Friday, 28 March 2014

Mother's Day.

I love spring. I love its sense of expectation and anticipation, the gleam of celandines among green leaves and the way that primroses unfurl on the roadside ditches behind the curling tendrils of the briars.

When I was a child my favourite season was autumn. Spring was my mother's. I asked her why once and she told me that she loved its promise of renewal, its sense of potential, and that same gleam of expectation and anticipation it fires in me each year.
That conversation with my mother took place when she was in her seventies and the memory of it still astonishes me. Because she was one of a generation of Irishwomen whose own sense of expectation and anticipation was wounded by the tragedy of the Civil War she lived through as an adolescent, and betrayed by the post-revolutionary Ireland in which she married and lived out her adult life.

My mother's name was Mary O'Connor. She was about five years old when, as a member of Cumann na mBan, her cousin Marion Stokes was one of the garrison in Enniscorthy’s Athenaeum during the 1916 Rising. The cultural and social legacy which Marion Stokes and companions had imagined and were willing to die for was to have been Mary O'Connor's legacy - and mine as well. Yet I grew up in a society in which, according to the Constitution of 1937, the proper sphere of women was declared to be the home. I was born into an Ireland in which the aspirations of women like Hannah Sheehy Skeffinton and Constance Markievicz had been crushed by the steady State erosion of women’s rights, and where a combination of revisionism and isolationism had left many women of my mother's generation, and my own, ignorant of the legacy we'd been denied. 
The Ireland of my childhood and teens was the product of repressive legislation supported by the extraordinary level of influence held by the Catholic Church. Contrary to the position only forty years or so earlier, female representation in affairs of state was almost unknown; women had presided over republican courts during the War of Independence, for example, yet by 1927 a law had been passed refusing us the right even to sit on juries. That law remained on the statute book until 1976. The marriage bar, which required female public servants and women who worked in banking to give up their jobs when they married, was enforced in 1933. It was still in place in 1973, and we had to wait until 1977 for The Employment Equality Act, which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of gender or marital status in almost all areas of employment. 
There was little career advice and definitely no sex education when I was at school. During my eldest sister’s time at UCD, female students were forbidden to wear trousers and were policed by a fearsome Dean of Women Students whose main function appeared to be to confine them to their own common room, segregated from the men. 
But by the time I reached university, the winds of change were blowing, and what’s now known as the second wave of Irish feminism had begun. 
Those were the days of bad-ass women like Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny and Nuala O’Faolain. I remember the euphoria of my peers when, early in 1971, Mary Robinson tried to introduce a bill on liberalising the law on contraception into the Seanad, and our fury when, because it wasn’t allowed a reading, it couldn’t be discussed. Then came more euphoria – and outrage on the news and in the pulpits – when a group of feminist activists travelled from Dublin to Belfast by train and came back waving banners and armfuls of contraceptives. In that instance, it wasn’t just the repression of the law that outraged us, it was the illogicality. And the hypocricy. Because along with the institutional discrimination against Ireland's female citizens went a sickly elevation to near saintly status of the role of the Irish Mother. 
For me, women on pedestals were always suspect. I’d seen too much of the sentimental worship of the Irish mother, and the elevation of “purity” to cult status, alongside the bland acceptance of wife-beaters, rapists and abusers as divils without a bit of harm in them, or as put-upon victims tempted beyond their strength. At home, my parents had no time for such ideas; yet the fact remained that my mother, who'd bought herself a typewriter with savings from her earnings as a shop assistant, had been pressured into giving up her job as soon as she'd married, and settled for the role of a housewife instead of being the writer she'd longed to become. Those mixed messages I grew up with were part of the reason I left Ireland in the 1970s in search of an identity of my own. 
It was years afterwards, when my father was dead and I was living in England, that my mother and I had our conversation about springtime. We were walking by the Thames at Richmond, admiring the pale fuzz of green buds on the willow trees. I asked her if she grieved for the books and plays she'd fashioned in her mind and never written. I really wanted to know; but, looking back now, I realise she didn't answer. Instead she talked about her pleasure in having children and the satisfaction she'd found in reading and typing out books and articles writtten by my father. She was a shrewd editor and a meticulous assistant, and a steadfast support to him throughout his distinguished career. 
I believe she had a happy life with my father and, though no saint, she was a generous, supportive, creative  mother. But I grieve for her stillborn books and plays. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Wearing of The Green

It's that time of year again. 

Time to go green.


Green shoots force their way through the debris of winter storms.

Sunlight freckles on green growth in the ditches.

And here in the westernmost mainland parish in Ireland, the St Patrick's Day celebrations crackle with energy and excitement, amalgamating the triumph of the Christian saint over the druids with the triumph of the Good Goddess over darkness, and the joyous return of life to the land.

