of Michael Bublé’s Home reinforces almost identical emotions to those experienced by Moore, the only real difference being that in Bublé’s more contemporary ballad the narrator knows that his pathos is but a temporary glitch, not everlasting.

It is a decisive distinction that differentiates the late nineteenth century mode of thought with its early twenty-first century counterpart. While Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears is in many ways a prototypal Home, its heart weighs heavier owing to the fact that the world was a far larger, less accessible place then than it is today.

What is so captivating about this collection of songs, however, is that it does not reference bygone days just for its own sake, but rather it sets down a vision of the past — our past — that has the potential to be hugely relevant, even helpful, to how we live our lives today. Tacitly or otherwise, what one sees and hears is all influenced by something that came before.

All art is like this. Taking only songwriting, there are millions upon millions of songs and probably billions upon billions of lines. Encased in all these are trillions and trillions of ideas and concepts. To top it all off, there are quadrillions of phrases and words, in countless languages, used to express those ideas. We pull material from the same well, but the real excitement comes from those moments in time when we discover the potential of building our own well. And yet it is still a well. It is the paradox of originality.

Some artists wear their inspiration squarely on their sleeve while others are more esoteric, but success comes from the humility of recognizing that creativity is far closer to innovation than it is to invention. Michael Bublé did not inaugurate the idea of writing a ballad on the subject of missing home, nor did he discover a new musical note never heard before, but ultimately something original and poignant was composed.

The chef creates a delicious new dish out of traditional ingredients. The painter strokes her brush in way that resembles the work of somebody she admires. The metalsmith makes a new type of weapon that is stronger than any other, even though he is using the same metals he has always used. Allusions are made, and creativity forever invents itself. The great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson put it best when he wrote, “Only an inventor knows how to borrow, and every man is or should be an inventor.”

What Celtic Thunder offers in this regard is exceptionally rich. Not only are allusions made between songs written in different ages — as in the case of Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears and Home — but the performance itself pulls from a profusion of wells while also building its own. In that sense, it fulfills Emerson’s challenge and more. It is personal and universal, momentary and perpetual, intellectually challenging yet thoroughly accessible. Behind tales of material voyages such as that of Annie Moore, it further reveals a voyage of the mind and of art — the journey of concepts and thought, commodities that belong to the commons of humanity across every epoch. More than anything, it is a richness that belongs to you as much as anybody else.

 

 

Celtic Thunder, Voyage I

October 5th, 2012

A couple of months ago I was asked to write the programme notes for the two Celtic Thunder tours taking place this autumn (fall) and winter. It has been a genuinely exciting project to work on and, with just one article left to submit in the series, I thought I’d post the original copy up here. It was a pleasure to revisit some themes and sources I had not written on in a long time, as well as discovering concepts and writers that were new to me.

This article was the first one for the Celtic Thunder “Voyage” tour that is on the road at the moment.

 

There is a poem called An tOileán Úr – The New Island – penned by an unknown Irish poet in the mid to late 1700s, about one man’s reluctance to join the thousands upon thousands of people leaving Europe, and Ireland in particular, at that time.

After much deliberation, the unknown poet arrived in America and, once there, walked mile after arduous mile without seeing a single soul with whom he could communicate. Nothing but dense woods and the roar of wild beasts. Scared and alone, the poet happened upon a modest dwelling where the people asked where he was coming from. “Ireland,” he said, “in the wood of Lisreagh, beside Lough Erne.” As soon as the words left his mouth, wrapped as they were in the soft lilt of an Ulster accent, an elderly woman rose from the comfort of the fireside to greet him.

“God bless you of all the people I’ve ever met,” she said, holding his hand. “Many were the pleasant days I spent in Ireland and beside Lough Erne in the wood of Lisreagh; there’s no other place like it from Wales to the Head of Howth or from Cork to Lisbellaw.”

