11 February 1990. Portobello, Dublin.
‘Come in, quickly! He’s on his way.’ Seán calls me into the sitting room. I run from the kitchen. And there he is. Free man walking. Mandela.
5 December 2013. Ballyvaughan, Co Clare.
I’m in the sitting room. Me, channel-hopping. Cat, purring. And there he is. Free man soaring. Mandela.
Cry, Little World, for Grandad is dead.
Smile, Little World, that such a man lived.
c. Karen McDonnell.
Last night at the Church of St Nicholas in Galway three magicians took to a small raised area under the apex of the vaulted ceiling. Each one has already made his own outstanding contribution to traditional music. But the urge to continue, to collaborate, to explore is undiminished.
Triúr – Peadar, Caoimhín and Martin – played their hearts out for us last night. The music was all composed by Peadar.
The small Monday audience – how privileged were we! – may have been sat in our seats, but there were transcendental moments where it must have seemed that our bodies were empty shells and our spirits burst and fizz-banged out, up to the rafters, all at a bows bend or at the insinuation of box buttons.
At one point we were offered (offered!!) a choice: a slow air, or a polka. Maybe because it was a chilly night our toes felt a need to tap – we chose the polka. I don’t know its name and I’ve messaged Peadar on Facebook to find out.
All I know is that the two fiddles and the box started out calmly, politely, as one would with a new partner at a dance. By the middle of the tune, the notes were high above us, dancing in the space between the musicians heads and the ceiling. I could nearly see them: spirits of notes, whizzing around like ghosts at play. Then they formed lines, like those colourful ropes seen on church bells and
Bow run against bow run, and the punchy box managing the current of air. Magicians making music.
How can a polka sound like a dance of joyous bells?
Perhaps it was the fact that we were in the medieval church, or that the acoustics there are so wonderful.
For myself, I would have been happy to have polkaed on, all through the November night.
Maith sibh Triúr!
Here is a taste of what you can hear on their CDs:
For Hallowe’en: below is a version of an article I wrote for SIN – the student newspaper of NUI Galway –
It was a dark and stormy night.
I lie. It was dark. There was rain and it was a tad windy. But stormy? I was tucked up in bed. Tea steamed in my favourite mug on the bedside table. Yes, alright, there was chocolate somewhere about the place.
October 31 was looming. I stood in front of my bookshelves, head to one side, reading along the spines. Way down, in a corner, I stopped in front of the lonely little group that comes under the heading Anthologies. They keep strange company – Collected American Short Stories, The Faber Book of Letters, Stories from the Greek Comedians. (Maybe I should move that up to the Classics shelf.) And there it was: Anthology of Fear: 20 Haunting Stories for Winter Nights. Why, the title alone would send a shiver down your spine.
Long ago and far away (or, when I was younger and lived in Dublin), I subscribed to one of those collections that are advertised on TV. You know the type – knit your own Spitfire, create your own cushions with Granny’s old tights and This! Embroidery! Kit! With me, it was books. The Great Writers! Introductory Offer! Only 4.99! Mighty handsome they were too: gilded hardbacks, with print like that in crumbly leather-bound copies of Cowper and Johnson found my brother in a Portobello book barrow.
No sneering at the back. Thanks to that collection I read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair for the first time, and was amazed at how much I enjoyed it. I had read Mrs Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte, but now I discovered Cranford, long before the BBC adaptation renewed Gaskell’s reputation. The Great Writers books sit solid in their own battered mahogany bookcase. Occasionally I think about sending them somewhere – I am fast running out of shelf space for my other books – but they’re still here.
Now and again, the people at Great Writers’ Central would give us an extra, seasonal, treat – Christmas Stories by Dickens. Or Stories for Summer. (Paperback. Handy for the plane. Very thoughtful people at Great Writers Central.) Or Anthology of Fear, which was now propped up on the duvet in front of me.
The book had moved house – twice. Still, dear Reader, I had never opened it. Now, having done so, I made two important discoveries:
1. I came across ghost stories by writers I would never have associated with the genre.
2. My love of reading stories was revived.
Maybe you knew, but I sure as hell didn’t, that Edith Nesbit – she of The Railway Children – had written horror stories. Four collections, in fact. Edith Wharton – creator of The House of Mirth, and the Pulitzer-winning The Age of Innocence – also wrote ghost stories. The collection also contains two stories by Mary Braddon, a Victorian writer of ‘sensational novels’. Her The Cold Embrace is melodramatic: a no-good student comes to a bad end. There’s a surprise.
