Thursday, June 23, 2011

Ancient Mores, Front Doors and 'Hearths' of Gold!

The folk tales of Ireland contain a wealth of myth and legend attached to traditional vernacular dwellings. There are several features common to these houses which served to symbolise the life cycle within and may have a resonance for our own very different lifestyle. Among the most striking of these features was the location of the front door and the hearth for the fire which were closely integrated.

In western areas of the country the door was often placed well away from the fireplace with a second door leading out through the back of the house directly opposite the front door. In windy locations these two doors were used to regulate the draught so that the kitchen fire did not smoke. Sometimes they were known as ‘doras na foittine’-the sheltered door and ‘doras na gaoithe’-the windward door. A stranger who presumably did not know the district or was unaware of the direction of the prevailing wind might try to gain admission by the wrong door and be gently reminded that he would make a poor sailor as he did not seem to be aware of the wind direction. In my own modern humble abode I also have two doors both front and rear. However, they do not function as symbols of the wind direction but rather as formal and informal social entry points to the house. I was amused some years ago when one our young children declared that the rear door was really the ‘front door’ as most of her school friends entered that way. It is sad to relate however that some modern houses have no front door at all but only an obscure side entrance thus offering a confusing symbolic greeting to those approaching the house. It is interesting to note that one of my favourite public houses in Galway is called the Front Door over the entrance facing one street and Sonnies on the other street entrance. Little do they realise but they may well be asserting the importance of a unique historic tradition and I’ll drink to that.

John O’Donohue in his book ‘The Four Elements-Reflections on Nature’ stresses the importance of fire as an elemental association in any settlement grouping. The hearth in traditional Irish dwellings is where this fire was accommodated within a house shelter. It was not only a place of warmth however as it was a place for imparting wisdom and knowledge and for social meetings. Here the ‘seanchai’ (storyteller) held court and the cultural traditions of the local people were handed down to future generations. Indeed it was the simple traditional equivalent of our modern technological information highway. Thus, John O’Donohue beautifully described it as ‘a theatre of word’.

However, with the increased urbanisation of modern life rural traditions are no longer learned informally but are taught academically according to explicit rules. The knowledgeable scholar has become the arbiter of public taste, while real choice is now constrained by shared aspirations forged within the confines of accepted good taste and social manners and within the dictates of styles of building deemed appropriate to our modern age. These building types are often the same whether for farmer or urban dweller, large family or small, rich or poor and may bear little or no relationship to community structure.

In the home, the television has replaced the hearth as the primary social focus and the I-Pad or home computer has become the primary means of acquiring or dispersing knowledge. Despite the huge number of animated interactions between those social media forums such as Twitter and Face book, perhaps there is a sad and lonely core of personal isolation at the heart of these endeavours. While I accept the personal value of these technological innovations, when it comes to our homes we should remember that a house should not be simply a structure which gives basic shelter and towards which we adopt an aesthetic attitude and a social aspiration. Rather it should also reflect the activities and personal associations of the people living within it. Hence, like out traditional predecessors we should endeavour to make a conscious place in our home for flexible social interaction whether through food preparation, family dining or indeed group conversation around the fire in the Hearth. It is not for nothing that the Irish proverb had a special place in our hearts:

“Nil aon Tintean mar do Thintean Fein”
(Translated: ‘There is no Hearth like your own Hearth’ or more simply Home is where the heart is.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

DeMent,Dinosaurs and the Devils Spine Band in Galway

Firstly today I have to confess to an addiction. I have had it now over 30 years and it flares up every July in varying degrees and it’s is highly contagious and has affected my children and in turn my young grandchildren are now starting to show distinct signs of its pervasive influence. Its symptoms are usually defined in turn by sudden bursts of wild laughter, dramatic jaw dropping wonder, magical musical outbursts and a tendency to take to the streets in the most outlandish garb and costume. In its earliest manifestation this infection was confined by the World Heath Authorities to a small area around a small city in the west of Ireland but recently its influence has spread across the globe. It knows no barriers of culture or creed and indeed many sufferers have been known to carry the affects of its benign affliction from one year to the next. It is an addiction shared by famous actors and humble artisans alike and it goes by the name of the Galway Arts Festival and this years Festival runs from 11-24th July in the City of the Tribes.

