Friday, 8 February 2019

An Duanaire - The Dispossessed

There are books… and then there are books that change your life. Most of the latter I read in my teens and early 20’s. 

I remember so well reading For Whom The Bell Tolls in a frigid Dublin bedsit and becoming ensnared by the poetry, principle and pragmatism of its hero, Robert Jordan.

In somewhat similar circumstances in the East Village I first ploughed through The Alexandrian Quartet and discovered that not only could there be two sides to a story but four in Lawrence Durrell’s classic collection.

And where would any of us be without an introduction to Ms. Molly Bloom. Along with being introduced to literature’s greatest character, Sunny Jim Joyce demonstrated to me, at least, that the very sound of words is as important as their literal meaning.

Each of these books catapulted me into new worlds of imagination. But two others that I read in my 30’s were glances back into a history that I’d brushed against as a young boy in Wexford.

How odd too that I read them on Avenue B with the sound of drug dealers hawking their wares outside my window and the occasional gun shot to make sure I didn’t doze off.

The Hidden Ireland by Daniel Corkery might be a study of 18th Century Munster culture, but it also helped me understand that buskers like Margaret Barry and Pecker Dunne who I had listened to on the streets of Wexford were among the last survivors of a fast disappearing Gaelic Ireland.

I realized how privileged I was to have experienced that world in some small way.  Corkery’s book opened up a vista that I’ve drawn on as a writer and composer, and showed me how vapid and insubstantial it is to be a “dedicated follower of fashion.”

Before you move forward you must first look backwards and come to terms with your roots.

I can’t even remember when or where I bought An Duanaire 1600-1900: Poems of the Dispossessed, but as I look at my dog-eared copy it’s obvious I’ve turned to it often.

This priceless book of Gaelic poetry was collected by Sean Ó’Tuama with exquisite English translations by Thomas Kinsella.

These years encompass both the Cromwellian genocide and the Penal Laws era that ended with Catholic Emancipation in 1829. You can almost touch the loss of a people dispossessed seeping from An Duanaire.

The poems within are written by well-known bards steeped in learning like Piaras Feiritéar down to Filíocht na nDaoine – the anonymous verses of the common people.

Kinsella’s translations are both muscular and sublime, and he opens up a whole new world to those of us with little or no proficiency in the Irish language.

An Duanaire also contains internationally renowned poems like Brian Merriman’s Midnight Court, and perhaps one of the world’s greatest laments, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire written by his wife Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill.

Lament for Art O’Leary enriched my life considerably for back in 1992 I was privileged to write the music for a Dance/Theatre piece by June Anderson that featured Black Eileen’s passionate response to the murder of her husband.

Part of this vocal elegy became internationally known when I used it as an introduction to the Black 47 song, Big Fellah which was featured in Sons of Anarchy.

How strange is life – a lament for an 18th Century Cork mercenary finds its way onto a contemporary TV motorcycle drama!

By the way, don’t miss Paul Muldoon’s upcoming translation and re-enactment of The Lament for Art O’Leary at the Irish Arts Center, featuring Lisa Dwan with music by Horslips.

One of the most moving poems in An Duanaire is Mo Bhrón ar an Bhfarraige.  My Grief on the Ocean speaks of a woman longing for her partner who has departed for America.

As in other poems from An Duanaire it describes an earthy and sensuous relationship – feelings rarely mentioned in verse after puritanical European Jansenism overwhelmed Gaelic Catholicism in the wake of An Gorta Mór.

“My love came near
up to my side
shoulder to shoulder
and mouth to mouth.”

An Duanaire is out of print and can be expensive, but find one. You’ll get a view of the past - both precious and frightening - that could help you comprehend the complexities of the dizzying present.

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