There are stories by writers whose names we know from their popular work, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Scarlet Letter, and Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Hawthorne’s atmospheric Young Goodman Brown, is set in Salem. Its horror is in the way the mind of the protagonist is altered forever; only the reader is a witness. Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest is included, as are his The Judge’s House and The Squaw. Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla is printed in full. A vampire tale, written 25 years before Dracula, it is a wonderful read.
Which leads to my second realization: I had forgotten how much fun it is to read stories. Anthology of Fear brought back the childhood joy of discovery on opening a new book. Because they are ghost stories, I found myself taking them for what they were, allowing myself to be dragged along by the narratives – the best of which are extremely scary.
There is a delight in reading stories set in the 16th and 17th centuries, and those written in the 1800s. The descriptive style, vocabulary and structure used in the stories are an antidote to modern novels. ‘Yclept’ – I like reading a word like ‘yclept’. The writers of these stories create an intimacy with the reader – unforgettable pictures are framed in the mind. Now, I want to read more of these writers’ work.
I must borrow a line from Irving’s The Lady with the Velvet Collar. Cosy, as the wintry weather whirls round the house, I become ‘in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature’.
I’m ready. Tell me a story.
So, it finally happened.
It’s been a long time coming.
As a young one of 17, (Janis Ian fans may hum along now), I arrived at University College, Galway – as it was known then. In the weeks running up to that October, I worried that I had chosen the wrong discipline. I was heading into four years of Science, with a view to specialising in Marine Biology. Except in those days the word specialise really didn’t exist for young Irish students; we just did a subject, and that was that.
Well, I did Zoology, Microbiology, Maths, Physics, and Biochemistry. Apart from the Zoology practicals on Saturday mornings and the funky Microbiology lectures, I was miserable.
But – as the Gaudeamus says – I was young and happy beyond those lecture halls and laboratories. I had a ball making new friends. I handed out the student newspaper UNITY. I hung out with the Music Soc outside the Bialann, selling tickets. I went to Archaeology lectures and on field trips (the Professor asked me to take the final year exams,but they clashed with Maths). I sang in the college madrigal group and the choir. I didn’t join Dramsoc because I thought I should do a bit of studying.
Prof Rynne & UCG Archaeology Soc.
Given that I later tried my hand at acting, I would have been better off doing drama – because the final year exams were a disaster. Physics, Maths and I were never going to have a cosy relationship. I left my beloved UCG under a cloud; leaving my friends to continue without me. It’s not a good thing to feel a failure at 18.
Life went on, as it does. I moved to the Burren, where this archaeology field trip photo was taken. In early summer 2008, I attended the funeral of one of those old archaeology friends. Two of my closest friends were in the car on the way home. The conversation veered towards college: memories and otherwise. They both encouraged me to go back, to try again. That night I was out for dinner – another friend started the same conversation. I began to think about it, seriously.
In 2009, I went back to NUI Galway – we both had changed with the years. This time, I knew what I wanted, and already had succeeded – there were only 15 places on the Writing course that was my chosen specialism. I also took English in First Year, my final degree being in Classics and History.
I made more friends, among the student cohort and the lecturers. It was a hundred km return journey every day. There were icy roads, floods, and car problems. It was tough. It was pure joy. But I got there – with First Class Honours.
I couldn’t have done it without the encouragment and support of my friends and family.
This week I paraded into the hall with my fellow ‘BA with Writing’ students – to the strains of Gaudeamus Igitur. The night before, my friend Mary – who had been at UCG with me in those early years and who had always encouraged me to go back – texted me; she would be thinking of me and singing Gaudeamus Igitur.
Finally, I got the graduation photo with my parents.
It’s been a long wait. But, I got there.
Just a flying visit -
Here is the link to today’s article for SIN.ie – the student newspaper of NUI Galway.
It’s a meditation on Ireland, Heaney, and friendship.
Hope you like it.
This article got a good reception so I’m reprinting it below-
A Month’s Mind
A friend of mine died suddenly last year. We were friends as teenagers, and in the one year we shared at college. He remained in my home town, while I made my life elsewhere. And, as is the way, we didn’t stay in touch. As he remained close to mutual friends, I would hear the odd bit of news about him. His death was accidental – a shock to all of us. Another friend was home from Australia; we went to the funeral together.
