Posts Tagged ‘irish’

Photo: Barney Rowe/BBC.
Professors Alice Roberts and Mike Parker Pearson in Wales with the key to a legend about Merlin.

One should never completely dismiss a myth. There is usually a grain of historical truth buried inside. It has just gotten distorted as told and retold over centuries. I feel the same qualified trust about fantasy novels. I know they are imagined, but there is something about them I believe.

In today’s story we find archaeological proof of historical truth underlying an Arthurian legend about the magician Merlin.

As Dalya Alberge writes at the Irish Times, “An ancient myth about Stonehenge, first recorded 900 years ago, tells of the wizard Merlin leading men to Ireland to capture a magical stone circle called the Giants’ Dance and rebuilding it in western England as a memorial to the dead.

“Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account had been dismissed, partly because he was wrong on other historical facts, although the bluestones of the monument came from a region of Wales that was considered Irish territory in his day.

“Now a vast stone circle created by our Neolithic ancestors has been discovered in Wales with features suggesting that the 12th-century legend may not be complete fantasy. Its diameter of [120 yards] is identical to the ditch that encloses Stonehenge, and it is aligned on the midsummer solstice sunrise, just like the Wiltshire monument.

“A series of buried stone holes that follow the circle’s outline has been unearthed, with shapes that can be linked to Stonehenge’s bluestone pillars. One of them bears an imprint in its base that matches the unusual cross section of a Stonehenge bluestone ‘like a key in a lock,’ the archaeologists discovered.

Mike Parker Pearson, a professor of British later prehistory at University College London, says:

‘I’ve been researching Stonehenge for 20 years now, and this really is the most exciting thing we’ve ever found.’

“The evidence backs a century-old theory that the great prehistoric monument was built in Wales and venerated for hundreds of years before being dismantled and dragged to Wiltshire, where it was resurrected as a second-hand monument.

“Geoffrey had written of ‘stones of a vast magnitude’ in his History of the Kings of Britain, which popularised the legend of King Arthur but is considered as much myth as historical fact. … The discovery will be published in Antiquity, the peer-reviewed journal of world archaeology, and explored in a documentary on BBC Two on [presented] by Prof Alice Roberts.

“A century ago the geologist Herbert Thomas established that the spotted dolerite bluestones at Stonehenge originated in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire [Wales] where, he suspected, they had originally formed a ‘venerated stone circle.’ The newly discovered circle – one of the largest ever constructed in Britain – is about 5km from the Preseli quarries from which the bluestones were extracted before being dragged more than 225km to Salisbury Plain some 5,000 years ago.

“In 2015 Parker Pearson’s team discovered a series of recesses in the outcrops of Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin with similar stones that the prehistoric builders extracted but left behind … quarried almost four centuries before Stonehenge was constructed.

“It convinced Parker Pearson in 2015 that ‘somewhere near the quarries there is the first Stonehenge and that what we’re seeing at Stonehenge is a second-hand monument.’ “

At the Irish Times, here, you can learn how the archaeologists managed to carbon-date the circle despite the destructive effects of acidic soil.

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Photo: Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ ), Ireland’s National Public Service Broadcaster.
RTÉ Players recorded James Joyce’s mammoth work
Ulysses in 1982 for the Joyce centennial. It was rebroadcast today. Still going.

I didn’t know this before, but apparently many Irish people didn’t initially love James Joyce. They didn’t understand his writing any more than you or I did. But when a radio production brought his characters to life, they realized they knew these guys.

Denis Staunton has the story at the Irish Times.

“Britain had just defeated Argentina in the Falklands, Israeli forces were shelling Beirut. … But Dublin’s mind was elsewhere on June 16th, 1982, as the city celebrated the centenary of James Joyce’s birth with a mammoth Bloomsday festival. …

“Joyce’s words were everywhere in the city that day because from 6.30 am until the following afternoon, RTÉ Radio broadcast a complete reading of Ulysses lasting almost 30 hours.