Realizing that the only thing he particularly liked about the New Island was that he found someone reared not even an afternoon’s journey from his own home, he resolved that he would be happiest back in Ireland, where he could pass the time with people who truly understood him.

We will never discover whether he made the trip home, though it is highly unlikely he ever did. Before steamships became the transatlantic norm, one could expect to spend seven weeks at sea before sighting land once again. His poem made the return voyage across the ocean, however, and became what is now a popular folk song in Northern Ireland. Perhaps he stayed, cultivated land and raised a family. Maybe one of his descendants, lured by tales of gold fields and a faraway ocean on the other side of the “island”, travelled west on a wagon train a century later and helped to create the idiosyncratic Celtic aspects of what is now modern North American life.

The motif of pining for home while on an epic voyage has transfixed humankind since the first stories were ever told. Gulliver travelled, Dorothy had to make it home from the Land of Oz, while Odysseus took ten years to return to his Kingdom of Ithaca, an adventure that in turn inspired James Joyce’s Ulysses and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? In many stories, as in real life, music is both the residual beauty that flows in the wake of an epic voyage, as well as often being a catalyst propelling the protagonists toward their destination. Song is both a cause and effect of where and how the journey proceeds, and no group of people understood that more than the Celts. After a migratory and wayfaring history, they have handed down a rich songbook of countless laments, anthems and love songs. The essence of the independent Celtic mind lies not only in what it thinks and how it thinks, but also in how it channels those thoughts for others through the medium of song. They are born entertainers.

It is salient that we seem as interested in the voyage home as we are about the journey to some unknown place. The hero of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles, was faced with a choice by the Gods – stay in Greece, grow old, and die in comfort, or get on the ship to Troy and become the most famous and loved of all the Greeks, knowing that he would never return.

Knowing that you would never return. It was a choice faced by millions as they heard stories about the new lands of North America. Looking west from Galway Bay or the rugged Kerry mountains, they debated whether or not to make the journey down to Queenstown on Ireland’s south coast from where they could hope to board a ship west. They might never have travelled more than a few miles from home in their life, yet tales of cheap land, abundant food, liberty and religious pluralism were hard to resist.

But home is also is a difficult place to leave, especially when you know you will never return. At Ellis Island in New York Harbor, for decades the first piece of American land upon which the emigrant would rest his or her weary foot – indeed, the first person to pass through Ellis Island was Annie Moore from County Cork – a quote is written on the wall below the Registry Room. “Too soon I arrived at the quay and left my last footprint on my native land,” wrote Robert Whyte in 1847, during the height of the potato famine that engulfed the island of Ireland.

My last footprint. Finality. Certitude. Resolution. Hope. Fear. A one-way crossing.

That feeling is lost on those who make the same voyage today. We have airplanes. We have networks. We can make a few clicks of a button on a computer and instantly see family and friends from home while talking to them. Contemporary voyages may be easier and less heartbreaking, but we have lost something along the way – the songs. Music and poetry helped ease the sorrow while leaving an enduring legacy that defines who the Celtic people were and are. There’s no app on any smartphone for curing loneliness. The less tangible aspects of our past – songs, stories, plays and more – are far more important to us than any material invention. Carried along through the ages by passion and pride, they are adapted and freshly moulded to entertain and empower whoever is fortunate enough to hear, see and muse upon such creativity. It is the sound and spectacle of Celtic Thunder.

For nomadic Celts, the ocean was their artery and their vein, moving to and from the heart of the voyage. Railroad tracks, rivers, canals and roads were an extension, smaller vessels running alongside. Of all the peoples that roamed not just across the wine-dark seas, but across the continent during those pioneering centuries, Celts played enormous roles in forging the paths of history wherever they went. From the unknown poet to the most recent emigrants, via American Presidents John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Barack Obama and former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, North Americans of Celtic ancestry owe a large measure of their success and freedom to those who came before. We are all indebted to them.

