Lifting a drink to WBY, 150 years on

william-butler-yeats-9I first met Yeats under the heavens of embroidered cloth, wrought by himself in that classic early lyric. To me, his poetry itself was some beautiful, carefully worked tapestry of the heavens; it was as deep, ornate and seductive. I fully understood the feeling behind the phrase “a fire was in my head”, as the carefully crafted utterances of this man who lived way before my time set my imagination alight with both dreamy visions and sensual, tangible impressions of the world. The presenses of unseen forces, the cries of birds, Irish placenames, landscapes and the elements that animate them, megalithic tombs, mythological heroes, Irish characters local and national, magic ritual, sexual frenzy, rants and raging, all permeate his work. Passionate intensity. Antinomies spark, igniting the drive to live. My younger self was left wide-eyed and wild, my soul clapped and sang, and I was catapulted into life. (The hurtling music of Mike Scott’s arrangement of Yeats’ “Mad as the Mist and Snow” gives a musical impression of my feelings at that time!)

From the pages of Yeats’ words blew an evocative wind of many colours. I was called away to explore a vast landscape of folklore, mythology and literature. The book led me to the real landscape of Sligo, which embodies all of these things, and more – the Irish language, music, venturing out in the living landscape, which has so many stirring tales. Through my interest in Yeats, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and I returned every year (as the swallows return for the summer) for five years. The school provided the opportunity of discovering Yeats in his natural habitat, and sharing this profound experience with new friends from far and wide. From being in Sligo, I could see how the environment seemed to encourage and nurture poetry. The landscape seems to talk directly to you, narrating its own stories. Mythology is alive and well in Carrowmore, where dolmens, the beds of Diarmaid and Gráinne lie; Ben Bulben frames one side of the town, in the shadow of which Diarmaid would die from the impact of a boar’s tusks; Knocknarea frames the opposite side of the town, where Queen Maeve stands buried on top in the prominent cairn; two epic ancient battles were fought by the Tuatha Dé Danann in Maigh Tuireadh, against the Fir Bolg and the Formorians. Michael Quirke, the local “mythkeeper” and woodcarver, relates local folklore stories to visitors to his shop, one of which tells of the witch, Garbhóg, who fell into the river that runs through the town, thus giving it the name Garavogue… Though I haven’t written in quite a long time, since my move to Glasgow, whenever I do take notes or write sketchy lines, my inspiration comes from nature around me, the local spirits in the places that I travel to.

Meeting Yeats for the first time was like meeting someone you’ve known for a long time. As I read the poetry, and read about the man behind the poetry, I felt a powerful affinity. The subjects that he cast his poetic eye on are just the things that would catch my eye, and set my heart to beat with love or rage. (On the whole, we pretty much loved and hated the same things.) Everything is beautiful in his depictions, even the horrors are terribly beautiful. His poetry, plays and prose works are invaluable for their discussion of contemporary polictical and cultural change in Ireland. Yeats was a man who moved with the times, from the dreamy, Pre-Raphaelite lover of the 1890s to the precise, raging passionate old man of the 1930s. When I was younger, and even still now, I love following the life of this man as he developed throughout his life. In a way, I learned how to think and act with his influence. When I think about it, Yeats always was precise, thorough and direct, even in his dream-weaving. He did begin as a wee scientist after all, a naturalist in his boyhood. (I realised just the other day that I was a dreamer first, but have grown into a more discerning way of thought, and have definitely become a naturalist!) I love the story of Yeats as a boy taking the glass out of the windows in his bedroom in Howth so that he could feel the elements of wind and rain more. I think this approach shows that Yeats was actually a great rooted thing, and based all of his inspirations on the tangible, despite the often dreamy and otherworldly feeling to his writings.