I read in the national press in the last few days how some 70,000 people attended an open air concert in Dublin where they witnessed a small group of singers perform on a stage in the centre of a football pitch and tried to follow them in close up on huge television screens on either side of the stage. Perhaps this was a worthy spectacle but it certainly was hardly an intimate concert. Had they decided to visit Galway in July instead, they could have attended an intimate concert by Blondie, Afrocubism or De La Soul in the Festival Big Top Tent, gone to the World Premiere of Misterman with Cillian Murphy in the Black Box Theatre and literally touched and been touched by the ‘Fierce Beauty’ of the famous Macnas performers through the narrow winding streets of the Medieval city. They could probably also have done this for less than the cost of the Dublin concert and they still would have had time for a drink or meal in the Latin Quarter of Galway after the show. If they needed a break from the magical mayhem of the Arts they could always visit the wonderful scenery of Connemara to the north of the city or indeed the dramatic landscape of the Burren to the south.

I suppose I should admit that I am not entirely an unbiased spectator in the sphere of the Galway Arts Festival. Although I have no direct involvement in the Festival itself and therefore this blog is written entirely in a personal capacity, I was the architect for both the Town Hall Theatre and the Black Box theatre where some of the Festival events take place. Indeed I have very fond memories of an open air concert performed by Chinese drummers before a crowd of thousands in front of the Black Box soon after its opening. Thus my sole reason for this little blog is to remind everyone to support this wonderful Festival especially during a time where the economic recession is affecting the Arts so badly. As usual there is a wonderful variety of performance scheduled covering theatre, music and dance and I have especially noted the attraction of Iris DeMent, whose music has been featured on the soundtrack of the film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’, the children’s spectacle of the Dinosaur Petting Zoo and 'saloon' theatre of The Devils Spine Bank inspired by Oscar Wilde’s visit to the mining town of Leadville, Colorado in 1881.
Indeed it was Oscar Wilde himself who proclaimed that the best way to overcome temptation is to yield to it. So I will be feeding my addiction happily again this year and my long affection for the Festival is underlined by the number of old festival posters on walls throughout our house, photos of some of which are included with this blog.

May I end therefore with a quote from the Festival brochure on the Macnas parade ‘This Fierce Beauty’ which I feel underlines both the beauty not only of the Macnas personnel but also of the entire Festival staff of volunteers:

“Somewhere in space
My heart hangs
Sparks streaming,
Shaking the air
To other boundless hearts.”

Enjoy the Festival.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Snap Shot on Blue Moods,Green Fingers and Little White Lies

Let’s face it; my gardening process is never going to win me an award at the Chelsea Flower Show like my compatriot Diarmuid Gavin. Far from managing to design a flower garden suspended in mid air, I am finding it difficult to control the one I have at ground level. The severe cold weather last spring damaged or even killed many tender plants and frequent downpours in recent weeks have made it difficult to even cut the grass never mind attend to the needs of flowering shrubs. This has led to some blue moods of despondency at times. It also occurred to me that my wife and I have been spending large amounts of time each year transporting weeds and decaying vegetation from one part of the garden to another and then returning it back the next year in the form of compost. This work was so extensive and back breaking that we resembled bit players in the Coen Brothers movie ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ in that we could have been taken for members of a chain gang on a prison farm. Thus we have decided to ‘execute’ these weeds in future rather than transport them to pastures new. With our new resolve to stop ‘Dead Weeds Walking’ as it were, we find that we have more time and energy to manicure our green fingers and apply them to positive gardening. Thus, some recent photos posted by some of my blog followers of their own idyllic shrubberies and lovely lawns have enhanced my enthusiasm and sense of purpose in applying me to the restoration of my own humble patch of green. So I am posting some photos of my own garden as a work in progress. However, I must admit that I feel a little guilty about the subjective close ups of some of these pictures as they as yet are not typical of the garden as a whole. I hope though that in offering a limited and somewhat false photographic perspective on the overall garden condition, my fellow green garden goblins will forgive me my little white lies.

PS. Our grandchildren consider our hens and indeed the garden their ‘gnome away from gnome’, which may help to explain the increasing number of little cherub like statues beginning to proliferate there! Hi Ho! Hi! Ho! It’s off to work we go---

Special Thanks to @TheIrishMother and @Peepsqueak for lovely photos shared.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Turner Landscape: Celebrating 40 Years in 'Toon' with his Times

Martyn is now celebrating a 40 year birthday in drawing great cartoons
So hooray for his insight into politicians, despots, villains and mad loons
For he merges humour and terse words with great images in pen and ink
Of this wide human spectrum as there is no bottom to which some will sink

Here he has portrayed the vanities of Haughey, Ahern and others with unerring eye
And with his expert sketches and concise words has made pundits eat humble pie
Abroad he has featured Gadaffi, Gorbachev, Franco, Thatcher and even Tony Blair
With a unique humorous perception that would make even them smile to be fair.