 

GrannyKiller

January 30th, 2012

I have become involved with a new project with three journalists with whom I worked with on Scope magazine called GrannyKiller. It will be an online magazine of sorts, with interactive feature articles, live blogs and the like. We’re temporarily hosting some stuff on a tumblr site. I have one piece up there about Occupy Congress, but expect some more developments soon. Peace!


When I Get Home: Sandycove, Killiney and Achill

November 21st, 2011

In a post from May of this year I mentioned that, of all the things I miss about being away from home, nothing is more craved than the sea. One of the first things I did on this brief visit home was take a dip in the Forty Foot. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, you may think it’s crazy; but it is a creature comfort that I yearned for all year. This post is a tribute to where I am from and where I spend a lot of time: Sandycove, Dalkey and Killiney, Co. Dublin and Achill, Co. Mayo. Of all the places I have been in my life, I am yet to find one that can be quite as beautiful as Ireland. Some of the images were taken by my friend Ed Kavanagh, some were taken by myself, and some were taken by others.

 

Sunset from Sandycove strand. On cloudless evenings like this the sun illuminates the east pier and Scotsman’s bay. You can see three swimmers with their heads bobbing on the water.

The Forty Foot. I must have climbed those steps a thousand times.

More Forty Foot. You can see all the way across Dublin Bay to Howth on the far side.

Sandycove and Dalkey from the east pier in Dun Laoghaire.

Some birds found lunch in Sandycove.

Lunch!

More lunch.

A seal spies a wee birdy in Sandycove.

Rainbow over Dublin Bay, taken from Sandycove.

From Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape

Dalkey Island from Coliemore Harbour. The water isn’t normally this calm!

Sunset over Dalkey Island. I once sailed from Dun Laoghaire to the island and camped for the night. We had a wind and the current on the way over, but the journey back was hell. We had to row and I was about 14 with arms like toothpicks.

Killiney Bay taken from Killiney Hill.

Gorse bush on Killiney Hill in November.

Early morning dew on Killiney Hill.

Ed took this one of the Obelisk on Killiney Hill. It is probably my favourite image of all in this post.

The Obelisk with the Dublin mountains in the background.

Time to head west. This is Keem Bay near the westernmost point of Achill. I have been to countless beaches across three continents, yet none has ever been as magnificently beautiful as Keem. Have a few more . . .

Keem Bay is just one stunning place in Achill. Here are a few more . . .

One of the many dolphins off the west coast of Ireland.

Some horses watching a Mayo sunset.

Surfing at sunset on Keel strand.

The next few images are from the Curraun penninsula, just off Achill Island.

This is Clew Bay, Co. Mayo. Scores of little islands (‘drumlins’) dot the bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day Trapper: Come on you Boys in Green

November 8th, 2011

It looks like Silvio Berlusconi is in a spot of bother, and this time the Teflon Prime Minister might not make it through. I’m scared. Why am I scared? Well, you should be too. Them Eyetalians will probably want another cheeky septuagenarian from the homeland to take the keys to the Palazzo Chigi , one with a nice smile and public recognition. If Silvio is forced to resign, it’s likely that we’ll lose Trap as his replacement. He’s that good.

Before that happens, however, Trap needs to guide us through some choppy Baltic waters. The lads are meeting in Dublin town this week ahead of the journey to Tallinn. We heard a rumour that Robbie Keane arrived all the way from California this morning, cart wheeled into the dressing room and stood defiantly with his arms out for all to marvel at. What did he point at? Apart from himself, I mean. He pointed at Duffer, but Duffer was asleep in the corner under a pile of coats. Séamus Coleman got so scared that he ran all the way home to Donegal to cry to his Mammy.

Trap then asked Glenn Whelan and Keith Andrews to put out the cones for training, but they never looked for the cones and when one of them found them by accident they left the chore to each other. Trap found this so endearing that he made them both captains for the 7-a-side at the end of the session. He also gave them a lollipop and an ice cream sandwich each. At this point Andy Reid was spotted behind a fence a hundred yards away, crying into a bowl of Shreddies while glugging back a litre of Sunny Delight.