“Listening on transistor radios and Walkmans, many Dubliners who had long been intimidated by the book found that they not only understood it but enjoyed it and recognised themselves in it. …

“The Irish Times [wrote], ‘The voices of the RTÉ readers became the medium for Joyce’s living words. The writer’s poor sight and fondness for singing surely must have affected the conspicuous musicality of his prose: he wrote to be listened to rather than read, so that Ulysses in its radio shape was shown to be an epic ballad.’

The recording, … broadcast in full on RTÉ Radio One Extra from 8 am [today and] available on rte.ie/ulysses, includes every word in the novel. But it is as much a dramatisation as a reading, with 33 actors playing more than 400 parts.

“As a 20 year-old actor in the RTÉ Players when the company spent most of 1981 on the project, I played a number of small parts including Ned Lambert and Lyster, the Quaker librarian and various voices that ensured I was at most of the rehearsals and recordings. …

“The director was Willie Styles, a former actor from New Zealand who had trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) before moving to Dublin … He was RTÉ’s most talented radio drama director by a distance and one of the most accomplished in the world, winning a succession of international awards as he embraced each technological advance. He worked on Ulysses with Marcus McDonald, a sound engineer who shared both his fastidiousness and his appetite for experimentation in sound.

“The textual adviser was Roland McHugh, an entomologist whose interest in the acoustics of grasshoppers led him to become an expert on Finnegans Wake. McHugh’s first challenge was to go through the text working out which words should be spoken by whom, with some chapters involving multiple narrators as well as characters. He decided that the Sirens chapter, which is set in the Ormond Hotel, should have four narrators.

“ ‘If you listen to it, the thing starts with Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy talking and you’ve got a narrator for them. And that goes on for about four pages, I think, and then you switch to Bloom, and he gets a separate narrator. So we’re jumping backwards and forwards between those two narrators until we get about halfway through the thing, and then a third narrator comes in and mostly says short things about the coach that Blazes Boylan is travelling in. And then towards the end there’s a fourth for the piano tuner. Those four narrators seemed to me to make a lot more sense of the thing,’ [McHugh] said. …

“Laurence Foster, an actor in the company who later became an energetic and innovative head of radio drama at RTÉ, says the medium makes specific demands on an actor.

“ ‘You have to get inside your own head – it’s a very selfish medium. You have to believe what you’re saying. You have to see through the mind’s eye and you have to bring up an incredible energy that converts the voice into painting pictures. The voice has to get a dynamic and a colour and a resonance and a rhythm,’ he says.

“ ‘You don’t play to the other person. The microphone is the audience and the audience’s ear. And when you get that into your head that you’re whispering into their ear, you don’t need a huge amount of voice.’ …

“It will now be available free online to listen to any time you want. But as The Irish Times observed after the first broadcast, listening to the entire book continuously is an experience of a different order entirely.

“ ‘When the seamless broadcast ended, many listeners must have discovered withdrawal symptoms,’ the editorial said.” More here.

Glad I read the book last year, so I sort of know what we’re talking about.

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Photo: Irish History
In Ireland and elsewhere, a ring of mushrooms is thought to be a
fairy ring.

Turtle Bunbury posts lots of interesting stories about Ireland on Facebook, and recently he shared an article about the notoriously vengeful Irish fairies.

Michael Fortune, folklorist and filmmaker, writing at an Irish publication called the Journal, says that “there’s not a village in the country that doesn’t have these fairy stories. Our folklore tell us that they inhabit certain places: bushes, stones, corners of fields and especially old enclosures which number 40,000 plus around the country. …

“It’s generally claimed that we have lost some 10,000 since they were first mapped in the 19th century and this is mostly due to mechanisation and developments in agriculture, land reclamation etc.