In the North he has lampooned IRA bombers and Orange men marching with brollies
While in the South he has cleverly linked our Bank Bailouts to abject political follies
In Environmental concerns he has warned of the dangers of Chernobyl and Sellafield
And in Public Life of a motley crew of corrupt politicians who wheeled and dealed

Of course all his cartoons are expertly drawn and he’s a great caricaturist, it’s true
But as you’ve probably like me spent 40 years loving them, that’s not news to you.
In Saturday’s paper he tells Kathy Sherdian about listening to the radio and a 7am start
And of dwelling on concepts and cucumbers to set a vision of the food scare apart.

I myself have a confession to make as every day I firstly search the Times for his work
And if I don’t find it I look blankly at the page in despair and feel like going berserk
Ah wait, didn’t I myself feature in one of his fine drawings which my fond daughter got
But it’s a privilege to be included within such a gallery of chancers and the odd media lot.

Many may not know that he started out when England won 1966 World Cup Soccer fame
So I’ll have no problem being long entertained if he works until they win that Cup again
I suppose like him I could start living in France or even consider acquiring an Irish Setter
But really I would much prefer to just follow his cartoons as I genuinely know no better

So let’s raise a glass and send Happy Birthday wishes to a cartoonist who is the real deal
That is until tomorrow or the next day when I can savour his latest cartoon with my meal
Thanks to Martyn then for all the laughs and the insight and toon punchlines set to tease
For without your cartoons, life would just be all too dreary with certainly less to please.

Note: Photos taken from Saturday's Irish Times and Martyn Turner book cover.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hey Jack Doh! What are you Crowing about?

It may come as a surprise even to the likes of Sir David Attenborough, the noted naturalist, but Jackdaws in fact drink! Of course I do not simply mean that they imbibe water but that they have a penchant for beer or indeed any other alcoholic drink for that matter. You may well ask how I have come to acquire such insightful knowledge of their behavioural disposition. In fact I became aware of this peculiar characteristic a few weeks ago when I was awoken by the shrieks of two Jackdaws fighting with each other on our roof at about 4 o’clock in the morning. There is no other viable explanation for their loutish behaviour other than the fact that they had previously consumed large amounts of an alcoholic beverage earlier in the night. I make this definitive observation from my experience of similar behaviour exhibited by humans after partaking in protracted drinking binges. This point may be difficult to fathom for many at first but may I remind you that our house is located in close proximity to several village pubs where patrons have been know to discard half empty beer cans after leaving these drinking emporiums at closing time. Thus our feathered friends swoop down and consume the dregs from the cans with the resultant ‘ri ra agus ruaille buaille’ (irish for mayhem) on my roof at night.

However, noise and disturbance from these rakish rooks is not confined to the night time hours as they have taken up residence in several of our chimney pots and are refusing to leave. In fact, one could say that they are proclaiming ‘squawkers’ rights in this matter. They squeal and cry in the chimney flues during the day to such a degree that I find it difficult to concentrate on the melodious chants of the Gregorian monks which often can be heard on my CD player. In fact I find their antisocial behaviour a source of extreme discomfort both day and night. This is particularly distressful as I recently just gotten used to the rural pleasures of squealing hen parties in the coop, cats cavorting in the shrubs, neighing nags (Connemara ponies) in the fields behind the house and barking bitches (neighbours dogs) in a sort of canine chorus of nightly sounds. My good lady sleeps blissfully through this entire clamour and says that I am simply a ‘clownie from the townie’ at heart and that I should be able after some 30 years living in the countryside to make some concessions to the nocturnal niceties of rural living.

However, I was adamant that I would not ‘brook these rooks’ or let them get the better of me. At first, I decided to turn up the sound on my CD player to such a degree that it would drown out their constant wailing. Unfortunately, the sound carried further than I had imagined and I was accused of holding a ‘shebeen’ in my house late at night. For a while I must admit that I developed a kind of crow obsession and could be seen listening to Sheryl Crow and indeed Counting Crows at all hours of the day and night. In fact the whole scene was reminiscent of the Hitchcock mover ‘The Birds’ such was the sense of impending disaster pervading our house. However, when one day I heard my good wife explain to my daughter that her father was showing severe signs of rural stress, in what she referred to as my ‘Bats in the Belfry’ disposition, I must admit that I was beginning to feel that I might be letting the matter get to me just a little more than I had first realised.