Poor Kevin Kilbane was also spotted behind the same fence, dressed as Brian Boru while singing the national anthem through a loudspeaker. Poor fella had his heart broken.

The lads then played a game of crossbar challenge. Stephen Ward didn’t understand the basic rules and instead dribbled the ball all the way to the corner whereupon he ran it out of play. Darron Gibson said that he was too good for crossbar challenge and promptly went off to text Alex Ferguson. Kevin Doyle ran to the ball, turned his back to the goal and asked a non-existent referee for a free kick on the halfway line. James McCarthy was called to take his shot, but Trap looked around and noticed that he’d left the field without telling anyone. Throughout all this, Stephen Hunt was bouncing up and down screeching “is it my turn yet?!” A member of the Garda Siochána was eventually called to threaten him with a Taser or incarceration into a mental institution. Paul McShane missed the ball altogether and fell on his back (Trap said this showed his “good mentality”). The only one to hit the crossbar was Marco Tardelli, who celebrated by crying uncontrollably while running with his arms waving all the way to O’Connell Bridge.

This was just a normal training session for Trap and the lads. When he becomes Il Primo in Rome, hanging out with Ratzinger and Francesco Totti, Trap will look back at those days in Malahide and surely smile. Surely.

God is deciding who to pick as President of Ireland . . .

September 7th, 2011

Place:    Earth Politics Committee Boardroom, Heaven

God:      Order! Okay, thanks for coming everyone. I’ll cut to the chase – I have to choose a new Irish President. Suggestions?

Moses (wistfully):          How long has it been since we did this?

Jesus:    14 years.

God:      14 years without a Presidential election? Ha! They call themselves a democracy, you know.

Everyone laughs

Jesus:    I suppose you want us to throw out some names, yeah?

God:      That would help. I can’t remember any decent candidates.

Moses:      You’re supposed to know everything!

God:      Ah Moses, give it a rest. My reputation precedes me and I’ve had a long day. So, any names for me?

Jesus (looking at a laptop screen):            I’m just looking at the odds here and they reckon this lad Higgins is going to get it. He’s got the right attributes – he’s got that dodgy Irish haircut going on and sounds awful strange. They’ll like him. He’s getting on a bit though, so you’d have to ask St. Peter how long he might stick around for.

God:      Hmmm . . . Anyone else?

St. Peter:        A Senator by the name of Norris has been mentioned. But you’ll be happy to hear he’s pulled out of the race.

God:      Why should I be happy about that?

Moses coughs and fidgets nervously, then looks at St. Peter

Moses:     Well, are you going to tell him?

St. Peter:      Never mind.

God:      Never mind what? What’s wrong with this Norris fella?

Jesus (sighing):     You know . . . he kicks with the other foot.

God stares back blankly

St. Peter:       He’s very effervescent . . .  joyous, frivolous, fabulous, Sapphic . . . Do you know what I mean?

God continues to stare back blankly

Jesus:    He bats for the other team.

God is still staring back blankly

Moses:       God, he’s gay. Do you understand?

God:      Oh right. Do the Irish people know this?

Jesus, Moses and St. Peter:        Yes.

God:      Hmmm . . . well we can’t be having an openly gay President just yet. This is a very weak field. Maybe we should somehow tell them to shape up a bit?

Noah (eagerly):        Can we have flooding?

God:      You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Okay, throw in some flooding, but nothing too drastic. Limit it to basements and ground floors in the more pointless counties – Tipperary, Laois and Offaly in particular. Oh! And Kildare. That will teach them for building too many houses on floodplains.

Moses:      That’s a bit Old Testament, isn’t it?

God:      Maybe a little, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots. I don’t mean go Pakistan on them, just have a few rural folk crying on the evening news while an RTE reporter wearing overalls stands waist deep in water, okay? The usual scenario, like last time.