“Growing up on the coast of Wexford my own late father brought me to every raheen in our area, while in the same breath showed me the spots where others once stood and most importantly, told me who was involved in removing them and the consequences they suffered. …

” ‘It’s not worth the risk,’ I repeatedly hear from farmers. …

“When the landscape changed due to developments in agriculture and field formation over the centuries, these physical spaces were left behind, untouched and this is where your fairy paths come into play. …

“We literally have thousands of stories relating to the consequences of building/interfering on such paths recorded in our archives or alive in the stories of communities around the country. …

“In extreme cases I’ve seen houses abandoned due to the torment brought on by the fairies. And if your DIY skills couldn’t fix it, you’d call for some outside expertise and I’m not talking Dermot Bannon here with his concepts of light and open spaces. No, more along the lines of those those ancient Druid like fellas with their prayers, magic water and long flowing cape ie the local parish priest.

“Although Rome mightn’t have agreed with their actions, there are numerous accounts of priests being brought in to perform exorcisms of sorts on such houses all over the country. In my own village in Wexford one such story still survives of a priest who was brought into a house which the fairies visited every night and after ‘driving the fairies out, he died three weeks later as a result of his efforts.’ Such was the power of the fairies.” More at the Journal, here.

I loved Fortune’s video of two believers. I especially loved their brogue since I failed to record James‘s speech, and now he’s gone.

Film: Michael Fortune
Two men discuss encounters with the fairies in Ireland.

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070314-james-hackettJames J. Hackett, storyteller and harness maker, Moate, Ireland, 1937-2017. Seen here visiting his Kelly cousins in Rhode Island.

The late James J. Hackett, quintessential Irish raconteur, did not have an easy life. But the joy he brought to people through his storytelling and kindness leads me to say he led the best kind of life.

I met James through his visits to his Kelly cousins in New Shoreham and wrote about him on the blog.

Turtle Bunbury, co-author with James Fennell of the Vanishing Ireland book series, interviewed James for volume 3, Recollections of Our Changing Times. He put these words on Facebook yesterday.

“Farewell, JJ Hackett (1937-2017), Harness Maker & Poet — Ballinakill, Moate, Co. Westmeath

James Fennell and I are very sad to learn of the passing of James J Hackett last night, 14 September 2017. He was an absolute gentleman and an inspirational man who, perhaps more than anyone we encountered during the Vanishing Ireland project, personified the resilience and generosity of his generation. Here is his story from the third volume of the series, which we post as a tribute to JJ and as a salutation to his brother Michael.

‘There is no doubting that JJ Hackett is one of the more unusual farmers in the parish. He quotes Wordsworth while stoking the Stanley stove.[i] He has a pet crow who can recognise strangers. He is a fan of the philosopher Edmund Burke and he knows plenty about the Abbé Edgeworth from Longford who blessed King Louis XVI as he awaited his execution.[ii] He’s also written his own memoirs, ‘Days Gone By’, for which he is justly acclaimed across the county. His tales are thoughtful but upbeat and give considerable insight into the rough ride he’s had along the way.

‘ “I was born with a deformity,” he says. “My right hip was out and it’s still out. Nurse Brophy, the midwife, didn’t realise. There’s a poem about her. ‘Here comes Nurse Brophy on her new Raleigh bike, out by Mount Temple and home by the Pike’. I didn’t walk until I was seven years of age simply for the reason that I couldn’t walk.[iii] And to this day I do tire easily, especially walking behind a funeral. …

‘Calamity struck in early 1949, the very same dark winter’s night that his younger sister Margaret was born.