At last, I hit on a viable solution and as a distraction from the crows I started counting sheep at night. This procedure was at first not helped by questions from my good lady in the morning asking ‘did you sheep well’ last night. However, I am glad to report that I am now sleeping like a new born lamb. I have begun to act in a more tolerant manner to my immigrant chimney friends and indeed with the help of my sheep counting exercises the crows no longer knock a feather out of me. There is one small anxiety however which my perceptive wife has quietly mentioned to me in passing. She ventured an opinion that I might simply be replacing one animal obsession with another one. Of course this is ridiculous I replied sheepishly, as there is no way that I am going to allow such theories to pull the wool over my eyes.

To Quote the Sheryl Crow song lyric:

“ All I wanna do is have some fun, I got a feeling I’m not the only one---“

All comments and musings on this daft nonsense welcome!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reflecting on Rocks, Resonance and the Stone Slabs of Heaven

In any attempt to give tangible expression to man’s physical presence on earth, the relative long term place association with his landscape surroundings is surely one of the most important. In this respect, those elements which are relatively stable over time can afford special spiritual and sacred refinement to his cultural development and evolution. Thus, stone in its many manifestations throughout the landscape of Ireland has been a major source of inspiration and has been the focus of myths, legends and folktales down through the centuries.

The reason behind these current reflections on the value of stone is partly because of a wonderful book I picked up recently during an afternoon walk in Oughterard, County Galway. It is called “Stones of Adoration-Sacred Stones and Mystical Megaliths of Ireland” by Christine Zucchelli, and is an enchanting exploration of the origins and rituals associated with stones in ancient and modern times. The book refers, in clear terms through text and photos, to the background and social context of megalithic tombs, passage graves, standing stones and indeed even beds of stone for ‘old hags and fair maidens’. I particularly liked the story of the sorcery that was employed to weaken the warrior Cuchulainn and the ancient history behind that ‘Big Man’s’ Stone.

For my own part, I have personal recollections of the background behind The Proleek Dolmen, known as the ‘Giant’s Load’, where those wishing to find themselves a partner would throw a small pebble onto the capping stone. If the pebble did not fall down, the applicant could assume that he or she would be married within a year. I myself tried this out successfully when young and although I cannot recall whether my own marriage followed within a year of the event, I san say that its continuing longevity testifies that it was not a ‘rocky’ experience. At any rate it can still be viewed in the grounds of Ballymascanlon Hotel outside Dundalk and so far I have not heard of anyone disputing the powers of the stone.

Some of the more fascinating descriptions in the book refer to the origins of the Ogram inscriptions on stones going back to the time of the mythical Tuatha De Danann tribe and also to the influence of the Sheela-na-Gig statutes which feature naked female figures that emphasise the genital area and have been seen by many as a symbol of fertility and protection for women with spiritual significance even to this day. In fact the entire book ranges over a vast variety of stone types from birth stones to wishing stones and even ones associated with ‘petrified sinners’. I have pleasure in posting a few photos from the book but I would highly recommend it to those with a sense of awareness of the importance of their experience of soul as witnessed in stone symbols employed through the passage of time.

My final reason for reflecting on stone at this time was the decision, partly prompted by the book, to remove the ivy covering the old stone wall at the back of the garden. Some of the stones probably originate from the outhouses of an old landlord residence long demolished and have lain covered by ivy for at least 30 years. So over the holiday weekend I began laboriously to remove the layers of clutching vines and was very pleased to discover a wide range of both granite and limestone shapes of different size and colour. Indeed if Christine Zucchelli’s book is to be believed, some of the round stones uncovered could well be ‘swearing stones, cursing stones or protective idols’. At any rate such was the effort required to dislodge the ivy from underneath some stones that a few new curses emanated from yours truly during the clearing process. The Irish tradition for the construction of random rubble, dry stone walls can be seen stretching across most of the western seaboard from the famous Burren limestone crags in Clare to the wild hills and bogs of Connemara and even across the barren stone strewn landscape of the Aran Islands. It is therefore nice to think that in opening up and restoring a natural wall feature one is participating in an action which has a resonance in Ireland across the Millennium of time. It was truly a life affirming ‘ripple of a pebble in a pool’ moment for me.

Thus, on finally inspecting the cleared wall I was pleased to echo the words of Saint Colmcille, my namesake according to my parents, uttered in the sixth century:

“Let not the Old Glen be violated, the site of the Stone Slabs of Heaven”.

All comments and musings welcome!