Noah:    How about some fear thrown in too? Maybe have the insurance folks say they won’t pay out?

Jesus:    Not enough sandbags is always a good one!

God:      Erm, okay. But no deaths, you got that? Let’s keep our eye on the ball here – we’re trying to get a half-decent president for these people, not kill them.

Moses:      They had this man called Lenihan who would have been a solid president, but St. Peter only had to go and let him in early.

God (to St. Peter):           Did I ever tell you that you’re a fucking idiot sometimes?

St. Peter:       Sorry God, my bad. I didn’t realise how popular he was; I don’t even have the excuse that I was on holiday and forgot to leave someone in charge.

Moses:        What happened the last time you forgot to leave someone at the gate while you were gone again?

Jesus (interrupting):       JFK was assassinated!

Recalling his past errors, St. Peter looks at the ground and lets out a deep breath

Moses (to St. Peter):       Man, you really are an imbecile sometimes.

God:      Okay gentlemen, let’s leave him alone for a minute. Any other options for Ireland then?

Moses:       How about a joke candidate, like your man from Libertas or one of the Jedward twins?

Jesus:    Wasn’t Jedward punishment for Bertie Ahern sticking around so long?

Moses:        No, I’m thinking Jedward was punishment for taking the Eurovision song contest seriously for so long. Steve Staunton managing the football team was punishment for Bertie Ahern.

Jesus:    Then what was Bertie Ahern punishment for?

Moses:      Nothing. That just happened. They kept electing him without our help.

Jesus:      Are you serious?!

Moses:      Deadly serious.

Jesus:    I find that hard to believe, the gobshites. Anyway, doesn’t Bertie have a daughter who writes books? What about throwing her in as president?

God:      And why should I do that?

Jesus:    Well, last time you sent someone’s kid – your own – to do an important job, it worked out alright. Just a thought . . .

God:      Two points here, son. Are you comparing me with Bertie Ahern, and are you calling the Presidency of Ireland an important job? Because if you are, you’re off your rocker.

Jesus:    I was just sayin’

God:      And now you’ll just shut up, okay?

St. Peter (clicking his fingers, hip hop style):        Ohhhhh did you just go there?

God:      I went there.

St. Peter:       Hi-ohhhh!!!

Moses:      This meeting is getting out of hand. Might I suggest a parting of the ways and we can reconvene later?

Jesus:    You’re always suggesting a parting of the ways, Moses. It’s your solution to everything. Get a new trick already.

Moses:      And I suppose you’ve got loads of tricks, yeah? Oh look at me! Look at me turn this water into delicious wine! Prick.

Jesus:    You’re a prick.

God:      You’re both pricks and if you don’t shut it I’ll cancel the holiday and send you two to Satan for a week! Do I make myself clear?

Jesus and Moses (sheepishly):     Yes, God.

God:      This meeting is over. We’ll reconvene tomorrow. Moses, you bring the morning’s Irish Times and Jesus, you get me the latest paddypower odds. St. Peter, stop taking the few decent candidates and Noah, get things ready for the flood. We’re going to get these clowns a decent president.

On the Cloyne Report, Somalia, and Anders Behring Breivik

July 26th, 2011

A rebuke, a hidden cause, a massacre – it has been a tough week for God. Or more specifically, for the parties of God.

Ireland

By admonishing the Vatican in a Dáil speech last Wednesday in the wake of the Cloyne Report, Taoiseach Enda Kenny – a relatively conservative-minded Catholic – has effectively pressed the reset button on the Irish state and its relationship with the Church. The unfathomable master-slave relationship that has existed is now seemingly confined to the dustbin of history and, more importantly, Kenny and the wider Irish body politic do not appear to be seeking a reversal of that relationship, where the state would become master, but rather a separation or divorce. Ireland is dragging itself, kicking and screaming (and I choose this metaphor because that is what the pre-pubescent victims of rape at the hands of priests were no doubt doing), into the twenty-first century. While the state is rapidly losing its economic sovereignty, it is at least finally asserting its social and cultural independence from the vapid, corrupt and at times sadistic institution that is the Holy See.