“We weren’t long home from school but a tree fell on top of me. It broke the collar-bone, the cranium and it done in the right knee. I was put in a wheelbarrow and taken to Mullingar Hospital, broken up. I never went back to school. I was in hospital for about a year and ten months and I couldn’t walk for about two years.” …

‘Daniel secured his son an apprenticeship as a harness maker with a saddlery and upholstery business in Moate.[xii] His co-workers were an unusual trio whom JJ refers to as “the three deaf mutes.” None of them could speak or hear. And one of them, John Casey from Limerick, was operating with a single eye. “He lost his left eye with a needle when he was making mattresses,” explains JJ. “That taught me to keep the face turned away when I made them. And yet he could turn a collar for a horse, a mule, a donkey or a jennet.”[xiii]

‘They were the elite of harness makers.” ’

For more text, some footnotes, and good photos, see Turtle Bunbury on Facebook. Or buy the book. I wish I had recorded James’s rich brogue. I can almost hear it in Turtle’s interview. Can you?

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In environmental news, Lloyd Alter at Treehugger reports that an Irish county now requires new homes to meet the very high standard of energy efficiency called passive.

“In Ireland’s Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County, a near suburb of Dublin, it’s now the law. …

“The building codes there are pretty tight already. And it’s not completely a done deal; the national Minister of the Environment, of all people, may challenge it out of concern that it might raise the cost of housing. However the local Passive House Association says that it’s not necessarily true, and showed case studies demonstrating that in fact they could build passive houses ‘at or below conventional build costs.’

“Writing in Passive House Plus, Pat Barry of the Irish Green Building Council noted that really, it’s all about just trades having the skills and doing the job right. …

“As many as 20,000 houses could be built in the county, houses that cost almost nothing to heat, produce almost no CO2, and are comfy as can be day or night, sun or no sun.”

More here.

Photo: Kelvin Gillmor
Irish passive house built on a budget
. Hmmm. Does it burn wood?

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When John was in fifth grade, the parent-teacher association held a “cakewalk” as a fundraiser. It was kind of like Musical Chairs except players didn’t sit down. People would get eliminated in each session, and the last one standing would win one of the cakes. At the time, the idea was new to me.

Now, as I’ve been looking into James Hackett’s Days Gone By again, I am realizing the cakewalk was based on a much older custom.

Writes James, “The cake dance, to which references were made frequently in the 18th and 19th century, was not a particular dance but rather a baire or session of dancing of which a cake was offered to the couple who proved themselves the best dancers. These events were usually sponsored by the local alehouse or tavern, and such gatherings were associated with hurling and other athletic contests. …

“The cake to be danced for is provided at the expense of the publican, or alehouse keeper, is placed on a board, which in turn is put on top of a pike that stands ten feet high, and from it hangs a garland of meadow flowers and also some apples fastened with pegs on the outside of the garland. … Those who are able to dance the longest around the cake are declared winners.”

Photo found here.
If you know where to find a photo of an actual Irish cake dance, let me know. In the meantime, here is an Irish piper accompanying a couple dancers.

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I have decided that if Ireland ever names people as national treasures, it should include James J. Hackett of Moate.

Last night at the Kellys’ party, James clinked the glasses at the table and called everyone to attention. Then he recited Yeats’s poem “The Ballad of Father Gilligan,” preceding it with a little history and acting out all the parts.

The grandson of a man who taught Latin and Greek in a hedgerow school back in the dark days when the English forbade sending Irish children to school, James has taken it upon himself to preserve the culture. His ordinary conversation is a living history, and he is frequently dropping into poetry.

James’s book Days Gone By is written in the way he speaks when talking to friends or taking people on a tour of some ruin. Consider this sample.

“It was long past the witching hour when the poteen revellers came upon Kate resting on the puchann and in a most distressful state.* They took her along to the wake, where she related all her adventures. Great was the wonder and fear that was expressed at hearing this story, and needless to say, many a post mortem was held upon Kate Brambles’s account of the witches’ dance at the half way house in Ballylurkin Bog on the Hallow’een night that Tubbs Lanigan was waked.”

Recent chronicler of Ireland lore and customs Turtle Bunbury discovered James in Moate and has included him in one of his Vanishing Ireland books. Bunbury also features James on a Facebook page, which I hope to access as soon as Turtle accepts my friend request.