However, St. Patrick's personal association with the colour green and the dear little shamrock isn't altogether straightforward. In fact, wearing red, not green, for St. Patrick's day has a time-honoured heritage in Ireland. It was recorded in 1681 that 'the poorer people' in Ireland wore shamrock on St. Patrick's Day. But others, we're told, wore crosses - and the first reference, in 1628, describes Irish soldiers wearing St. Patrick's Day crosses made of red ribbon 'after their country manner'. As soon as the Irish state was set up, it became fashionable to insist that the diagonal red cross on a white ground, known as St. Patrick's cross, was a despised colonial invention of the 1800s. But the arms of Trinity College, Dublin, known to have been used at least as early as 1612, include St. Patrick's diagonal red cross on a white ground, representing Ireland.

So, although it's easy to see why the world now goes green on St. Patrick's Day...

... it's worth remembering how recently green became Ireland's national colour.

It wasn't till the eighteenth century that waving a green flag - with or without a gold harp - became a recognised way to define yourself as Irish.  As late as 1798, contemporary commentators were writing about the revolutionaries' green flags 'adopted ... in imitation of the shamrock' as if the colour choice was unexpected. In fact, a flag with a harp on a green field  had been flown at the masthead of his frigate by Owen Roe O'Neill more than a century before that, in 1642. But the idea that the the wearing of the green embodies the essence of Irishness is essentially Victorian, and the story that St. Patrick himself carried a green banner is a romantic nineteenth century invention. 

Actually, the earliest references to Irish flags are much more colourful. In a twelfth century manuscript description of a battle fought more than a thousand years earlier - in Cuchulainn's time - the 'variegated banners of all the chieftains of Erin' are 'flowered, white cloth, new-bordered, particoloured ... of streaked satin, streaming, floating, star-bright ..'. Though, to be fair, green does crop up in that story as well. One warrior, called Congal, strides among the heroes under his personal standard of  a leoman buidhe i srol uaine 'a yellow lion on green satin'. Which sounds rather dashing

 I may adopt it myself at this year's parade in Ballyferriter.

Monday, 10 February 2014

The Irish Feast of St. Gobnait

This trip to London was literally a case of my whole life passing before my eyes. In three days, working with a brilliant company called Crimson Cats, I’ve just recorded an unabridged audiobook of my memoir The House on an Irish Hillside. I loved it. Loved working with Michael Bartlett and Dee Palmer. Loved the fact that Wilf provided incidental music on concertina. Love the look of the classy design, and the response of readers and booksellers when they hear about it. 

Now I can’t wait to hear the final edit.Tomorrow, February 11th, we fly back to Corca Dhuibhne. The significance of that date only hit me last week as I sat at the microphone in my sound booth. February 11th is Lá ‘le Gobnait – the feast day of St. Gobnait. Which means that as we’re sitting on a plane somewhere over the Irish Sea, high on a western clifftop, whipped by the Atlantic wind, the people of Dún Chaoin will be taking part in an ancient rite that’s survived there for thousands of years.

I don’t know if the realisation of that fact coloured my reading of the following paragraphs. You could hardly blame me if it did, considering what I’ll be missing. 

“On St Gobnait’s day, for as long as anyone can remember, people have gathered at the well on the cliff above the ocean to perform a ritual that has roots older than Christianity.

The parish church in Dún Chaoin is dedicated to St Gobnait. She’s associated with bees, who fertilise trees and plants, and with healing. There are stories here about how she protected the people. In one she drives out invaders by turning her beehive into a bronze helmet and her bees into soldiers. In others she’s one of three sisters, all powerful healers. I remember the sense of recognition I felt the first time I realised that the stories about those three sister saints, and the dates of their feast days, are all echoes of Danú, the Good Goddess. Gobnait’s day is celebrated at the beginning of the Celts’ season of Imbolc. Her sisters’ feast days are in May, the season of Bealtaine, and at the end of July, which is the beginning of Lughnasa. Thousands of years before Christianity came to Corca Dhuibhne people imagined Danú as a goddess of three aspects; she was the maiden, the mother and the crone, images of the three stages of fertility. The maiden represented springtime. The mother was ripeness and harvest. And the crone was an image of withering, before the darkness of winter and the patient wait for the return of light in spring. There are memories of nine boatloads of people rowing from the Great Blasket island on Gobnait’s feast day, and of crowds of people climbing from the landing place to the clifftop. Rituals associated with holy wells all echo each other. People circle the well, usually three, five, seven, nine or nineteen times, praying. They move in the direction of the sun. They kneel and pray. Then they bend lower to reach the water, and drink three, or seven, or nine drinks from their bare hands. Then the circling may begin again, each round marked by touching a stone or throwing a pebble in the water. Before leaving the well, something’s always left behind, a flower, a feather, a pin, a rag or a coin. They’re gifts to the saint to remind her of the people’s prayers. Then the people go home and wait to be answered.” 