Yeats’ interest in folklore and in the Irish tradition, and his interest in a more pagan spirituality was what really got me hooked. His writings twitched at the veil of both the world of a bygone age and that of the Gaelic Otherworld, as it’s often called. I’m really interested in post-colonialism, and like Nuala Ní Dhomhnall, I wanted to delve deeper into the well of the national unconscious mind for a better understanding of my self. The seemingly flightly, whimsical fairy stories that Yeats, amongst others, collected offer a colourful insight into the mindset and psychology of Irish people dealing with everyday life’s hurdles. I think Yeats actually believed in otherworldly beings though… It certainly appeals to the imagination, the presenses of wise, ancient beings, seductive immortals and ghosts with a message to deliver. Tapping into this unseen realm certainly added a particular animation to Yeats’ symbols and metaphors. The music and cadences of Yeats’ poetry was influenced by the Irish-language poetic tradition, even though Yeats could never achieve any sort of fluency in the language (despite three attempts!). There’s another anecdote that I like is the one when Yeats was at a feis in Galway, and he heard sean-nós singing for the first time. Apparently he was enthralled, and interrogated Douglas Hyde (who he was fairly pally with) so that he could find out as much as possible about the tradition. Yeats’ eyes glistened when Douglas Hyde told him that he often dreamt in Irish; if only Yeats had’ve had the ability to learn Irish… I think it would have opened more doors to him. It was my interest in folklore, music and poetry that pushed me to learn Irish. Reclaiming my tongue was me reclaiming a huge part of my soul.

Anyway, I could go on and on! My relationship with Yeats and his work is far too complicated a subject for a blog post. I could write a book on it, with quotations where fitting. Last night I lifted a “Dark and Stormy” to Yeats on his 150th birthday. Here’s to the towering oak tree of poetic wisdom. Here’s to the coming generations of new Yeatslings. And here’s to a more concerted effort on my part to get back into writing again…

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Seumas Heaney, 13 April 1939 – 30 August 2013

Another Irish legend away on the way of truth. I’ve had the privilege of meeting Seumas Heaney on two occasions at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, and saw him reading his poetry in the Hawkswell Theatre. He had a warm, comforting voice like a crackling fire, and his demeanour was just as warm and inviting. What struck me about him, and also his fellow Ulster poet Michael Longley, was his poetic delight in and appreciation of the little everyday things in life and nature.

I remember the first poem I studied when I entered secondary school was “Mid-Term Break”, which was heart-wrenching and made me weep a little in class. After that, it was “Digging”, which appealed to me, the wee budding writerling. It was inspirational to have studied a poet who was alive at the time, and gave a sense of personal and national pride. At least his genius was celebrated and enjoyed during his lifetime.

When I went to college, I wrote an essay about the development of Northern Hiberno-English, as reflected in literature. Doing my research for this, reading what Heaney had to say on the subject, gave me my first proper understanding of how complex the situation in the north of Ireland is. I came to the conclusion that the people of the Six Counties have their own identity, and that its diversity should be celebrated, and not be a cause for disharmony.

It seems that I’ve been suffering from homesickness without realising it.  As I’ve suggested, Seumas Heaney was a peaty man in my mind, a man of the earth and hearth. These are things that Irish emigrants long for when they live abroad. To hear of the passing of a cultural hero who embodied these things pinches the nerve of homesickness.

On a more positive note, the reminder of his influence on this sad day will encourage young writers to contribute the written chain, the human chain.

Mo bheannacht lena anam uasal.

The Linguistic Influence of Seumas Heaney

Below is taken from an essay that I wrote for a uni assignment on May 10, 2007. On hearing the news of the passing of Seumas Heaney, I thought it was worth sharing, to give him credit for being a pioneer of linguistic freedom and experimentation in Northern Irish writing.

            The distinction between the Hiberno-English of north and south is apparent in their local literature. As part of the literary revival in southern Ireland in the late 1890s and 1900s, writers wished to express their Irish identity through the use of Hiberno-English dialect writing. They were presenting an Irish identity to the world of literature, and distinguishing that the Irish people had voices in their own right, separate from Britain. Amongst these writers were W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, and, later, Sean O’Casey and James Joyce. It is interesting to note that all of these writers, except Joyce, are Protestants. Douglas Hyde, who was also a Protestant, was at the same time working on reviving the Irish language, in conjunction withthe Gaelic League. In this time of change, the Irish language was also changing, with the Gaelic League attempting to standardise the language and its grammar. Although Hyde was dedicated to the Irish language, his translations of Irish verses literally into English influenced the Hiberno-English style. Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge, with their knowledge of the Irish language, followed this example of translating literally from the Irish. Synge, as well as projecting the Hiberno-English voice, was also dealing in his own way with the question of both the Irish and English language in Ireland;

 

            By choosing to infuse English with the idioms and syntax of Irish,

            Synge invented a new literary method which allowed him to bypass

            the uncertainties and the squabbling over the standardisation of the

            Irish language, and to avoid the provincialism of an Anglo-Irish

            literature which could only mimic the strategies of an English poetic

            tradition. (Mathews 137)