People stood in silent tribute as the hearse made its way up the narrow main street, lead by members of the clubs in which he had coached or mentored. They had to open the balconies of the cathedral to accommodate the mourners. As the service unfolded, a tragic, local event became something greater than itself.
Observing the genuine grief felt by the people of my town for this one person created an immense regret within me. There was sympathy for his family. There was sadness for friends who had lost someone very dear to them – one with whom they had shared adult experiences. As the eulogies were spoken and details of Seán’s contribution to his community emerged, a sense of great loss crept over me. Yes, I could remember the young man, and his gentle presence. But my loss was that of not knowing the man who gave of himself; to friends and community. There, in the cathedral, I experienced a just, communal grief for a decent man; a man who gained the love of many – without travelling much beyond the boundaries of his home town.
The prologue to Act V of Shakespeare’s Henry V describes Henry walking the soldiers’ camp on the night before the battle of Agincourt:
His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
That last line came to mind in the days following the death of Seamus Heaney. And my dead friend also walked through my thoughts. It seemed to me that the deaths of both men created the same communal response – one on a national level, and one local. Both men touched people; purely through their engagement with their fellow human beings, and with their personalities.
When Seamus Heaney died, all media platforms were saturated with comments, stories, and opinions. What was interesting was the range of contributors. Naturally, there was dissection and discussion of literary legacy. More importantly, there were the letters to newspapers, the texts to talk shows, the ‘Seamus Stories’. The constant theme was the niceness of the man: the giving of his time and advice, and his outward-directed engagement with readers and audiences. When the news broke of his death, a friend texted me that she was tearful as she listened to the radio coverage. This reaction was repeated throughout the country.
Some people, even as they gave voice to it, seemed surprised by their own emotional response. The depth of feeling was illustrated in the comments generated by the Daily Telegraph-published blog, on the day of Heaney’s funeral. The blog’s author – to whom I will not give added publicity – could not have understood the fury he would arouse. That’s no surprise: it is not easily articulated in this era of sound bites, where cynicism is glorified. The strongest vitriol was reserved, not for his comments about Heaney the poet, but for his criticism of Seamus Heaney, the Man.
In the eulogies, there has been mention of the Tribe – that Heaney was the file for our Tribe. And that may be so. As a conceit it has a place in the intellectual debate of his work. But, but, but – there may be a sub-textual, emotional truth to the sense of loss demonstrated by the Irish community at the time of Heaney’s death. It was tribal. And the blogger, God help him, will never get that.
We are a scarred nation. We have suffered as a people in the last few years. (People were suffering during the Celtic Tiger, but not many wanted to know.) Lehman’s collapse and the ‘Markets’ apart, the recent horrors were visited on Ireland by Irishmen. Cute-hoor mentality caught up with us and took us for all it could. And we let it. We are ashamed of ourselves, and angry.
That’s a tough truth. It shakes national self-belief. And so we look to the good people among us for reassurance; decent, kind people, who show us what we could be; whose sheer existence reminds us to hope. People like my friend Seán, and Seamus Heaney. Good people are needed now, to make us, by their example, stand up for ourselves as a community, as a nation. When precious exemplars are taken before their time, the loss is all the more profound.
Put Heaney’s legacy aside for a while. It has its guardians. What’s important is to catch hold of the communal, national sense of loss at the death of a decent man.
Yes, there are many Seamus stories. I have my own. I wrote to him last year, requesting an interview. He replied, declining with his customary graciousness while including a compliment about my letter-writing. One of my favourite stories was recounted by Heaney himself in a documentary aired at the time of his death: As a young fella heading off into the night to a local dance, his mother would remind him to dance with those girls who had no dance partners. Heaney brought that sense of duty and consideration of others into his adult world. Into our world.
Thanks for the dance, Seamus.
The title will mean something to you, dear Reader, when I tell you that, for my sins, I have just been allowed to become the Theatre and Literature Editor of my University Newspaper. Or should I say ‘for SIN‘?, for that is the title of the publication.
I will spend the next academic year doing things I’ve never done before:
- Biting my nails.
- Throwing tantrums in my study when I realise I can only do so much mental juggling.
- Drinking waaaay too much coffee, too late into the night.
- Contemplating the prices of Smart Phones. (iDon’t. Ahem.)
On a positive note, there’s indications that I may write a bit more. In the past few days I’ve written five articles, and there’ll be a few more to edit.
Wish me luck – I’m going to need it!