Tuesday 25 August 2015

The Joyful, Glorious, and Sorrowful 15th of August

           The 15th of August always seems radiant to me now. But then I come from Wexford in the “Sunny South East,” so perhaps my memory is not playing tricks.

            The date marks the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven. Since we believed implicitly in Catholicism this miraculous event was no less plausible than Original Sin or Limbo. Of more concrete importance, the 15th of August being a national holiday, I had a choice to make – which grandparents to spend the day with?

My paternal side would take their usual leisurely trip down to their farm near Carnsore Point. On the 15th, however, they would also visit Our Lady’s Island where the faithful commemorated the feast day with hymns, rosaries and a banner-led procession.

We never marched for my grandfather didn’t approve of such gratuitous displays of holiness, preferring his own somber, silent faith.

The old rural Ireland was already beginning to fade, and you could now catch the occasional Roy Orbison song leaking from some huckster’s transistor radio and mixing uneasily with O Sacrament Most Holy or O Salutaris Hostia.

Unfazed by such sacrilege, those seeking relief from diverse maladies hobbled along in the wake of the procession. Cures were not uncommon and the faithful lustily rejoiced in the afterglow of these supernatural happenings.

            Despite such heavenly signs I usually opted to spend the day with my maternal grandfather. He had been a widower for some time but still followed his wife’s family tradition of driving the 50 miles to Tramore in Co. Waterford on the 15th. 

He would cram as many of us grandchildren as would fit into his old blue Morris Minor and with a roar of the engine we would thunder off down the long and winding road. Despite his many years of driving he had never mastered the interplay between clutch and accelerator, and had gained the nickname, Dan Dare, in honor of a rocket-propelled, science fiction radio star of the time.

Tramore was a wonderland back then - its name derived from the Gaelic, Trá Mór, or Big Strand. The beach is enormous, and though we would often emerge from the Atlantic blue from the cold, still we spent hours frolicking amid the crashing waves.

            But it was the slot machines, the dodgems, swings and general carnival-like atmosphere that captivated us. Though heavenly in its own way there was little hint of devotion to any virgin - sacred or secular - in this mad, swirling rural Las Vegas.

            The crowds rivaled Dublin’s O’Connell Street on All-Ireland Hurling Final day. Buskers the like of Maggie Barry and The Pecker Dunne cast their spell over the hundreds gathered around them on street corners. Con men and tricksters from the nearby city of Waterford plied their wares and skills on unsuspecting culchies.

 Everyone wore their Sunday best: the men uniformly attired in heavy dark suits, the collars of their white shirts sportily thrown open, their sensible ties rolled neatly and deposited next to rosary beads in jacket pockets. Many sat on the beach like so many penguins or rolled up their pants legs and waded in the surf and transient tide pools.

            When the shadows deepened we would tumble back into the old Morris Minor, sunburned, and sated by bottles of Miami Orange and bars of Cadbury’s Chocolate.  

Somewhere between New Ross and Wexford Town my grandfather would begin the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, never the Glorious or Joyful. I suppose that says something about his nature or, perhaps, the still keenly felt loss of his wife.  We would answer by rote, some of us dozing in the soft evening light.

            We had no idea that change was so close and would soon sweep this world away. The Beatles were already making a name for themselves in Hamburg, Martin Luther King was on the march in Alabama, and up the road in the partitioned North of Ireland Catholics were beginning to question their second-class citizenship.

Everything seemed permanent and in its appointed place as we thundered on, scattering Hail Mary’s and Glorias in our noisy wake on another glorious and joyful 15th of August.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Rave on Mr. Yeats

          William Butler Yeats was born 150 years ago. He was an outsider in so many ways – a Protestant from the merchant classes never entirely at home in the big houses of the landed gentry, a nationalist with a pronounced Anglo-Irish accent, a poet revered in universities who never sat for a degree, the list goes on.

            Renowned for his glittering and insightful poetry, there was so much more to Willie Yeats. A shy and introverted man he felt that the artist should not only develop his craft but fully engage in public affairs. Thus, he immersed himself in the “national question” and thoroughly embraced his Irish identity.

            He believed that knowledge should be shared, and traveled widely around Ireland giving lectures to workingmen and women. My grandfather told me of a talk “Mister Yeats” gave at the Mechanics’ Institute in Wexford on “The Necessity of Creating an Irish National Theatre.”

            Apparently the lecture was stirring but what impressed the workers most was that Yeats refusal to leave the building until every last question was answered.

            He did create an Irish National Theatre with Lady Gregory from the ground up - finding suitable premises, hiring actors, writing and soliciting plays, down to counting the proceeds and paying the bills. All this from a man with little experience of handling money – his father was an impecunious artist who ended up in New York City dependent on the charity of others.

            Though aware of his own genius, Yeats was generous to anyone with talent. A world figure at 39, yet he listened to both the personal and professional criticisms of a supremely confident, but unpublished, 20-year old James Joyce.

            He never doubted that Synge’s Playboy of the Western World would be performed wherever people loved great playwriting. Likewise, he stood by the prickly Sean O’Casey through thick and thin, taking to the stage when the Abbey Theatre audience rioted in protest against the young socialist’s attitude to sex and religion in The Plough and the Stars.

            A man of many interests, Mr. Yeats went mano-a-mano with the scandalous Aleister Crowley over the stewardship of The Golden Dawn, a hermetic magical society. Crowley, a man of powerful intellect wrote with some glee that for all Yeats’ gifts he could not imagine the gangly, ungainly poet engaged in any kind of sexual endeavor.

            And yet, the cerebral Mr. Yeats was not without his successes with the ladies. Alas, the one closest his heart, Maud Gonne, led him a not-so-merry dance. The poet wrote “White Birds” immediately after his proposal of marriage was refused by the wily Maud who promised that instead of a plunge into matrimony they would forever be united like “white birds on the foam of the sea.”

            Despite this greatest of literary kiss-offs, Willie persevered with his suit for further decades. However, he did gain the ultimate revenge by proposing to Maud’s daughter, Iseult. One can only imagine Mama’s reaction.

            And yet, the world is a much richer place because of the many lovelorn lines penned by Mr. Yeats in the pursuit of his stony beloved.

            Is there a more profound yet succinct poet – one who gets to the heart of the matter with the least fuss? I often think his following lines perfectly distill and encapsulate the tragedy of our national and religious divisions:

 “Great hatred, little room, maimed us at the start
I carry from my mother’s womb a fanatic heart”

            While his pithy statement “a terrible beauty is born” says so much about the flawed redemption of the 1916 uprising.

            Perhaps more than anyone Yeats saw that the new Ireland created in 1922 had merely exchanged masters – Catholic bishops for British royalty. In a speech in 1925 when the Irish Free State was about to outlaw divorce, he spoke somewhat presciently, “We (Irish Protestants) are no petty people. Your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.”

            Outsider he might have been but this often-unworldly poet had his finger on the pulse of Ireland, and could see that theocracy of any kind limits and ultimately damages a society.

            Rave on, Mr. Yeats, 150 years young, your words and actions still resound across the ages.