In Dún Chaoin tomorrow, our neighbours will pray in St. Gobnait’s church and then climb the path to circle the well that once belonged to the Goddess. There’s a cross cut into a flat slab above it now and. just above the water, is a carved female head with wide eyes looking out towards the ocean. The ancient Celts carved no images of Danú. Instead they imagined her as present in the water in the form of a fish. In their shamanistic world view, the guardian spirits of sacred places often took the form of fish, birds or animals.
I remembered that last week as I read on through the chapter, towards my next coffee break, and came to this final paragraph. 

“When I bent over Gobnait’s well to look at the tribute of wildflowers, I saw something else had been left there. Down at the level of the water, the pointed quill of a seagull’s feather was wedged between two stones. Held by the fixed quill, the feather itself reached out like a bridge. Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the shadow under the stones. Then a tiny shrew ran out onto the feather. She had sleek ash-coloured fur, delicate, five-clawed feet, and eyes like black pin heads in her narrow face. Her ears were like translucent pink petals. Balanced in time, her weight balanced on the quill held by the stone, she looked at me. Then the feather trembled, its shadow flickered on the water, and she ran back into the dark.”

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Waste Not Want Not

December was a month for festive food.

There was chutney made from vegetables grown when the garden was basking in summer heat. There were oranges, cloves and pomegranates, cranberries, spices and pineapples. 

There were dates in long, thin boxes, and figs preserved in syrup.                                                                                                                                         


There was rich, dark Christmas cake full of currants and cherries and nuts. There was vanilla fudge layered with almond and chocolate brittle.

In December everything was shining and gold-wrapped, silver, scarlet and green.
There was always room for one more chocolate reindeer.

January's different.

January's a month for long walks on beaches, slitty-eyed against hailstones or stunned by sunlight on snow. January smells of seaweed and salt.

In January reindeer no longer resonate.

Still, as one season turns towards the next one, nothing need ever go to waste.

 Pineapple upside down cake by the fire today after a shining beach walk.


Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Wran's Day in Corca Dhuibhne

The Wran’s Day, which happens on 26 December, just after the winter solstice, is as much a part of the holiday season in Corca Dhuibhne as Christmas Day itself. Its name’s a corruption of the English word ‘wren’, and in Irish it’s Lá an Dreoilín

There’s endless research on the Wran’s Day, and suggestions that dreoilín, the word for wren, comes from draoi-éan, ‘druid’s bird’. It’s linked to ancient midwinter festivals and shamanism, when a shared web of ideas and information was accessed like a form of internet powered by human energy, and to later folk traditions like Straw Boys and Guisers. 

Its rituals belong to a dream state beyond stories, or even words, when there were just images and rhythms.

But if you turn up in Dingle on 26 December, what you’ll see is one big party. Basically, the town gets taken over by musicians and dancers. In the past, the boys back west used to dress up in rags and old coats turned inside out. They’d smear soot on their faces, or wear masks, and go from house to house, playing music and asking for pennies ‘to bury the wran’. Then they’d use the money to buy food and drink and throw a dance. Earlier still, live wrens used to be hunted and killed and carried in procession. Earlier than that, at huge ritual gatherings, kings offered themselves to be killed at the turn of the year, in an extreme version of sacrificing the best you’ve got in times of scarcity. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centu­ries, the Church did its best to suppress the Wran’s Day. But it never succeeded; and its ancient, wordless rhythms are still felt here every year. 

Some kids still walk the roads in costumes here back west, and turn up at their neighbours’ houses to dance in the kitchen. Each separate group’s called a ‘wran’. You hear the creak of the gate and the rattle of a drum outside the window. Then tattered figures with masked and painted faces crowd into the house, disguised in their granny’s aprons, padded with rolled-up socks; or their dad’s pyjamas, tied with rope and stuffed into wellingtons. As they come into the room, accordion players pull their masks down over their faces and whistle players push them onto their foreheads; the smaller figures giggle and shuffle. Then someone gives a note and the little group breaks into a jig or a polka.

Traditionally, each householder gave them a few coins and the money collected during the day paid for a party in the evening. But these days most people head for Dingle instead and join the rival parades that march and dance through the streets playing music and collecting for charity. We have a neighbour who blames it on the carpets. ‘The real Wran went out the door the day the carpets came into the houses.’ She says. ‘No one wants mud on the floors nowadays. That’s why they all go in to Dingle!’ 


Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas Eve in Ireland

The old people believed that animals celebrated the birth of Christ and that beasts in the sheds and sheep on the hills went down on their knees at midnight. 

Here in Corca Dhuibhne lighted candles still shine in each window as a sign of  welcome to Mary and Joseph, travelling the night in search of shelter. Traditionally, the candle should be lit by the youngest member of the household and only be blown out by a girl whose name is ‘Mary'.

In the past, house doors were left unlatched so that Mary and Joseph, or any wandering traveller, could come in. A loaf of bread left out on the table for the passing stranger was said to ensure bread in the house for the hungry months ahead. And a bowl of water left by the hearth to be blessed by the travellers was carefully saved by the woman of the house on Christmas morning, to be used for cures throughout the coming year.

People said that blackthorn branches flowered at midnight on Christmas Eve, and that bees woke from their deep winter sleep and hummed a song of praise to Christ.

It was said that all animals would turn to each other that night and speak to each other like humans.

  But it was bad luck to try and listen to them.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Received Wisdom

This is Tomás Ó Criomhthain. He was born on The Great Blasket Island off the westernmost end of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula. The island's an isolated place, hard to access and often cut off from the mainland for weeks by fierce Atlantic storms. There's a story that its people took refuge there from invasion and land grabbing on the mainland. The community they built believed that it preserved a cultural inheritance that held lessons for the world.

The photo was taken sometime in the mid 1930s and the book in Tomás's hand was written by himself. Writing was not a part of the Blasket islanders' culture. In their oral tradition the knowledge, skills and beliefs that made up their worldview were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. They were farmers and fishermen, musicians and storytellers, whose community depended for survival on a deep, shared understanding of their environment and a vivid sense of spiritual awareness of their own place within it.

By the time the photo was taken, the community was in the process of dying. The lure of an easier life in America and elsewhere, combined with lack of government support and respect for their way of life, had begun to draw the young and the strong away from their island home. As the number of households on the island dwindled, members of the older generation, like Tomás, came to terms with a fact that, to them, must have been fraught with irony. It became clear that the only way to continue to pass on their worldview to future generations was to turn away from the oral tradition that had preserved it for so long.

And so, with the help of English academics who had come to the Great Blasket to study the Irish language, the Blasket islanders produced a series of books. Without that decision, consciously made by men and women who saw it as their duty to pass on the knowledge, values and traditions they'd inherited, the Irish people might well have lost touch with a cultural inheritance that had been preserved by their ancestors across thousands of years.

This is Mama Shibulata. He's a respected elder among the Kogi, an indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Columbia. The Kogi are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization which flourished in Columbia at the time of the Spanish Invasion. For hundreds of years they've lived in isolation at the top of the highest coastal mountain in the world, having fled from the invaders whom they refer to as 'Columbus'.

For generations the Kogi's worldview has been handed down in an oral culture which relies on the power of memory, meditation, shared awareness of their environment, and a profound sense of the place of human beings in a living, interconnected universe.

Writing is not part of their culture. Nor is film-making. But, like the Blasket islanders at the beginning of the twentieth century, they believe it to be their duty to come to terms with the imperatives of the times they live in.

Over twenty years ago, Alan Ereira, an English documentary film maker made contact with the Kogi and, with their cooperation, produced The Heart of The World, a film which delivered a chilling warning.

The Kogi's motivation was simple. They were afraid. They say that the developed world is precipitating a major ecological crisis which threatens Earth’s survival. They believe that we must be made to see and understand what we're doing, and to assume responsibility. Otherwise, the world will die.

Now, more than twenty years later, The Heart of The World continues to be shown worldwide, some thirty times last year in the US alone. Yet the steady destruction of the earth’s ecosystems continues.

So now the Kogi have spoken again. A new film, called Aluna, has been made. It's been produced by Ereira and this time controlled by the Kogi themselves, from concept to production schedule, content and final edit. The photo of Mama Shibulata that you see here is a still issued by the film's production company.

Tomorrow night Aluna will have its Irish premiere in The Blasket Centre, a heritage centre at the end of the Dingle peninsula which looks out at The Great Blasket Island. Ereira, who’s flying from London for the occasion, believes it’s the perfect venue. Though life on the island became unsustainable for its dwindling community in the 1950s, the Irish-language speaking people of Ireland's western seabord still retain a sense of communal memory and respect for oral tradition. To Ereira that heritage is important. He says it’s also important that fishermen and farmers, young and old, will be part of the Blasket Centre’s invited audience, and that their voices should be listened to as carefully in the ensuing discussion as those of the environmentalists, politicians and policy makers.

The Kogi are afraid, more so than they've ever been. But they’re also hopeful. They believe that it's not too late for us to hear their warning, and to learn what they can teach us. I hope they're right.