[Update: Turtle has just put my post on his page, here.]

You may recall that I blogged about James once before, here, at another time that he was visiting his Rhode Island cousin.

(*James says a “puchann” is a little hill in a bog.)

Photo: Suzanne’s Mom
James J. Hackett in New Shoreham. He made his own shillelagh of blackthorn. He also made one for John and mailed it to him with instructions on how to cure the wood.



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In case you missed it (ICYMI, as they say on twitter), National Public Radio had a delightful story about Irish Jews last weekend:

“St. Patrick’s Day in New York now means parades and green beer. But 50 years ago, it also meant green matzo balls at the annual banquet of the Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin. The league was a fraternal organization of Irish-born Jews.

“The major migration of Jews to Ireland started in the 1880s and ’90s, says Hasia Diner, who teaches history and Judaic studies at New York University. Thousands moved [to Ireland], primarily from Lithuania. …

” ‘Then the Irish Jews, as Jews historically did, they went to where there were better economic opportunities,’ Diner says.

“A lot of Irish Jews found those opportunities in New York. Like many immigrant groups, they kept their culture alive in the New World. And in the early 1960s, they formed the Yiddish Sons of Erin.

“According to member Rosalyn Klein, the whole thing started as a joke. … A restaurant took out a newspaper ad for a meeting of Irish Jews. Klein thinks they didn’t really expect people, but a lot of them showed up.

” ‘And most of them had lived in Dublin, so it was kind of this mishpocha getting together again,’ she says.”

For many years after, a big Jewish St. Patrick’s Day celebration was held in New York and was de rigeur for politicians and celebrities.

More here.

Photo: SmittenKitchen.com.
This is a normal matzo ball. I couldn’t find a green one.

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I spent four months reading MobyDick in 2010, and I must say that for me there was way too much information about different kinds of ropes, how to cut up a whale, and the categories of seagoing creatures. I could not figure out why people I admire read MobyDick over and over.

So, avast! There is now a way for people like me to grasp the essence of Herman Melville’s classic. It’s a one-man show performed by the Irish actor Conor Lovett, who — along with his wife and director, Judy Hegarty Lovett — adapted the book’s highlights.

ArtsEmerson presented this wonder in Boston recently, and I’m in awe.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the actor in his Ishmael role has the stunned, wounded look of Tommy Smothers (remember the insecure brother in the 1970s comedy duo?), Conor is heartbreaking. His facial expressions and body language before he speaks Melville’s famous opening, “Call me Ishmael,” convey a haunted man, one who, like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, has witnessed mysteries beyond human understanding and feels condemned to tell the story to anyone who will listen. His look says, Why was I spared? Why did I choose this voyage? Why did I listen to the prophetic mad sailor Elijah on a wintry Nantucket dock and still choose to sail on the cursed Pequod?

The production is full of dark musings, the roars of a crazed Captain Ahab, and the savagely raging elements of air, water, and fire. But at the outset, stage time is lovingly devoted to the humorous side of Ishmael searching for New Bedford lodgings, having to bunk with the “harponeer” Queeqeg, and learning to recognize the interior decency behind the mask of the “cannibal.”

That the novel is deep is clearer to me now. I’m still pondering Ahab’s speech about whaleness being merely the “mask” that MobyDick wears. When the devout first mate Starbuck says it’s wrong to seek revenge against a whale that is merely a dumb beast — a creature of God — Ahab counters that beneath the mask is an infinitely malevolent force that must be conquered at all costs. We never feel sure what this force is supposed to be. Satan? Then why do the natural elements seem to take the side of the whale? I’m still wondering why we never learn if the whale dies or lives to wreak havoc another day.

But at last I see why people admire this book. Read more here.

P.S. The play is part of Imagine Ireland, “a year of Irish arts in America.” Check it out.