 

Synge, Lady Gregory and Hyde were not striving to be realistic in this use of language; it was “a heightened form of peasant speech”, allowing them to “suggest the Irish national character by use of dialect vocabulary, idiom, syntax and rhythm.” (Barry 93) In contrast, O’Casey and Joyce wished to use realistic expression in their work by giving the language of the everyday people around them a voice; O’Casey “Tended to mix Dublin and rural forms of speech”, while Joyce “carefully collected dialect phrases in a notebook and used them and other aspects of Hiberno-English in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.” (Barry 93)

           

Modern poets of the northern counties include Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley; though the latter also makes use of the Ulster dialects, he refuses to be categorised as a “Northern poet”, and “shifted his focus to the west of Ireland and his own emotional innerscape.” (Healy 143) Heaney wishes to reflect Northern Ireland in his poetry with its different dialects, in order to bring each represented facet of Northern Irish culture into unity; he would address Ulster’s political disunity with poetry “that exposes the diversity of language and speaks with many dialects and in many voices.” (Molino 187) He employs “Irish (as well as English and Scots) words and dialect forms as cultural depth charges to explode in a traditional English line of verse and create a form of poetry that circumvents political monologism by celebrating linguistic pluralism.” (Molino 184) Heaney defends his use of dialect in his work, which is especially fitting in the case of his translation of Beowulf from the Anglo-Saxon into his own dialect;

To belong to Ireland and to speak its dialect is not necessarily to be

cut off from the world’s banquet because that banquet is eaten at the

table of one’s own life, savoured by the tongue one speaks. . . . I do

not yield to the notion that my identity is disabled and falsified and

somehow slightly traitorous if I conduct my casual and

imaginative transactions in the speech I was born to. (Heaney 20)

 

The use of the dialects of Ulster, the style of speech the poet was born with, creates a sense of freedom, politically and creatively; until recently, the Hiberno-English words were undefined in dictionaries. As a result, readers outside of Ireland would find it difficult to understand certain expressions. As Tom Paulin observes,

The language therefore lives freely and spontaneously as speech,

but it lacks any institutional existence and so is impoverished as

a literary medium. It is a language without a lexicon, a language without

form. Like some strange creature of the open air, it exists simply as

Geist or spirit. (Paulin 11)

Heaney, through his use of the Ulster voice, has presented to the world of literature the modern Irish identity, and has also defined the Northern Irish identity in its own right.

 

References

Barry, Michael V. “The English Language in Ireland”. English as a World Language.

Ed. Richard W. Bailey and Manfred Gorlach. Michigan: The University of

Michigan, 1986. pp 84-133

 

Barry, Michael V. “Historical Introduction to the Dialects of Ulster”. A Concise

Ulster Dictionary. Ed. C.I. McAfee. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

pp ix-xii

 

Heaney, S.  “Forked Tongues, Ceilis and Incubators”. Fortnight 197. 1983. p 20

 

Healy, Elizabeth. Literary Tour of Ireland. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1995. p 143

Mathews, P.J. Revival: The Abbey Theatre, Sinn Féin, The Gaelic League and the

Co-operative Movement. Cork: Cork University Press/Field Day, 2003. p 137

Molino, Michael R. “Flying by the Nets of Language and Nationality: Seamus

Heaney, the “English” Language, and Ulster’s Troubles.” Modern Philology,

Vol. 91, No. 2. (Nov., 1993), pp 180-201. May 8 2007.

<http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=00268232%28199311%2991%3A2%3C180%3AFBTNOL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4>

Paulin, Tom. A New Look at the Language Question. Ed. Seamus Deane et al.

Derry: Field Day Theate, 1983. p 11

 

Breakfast Crows

Crows lift dog food
chisel it with beaks:
hammer hammer hammer
munch munch munch
caw caw caw
swift glossy flight
swoop
clink of beak on ceramic
crunchy food in clenched foot claws
hammer hammer hammer
munch munch –
squabble!
clash of wings and scrapes
swagger –
munch.

© Alison Ní Dhorchaidhe 2011

Midnight Music – Three Haiku

1 Forte
a brutal wind blows
scattered autumn leaves:
dissipated emotions.
2 Glissando
stripping off my clothes
I add words to naked page;
night-time transaction.
3 Crescendo
orchestral winds play
a brisk late-night symphony;
through the vent, a flute.
© Alison Ní Dhorchaidhe 2010