What is particularly significant about this week’s events in Ireland and the Church is that, like the leaders that went before him, Kenny is aligning himself with middle Ireland – the mass of slightly conservative Catholics that make up a huge proportion of the electorate. The tipping point that made this speech possible is tripartite: firstly, gross crimes had to be undertaken and covered up by the Church; secondly, these had to be disclosed by a non-ecclesiastical party or parties; lastly, and most importantly from a political point of view, it had to be clear that at least half of the voting age Irish people had to be publicly affronted and sickened by what was disclosed. It is a sobering reflection to note that without that last part, it is unlikely that Mr Kenny would have delivered the speech, at least not in such bold language, no matter what his private feelings on the issue. It was not so much that Mr Kenny was being courageous – and we should not doubt that his feelings are sincere – but rather that the Irish people have finally given a government the opportunity to scorn the Vatican without negative opportunity cost.

A final thought; given what has come to light in recent days, months and years, one can only shudder to think what was happening during the centuries where the Church was above all criticism. How many Cloyne Reports were never written? We should not delude ourselves into believing that the Church’s rape-and-torture policy towards children (and, given the protection afforded to rapists, calling it a “policy” is quite legitimate terminology) was solely a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Somalia

The United Nations has now declared famine in parts of South Somalia, a tardy declaration that has already cost lives. But what is famine? Its effects are more obvious that its causes – the most chilling being children with oversized heads sitting on wasted bodies, waiting to die. But famine is not something that suddenly comes upon a community, nation or region; rather, it is often as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause but a catalyst of famine. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest cause famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

About two-thirds of the starving are thought to be unreachable due to the presence of Al-Shabab, a theocratic party of God that is now launching a strategy of mass killing by starvation; starving people to death in the name of religion. (Note how much easier it is to kill innocent people when you believe you have God on your side, as the third and final segment of this article will further show). Previous famines also had political as well as natural causes, notably in Ireland, where the British government initiated a policy of negligence as part of its then Empire wasted and fled, but Al-Shabab has exceeded that level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. The West may want to help Somalia and Africa, but it can’t do so without learning about it. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the continent. It can be left to rot and crash.

A final thought; during all your years of education, from pre-school through to third level, how much time was spent in the classroom or lecture theatre on African matters, save for the imperial scramble of the late nineteenth century? Answer: probably none.

Norway

Media coverage of the Utoya massacre in Norway is now four days hence, but few outlets and commentators are addressing one of the most unpalatable truths – Anders Behring Breivik is a Christian and a very conservative one at that. For Christians to disown him is moral cowardice and reveals a glaring double standard: if the 9/11 hijackers represent, at least in some part, a strand of Islam, then why does Mr Breivik not represent Christianity in some form?

It is clear from police and eyewitness statements given by survivors of the ordeal that Mr Breivik would not have stopped shooting at unarmed adolescents with the intention of killing them until police arrived on the island. He would have killed 3,000 people, given the opportunity. Why can it be said, as it has been repeatedly, that Mr Breivik is not a Christian, yet the 9/11 hijackers and their ilk are not only representative of a certain type of Islam – the fundamentalist fascistic type – but representative of Islam as a whole?

A final thought; if Mr Breivik has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, do Christians by and large believe that he will go to heaven regardless of his actions on Earth? I often think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for people like him to go to.

Given the events of the past week, it is clear that one of the defining arguments of the twenty-first century will be between secularism and the separation of church and state on the one hand and theocracy and fanaticism on the other. One should never miss an opportunity to celebrate the Enlightenment and admonish those who believe that they may do as they wish because a deity commanded them to do so. That is the solace that we may take from the events of the past week.