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Suzanne and Erik went to grad school with David O’Halloran, whose consulting company was recently cited in The Irish Times for its focus on sustainable business ventures in Africa.

“For Irish entrepreneur David O’Halloran, adhering to a sustainable business model that helps develop and protect local communities and their environment is the key to enjoying long-term success in Africa’s emerging markets. In late 2006, the Galway man, along with three former colleagues, rejuvenated a business development consultancy called BusinessMinds by turning it into an incubator company that develops, finances and operates sustainable commercial ventures in Africa.

“The idea behind the enterprise is to offer investors a socially responsible approach to doing business on the continent, while also making a profit. ‘Historically, many investors in Africa have used a more short-term, exploitative business model, one which has existed since the days of colonialism,’ O’Halloran says. ‘Unfortunately, for some investors this remains the modus operandi even today. As in, they take what resources they can and then get out without giving much back to the local economies.’

“However, O’Halloran says he believes people are starting to realise that such an approach is inherently unstable and increases risk.” His organization is called BusinessMinds, Africa.

Bill Corcoran wrote the Irish Times article. Read more here.

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To paraphrase a character in the Brian Friel play “Translations,” if you impose a language on people, one day you may find that their speech “no longer fits the contours of the land.” Language is critical to identity. People can always learn the language of the power group later, once they have learned how to learn.

That is the rationale behind a new effort in Haiti.

“When Michel DeGraff was a young boy in Haiti, his older brother brought home a notice from school reminding students and parents of certain classroom rules. At the top of the list was ‘no weapons.’ And right below it, DeGraff still remembers: ‘No Creole.’ Students were supposed to use French, and French only. …

“DeGraff is now an associate professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is using his influence to try to destroy the barrier that essentially fences off most of Haiti’s children from a real education.” Read the Boston Globe report here.

The dominance of a few languages was one of the concerns behind creating Esperanto as a bridge. With a bridge language, Esperantists hoped, less common languages would not die. It hasn’t turned out that way.

“There are more than 7,000 languages in the world, and if statistics hold, two weeks from now, there will be one less. That’s the rate at which languages disappear. And each time a language disappears, a part of history — a subtle way of thinking — vanishes too.

“A new documentary called The Linguists, [which aired August 4] on PBS, follows ethnographers David Harrison and Greg Anderson as they race to document endangered languages in some of the most remote corners of the world.

“From the plains of Siberia to the mountains of Bolivia to the tribal lands of India, Harrison and Anderson have hopscotched the globe, but they sat down for a moment with NPR’s Scott Simon to discuss their race to capture the world’s endangered languages.

“Harrison, a linguistics professor at Swarthmore College, specializes in sounds and words; Anderson, who directs Oregon’s Living Tongues Institute, is the verb expert. Together, they speak 25 languages.” Read more here.

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James is an Irish poet, widely considered part leprechaun. Every few years he comes to stay with his cousins for a couple weeks, across the street from my house. James is on the left in this photo, which I took at the Fourth of July parade.

James has two main modes of conversation: storytelling and poetry recitation. It is a pure delight to chat with him. As we waited for the parade, he narrated pages of Irish history, including dates, and recited from W.B. Yeats and our own Nathaniel Hawthorne, among others.

Earlier, he was sitting on his cousins’ front porch and saw a young woman he knows coming across the street. He was moved by the way she walks, as he told me, and with a kind of poetic spontaneous combustion, intoned on the spot:

Meran, fairest maid art thou,

Lovely is thy stride.

My heart goes out to thee

As ebbs the great sea tide.

But, ah, my kind Meran, I’ll not forget thee.

Nor the kind words you said unto me.

James has self-published a couple books of lore in his unique style. He and his brother, both lifelong bachelors, sell peat. On certain Sundays, James bikes 18 miles to the ruins of an old monastery, where he narrates the history for visitors. Then he bikes 18 miles home. In any kind of weather. James is 73.

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